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John O’Donohue on Beauty, Why We Fall in Love, and How the Life-Force of Desire Vitalizes Us

“We can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.”

“We are made immortal,” Emerson wrote, “by the contemplation of beauty.” Immortality may be too elusive a promise, but beauty does work us over with the piercing immediacy of concrete vitality: we come alive in beholding beauty, intensely immersed in the here and now. Beauty beckons us — from Bach to Blake to the dramatic limestone outcrop on a Basque beach that unravels a billion years our planet’s story as a solitary spaceship in a vast and mysterious universe.

That’s what the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (public library) — an enchanting meditation on how beauty lays its claim on the human spirit in such disparate realms as music, love, imperfection, death, and desire.


O’Donohue writes:

We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more. At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world. At death we will surrender again to the dark to become invisible. Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty.


This beauty and frailty, O’Donohue notes, have surrounded us since long before we developed the language in which to witness them, even before there was a “we” to do the witnessing — they are the very fabric of the universe, the eternal backdrop to the cosmic blink of human life:

The Greeks … raised the eye beyond the horizon and recognized the heavenly patterns of the cosmos. There they glimpsed a vision of order which was to become the heart of their understanding of beauty. All the frailty and uncertainty was seen to be ultimately sheltered by the eternal beauty which presides over all the journeys between awakening and surrender, the visible and the invisible, the light and the darkness.

The human soul is hungry for beauty… When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances and sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.


Beauty’s most primordial and primal manifestation, O’Donohue argues, is Eros — the immortal force that gathers momentum in the space between longing and love, distance and desire:

There is a lovely disarray that comes with attraction. When you find yourself deeply attracted to someone, you gradually begin to lose your grip on the frames that order your life. Indeed, much of your life becomes blurred as that countenance comes into clearer focus. A relentless magnet draws all your thoughts towards it. Wherever you are, you find yourself thinking about the one who has become the horizon of your longing. When you are together, time becomes unmercifully swift. It always ends too soon. No sooner have you parted than you are already imagining your next meeting, counting the hours. The magnetic draw of that presence renders you delightfully helpless. A stranger you never knew until recently has invaded your mind; every fibre of your being longs to be closer.

“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923
“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923

O’Donohue calls this “the vortex of Eros,” a place where we grow “innocent and careless” — but for all its acuity of feeling, it comes in an endless array of flavors:

Eros can take many forms. Sometimes it can be slow, subtle and indirect, building quietly without anyone else even suspecting. Sometimes it can come at you.

It is always astonishing how love can strike. No context is love-proof, no convention or commitment impervious. Even a lifestyle which is perfectly insulated, where the personality is controlled, all the days ordered and all actions in sequence, can to its own dismay find that an unexpected spark has landed; it begins to smoulder until it is finally unquenchable. The force of Eros always brings disturbance; in the concealed terrain of the human heart Eros remains a light sleeper.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality. Click image for more.
Illustration from ‘An ABZ of Love,’ Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that brings to mind Mary Oliver on how differences bring lovers closer together, O’Donohue adds:

Huge differences may separate us, yet they are exactly what draw us to each other. It is as though forged together we form one presence, for each of us has half of a language that the other seeks. When we approach each other and become one, a new fluency comes alive. A lost world retrieves itself when our words build a new circle. While the call to each other is exciting and intoxicating in its bond of attraction, it is exceptionally complex and tender and, handled indelicately, can bring incredible pain. We can awaken in each other possibilities beyond our wildest dreams. The conversation of togetherness is a primal and indeed perennial conversation. Despite the thousands of years of human interaction, it all begins anew, as if for the first time, when two people fall in love. The force of their encounter makes a real clearance; through the power of Eros they discover the beauty in each other. Stretching the power of Eros they discover the beauty in each other. Stretching across the distance towards each other, they begin to awaken all the primal echoes where nothing can be presumed but almost everything can be expected.

But despite its enormous centripetal form, the beauty of Eros is a tapestry of uncertainties, woven of longing:

One could write a philosophy of beauty using the family of concepts which includes glimpse, glance, touch, taste and whisper, all of which suggest a special style of attention which is patient and reverent, content with a suggestion or a clue and then willing through its own imagination to fill out the invitation to beauty.

'Lee Miller and Friend' by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.
‘Lee Miller and Friend’ by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.

The beauty of Eros culminates in the union of body and soul — of two bodies and two souls — when we make love:

The instinct, rhythm and radiance of the human body come alive vividly when we make love. We slip down into a more ancient penumbral rhythm where the wisdom of the body claims its own grace, ease and joy. The act of love is rich in symbolism and ambivalence. It arises on that temporary, total threshold between solitude and intimacy, skin and soul, feeling and thought, memory and future. When it is a real expression of love, it can become an act of great beauty which brings celebration, wonder, delight, closeness and shelter. The old notion of the soul being hidden somewhere deep within the body serves only to intensify the loneliness of the love act as the attempt of two solitudes to bridge their distance. However, when we understand that the body is in the soul, intimacy and union seem unavoidable because the soul as the radiance of the body is already entwined with the lover.

Complement O’Donohue’s wholly enchanting Beauty: The Invisible Embrace with Emerson on cultivating the true hallmarks of beauty, Sarah Lewis and Anna Deavere Smith on the power of “aesthetic force,” and Ursula K. Le Guin on what beauty really means — one of the finest essays ever written — then revisit O’Donohue on what the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara can teach us about friendship.

Published September 21, 2015




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