Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “beauty”

Lessons on Love and Loss, Beauty and Terror, Control and Surrender from a Bird of Prey

“The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them.”

Lessons on Love and Loss, Beauty and Terror, Control and Surrender from a Bird of Prey

Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor. Because it is, of course, about everything — it might take a specific something as its subject, but its object is nothing less than the whole of the human spirit, mirrored back to itself.

H Is for Hawk (public library) by Helen Macdonald is one such book — the kind one devours voraciously, then picks up and puts down repeatedly, unsure how to channel its aboutness in a way that isn’t woefully inadequate.

For a necessary starting point, here’s an inadequate summation: After her father’s sudden and soul-splitting death, Macdonald, a seasoned falconer, decides to wade through the devastation by learning to train a goshawk — the fiercest of raptors, “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths,” capable of inflicting absolute gore with absolute grace. Over the course of that trying experience — which she chronicles by weaving together personal memory, natural history (the memory of our planet), and literary history (the memory of our culture) — she learns about love and loss, beauty and terror, control and surrender, and the myriad other dualities reconciling which is the game of life.

British goshawk by Archibald Thorburn, 1915 (public domain)
British goshawk by Archibald Thorburn, 1915 (public domain)

Macdonald writes:

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

Out of that aloneness a singular and paradoxical madness is born:

I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world… Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.

Rippling through Macdonald’s fluid, mesmerizingly immersive prose are piercing, short, perfectly placed deliverances, in both senses of the word: there is the dark (“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later.”), the luminous (“I’d halfway forgotten how kind and warm the world could be.”), the immediate (“Time passed. The wavelength of the light around me shortened. The day built itself.”), the timeless (“Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia.”), and the irrepressibly sublime (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”).

American goshawk by Robert Ridgway, 1893 (public domain)
American goshawk by Robert Ridgway, 1893 (public domain)

Choosing a goshawk, a creature notoriously difficult to tame, became Macdonald’s way of learning to let grace come unbidden, a letting that demanded a letting go — of compulsive problem-solving, of the various control strategies by which we try to bend life to our will, of the countless self-contortion and self-flagellation techniques driving the machinery of our striving. Recounting the frustration of failing to get her goshawk, Mabel, to obey her commands — frustration familiar to anyone who has ever anguished over any form of unrequited intentionality — Macdonald writes:

I flew her later in the day. I flew her earlier. I fed her rabbit with fur and rabbit without. I fed her chicks that I’d gutted and skinned and rinsed in water. I reduced her weight. I raised it. I reduced it again. I wore different clothes. I tried everything to fix the problem, certain that the problem couldn’t be fixed because the problem was me. Sometimes she flew straight to my fist, sometimes straight over it, and there was no way of knowing which it would be. Every flight was a monstrous game of chance, a coin-toss, and what was at stake felt something very like my soul. I began to think that what made the hawk flinch from me was the same thing that had driven away the man I’d fallen for after my father’s death. Think that there was something deeply wrong about me, something vile that only he and the hawk could see.

Macdonald peers directly into the black hole of fury, a familiar rage directed as much at the rebuffer as at the rebuffed self:

The anger was vast and it came out of nowhere. It was the rage of something not fitting; the frustration of trying to put something in a box that is slightly too small. You try moving the shape around in the hope that some angle will make it fit in the box. Slowly comes an apprehension that this might not, after all, be possible. And finally you know it won’t fit, know there is no way it can fit, but this doesn’t stop you using brute force to try to crush it in, punishing the bloody thing for not fitting properly. That was what it was like: but I was the box, I was the thing that didn’t fit, and I was the person smashing it, over and over again, with bruised and bleeding hands.

And yet somehow, Macdonald unboxes herself as she trains Mabel into control and Mabel trains her into the grace of surrender, of resting into life exactly as it is rather than striving for some continually unsatisfying and anguishing version of how it ought to be. She captures this beautifully in the closing vignette — an earthquake, quite an uncommon occurrence in England, rattles her house and sends her panic-stricken into Mabel’s quarters, terrified at the thought that earthquakes alarm wildlife and often cause animals to flee. Macdonald writes:

I race downstairs, three steps at a time, burst through the door and turn on the light in her room. She is asleep. She wakes, pulls her head from her mantle-feathers and looks at me with clear eyes. She’s surprised to see me. She yawns, showing her pink mouth like a cat’s and its arrowhead tongue with its black tip. Her creamy underparts are draped right down over her feet, so only one lemony toe and one carbon-black talon are exposed. Her other foot is drawn high up at her chest. She felt the tremors. And then she went back to sleep, entirely unmoved by the moving earth. The quake brought no panic, no fear, no sense of wrongness to her at all. She’s at home in the world. She’s here. She ducks her head upside down, pleased to see me, shakes her feathers into a fluffy mop of contentment, and then, as I sit with her, she slowly closes her eyes, tucks her head back into her feathers, and sleeps. She is not a duke, a cardinal, a hieroglyph or a mythological beast, but right now Mabel is more than a hawk. She feels like a protecting spirit. My little household god. Some things happen only once, twice in a lifetime. The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them. I had thought the world was ending, but my hawk had saved me again, and all the terror was gone.

H Is for Hawk is an unsummarizably spectacular read in its totality, the kind that lodges itself in your mind, heart, and spirit with equal gravity and grace. Complement it with these gorgeous 19th-century drawings of raptors, then revisit Sy Montgomery on how an octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness and Maira Kalman on what a dog taught her about the meaning of human life.

BP

Tchaikovsky on Depression and Finding Beauty Amid the Wreckage of the Soul

“Life is beautiful in spite of everything! … There are many thorns, but the roses are there too.”

“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Joni Mitchell once told an interviewer. Indeed, the history of the arts is the history of the complex relationship between creativity and mental illness. But while psychologists have found that a low dose of melancholy enhances creativity, its clinical extreme in depression can be creatively debilitating.

Few artists have walked that fine line with more tenacity and self-awareness than the great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893). Frequently throughout his correspondence with family and friends, collected in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) — the source of his enduring ideas on work ethic vs. inspiration, the paradox of client work, and why you should never allow interruptions in your creative process — Tchaikovsky notes his cyclical lapses into depression, undergirded by a dogged dedication to looking for beauty and meaning amid the spiritual wreckage. This intimate tango of sadness and radiance is ultimately what gives his music its timeless edge in penetrating the soul.

In a letter from the spring of 1870, shortly after his thirtieth birthday, Tchaikovsky writes:

I am sitting at the open window (at four a.m.) and breathing the lovely air of a spring morning… Life is still good, [and] it is worth living on a May morning… I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything! This “everything” includes the following items: 1. Illness; I am getting much too stout, and my nerves are all to pieces. 2. The Conservatoire oppresses me to extinction; I am more and more convinced that I am absolutely unfitted to teach the theory of music. 3. My pecuniary situation is very bad. 4. I am very doubtful if Undine will be performed. I have heard that they are likely to throw me over.

In a word, there are many thorns, but the roses are there too.

Even though Tchaikovsky frequently lamented his “wearing, maddening depression,” perhaps most remarkable yet quintessentially human about his disposition was the ability to assure his loved ones of the very things he was unable to internalize himself — for who among us hasn’t found that it is far easier to offer light to our dearest humans in situations that leave our own inner worlds shrouded in impenetrable darkness?

In the fall of 1876, Tchaikovsky consoles his beloved nephew through a period of dejection and melancholy:

Probably you were not quite well, my little dove, when you wrote to me, for a note of real melancholy pervaded your letter. I recognized in it a nature closely akin to my own. I know the feeling only too well. In my life, too, there are days, hours, weeks, aye, and months, in which everything looks black, when I am tormented by the thought that I am forsaken, that no one cares for me. Indeed, my life is of little worth to anyone. Were I to vanish from the face of the earth to-day, it would be no great loss to Russian music, and would certainly cause no one great unhappiness. In short, I live a selfish bachelor’s life. I work for myself alone, and care only for myself. This is certainly very comfortable, although dull, narrow, and lifeless. But that you, who are indispensable to so many whose happiness you make, that you can give way to depression, is more than I can believe. How can you doubt for a moment the love and esteem of those who surround you? How could it be possible not to love you? No, there is no one in the world more dearly loved than you are. As for me, it would be absurd to speak of my love for you. If I care for anyone, it is for you, for your family, for my brothers and our old Dad. I love you all, not because you are my relations, but because you are the best people in the world.

The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky remains a wonderful and abidingly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Charles Dickens’s beautiful missive of consolation to his bereaved sister and E.B. White’s assuring letter to a man who had lost faith in life.

BP

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.

johnodonohue

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.

butterfly_asheville

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.

clouds_lr

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.

BP

Emerson on What Beauty Really Means, How to Cultivate Its True Hallmarks, and Why It Bewitches the Human Imagination

“The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.”

Creative culture is woven of invisible threads of influence — someone sees something created by another and it sparks something else in their own mind. We can trace some of these influences, but thanks to the psychological phenomenon of cryptomnesia, few of these unconscious impressions are remembered by those who receive them, even fewer recorded, and fewer still retained by posterity — and yet the rare chance to witness the cross-pollination of great minds is nothing short of magical.

Every once in a while, I chance upon one such previously invisible thread of influence and am infinitely delighted to participate however obliquely, across space and time, in the continual weaving of our cultural fabric. This is precisely what happened when I was revisiting Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — the beautiful writings of the trailblazing astronomer who paved the way for women in science.

In a journal entry from November of 1855, seven years after she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 37-year-old Mitchell recounts attending a lecture by Emerson, which “turned at length upon beauty” and impressed her greatly. Embedded in her intellectually smitten account is timeless insight into what makes a great public speech:

Last night I heard Emerson give a lecture. I pity the reporter who attempts to give it to the world. I began to listen with a determination to remember it in order, but it was without method, or order, or system. It was like a beam of light moving in the undulatory waves, meeting with occasional meteors in its path; it was exceedingly captivating. It surprised me that there was not only no commonplace thought, but there was no commonplace expression. If he quoted, he quoted from what we had not read; if he told an anecdote, it was one that had not reached us.

I was tickled to track down this “beam of light” and — at the risk of being that pitiable reporter — to recover the ideas that so moved Mitchell, as articulated by Emerson in the original. Fortunately, I happened to have a copy of his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, and how to live with maximum aliveness — and struck gold: On page 1093, under the title “Beauty,” there appears the very lecture Mitchell attended.

To picture the great astronomer sitting awestruck in the audience that night only lends Emerson’s already luminous thoughts more electrifying sparkle.

He considers what beauty really means:

Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty; for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.

[…]

The question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things. Goethe said, “The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of Nature, which, but for this appearance, had been forever concealed from us.” And the working of this deep instinct makes all the excitement — much of it superficial and absurd enough — about works of art, which leads armies of vain travelers every year to Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Every man values every acquisition he makes in the science of beauty, above his possessions. The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity was served, would remain unsatisfied. But, as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.

And yet Emerson is wary of confining beauty to a concrete definition, which constricts its expansiveness and inevitably damages its essence. Instead of a complete definition, he sets out to enumerate “a few of its qualities,” beginning with simplicity and a certain clarity of feeling:

We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes. It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality.

Art from an animated primer on why bees build perfect hexagons. Click image to watch.

Nature, Emerson argues, is masterful at such unsuperfluous beauty:

Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy. The cell of the bee is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax; the bone or the quill of the bird gives the most alar strength, with the least weight. “It is the purgation of superfluities,” said Michelangelo… In rhetoric, this art of omission is a chief secret of power, and, in general, it is proof of high culture, to say the greatest matters in the simplest way.

From this unsuperfluous form springs an elegance and efficiency of function:

Elegance of form in bird or beast, or in the human figure, marks some excellence of structure: or beauty is only an invitation from what belongs to us… It is a rule of largest application, true in a plant, true in a loaf of bread, that in the construction of any fabric or organism, any real increase of fitness to its end, is an increase of beauty… The cat and the deer cannot move or sit inelegantly… The tint of the flower proceeds from its root, and the lusters of the sea-shell begin with its existence.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the ideals of Japanese aesthetics, Emerson adds:

Hence our taste in building rejects paint, and all shifts, and shows the original grain of the wood: refuses pilasters and columns that support nothing, and allows the real supporters of the house honestly to show themselves. Every necessary or organic action pleases the beholder. A man leading a horse to water, a farmer sowing seed, the labors of haymakers in the field, the carpenter building a ship, the smith at his forge, or, whatever useful labor, is becoming to the wise eye… Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond. The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression. Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.

Illustration from ‘Geometrical Psychology,’ a series of 19th-century diagrams of consciousness. Click image for more.

But Emerson argues that this flow from one form into another requires a certain elegance of transition — an insight that defies our present fetishism of “disruptive innovation” and instead considers the key to meaningful, lasting works of beauty:

The fashions follow a law of gradation, and are never arbitrary. The new mode is always only a step onward in the same direction as the last mode; and a cultivated eye is prepared for and predicts the new fashion. This fact suggests the reason of all mistakes and offense in our own modes. It is necessary in music, when you strike a discord, to let down the ear by an intermediate note or two to the accord again: and many a good experiment, born of good sense, and destined to succeed, fails, only because it is offensively sudden.

Beauty, Emerson argues, is what lends things their immortality — after all, if he wasn’t the thinker of beautiful thoughts and writer of beautiful words that made awestruck attendees preserve his ideas in their journals, these very writings on beauty wouldn’t be here today. He captures this elegantly:

Beauty is the quality which makes to endure… Burns writes a copy of verses, and sends them to a newspaper, and the human race take charge of them that they shall not perish.

What Neil Gaiman asserted of stories — that they’re symbiotic organisms propagating by evolutionary laws — Emerson asserted of beauty more than a century and a half earlier:

In our cities, an ugly building is soon removed, and is never repeated, but any beautiful building is copied and improved upon, so that all masons and carpenters work to repeat and preserve the agreeable forms, whilst the ugly ones die out.

The pinnacle of beauty, Emerson argues, is the human female form:

The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form. All men are its lovers. Wherever it goes, it creates joy and hilarity, and everything is permitted to it. It reaches its height in woman… A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope, and eloquence, in all whom she approaches. Some favors of condition must go with it, since a certain serenity is essential, but we love its reproofs and superiorities.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from ‘Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical’ by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

And yet Emerson is careful to point out that true beauty isn’t something one objectifies — a static quality to behold — but something in dynamic dialogue with the intellect. The true beauty of a woman, as a supreme form of all true beauty, is something far more expansive than her aesthetic attributes:

We all know this magic very well, or can divine it. It does not hurt weak eyes to look into beautiful eyes never so long… They heal us of awkwardness by their words and looks. We observe their intellectual influence on the most serious student. They refine and clear his mind; teach him to put a pleasing method into what is dry and difficult. We talk to them, and wish to be listened to; we fear to fatigue them, and acquire a facility of expression which passes from conversation into habit of style.

[…]

And yet — it is not beauty that inspires the deepest passion. Beauty without grace is the hook without the bait. Beauty, without expression, tires… The radiance of the human form, though sometimes astonishing, is only a burst of beauty for a few years or a few months, at the perfection of youth, and in most, rapidly declines. But we remain lovers of it, only transferring our interest to interior excellence.

Long before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Emerson notes:

The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.

To this I’ll add a necessary corollary: The key to being interesting is being interested — in the world, in other people, in the seething cauldron of phenomena and experiences and ideas we call life. Curiosity, therefore, is a supreme manifestation of beauty.

Emerson returns to the ineffable aspect of beauty and argues that much of what lends it its luster is precisely this quality of escaping the intellect’s analysis but enchanting the imagination. In a sentiment that calls to mind Stendhal’s theory of why we fall out of love, Emerson writes:

Things are pretty, graceful, rich, elegant, handsome, but, until they speak to the imagination, not yet beautiful. This is the reason why beauty is still escaping out of all analysis. It is not yet possessed, it cannot be handled… It is properly not in the form, but in the mind. It instantly deserts possession, and flies to an object in the horizon. If I could put my hand on the north star, would it be as beautiful? The sea is lovely, but when we bathe in it, the beauty forsakes all the near water. For the imagination and senses cannot be gratified at the same time.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from Lou Reed’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven.’ Click image for more.

He examines the deepest source of beauty:

The new virtue which constitutes a thing beautiful, is a certain cosmical quality, or, a power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality. Every natural feature — sea, sky, rainbow, flowers, musical tone — has in it somewhat which is not private, but universal, speaks of that central benefit which is the soul of Nature, and thereby is beautiful.

He remarks of the men and women we come to admire:

They have a largeness of suggestion, and their face and manners carry a certain grandeur, like time and justice.

[…]

All beauty points at identity, and whatsoever thing does not express to me the sea and sky, day and night, is somewhat forbidden and wrong. Into every beautiful object, there enters somewhat immeasurable and divine, and just as much into form bounded by outlines, like mountains on the horizon, as into tones of music, or depths of space. Polarized light showed the secret architecture of bodies; and when the second-sight of the mind is opened, now one color or form or gesture, and now another, has a pungency, as if a more interior ray had been emitted, disclosing its deep holdings in the frame of things…

This is that haughty force of beauty, “vis superba formæ,” which the poets praise — under calm and precise outline, the immeasurable and divine: Beauty hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky.

Centuries after Francis Bacon wrote of beauty as a function of virtue and shortly before social reformer Frederick Douglass pioneered the notion of “aesthetic force” as a powerful agent of change, Emerson arrives at the deepest well from which beauty springs — a kind of moral virtue:

All high beauty has a moral element in it… Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth, and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs. An adorer of truth we cannot choose but obey, and the woman who has shared with us the moral sentiment — her locks must appear to us sublime. Thus there is a climbing scale of culture, from the first agreeable sensation which a sparkling gem or a scarlet stain affords the eye, up through fair outlines and details of the landscape, features of the human face and form, signs and tokens of thought and character in manners, up to the ineffable mysteries of the intellect.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures remains an indispensable read. Follow the invisible threads of cultural influence in this particular portion to Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means and Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness.

UPDATE: Find more of Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, and more of Emerson, in my book Figuring.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.