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Francis Bacon on Beauty

“That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express.”

What is beauty? Richard Feynman believed its secret lies in the unknown. Anaïs Nin saw it as inseparable from quality and ethics. It has been defined as “a supreme instance of order.” It has been considered a byproduct of evolution. It has been tragically industrialized. “Absolute suffering,” wrote Philip K. Dick, “leads to — is the means to — absolute beauty.”

In the essay “Of Beauty” from his Complete Essays (public library; public domain) — the same tome that gave us his timeless insights on studies — philosopher and scientific method pioneer Francis Bacon considers the relationship between beauty and virtue:

VIRTUE is like a rich stone, best plain set; and surely virtue is best, in a body that is comely, though not of delicate features; and that hath rather dignity of presence, than beauty of aspect. Neither is it almost seen, that very beautiful persons are otherwise of great virtue; as if nature were rather busy, not to err, than in labor to produce excellency. And therefore they prove accomplished, but not of great spirit; and study rather behavior, than virtue. But this holds not always: for Augustus Caesar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip le Belle of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, Ismael the Sophy of Persia, were all high and great spirits; and yet the most beautiful men of their times. In beauty, that of favor, is more than that of color; and that of decent and gracious motion, more than that of favor. That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express; no, nor the first sight of the life. There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. A man cannot tell whether Apelles, or Albert Durer, were the more trifler; whereof the one, would make a personage by geometrical proportions; the other, by taking the best parts out of divers faces, to make one excellent. Such personages, I think, would please nobody, but the painter that made them. Not but I think a painter may make a better face than ever was; but he must do it by a kind of felicity (as a musician that maketh an excellent air in music), and not by rule. A man shall see faces, that if you examine them part by part, you shall find never a good; and yet altogether do well. If it be true that the principal part of beauty is in decent motion, certainly it is no marvel, though persons in years seem many times more amiable; pulchrorum autumnus pulcher; for no youth can be comely but by pardon, and considering the youth, as to make up the comeliness. Beauty is as summer fruits,) which are easy to corrupt, and cannot last; and for the most part it makes a dissolute youth, and an age a little out of countenance; but yet certainly again, if it light well, it maketh virtue shine, and vices blush.

Bacon’s Complete Essays explore everything from love (“Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth, and embaseth it.”) to envy (“A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.”) to delays (“There is surely no greater wisdom, than well to time the beginnings, and onsets, of things.”) to death (“Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other.”), and just about everything in between.

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A Visual History of New York City’s Destruction in 200 Years of Fiction

What visions of the magnificent city’s destruction reveal about American ideology and the dominant social issues of each era.

This week, Hurricane Sandy struck New York to become one of the city’s most devastating natural disasters on record. Officials from both energy monolith Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called it “the worst” in their respective 189- and 108-year histories. I feel incredibly lucky to have survived with virtually no damage and no power loss, but thousands of people across the river in Manhattan, including many friends, haven’t been so fortunate. How jarring it is to see this magnificent city, always so proudly imbued with its own myth, brought uncomfortably close to the scenes and landscapes we’re so used to seeing in apocalyptic fictions.

A ghostly Manhattan, hauntingly devoid of people and cars, prepares for Sandy. October 29, 2012.
Gotham braces itself for the superstorm. October 29, 2012.
Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.
Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Indeed, the destruction of New York City has a prolific history in fiction, revisiting which feels strangely cathartic in the face of this all-too-real disaster.

In 2001, Amherst architecture and history professor Max Page began working on an exhibition proposal in partnership with the New York Historical Society, exploring all the gory, fantastical, fanciful ways in which New York City had been destroyed in fiction over the years. He wrapped up the proposal on September 10, 2001. What happened the following day, an event so terrifyingly real many eyewitness accounts described it as “surreal,” was to remain forever etched into modern history in chilling detail — but it left Page all the more convinced that his study of apocalyptic fictions was an important piece of the city’s narrative. In The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (public library), Page collects two centuries’ worth of chronologically arranged fictional devastation — floods, fires, monsters, aliens, nuclear explosions — lavishly illustrated with images from vintage posters and pamphlets, graphic novels, book and album cover art, video game packaging, and more.

Page writes:

America’s writers and imagemakers have pictured New York’s annihilation in a stunning range of ways. Earthquake, fire, flood. Meteor, comet, Martian. Glacier, ghosts, atom bomb. Class war, terrorism, invasion. Laser beams for space ships, torpedoes from Zeppelins, missiles from battleships. Apes, wolves, dinosaurs. Environmental degradation, nuclear fallout, ‘green death.’ American culture has been obsessed with fantasizing about the destruction of New York. It is fascinating to explore the most common methods American culture makers have intended for the city’s end — floods and fires, bombs and ice. Why has the watery death had such staying power, along with the image of the city left physically intact but stripped of its people by a mysterious disaster? The recurrence of similar modes of death across time stands out.

[…]

Visions of New York’s destruction resonated with some of the most longstanding themes in American history: the ambivalence toward cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology’s impact, and the apocalyptic strain in American religious life. Furthermore, these visions of the city’s end have paralleled the city’s economic, political, racial, and physical transformations. Projections of the city’s end reflected and refracted the dominant social issues. Each era in New York’s modern history has produced its own apocalyptic imagery that explores, exploits, and seeks to resolve contemporary cultural tensions and fears.

Thomas Nast, ‘Something That Did Blow Over,’ Harper’s Weekly, 1871.
That Liberty Shall Not Perish From the Earth,Buy Liberty Bonds, ca. 1918
The cleansing action of the apocalypse, as pictured in ‘Amazing Stories’ from 1920

Page argues there are two main reasons New York City holds such high destruction appeal — one conceptual, because it has become a symbol-city that stands for urbanity itself, and the other conceptual, because New York, with its glorious skyscrapers and perfect grid, simply looks better than any other city while being destroyed.

Louis Guglielmi, Mental Geography, 1938.
Danny Shanahan, cartoon representation of Godzilla and King Kong in Manhattan © The New Yorker Collection 1997
Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1907, reproduced in In The Shadow of No Towers, 2004

The trope of New York’s destruction, Page observes, is the proto-narrative of American ideology:

New York’s death is a story line that plays through every type of fiction American culture has produced. As varied as the media are, the narratives play in two consistent if harmonically different keys. One is the dark, minor key of alarm and warning, lessons and political arguments, fear and premonition of real disaster. The other is the key of celebration and entertainment, homage and love for the city. These two registers mark the two ends of the American ideological composition: a persistent embrace of progress and modernism, utopia and ascent, but also a suspicion of failure, and the harsh truth of the jeremiad. American identity has been built on ‘a culture of calamity.’ That culture has been built on imagining our greatest city’s end.

Eric Drooker, ‘Turtle Island’ in FLOOD! A Novel in Pictures, 1992
The Twin Towers are attacked in Challenge of the Superfriends, 1978

Page goes on to argue that there’s an evolutionary basis for the appeal of fear imaging: it produces a rush of adrenaline, coming down from which triggers a feeling somewhere between relief and joy — the same mechanism that drives us to seek out haunted houses, horror movies, and bungee-jumping. And yet, he says, it’s bigger than that — and who better than Susan Sontag to articulate it through?

But there is something more, beyond the desire of advanced society to recapture what was once a regular experience of heightened fear and response. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ that ‘we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.’ Sontag was writing in the 1960s, under the fear of worldwide nuclear holocaust and William Whyte’s nightmare of the deadened ‘organization man.’ The fears today are somewhat different. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t fear nuclear world war the way we once did. But we have our fears of dramatic catastrophe — terrorism, West Nile virus, avian flu, global warming and the angry natural phenomena it is producing. And through we don’t worry about the banality of everyday life, we do fear the insecurity of work, and the powerful, invisible forces of globalization. The workings of the global economy — moving capital and jobs dramatically around the globe according to decisions made on the Internet and in corporate headquarters — feel as inevitable and unstoppable as bad weather.

Ralph E. Lapp, ‘before; and ‘after’ illustrations from Must We Hide?, 1949.
Alexis Rockman, Washington Square, 2004
Stuart Leeds, New Yorker cartoonist parodying meteor hysteria, 1992 © The New Yorker Collection

In 1949, E. B. White wrote a now-legendary passage uncomfortably prescient of 9/11:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Harry Belafonte, as Ralph Burton, in a deserted Times Square in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1959
Paul Sahre graphic for the Week in Review section of The New York Times, July 10, 2005

But, ultimately, what makes the scenes in The City’s End appealing is precisely their fictionality, their unreality, their permission to fantasize as catharsis rather than grapple with the devastating results of real disaster — and the implicit affirmation of a contrast reminding us that, in real life, this phoenix of a city always manages to shake off the dust, stamp out the fires, swallow the waters, and rise with its inextinguishable brilliance once more.

Page images courtesy of Yale University Press; Instagram photos by Maria Popova

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Alan Watts on Death, in a Beautiful Animated Short Film

“Think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it…”

Philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) is best-known for authoring the cult-classic The Way of Zen and popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West alongside John Cage. In this hauntingly beautiful animation based on a Watts lecture, produced by Luke Jurevicius and directed by Ari Gibson and Jason Pamment, Watts considers what death might be, exploring the notion of nonexistence and pitting it as “the necessary consequence of what we call being” — something he examines in greater depth in his indispensable book The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (public library).

UPDATE: A reader points out that the animation comes from a video for “Sometimes the Stars” by Australian band The Audreys from their 2010 debut album of the same title. What you see here is a mashup of the video and an Alan Watts recording.

What’s it gonna be like, dying? To go to sleep and never, never, never wake up.

Well, a lot of things it’s not gonna be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever.

I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem.

Well, think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it, when you really imagine.

Complement with Watts on our illusion of separateness and his poignant probing of what you would do if money were no object.

For a closer look at his philosophy on death, and how “death and life imply each other,” here is some rare footage of Watts speaking in the 1950s:

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