Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beauty and the Beasts

I remember trying to teach Book Five of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  For those of you who can't recall or never read this section of the novel (lucky you), Book Five is largely devoted to Stephen Dedalus' attempt to define "beauty."  Stephen, good product of Jesuit schooling, assumes--like his Catholic mentors--that all of reality, even that majority of "it" that cannot be perceived by any human agency / faculty, can nonetheless be analyzed, elucidated, mapped out and neatly categorized within an infallible "system" of understanding.  To a good Catholic (or a bad one, as Stephen has become), the finite mind has no trouble whatsoever thinking about and grasping the infinite.  How does the teeny human brain accomplish this feat?  Well, essentially, it makes stuff up.  This is what the Church calls "faith."  And young Stephen, despite his disaffection with the Church, still has a lot of faith--not in Jesus, but in Beauty.

Stephen's primary guide in his quest to define beauty is one of the great masters of making stuff up:  St. Thomas Aquinas.  In Portrait, for example, we learn all kinds of marvelous Thomist notions about how humans decide whether or not something is beautiful.  We learn about integritas, consonantia and claritas and we are led, via much tautological rambling about lyric, epic, dramatic, emotional, spiritual and excremental, to see that it is our apprehension of the "whatness" of a thing which results, eventually, in an "enchantment of the heart."

Whew!  In other words:  we like things that are "just themselves" with neither defect nor deviation nor affectation. 

OK.  I take back what I said about Aquinas:  this definition is probably not exactly "made up" (i.e., there is undoubtedly real-world evidence to support it.)  But it IS so self-evident that it does not require a mini-Ph.D. thesis to formulate.  I must conclude that Aquinas and Stephen Dedalus, like too many theologians, philosophers, radio commentators (and bloggers?), are just incorrigible gasbags!

Because couldn't we, in describing beauty, do just as well by paraphrasing what Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography:  "it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it"?

Or, alternatively, as Alfred Glauser, my dear departed professor of Renaissance poetry, used to say about almost any Ronsard sonnet--without any further attempt to analyze:  "Que c'est beau!"

For me, understanding WHY we think something is beautiful is much less interesting than understanding why we react as we do to anything we perceive as beautiful.  Because the beautiful, whatever it is, seems to exercise enormous power over human behavior.  And it does so, quite frequently at least, in the face of reason and logic.  

I cannot, for example, resist taking pictures of the deer who live behind my house.  They are beautiful--just what they are, nothing else, nothing inauthentic, and--in spite of my reason (which tells me that, in their "integritas" and "consonantia", they are wreaking havoc in my yard, devouring my petunias, crapping under my Japanese crab tree)--I experience an enchantment of heart ("claritas") and snap photo after photo.  Que c'est beau!

And what about birds?  I spent most of yesterday attempting to affix a bird feeder to the railing on my upper deck.  (I am, of course, mechanically-challenged, but the main problem was the bird feeder itself, which refused to tolerate either nail or screw and, consequently, had to be epoxy-glued to the supporting post.  Just as I was congratulating myself upon successfully completing this operation, I discovered, to my chagrin, that my right thumb was similarly affixed to said post.  Nail-polish remover dissolved the glue and saved the digit, but I am still in considerable pain:  more suffering caused by Beauty.)

Because the only purpose of the bird feeder is to attract beautiful birds--cardinals and jays and finches that I can admire and that Kitty can "click" at from well inside the sliding doors.  Of course, these things of beauty, far from being a joy forever, will proceed to defecate on the deck, spit out sunflower husks on the yard and attempt to build nests in the rain gutters.

Maybe beautiful animals and birds have some genuine purpose in creation.  We are told that birds, at least, serve to control insects that otherwise might take over the world.  (What do deer do?)  But usefulness is entirely beside the point.  

We just DON'T CARE.  Because whatever is beautiful, rules.  Logic and common sense, reason and discernment are all trumped by beauty.  The Greeks and Trojans fought a war over Helen of Troy (too beautiful to "trade"); Ancient Athens repeatedly fell under the spell of the unscrupulous but beautiful Alcibiades; General Choltitz refused to burn Paris (too lovely to send the way of Dresden); Poe's necrophilic speaker sleeps away his life next to the corpse of  his "beautiful Annabel Lee."  Obviously, then, beauty matters for its own sake.  That enchantment of the heart we derive from our experience of beauty so intoxicates us that, under its influence, we are frequently willing to abandon logic itself.

Thus, even though, strictly speaking, the formula does not make much sense, Keats may have been  articulating a genuine psychological insight:  "Beauty is truth, truth Beauty,--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  

As for me, I'm waiting around today for that first cardinal to discover my bird feeder.  And shit on the deck.  Que c'est beau!

1 comment:

  1. plato has the same thing to say about beauty! his Eros is only attracted to the beautiful (but not the good) and in the face of beauty, one sort of just abandons all his other projects and only want to continue to be in its presence

    ...this is what I want to do my BA thesis on next year. yay!