The Dangerous Necessity of Beauty
At one time I took for granted the traditional definition of beauty—id quod visum placet—that which when seen pleases. Eventually I came to see that this was much too narrow a definition. It did not include what could be called beautiful when heard, touched, tasted, felt or otherwise experienced. That is why Robert Frost’s saying “Everything beautiful, that’s truly beautiful, is dangerous…” disturbed me when I read it. Why dangerous? The last thing I associated with beauty was danger. The more I thought of it, the more I wondered if he meant dangerous in the sense of disruptive. The beautiful certainly has the capacity to disrupt, to stop time, however briefly, whenever it’s encountered, to halt the ongoing historical flow of life simply by being itself. It transcends history and outlives, usually unforgettably, the time of its happening. At such moments we are temporarily stunned and transformed, often for the better.
Every experience we have with beauty mocks time in its passing. In this sense beauty has a great deal in common with love. When we experience the beautiful, we not only want to stay in its presence, but we want to be one with it.
The pull to unity is irresistible. If it’s a sight, we try to keep the memory fresh or preserve it in a photograph. If it’s a song, we want to hear it again and again until we know it as our own by singing it. The experience of beauty—like the experience of genuine love—moves inexorably toward unity.
We want desperately to become totally identified with the thing that we have found beautiful. And once identified with it, we know the fear of losing it or having it fade over time. Frost’s ascribing danger to beauty in this sense seems absolutely correct.
Then there is the fact of beauty’s brevity. It is a platitude to say that beauty loses in intensity what it might gain in duration if it is protracted. A hibiscus, for example, offers its dish-sized blooms for only a few days, if that. And the same timetable applies to most other flowers. Similarly, physical beauty in human beings is subject to the minuses caused by aging. And life itself, if considered beautiful for the miracle
it is, is quite brief in the scheme of things, no matter how long it lasts. All that lasts is the memory of how beautiful it
was, and that, as we know from observing those who have suffered loss and whose memory of what was lost is painful regardless of what legacy has been left, often makes the loss even more poignant.
I do not mean to suggest that beauty’s brevity is always solemn. It may be sadly joyous as a spiritual resurrection of sorts. But whether sad or joyous, such moments are at the mercy of time, and that time is always brief.
For this reason both John Keats and Edgar Allen Poe believed that beauty and sadness were inseparable. Keats expressed this elegiacally in his “Ode on Melancholy,” and Poe touched on the same theme when he wrote of the death of a beautiful woman, whether her name was Lenore or Annabel Lee. And the feeling is common with all of us. To live in full for the time given is never time enough. It is possibly the realization of this fact a priori that makes the very realization dangerous. Why? It could result in an individual’s refusal to take the dare of life, to balk at any action at all by foreknowledge of its brevity, to live on rather than live.
Artists or writers who are inspired to perpetuate the temporarily but unforgettably beautiful in a work of art or in words confront the same conundrum. No matter how consummate the art or the craft, what results is a replica of the irreplaceable original—a replica of life rather then life itself.
Seeing or reading such works can leave one with an agony of regret as well as with a more humane appreciation. Thus Keats could refer in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” to the “cold pastoral” depicted on the urn as just that—a cold replica. Its beauty is rooted more in what it evokes than what it is. This is why the brevity of beauty may bring about in some a sense of semi-despair—a passivity that sours the experience of beauty even as it is being experienced. Instead of treasuring the moment and permitting it to deepen and have its momentary way with us, we focus only on its inevitable passing. This really immunizes us against beauty and keeps us from responding to its full effect on us.
However extolled, appreciated or vulgarized, it is true without statistics or documentation that beauty is indispensable to any life to keep it from becoming dehumanized, depraved or otherwise shriveled. More readily than men, women seem intuitively to know this and respond accordingly by beautifying themselves, their surroundings or the lives of those dearest to them. To be without beauty or love in their lives would constitute a living hell for most women. Men, though many would be reluctant to admit it, would be similarly impoverished.
As I implied earlier, the time when beauty becomes most dangerous or disruptive is at the time of its demise—when what it was in full is not what it has become. For example, I know many people who grow extremely depressed when autumn comes. For them the prime seasons are spring and summer—the months when foliage, flowers and grass are in the fullness of growth. They regard autumn as the eason of slow dying before the cold and final death of winter arrives.
The changes that time imposes on the human body also instill a common dolor. Former athletes, for example, in their 50s and 60s do not have the same poise and prowess that they had in their 20s and 30s. This often leads to depression, and, in extreme cases, drunkenness or suicide.
Since beauty is more esteemed by women than by men, it’s not uncommon to see women in their 50s and 60s attempt to resurrect some echo of their former beauty. Cosmetics, hair restoration and various forms of plastic surgery are seen as necessities rather than mere alternatives or options.
It is with the sight or the depiction of the female figure in its prime that the association of beauty and danger has always been most obvious to some. Fundamentalist Islamic adherents believe that all but the eyes of women should be covered in public. The depiction of the human figure, male or female, in the art of such societies is forbidden. One finds similar attitudes toward the nude figure in puritanical Christian sects, Catholic and as well as Protestant. The obvious reason goes beyond mere modesty. It seems rooted in the belief that depicting the body, particularly the female body, is catering to satisfying what moralists have called the “lust of the eyes.” In Western societies such strictures do not exist, but there is an openly admitted belief that the female figure in its prime is one of the most beautiful sights in nature. Both men and women concur in this. And in art there is no scarcity of paintings of the female nude in numerous cultures. This applies to photography as well, and I am not including pornography in this statement. The crux of the matter is that observing a beautiful female nude in fact or in art usually does not stop with appreciation. Desire is involved, and with desire there is usually arousal. How dangerous or disruptive this may be depends on the individual who is doing the observing, but beauty in this instance cannot be considered in a vacuum. It has an effect, and the effect is not risk-free, morally speaking. Whether this is dangerous or not depends on the values and actions of the observer, but it is and will always be a consideration.
One other way in which a man may become obsessed with a particular woman is to consider her a muse of sorts, a presence that seems always beyond him while being simultaneously near, a love that is unfulfilled and unfulfillable but indispensable. One finds it in William Butler Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Angus.” Angus catches a trout that turns into a “glimmering girl”
who promptly vanishes. Angus spends the rest of his life searching for her in vain, but the search becomes his reason for living. In Arabic literature there is a character known as the Mujnoon Laila, who does the same, He searches and searches for Laila, also in vain, but he never gives up. The literal translation of Mujnoon is something close to madman. And then, of course, there is Dante Alighieri who was wounded so deeply by his brief sight of Beatrice that she became the basis of a new life (“La Vita Nuova”) and a symbol of sanctifying grace in “La Divina Comedia.” In this same vein a friend recently told me that John Clare was so possessed by his muse that he felt it was equal to the love he had for his wife. These obsessions (and that’s what they really are) are disruptively “inspiring” because they attribute to women qualities that no woman could ever live up to. In this sense they are at heart romantic and are at odds with life itself. The mesmerizing effect of the young girl on the male admirer or “lover” transforms him forever. His life, to use the example of Dante, becomes “pre-Beatrice” and “post Beatrice.” The disruptive experience has happened to him, and he is never the same.
But where would we be without beauty in our lives, regardless of danger?
Since I have already stressed a similarity between beauty and love, I could just as easily ask what would our lives be without love? My answer is that we would be just as mortally impoverished without love in our lives as we would be if deprived of beauty. Both are essential. Consider for a moment the alternative–a purely functional existence governed solely by what is needed to survive, i.e., food, water, shelter etc. These sustain us physically, no more. Instead of being moved or inspired on occasion, we would simply be employed, housed, fed, clothed and, in the parlance of the trade, informed. All of this is without transcendence. In contemporary societies the need to be informed is thought of as the epitome of a complete and worthwhile civic life. We are not stopped or elevated above the moment, however momentarily, as we might be while listening to Ravel or reading a sonnet of Shakespeare or studying the Parisian street corners that Caillebotte painted. On the contrary we are so buried under weighty information that we are unable to rise above it to gain the perspective we need as beauty-impoverished human beings.
Any beautiful object (or sound, etc.) actuates our imaginations. A work of art in any medium awakens the latent imaginative power in all of us. One does not merely hear a beautiful song or tone poem; one absorbs it until one’s entire self is one with it. And the experience is not easily (or ever) forgotten. Moreover, whether we realize it or not, we are changed however slightly by the experience.
To some that it is blessing. To others it is a danger. Fundamentalists, dogmatists, advocates of thought control, dictators, censors and rigorous moralists who are self-appointed defenders of public morality are often suspicious of and opposed to the arts for just that reason.
Attempts to suppress, demonize or otherwise denigrate the beautiful in our lives for whatever reason—pseudo-religious, political or otherwise—are eventually futile for the simple reason that suppressing the indispensable is against a natural law. Like freedom, beauty, once experienced, prevents the one who experienced it to return to his former condition. Small wonder then that poets and artists are among the first to be tried, imprisoned or murdered when totalitarians rule. Creators of beauty remind us of our true natures.