Friday, June 10, 2011


“Beauty? What’s ‘beauty’?”
“Just, ‘bewdy’; what else do you want? An essay? A eulogy? Hell, you might get one if you are not careful. I was just pleased with it, that’s all.”
“With what?”
“Geez, do you always carry on like this? I was doing this crossword and suddenly saw the answer. You know how it is. With cryptic crosswords you struggle with options until suddenly meanings and letters just fall into place and everything makes perfect sense in different ways – so, bewdy: got it.”
“Yes, I suppose there is a sense of beauty in that - the fit and feel of completion - wholeness; the experience of satisfaction – almost elation.”
“You do like to complicate things, don’t you? I just finished it, nothing more.”
“No, I often think about beauty and its characteristics. Your exclamation reminded me of this and put an interesting proposition before me. It suggested something I had never considered previously.”
“What’s that?”
“That the experience of completing a crossword can be similar to that of beauty. That’s interesting. Beauty has a subtle sense that touches everyone differently, with everyone apparently having a different understanding of what it is – or might be. Yet it is one - one word referring to something that is comprehended by all. So it is tricky. It is difficult to talk about. You know . . . it gets messed up in aesthetics, and then anything is likely. People start moving away and avoiding things once this starts: it gets too, well, snobbish . . . pretentious.”
“Gosh, if it varies between crosswords and art, there is little wonder that people can’t agree or refuse to talk about it.”
“It is more than art - and crosswords: or cross words. People need to pay more attention to beauty: to consider its qualities. It is always more than a pretty or attractive painting or sculpture – or a clever work of architecture; or just feeling good or fulfilled about something: or even intricate dancing.”
“What is it then?”
“Gosh, philosophers struggle with this one. It’s not self-expression. Some say that it is a quiet feeling of amazement and wonder - almost religious - while others say that it is this and more: that a thing must be functional and/or comply with certain prescribed relationships before it can be beautiful. Buddhists have proportions for their religious sculptures that are essential if they are to be considered beautiful. Ruskin said that something needs to work - to function - well before it could be seen as being beautiful; that it has to be convenient. He saw it as a moral circumstance - truth was more important than beauty and the pleasure derived from beauty. When morals declined, he said that beauty became the most important quality, above truth. I guess that this is where today’s fashions come in.”
“Gosh . . . really?”
“Beauty is so significant an experience that even Mohammad (PBUH) forbade an effigy of the Virgin and Child to be effaced from a pre-Islamic Kaaba because, so it is reported, ‘He was touched by its appealing beauty.’ Beauty is so subtle, yet so powerful: it is personal, yet impersonal. It transforms and transfigures – quietly: silently. In Mohammad’s case, it let him accept an image of man – well, woman – when there was a general prohibition on the use of any image of a person in religious art.”
“Truly? What’s this ‘PBUH’ stuff?”

“’Peace be upon him.’ It’s a phrase that practising Muslims often say after saying (or hearing) the name of a prophet of Islam. I added it out of respect for this practice. It has its own touching beauty too, somewhat like the astonishing mystic wonder - the silence - in the beauty of Islamic calligraphy.”

 “Mmmmm. Well, you used it the first time you mentioned his name anyhow.”
“Mohammad (PBUH) would have liked the Rayonnant rose window in Notre-Dame de Paris too. Light was considered as the most beautiful revelation of God for Christians, and was manifested marvellously in Gothic architecture. Have a look at it. It’s an example of beauty that is visual – it tells about things much better than words.”

“It looks . . . wonderful - I’d say spectacular.”
“Yes. It involves a rich complexity of experience that we struggle to define in any appropriate way. Words can rarely express the depths of feelings involved. They can flatten feeling with their harsh logic and turn beauty into something described as surface-sweet: at best, suggesting a set of alluring, attractive appearances experienced as bland words. Take for example the Wikipedia listing – an accessible and popular explanation of our subject. I’ll read it to you without referring to or highlighting any of the numerous links:
Beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction. Beauty is studied as part of aesthetics, sociology, social psychology, and culture. An "ideal beauty" is an entity which is admired, or possesses features widely attributed to beauty in a particular culture, for perfection.
This listing goes on to talk about the experience of beauty:
The experience of "beauty" often involves the interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being. Because this is a subjective experience, it is often said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In its most profound sense, beauty may engender a salient experience of positive reflection about the meaning of one's own existence. A subject of beauty is anything that resonates with personal meaning.
Then there is more about its Greek origin.”
“Gosh. Sounds impressive.”
“It might seem so, but just look at what is there. It starts by telling us what beauty is – a good-feeling characteristic – and then says something about its categorisation in academia. So far, there is not much there. Then we get the amazing statement that ‘perfect’ beauty is what is considered beautiful.”
“That is hardly worthwhile saying.”
“I agree. This is what a rational, analytical approach does to real feelings. The poetic aspects are eliminated. Yet words can carry feelings too – as in poetry itself: if only . . . ”
“Is the ‘experience’ part any better?”
“Well, a little, but it is nearly as vague and fatuous. It uses words like ‘in balance and harmony with nature’ that only encourage an idyllic, green approach in the belief that this – whatever it means – will give beauty. In one way beauty is subjective, but it is not a one-way process to be achieved by any strategy. Then there is something odd about it being ‘in the eye of the beholder’ when, in the first section, it is spoken of as being ‘admired,’ or possessing ‘features widely attributed to beauty in a particular culture.’ There is a big difference between a personal ‘eye’ and a whole ‘culture.’”
“It does get complicated, doesn’t it?”
“Well, what is being said is probably correct within its own, very narrow, quantifiable limits. Beauty can engender what could be called positive and meaningful experiences, but this really says nothing about the experiences. It only tries to name them.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“The danger is that the naming will be the full extent of any understanding of things beautiful rather than the experience and all that resonates and reverberates in this encounter.”
“I don’t know. We’re getting a bit deep aren’t we?”
“Beauty is deep - and elusive.”
“So . . . how do we talk about it?”
“We can talk about it only if we realise that words are not enough, and seek to understand what the words are trying to point to – that the words aren’t beauty or its experience: that we can’t know it as fact. The Buddhist saying about the finger pointing to the moon being seen only as the finger is a good reference to what I am trying to say.”
“Yeah. I see – I think, but I am . . . unsure.”
“Then there is the other Buddhist saying that is useful for understanding here too: If you find the Buddha on your way, kill him.”
“Why would you want to kill him? I thought Buddhism was a religion of peace and harmony. Why not have a chat and get to know him?”
“Well, the saying is merely pointing out that the search for meaning is never-ending; that if you have found the answer, then it is a false answer: move on: kill it. The search must go on - like the search for beauty. We can’t just teach it or pretend it has to do with pretty, or interesting, or different things.”
“So you reckon that’s it?”
“Well, in one small way. There will always be more – much more than any name or description can suggest or allude to. We need to be very sensitive when dealing with this so-called ‘characteristic’.”
“Just be careful. It is so easy to kill the thing that is so much loved: Wilde . . . Oscar.”
“No, I’m not angry or disturbed – just quietly relaxed about it now that you’ve explained it to me . . . . . and my name’s not Oscar.”

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