On Beauty

I’d like to suggest that beauty is a primary human experience and that our ethical and religious sensibilities are derivatives of it. If beauty is primary it means that cruel and malicious acts are fundamentally offensive because they are ugly things—not because they contravene natural, moral, juridical or divine laws.

Consider a man who viciously beats his dog. Why does our gorge rise? Is it because the act is illegal? Or because God is said to love all His creatures? Or because the act brings more suffering than good to the world? Or because there is a breach of fiduciary duty? No. Those explanations come afterwards when we try to understand our reaction. In the moment, we experience the act as grotesque. Foul. Monstrous. It leeches all beauty from the space around it. We no longer see the greenery of the trees, the vibrancy of being, the great oneness. It is as though a vacuum has sucked them out of existence and we are abruptly alone and contaminated just by bearing witness.

If beauty is primary it means that we do not shrink from hatred and prejudice because they offend our moral sensibilities but because they score the world with serrated and poisoned edges. Because they are reckless and destructive and leave in their wake things sullied, broken, and lost. Because it hurts to look at life being profaned and despoiled–including the poor soul who wears his anger as a shield against the world.

What is ugly? In broad terms, it is all that diminishes us and that strips us of our nobility. All that degrades being and mocks life. All that fractures and divides us. All that submerges, eviscerates, blasphemes, or annihilates being. Today, we refer to such actions as evil or immoral. But before we learned that they were evil or immoral we knew them as simply ugly things. The desecration of being elicited revulsion in us. Horror. Disgust. It was not something we learned at the feet of priests and philosophers. It was, however, something we sought to understand, and with our understanding, control. We are given languages to explicate our revulsion–but they are new languages, not rudimentary ones, not etched in the wetness of our being.

The genealogy of morals begins with beauty; it emerges from our need to understand, mimic, invoke or subjugate beauty. Beauty is a formidable force in the world. It makes the recovery of self and world possible because it affirms us. It invites us to partake in the holy, to reclaim wholeness, to participate in the great connectedness. Imagine a wilderness vista lit in purple light, a stunning work of art, an act of compassion, a timid smile, a piece of music that catches us unawares and cuts to the heart—these are the portals which transport us to the sacred and sublime. Dogma is not the vehicle. Nor ideology. Nor beliefs. Nor observance of rules. Beauty.

Kierkegaard talked about the maturation of being as leading from preoccupation with the material world (aesthetic), to striving to be good (ethical), to devotion to God (religious). Our absolute duty to God outstripped our duty to the ethical, and the ethical, the universal, was greater than the puerile pursuits of individuals.

Yet even in the Christian narrative the first act is an aesthetic one: the creation of the world. Construing this event as something other than a divine aesthetic impulse—such as the fulfillment of some moral imperative or divine nature—stretches credibility. Before sentient creation becomes cognizant of right or wrong, before the tree of knowledge of good and evil, before there is an understanding of proscription or prohibition, of purity or duty, there is a recognition of the beautiful: and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Genesis 1:31). An aesthetic judgment suited for an exquisitely aesthetic act.

Is it a surprise, then, that when first we learn of sin we are told it is a taint, blemish, pollution, stain or flaw? A corruption? We reach deep into the stores of our aesthetic grammar to understand the nature of sin.

The abstracted and incautious movement to the ethical and religious does not signal maturation but rather regression because they are about predictability and control. While beauty is immanent, suffusing the personal in moments of infinite depth and quality, rules and beliefs are about encasing moments in amber, in something lasting and eternal. They are about transcending experience so that the personal becomes trivial, so that something enduring can be exchanged for impermanence. Something purportedly greater. Something that grips beauty in a cold hand and promises to bend it to our will or safeguard us against it.

After all, beauty is not to be confused with something dainty or gentle. It can be merciless when it cuts us. It can smash and grind and buffet us. Anyone who has watched a loved one slip away knows this to be true. Anyone who has succumbed to grief or sadness or tragedy knows that beauty is reborn from our vulnerability, a birthing that can bring us to our knees. It is sometimes easier to hide our eyes, to be guided away with jeweled words. It can be the hardest thing in the world to stay open to beauty, especially when it is a torrent and we are weary.

The craft of ideology and axiology is vivisection. Or perhaps husbandry of a different sort. They apply their tools to beauty in order to learn how to conjure and/or preserve it. To summon it at will. To capture it. To cultivate it. To guarantee continuity. To extract a promise from it as though granite could be extracted from water. And when that fails, its task is to enfeeble or vitiate beauty because beauty is expressed in our vulnerability. It is coiled about our deepest striving. It speaks our summons, over and over again. It makes no promises but overwhelms us all the same with hope. Because it is feral.

Although the mechanical invocation of ethics or religion is beautiful because it speaks our need, our hope, our desperation, what answers the invocation is rarely beautiful. More often, it is harsh, unforgiving and demanding. It is the imperial and disembodied voice which says that to recover beauty, one must do something. One must believe such and such, or perform in just such a way. One must be deserving.

But beauty is the abundant gift that cannot be summoned. It pours into our awareness when we are open. Vulnerable. Curious. Present. Still. And it is transformative. Where laws break or bend us, beauty summons us to our lives. It whispers hope. It affirms our worthiness, the worthiness of being, and shows us how to hallow and how to love.