I spend a lot of time pondering the subject of beauty. In the time before man conquered nature, did our ancestors have an objective awareness and appreciation of their unadorned surroundings? Is beauty something that can be enjoyed passively? Does a lack of beauty in our surroundings stunt mental development? Why are there ugly passages in the story of beauty? Although beauty may come in many forms, is it there is an objective standard for it? Does beauty begin with nature or is beauty possible without any connection to it? Can something that arouses revulsion also be considered beautiful?
Back in college, my roommate criticized me for stating that beautiful surroundings played a positive role in my happiness. She believed happiness came only from within. Was that because she had never seen real beauty? Or was she right?
A newspaper article a few years ago described the reaction of inner city children taken to the wilderness for the first time. Looking out from the bus windows at mountains and forest, they thought they were viewing a movie. In this case, the occasion of beauty was a privilege.
As a student basking in the sun on the coast of southern France, I empathized with the Swedish girl who claimed she could not be happy far from nature. It struck me then, as it had her already, that beauty was not just visual but sensorial — the sea breeze on warm cheeks, the saltiness of the spray, the singular odor from the deep. Modern views on beauty may regard this as skirting dangerously close to associating beauty with feeling.
Naziism found its earliest adherents among the farming people of the luminous, awe-inspiring Bavarian Alps. Afrikaners brutalized native Africans in a land some have compared to the image of the mythical Eden. Here, beauty had no humanizing effect. In fact, it was used as a basis for the oppressors’ moral superiority.
Years ago, after a day of such distressing world news that I grappled with despair, I ended the day with a television broadcast of the ballet “Swan Lake.” Its beauty revived me and reminded me of the duality of humankind and therein endless possibilities for good.
In yesterday’s (April 14) Wall Street Journal, Michael J. Lewis reviews a book by Alexander Nehamas titled “Only a Promise Of Happiness”. In appraising the book, Lewis says “Mr. Nehamas sets about reclaiming something of beauty’s lost meaning by showing how it is connected to our happiness.” In the end, no deep revelations about the meaning of beauty are offered, but there’s this: “That it is the pursuit of happiness that constitutes happiness — and that beauty offers but a ‘promise’ of this happiness — is something of a platitude.”
That sounds like my response to “Swan Lake” on that dismal day. That’s ok, though. I’ll take it.