The Dare of Beauty

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Over the centuries, many have claimed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or something similar), but this formulation seems simplistic. If beauty exists only in the viewer, then it has no ability to bring people together, except haphazardly or by persuasion. But beauty does bring people together, and while it can’t always be explained, it has some principles and paragons.

I find the above picture beautiful: not only the only the shapes of the branches, not only the snow, not only the curves of the river against the line of the wall, but the adult pulling the child in a sled, an accident of timing, since a few seconds earlier they were hidden behind the tree to the right. There was also surprise here; before opening the curtains, I thought, “Today I’ll go out on a long bike ride.” Then, when I saw this scene, I reconsidered and took two photos instead.

A scene can change in seconds from humdrum to songworthy. When crossing the river recently, I saw, from a certain angle, a string of lights reflected in the water; when I took a few more steps over the bridge, these reflections disappeared from view. So I backtracked a little and found the reflections again.

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Beauty comes through at certain angles and times. That doesn’t make it transient; once you find beauty in something, you can find it again. Sometimes–for instance, in a favorite literary work or musical recording–you find it every time you return to it. But even then, it demands your alertness–maybe even more, the better you know it.

Alexander Nehamas writes in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007) that “beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction.” Some might take this to subordinate beauty to purpose–beauty is important because it gives shape to our lives–but I see it in reverse: beauty demands that I live up to the seeing. Being an audience member is no easy task; it does not stop when the performers take their last bow. I am responsible for everything I have seen.

Perceivers of beauty cannot be dismissed as naive dreamers or timid escapists; they know (sometimes painfully) what this perception requires of them. Whenever you find something beautiful–be it a film, place, or person–someone else is sure to deride it. How do you respond? Stubbornness will not do; if your defense is too brittle, it cracks. Capitulating is no better; you can’t let others dictate what you see, since there would then be no point in seeing at all. Instead, you must be able to hear others while holding your ground. In this way, the beauty draws you into counterpoint; you hear and see more than one thing at once (and more than you did before).

Someone looking at the picture above might say, “Yes, but look at those ugly apartment buildings.” Yes, the apartment buildings look drab (from the outside), but they seem to answer the trees. The same can be said for the picture below, in which people are gathering with sleds. The high-rise has added some lights of its own to the string.

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To honor those amazements, while also learning and changing: that is the dare of beauty. Not everyone will see beauty in everything, but our glimpses go beyond the personal. They add something to human capacity. There are poems, stories, plays, songs I remember not only for themselves, but for the way they were introduced to me. There are people I remember not just for their stories and jokes, not just for their kind or mixed deeds, but for the things they pointed out.

 

I made a minor change to this piece after posting it.

 

Friendship Undefined

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What does it mean when, out of the seeming blue, an old forgotten topic (friendship) towers up and bares a crack?  Recently there has been article upon article about broken friendships, unreciprocated friendships, qualities conducive to friendship, and so on. Alexander Nehamas’s book On Friendship came out fairly recently. (I will read it; it looks promising.) Could it be that friendship overall is in bad shape?

The articles point to some kind of friendship mismatch or misunderstanding. With the prevalence of Facebook, people aren’t sure how to define friendship or where to set its limits. It’s hard to tell whether your friendships are nonexistent, circumstantial, or enduring, especially when so much communication takes place online and people are so frazzled. To have good friendship, you need a place that isn’t shifting under your feet.

Also, despite all this friendship press, many people don’t want to take up the subject in the first place. If you talk about friendship, you get cast as touchy-feely. Yet friendship is one of the ancient subjects of poetry and philosophy, one of the oldest subjects in literature. Gilgamesh goes out beyond the land of the living to search for his friend who has died. “Ze dodi veze re’ei” (“This is my beloved and this is my friend”), says the Song of Songs. Aristotle wrote of friendship as reciprocal goodwill, where both people want what is good for the other. It must be based on virtue, he argues, because nothing else will sustain itself.

I am fortunate to have a few friends in my life—friends I have known for decades, and friends I made in the past few years. We may not see each other often, but the friendships exist in person and persist. I do not talk about them in detail online (or offline, for that matter), but at least I don’t worry about becoming friendless, even though it could happen to me as well as anyone.

I worry more about a general harshness in the air. People are quick to reject difference, quirkiness, and things they don’t understand. The topic of friendship needs attention—but without personality quizzes, confessional sessions, or anything reductive.

If there’s unspoken damage done by this election campaign, it’s the extreme glorification of celebrities, the turning of all heads toward these candidates and their every move. Yes, the election has this country on a precipice, but Clinton and Trump themselves are unknown to me, except as public figures and possible leaders, and merit my attention in that regard only.

A friend and colleague reminded me today of the Enchiridion of Epictetus. I started rereading it.This was a favorite passage:

These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

Epictetus was wise to separate property and talent  from the person; instead of saying “you are more than your possessions,” he says something even stronger: “But you, after all, are neither property nor style.” In other words, a person is both bare and vast, not a sum of things, but an entity beyond them.

 

Note: I made a few minor changes and an addition to this piece after posting it.