A Place of Beauty
... is a perennial haven. I’m not thinking of a stationary edifice, but the transportable one that is the body. I wake to this image—a female figure sitting on the floor, covered in a pale blue cloak. She’s all cloak, an ethereal triangle of light fabric. I know her to be a kind of avatar, or myself an avatar for her. The distinction is unclear. Do we inhabit our thoughts or do our thoughts inhabit us? There’s another image I have when I walk by a nearby river—a slim boyish woman with short dark hair, squatting on the bank, all athletic ease.
Which leads me to consider the notion of beauty we must carry around with us if we are to act with strength. John Armstrong has written an interesting book called The Secret Power of Beauty (1). He traces the history of its definition, from Aristotle and Plotinus through to Pierre Bordieu’s 1970s work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.
There are two major strands in the definition of beauty: that focused on the properties of the beautiful object; and that focused on the perceiver. Beauty is described in terms of happiness, goodness, perfect balance, grace, harmony and pleasure. But the word is also used to describe efficiency, fitness for purpose, timeliness and speed, whether or not these qualities have an aim or outcome that could be considered pleasant.
According to Armstrong, Beauty changes with experience. More knowledge of culture and representation changes the sense of the fine, as does lowering of moral barriers so that one’s senses function without prejudice.
People construct notions of beautiful possibility. They build a conceptual paradise and grasp at everything that might cement it. The word ‘paradise’ appears to come from an Iranian source, Avestan pairidaeza ‘enclosure’, ‘park’ (Mod. Pers. and Arabic firdaus ‘garden’, ‘paradise’), so to posit beauty—paradise’s epithet—as an enclosed, protected place seems reasonable.
Places of protection take many forms. Actions might be sanctuaries too: silence, laughter, chatter, flattery, charity, movement. Any well-controlled repetitive activity might act as a forcefield. Inner paradise could also be self-deluding or precious, but often people behave honourably because they couldn’t think themselves beautiful if they didn’t. Balthasar Gracian, the seventeenth century aphorist (2), instructed us to never lose self-respect. Lose that and life in the inner garden becomes chaotic.
Some of us make a habit of throwing self-respect to the vultures. Gracian’s was the art of wordly wisdom, mine that of artistic wisdom. We simply can’t always behave. Or can we? It depends on how guilt manifests itself, and whether or not we are compulsed (as opposed to compelled). Many of us don’t need to plan misbehaviour. We are always the antagonists and the troublemakers. We find ourselves in it before we know what we’re doing. Can we dream ourselves an internal beauty if we keep doing the hurtful, hurting the doings, dodging responsibilities others doggedly shoulder?
It seems to me that respect is intrinsic to our relations with beauty, but only with disrespect as a foil. If we can allow beauty to move us, we are personally enhanced. A man becomes protective of a beautiful woman; we wish to be close to a beautiful child; we take care of a beautiful object. But something that’s commonly held to be beautiful, some practice that’s elevated to the level of moral pulchritude, could irritate us intensely for what it ignores. We want to smash it in order to find something less well-prortioned, less pleasant – fact, experience, danger. Do these things then represent beauty because we desire and respect them, because we fuse with them and glow?
‘Bad love’ of oneself, according to Nietzsche, turns solitude into a prison. The people who ‘behave’ have every reason to love themselves; they have given something, and effort always seems worth the reward. What about the rest of us? Can we delight in our nature without the outsider’s guilt that might go with it? My view is that we must, because no-one can move unless she knows that her feet will bear her.
My blue woman, my squatting androgynous athlete, are only being there. They come unbidden and remain without explanation. Before the moral weight of words there is another lighter presence—absence. But this self-defining Paradise is frightening. If it were to speak it might say something too unfashionably dangerous.
Who can finally distinguish between truth and delusion? Should we disabuse each other of our mistaken opinions of ourselves, push each other from those indolent Edens? Movement may be the redeemer, not beauty.
If it is, the best image is packable, non-wrinkle. It can be worn on any occasion and adapted to new environments. It might not always be walked in, but it must be lain in and its fragrance must pervade. It need not be an image, it might be a set of feelings or a sense. When it comes to desirability, one must trust one’s nature. What else can we possess? The self in which one resides supercedes the external ambience. It is the first and last safe house.
Innocence is always small, or so we perceive it,
a glowing pearl in the fearsome shell of the world.
Guilt is a dump full of life’s scattered energies and
we could all end up there, unless we model our lessons
into something new. And sometimes it’s not so hard:
you stop to rest and suddenly see a piercing shine in the murk.
You move towards the small thing, through the distraction
of voices, flailing vegetation and coaxing quicksand.
You find it’s not only sweet, but a safe point from which to view the flux.
Its single clear note is singing:
‘Those things you thought lost have been re-formed.
You’ve made me by accident, solely by desire’.
Máighréad Medbh (3)
John Armstrong: The Secret Power of Beauty, London: Penguin, 2005.
Balthasar Gracian: The Art of Worldly Wisdom / Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (1647), available in several editions and formats.
Máighréad Medbh: ‘A Small Innocence’, When the Air Inhales You, Galway: Arlen House, 2009.