There is the familiar arrangement of well-known symmetrical forms, the sort that draws comments of Cute, and Beautiful, exclamation mark. These are not that. Slick like raw meat, covered with film over knotty, bulbous appendages, they were dubbed the useless class of botanists. Perhaps it is the fate of things deemed useless, to be collected by fringe enthusiasts, who pressed them between paper, offered collections as gifts. They would sell them during the first world war, to raise money for wounded soldiers, and this is one of those things I can’t stop thinking: how when a continent was immersed in mechanized violence on a scale unprecedented in human history, some responded by collecting delicate specimens of fragile ocean life, to press between pages.
I want to consider what is great, uncommon, or beautiful––frightening, too; how some phenomena have a rude kind of magnificence which flings us so urgently into astonishment that the sensibilities are temporarily and utterly stilled. The mind naturally hates what looks like a denial of this capacity of expansion, hence our revulsion at tight, cramped spaces. The eye, like the mind, is fond of losing itself in space. What is new can refresh, sharpening the appetite which grows dull in satiety with the familiar. A meadow is one thing, but the river, the fountain, and the falls are something else because the perpetual motion affords no place to rest except by absorbing the motion itself, denying the viewer a habitual vantage of setting. What is ever in motion is ever sliding away from the eye of the beholder.
As idea which strongly motivated the English poet, dramatist, and essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719), was (as described in Norton’s) to bring philosophy out of the closet of libraries and into coffeehouses and taverns. To this end, Addison wrote numerous essays for The Tatler and The Spectator. The above is inspired by one from The Spectator, No. 412 [On the Sublime]. It includes phrases from Addison’s essay.
Related Post: Name it Anyway, a sampling of Loginus’ first-century treatise “On Sublimity.”
Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?
The following is a meditation culled from ideas and phrases emerging from time spent this morning with Plotinus, namely with his treatise “On the Intellectual Beauty” from his Fifth Ennead, written between the years 300-305 A.D. Plotinus was of the group of Neoplatonists that located reality “in a transcendental spiritual realm that gives meaning to the visible world” (from the Norton Anthology introduction).
Plato may have distrusted the storytellers, but I’d rather hear them than any new ideas.
Rather than pale imitation of more perfect forms, art is the access point for transcendence.
Nature is an emanation from a higher realm, its source the same as art. Here we are, between the worlds.
Let’s go to the realm of magnitudes. Suppose two blocks of stone, side by side: one untouched, another wrought by an artist’s hands into a fine statue, concentrating all loveliness of form. Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?
The form is not the material, but the design, held not by crude equipment, but participation. Revelation happens when the resistance of the materials is subdued. The resistance? Stone, yes, but also these hands, these eyes, this stubborn heart. Every prime cause, indwelling, more powerful than its effect. What is musical comes from music itself. You may call it God, although I won’t.
Also note how the elegance will not depend on magnitude. Where does it come from, if not an original power? All gods are august in grace beyond our speech, and why? All there is, is heaven. Truth, then, is mother and nurse. All transparent, light running through light, all only mirrors.
Eyes in the divine, no satiety to call for its ending: to see is to look at greater length. Wisdom is not built of reasonings, but primal, complete from the start.
Powers of fire and the like may be thought great, but it is through their failure in true power that we see them burning, destroying, wearing things away––slaving toward production, they destroy because they belong to the realm of the produced.
There is no beauty outside being. Only in self-ignorance are we ugly. Light upon light, shine.
Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere.
Who is this for?
Those who have known the anguish of caring, and the terror of an all-consuming love. Who have sometimes been terrified by the range and volume of other emotions, identified as harbored within themselves, ready to erupt.
Who have been moved near weeping on occasion, at the flow of a good pen, or at the way that someone had the patience to slice grapes, one by one, in tiny circles and half-moons, for folding into a family-style dinner salad, offered to strangers. Who need art with a hunger often sharper than the need for food. Who don’t understand how anyone can find any level of emotional display actually shocking, because even if they practice restraint fastidiously, with the faith of an earnest devotee, they know how close they are, at any moment, to losing it all.
Who cry in witness to beauty, with the sheer relief of finding someone who cares enough to look long and hard, taking it in, who even in the satisfaction of some total consummation with divinity, chooses not to stop in the afterglow, but returns to the ache, caring enough to look long and hard–– to offer it back up, all of it, to anyone looking.
People who can remember or imagine a circus tent on fire, and the terror of the blocked entrance. Those who look at the exit signs long and often, and also at the sky.
People who lose things: cats, dogs, loves, ideas, directions, the name of the song they are always almost having, on the tips of their ever-licking tongues. People who find things, too. Especially broken and lost bits of others, waiting on the ground underfoot.
Those who hold babies. Those who avoid holding the offered babies, for fear that the heart will shatter too loudly. The babies and the former babes––and the very old, so close to death that nothing but the wide lens will do. Or the magnifying glass, to study the favorite wrinkles fanning out, like bird wings spreading around the corner of beloved eyes.
Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere. Anyone familiar with the sense of their own eyes floating behind them, up and over like a kite, looking down.
Who know the ache of hearing a musical phrase so expansive, familiar, and hauntingly rich that they want to climb inside and live in its space until time evaporates.
As I began to understand that there would be no end to the list, and no reason to work towards one, I decided to pause, with an intention to revisit it from time to time, as with certain records, occasional prayers, and pilgrimages, as a reminder back to some original impulse for finding shelter in a strange land.
The opposite of weed is welcome: meaning, someone is asking for or seeking out the thing. Because someone is always seeking out the thing other than what is abundantly here. As in, there is the prize. Here is the weed. The weeds are abundantly here, but the prized harvest is elsewhere; there are the treasures, there the celebration. To mean something was to be somewhere Far Away, glimpsed for a moment. Invasive species must have looked like such a harvest, in the moments before anyone figured out what they were.
I learned about this the first time I ever picked weeds–– I called them flowers, then; I didn’t know any better–– that were abundant in the yard. I was barefoot, bending down, starting with the delicate yellow petals of mustard, bright faces turned up, offering themselves.
I dropped to my knees at the sight of them, pulled carefully as close to the earth as I could, taking only three ––a round number, my grandmother’s trinity of beginning, now and ever after, and then––farther from the concrete sidewalk, I found the dancing orchard grasses, their wild heads extending like Fourth of July sparklers from their stems.
I laughed to meet them, and they laughed back, waving in rowdy groups, loitering along the neighbor’s wall, telling raucous jokes and cracking roasts about each other’s untamed manes, each one wilder than the next.
There was one group, they could not be separated; when I pulled near the base where they were cracking up, they all came up. They appeared to be willing in chorus, to join the lowly mustard, and me.
There were grasses toward the wildest corner, which were stronger and thicker than the rest. They were very regal and stately, their blades long and wide, slightly furred. I gathered them, too, for balance and symmetry.
I brought them inside, an offering. It is no fun for mothers when they have to break things to their children, like the difference between the world’s leading lenses and their own.
“Those are weeds,” mine told me, quite matter-of-fact. Still, she graciously accepted, filling a dixie cup with half an inch of water and placing my motley bouquet inside, for display at the kitchen table for the remainder of the afternoon.
The import of these words rolled as quickly off of me as anything else. It wasn’t until much later, after at least a decade of school, that I considered them again, as the first lesson in something about established orders.
“What are weeds?” I had asked.
“They are the plants no one wants,” she told me, careful to add that such prejudice did not apply here, where the weeds were proudly displayed, for a whole afternoon, in the water of a dixie cup.
I had so little practice at the time, with rules for the classification of lives. How some were deemed worthy and others worthy of execution by committee and pesticide. School was coming, and I would have many more opportunities to learn how the living, examined under the lens of the machine, could be sorted and separated into categories of prized and rejected, in ways that could indefinitely keep us from ourselves.
Now when I think of it, I am grateful to be old enough to have encountered the sort of living that makes me understand the way that opposing truths may breathe side by side, like the unnecessary and the desperately sought; like salvation and discarded; like the thing that you meant to get rid of, and the thing that was saving your blind and desperate life, all along, with the calm of knowing what was once, is now, and ever would be, in this world of never-ending limits of what may.