Sometimes these little essays start with the smallest germ of an idea, sometimes a question or a thought that comes at me sideways, and often a well-considered desire to explore things in words I’d only let waft around inside my head for years. This one seems to hold little bits of all of those things. It’s not an easy subject to tackle, and yet it may, in fact, be one of the easiest: What is the nature of beauty?
That’s a big bite I’ve taken this morning. What pretension could possibly suggest that I can talk about this, when poets, writers, artists, philosophers of great renown (because there are many on Facebook of lesser such), and even scientists have tried since before there was even language? As always, it’s not arrogance so much as some little insight from my own perspective, and as usual, there’s a story to tell.
When I was much younger, perhaps less than halfway through the life I’ve lived so far, I was living with a lovely woman in a lovely little apartment in Mississauga, barely half a kilometer from the edge of Toronto. I was an artist back then; always painting, or sketching, or experimenting with different techniques and mediums. Mind you I was still a writer, but visual art gave me a more immediate and visceral pleasure, and when you’re young you tend to go for that stuff first. Since then, after a long time of not knowing what paths we’ve each followed, she and I connected again thanks to social media and she’s been following my attempts at enlightenment here in this blog from the beginning. If you’ve read much of it, you’ll know I like sciency words, and I was a paramedic for a long time, a profession more technical than artistic. Just the other day, after I published The Nature of a Smile which includes some very sciency words, she made a comment that these things still surprise her. That she remembered me always drawing, or painting, always wanting to be an artist with shows and sales (lots and lots of sales), but here I was giving a brief but very cute tutorial on neuropeptides with a UPS metaphor.
There was a guy once, who, though he’s known more generally as an artist, was fascinated by the workings of the human body to the point where he participated in dissections and even wrote a few texts on the subject. In fact, some of his original sketches and notes on the matter are now in the Royal collection at Windsor Castle. His name was Leonardo da Vinci but honestly, I am not trying to compare myself to him. As an analog, though, it works and I think everyone can wrap their heads around it better with him in mind. Why do some of us who are creative by nature look at our surroundings and see beauty, the manner in which individual cells and chemical molecules interact to form this great beast who can affect the environment in such wondrous, elegant, and often horrible ways?
Well, there is art and poetry and philosophy and science all wrapped up in that.
Plug the phrase “the nature of beauty” into Google and you get a page filled with links to skin care products, then click on the Images link to be presented with wonderfully lovely scenic vistas of natural wonders (and the odd fairy painting). We’ve either developed into such a literal culture, or there hasn’t been a search algorithm written yet that can properly discern the thing, but I am choosing to believe the latter if only because the former is such a depressing thought.
There is beauty in a moment captured that we otherwise wouldn’t see because it flies by so fast or happens so far away we wouldn’t even know it exists. There is beauty in not only the line and form and movement of a dancer, but also in the simple physical effort of dancing, and there is certainly beauty in the smile of a child full of joy. It’s in the simple efficiency of the lines of code making up the Google search engine as it is in the use of language by people like Keats or Hemingway (or McMaster, Glynn, Lewis, Surginer, and the myriad other painters of words on my FB friends list it would take more space than I have to list), as it is in the scribbles of music on a page and the melange of notes they create. Our brains are hard-wired to see patterns and forms where none exist, in shadows or clouds. There is beauty in the thing itself, and in the seeing of it.
To be perfectly frank (or sue because I don’t judge), I have really no idea whatsoever what the nature of beauty is except that it’s everywhere and it gobsmacks me at every turn. Not the conclusion to this wee exploration I thought I would come to as I wind it up, but the one I got. Here’s another, and one I like even more:
You are the nature of beauty.
Pictured: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt – 1632