the way down is up

A blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha.

There’s been a lot of discussion here about what Beauty is, or where it might be found. Well, today we’ve got something different for you to consider. Jenna St. Hilaire puts it eloquently:

Beauty is difficult to define or categorize because it is greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps, then, it might make for interesting discussion if we come at it from the side of mystery, and attempt to describe what beauty is not.

Jenna follows up with her own description, that ‘beauty is not, in and of itself, wicked.’ If there is evil to be found in beauty, she says, it is separate from it; the form and the content are not synonymous.

Masha, as one might expect, approaches the same idea from a different angle:

Beauty is never evil, and never banal. But it can be small, and it can be simple. It can be grand and it can be dark and terrifying. It is often unsettling in some way, like the angels who greet us with “Fear not” – it overwhelms us.

So we have two ideas running concurrent: beauty is not evil, and beauty is not banal. To this I wish to add a third strand, and say:

Beauty is not. Nor is it bounded.

Empirically, there is nothing which can be recognised as beauty or the beautiful. We cannot say with scientific precision that this thing is certain and this other thing isn’t, any more than we can successfully, scientifically determine the precise nature that separates one work of art from another. Life is a pattern of sounds and lights and shadows, electrical currents and magnetic impulse, and there is nothing in any of that that is, de facto, beauty.

This is, of course, reductive. It is also somewhat of tautology. Of course we know that beauty exists. To a certain extent, we know objectively that it exists. My purpose, then, in putting forward this little absurdity is to stress the immateriality of beauty. To put it another way, if the world that we see and experience is what is, then beauty is not. If, however, beauty is real, then we are living to some extent in a world of unreality—a world in which beauty is not.

The tautology, then, is that beauty both is and is not. And that those statements are not contradictory.

The purpose of beauty, after all, is not to mollify us with the world we see. When we see beauty, we see what is not there. When we do not see beauty, we just as truly see what isn’t there. The challenge in both instances is to see what is. We call this, vaguely perhaps, imagination. And this power to imagine reality even when confronting the reality of the unreal is what, in its way, makes the world.


6 thoughts on “the way down is up

  1. Hmmmmm….. You say, Mr. Pond:

    “To put it another way, if the world that we see and experience is what is, then beauty is not. If, however, beauty is real, then we are living to some extent in a world of unreality—a world in which beauty is not.”

    Aren’t qualities of things and relationships between things just as real, though, as the objects that carry these qualities and relationships? Then the tiger lily, the beauty of the tiger lily, the scent of the tiger lily, that the tiger lily is five feet from the house, etc. are all equally real in a non-reductive, experientially rich way. Or at least that’s what I believe is the case, and which would account for Beauty’s objectivity.

    Or am I merely wearing tiger-lily-colored glasses? 🙂

    And, yes, I am far from the first one to run this line. It won’t be a surprise when I say that Aristotle holds, in Categories, that there are ten categories of being, all of which are “really real” (my silly phrase): the first is individual substance and the rest are various qualitative and relational predications one can make of substances. Any logical positivist/radical empiricist who says “Show me Beauty? Well, what color is it?” is committing a fallacy called a category mistake. (I’ll be getting back to you very soon, by the way, on Aristotle matters.)

    I do agree, though, with your claim that Beauty is not bounded–at least not in terms of having to be predicated of only certain kinds of things. Hence, when Masha says that Beauty can be connected with things small, simple, grand, dark, terrifying, this seems to sit well with the idea of unboundedness.

    And I like your imagination quotation….

  2. Your delightful title of this post with its air of paradox, by the way, reminds me of the refrain from Rush’s song “Secret Touch”:

    “The way out is the way in.”

    There must be a way of untying the Gordian Knot….

  3. Carraxa, not knowingly. I’m actually roughly paraphrasing an ancient Greek alchemical/hermetic text. So I guess there could be some overlap…

    Carrie-Ann–I have to say, yes, no, and partly. I’m assembling a longer reply to your brilliant and insightful comment (as always), but am out-of-the-office as it were, because of health. So I’ll try to get it up either in the thread or as its own post soon!

  4. Sorry to hear that you are not well, Mr. Pond. You also recently were afflicted with a nasty migraine, so it sounds like a tough July for you. I hope that you feel better soon, and I’m sure that your family is taking good care of you!

  5. Pingback: the way up is down « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

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