Today is something different.
In fact, this week has been something different, owing to my unannounced silence. I didn’t announce because I didn’t know about it in advance, but I found it advisable to take a week away for my health. But now I am returned to plague you further, my readers, with arcane pedantry and whimsical digressions about writing and fairy tale.
That brings us back to today, and how it’s different.
In her post on Monday, Jenna asks:
So what are we to do with this concept of Beauty—that strange thing that makes us smile and weep and yearn and laugh and tremble and relax in turn? Beauty, which we cannot objectively quantify, but can recognize with all confidence? Beauty, which I find in Harry Potter, Masha finds in Hemingway, and Mr. Pond finds in grim old fairy tales, though we may occasionally look askance at each others’ choices?
Jenna’s own response is to return to the discussion of art, where and if there is a needful distinction between Art and Entertainment. She suggests the distinction between Art and Entertainment appears to some extent arbitrary and unhelpful. Masha responds by asking for clarification: why does the distinction seem, in fact, unhelpful and arbitrary?
It’s a courteous and thoughtful exchange that includes an invitation for us to come to hers for coffee (next time I’m in that hemisphere, I accept!). And it would be, to some extent, impolite for me to engage with the matter before Jenna’s had a chance to reply.
So let me instead return to her initial question: what are we to do with this concept of Beauty?
My contribution to this concept as it’s emerged was to suggest that ‘Beauty is not. Nor is it bounded.’ Which, I said, implied that the empirical world is real and Beauty unreal, and/or vice versa. Jenna admits to finding these statements ‘rather shocking’. And Paradoxes regular Carrie-Ann had questions of her own:
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.
She cites Aristotle’s theory of categories, in which ‘the are ten categories of being, all of which are “really real” (my silly phrase)’; by this understanding, ‘[a]ny logical positivist/radical empiricist who says “Show me Beauty? Well, what color is it?” is committing a fallacy called a category mistake.’
Now, no one is compelling me to write a blog, and since I put my silly ideas out there for the world to disagree with, I fell I owe you all a bit more explanation than I’ve given them. I’ll start first with the theory of categories, whilst singing a loud PRUBON! over my own head; if I completely miss Aristotle’s point, forgive me.
The second half of my erstwhile definition seems to me to address this. Beauty is not bounded; therefore, to assign it its own category, or to suggest a category where beauty is ‘really real’ would be its own sort of fallacy. Beauty, by this definition, potentially inhabits all the categories whilst being none of them.
So this raises the question of whether the ‘qualities of things and relationships between things’ can all be considered equally real. Well—yes. And no. And perhaps.
Because by suggesting that ‘Beauty is not’, I do not intend to suggest that Beauty has no being. We see Beauty, or hear it or taste it—experience it, is perhaps a more inclusive term—and know that it exists. But it ‘is not’. Not in a way we know ‘is-ness’. Not on the level of Being in which we routinely inhabit.
I’m not writing like a proper philosopher here—I’m not one, so that would be rash and dangerous. What I am trying to do is create an inherent contradiction—a fruitful tautology, to borrow Douglas Adams’s term—or perhaps a paradox. Because we see that Beauty is, and because we also experience that Beauty somehow transcends our experience of it, and our experience of ‘is-ness’, we can assert that Beauty is not.
At the root of this assertion is—if not a conviction, then at least an suspicion, that Being and Non-Being are the same.
To assert that ‘Beauty is not’ is to create a demonstrable tautology, which if seriously considered is meant to elide of our apprehension of the bounded, sensory world. If Beauty is not, then what we experience in Beauty must be an illusion—yes? But the experience of Beauty carries with it an overwhelming conviction of reality, that this, here, is real, and the world more real because of it. So perhaps what we are experiencing is the reality of non-reality; that an ‘illusion’, something that ‘is not’ and does not, empirically exist, Is more emphatically than things that Are. That Non-Being is, as it were, more real than Reality.
I said I’m not writing this philosophically (a rash and dangerous assertion). In fact, for those interested, I’m largely extrapolating from Underhill’s Mysticism (1911), ch. 1, tempered, as always, with a dose of the absurd. Because the idea is that what we perceive as ‘reality’, the physical, empirical, categorical world of subjectivity and objectivity, might in fact be ‘unreal’, and the unreal world of Beauty, the transcendent place which we consider non-being, might in fact be ‘really real’. And that the experience of Beauty awakens us to a desire to unearth the reality of unreality—and aventure perhaps as rash and dangerous as my assertion that I’m not being philosophical.
Because the mystics and the poets and the prophets and the madmen all tell us that there is danger and darkness in the Other Place, in non-being, in the place where Beauty dwells. As Tolkien wrote uncomfortingly, ‘there are traps for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold’. It is partly a sense of caution and prudence that looks for shelter in tautology, absurdity, and negation. If we are only saying what isn’t, we’re at least not uttering lies. We might not know what Beauty is, but at least we know that it is not.