The Necessity of Beauty
GROUNDING THE INTRICACIES OF AN IMAGE
In medieval times in Europe, bell founders were itinerant craftsmen who traveled from town to village stopping to ask local parishes if they needed any new bells. (In those days bells were the sound of living. They called us to prayer, sounded alarm in fire, war and flood, pealed for joy at weddings and births or passed the dead to rest.) If work was available, the bell founder set about to gather his material, digging clay to make the bell shape (cope) and core; he requisitioned horse hair, eggs and manure to mix in with the clay to reinforce and “open” it to create a material matrix that would not break yet “breathe” when the 2,000 Fahrenheit-degree metal flowed into it. He secured the bell metal (90% copper and 10% tin) and perhaps a secret amount of gold or silver, a wedding ring to sweeten the sound. Village women piled their worn out copper and tin ware as a tithe towards the bell’s realization, remembering later their broken pot became a sacred sound. The casting pit was dug where the bell maker made the pattern. It was where the bell mold was baked dry, buried and rammed tight to hold it so it would not break apart during the metal pour. Villagers cut wood to make charcoal to bake the mold firm and melt the metal. They made brick to build the chimney melt furnace. Bells were traditionally cherished in the villages of Europe, and in times of crisis or war they were buried to keep them safe from looters or warring factions.
When the mold was baked dry and secured in the pit and the furnace charged with charcoal and metal, the bell founder and his apprentice would strike the melt and work the bellows and draft until the furnace was full of liquid metal. The founder would then tap the furnace, that is, pull the plug that allowed hundreds of pounds of metal to pour into the mold. When the bell was set and cool enough to handle, the founder would trim the bell to tune and hang it in the belfry, where it would begin its life as the voice of the town.
The clapper of a bell is traditionally called a tongue. When the tongue meets the edge of the bell, the bell speaks or sings. Every creature for miles around the village paused in the clear temple of its song, but few knew or cared about the necessities of its beauty. Traditionally, a well-cast bell allowed a blossoming stillness in the wake of its ring, one note nourished by the informed silence of a thousand storied deaths, a conspiracy of wood, ore, hair, broken pots, cracked cannon, ancient clay, new sweat, sinewed practice, bird ova and timeless incandescent fire—a celebration of life’s glance into the water-polished gaze of time.
“The necessity of beauty” is a seemingly simple expression. It says beauty is necessary; but how? Is beauty born of necessity, hence an embedded, elemental condition of reality? Or is beauty a profound human need to experience, belonging to a world that appears as barely cadenced chaos? Perhaps it is both, our ancient alertness and creation’s potent uncertainties, thin ice and fertile soil, the dreamy weave of our awareness and the world.
“The necessity of beauty.”“Necessity derives from the Latin phrase necess est: “it is an unavoidable task or duty—an unyielding presence, unceasing, inevitable” (Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, MacMillan, 1977). In the shadow of necessity’s etymology we might re-phrase the calling of this essay “The Unceasing, Inevitable Presence of Beauty” (i.e., the world is always beauty-full) or, more subjectively, “Our Unrelenting Duty to Beauty.” From necessity’s deeper root perspective, beauty is an essential obligation. Beauty now appears not as the world’s secret nor the soul’s longing but a fateful, ever-present promise between our haunted psyches and the mysterious world around us, an atmosphere, a charge that precipitates illusion-piercing surprise. “The necessity of beauty”—the world is beauty-full, it is our duty to attend it.
The root sense of the necessity of beauty qualified and re-imagines the ethical compass of attending beauty. The etymology of beauty helps us to understand the occasion of its experience: the event, the reception, the blossom, the birth, the surprise and the demise of beauty. Beauty derives from a diminutive form of the Latin word for good bonus, hence, the diminutive bellus, bella, handsome, beautiful. Bonus and the Scot’s bonny sprout from the Indo-European root dwenos: health, energy, strength. The Greek word dunamis, power, comes from this root and enters our language as dynamic, dynamo, etc. Beauty is dynamic, alive, energized, healthy, powerful. Beauty is the fateful eros of ethics and aesthetics, the electricity of mystery come to ground.
The original perception that informed our imagination of beauty has been abandoned by modern aesthetics and its arbitrary cycle of art for art’s sake revolutions, where beauty suffocates in costume rather than being refreshed by custom. Postmodern aesthetics is expressed in one tired thought, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This threadbare relativism has denigrated shared cultural experience. It’s as if the muse were chained to your living room couch. We don’t know how to attend beauty, the necessary obligation to its dynamic. We purchase beauty in products, on trips and tours. But beauty is not a luxury item, is not pretty, cute or stylish; it is alive. Of course, beauty resounds in objects and events. Their peculiar limits enliven beauty’s surprise but do not explain beauty’s mercurial nature. Beauty is not proprietary; it is propitious and profound.
Because our culture encourages an economically corrupt and socially atomized sense of beauty that is a clandestine vendetta of cleverness against the sacredness of creation, because we are strangers to each other and the places we live, beauty slips through the blurry witness of our shared addictions. We have lost the subliminal and sublime compass of the “necessity of beauty,” so beauty dodges us like a wounded sparrow in an alley full of trash.
We no longer practice a tradition of “walking in beauty,” as the old ones say. We have the habit of convenience. We flip a light switch and so neglect celebration of the sun’s arrival and departure. We don’t share beauty as humans have for thousands of years, rehearsing and retelling the uncanny resonances between our souls and the world, dynamically, in song and dance, in stone and wood, addressing the mutual mystery of soul and cosmos in dignity. Instead, we trick it out in a neurosis of styles.
How do you imagine beauty’s informing shadow, its gravity, its necessity, its dwenos? I see blue sky and cloud-shadowed wind over the swaying evergreens around our home. I see ants re-thatching their colony with fir needles in spring. I recall my wife listening with gentle attention to a group of our son’s friends speculating in the kitchen. Dynamic is directed vitality, a rampant stream near flood, a writhing snake in the grip of your fist. It is said that sexual ecstasy is the “little death”; maybe beauty’s clear resonance, its witness, is the “little life” embracing the witness-quickened vividness of creation’s mystery, “the necessity of beauty,” the inner and outer dissolved in a moment, a touch, a word, a sound, a silence.
Beauty’s dynamic is not perfect or ideal. It is subject to the same logos of death, decay and transformation as all creation. Who would Persephone, a lovely girl-goddess of spring be without her husband Hades, a silly maiden with flowers in her hair? Her real beauty, the necessity of the occasion of her beauty requires her to spend fall and winter in the underworld loving her husband and weaving the threads of destiny. Necessary beauty has character, gravitas, sorrow, comedy and joy. Beauty without gravity may be a decorous ruse. Beauty without shadow is probably an illusion, and beauty without vitality a trap. Beauty may be stark but never vain, and joy may emerge as sorrow’s final cry.
Lastly, “the necessity of beauty” invites us to consider its practice (Greek, praktikos, able in, fit for, active, from prassein, to do habitually, which is related to pera, over, beyond, leading over or through). Practice gets us where we need to go.
Beauty is dynamic; it’s like a river or herd of horses or forest fire. We only get a glance of it coursing, swimming in and out of our awareness, running through the world. Beauty can’t be controlled, invented or explained. (How long do you think the muse would stay chained to a couch?) But it may be met. Necessity is, at heart, about duty, and duty is grounded in humility. So the practice of “the necessity of beauty” is humble attendance. No grabbing, profiteering or circus side-shows allowed. If we’re going to walk in beauty, our practice dwells in how we attend the world and its fellowship, ourselves included. This is humility, not humiliation. (My neighbor reported seeing a banana slug gliding across his porch stop and rise up, stretching into the commencement of a light rain, waving slowly back and forth, attending the nuances of its arrival.) The practice of “the necessity of beauty” teaches us that beauty is not a personal fantasy or something “magic” in the root-slow moil of the rock-hard world. In my ragged experience, beauty is like a spark, a shock or, more truly, a resonance that blooms between our soul’s ancient imagination and the world’s subtle elemental working, its energies. Beauty, in my witness, is a moment when we hear the song creation sings and remember we know the tune by heart.
But let us not be deceived or conned by our love of and the comfort taken in the light, clear and vital poetics of creation, its grandeur and majesty. Perhaps we know that tune too well. There is also beauty in the terrifying storm and in the killer whale tossing the dead seal like a circus toy. There is beauty in the one-legged, insane beggar, his empty pant-leg a knotted and swinging pendant beside his agile crutch while he howls defiantly, hobbling by in the shadows behind the Greyhound station.
Remember lovely Persephone and Hades; together they constellate a somber, truthful beauty; apart, they become caricatures, cartoons of mortality and joy. Beauty’s fluid thread is a Mobius strip with life on one side and death on the other. Beauty’s “twist” erases their division and sows us into the vivid, sometimes terrifying, fertile beauty that bears us on; we’re alive, but we’re going to die. Life and death sift the necessity, the beauty out of sentiment and into soil that grows the bread we need. This is life’s practice, all beings walking in beauty, the salmon dying to feed the trees. The fellowship of living beings share a similar practice, imperfect, evolving, stutter-stepping, faithful to the screwy, spiraling, gifted story that drills through time, tracking the necessities of beauty, the beauty of necessity; death’s fey wife dancing in the fields and forests, coaxing bee to blossom, calling us home.
“The necessity of beauty” is not morbid; it’s grounded. Death is a fundamental necessity, and the bud of inevitable death, our mortal awareness, temper and weights our awareness so it rings the world around us like a bell, sounds its beauty. Imagine a dead snag’s pale spire, a still, vulnerable witness to the breezy, verdant dance of the spring-fresh trees. A similar silence informs our cadence, the measured fall, the rhythm of our attendance, the step, the beat, the simple, fateful courage of the heart’s walk through time. This gravity transforms us into the bell’s tongue, the perishing moment that sounds the necessary beauty of being.
A child knows wonder, the wide-eyed, slightly anxious, enthused curiosity of first awareness. An adult may experience wonder in the same way, but a child cannot know beauty, because a child cannot imagine mortality. Mortally tempered attention (that still snag in the green breeze) humbles our touch, transforms selfish reflection into moving connection. We can’t invent or conjure beauty. It can’t be tricked or captured, but we can invite it, make room for beauty’s occasion. Beauty’s agency is an invisible conspiracy of inner and outer circumstance that inspires us to meet the world in a resounding way, a resonance of revelation that surprises us into the fellowship of creation where we belong, bell-ringing messengers sounding beauty’s necessity in a rolling peal of miracles.
“The Necessity of Beauty” first appeared in Connotations: The Island Institute Journal (Spring 2007) published by The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. Information on the Institute and its programs may be found on the web at www.islandinstitutealaska.org.