In 1996, I attended a performance of a somewhat unnerving play, The Pitchfork Disney, in Austin, Texas. The play was not as unnerving as I would have liked, especially given the grandiose quotation in the program, which read as follows:
"Ecstasy and terror return to us the gestures of our childhood."
This was attributed to Chazal, a fairly vague term encompassing a large number of classical Jewish commentators.
I don't have the program; I simply remember the quotation. It made a big impression on me.
Now let's talk about beauty. I recently painted two paintings which struck me as extraordinarily beautiful:
The colors in these paintings surprise and please me. A friend of mine, looking at The Sicilian Expedition, said, "I have no idea what it's about, but it's beautiful." Originally, there was what you might call a point to this painting, which remains fossilized in its title. But somewhere along the way the point fell by the wayside, and in the end, the painting had little to do with it. I said to my friend, "That's fine with me - beautiful is enough. Probably it doesn't really mean anything else."
So I started thinking about beauty - what it is and why we need it.
Let me offer you two quotations. The first is from the novel which Andrei Tarkovsky rather eccentrically wrote for use as the script of his film Andrei Rublev. Andrei Rublev was a late medieval Russian ikon painter, and the film follows his life. In this scene, Rublev is arguing with Theophanes the Greek, an older and more cynical ikon painter:
Andrei notices that for the past few minutes he has been tugging at the handle of the wicket-gate in the monastery wall instead of giving it a shove with his shoulder; turning to Theophanes he goes on: 'Surely people like that are supported by the Almighty? Surely he forgives them their ignorance? You know yourself, sometimes when things go wrong, or you're tired, worn out, and nothing can make you feel better, suddenly in a crowd you meet someone else's eyes, simple, human eyes, and it's as if you've taken communion, everything immediately becomes light and easy... Don't you find that? Why aren't you saying anything?'
Now here's another passage. If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that my profile mentions I'm not only a painter. This is from a novel I'm working on - Railroad to Zanzibar - which is perhaps unreadably long. In this scene, a bronze-age general, Anaxemander Artimus Praximenes, is invading a mountain nation. Unused to cold-weather warfare, his army has failed to gather enough fuel to feed their campfires. Anaxemander has a patroness, a kind of demi-god called Claire or "the patricia," who saves the army by turning into a column of fire:
The guttering and roaring never ceased, and the heat of the flaring was terrible and drove the men back cringing. Only Anaxemander stepped forward, to try to see if it was the patricia that was burning, or if a fire rose up into her from the ground, or fell on her from heaven.
He stood so close as he could to the roaring fury, and gazing in the heart of it, he saw the patricia, blazing white on white, and her Zanzibari gown was twisting where it wrapped around her. He made out a look on her face that was like agony, as though the flame consumed her, but so soon as he knew what his streaming eyes were seeing, the patricia seemed to him to shift, and the look on her face shifted too, so that she had a look of rage, as though she were herself the consuming fire.
The white flames billowed at him, and a hand came out the flame, with the tapering fingers that he saw were Claire's fingers. But this hand was not in the right place relative to the patricia that he thought he'd seen, so that he did not know if he had seen any thing in the fearful light. He grasped the hand that was held out to him, and flinched at the heat. But he found he'd been mistaken, and the hand was icy. Grasping it, he held it, and the heat of him and of the fire never warmed it.
Then he saw again the face of the patricia in its right place. It seemed to him there was a look of love on it, an utter love, that gathered up the General, and all his men, and all the lonely world, in its tenderness. The streaming in the eyes of Anaxemander turned to tears, and he was weeping in the hot place, right by the heart of the conflagration. He clutched at the icy hand, and would have conquered all for her.
But now his shift was burning, and his beard, and the conqueror could conquer all things but the roaring fire of the patricia. He fled, and plunged his arms into the snow, and his head, and remained thus till he had conquered himself at least, so that his men should not see him weeping.
I would argue to you that both Rublev's story and Anaxemander's experience are descriptions of beauty. But they could not be farther apart from one another, coming as they do at opposite poles of human experience. Rublev describes salvation from despair. Anaxemander undergoes transport by glory. Rublev is at the minimum of humanity, and Anaxemander at the maximum. So what do they have in common?
In mathematics, which is always helpful with the metaphors, we have the concept of a boundary condition: a condition defining the region within which a mathematical function is to be solved. Let Wikipedia make it intuitive for you:
The boundary condition defines that curve surrounding the region.
Now, let's replace "differential equation" with "human condition." Then the boundary condition is the borderline of humanity. More than this, we cannot sustain. Less than this, we cannot bear. But as we push up to the edge, we undergo an intensity of perception which is comparable with the nostalgia we may experience seated at the window of an airplane, as it rises above our native city. We are preparing to take our leave of humanity; we are close to something, which has death in it, but is not death alone. But it is not life, human life - and its alien quality shocks us into awareness of human life, because we are beginning to slip away from it. We undergo ecstasy and terror, as Chazal puts it, and it returns to us the gestures of our childhood, for this reason:
In infancy, we have not broken the universe into so many categories. There are only maximum and minimum, good and bad. We have two states of response - maximum evokes ecstasy. Minimum evokes terror. We have two emotions - love, of the maximum, and hate, of the minimum. All the things we know as adults are refinements of maximum and minimum. All the states of response we undergo are dulled fragments of ecstasy and terror. All of our emotions are the children of love and hate. The comfort of our comprehensible adult life is obtained by living far from boundary conditions, among our complex categories.
But we lose all of that as we approach the boundary condition. The nearness of the boundary condition returns us to our initial state. This experience, I would propose, is the experience of beauty. It encompasses the magnificence and terror of our confrontation with beauty, our perception of beauty as both saturated with humanity and horrifying inhumanity.
But, argueth you, what am I to make of this? The experience of beauty, just as you describe it, can happen anywhere - at any time - with regard to anything. What makes one thing beautiful and another not?
Haha! I reply. Perhaps our old friend Empedocles can answer this problem for us.
God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.
Let's fix that up a little bit for our purposes here:
Humanity is a circle whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere.
Which is to say, every moment of our life is lived right at the boundary condition. We just don't know it. We get used to things we see all the time, like birds that forget about a motionless cat. Rublev describes being shocked from his complacency by meeting the eye of a stranger. Anaxemander is shocked from his complacency in a more classical adventure-book manner, by confronting something actually strange.
Art tends to shock us into awareness of the boundary condition; that's a big part of the entire point of art - to give us back our wakefulness.
I will have more to say on this subject in the next post or two - but for now, it's worth candidly acknowledging a few things:
1. I have little idea what I'm talking about.
2. There is more to be said on beauty than I can say.
3. Much has been written on this subject, none of which I have read.
4. What I advocate for today, I will likely reject tomorrow.