In ordinary discourse, beauty can be an answer: what nourishes the spirit, kindles desire, soothes the heart? But in the more self-referential realms of ArtWorld, it is a question. Is “mere beauty” a mask for deeper truth? Does it snag the eye, diverting attention from whatever essence it adorns? Is it a fancy name for prettiness, offering false comfort? Lipstick on a pig? Lace on a corpse?
Well, yes, yes and yes—sometimes. Media depictions are often challenged, sometimes rightly so, for glamorizing suffering, lending comfort to those who aestheticize the pain of others rather than persuading them to extend their hands in hope of alleviating it. The nobility of the impoverished, the exquisite languor of disease—critics say that such depictions falsify the experience of pain. And it’s true: sometimes, even in the service of good intentions, we create a pornography of suffering, eliciting intense sensation disconnected from the true human feeling its makers claim to pursue.
The opposite is also true. Yesterday I heard a gallery talk by a young artist from Shanghai, Yang Yongliang. You won’t be able to see as much detail of these images as I was, but even in a small scale, you can see this much: that the remarkably beautiful scrolls in the style of Shan Shui (mountain-water) painting with roots a thousand year’s in China’s past are actually photographic depictions of city scapes and traffic jams, of corporate cultural and environmental damage. The extreme beauty of the images opens the viewer’s heart and mind to the shock of information they convey.
Even when the story we have to tell concerns pain and destruction, even under conditions of extreme deprivation, degradation, physical agony, we human beings are capable of making and experiencing beauty, thus deriving authentic moments that transcend suffering without falsifying experience.
I’ve been tired. Stress, maybe, a touch of flu, the passing of time. I had a long wait in an airport last week, much of it spent sitting on the floor near the only electrical outlet I could see. Then a long wait on a bus while the little plane’s crew changed, and another wait for our place in the takeoff line. Once in my seat—once I’d negotiated with my restless seatmate the lowering of the armrest that protected me from his elbow—I leafed idly through a recent New Yorker, hoping it would put me to sleep.
Instead, I stumbled on a piece that awakened me in body and in mind: Dan Chiasson’s review of a new edition of Constantine Cafavy’s poems, a review seemingly written to echo Cavafy’s tone as well as encounter his work. As Chiasson says of this multiplex poet,
When Ezra Pound called the Cantos “a poem containing history,” he exempted his poem itself from history, and the second sense of “containing” applies as well: the Cantos are a kind of quarantine of the past. But in Cavafy history is the container: individuals rattle around inside it like pennies in a can. Cavafy believed that you couldn’t “remember” history no matter what you did, and, in any case, you weren’t “condemned to repeat it,” because it had never gone away. All of the modernist sententiae about history with a capital “H” seemed silly to Cavafy, whose lovers were envoys to the whole Hellenic past.
Because everybody dwells in history together, all at once, Cavafy refused to divvy up the available moods into one pile appropriate for obscure Byzantines and other for his Alexandrian rent boys.
By the time I got to “divvy,” my mood had altered markedly. Chiasson’s review is one of the most beautiful pieces of critical writing I have read in a very long time. But what made me want to jump out of my seat, crowing, was lagniappe, a further association the review enabled me to make. Here’s is a passage from “The God Abandons Antony” in the new Daniel Mendelsohn translation of Cavafy under review:
Like one who’s long prepared, like someone brave,
as befits a man who has been blessed with a city like this,
go without faltering toward the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the entreaties and the whining of a coward,
to the sounds—a final entertainment—
to the exquisite instruments of that initiate crew,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria,
whom you are losing.
What an evocation of the task that is ours, whatever our triumphs, if we are allowed to live beyond them! And what a stunning moment, the tears flowing, my seatmate’s restless knees pushing me toward the aisle, when I realized that an esteemed pursuer of beauty, Leonard Cohen, had borrowed from Cavafy to build his own very different evocation of loss, “Alexandra Leaving.”
As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again….
As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked—
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect.
And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.
My heartbeat is loud right now, remembering this airplane ride. I would like to be able to make you feel it, the way the blood in my veins began to jump and sparkle, how my brain felt like a handful of moonlight, carelessly tossed on the tide. How beyond all else of which we are capable, our potential for kindness and generosity, for moral grandeur, for ingenuity and resourcefulness and so much else—our aptitude for beauty is what ties me to life, what makes me want it to go on and on.
There are so many silly things about the postmodern moment that may be drawing to a close. But surely the silliest must have been the questioning of beauty’s necessity in our lives, like a child holding his breath, just to be contrary.
You may be interested in reading Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just”