Why begin a post on beauty with images of the horrific creature from the film Alien? First, I juxtapose the creature with the attractive and alluring star of the film, Sigourney Weaver: a woman considered by many to be “beautiful” in a conventional 20th-century, American way.
But I’ve been told by some scientists that such a creature would in a sense be rightly considered “beautiful.” In the film, in fact, a scientist on board wishes to keep the creature intact, for further study and possible exploitation. It reminds me of the famous scene in Jaws, where the scientist tries to explain to the horrified islanders the primal beauty of the shark.
Perhaps it takes a trained eye to see the beauty of certain things. Long before the movie industry began, Charles Darwin noticed that there was something both horrifying and yet amazing and uniquely awesome about such a creature as the ichneumonidae: a parasitic wasp that injected its eggs into caterpillars in such a way as to keep the prey alive long enough for the baby wasps to eat, in perfect order, the internal organs. How is this elaborate plan possible? Is there not a certain inspired beauty about such a process, thought Darwin?? Is a wasp beautiful? And yet: the pain and horror inherent in this natural operation! Darwin admitted that it called into question the very nature of God.
Well, if scientists can meditate on the meaning and nature of beauty, what about literature professors? Hence, we should take another look at this concept; we need to slow down and actually think about what is behind these sorts of cliches. Allow me to explain:
In all matters of aesthetic judgment, almost all students coming to university these days really and truly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. By this they seem to indicate that any judgments about beauty — whether about art, literature, or of all things music — are absolutely beyond reproach or judgment of any sort. But this is just the sort of idea that needs to be challenged. Because in the traditions of the west dating back to the Greeks and the Hebrews, beauty is “out there,” waiting to be identified by our trained eyes.
So I have accepted the reality that part of my job description is to challenge my students to rethink their tired default cliches upon which they have built their worldviews. Here is one of the most repulsive to me: I ask them, Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? My students often insist this is true, but it contradicts a large swath of philosophical and religious tradition. It also begs the question: does beauty exist, whether we see it or not? And as a teacher, my conviction is this: students need to be shown how to identify and take pleasure in beauty. And they need to be ushered into an appreciation of beauty by someone who has learned already how to see it and appreciate it.
Lovers of poetry and fiction — especially the sort of writing that seems to elevate the soul by presenting a beautiful cascade of those lovely things we call words — know that we need to learn how to identify beauty. We get better through practice and discipline –just like in every other pursuit. Those Olympic judges for events like diving and gymnastics, who must make pronouncements about an attempt in a split second, are not chosen at random: they are selected based on their experience, their knowledge, and their recognized expertise. My view is precisely the same about aesthetics. Or even about something like nature, as in this wonderful illumination of Yosemite by the master painter Alfred Bierstadt:
My question is this: does beauty exist whether we see it or not? Is the beauty of this painting ontologically real, even if you or I look at it and fail to perceive it? According to the powerful nature writer Belden Lane, it might just be a false dilemma to ask, is beauty out there, or just inside of us all? Because on come level, these two positions can be quite useful: maybe we need both sides of the coin.
In any case, my own sense is that we are living in an ugly time in many ways, and that a little more training in beauty, which I believe is an aspect of God and therefore independent of my ability to recognize it, is part of my goal as a teacher of the great authors. And for sure, my own small attempt to write beautiful sentences, or even “one true sentence” in the words of Hemingway, and then to inspire my readers to perceive the beauty all around us, is at the heart of The Hemingway Files. Learning to “see” beauty: one of the burdens of Walt Whitman, and of all the Transcendentalist: wake up, if you only had eyes to see the beauty that surrounds us!!
If that makes me some sort of closet Transcendentalist, so be it! There are worse groups out there to be a part of. . . .