Beauty As Spectacle

In general, we are people who have cared little for beauty as spectacle. It takes a good deal of persuading to make us go look at a sunset…We like our beauty to be inherent in our way of life, not something we must make a special trip for…The beauty glimpsed between bursts of the labor that justified our joy in it was the beauty that we felt.

– Whittaker Chambers

          Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.  

– Charles Kingsley

This past summer I partook in a private amusement that I called “sun-chasing.” It was a game of my own devising. My family lives in the country, in flat Ohio farmland with patches of forest and tree. Our road (which has no marked lanes) runs east-west. Oftentimes in the evening, I would see the sky in the west turn pink and gold and orange, but the trees would hide a full view.  

There was a clearer spot at a junction about two-and-a-half miles down the road from our house, and I would run down the road in hopes that I could catch the sunset with a less-cluttered vista of sky. It would depend on how early or late I started as to how far I got. It was a tricky business, because along the way there were more bunches of trees and buildings and things that got in the way of the view. Sometimes when I started late, I would wonder whether to keep going to get the best viewpoint, or whether to stop at the lesser viewpoint to watch before the sunset was gone. Decision-making was part of the game.

Wherever I did stop, I would stand for a couple of glorious minutes and watch the sun melt into the horizon. Afterwards I would turn to go home with a lofty feeling that no humdrum part of daily life could make me forget.

Maybe the thrill of sun-chasing (every sunset was beautiful, even though they were all different) was what made me so surprised when I read that Whittaker Chambers and his wife wouldn’t go out to look at a sunset. “We like our beauty to be inherent in our way of life, not something we must take a special trip for,” he says. I can understand this. Some of the most piercing moments of beauty can occur when we do something as prosaic as look out the window at the sky from washing the dishes. But is the everyday the only way we can see beauty? What’s wrong with going out to chase the sunset?

More specifically, Chambers is responding here to his friends, who unsuccessfully tried to persuade Chambers and his wife to drive around and look at the fall leaves with them. Chambers seems to imply that his neighbors were cheapening the scene by going to look at it—almost as if they saw it as a freak show, or as something to check off the list. Should we really seek out spectacles of beauty for the emotional thrill or satisfaction they’ll afford? Isn’t beauty worth more than just that?

Take the Grand Canyon, for instance. This breathtaking sight of nature can be found on fifty-cent magnets and cartoon coloring books. It’s visited by millions of people every year, many of whom, frankly, don’t respect it. “This is more famous than the last place we went to” and “that’s super cool” are not appropriate substitutes for breathlessness and awe. Real beauty should be revered, not reduced to inanities.

But the danger of trivializing doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing beautiful things. For one thing, beauty is to a degree objective. I have heard the connection made that truth is interconnected with beauty, because they come from the same indivisible God. Chambers can’t really say that he prefers to receive his beauty some way or another. In the end, beauty is beauty wherever God puts it, whether in a sunset or in the filtering of light through a lace curtain. This could explain why so many people recognize beauty as spectacle, including sights like the Grand Canyon—and appreciate them whether they realize it or not.

In fact, we are commanded to seek beautiful things: “Let your minds be filled with everything that is true, everything that is honorable, everything that is upright and pure, everything that we love and admire” (Philippians 4:8). Perhaps this seeking-after beauty even serves to make us realize how important the beauty is, just like being away from loved ones can help us realize how much we really love them, and how much we would do to see them.

Even if not everybody fully appreciates scenes of beauty, being exposed to them isn’t harmful. You or I may not be able to respond perfectly to beauty—but surrounding ourselves with it will make us more capable of doing so. You’re never going to be able to speak a language well unless you surround yourself with other people who speak it.

And by Chambers’ logic, people shouldn’t go make special trips to the ocean, or the mountains. Should only the people living in the area see the Grand Canyon? What would be the use of God’s making it, if nobody were to see and appreciate it?

So let the tourists toting bagfuls of expensive shoes call the fall colors “quaint.” Grit your teeth while your cousins visit the natural wonders of Norway solely because they were the inspiration for Frozen. At least they’re noticing wonders. The worst state our world could be in would be one in which everybody passed by the ocean without any glance. The existence of tourists, however trivially motivated they are, shows that there’s still some appreciation for the marvels of man and nature.

In the end, the highest counter-example to Chambers’ claim is the Divine. God Himself, when we look upon Him revealed in heaven, will certainly be “beauty as spectacle,” for He is Beauty Himself. Consider Dante standing transfixed and wordless in front of the vision of the Trinity at the end of Paradiso. What about the beatific vision is not a “spectacle”? It is certainly not the everyday. If Chambers discounts beauty as spectacle, he has to discount Heaven and God Himself.

I don’t see anything wrong with coming across beauty while hoeing the garden. But neither do I see anything wrong with coming across beauty while chasing a sunset. Beauty is universal; it is “God’s handwriting.”


Katarzyna Ignatik is a sophomore studying English.

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