This summer, I spent extensive periods of time in the car with my sisters who have recently developed an affinity for pop country music. For the most part, I was able to sit and bob my head along while my sisters sang. By the end of the summer I even found myself singing along to a few of them myself. As we drove through the Oregon backcountry one day, the singer began to sing “You’re beautiful, and you’re true…” Almost immediately I thought, “But is she good?” This question quickly spiraled into a complicated wave of other questions all dealing with the lack of truth, or beauty, or goodness. (Never underestimate pop country.) What happens if something is beautiful and true, but not good? Good and beautiful, but not true? Is this possible? What happens if you have something which is good and true, but lacks beauty?
Beauty is one of the most frustrating things to try to talk about. Beauty is in a strange way universally experienced and more often than not, still oddly subjective. I may think that Rembrandt’s “Rape of Lucretia” is a compelling and beautiful representation of the dignity of a woman while someone else may just not like it very much. To make matters worse, the word beauty has become used and reused and watered down. The things which we call beautiful range from Rembrandt to Ford F150’s, a beer, and a girl latched to someone’s side. With all this in mind, beauty appears to be perhaps even dangerously subjective. Taste, aesthetics, and appearances are all different words which dance around the concept of beauty, and all of these struggle to surpass the trappings of subjectivity. So much so, that we hesitate upon encountering beauty, unsure of how to respond. A natural solution is to disregard beauty entirely and revert to analyzing its truth or goodness. If something is true and good, then it must be beautiful, but not necessarily the other way around. If an object is beautiful, it is not by necessity good or true, but could, in fact, be deceiving. Simply put, beauty has become so varied and elusive that we do not trust it, preferring instead to rely on rational verification via truth and goodness.
I am not thinking merely about aesthetics, or taste, or appearance, although they all have their parts to play. I am thinking about beauty as a movement of the human heart. This assumes that the human heart is a mobile thing. Even though it may not be easily understood, the heart responds and reacts to the influences of beauty: when I first watched the film Babette’s Feast, I was moved to tears. I did not understand why, but I knew that something had changed. Human hearts move in response to things. Even the most perverted and twisted men experience beauty. The main question, however, lies in our own responses to the movements of our hearts. There are many ways to respond to a surprising movement of our heart, and I will focus on two differing responses: the rationalization of beauty, and a more intuitive pursuit of beauty.
Rather than use my own examples of beauty, I invite the reader to remember the last time they were significantly moved by beauty. When is the last time you walked away from an encounter feeling noticeably different? I personally “feel” something distinctly different walking out of an ornate church than I felt when I first came in. Think on a moment of your own as I continue.
To my first point, the rationalization of beauty is a surprisingly compelling response to a movement of the heart. When we experience intense beauty that moves us deeply, our first response is can be a kind of reserved skepticism. We experience beauty and subconsciously question whether it is “okay” to think this is beautiful.
On the one hand, this is not a bad question. I experience plenty of things as beautiful which I have no rational reason for. Sometimes, when I am in a large crowd absentmindedly scanning faces, a beautiful face catches my attention and burns itself in my mind. I do not know the person and will probably never see them again but the face still just sticks in my head nonetheless. That situation is one where rationalization might be necessary. It would be strange to turn and immediately profess my love, though her face may move me in some capacity. With this in mind, when we encounter beauty we often put the experience on hold until we have the opportunity to determine whether it is good or true enough to be considered beautiful. Then, once we come to a satisfactory judgement, we can say whether or not our experience truly is beautiful. This is a safe response to beauty. Not a bad one. We do not want to throw ourselves mindlessly into fits of passion, so we analyze and classify our experiences until we can intellectually assent to our intuitive response. However, I would like to suggest that beauty demands a different response. Balthasar challenges:
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
Despite its apparent unreliability, beauty demands our attention. Balthasar stresses the importance of our first encounter with beauty, begging us not to disregard the first movements of our hearts. When we look past, or disregard beauty, we look past the fundamental, embodied presence of a thing, only to abstract it in a suddenly meaningless goodness or truth until even those no longer affect our own soul.
What to do? How can I trust a thing that I cannot understand and yet has power over my heart? Luigi Giussani, an Italian Catholic writer, writes in his book The Risk of Education, “Modern rationalism either forgets or denies that the self is fundamentally dependent; it either forgets or denies that evidence is a great, original surprise. This is how a high school sophomore defined evidence: to become aware of an inexorable presence.” Despite a plethora of different tastes among each person, the human experience of beauty is a universal one. It moves, and often, it moves deeply, even the most bitter hearts. Giussani suggests that we can trust the movements of our hearts, and further, as Balthasar suggests, we should be willing to run toward that beauty to unite it with the goodness and truth behind.
Nevertheless, the problem of betrayal remains; we can judge beauty incorrectly. However, I see less of an issue with this problem. When we understand beauty as the movement of our hearts, the problem of pursuing the wrong beauty enters a different light. There is something buried in our hearts which seems to intuitively know real beauty when it confronts us. Even if we are misled, that our heart moves at all is important. An error in judgement is not enough of a reason to discount the movement of our soul. I think of the Tashban soldier Emmet in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. When he finally encountered Aslan after pursuing beauty in ways which most Narnians would see as wrong, he recognized the truth instantly. His life had been spent willing to pursue beauty, and when the moment came, he threw himself into Aslan’s company.
I do not mean to discount the importance of education or even our rational faculty. However, we do not live in a fully rational world. There are wide swaths of the human experience which simply happen without our assent; the deep experience of beauty is one of them. Modern rationalism attempts to explain away those experiences as impulsive and dangerous, but it cannot explain away the fact that they happen. In response to those moments, I think there can be much to gain from a positive response to beauty. We may respond with curiosity, perhaps even with immediate affirmation, but at the very least, we should respond with willingness to explore the movement of our hearts.
The ancient tales of King Arthur’s knights speak often of magical boats. A good knight will be off on his quest, valiantly pursuing a villain, when, all of a sudden, a boat will appear on the shore. There is rarely a oarsman; it is simply a magical boat. The knight knows that he dare not turn down such a moment, no matter his current quest. Without questioning the legitimacy of such a boat, the knight boards the boat and it carries him off to whatever adventure may be at the end of his voyage. The knight does not know where he is bound, he simply plans on being back for the Christmas feast at the round table. Denise Levertov writes about these boats:
Glitter of grey
the waveless, dark,
A boat is moving
slowly, but who
is rowing and what
it brings I can’t
May we too be willing to board mysterious boats. May we learn to trust that which moves the very depths of our hearts. Beauty refuses to be separated from her counterparts of truth and goodness and demands that we address her honestly. Somebody told me once that beauty is the face of the truth. Can we trust a face?
Dietrich is a junior studying English and mathematics.