The September 2007 essay
is from my Art and History column in ARTWEEK for September 26, 1987
which was adapted from my second "Green Gates" book, On Beauty.
What Beauty Is
On the terrace, in the late afternoon sun. It’s a clear day; I can see
the fog streaming and shining through the Golden Gate, the towers of
the city in front, the peak of Tamalpais behind. And, very high, very
far, a sheen of cirrus half across a sky clear here, white there,
falling in the west to tumbling tangled clotting on the horizon and
“What is beauty?” I was saying to myself all this last hour after
coming home from work. What is beauty, and what is sensuality? And
what is the deep connection between my body’s strongest hungers and
this late, clear sun that rakes the page on which I write, this sun
that flows among the trees and brings every leaf and shadow and all
this air to life... what is the sound of cars in the street, what is
the sound of hammering in a house a block away, what is the sound of a
wind chime clinking in a neighbor’s window, what is the sound of
mourning doves crying in the sky... what is the silence of a tree full
of lemons, what is the silence of yellow shining in the late
afternoon... What is beauty, what is sensuality, what am I and what
are we all in this late, clear, still afternoon before the sunset
Well, passing from the perception to the question, from the question
to the thought: passing from sensual hunger to desire, from desire to
the stillness of desire in beauty... Beauty is, as is so much else in
life, sometimes true, sometimes false, and usually a tangle of both.
Beauty in art, I guess, does lead us to peace, to the peace that is
not a call to action. Beauty in art, I guess, is the opposite of that
art of power which I so desired during my stormier years. The beauty
kind of art maybe does belong only to those who have lived out the
storm... is maybe only for the consolation, for the soothing together
of castaways after a wreck... but, when you’ve lived most of your life
in a storm, how do you know you’re alive when the sky clears? Fuck
consolation, uproar is what life is all about.
Anyway, two kinds of beauty: true and false. The latter used to be
called meretricious; but to use that word of false beauty now would be
itself meretricious. It’s the big words hiding simple meanings that
got beauty in trouble in the first place. It must have been about 1900
that most people began to shun beauty altogether. She had lost her
virginity as must we all would we live and not die; but in losing her
virginity she had become not fertile but only promiscuous... I saw it
once written on a blackboard on a bedroom wall, a room used for more
couplings than I could ever count -- “Promiscuity is only just once
trying to get it right.” Yes, beauty got used a lot, not so much
trying to get it right, I think, as trying to hide that it was always
wrong because it was always mismatched (as I think it was in that
bedroom)... coupling not for the fertility of tomorrow but for our own
self-loves in the mirrors of our minds today.
I’ve spun this metaphor (is it a simile?) out too far. Its
meretriciousness (is that a word?) is showing. I have used my friend
with the blackboard in his bedroom only to pique your interest with
prurience instead of philosophy.
Philosophy = philo (love) + Sophia (wisdom). Philosophy is the love of
Sophia, the goddess of wisdom... Castitas, Voluptas, Pulchritudo: the
Three Graces of beauty... Beauty, thy stasis is a true good thing.
When is beauty false? Beauty is false when it is spread upon the
darkness and the horror and the pain and the violence of the world
like sugar on a Danish. That sugar on the Danish gives us an early
morning high, a false energy stolen and burnt up from our own body’s
long collected store. That false beauty gives us a. false security
stolen and squandered from our own soul’s long, slow growth to peace.
Truth, Goodness, Beauty. I remember them as the Three Platonic Ideals.
The Principal hung their names across the stage on our first day in
high. school. Those were simpler times. Now in a more complex time,
we still must find and live by them.
Beauty, thou art True when thou art Good. And Goodness, thou art
Beautiful when thou art True. And Truth, thy parents are Goodness and
Beauty. What about the horror? It is. And Beauty? It is. So, what to
do about them both? Beauty is the stasis of a shining yellow fruit on
a late summer afternoon. Beauty is, as Rilke said, poverty’s great
rose: the gold of dust in a ray of sunlight.
The sun fades now toward the horizon, toward the dark. Flowers fill
with twilight, and there is a coolness in the first wind of evening.
Beauty remains. So does horror. Give a present to the coming
generations. Give them beauty, give them peace. Yes, this time get it
right before you die.
The most recent manifestation of this essay and its concerns is
October 2006, Beauty and Darkness, Ruin and Death