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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Beauty and curiosity on a grey spring day

The conversations I had in the elevators and hallways, in grocery stores and at the gym suggest that most of us had difficulty with this cold, grey spring. If you are like me, the absence of sunshine was one of the biggest issues, though I also think that we were tired of being cold, of finding our gloves--yet again, and in May!--and perhaps even shrugging into a toque if we were going to be adventurous and go for a walk. What I found even harder than the lack of light and warmth was the fact that the landscape I moved through had so little beauty in it; it didn't offer the kind of unexpected yet enlivening pleasure we might even find in a cold winter day.  The streets were dirty and dusty.  Except on the days when we had rain--something which intensified the colours of bark and branch--the world was mostly indifferent grey, with a hint now and again that buds were ripening and fattening.

What I felt I needed was a way of thinking about the landscape, a kind of aesthetic framework that would help reveal its rather severe and understated beauty.  I tried thinking of it as a Japanese quilt with its muted colours; the number of chalky brown rabbits I saw in the park and on campus helped with that fancy for a while, but it lacked the sense of order and design one might find in a quilt.  I tried thinking of it as an etching, but its sheer greyness continued to get in the way.  Finally I remembered how nineteenth-century printing techniques for cotton began using "fancy machine grounds" that were made possible by master steel engraved plates.  These created backgrounds of fine lines, dots, seaweeds and lace to set off the larger elements in the design, like the flower below and the backgrounds from the examples above, both of which are taken from Barbara Brackman's America's Printed Fabrics 1770-1890.  The fancy machine grounds provided life and texture to unify the otherwise fairly simple and understated patterns. Nineteenth-century cotton helped me to frame what I was seeing in a different way. 

Beauty--or beauties--provide a framework for understanding the world we live in.  I have been reading mathematician David Orrell's Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order.  One of his principle arguments is that concepts of beauty have long guided scientific discovery. As far back as the Greeks and their contemplation of matter and the cosmos, scientists have been convinced that whatever theories they consider must be beautiful, must have harmony, simplicity, integrity--all qualities of the beautiful. Stephen Hawking has written that "Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics" (Orrell 5). Orrell himself observes that "the Pythagorean assertion that the universe was ordered and rational was based on mathematical harmony and had far-reaching and radical consequences, for it implied that there was a kind of sympathy between our faculty of reason and the cosmos" (22).   Again and again, such assumptions led scientists to new discoveries which, if not always right, at least led science closer to an accurate representation of the universe. 

In the fourth century BC, the philosopher Democratus was inspired by the smell of baking bread to propose a theory that matter consisted of atoms: how else could one of the properties of bread spread through the house?  He called these particles atamos or atom, which means "indivisible" in Greek. The qualities of the atom were immutable and eternal.  In turn, the qualities of a substance reflected the nature of its atoms.  Hence lead is made of dense, heavy, tightly-packed atoms, while the atoms of oil are round and slippery, and those of fire are barbed; hence touching them was painful.  Democratus, who was known to practice what we would now call music therapy, assuaging people's pains and passions with the right kind of music, thought of his theory as a way of calming and comforting the Athenian soul with the sense that there was an immutable aesthetic order underlying our world.

While I've been trying to ignore the weather, I've also been re-reading Virginia Woolf's biography of British art critic and painter, Roger Fry, whose careful study of his own reactions to works of art underwrote the formalist theories of art that we associate with modernism.  Fry's life was never easy:  his domineering father had hoped he would be a scientist and was bitterly disappointed in his choice of career; his first wife exhibited such symptoms of madness (caused, they discovered after her death, by a thickening of her skull that put pressure on her brain) that she spent much of her adult life in institutions; the British art establishment so resented his iconoclasm and his championing of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that they ensured that the more stable jobs such as Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge or Oxford were closed to him. Nevertheless, Woolf's biography--and she knew him well--suggests that he is a man of extraordinary joy and energy.  

Not surprisingly, beauty mattered to him.  He believed in "the beauty of life as a whole (not the beauty of incidents and individuals but the beauty of harmonious relations between people and their surroundings" (Roger Fry 100). As a Quaker, as a young man who had been made ill by the canings in his boarding school, as an intellectual and an artist, he had found World War I a very dark time. But he managed to get through it by attending to the two only important rhythms:  of life and art.  His curiosity, his energy, even the vegetables on his worktable (covered by a note to his housekeeper not to disturb them) allowed him to endure.

But as I look at these portraits of discovery and endurance, I see something besides beauty:  curiosity.  Elaine Scarry, in her wonderful book, On Beauty and Being Just, suggests that beautiful things--a sunset or a mourning dove--are placed in the world as calls to attention.  I can remember my own mother, angry and despairing about the anti-anxiety medication her doctor was prescribing, which we thought she should take,  shouting at me, then taking the dog outside before bed, and coming back in with a look of transcendent joy on her face, telling me to come listen to the frogs, which were thrumming deeply like the voice of earth.  We can often hear such calls in the natural world around us. But unless our curiosity is engaged, unless we're asking, as I did, how we can look at the world to see its beauty, we can just as easily be deaf to that call.  Perhaps it doesn't mesh with our world view or our mood at the moment. Perhaps we're just not paying attention.

Democratus and Fry paid attention.  Orrell's book, which is a kind of history of scientific discovery viewed through aesthetic lenses, makes clear how much attention early scientists paid to the world and how that attention repaid them with knowledge.  Life is hard.  This morning, I am going to take little Sheba to the vet for the last time (yet one more euphemism) because she won't stop hunkering down in her spot, because she is fearful and constantly vigilant, because she won't let me hold her, because there is some mysterious mind/body connection that has linked her body's inability to stave off infections with her ability to see her world without the lenses of fear, because joy and comfort are gone.  One response to that difficulty is simply not to look.  We all have our own way of doing that, our own valuable defences against the world's bloody-mindedness:  to blame someone else and so feel free to close our minds and be done with it, to retreat to FB or watch all the funny YouTube videos of cats we can find, to pig out on reruns of our favourite (and doubtless very good) TV drama, or to exercise until our minds turn to cream of wheat.  But the minute you stop, the ache is there. When we pay attention, we probe that ache, make space for it in our stories and our memories.  Yet at some point we will also discover that we have to look up, to gasp for emotional air, to scan the horizon and to see, as I see this morning, a pair of mourning doves and a pair of flickers in my back yard.  At some point, when we pay attention, the world floods in with its beauties and its cruelties and our attention repays us with knowledge, too: that the cruelties of people and nature are balanced by generosity and beauty, and that we have a choice of where to look.

When I began writing this on Thursday, thinking about the "fancy machine grounds" of nineteenth-century American cottons and our grey landscape, I didn't think I would end up here, so forgive the perhaps ridiculous/sublime juxtaposition of quilting fabric with the death of a beloved cat.  Perhaps I can rescue this with another of Elaine Scarry's wise observations about the role of beauty in our lives:  that when we are faced with something beautiful, we are taken out of our role as centre of the universe and cede it to something other than our own concerns.  There's a world out there.  It deserves our attention.     

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