4 Books on Beauty to Magnetize and Decenter
It was inevitable that I would end up talking about books on the subject of beauty. This is just a small list of books that happen to be on my bookshelf, each one quite different in approach. Though beauty and our consideration of it is often declared out of style, irrelevant, and not cool, still it persists. Thank goodness for that.
John O'Donohue's Beauty: The Invisible Embrace is probably the book I most often return to on the subject. O'Donohue, who left us in 2008, awakens his reader to the call of beauty, and asks "Where does beauty dwell?" He looks for it in the obvious places - music, dance, art, but reminds us that beauty is everywhere, and is "quietly woven through our days." When I've been frustrated with the sameness of my daily path, it's the words of John O'Donohue that bring me back to contentment. He says,
Light never shows the same mountain twice. Only the blindness of habit convinces us that we continue to live in the same place, that we see the same landscape. In truth no place ever remains the same because light has no mind for repetition; it adores difference. Through its illuminations, it strives to suggest the silent depths that hide in the dark.
O'Donohue talks about those times in our lives which are full of struggle and when "difficulty and disappointment form a crust around the heart." And this is when beauty might steady us. He reminds us of the words of Blaise Pascal, "who said: In difficult times you should always carry something beautiful in your mind" and goes on to Rilke who said that "during such times we should endeavour to stay close to one simple thing in nature."
For all the talk of the mystery of beauty and the soul's call to embrace beauty, this book is the most instructive, the most practical of works. I've read several reviews of the book that liken it to a travelogue which seems fair. For those lucky enough to have found those places where beauty dwells, O'Donohue offers this advice via Joan Chittister who says,
It is Beauty that magnetizes the contemplative, and it is the duty of the contemplative to give beauty away so that the rest of the world may, in the midst of squalor, ugliness, and pain, remember that beauty is possible.
On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry is a manifesto of sorts, defending beauty and also insisting that our attention to it is crucial to our intellectual work and everyday experience. She says that "Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation."
Our encounters with beauty, says Scarry, alter our very path on this earth. "How one walks through the world," she says, "the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things." She also says, "At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering." In a discussion of Simone Weil's philosophies of beauty she notes that when we give up our "imaginary position at the center" we are transformed "at the very roots of our sensibility." When we happen upon those small beautiful things in art and life - a beautiful sentence, or an instance of light on an object, "they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space."
When we are decentered, we are what Iris Murdoch termed "unselfing." We identify less with the hero of a story, for example, than we do with a "lateral figure" and this shift in consciousness is an unselfish act which alters our perceptions. She says that "at moments when we believe we are conducting ourselves with equality, we are usually instead conducting ourselves as the central figure in our own private story; and when we feel ourselves to be merely adjacent or lateral...we are probably more closely approaching a state of equality."
Karen Walrond of Chookooloonks fame published The Beauty of Different: Observations of a Confident Misfit back in 2010 and is hard at work on another as we speak. This book is about the beauty of individuals and is part coffee table book, and part exploration of our fragile and necessary relationship with beauty everyday. It is a thing of beauty itself. She comes at the subject via interviews and ruminations and from angles such as individuality, spirituality, imperfection, anxiety and heartbreak. She looks for what is unique in imperfection, in what makes us different from each other and comes away changed, herself.
Speaking of Beauty by Denis Donoghue was written in 2003 which suddenly seems a long time ago. Didn't I just buy this book? Apparently not. In it he admits that beauty is difficult, saying, "It seems a self-evident value and to brook no question. It thrives on keeping quiet and never explains itself." This is going to be a rather scholarly look at beauty, we know from the outset as we are told he came to this discussion via Ruskin, and are led through thoughts by Kant and T.S. Eliot, Yeats, and Benjamin in the first couple of pages. But then we also have this:
In what follows I have little to say about beauty, and I say most of that little indirectly or by the way. I don't claim that my sense of beauty differs much from anyone else's who lives in the West, or that it settles upon special instances. If someone remarks that Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lopez are beautiful, I find no cause to disagree. My theme is not beauty but how we talk about it; how they, you, and I talk about it, and why we say the things we say.
He also asks, "Why should we regard the beauty of a beautiful thing?" and answers, "1. Because its existence is analogous to - not the same as - the good and the true it once symbolized." And, "2. Because looking at a beautiful thing for its beauty fosters in us certain intuitions that other forces in life have no time for - respect for intrinsic value, freedom, independence, selflessness." He goes on: "Because it encourages a contemplative, appreciative, patient attitude in us."
Donoghue interrogates beauty in terms of the tragic, and in terms of fate and form using examples from philosophy, art, and literature and his Speaking of Beauty serves as an ideal starting point for discussion and likely dispute in that realm.