Tag Archives: beauty

“The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it. You had better agree with your adversary quickly.”

“You mean I shall have to become a Christian?” said Jane.

“It looks like it,” said the Director.1

It’s my favorite thing, the four of us sitting around the kitchen table, one in the morning, empty bottles everywhere, eyeballs-deep in the aesthetics of gender, or the theology of sex, or anyway something that has us alternating between cackles and chills.

“I hear Shostakovich,” says Jack P.,2 tracing voluptuous curves in the air to describe how he feels about women but also about certain symphonies, “and I want to put it inside myself. I want it like I want a woman, but I also want it inside me.” He pauses and grins at me. “Is that gay?”

“Well, we’re all feminine with respect to God,” I say, paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, “so that makes sense.” If one response to beauty is the desire to penetrate, another is the desire to be penetrated.

The unspoken assumption is that music, and beauty in general, is a way to experience God, something that the present company (a bunch of Lewis-reading, Beethoven-loving, Aquinas-quoting types) takes for granted.

Jack has just been maintaining that the most beautiful thing in the world is the female body. I’d just say bodies in general, since I appreciate both kinds, even if one of those appreciations is more visceral than the other.

Paul L. questions whether beauty is the right word: if a hungry man sees a hamburger on a billboard, is beauty the right name for what he experiences? Does he delight in the curve of the bun, the pert little sesame seeds, the gentle glistening of the secret sauce?

Or does he just want to devour the thing? What do we want to do with beauty? Gaze at it? Eat it up? Impregnate it, or be impregnated?3 All of the above?

To be continued.

1 From C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.
2 P. is, of course, short for “Pigford”. This is what happens when you let your buddies pick their own aliases.
3 Cf. also a certain passage in Voyage To Arcturus: “If you were to regard nature as the husband, and Panawe as the wife…perhaps everything would be explained.”

“Death is the mother of beauty.”

Dear Wallace Stevens, you brilliant, urbane, doddering old insurance-salesman of a poet: no it isn’t.

Yesterday being All Souls’ day, I spent some time thinking about death. I wasn’t depressed. I felt (and feel) great, actually. Thinking of death is what you’re supposed to do on that day and on Ash Wednesday and at the very least, although more often would probably be better. Pulvus es, et in pulvum reverteris. How will you live, knowing that you’re going to die?

The quotation at the top is taken from Stevens’ very beautiful Sunday Morning, where the mild ennui of a non-churchgoer on Sunday slowly gives way to a meditation on the paradoxes of desire.

“She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.’” The woman longs for something without knowing what. Even paradise would be incomplete, says the speaker, because paradise lacks death — death which is the mother of beauty, giving all things value because they will have an end. If life extends to infinity, life becomes meaningless; only death gives meaning to life.

This is, of course, romantic horsesh★t.1 It’s exactly the sort of thing you would believe if you were a melancholy college student who didn’t give much creedence to the ordinary idea of happiness as fulfillment of desire because it was too mainstream. Death is the mother of beauty: this was my mantra for years. I had to live, Live!, because one day I would be dead and what did I want it to say on my gravestone?

So I constantly questioned myself: was I living life to the fullest? Was I wringing the maximum enjoyment out of every moment? Did I embrace every experience with open arms, or did I hide from life? Was I fully awake, or did I ever let myself coast along on autopilot? Was I joyful, was I alive, was I having EXPERIENCES??

Try living that way and see if it doesn’t make you a nervous wreck. The irony is that I was doing my best to celebrate life, but there was no atmosphere of celebration about my desperate grasping after experience. That wasn’t joy, it was fear. Fear of not meeting the deadline, fear of flunking at life — in short, fear of death.

If you want proof, think back to the last time you were really happy — not just content, but happy, awed, sublimely assured of the goodness of things. Were you thinking about death? Were you glad, because the world was perishing and you were surrounded by dying flesh, which made everything more precious? Probably not. It was eternity you were tasting. Children know that the last two weeks of summer vacation are impossible to enjoy, because you can’t forget that death/school is just around the corner.2

Live every day as if it were your last, goes the saying. That might be good advice if you’re the kind of person who pays no attention to life, who feels no stirring of guilt after days of nothing but sleep, pot, and video games. But if your natural tendency is introspection, I think a better motto is this: Live every day as if you were going to live forever.

Which is, by the way, true. But the afterlife isn’t an extended epilogue, where all the adventure is over and we get to sit on comfy sofas, reminiscing. Heaven isn’t Stevens’ stagnant paradise, where “the boughs / Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, / Unchanging.” Heaven is where the story begins.

There are too many loose ends in this life, too many unanswered questions, for it to be anything but a prologue.

1 I don’t mean that the poem itself is horsesh★t, just my interpretation of it at the time, which may or may not have been Stevens’ and in any event does not fully account for the poem. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful poems ever written. Even C. S. Lewis notes that melancholy does bear some mysterious resemblance to Joy. But this is too much to go into in a footnote.
2 I’m thinking of that Calvin & Hobbes strip, of course. I’d link to it but they’re impossible to find online. Anyway, here’s a few good, but unrelated, strips.

Following my strange little wee-hours rant on apes and desire last night, reader Jamie added a quotation from C. S. Lewis, which of course is where I got the idea in the first place — thanks, Jamie:

If you find in yourself a desire which no earthly thing can satisfy, the logical conclusion must be that you are made for another world. That other world—heaven—echoes in you.

And reader Peter asks an excellent question:

Now I’m dying to have you elaborate on the obvious – what about your SSA? Does that desire lie, or is that, too, a reflection of something heavenly?

The answer is yes, to both, in different ways.

I’ve always been in love with a kind of beauty that is specifically masculine. I don’t mean this only, or even primarily, in a sexual way. Masculinity and femininity aren’t limited to humans, or even to animals in general. They’re archetypes, and they’re everywhere. Oops, I’m paraphrasing Lewis again, so I’ll let him speak for himself:

Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings…Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. (Perelandra, p. 172)

I’ll stop before I quote the whole book, but you can see a bit more here.

So my love for the masculine has sexual ramifications, but the root of that love is not sexual, or is only partly sexual. Part of what I love about men is the same thing I love about climbing mountains, or playing in the waves when they’re ten feet tall. This isn’t, obviously, a phenomenon limited to men with SSA.

All archetypes meet in God, the author of both men and mountains. I’ve stood on a mountaintop in New Hampshire, or under a terrifyingly starry sky in Colorado, and thought my heart would burst. I think it would, if I felt those things in their entirety; there’s only so much beauty you can take.1 But to increase in holiness is to increase in your capacity for the perception of beauty. The closer we get to Heaven, the more beauty the heart can stand.

So part of my desire for men is traceable to my love for the masculine, and that love has its proper fulfillment — partially now, in my fellow men and in nature; but fully later, in God.2

But nobody wants to go to bed with a mountain.3 That’s the part of my SSA that isn’t traceable to love of the masculine per se, that is sexual and emotional as well as aesthetic, and that is more problematic. But I think this post is long enough already, don’t you? Stay tuned for part two.

1 Which must be one reason why the ancient Hebrews, who knew stars and mountains so much better than we do, believed that looking on the face of God would mean instant death. Probably death by spontaneous explosion. The Greeks must have had the same instinct, which is why Semele dies when she asks — understandably, but foolishly — to see Zeus in his full glory.
2 Incidentally, I the same can be said for love of the feminine.
3 I take it back. Some people do.

“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“Can’t I?”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”1

One of my favorite things about being a Christian is the fact that there’s no such thing as “too good to be true.” The phrase is a contradiction: being Christian means knowing that the good and the true are the same. The truer a thing is, the more good it is, and vice versa.

I know the Brideshead quotation sounds like pure naïveté. In one sense it is. Anybody who lives in the world knows that true things, facts, are very often not good and not beautiful. You just have to read the news. Forget that, you just have to walk down the street: every time I walk out of the Y, the same junkies are sitting on the curb, too drugged out even to know how miserable they are.2

Forget even walking down the street, you just have to grow up in the 21st century, in your own family. I don’t care how wonderful your family is; whenever you get any group of people together there will be bitterness, misunderstanding, and even cruelty. That’s not what people are at heart, but it’s what sin does to the world.

Christianity doesn’t deny any of those things. On the contrary, I don’t know of any system of thought that takes suffering more seriously: even after Jesus rose from the dead in glory, there were still nail wounds in his hands.

Christianity doesn’t even say, “Yes, the world’s dreadful but if you just wait long enough you’ll die and then you’ll get to be happy!” To be Christian isn’t to ignore suffering or to wait for it to be over, but to “accept and use suffering as Christ did: that is, as a creative, redemptive act.”3 To make suffering the tool of love.

Christianity says this: the best things are also the truest things, and the most beautiful. Beautiful things are beautiful because they are true. That’s what beauty is: it is what truth does to us. We are built to be drawn to truth, to love it like a mole loves dirt, like meat loves salt.4

Being a Christian means never having to decide between what’s true and what you love. It’s just that figuring out what you love, and what love is, takes time, and learning how to strip away everything else.

1 From Brideshead Revisited.
2 Okay, so I’m trying to make the place I live sound a little more badass than it is. Mainly it’s just Main Street that’s like that.
3 Archbishop Chaput’s Render Unto Caesar, p. 47.
4 I forget whether the meat-and-salt thing is from King Lear or Cap-o’-Rushes, maybe both. But about that: I was at the beach recently with my older sister. Her kids found these strange little crab-things that live just under the surface, where the waves meet the beach. When you dig them up, they burrow back into the sand so quickly it’s like they’re moving through melted butter. My sister said, It’s like that story about the Zen disciple who wanted to see God: that’s how they must feel, they want to get into that sand so bad. I have a cool sister.