Saturday, May 19, 2007

Beauty is Different

Sometimes, when people list what is beautiful to them, that list gets corrupted by what they merely like. When something is “beautiful”, the key difference is the transcendent quality of the reaction to it.

Yesterday, I was reading one of my own lists from 1997, and this corruption is evident. Beauty has a slowing, contemplative power that listing won’t often support. It’s so easy to be distracted by good feelings, get lax with my criteria and realize I’m so totally in love with the world. I might start with “the ocean” recalling times spent floating in it and the sense I had of being part of something enormous, powerful, sparkling and delightful, and a few lines later find myself writing, “Strawberry Mentos” because they’re, you know, really, really good.

“Strawberry Mentos” is the clearest anomaly on my 1997 list, but there are many entries that don’t truly fit. In my defense, my whole sense of this project and of myself was so different then. I was spending a lot of time alone and outdoors, and was just often in a woozy, dreamy state in general. Those Mentos weren’t actually beautiful, but I discovered them at a time when everything was lofty and elevated and special, so they easily made the cut.

Comedian Eddie Izzard does a great bit on the word “awesome” that is useful here. “Awesome” used to be a word with deep theological connotations. The idea or presence of God was awesome. It struck fear—all-encompassing, fully glorious, thoroughly humbling fear—into the hearts of men. Izzard complains specifically about the use of “awesome” in marketing copy (“Awesome!”), but whenever we say someone’s party was awesome, or their haircut is awesome, it’s a very different usage than the original. With beauty, word usage is important because if you aren’t clear you can end up moony-eyed and overly sentimental in a hurry. The difference between liking something and thinking it’s beautiful is that the beautiful thing will alter your state, even if only momentarily, sending you beyond yourself and into it.

Living in New York City, getting to see the sky in full is rare, so when, on the waterfront, or an outdoor subway line, I find myself with a clear view of the sky and am really open to its presence, my heart beat changes, and small thoughts fall away. I find myself thinking about the unique expansiveness of the sky, and how I want to lay under it for hours and hours and lose myself contemplating its endlessness. Alternatively, when it’s, say, really nice and sunny out, I can, you know, note that and go about my business. I’m not mesmerized by it or internally transported anywhere. It’s simply nice out. I’m really happy, sure, but there’s not the heavy take-me-from-myself-and-into-what-you-are that true beauty elicits.

This is an exciting distinction. I’m not so interested in what people like. I’m interested in what sends them and in their ability to be sent. I’m interested in their vulnerability to beauty.