Beauty, Beauty, Beauty

Today is the exception that proves the rule for me, as I am about to participate in my first, and perhaps only, meme.

Thank you Rethabile, and the suggestion of this meme. His own response to it was so striking, layered, and thoughtful, I just had to carry it on, in kind. Simply, the meme is to complete the thought, "The great imperative of my life has been . . .".

Thanks to John Keats' famous equation about truth and beauty being about all ye need to know, I have to a degree abandoned the truth search. It's just too difficult, murky for me, and I find myself agreeing completely with Joan Didion's view about those shouting their moral truths and acting on their moral imperatives:

You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing – beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code – what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “good” and what “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything; they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something quite facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.

Didion wrote that more than 40 years ago, and if anything, we are in a much deeper bad trouble now--or so it seems.

Thus, these big "truths" inevitably are predicated on self-serving interests, matters of convenience, really, and so I have grown to be rather distrustful of them, whether spoken from the palatial gardens, the Oval Office, the pulpit, or the set of Oprah.

But what I do get is the beauty thing, and it scores my various identities and orientations: poet, husband, professor, parent, ugly American, inconsistent liberal (cold libertarian and weepy proletariat), environmentalist, devout agnostic, amateur scientist, Boise State football fan, and more. Beauty is the great imperative in my life. Whether formulated in the elegance and difficulty of Einstein's theories, evident in the flight pattern of the Swallow-tailed Kite, woven in the textiles of 13th-century Persia, sounded in the improvisations of Sidney Bechet, choreographed by Martha Graham, or expressed by dear Father Walt Whitman, whether local or cosmic, wheter sacred or profane, beauty is that one good, hopeful thing we can create, recognize, and revere. Beauty allows me to shed my skin, to love others, to love the world and the stars.

Oh yes, I know that beauty has its decadent side, its narcotic and numbing effects, but I generally think of those quallities as being only so much ornament, and not quite the real thing. And so beauty exacts from us the demand to be intelligent, discerning, sensitive, open, humble, and responsive--and without those disciplines, humors, and spirits, we are in deep, deep trouble, far worse than what Didion has described.


Rethabile said…
A jumbled reaction, as one can only muster after reading this deep, extensive, far-reaching, inviting, beautiful thing.

1. I'd love you to describe 'agnostic'
2. 'The most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears' -- How can this lady have said this if she doesn't live in our times? It's uncanny. How could she?
3. Otherwise I understand and identify with every other thing you say here.

I'm going to ask Geoffrey to come read this, for I think he'll be pleased with the response (to something he originated). Thank you, Jim.
Marie said…
Nice rise to the challenge. I enjoyed your post and have been contemplating beauty myself for the past few weeks...My favorite part was about "shedding your skin"..and how beauty affects your many selves...besides, I live in Boise and concur with you about Boise State. Go Broncos! (my daughter goes to college there) How did you come to love them?
Much to think about. Didion seems as relevant as he was 40 odd years back.
I will get back here to read this post again.

"Wrong" and "right" are changing with times. Or are they?

I need to think.
Dear Jim,
So we went all the way to Lesotho via Paris when we live down the road from each other. Cool.
Isn't it great that we live in this time and place where we are now using words like carambola and lychee to speak about the beautiful?

Rob Kistner said…
Jim -

Enjoyed getting caught up in this post! I have given up on trying to understand what good, bad, right, or wrong means. After 60 years, and watching the ebb and flow of the world -- I'm damned confused.

Sorry to say this, but those four terms seem to me to have become so distorted as to be meaningless.

I now find myself trying to look at the world from the perspective of "balance" and "imbalance". I may be wrong, but I think these two terms hold fast through all of time, and probably would provide better bedrock for a moral code.

That said, I think I know how to approach recognizing these two states of being. Balance sustains and nurtures -- imbalance does not.

We must dig deeper than I have offered here, but I think the field of balance/imbalance is the fertile field in which to till.

I think the field of good, bad, right, wrong has gone barren.
Marie said…
Nice to meet you and visit with you. Thanks for your comments on my blog...I love to be reminded of someone, especially someone like Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

We have been fans of the Broncos before they were famous, but it's nice to be known for something more than a podunk town or potatoes! My husband graduated from Borah 1981....his brother was a year ahead of you, Jim Wallace? What a small world this is..
Clare said…
This really resonated with me -- thank you very much! I love Joan Didion's quote and your reflections on the subject. I totally agree that humans are definitely making a bigger and more dire mess with all their fighting and killing over what they are "certain" is right/best/most moral etc. And what you said about beauty is really cool. So many of the wisest philosophers over the ages have written about beauty and it does seem to be something that, in so many ways, transcends differences and religions and speaks the language of the heart.qznmrkh
Clare said…
oops, those last few letter were meant to be in the word verification box!
I feel beauty is a great imperative for me too. I recently read a book of articles by Joan Didion and was stunned by her writing and how relevant it all still is, so many years later.
wendy said…
i think the decadent side of beauty is the "false" faces that have become the fahion.

Your post made me think. Thank you.
ren.kat said…
". . .it is a moral imperative that we have it . . ." assuming it is an object of any sort- need more be said regarding decadence and the fluidity of the definition of words like morality. . .

rethabile comes up with the best memes- thanks for responding to this one.