Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The imperfection of beauty

There's an interesting post at In Living Color - Do we have reasons to enjoy music?.

I've been thinking about how music affects us - take The Tree of Life. No, I haven't seen the movie and I don't want to, but I think part of why some people have liked it so much is that in a way it kind of cheats - it borrows the grandeur of beloved pieces of music to infuse its visuals with reflected profundity. An example: who cannot fall in love with whatever they're gazing at while they're listening to Die Moldau, a piece of music used in The Tree of Life ....

Die Moldau seems almost perfect, and when I hear it my hair literally stands on end, but is it perfect, and is perfection what beauty is really all about? Here's a bit of the post at In Living Color ...

I recently discussed a Fleet Foxes song ("He Doesn't Know Why") [lyrics at bottom of post] with my brother, who is a music professor and cellist ....

... I wanted my brother to explain in music theory terms why I find this song so beautiful, and he had quite a lot to say about it ... knowledgeable people seem to be able to tell us why we should like some music and not like other music. In fact, my brother told me (fairly politely) that I shouldn't actually like Fleet Foxes so much. He said they sing out of tune, for example. Should I notice that and respond negatively?

This reminded me of a past post by Johnah Lehrer, Why Does Beauty Exist?, in which he writes ...

[T]he hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way ...

I really like this idea and I think it's true of a lot of what I find beautiful - it's the lack of 100% of perfection that keeps me interested and engaged, I think because in a way my brain and my heart keep trying to complete it. I wonder what Thomas Aquinas would say about this view of one of the Transcendentals :)

He Doesn't Know Why

Penniless & tired with your hair grown long
I was looking at you there and your face looked wrong
memory is a fickle siren's song
I didn't understand
In the gentle light as the morning nears
You don't say a single word of the last two years
Where you were or when you reached the frontier
I didn't understand
See you rugged hands and a silver knife
Twenty dollars in your hand that you hold so tight
All the evidence of your vagrant life
My brother you were gone
And you will try to do what you did before
Pull the wool over your eyes for a week or more
Let your family take you back to your original mind
There's nothing I can do
There's nothing I can say


Blogger Matthew said...

Fleet Foxes: <3<3<3.

Recently, I've been wondering a similar thing about permanence and transience. How we're inclined to value permanence and tend to overlook the value of transience.

11:22 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Was it the Greeks who decided permanentce, immutability, impassiblility are the best attributes? Maybe they just seem safer.

1:00 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Great flower pictures and interesting post. I am a musician (though I don’t know much about music theory), and a painter (of Icons and other things). I like that quote about beauty but I can’t say I agree with it (there are lot’s of great quotes about art and beauty that I like, such as: Nietzsche’s, “we have art so that we don’t die of reality,” or, “if art isn’t shocking it isn’t art,” by Duchamp, 2 of my favorites, that I don’t agree with). My question is, what is incomplete about Donattelo’s statue of Mary Magdalene? (something I have both painted and written music about), or Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” or that great song by Fleet Foxes you mentioned--one of my favorites too. Your brother may be right about them being ‘out of tune’ but i don’t count that as an imperfection, I think the song is sung exactly as they created it and doesn’t lack anything (being in “tune” is a social construction not an ontological category). I struggle with articulating what is the beautiful (but hey so did Kant!) but I appreciate what David Bentley Hart wrote in his book, “The Beauty of the Infinite, "God's pleasure--the beauty creation possesses in his regard--underlies the distinct being of creation, and so beauty is the first and truest word concerning all that appears within being; beauty is the showing of what is; God looked upon what he had wrought and saw that it was good." Obliged, Daniel.

8:24 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Daniel,

Oh, that wasn't me talking about my brother - I was quoting a bit from a post at In Living Color - Do we have reasons to enjoy music?.

Jonah Lehrer, who wrote the post about beauty being incomplete - Why Does Beauty Exist? - is a student of neurology, so he's coming at beauty from research on the brain. He was just noting that in experiments, it seemed that people were more intrigued by incomplete beauty.

David Bentley Hart - I know he really likes aethetics and beauty is his favorite transcendental, but I think he's wrong, though, and that beauty is the weakest transcendental because all things beautiful are not necessarily true or good. Augustine wrote that Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.

Actually, I'm not sure about any of this stuff - just thinking outloud :)

1:21 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Your not sure? then what the heck are you doing blogging about it!? LOL. OK, i can see where this is going, and if we got to start with definitions of beauty then alright, but were heading down a deconstructing rat hole that I don't think any of has time for. Still, i don't know if DBH's favorite Trans. is beauty, but what the heck, let's suppose so, what he says in the quote is that beauty is the' first and truest word' not the strongest or the last. And your flowers are beautiful no matter how weak of a transcendental they are! obliged, daniel. oh, and I like the video "Mr. Deity"

12:41 PM  

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