Beauty is but a flower / Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air; / Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye. / I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
—Thomas Nashe, “In Time of Plague” (ca. 1567-1601)
If, as Plato and Aristotle both declare, wisdom is born of wonder, it is likely true as well that most forms of practical and theoretical insight are delivered to us through the midwifery of human suffering or personal sacrifice. Something similar might be said of beauty. For when it appears, beauty arrives reliably by way of great challenges and accompanying anguish—whether intense, protracted, or simply unexpected.
In other words, beauty commonly emerges with an accomplice, a quiet collaborator or diligent co-conspirator. Toil and the burden of work—or travail to use an older term that is tied linguistically to torture—are entailed with nearly all pursuits aimed at creating something beautiful, including the labor of artistic and intellectual creation, the labor of athletic training, the labor of a consummated pregnancy, and the daily labor of love involving one’s friends, partners, family, and paramours.
Each activity typically bears some kind of pain into the world at the same time that it brings forth the fruit of beauty—a painting, sculpture, song, or poem; a world record or a marathon finish; a child or a book; or a supportive home and human relationships, for example. This toll is especially evident in the construction of resplendent palaces, temples, and pyramids through which thousands of lives have been forcibly sacrificed. It is evident, too, in the biographies of figures such as Van Gogh, Artaud, and Hölderlin, whose sanity was spent in pursuit of artistic contributions to posterity.
We live in very anxious times. Dark times. There is no mistaking the misery, the fear, the grief, the loss, and the death that scourges nearly every city and town across the country and world. That truth should not be diminished or ignored.
And, yet, life somehow endures. It either flourishes in the search for a vaunted ideal and often elusive experience of the “good life” or it thrives in the form of an ongoing battle for biological existence—through struggle, survival, and living on. Life thus admits distinctions, in particular what the Greeks differentiated broadly as Βίος (bios) and Ζωή (zoe)—a specific life and life in general—though it is a conceptual divide that is complex and controversial, even among scholars.
While Plato proclaimed the ultimate unity of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, we now tend to separate these notions and spheres while perhaps worrying with other philosophers like Giorgio Agamben that during a pandemic—or “state of exception”—social life and living well are being reduced to “bare life” (la vida nuda). It is a debate worth engaging.
In the recent and contemporary world, however, beauty has fallen into disrepute, especially within modern art and postmodern aesthetics. It has been viewed widely with skeptical, suspicious, or jaundiced eyes as the focus has turned to conceptual art, experimentation, mixed media, and social or political critique, among other approaches. Beauty, we are reminded, does not belong as a property of objects themselves; it lacks objectivity. It is instead tethered solely to the human ear and individual gaze or to one’s subjective aesthetic tastes. Or so the argument goes.
If philosophy once arose through curiosity and awe and towered like a giant with a proud face and confident gaze, it is now riddled precariously with doubt, disappointment, and indecision. Its stature and status are marked by epistemological, existential, and ethical unease. Like Swift’s Gulliver, the giant can neither fully stand upright nor lie down comfortably and wait for reason or “the gods” to return and save it—and us.
So too it would seem with beauty.
I would like to maintain, however, that we—or at least many of us—still deeply need beauty or some semblance of it. We often rely on an unspoken hope that it will alight in our lives with due patience or perseverance. We may harbor an abiding, albeit secret or suppressed, belief that we can still put to use—or minimally appreciate—that which is largely useless. We nod in recognition when Nietzsche writes that “life without music would be a mistake”.
Beauty is perhaps like love in this regard. It offers us opportunities to find meaning; a reason to persist in the face of fatigue, crisis, or inevitable defeat; and even a promise of potential joy or happiness if we are fortunate enough to be surrounded with it or blessed by it.
Many nonhuman animals likewise seem to display, seek, and maybe even appreciate beauty as well. Among winged beings, bower birds, peacocks, and lyre birds are the cognoscenti of the “creatives” and avant-garde “artists” of a sort. In different ways, many animals deftly fashion beauty as a seductive lure for a mate, or mimic the tunes of other forest chanteuses, or spike their feathers with kaleidoscopic color to draw an admiring eye. A compelling new evolutionary theory of art locates beauty not in the capricious or culturally constructed eyes of the beholder but more deeply and innately within our brains—nature’s trick and way of acting upon us at a distance.
Other theories point outward as well toward the capacious world itself as a source of the enchanting power of beauty. It has been found in the coiled swirls and undulating curls of a serpentine line—in, for example the curves of the human body, the meandering movements of a river, or the rhythmic turns of a spiraling staircase, whirling dervish, or DNA strand.
Beauty has been located, too, in the geometric proportions and mathematical harmonies of music, the golden ratio, and classical architecture. It has been discovered in the confluence of function and form—what a thing does and the way or style that it does it—the integration of appearance (beauty) with practical use (utility), or “beautility” so to speak. And beauty has been found in the ensemble of each of these previous ideas and expressions, the gestalt and more orchestrated whole that unites or governs the mere sum of its constituent parts.
Setting aside issues related to the exact nature or origin of beauty—if in fact it possesses an essence or hallmark feature—the question remains: can we find a place for beauty in this shaken world, where an “ugly,” invisible, and amoral disease runs rampant, generating fear, division, and death, mocking at times our attempts to carry on or to find meaning in our daily tasks.
Rather than imitating the powerful, blind, and impressively ruthless virus itself, might we better seek models or mentors for human inspiration in other areas or individuals—poets, painters, naturalists, philosophers, and the like? Might we even emulate in some way the magnificent lotus plant, for instance, which arises from the muck and dirt, the mud and darkness, to flower in beauty in the open air?
Let me suggest a few places or ways that we might begin to look for and even create beauty in order to better navigate through these benighted times. In what follows, I focus on the relationship, in turn, of beauty to ten topics: (i) death; (ii) breath (solidarity); (iii) humor; (iv) the “homely” (domestic and everyday world); (v) the seasons (nature); (vi) waiting (the unknown); (vii) story-telling (art); (viii) silence; (ix) the sublime; and, finally, goodness (ethics).
The spoken and unspoken context for all of these subjects is the current evolving crisis and pandemic in which we find ourselves.
Beauty and Death
I died for beauty, but was scare / Adjusted in the tomb,/
When one who died for truth was lain / In an adjoining room. —Emily Dickinson
Beauty is hitched closely to impermanence, which is paradoxically the only permanent feature of existence itself—an idea encapsulated in the Buddhist idea of anicca and Heraclitus’ notion of panta rhei (everything flows). We find this linkage in the immaculate sand mandala that has been fashioned grain by grain over many weeks and months and then scattered into a mountain stream or yawning body of water upon completion. We find it in the eye-catching Tibetan prayer flags that deteriorate and depart gracefully in the Himalayan winds and autumn rain. And we find it in the pure winter snowfall that melts gently away to reveal like a magician’s trick tiny crocus petals sleeping in the garden soil.
“Death,” Wallace Stevens has speculated, “is the mother of beauty.” “Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.” Almost as if to acknowledge this tie between ephemerality and beauty, we gift colorful flowers at a funeral to those who have lost a loved one or leave them upon the tombs of the departed. Such rituals offer consolation and help confirm to us that transience and evanescence are built into the very fabric of things.
Death, in other words, is not a flaw in the architecture of the cosmos or a fissure in a taut physical or metaphysical system. Rather, it is a necessary and inseparable part of the shimmering structure—or infrastructure—of the universe, like a crumbling marble column in a great cathedral or the vast root system of a giant Redwood in a California forest. If there is in fact a defensible “right” to life, perhaps there is a corresponding “duty” to die as well, a biological requirement or tacit obligation that is part of an invisible contract that enables us to make room for others to arrive.
Alan Watts once suggested that the most profound truth you can take to heart is that you, everyone you know, have known, or might come to know, will soon be dead. This looming power of the tiny adverb, soon, is of course fraught with existential reverberations that concern time. How soon? Too soon? Why so soon? For to die prematurely is to die tragically. But as we age, and move from innocence to experience, we tend to inch closer to recognizing the worth of a good poet’s words or prophetic warning, as when Andrew Marvel confesses, “At my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” adding “And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity./Thy beauty shall no more be found.”
Realizing such certainties may encourage the kind of resolution or aesthetic imperative that Rilke has in mind when he concludes his poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with the gentle command: “You must change your life”. In a period of global upheaval or personal crisis, many of us may elect wisely to consider that admonition, too.
Beauty thus possesses an odd or extraordinary quality, a trait that deviates from the norm and the terrain of the familiar. “There is no exquisite beauty,” Poe declaims, “without some strangeness in the proportion.” Baudelaire agrees: “The beautiful is always bizarre.” And Andre Breton echoes these sentiments in Nadja: “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.”
Rilke himself associates beauty with a curious sense of trepidation, and even horror. “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us,” he writes in the Duino Elegies. And Camus proclaims something similar: “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”
Despite vain efforts to the contrary, beauty can rarely be captured or fully possessed; it eludes our grasping hands and acquisitive hearts. It disappears on its own timetable like a lover vanishing impetuously around the corner into the late afternoon shadows or the well-dressed body of a deceased family member being planted in the cemetery soil forever, and too soon. Beauty almost seems at times to be an interloper from another realm or, at least, to suggest worlds hidden deeply within ordinary experience, like Russian dolls nested inside one another.
Presently, more than a 340,000 people, including 100,000 in the U.S., have perished from the virus—many in an extremely painful, almost violent, manner—alone without the company of relatives, gasping for air, tethered to ventilators in a sterile hospital room, or trapped in the slums of a crowded city. This is in no way beautiful itself. It is hard to imagine a way such tragedy could be redeemed, and attempts to do so will likely appear as either callous or cruel.
Henry Ward Beecher wrote that “Death is the dropping of the flower that the fruit may swell,” but in the case of a pandemic, it is surely reasonable to wonder which bitter fruit that might conceivably be. And whether the fruit too has fallen with the flower. Nevertheless, it is understandable if we ponder these kind of conundrums once they arise and wonder as well if we must simply learn to live with and even learn to love such unanswered questions, like “locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue,” as Rilke recommends.
One caveat that we should respect, though, is that our interpretations of suffering and death must not unnecessarily multiply or add to the existing ledger of pain. “It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades,” Susan Sontag has noted. Beauty too, like happiness, may be at times an unintended or incidental by-product of what the natural world throws forth unexpectedly or randomly and thereby makes visible. We should be careful in attributing it to false causes.
Cornell West once remarked off-handedly during a taxi ride through New York City that one does not find corpses in Heidegger’s work and, by extension within philosophy more generally. He implied, rightly I think, that while death is a perennial concern within the discipline, it tends to be treated as a remote abstraction or an empty concept.
Historically, philosophers have been likely to shunt or consign the body itself—from natality to fatality—in its messy materiality and maternal origins to an elsewhere—to a realm of mental constructs, a theoretical mausoleum, or a disembodied afterlife. Corpses, by contrast, are individual specimens and very particular. They are untidy, decomposing, and leaky vessels full of blood, hair, entrails, organs, offal, and viscera. They cannot be easily elevated or, alternatively, sublated into pure “Spirit,” perfect “Ideas,” or unchanging “Forms”.
Meanwhile, in the present-day world, corpses and cadavers are piling up in hospitals, morgues, and, in some countries, trenches and unmarked graves. In general, we been prevented from viewing photographs of these lifeless bodies in newspaper accounts or as images on television, thus denying us an opportunity for shared grief as well as the potential for some kind of transformative catharsis, social epiphany, or political anger.
A good friend of mine lost his father several weeks ago. He was unable to attend the funeral in person and could only be tele-present—a witness distantly removed from a life-changing event. On a larger scale, there has been no national mourning at all, not even an organized moment of collective silence. If we are “at war” with the virus as the President proclaims—a problematic military metaphor he likes to “deploy”—why are the wounded and dead “warriors” not being honored, especially those who have lost or risked their lives in the “frontline battle”?
Perhaps one of the many reasons we were unprepared for this pandemic is that there are almost no memorials for—and hence little social memory of—those who died in the U.S. of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which tore through the country and world a century ago, and which overlapped with World War I. Another likely reason is that the current administration is involved in political denial and obfuscation about the depth and extent of the crisis as well as the swelling number of the dead.
The federal administration seems more concerned about a fictive and dangerous “return to normal”—“normal” itself arguably being an unacknowledged and ongoing major crisis—than to addressing the causes of and responsibility for their own failed response and, more importantly, to moving constructively forward to embrace possible solutions to a host of other calamities that are tied intimately to the immediate and pressing one: health care, climate change, international financial markets, poverty, racial discrimination, global surveillance technologies, prison populations, industrial agriculture, low wages, poor housing, and much more. Stated more provocatively, Trump and his allies appear ready and willing to break a few eggs in an effort to make an omelette that can briefly feed his own voracious ego—and maybe a few members of his “base” constituency—without sustaining the rest of us.
By contrast, the rest of us watch the daily body count and rising numbers, as if it were being tallied on an athletic or electoral scoreboard, the key difference being that there is no eventual winner and no limit reached when the contest is shut down.
The growing figures still highlight the truth of an old saw—sometimes attributed to Stalin—that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths are just a statistic. Compared to the Spanish Flu, which extinguished upwards of 50 million people, we might be inclined to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic or compare it favorably, but misleadingly, to the seasonal flu.
We are able to mourn a single death and, over time, find a modicum of acceptance in it or a sense of reconciliation after it, while appreciating the beauty of the individual life that was whisked away. With mass and abstract statistical death, by contrast, we are given over to an enormously different scale: either to the realm of the melancholic where the loss remains largely unknown or foreign to us—we know not what we have lost—or to the realm of the wholly unrecoverable and inconceivable, where the loss can never even be imagined or fathomed. This complex phenomenon holds for the extinction of entire species as well wherein we find not just simply death but the unimaginable end of birth.
This is also the boundary where beauty likely trails off into ashes as it is swept into a black hole of incomprehension from which nothing can escape or return. Here, when we butt up against absolute limits, is perhaps where mysticism, theology, stoic indifference, or a sense of the sublime might begin to exercise influence upon us.
And here, we might be tempted to invoke the wisdom of myth, poetry, or even a fanciful dialogue with the cosmos itself: “While crossing a great dark river, Life encountered Death on a journey and inquired of him, ‘Why do people love me but loathe you?’ Death paused his rowboat for a long moment, adjusted his cap and black cape, and then replied, ‘Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.’”
Beauty and Breath
I can’t breathe. —George Floyd
In constructing this great bridge of international solidarity across the globe, where do we even begin?
―Ramor Ryan, Zapatista Spring
“Adversity draws men together and produces beauty and harmony in life’s relationships,” Kierkegaard observed, “just as the cold of winter produces ice-flowers on the window-panes, which vanish with the warmth.” Another philosopher, Schopenhauer, also drew on the challenges of winter to devise a parable about porcupines, one which possesses some relevance for our current-day dilemmas regarding social—or, better, physical—distancing and human solidarity:
On a cold winter’s day, a group of porcupines huddled together to stay warm and keep from freezing. But soon they felt one another’s quills and moved apart. When the need for warmth brought them closer together again, their quills again forced them apart. They were driven back and forth at the mercy of their discomforts until they found the distance from one another that provided both a maximum of warmth and a minimum of pain.
In human beings, the emptiness and monotony of the isolated self produces a need for society. This brings people together, but their many offensive qualities and intolerable faults drive them apart again. The optimum distance that they finally find that permits them to coexist is embodied in politeness and good manners. Because of this distance between us, we can only partially satisfy our need for warmth, but at the same time, we are spared the stab of one another’s quills.
The pandemic should remind us that we are quite literally connected to one another through breath and through the shared space of air, which circulates without cessation above, around, between, below, and within all of us—a cornucopia of prepositional proximity. The air we exhale—and which others may now fear to inhale—is not unoccupied. It contains not only carbon dioxide but volatile organic compounds such as methane, acetone, isoprene, and ethanol as well as water, ketones, and other hydrocarbons.
And we also move about the planet in much larger invisible “bubbles,” “pockets” and “sheds” of shifting, mixing, and moving air that sequesters multiple gases (especially oxygen and nitrogen) as well as an inventory of germs, pollen, smoke, dust, spores, bacteria, salt, particulate matter, and pollutants. The small exhaled “clouds” we generate through breathing and send back into the encompassing atmosphere, of course, come into contact with other people not only within the closed quarters of our homes, but on buses, in classrooms, in workspaces, in places of worship, in stores, in stadiums, and so many other locales.
Some of the very air you are now imbibing and shunting through your body may recently have been eddying around the majestic peak of the Matterhorn, passing out of the swollen corpse of a raccoon by the side of a gravel road, trailing gently off the tail feathers of a migrating Canadian goose, or whistling through the snow-ballasted branches of a Douglas-fir tree. This can all be rather breathtaking. We are conspiring—literally, breathing together—and to contemplate this fact can dramatically change our lives to reveal new ways that human others and non-human otherness are woven into the very conditions of our existence.
While the medium of air—and with it, human breath—serves as a possible place of contagion, it is also a potential source of solidarity. In fact, it turns out that solidarity might depend on that which is not solid at all! The shared flows and fluid movements of air and breath which simultaneously sustain us and make us vulnerable might be thought of as a form of commonality and unseen connection. Colorless breath—or recycled air—is a literal and a metaphorical bond between us that is much more fundamental to our humanity than widely varying skin tones, political hues (red, blue, and purple state membership), or the greens and gold of currency and cash.
As Richard Rorty observes, “human solidarity [should] be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away ‘prejudice’ or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved.” He adds: “It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.”
Such an imaginative act of seeing another as a compagnon de misères or “fellow sufferer”—a phrase Schopenhauer proposed as the appropriate form of address between humans—is part of a broader ethical and political challenge that continually confronts us. Namely, to witness, to empathize with, and then to respond adequately to the symptoms and associated suffering of other living beings, including nonhuman animals, in a crisis—in the present instance, to the respiratory crisis that often begins with coughing or gasping for air and that can eventuate in one’s dying breath. Such solidarity in suffering, Schopenhauer argued, “reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”
Many of the world’s major religions, too, notably claim that the “soul” is composed of either breath or air. Luce Irigaray reveals in particular that air, especially bodily breath, is an invisible, un-thought or misconstrued presence within the Western philosophical tradition. In contrast to Heidegger, she maintains that our first home is not in language but within the ambient air, which she invokes in its many modalities, including that which surrounds and unites all bodies, that which carries the voice and call of the other, and that which grants us autonomy when we begin to breathe outside the mother. Air is space prior to all forms of localization. It is at once moving and immobile, permanent but ever-fluid, while remaining constitutive in an original sense of the whole of the world.
Irigaray argues that what the present era truly requires is a return to breathing, that “elementary and necessary reality of life.” From her perspective, we are spiritually in an “age of breath” because Christian, Hebraic, Islamic and Far Eastern cultures all underscore the role of an animating and inspiring breath in their religions, and so these traditions could unite ideally in a “culture of the breath.”
Of breath and the “breath breathing human being,” the poet Rumi denies it custody by any one religion or philosophical perspective. It is “Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu/Buddhist, sufi, or zen.” Its ontological status is redolent with paradox: an oxymoronic nothing strutting along the razor edge separating it from an incipient something; a supremely fulfilling, if ordinary, activity recoiling back gymnastically upon its own apparent emptiness and extraordinariness.
The historical Buddha, however, may be credited with the surprisingly simple but extremely significant discovery and promotion of the power of human breath. His Anapanasati Sutra is devoted to the subject and counsels awareness in this most quotidian of processes. Referring to the monk and his daily practices, the sutra commences with the words, “Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.”
The father of medicine, Hippocrates, also remarks, “there is one common flow, one common breathing,” adding that in this way “all things are in sympathy” (sympatheia ton holon). This claim points to the unity of all beings through the medium of air and its articulation in breath. Chanting, in fact, has been described as a protracted communal exhalation that extends expiration so as to generate higher pressure in the abdomen and lungs.
Another word and idea that might be invoked in a conversation about solidarity and shared breath is “trust,” an invisible bond that has been attenuated, undermined, or lost in recent decades in relation to science, journalism, government, education, and even basic human relationships. How can we restore the loss of such a basic non-tangible social glue, especially in a time of crisis?
Alphonso Lingis points out that when we leave our home or town to live elsewhere, especially in a remote location, we must trust a stranger every day, “someone with whom we have no kinship bonds, no common loyalty to a community or creed, no contractual obligations.” He writes:
Once one determines to trust someone, there is not simply a calm that enters into one’s soul; there is excitement and exhilaration. Trust is the most joyous kind of bond with another living being. But isn’t it true that whenever we enjoy being with someone, there is a factor of risk there, and also a factor of trust, which gives our enjoyment an edge of rapture? There is something erotic in the trust that a skydiver extends to his buddy plummeting after him bringing him his parachute, as there is in the trust that an individual lost in the jungle extends to a native youth. Trust is courageous, giddy, and lustful.
Lastly, Indra’s famous net of jewels, wherein each shining stone reflects, attracts and refracts the other’s light, is another metaphor of our interdependency—one that can both signal the dark suffering that we share but also point beyond to the illuminated beauty of our interconnections. Here, one might creatively tell—or reimagine—a story about a woman who loses her child to illness. Being in near unimaginable grief, she cannot be consoled and so in desperation, eventually consults a figure who lives on the margins of society and who is known to possess deep wisdom. After taking tea, this individual advises the woman to return to town and seek out someone who has not experienced great loss and misery; that person, she is told, will be able to tell her the secret of overcoming unbearable pain.
And, so the childless mother proceeds to visit each and every household in the town. Along the way, she hears many stories of sadness and woe and comes to know many strangers, neighbors, and unusual people who share the intimate and painful tales of their lives. At long last, she does not find a single family that has not experienced great suffering of one kind or another, and she comes to realize her grief is shared, that her misery possesses genuine company, and that others feel empathetically toward her—and she toward them—in a way that lightens her load and allows her once again to find beauty and meaning in the world.
Laughter and Beauty
I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Darkness is a creative matrix for humor, particularly black humor. And it seems to be flourishing in the Pandemic Era. We share cartoons about how dogs want us to stay home indefinitely while cats desire us to reopen the economy so we can get the hell out of the house, go back to work, and leave them alone. We joke about changing our pajamas twice or more a day. Or laugh about toilet paper hoarding.
Covid-19 cartoons and memes proliferate on social media like—dare we say—a virus. Who knew the apocalypse would be so funny . . . or so boring if all we are being asked to do is stay home and watch TV and porn?
We find a never-ending fount of political humor, too, about a President’s limitless incompetency, inveterate lies, malignant narcissism, and gross policy failures. There are jokes, videos, and cartoons about injecting detergents into the body and irradiating patients with UV light; about redrawing the map of the spreading virus with a Sharpie; about Trump wearing a mask over his eyes rather than his mouth and nose; about him spinning a “Wheel of Blame” every day because, as he admits, “I don’t take responsibility at all”; about his laughable ignorance and misrepresentations of science, medicine, geography, diplomacy, and just about anything else you can name or think of.
In times of high anxiety, humor operates as a kind of hydraulic valve: it releases pressure and stress like air escaping from a hot kettle—or maybe a whoopee cushion—thereby making pain more bearable. Freud advanced such a “relief theory” of laughter, arguing that humor permits us to express thoughts that society normally forbids or suppresses when the superego allows the ego to generate it.
Humor can also reveal hidden realities that are harder to acknowledge or share in more direct ways—truths about race, religion, sex, and death in particular. In this way, humor can operate as a kind of disclosure or, alternatively, performance “theory” and practice of truth—wherein truths are revealed or even enacted rather than viewed as propositions that must correspond to an external state of affairs or cohere with one another in a consistent framework.
Humor allows us to look at things from a slightly different angle, like philosophical thought experiments or “what ifs” that can function as conceptual can-openers for the moral, aesthetic, or political imagination. What if cats had opposable thumbs?What if April Fools is just another April Fools joke?What if this planet were a reality TV show for other planets? What if there were no hypothetic questions?
Or, more pointedly, what if we could continue to slow pollution and anthropogenic climate change the way it has occurred accidentally since the pandemic struck? Or what if right wing autocrats would really embrace more “socialist” measures as some of them have temporarily done during the economic lockdown? Or what if all these new joggers and bakers continue to run and bake post-pandemic?
Fat chance, right? Well, maybe . . . if we are unable to escape the Twilight Zone episode or “Groundhog Day” movie that we are currently stuck in.
Further, humor allows us to challenge authority and traditional narratives about the world and, in the process, provides a sense of belonging or solidarity with others. And it can return a sense of control to our disrupted lives. Politicians who prioritize their own well-being or the economy over human lives tend to be mocked and ridiculed, their thoughtless remarks transformed alchemically into thoughtful humor.
We need these sly charms of wit, especially in dark and dimwitted times. As noted, they can help bind us together and entertain us along the way. Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live (or maybe SNL Zoom), Seth Myers, and numerous other comics have risen to the occasion—depending of course on one’s aesthetic tastes or political preferences.
The Borowitz Report in The New Yorker has been especially on target about the current administration and its cast of henchmen and supporters. The titles alone of its “Not the News” short satire pieces are telling: “Fauci begs pharma companies to speed development of anti-narcissism drug”; “Rand Paul says secret to social distancing is making everyone despise you”; “Susan Collins to self-quarantine to avoid possible contact with decisions”; “Murder Hornets doubt they can do as much damage as Trump”; “Trump blames plummeting poll numbers on people who pay attention when he talks”; “Experts believe Coronavirus could be defeated with twenty-fifth amendment”; “Trump says the three things he hates the most are the world, heath, and organization”; and “Trump advises states facing bankruptcy to borrow millions from their dads”.
A large swath of the initial humor about the virus involved subjects such as over-eating (“Anyone else starting to get a tan from the light in the refrigerator?”); drinking too much or too early in the day (“Your quarantine alcoholic name is your first name followed by your last name.”); the pitfalls of Zoom technology (“Not muting your mic is the new ‘reply all’”.); being quarantined with family members (“If the virus doesn’t kill me, being stuck in the house with my husband will.”); or wearing a mask and washing one’s hands (“Are we supposed to be singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the virus or our hands?).
But other opportunities for laughter have arisen along the way. In the cemetery where I run regularly and where others stroll or walk their dogs, someone has posted a sign at the entrance which reads “Six Feet Apart > Six Feet Under”. Again, we need this dark humor and dark beauty. Humor is a coping mechanism, a self-defense strategy, a distraction from the bad news of the day, a way of maintaining our sanity—in short, a form of free therapy.
One widely practiced style of humor is embodied in the “discrepancy theory” which, stated very simply, calls attention to the temporal, spatial, logical, or epistemic gap between what we expect—or what typically occurs—and what actually happens. This breach or hiatus is what makes room for laughter. For example, we see an image of a man drowning in a river with his arm outstretched in the air toward the shore where another person looks on, and this is followed not by what we expect (the man to be rescued) but rather the onlooker stealing the drowning man’s watch instead.
A more particular instance of humorous discrepancy is the experience of the absurd, a phenomenon that Camus explored in non-humorous, philosophical ways. He saw that while we seek meaning in and from the universe (through reason, prayer or love), the universe does not respond. A chasm thereby opens up between what we seek and what we get. Rather than take a “leap of faith” into the void or commit either actual or philosophical suicide, Camus investigated ways that we might learn to live with, accept, or rebel against encounters with the absurd.
In some significant sense, the pandemic heightens the very absurdity of contemporary life. It appears out of the dark, knocks on our doors, and arrests our lives and most of our attention without explanation, like a character in a Kafka story. We are in lockdown but deep down we are not sure why, or where the arresting officer is, or what we are being charged with.
One viable response to this kind of situation is not to hide under the covers or to engage in denial but, rather, to turn to humor, whereby we embrace the absurd itself and the contradictions and confusion that have already embraced us: for example, employing the “Wuhan Shake” that involves touching another’s foot with your foot as an alternative to greeting them with a handshake or allowing penguins to waddle through an art museum and admire the paintings as they did in Kansas City—apparently, they prefer Caravaggio to Monet—when we are unable to do enjoy the art directly ourselves.
The conspiratorial “Plandemic” video that has been watched by millions is by no means itself humorous—or merely absurd—because instead of residing uncomfortably in the gap between reason and non-rationality, it leaps by irrational faith into the void—suiciding itself, so to speak—in a nonsensical attempt to close the gap between the known and the unknown. A cartoon that refers to this video, however, does elicit a bit of laughter: in it, a dog sleeps beside a young man who is speaking on the phone and enthusiastically saying to his friend, “You watched Plandemic yet? You should watch it. It’s TRUE. It’s on YouTube. She’s a doctor. Watch it before it’s deleted, bro!” In the final frame of the cartoon, we observe the formerly napping dog suffocating the same man with a pillow while he himself sleeps at night.
Unfortunately, the current President of the United States has no sense of humor—he rarely if ever laughs—and when he attempts to engage in some semblance of it on Twitter or the campaign trail, it usually takes the form of put down “jokes” that are more cruel than funny. These attempts are bad faith expressions of the supremacy theory of humor, which relies on attacking others in order to elevate oneself and which stands in contrast to denigrating oneself in order to provide others with a laugh—the “inferiority theory” and practice perfected by comics like Rodney Dangerfield.
Curiously, Trump’s own run at the highest office may have been triggered and born from a perceived sense of humiliation or vengeance because he could not—and still cannot—take a joke himself. In 2011, he stewed in anger and embarrassment when Barack Obama and Seth Meyers skewered him in person at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising because I just assumed he was running as a joke,” Meyers quipped.
Many of us are familiar with the terse formula, “Comedy equals Tragedy plus Time.” And there may be some general truth in the equation. But the interesting question arises: how much time? Too little and something is not yet funny. Too much and it is no longer humorous. Jokes about 9/11 are not going to work on 9/12. And jesting today about the War of 1812 or the Black Plague rarely plucks the funny bone either.
Now on the other hand, . . . the War of the Stray Dog (when hostility boiled over between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925 after a soldier crossed the border chasing his runaway dog); or the War of Jenkin’s Ear (when in 1738 a mariner named Jenkins displayed a severed ear in Parliament, spurring Britain to declare war on Spain in 1738); or the Pig War (which commenced in 1859 over an argument about a slaughtered swine) . . . these debacles might still elicit an historically distant guffaw or two when we recall them in the right context at the right time.
Since all of us are potential food for worms while a humorless virus rages happily across the planet, our shared vulnerability permits and even encourages us to jest about deathly serious matters. And this weakness can transform each of us into an occasional stand-up comic—at least in the safety of our own living rooms when they harbor a built-in family audience and a dollop of “loyalty laughter”. Or maybe at minimum through corny “Dad jokes” about the pandemic: “Before the Coronavirus, I used to cough to cover a fart; now I fart to cover a cough” or “Day 3 without Sports. Found a lady sitting on my couch yesterday. Apparently, she is my wife. She seems nice.”
This sort of joking is widely practiced, but there are likely some limits or taboo topics during a pandemic as well. We arguably need the social violations of humor to be benign or non-threatening in order to find them funny. Comedy about respirator deaths, the virus hitting historically vulnerable populations, domestic partner abuse in quarantine situations; or about those currently hospitalized or dying is most likely not going to elicit sympathy or a laugh.
As Virginia Woolf once noted, the world’s beauty possesses “two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” Humor is clearly thriving in this crisis; and so is human angst. However much we might like more of the former and less of the latter, they are both certainly doing better than the nation’s employment figures or the President’s ratings for job performance and empathy. So, alas, perhaps there is still hope for us all. Now, if only we could find a way to get a decent haircut during this lockdown.
It is not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and looking out the window.
Philosophy bakes no bread, or so the saying goes. But many of us who are in kind of prolonged “stay-cation” mode are becoming philosophically pragmatic about the constraints imposed by the virus, and we are finding enjoyment and sustenance in baking not only bread, but cookies, cakes, muffins, and pies.
If beauty can be found in solidarity, artistic pursuits, the natural world, and humor during dark times, it is available to us in more mundane, domestic and everyday expressions as well. Those who are not involved with frontline work or essential jobs but rather sequestered at home are discovering—or rediscovering—the charms and values of cooking, knitting, gardening, phone calls (not just texting) to family and friends, and reading books. Robust online and remote outlets have emerged for yoga, meditation, art, and even dancing—alone together. Bike ridership is surging, as is running—with or without a mask. These responses are creative venues and outlets for our well-being and sources for making the dark times more manageable.
In his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, Cormac McCarthy writes: “No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.” This is counsel, in effect, to stay rooted in the palpable reality of the 24 hours, the still reliable alternations of darkness and light that encircle us and help to define our lives as kind of temporal home no matter how, when, or where we live it.
Many of us are spending an even greater share of our daily day at home than we were three or four months ago. We work at home, dine at home, and play at home. We take classes and exercise at home. We might even joke that we are going to “travel” on the weekend—which amounts to a journey to another room in the house, or a possibly an exotic escape to a location like the balcony or roof or basement—as if that were a short imaginative trip to another land.
All this time in one space, however, might lead us to better appreciate the hidden beauty of a house and home.
Whatever form it assumes, the home is a domestic space and site that is rife with sundry forms of meaning. The home is not merely a physical coordinate on a map—“true places never are,” Melville rightly notes in Moby Dick—it is also a realm for living. The home helps to generate notions of personal identity, social order, and human connectedness along with serving as a sphere of intimacy and privacy. It is a refuge from the elements and a realm of familiarity and security. In many ways, the home is our first universe, a cosmos writ subjective and small.
Gaston Bachelard speaks of the home as an inhabited space of intimacy as he develops a phenomenology of the house, which is a “privileged entity” and “our corner of the world.” Here, images and imagination are intensified so as to cast the structure as a kind of protective or maternal cradle. Thus, we are able to imagine the house—one form of the varied home—both as “vertical being” and “concentrated being” because it rises upward—from basement to attic—and because it appeals to us in terms of its centrality to daily experience.
As an edifice that is tethered closely to our personal memories, the exploration of these sites of our intimate and interior lives can complement psychoanalysis so as to reveal the intricate emotional, psychological, and philosophical meanings of the home in its layered tiers, nooks, and corners, including basements, garrets, bedrooms, and stairways or stairwells. It can lead us as well on an exploration—a sort of guided daydream—of drawers, wardrobes, cupboards, chests, closets, and locks inside the sheltered nest of the house, permitting us to rediscover our childhood in its distant darkness and removed sense of beauty.
If the house is imagined and experienced primarily in terms of verticality, journeys outside of it tend to reside along a more horizontal axis, as lines of flight or forms of circulation rather than as movements of ascension or descension. The home-world must be viewed in dynamic relation to what is beyond it. And this is where the value and aesthetic delights of walking outdoors and appreciating the changing faces of the seasons reside.
During “quarantime,” as I call it, I revel as a witness to the spiders usurping the corners of my kitchen and basement to fashion their own beautiful webbing homes out of gossamer threads. As the human presence wanes in my neighborhood of West Philadelphia, I notice how the opossums who live under my front porch are emboldened to thieve the cat food I place out each evening for strays. The wild and feral cats, in turn, move more freely than usual and take up residence on my back deck. A fledgling from a nest of robins explores the walkway between the neighbor’s house and my own, less afraid that she might normally be.
All across the world, nonhuman animals are stepping forth—crawling, wandering, scurrying, peering—into traditional human territories: dolphins swimming in the Bosphorus in Istanbul; wild boars roaming in Haifa, Israel; buffalo strolling the highway in New Delhi; rats taking up residence in idle car engines; cougars in the streets of Santiago, Chile; mountain goats walking through small towns in Wales; and much more. It’s almost as if the steel bars of many menageries have been broken to create a new kind of urban zoopolis. The air, too, is currently cleaner given that far less driving, less manufacturing, and fewer non-essential services are occurring. These changes will not likely endure very long, but we can certainly take pleasure and inspiration in them while they last.
There is, we are reminded, a larger oikos—an economy and ecology—of beings who are all trying to survive and flourish in their own ways, just like us. And a sense of beauty can emerge in the appreciation of this greater order that surrounds us and upon or through which we are ever dependent and interdependent.
We should realize and acknowledge, of course, that much of the possible appreciation of the home-world depends on the kind of situation and structure—or city and country—in which one resides. Anxieties about rent, safety, or domestic abuse during the pandemic as well as, for example, being in a noisy or cramped apartment, a tin-roofed shack, a basement bedroom, a homeless shelter, or a sleeping bag on a park bench or noisy street do not generally provide the same opportunities for enchantment and oneiric revelation as do stable, well-designed, and more affluent living conditions.
Poor, dear, silly Spring, preparing her annual surprise! — Wallace Stevens
When the Coronavirus hit with full force in the United States, spring was awakening from its seasonal slumber. In the last three months, many of us have paid closer attention to the beauty of the natural world than we have in prior years or seasons. We are perhaps more likely to slow down and notice how “little things run the world,” as evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson has put it, from ants, bees, and beetles to bacteria, fungi, and, yes, viruses.
In recent months, birdwatching, too, has developed a great following, a practice and an art we can engage in alone and with respectful distance from others. The night sky and its bestiary of creatures—“zodiac” means “circle of animals” in ancient Greek—in the wilderness of constellations invites us to gaze up, dream, and organize the cosmos, as well.
Although we may increasingly run our lives on “virus time”—a clock without hands that can dictate and orchestrate what we may or may not do based on safety precautions, legal or work prohibitions, social etiquette, 24-hour “breaking news”, and the inability to plan travel, family visits, or medical appointments—there nevertheless exists a deeper and older sense of time to which we might turn for consolation, orientation, and natural beauty.
Winter, spring, summer, and fall provide us with a lens through which to engage and grasp different senses and scales of time from the geological, biological, and historical to more sensual, mythical, and qualitative modes of temporality that compete, dovetail, or co-exist in specific locations. In addition to offering us both a profound, other-than-human perspective on time, the seasons afford us evanescent surface outcroppings of emplaced beauty through the cadences of changing colors, sounds, temperatures, textures, and smells.
Changes in natural phenomena—rainfall, temperature, humidity, sunlight—trigger and contribute to processes and events that help to define and give voice to the individual seasons: bird migrations, hedgehog hibernation, the blossoming of flowers, the dormancy of plants, ice formations or thaws, color loss or gain in leaves, and the transformation of the Earth’s albedo from brown to white, white to green, or green back to brown.
Sightings of particular species of animals and plants or even individual beings—birds or mammals—are often omens or concrete emblems of the passage of seasonal time: the sleepy or awakening bear at the opening of his cave; the seals and whales arriving en masse to the craggy rocks off the shoreline, the swallows returning each year to San Juan Capistrano, the salmon making their way home to spawn through the chilly, fast-moving waters, or the squawking geese in a V-shaped formation overhead.
We learn to recognize and celebrate the signs: crocuses popping their tiny heads out of the thawing earth to peek around the corner at a timorous spring; apples fruiting in autumn; bees diligently pollinating; or sunflowers stretching their golden heads toward the azure sky in summer.
We encounter spring aesthetically with our attendant senses: when we smell the earthy scent of soil that microbes, known as Streptomyces, release chemically as they warm, or when we hear the whistles and trills of a succession of song birds like the pine warbler or red-winged blackbird as they migrate back into our air spaces.
There are also visual cues provided by animals, who serve as seasonal “indicator species” of a sort: when gray whales return from their 10,000 mile migrations in spring to California and Mexico; when newly-hatched and hungry inchworms dangle or drop from trees along the eastern coast of the U.S.; when fox pups emerge from their dens to explore and play; when baby robins break forth from their blue eggs; and when the browns of autumn and the whites of winter give way to the greens of arriving March and April. Plants, too, have their own circadian clocks and rhythms: they sense when daylight waxes through photoreceptors in their leaves, triggering to themselves—and, by extension, to us—that it is time to flower.
The seasons help to emplace or “platialize” time, which is not tantamount to “spatializing” it—that is, encompassing it within the frame of a clock, watch, sundial, hourglass or calendar. When time is treated in terms of space and portrayed figuratively as an arrow aimed in a single direction or as a linear string with extension, it is often forcibly squeezed or violently stretched, and problems rapidly ensue. By comparison, place-based time is less of an abstraction. The seasons bound and locate temporal continuity and change within a geographical context, climactic setting, or ecological area. Gardens, for example, are physically and etymologically enclosures.
Time is particularized, given shape and form both as a concrescence and in local, more atmospheric ways. The budding or progressively denuded magnolia trees in a park or campus quad embody it; the squirrels anxiously gathering or burying nuts evoke and express it; the fruiting pumpkins or ripening strawberries in a farmer’s field articulate it in their engaging colors, sizes, and scents; the migrating caribou or spawning salmon communicate it as moving emissaries or ambassadors of a place. And humans dancing, singing, harvesting, cooking, and eating—especially during seasonal festivals—celebrate this kind of time when they offer a place to itself through rituals, play, and performances.
The seasons, in turn, leave marks and create traces of their presence and passing, signatures in effect of time. This occurs in tree rings, in fossils, in sidewalk cracks, and in mounds of leaves. It occurs in lengthening shadows crawling up and down a city street. The year is held—even memorialized—in the land, in the scape and shape of the ever-proliferating surface of the earth.
And this, the syntax of time, so to speak, is what we learn to decipher or “read.” If we liken individual plants and animals to the black tufts of letters alighting on a page, particular places become like words; ecosystems emerge as sentences or paragraphs; and the seasons appear as something like chapters of the evolving and revolving year in the great text of the environing world—the “Book of Nature,” as it used to be called.
The notions of repetition and rhythm are also integral to the idea and perhaps even identity or ontology of the seasons. Spring, summer, autumn and winter clearly recur and repeat themselves in some fashion. We witness a revolving and recycling wheel of time with recognizable portents and hallmark signs.
But the spring of 2020 in a given place is not exactly equivalent to the spring of any previous year. The air will be slightly cooler or warmer; the amount and frequency of precipitation will be different; the colors of flora will vary; and fauna will appear in greater or less numbers. (I suspect we will all remember and recall the seasons of 2020 very differently than other times—perhaps as the “lost year of washing our hands and wearing funny masks.”)
Repetition, while serving as a defining mark of an entity or process, need not be construed as sameness or self-sameness. Repetition with difference provides a twist and deepens, in turn, our encounters with the phenomenal world. Here we might even ask: Is this seasonal “twist” somewhat like a Möbius Strip, wherein movement along a looping inside path subtly and slowly changes, eventually becoming an outside as one follows its course?
Experientially, a sense of enchantment and a hint of the sensuous are bound up with encounters of repetition. We take delight and comfort in the beauty of discernable patterns, colors, textures, sounds, and smells. But we are charmed by surprises that break the order and disrupt the familiar so as to interject wonder, awe, or curiosity into the world and our routines. To this extent, when seasonal predictability is upended, we become suddenly engaged: warm days in the dead of winter; snowfall in July; a solar eclipse that brings darkness to the day; unexpected hailstorms; or a night sky replete with shooting stars.
Rhythm likewise involves flux and flow. It expresses time in terms of a musical movement that is punctuated with cultural or biological significance. Here, we can draw a distinction between endogenous and exogenous rhythms, tying these changes to the fluctuations of light, shadow, and darkness. Endogenous rhythms persist even when the environment fails to significantly change. By contrast, exogenous rhythms are linked to the physical changes in the environment and do not continue when external conditions remain constant.
The seasons appear to possess both aspects in an intertwined or chiasmatic way: there are internal or immanent (endogenous) rhythms that drive the seed into the fruit in summer or fall, for example, as well as more externally-expressed (exogenous) rhythms of plants and animals that respond to, for example, elemental changes in light, temperature, water, wind, and soil.
A related way to grasp the seasons is through the oscillating and rhythmic polarities of expansion and contraction. Spring and summer can be understood in terms of the progressive waxing of elemental light and heat as the days grow longer and warmer. By contrast, the solar energy of autumn and winter slowly wanes, and we witness a marked “closing down” of earthly activity with the onset of increasing darkness, cooling, and freezing. In the first two seasons, animals who migrate, hide, or hibernate slowly re-appear and alight; life moves from below ground to the surface and sky. The more interiorized and intimate world—embodied in the cloistered bird nest, bear cave, rabbit hole, or human house—of winter expands and gives way to more exuberant displays outside. Colors brighten; pace quickens; movement becomes more pronounced.
Finally, when the seasons cross into the cultural sphere—or even the geological realm—they might enter near mythic or deep time (duratio permanens). This is the place where Plato speaks of time as “a moving image of eternity”—a “time” in effect outside of conventional or mundane ideas of change. In this regard, the critic Northrop Frye, who has examined poetry and literature to discover archetypal patterns, motifs and symbols, argues that mythically spring is linked most closely with comedy, summer with romance, autumn with tragedy, and winter with irony and satire, points he develops through an analysis of the Bible, works by Shakespeare, ancient Greek plays, and a wealth of classical poetry.
Metaphorically, spring, too, entails an upward or rising movement (as the word “spring” suggests) while autumn is associated with a downward or falling movement (as the word “fall” implies). These cyclical and cosmological symbols are, in turn, associated as well with complex connections to innocence (e.g., rising happiness or humor) and experience (e.g., a tragic “fall” of the hero), along with the four periods of the day (morning, noon, evening, and night) and the four periods of life (youth, maturity, age, and death).
Grappling with the senses of natural time, the naturalist Annie Dillard writes, “Yesterday, I set out to catch the new season, and instead I found an old snakeskin.” Knotted in a loop without beginning or end, the snakeskin becomes an image of lived eternity, an Ouroborus—the snake consuming its own tail, the unending and continuous loop of time itself. “Time,” she speculates, “is an ascending spiral if you will, like a child’s toy Slinky. Of course, we have no idea which arc on the loop is our time, let alone where the loop itself is, so to speak, or down whose lofty flight of stairs the Slinky so uncannily walks.”
There are clearly inner, affective dimensions of seasonality and overlapping ties between human temperaments (dispositions), temporality (time), and temperature (weather). The seasons come and go, materialize and dematerialize, as indefinite cloud-like moods, media, or atmospheres and not just manifest themselves through objects or distinct places. Here, there are connections between seasonal descriptions and elemental language in terms of phenomenological notions such as “ambience” and “attunement”.
The seasons are not beneath or beyond us as transcendental principles or Platonic Forms but rather exist and endure like the weather (over short periods), the climate (over longer periods) or atmosphere (a more permanent, if mutable, presence) as a kind of medium “around” or “surrounding” plants, animals, humans, and elemental entities—an un-thought or under-thought quasi-environment. As they emerge in a given place, the seasons are, in a certain sense, circumambient, depths without clear surfaces, dimensions replete with color, texture, and tempo—metaphorically, something perhaps vaguely or poetically akin to an aesthetic quintessence or “fifth element,” as aither (ether) was once imagined to be.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth,” observes Rachel Carson, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
Waiting for Beauty
One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.
We are in the very midst of a crisis. There is no standpoint apart from this current moment, no history of the present, no outside of this expanding and deepening inside. Our immersion in a confusing and scary “now” makes it relatively opaque, darker than other periods of the past. Kierkegaard apprises us that one of the oddest dilemmas—almost a paradox—of our existence is that while we live life forward, we can only understand it backwards; that is, in hindsight.
Speaking of both our shared evolutionary history and the short spans of our individual lives, Richard Dawkins has written:
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.
Why bother to get up in the mornings? More than a few people have been asking that question of late. Beside the mere force of habit or an instinct for self-preservation, the desire and need for beauty might be as good of a reason as any to drag ourselves out of bed.
My own sense is that most scientists, like most philosophers and artists, are likely motivated more by curiosity, wonder, and beauty than by monetary rewards or fame—at least early in their lives or careers. But it is reasonable to ask whether many of us have lost this sense of wonder and our fascination with the unknown and even started to imagine the latter as a kind of enemy. In times of trouble, many of us are inclined to seek solace in simple or simplistic answers and the seductions or illusions of control rather than to embrace the more difficult wisdom of insecurity and impermanence.
“Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word ‘understanding’,” Werner Heisenberg observed in Physics and Philosophy.
Is any of the aforementioned beauty—or even all of it—worth the cost of a great tragedy playing out on the world stage? Can suffering and death or the loss of livelihoods ever be redeemed? Are we tempted at times to modify a line from Adorno to read, “After the pandemic, no more beauty”? Such kinds of questions are, of course, largely just provocative, rhetorical or counterfactual. We probably can’t make the trade or transaction even if we wished to try.
In the meantime, we wait. We wait for schooling to return, for stores to open, for sports to start back up. We wait for jobs to come back. We wait for social restrictions to be lifted. We wait for a chance to actually hug our children, family members, or friends. We wait for a loved one to leave the hospital and return home. We wait for a vaccine or the next election to “rescue” us. We wait for our next breath.
Sometimes, it seems, we spend our lives in waiting. Waiting for an answer. Waiting for darkness to fall or dawn to rise. Waiting for a train or a bus to appear. Waiting for the gray hair of wisdom or the gentle grace of enlightenment. Waiting for a letter to arrive or damp laundry to dry. Waiting for a call or a lost child to return home. Waiting, at last, to die. (Or just a chance to wait a little longer.)
Waiting: a line + time. A queue with many moments and far-too-many torments before us. Infinity plus one . . . and counting. A crawling traffic jam. A procession that fails to move. It endures . . . and with it, us. We are placed on hold. Held up. Hostages. With a faint spark of faith but a mounting avalanche of resignation. Not quite boredom but not enough cruelty to style it tragic.
Paralyzed in perpetuity. We wait for something. Rarely, if ever, for nothing. Nothing happens. That is of the essence—at the tap, tap, tapping stilled heart of waiting.
Waiting on the tarmac for a plane to lift off. Waiting for the rain to commence. Waiting for the landing. And the storm to subside. Waiting for a prayer to be addressed, or a throbbing ache to be numbed, and perhaps all of this to be erased.
Such waiting, however, needs not be entirely passive and, further, it is not necessarily devoid of wisdom or beauty. On first blush, waiting appears to be the very antithesis of the joy and ecstasy—what many of us want in a time of crisis. Waiting’s hallmark is interiority and patience. Ecstasy’s is openness and otherness. The former demands self-control; the latter relinquishes it. But each is an interruption in the flow of familiar time. Waiting tends to arrest motion, change, and the continuous course of things. Ecstasy, by contrast, involves an aesthetic transfiguration of time that can issue forth in a new experience of fluidity and becoming-other.
Waiting, in fact, may be a kind of en-stasis—a “standing-within-oneself” in the sense of self-contemplation rather than an ek-stasis and an engagement with alterity.
Waiting for love entails a peculiar form of patience. Intense but attenuated. In this sense, it might offer lessons related to beauty or insights for our dark times. Eroticism is often born of delay, tested by tedium, and nurtured on exhaustion. “Will he ask me?” “When will she come back into my world?” “How will I know this is true?” A lottery for which no ticket may be purchased, though with fortune one might be chosen. Do not, however, mistake the sound of your heartbeat for the hooves of approaching horses. So warns an ancient proverb.
We might attune ourselves to the aesthetic dimensions and even possible enchantments of waiting, especially when it concerns love. Roland Barthes noticed that there is often a “scenography” at work here. As we wait for a beloved, we imagine a drama with a given setting and scenes that are played out in our impatient minds. Alas, we are the solitary actor in this play, which perhaps occurs inside a café, where we wait with anticipation for a rendezvous. Act I: Concern or confusion. Where is she? We wonder whether there might be a misunderstanding about the agreed place and time. Act II: Anger. How dare she not show? Act III: Anxiety and grief due to a sense of loss or abandonment. Is she dead? These action-less “acts” of waiting may continue to evolve unless or until the play ends swiftly with the other’s arrival: in Act I (a calm embrace), in Act II (either a heated “scene” or a gracious greeting), or in Act III (surrender or departure).
“Am I in love?”, Barthes inquires. “Yes, since I’m waiting,” he replies to himself. Despite attempts to defeat this emotional logic by arriving late or busying oneself with distractions, we begin to acknowledge a cruel truth: “The other never waits.” Have we then also discovered a secret to the lover’s doomed identity? Indeed, yes, insofar as we recognize a discomfiting reality: “I am the one who waits.” In closing, Barthes offers us a small enigmatic parable:
A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.” But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.
What to make of this story? Did the mandarin grow tired of waiting? Or did he find a way to reverse the trajectory of desire, the longing for the future to be present? We know that seduction depends upon coldness more so than heat. It coolly, calmly, and inexorably draws both the flame and the moth to its object precisely as it shrinks or scuttles away. Like innocence or indifference, absence can be a great aphrodisiac, the bait that lures others into extended bouts of waiting.
The ever-small measures endemic to the practice of waiting are often conducive to—even necessary for—the rapid burst of change that may arrive much later. Like an unexpected tsunami that builds imperceptibly and in increments in the deep ocean of our lives, such discipline can result in a tipping point and then great overflowing avalanche, a wave of insight, bliss, or rapture.
Think here of the vaunted “10,000 Hour Rule,” the idea that mastery in a field such as music, athletics, chess, computer programming, or science requires approximately ten thousand hours (roughly 20 hours per week for ten years) of diligent practice. However controversial this claim, the ecstatic performances and achievements that eventually come for great or world-class artists, athletes, writers and scientists are no doubt often the result of long, slow growth periods, serious dedicated focus, and patient maturation processes.
Or consider the famous marshmallow experiment with young children—one that correlates well with predicted success later in life—wherein oral delight is deferred and then doubled by a period of mandated waiting and delayed gratification. Here, the cultivated ability or learned discipline to defer immediate desire for a single sugared treat can signal greater rewards down the road.
Rather than being construed merely as a form of postponement—a kind of procrastination by time itself—waiting might be reconceived as a type of mindfulness and attentiveness—an aesthetic awakening to detail, nuance, and depth—a protracted preparation for possible transcendence, and the emotional, epistemic, or spiritual break that may eventually come to be. In this sense, waiting is not a recipe for boredom—“a tame longing without any particular object,” in the words of Schopenhauer—but an opportunity for subtle observation or introspection.
In other words, we might try (or, better, try not to try) waiting as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. Simply wait, as opposed to waiting for something in particular. Let go of attachments to possible consequences, goals or results, which are usually beyond our control. Merely listen and observe what arrives. This idea is set forth in Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Wait”:
Wait, for now./Distrust everything if you have to./But trust the hours. Haven’t they/carried you everywhere, up to now?/Personal events will become interesting again./Hair will become interesting./Pain will become interesting./Buds that open out of season will become interesting./Second-hand gloves will become lovely again.
Following Heidegger, we can invoke a distinction between awaiting, which has an object and is thus involved in representation, and genuine waiting, which is not tied to distinct ends or expectations because it “releases itself into openness” and a “letting be” (Gelassenheit) of what is coming. In Heideggerian terms, the former is part of “calculative thinking” (which plans and seeks goals), whereas the latter belongs to “meditative thinking” (which is non-willing and hence able to think the truth of being). Alternatively, we might state this distinction as a prepositional difference between waiting for (which is bound to human needs, expectations, and intentions) and waiting upon (which is open to what is given or what comes as a kind of gift).
We might recall here the story of the Buddhist monk who was commissioned by the emperor to make a Sumi-e ink painting of bamboo. Curiously, the monk kept putting off the task for years until by fiat he was forced to perform the work. He then proceeded to produce a beautiful picture with a few quick strokes of the brush. When asked why he waited and did not create this image much earlier, he replied that he was living with and learning from the bamboo, studying it, remaining open to its essence, and positioning himself for the perfect ecstatic moment to express and embody the long period of meditation and more immediate inspiration.
In Hermann Hesse’s novella, Siddhartha, a young man born into a wealthy Brahmin family in the Hindu tradition, abandons his home to wander the world as a mendicant ascetic for many years. At one point, he announces with bravado to a querulous merchant that he can do three things: he can think; he can fast; and he can wait. With no worldly possessions, he is thereby able to reign in his mind (thinking), command bodily desire (fasting), and fashion a robust and healthy relation to time itself (waiting).
Through self(less) rule and discipline—what the ancient Greeks called askesis—he is able to attain his enlightenment and his bliss. Through practiced meditation and “waiting,” he achieves an awakening—the becoming of the Buddha—and this serves as the basis for his ecstatic emancipation and release (moksha for the Hindu and Nirvana for the Buddhist) from the normal cycle of time. Within Buddhism, such patience is in fact considered one of the “perfections” toward which we should aim in seeking wisdom. And it appears not only to mean being able to endure difficulties or bear suffering but also a commitment to not returning harm to another.
Some contemporary and conceptual artists also tarry with the complexities of focused waiting as preparation for ecstatic discovery. In “The Artist is Present,” Marina Abramović sits directly across a table from individual visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an indefinite period of time. She and they wait and watch and wait some more for an epiphany to occur, or for tears to flow, or a guffaw of laughter and a mutual recognition to happen, or something else entirely and wholly unexpected to arise in these primal but increasingly uncommon face-to-face encounters with another human being: https://vimeo.com/72711715
Andy Goldsworthy, by contrast, waits patiently through winter for brief moments of ecstasy that might emerge two full seasons hence. During the cold months in Scotland, he creates gigantic one-ton snowballs, which he keeps in refrigerated storage. Months later, on a warm summer night, Goldsworthy transports them quietly into London’s financial district, where he deposits them on the sidewalks. In the dawning day, Londoners gaze or gawk at these “sculptures” with a mixture of fascination, admiration, and amusement.
Pedestrians are provided with a temporary tie to a different place and seasonal time: the outlying countryside and the vanished winter. As the snowballs melt and evaporate, their interiors reveal a smattering of surprises: pinecones, seeds, feathers, branches, barbed wire, stones, or wool. For five more days, the artist and public observe the action of wind, heat, and human hands on the changing size, texture, color, and shape of the snowballs, which themselves are unusual ecstatic objects, standing out as they do serenely against the steamy breath of summer, against the pell-mell movements and busy-ness of the modern city, generating child-like wonder and a playful release.
I wonder: do we need a few beautiful snowballs of a sort to get through the coming pandemic summer?
It is rumored that the Lakota have no words to express waiting or lateness. Do they still experience these untimely things? Must we, in turn, amputate the hands of our clocks? Smash the invisible hourglasses everywhere around us? Torch the very calendars we reckon the days upon?
Waiting is intimate; it means growing familiar with the stranger inhabiting one’s self, and the oddity of one’s thoughts. It courts the complexities of Being more than the complications of Doing. Imagine: a being who is un-doing. Being undone.
Picture: slow drying paint. The whistle on the kettle that doesn’t. The doorbell that is un-ringing.
Another cup of coffee. One more cigarette. A last stab at an uncompleted crossword puzzle. (What else is there to do?) One down. The impossible, unsolved question: A seven-letter word that means not only “to wait” but also “to hope”? (Hint: Spanish)
Yes, that seems fitting, and to fit. Elegant, if fleeting. A silence spoken. Will the heavy wait finally be lifted?
But how could you live and have no story to tell? ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
Artists, musicians, photographers, writers, and many other individuals have been responding creatively to these dark times. We have been making pinatas in the shape of the Coronavirus so that children may playfully take aim at and bash them with hockey sticks or golf clubs while teetering in blindfolds beneath the branches of a backyard tree. We have been recreating and humorously reimagining famous paintings with our bodies and belongings and then posting these creations to social media sites.
We have been playing songs and sharing live guitar music on the Internet. We have been making artful posters about the pandemic and pasting them to barren walls in the neighborhood. And quarantined Italians are singing proudly and loudly to each other as a bawdy chorus from their balconies each spring evening.
Thousands of people have been asking their Facebook friends what their favorite books or music albums or travel destinations are, and passing this request and information along to others. In this small way, a narrative thread is kept alive and elongated. We need to share our stories with others, almost as if to confirm our very own existence itself, especially while we are “locked up” or left alone. Perhaps this is why many prisoners or men and women at war invest themselves so heavily in letter writing. It is a deep need and beautiful longing to stay in touch or stay sane.
Stories and storytelling are one extremely important form of aesthetic expression—at once distraction, entertainment, and inspiration during troubling times. In the Decameron, written circa 1353 and set during the time of the Black Death, Boccaccio shares the long narrative of ten young people who flee infested and ravaged Florence to spend ten days—roughly the length of the current quarantine period for infection—in a deserted villa outside the city. There, they survive the plague by engaging in elaborate storytelling, all told a collection of 100 tales through which they cycle.
These stories move each day through various themes and tones: human vice, triumphant fortune, tragic love, happy endings, wit, deceit, and untrammeled license, among multiple others. And the parallels between the Covid-19 crisis and the Decameron’s Black Death opening scenes are legion: from stories of revelers celebrating in debauchery to those cowering in fear or retreating to isolation as society collapses. Corpses lay strewn; some folks take up herbal remedies; others walk about with nosegays before their faces (like masks) to shunt the disease away.
In recent months, I have written a story myself—part of a trilogy of fairy tales for adults and curious children—that addresses the climate change crisis by focusing on the fate of a forest that houses talking trees and a donkey, who is the narrator. It has at least helped me to work through some of my own thoughts and feelings about living in a slowly unfolding disaster, and maybe even vaguely prepare myself for the possible “plots”, intrigue, drama, loss, and resolution of the present one:
“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,” Hannah Arendt observes. We are invariably drawn to the power of stories, and even continue to tell them to ourselves as we sleep and dream. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron notes that “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.”
What is the best, most accurate, or most compelling narrative for this crisis? Does it rely on human heroes and villains and an invisible, powerful antagonist? Will the drama end happily or in tragedy? Or even end at all? Can we recast it as a comedy? What if it continues into many seasons, like a cringeworthy television series that has long outlived its welcome?
There are already many conflicting stories about the pandemic. Some are based in science; some are based in anger; and others are based in flights of fancy. Almost all of them are rooted in pain or loss as well as some kind of hope for redemption or restoration, which always exacts a price.
We need to remind ourselves that parables, myths, and allegories were present at the inception of philosophy’s emergence in both the West and East. From Zeno’s paradoxical tales to Plato’s enduring myths; from the fables of ancient Hinduism to the puzzling kōans of Zen Buddhism, these brief aesthetic and philosophical stories helped to convey complex ideas, evoke questions about knowledge, beauty and goodness, and generate curiosity, wonder, and debate. Over time, however, such short narratives were increasingly marginalized or displaced as reliance upon more formal uses of reason, analysis, logic, and argumentation grew.
Philosophy—and, with it, other disciplines—presently needs engaging stories because it has arguably become overly analytic and too ahistorical in its orientation and style. Difficult ideas, challenging truths, and life-altering experiences are often best transmitted in short narrative form so as to open up conversation and reflection or to illustrate multi-faceted viewpoints and abstract theories. The parables of Plato, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus, and Taoist sages as well as the short aesthetic tales of philosophical writers like Kafka, Borges, and Dostoevsky suggest how we might conceivably “re-story” and, by extension, restore philosophy to a more relevant place in the contemporary world.
William Gass observes: “So much of philosophy is fiction. Dreams, doubts, fears, ambitions, ecstasies.” “No novelist,” he avers, “has created a more dashing hero than the handsome Absolute, or conceived more dramatic extrications—the soul’s escape from the body, for instance, or the will’s from cause.” He continues:
A novelist may pin a rose to its stem as you might paper a tail to its donkey, the rose may blush at his command, but the philosopher can elevate that reddening from an act of simple verbal predication to an angel-like ingression, ennobling it among Beings. The soul we must remember, is the philosopher’s invention, as thrilling a creation as, for instance, Madame Bovary.
According to Gass, fiction is more vital to philosophy than the reverse. At the same time, novelists might learn more from philosophers, who have been “lying longer.” “Though philosophers have written the deeper poetry, philosophy has drawn to it the inartistic and the inarticulate, those of too mechanical a mind to move theirs smoothly, those too serious to see, and those too fanatical to feel.”
With the demise of philosophical systems and grand meta-narratives, one response might be for thinkers and writers to become more personal and their approach to philosophy to be more lyrical and anti-systematic. In this regard, Susan Sontag notes, “the starting point for the modern post-philosophic tradition of philosophizing is the awareness that the traditional forms of philosophical discourse have been broken.” She maintains that “what remain as leading possibilities are mutilated, incomplete discourse (the aphorism, the note or jotting) or discourse that has risked metamorphosis into other forms (the parable, the poem, the philosophical tale, the critical exegesis).”
In short, might we restore the story in order to seduce ourselves to another kind of truth. . . and an older but perennial form of beauty?
Barry Lopez highlights insightfully one last value of storytelling:
The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.
That is a good place to end . . . and also to begin.
The Beauty of Silence
What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy.
—Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The streets, towns, and cities of the world have grown much less crowded and less noisy during the pandemic. There is a serene beauty at times to the silence and solitude that has emerged. It is a little like the experience we have following a heavy snowfall when we move about quietly: shoveling the sidewalk, digging our cars out from packed mounds of soiled snow, trudging to the store for groceries, or journeying to the park in order to watch our kids sledding down a hill or engaging in snowball fights.
Almost every day, I run or ride my bike through the streets of Philly. I have only driven my car several times in the last three months—and then just very short distances—mostly to make sure it is still working properly and free of small animals who may have taken up residence under the engine hood.
I also walk, run, and wander about in the Woodlands Cemetery, a local necropolis where, among many other inhabitants, the realist painter Thomas Eakins is buried. I think about his paintings from the late 1800’s, particularly The Gross Clinic and The Clinic of Dr. Agnew, which provide detailed anatomical and medical views of the surgical theater at the time and the attempts by multiple physicians to treat and heal anesthetized patients.
There, I also tend to reflect upon both death and beauty because they are kindred pairs in most graveyards, especially in spring when the trees are sprouting leaves and small creatures are scampering about. In the Woodlands, there are “grave gardeners” who tend to the flower beds they have planted next to or upon old and often illegible tombstones and graves all throughout the cemetery, which is the setting for one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels, The Signature of All Things, as well.
As I round an elegant bend in the cemetery path on a walk or a timed run, I sometimes remind myself that I am still vertical while “they”—the dead—are horizontal. On one such trip along the perimeter, I witnessed immediately in front of me a darkly beautiful event: a red-tailed hawk swooped down to the ground and plucked up a large squirrel in his talons before ascending again to the treetops. Death, flight, and life-sustaining food were united in one single and awe-ful instant.
Such quiet walks and runs help to calm the nerves and provide a form of focused meditation for me and many others. During the “lockdown,” regular walking is in fact becoming a widely practiced and safe form of individual movement about our neighborhoods that offers needed silence, exercise, relaxation, and freedom. It serves, moreover, both as an escape from the confines of the house and a way of experiencing the sensuous beauty of the natural and built environments—in parks, along waterfronts, through architecture, on beaches, beside empty streets, and in forests that might be available to one on a quiet stroll.
Many of us are paying closer attention to the beautiful tweets, chirps, and songs of residential birds because their sounds are more distinct and pronounced when our own technological noises are quieted and our interior mental chattering is stilled. Lawn mowers, leaf blowers, street traffic, jackhammers, car horns, and the din and drums of construction have waned. And the relative silence has been ear-opening.
There are, of course, many different forms of silence, and a few writers and even several composers like John Cage have helped us to understand the many expressions and values of these acoustic breaks. In his poem, “Silence,” Billy Collins writes:
There is the sudden silence of the crowd / above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid. /The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the ﬂoor, / the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.
The stillness of the cup and the water in it, / the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.
The silence when I hold you to my chest,/ the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away./ And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen, / a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house— /the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.
And the novelist and social critic Paul Goodman echoes some of these observations about aural repose and the stilling of sound:
There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.
There is even the visual silence and solitude of paintings by artists like Edward Hopper, whose work has found a kind of brief renaissance and even practical use during the Coronavirus “era” since it invites reflection upon emptiness and being alone in traditionally occupied settings.
These disparate pauses, which clear room for moments of listening and contemplation, are being offered to many of us during the pandemic. They are low fruit for the taking, and they are opportunities for sustenance that should not be passed by.
That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination might well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them —Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times
We have an immense challenge before us. But we still possess significant resources and a few creative ways to illuminate the darkness. We also have a great opportunity: an actual chance provided by a major visible crisis to change parts of the world for the better if we can learn to overcome our past mistakes, our short-term memories, and our many forms of blindness. A tall social, political, and personal task to be sure.
I have not tried here to offer any kind of unified or coherent theory of beauty; in fact, I tend to doubt there is or needs to be one. Rather, I have attempted more modestly to identify just a few outcroppings of beauty as well as to suggest several loose possible aesthetic or philosophical responses to the crisis in which we suddenly discover ourselves. There are many names for and expressions of beauty, which often arrives unbidden, survives accompanied by trauma or pain, and departs having transformed who we are.
If beauty is indeed a deep desire and personal need in our lives, it may be valuable, for example, to revisit and perhaps revise Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs in order to better account for its important place, no matter where we find ourselves in a pyramid of physical and psychological requirements.
Is there also a vast mountain of ugliness—even abject horror and monstrosity—available to us in this pandemic? Without question, yes. Much can and should be said not just about the suffering and death that are occurring but also the fear, panic, depression, loneliness, racism, unemployment, inequalities in health care, inability to grieve properly, and so many other matters. I have elected instead to train a flickering candle on a few ways that we might better endure and muddle through this crisis together while, at the very same time, addressing the absolutely real, vital, and darker concerns.
There is something also to be said for attempts to transcend, however temporary, the immediacy of our suffering; that is, if we are fortunate enough to be able to make the effort. Here, the complex question can be raised whether a notion or sense of the sublime—or even “sublime indifference”—which lies outside or beyond an experience of the beautiful can perform any valuable work in addition to needed forms of practical reason, mutual aid and support, and social criticism. (“Criticism will be love or will not exist,” André Breton once remarked.)
Given that the virus likely has origins in the biological world, even if its rampage has been facilitated and magnified by human responses, we might be inclined to gesture toward an idea of the sublime. After all, isn’t everything “beautiful” in a strange way from a great height . . . or from a long temporal distance? Or, at least, isn’t it somehow sublimely acceptable, tolerable, or understandable?
It might depend in part, of course, on your level of magnification. Do you view the world through a microscope or a telescope, or maybe more aesthetically through a colorful kaleidoscope? Or do you just see it through ordinary everyday eyes?
For some, a pandemic might exhibit features of the sublime, being an event that routinely engenders at once both wonder and existential worry, or at least discomfort—a peculiar sense of awe coupled with the suspicion of something conceivably awful. The sheer magnitude can generate feelings of our own smallness and finitude in a vast universe, as well as provide us with an experience of amazement.
Kant distinguished two forms of the sublime: the mathematical (being overwhelmed by great size) and the dynamical (being overwhelmed by great force). Following Kant, we might say, for example, that whereas daylight is beautiful in its ability to “charm” us, night is sublime to the extent it can “move” us.
The sheer immensity beyond our capacity to compare or fully comprehend it, along with the near boundlessness and unrecognizable formlessness of a pandemic can trigger our sensibilities to oscillate swiftly between aesthetic extremes. And it can cause our feelings to shift quickly between the emotional poles of repulsion from and even attraction to death, especially during widespread panic.
Nietzsche suggests we take a perspectival step backwards or, better, a few giant steps upward when he announces, “He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.” Another aphoristic thinker who wrote and lived in the heart of darkness, Emil Cioran, asks: “What would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us his?”
In other words, it can be helpful to remove ourselves from too much personal involvement in suffering and try instead to witness the world and our own lives in a more detached manner. In Camus’ novel The Plague, a work that many are now revisiting, we read: “‘Who taught you all this, doctor?’ The reply came promptly: ‘Suffering’”.
In time, we humans will most certainly go extinct—unless we merge ourselves with technology before then—like almost every other species has before us. The challenge with the issue raised above about transcending suffering and rising about the protracted painful moment is that we do not live our lives at the geological or astronomical scale. We live them more immediately in biological and existential flux, bound by a rough period of 70 or 80 years if we are lucky. Within that framework, we understandably seek to reduce our suffering and prolong our very existence, which can also inadvertently extend our pain as well.
Still, if encounters with the sublime give rise to feelings of danger and terror, they can also possess a strange allure or even delight. As Kant observed, “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.”
The Tao Te Ching, however, cautions us about making too simple assessments and too quick value judgments: “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.”
On this point, a final question can be posed—although not here answered—about the thorny relationship of beauty to goodness and how aesthetics dovetails or diverges from ethics and politics in interesting or unusual ways. To perform one’s duty is typically a thing of merit. We might think in this regard very generally of certain professions and personal roles, especially those of parents, teachers, medical personnel, soldiers, journalists, firemen, but also bricklayers, mailmen, and bus drivers, and many others.
However, duty-based views of ethics can appear inadequate in periods like the present. Praise and, with it, beauty of a different order can arise from the sacrifices undertaken that lie past the sphere of the obligatory. Such actions occupy a philosophical space known as the supererogatory, a realm that exceeds duty. Actions here are, in short, praiseworthy but not required.
In the current pandemic, many doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, in particular but not exclusively, have risked their lives and gone beyond what is expected of them. Many of these individuals have shown exceptional courage, generosity, commitment, and patience that might only be described as beautiful. The same thing, of course, might be said, of individuals who put themselves in harm’s way to save a drowning person or donate an organ to a stranger or run into a burning house to rescue a child.
As Shakespeare writes in the Merchant of Venice, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
As a Utilitarian philosopher concerned with human and animal suffering, Peter Singer points out: “Were we incapable of empathy—of putting ourselves in the position of others and seeing that their suffering is like our own—then ethical reasoning would lead nowhere. If emotion without reason is blind, then reason without emotion is impotent.” But one might also point to the cultivated virtues of human character—a more Aristotelian framework of ethics—that can rise to the challenge in a crisis and be revealed in their beauty through public action.
As a loose and provocative “rule”, it might be said that in fortunate times and in societies with extensive freedom, everything is permitted but nothing matters, whereas in dark times and societies with few liberties, very little—or less—is permitted, but everything matters. Where, we might inquire, do we reside now relative to these admitted extremes?
In troubled times, when freedom contracts and suffering expands, we need the clarity not only of practical visionaries but the deeply moral voices of citizen leaders in whom we can locate exceptional courage or generosity. Figures who stand out and stand up to provide selfless models and to serve as agents of transformation.
This is where people like Lobsang Tenzin, Malala Yousafzi, Greta Thunberg, Rosa Parks, Susan B Anthony, Chief Joseph, Paul Robeson, and Frederick Douglas come to mind, but also the efforts of countless unnamed and unknown individuals who throw sacks of sand on the banks of a flooding river or carry bags of food to distant people in the dead of night. Or work exhausting extra shifts in the hospital in order to save or prolong another life.
Currently, there is even a vicarious and contagious sense of beauty that can emerge and flourish when, for example, we witness New Yorkers collectively clapping, honking, or banging pans and pipes each evening at 7 PM to honor frontline workers who might be leaving their shifts to go home and get a meal and a few hours of sleep.
In a Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit has explored how communities often arise from and respond admirably to great calamities. By investigating disasters like the San Francisco earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Halifax explosion, 9/11 in New York City, the air bombings in London during World War II, and the earthquake in Mexico City, she shows how many people create and find networks of mutual support, meaning, and even joy in the challenging work of building, mending, and restoring their towns and cities. There are deep moments of generosity, collaboration, and altruism that frequently emerge during the immense pain and grief, ones that provide implications and hope for those living amidst the present crisis.
Solnit speaks of disaster in terms of a “crash course” in Buddhist ideas of “compassion for all beings, of nonattachment, of abandoning the illusion of one’s separateness, of being fully present, of awareness of ephemerality, and of fearlessness or at least aplomb in the face of uncertainty.” And she writes of the surprise she discovers when she asks people about the catastrophes they have endured, finding on “many faces that retrospective basking as they recount tales of Canadian ice storms, midwestern snow days, New York City blackouts, oppressive heat in southern India, fire in New Mexico . . . and a strange pleasure overall.”
While a disaster—from the Latin words meaning “without a star” and implying disorientation in the universe—is fundamentally tragic and grievous, Solnit is right to claim that we should not ignore the constructive possibilities and side-effects a catastrophe can also produce: desires for social change, for inclusion, for purpose, for civic life, and for experiences of joy that can accompany rebuilding and survival.
Along with many others, I can attest myself to this truth, having experienced a number of serious floods that wrecked my childhood home and having lived in China during the student uprisings and subsequent massacre in Tiananmen Square.
In the end, beauty is a fragile fortune and a key value among related others. It offers us a small shimmering hope of finding accord with the world or tranquility in our individual lives. In a secular society, we might even wonder if it is a suitable replacement for religion or a supplement for spirituality. Perhaps the best form of beauty, however, is what Nietzsche compares to a “slow arrow”:
The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating . . . but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing.
In a dangerous time, with no clear exit or terminus on an expanding horizon, it makes sense to carry such a slow arrow in the heart’s quiver as we proceed through the darkness.
© David Macauley