The Truth About Beauty

[V]erse is ‘made.’ But the word ‘make’ is unsufficient for a true poem. ‘Create’ is unsufficient. All words are insufficient. Because of this. The poem exists before it is written.

That, I didn’t get. “Where?”

T.S. Eliot expresses it so – the poem is a raid on the inarticulate. I, Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, agree with him. Poems who are not written yet, or not written ever, exists here. The realm of the inarticulate. Art” – she put another cigarette in her mouth, and this time I was ready with her dragon lighter – “fabricated of the inarticulate is beauty. Even if its themes is ugly. Silver moons, thundering seas, clichés of cheese, poison beauty. The amateur thinks his words, his paints, his notes, makes the beauty. But the master knows his words is just the vehicle in who beauty sits. The master knows he does not know what beauty is. Test this. Attempt a definition now. What is beauty?”

(From Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell)

I read this to my class the other day. And then I stopped and challenged them as Madame Crommelynck, the aged Belgian artiste, challenges her protegé Jason, the 13-year-old would-be poet: define beauty.

Here’s how I picture Madame.

My students couldn’t do it either. They did try, and they were annoyed with me when I disagreed with their assertions, but their answers didn’t work, not entirely. One said, “Every thing is beautiful,” because someone, somewhere, perceives it as such. I asked her if murder could be beautiful, and she said it could, to someone. But I beg to differ: I think anyone who considers murder “beautiful” is also murdering the word “beauty,” making it entirely meaningless. The same goes for any other extreme example: if we broaden the meaning of the word so much that it includes everything, then it means nothing. One argued that beauty is the “absorption of enjoyment.” I took that, like the previous attempt, to be too broad, too all-inclusive; I said, “Have you ever REALLY had to pee? When you finally get to go, isn’t that experience enjoyable?” He nodded. “But it isn’t beautiful,” I argued, though he continued to defend his definition, using enjoyable now as a synonym.

There’s nothing beautiful about that.

He was smart: he used a turkey sandwich as his example, saying that eating a turkey sandwich when you were craving one is a beautiful experience; in the right moment – around 1:00 in the afternoon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when you have leftover turkey and some good bread – I would indeed take that as proof, and have my answer. But I don’t believe enjoyable is the same thing as beautiful. Enjoyment is too simple to include all of beauty; it’s like saying that life is breathing. Sure, that’s part of it, and an important part; but it is unsufficient.


I give you the ‘Murrican turkey sandwich.



Several of my students gave some permutation of Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, arguing that there is no intrinsic quality of beauty, but only what we construct through our individual subjective perceptions. I agree with that, but it is also true that there are certain sights, certain experiences, that are considered beautiful by many people, even people that have otherwise nothing at all in common: the night sky, a lullaby, love. There is such a thing as beauty, and we respond to it not as individuals with unique subjective perceptions, but as human beings with a shared consciousness and universal experiences: because we are all alive in the same sense, with the same five senses in the same universe. Madame Crommelynck agrees:

When beauty is present, you know. Winter sunrise in dirty Toronto, one’s new lover in an old cafe, sinister magpies on a roof. But is the beauty of these made? No. Beauty is here, that is all. Beauty is.”


But Madame and I differ on this: she also tells Jason that beauty is immune to definition. I disagree. She gets into Platonic forms, saying that the potter that has made a beautiful vase has made the vase where beauty resides, but not the beauty itself; that’s true, but unfair, because the beautiful object has captured beauty, it reflects and contains beauty, and that is as much as human creation can ever do. It’s not our fault that the universe existed before us, and so too did whatever ideal that we call beauty. When we make a piece of beauty, something that echoes in its limited physical or experiential form the immortal beauty that resides in the inarticulate – the beauty that is – then our efforts, too, echo the first creation of existence, the coming into being of beauty as a potential quality. It is fair to say that we have made beauty if it is fair to say we make anything.

Our disagreement on this is easy to explain, though: she is speaking to a student. Teachers have to lie to students. When my math teacher told me that you can’t take a big number away from a small number, she was lying, because it wasn’t time for us to study negative numbers yet. When teachers tell students they cannot use the word “I” in a formal essay, it isn’t actually because one cannot use the word “I” in a formal essay, it is because there are various bad habits that writers have (The tendency to rely too much on subjective opinion rather than on evidence, for example; something that I do all the time. But it’s much harder to say “This is true because I think it is” when one cannot say “I;” the line “This is true because one thinks it is” or “Some people believe this is true” doesn’t have nearly the same pizzazz. Not nearly the same beauty.) that can frequently be eliminated by this rule; and if teachers set the rule like the word from on high, carved in stone by a burning bush, then they don’t have to get into the explanations about the bad habits. It’s simpler and keeps the teacher from losing too much time arguing with the students. Madame Crommelynck wants Jason to stop trying so hard to make his poems beautiful; she tells him, “A touch of beauty enhances a dish, but you throw a hill of it into the pot! No, the palate becomes nauseous.” And then, more beautifully put, “You belief a poem must be beautiful, or it can have no excellence. […] Beauty is not excellence. Beauty is distraction, beauty is cosmetics, beauty is ultimately fatigue.” She doesn’t want to explain precisely what beauty is, how we can identify it, what it means; she just wants him to stop thinking about it. So she tells him an absolute rule: beauty cannot be defined.

Well, Madame, I don’t believe in absolute rules (Except when I do.). I tell my students they can use “I” in an essay, and they can start sentences with “and” and “but” and “because,” and they can take big numbers away from small numbers, dammit!

And we can define beauty. Even if the words may be unsufficient.

Here we go.

Let’s start with basic principles. Beauty is abstract, but like love and unlike cliche, it can be experienced concretely: it is detected by the senses, most frequently but not exclusively sight for we humans. This means there is a biological, physical element to it. Just as love is, on some level, a chemical reaction in the brain that offers a survival advantage, so is beauty, at least when applied to another of one’s own species. A beautiful shrew, to another shrew, is one that represents a survival advantage; it is an advantage for the survival of one’s genes, not one’s own precious self, but the instincts are all about that DNA.

Now that’s a beautiful shrew.

So beauty in a Darwinian sense is a list of physical attributes (physical because concrete, detectable by senses) that represent a good breeding partner: symmetry of form and features, traits that connote health, traits that represent child-rearing strengths. Marilyn Monroe was beautiful because she was symmetrical, had healthy skin and hair and teeth and eyes, and had curves that showed good baby-making potential.

Plus, if I may quote Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job: “I mean, [she] got the badonkadonk out back and some fine bajoopbadangs up front, know what I’m sayin’, dog? Buss a rock wid a playa?” Word, Mr. Moore. Word.

See? Look how symmetrical.

Beauty is more than that, though. Because sunsets and symphonies and the smell of rain have nothing to do with child-rearing.

I’m going to take this as the point where humans and animals diverge. Not because I can say with any surety that animals don’t enjoy the sunset for the sake of the colors and the patterns in the sky, but because without language, I can’t be sure that they do, nor why they do. My dog loves to chase the innumerable tiny lizards that scatter across the desert where we live, but is he appreciating their coloration, the quickness and grace of their movements? Or is he thinking about how good they’d taste on a cracker?

And if he is, is that not beauty? The turkey sandwich argument speaks to this: deliciousness is a form of beauty detected by taste rather than sight, isn’t it? So there must be some element of beauty in a turkey sandwich, in a delicious lizard-on-Ritz hors d’oeuvre?

I would say so, but again, I think that it is the simple, animal form of beauty, the survival beauty, in most cases. I’ve eaten a lot of turkey sandwiches, and generally speaking, they are more often satisfying than beautiful. The potential for beauty-beyond-survival is there, certainly, but in the sense I want to explore now, it usually is not.

The abstraction of beauty is, so far as we can know, an exclusively human concept. It is difficult, because we are merely bald apes, to mark clearly the line between humans and animals, but one of the best lines is abstraction. Animals tend not to imagine things separate from their immediate circumstances (though some of them do, it seems) and humans do. The reasons why we do can be simple survival strategies; because imagination makes humans better hunters and gatherers than other animals, thereby justifying our oversized noggins and the weak, ungainly bodies attached to them. But to create abstract ideas, for abstract reasons? That, so far as we can know, is uniquely human.

For years now, I have associated this activity of abstraction for the sake of abstraction with two names: truth and beauty. Humans, I have said, are the only living things that seek truth and beauty for their own sake. We wish to discover new truths, not because they offer a practical survival advantage, but simply because we wish to know truth; we create beautiful things, and seek beautiful experiences, simply for the desire to experience them. I think of this as art, because I am an artist married to an artist, though others may call it science or faith or love or whatever entirely human abstraction you wish; there are many other ways to name the pursuit of abstraction. Regardless, I would argue – I have argued – they all come back to truth and beauty. Those are our defining ideals, we humans.

But now I think that these two ideals are really one and the same. “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” as Keats said to his Grecian urn. (And now I have to include the Simpsons reference: when the family goes to visit the military academy where they will be sending Bart for disciplinary reasons, Lisa observes a cadet in a class reciting that line as if responding to a drill sergeant – “BEAUTY IS TRUTH, AND TRUTH BEAUTY, SIR!” She gasps in joy at the thought of actually discussing poetry, something that never happens back at ol’ Springfield Elementary; but then the instructor, sounding and looking just like a drill sergeant, shouts in the cadet’s face, “But sometimes the truth can be harsh and disturbing! How can THAT be beautiful?!?” After which Marge comments, “Well, he sucked the life right out of that.”)

“Gentlemen, welcome to flavor country.”

The two ideas, truth and beauty, have always been closely linked. In science and math, a good solution, a true theorem, must have elegance to be considered worthwhile; in art, a beautiful piece must have some reflection of truth, of reality, of genuine human experience. This is because they are, I would argue, one and the same experience; two sides of the same coin, with the only distinction being how they are taken into the soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his “On Self-Reliance,” described the experience of truth as “that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.” He described a sensation of instant awareness of genuine truth, the vibrating of a heart to an iron string. He was talking about epiphany, the moment of clarity, what teachers (rather unfortunately) call the “Aha! moment.” There is a sense of rightness about truth that marks it as such, because a truth is echoed and repeated in everyone’s human experience, and all the truth does is give a name to what we already know. Home is where the heart is. The love of money is the root of all evil. Haters gonna hate. These truths don’t need to come with examples, because every single one of us can supply them from our own memories. That is the ring of truth, the gleam of light that Emerson talks about: when we make a connection between the statement of truth and our own personal subjective knowledge, and recognize both that the thoughts and experiences of others are actually relevant to our own lives, despite the appearance of perfect isolation that comes with being a human soul trapped inside a cage of flesh and bone, and also that our lives make sense, have reason and symmetry to them: that we are as true to life as others are to us. There is a greater world, and we are part of it; that is the truth, and what we recognize when we come across actual truth, and know it for what it is.

But here’s the thing: that’s what beauty is, too. That same ring, that same jolt, that moment of clarity and recognition, that awe: that is the experience of beauty. Think of what you felt when you first looked out of an airplane window and saw a mountain wreathed in clouds.

Think of what you felt when you first heard Pachelbel’s Canon.

When you smelled your favorite perfume, or let fine chocolate melt down your tongue. Think of a time when you genuinely hugged or kissed someone you love. This is what beauty feels like: when you feel your connection to the greater world, to all of the people before you who felt what you feel right now. You feel as big as the sky, as ancient as the stars: you can feel your heart expand to contain all of the other hearts that have felt what you feel, that are feeling what you feel, across all of time and space. You know that what you are feeling is right, and that it makes sense: you know that this feeling is true.

I would put it like this: truth is an intellectual recognition of one’s place in the order of existence; beauty is the emotional recognition of the same. Beauty is the truth of the heart.


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