“The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscapes, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion and in ourselves. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul…Perhaps, for the first time, we gain a clear view of how much ugliness we endure and allow. The media generate relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness in talk-shows, tapestries of smothered language and frenetic gratification. The media are becoming the global mirror and beauty is mostly forgotten and made to seem naive and romantic. The blindness of property development creates rooms, buildings and suburbs, which lack grace and mystery. Socially, this influences the atmosphere in the workplace, the schoolroom, the boardroom and the community. Much of the stress and emptiness that haunts us can be traced back to our lack of attention to beauty. Internally, the mind becomes coarse and dull if it remains unvisited by images and thoughts which hold the radiance of beauty…Beauty is not glamour. most of what the media, the fashion world, Hollywood, the art world has to offer is glamour. Glamour, like the art world, is highly fickle and commercially driven that contributes to the ‘humdrum”. It appears and disappears while Beauty is eternal”
The Search for Beauty
– John O’Donohue, “Beauty, the Invisible Embrace”
I had totally forgotten about the works of John O’Donohue until a few days ago while reorganizing my bookshelves, I found my copies “Anam Cara”, “Eternal Echoes” and “Beauty” sitting in a neglected corner. I loved the way he effortlessly merged his native Celtic wisdom of western Ireland with the mysticism of Meister Eckhart. A former Catholic priest with a PhD in philosophical theology, he left the priesthood to become a writer, activist and humanitarian. It was only when I Googled him last night that I realized he died exactly 5 years ago tomorrow when he passed over in his sleep at the abnormally young age of 52. That saddens me because he always came across as someone who seemed to have an inordinate amount of authentic wisdom about him. And not the bullshit New Age variety either, but one which was anchored deeply in personal experience, the land from which he came and pagan and Christian traditions alike. There just aren’t many of those kinds of gentle voices around anymore.
I started off this post by quoting him on Beauty. Lately I have been thinking about Beauty and aesthetics and while I know what we individually consider to be beautiful can be highly personal and subjective, I can’t help but think about what Aristotle once said, that aesthetics, like ethics and logic were faculties which a philosophically well-rounded person had to train and develop.
I’m going to be blunt and I realize I’m going to anger many people by saying this but I find most people are missing that faculty for aesthetics. You can see it in the way they dress, the way they carry themselves, who and what they decide to surround themselves with and what they decide to occupy their thoughts on. Real beauty is found in nature but when it comes to manipulating nature to address human needs, very, very few cultures understand beauty in the way O’Donohue relates to it, along with the accompanying sense of aesthetics.
The ancient Greeks had it.
Indians had it, particularly the Mughal dynasties.
Japanese also have a very unique sense of aesthetics, even down to the principles of wabi-sabi, the beauty of imperfection.
The Italians, from the Romans even down to today, have it in spades, they can make everything from cars to shovels to pens look beautiful.
I find much of what we are told is beautiful to actually not be all that attractive. Walking through the downtown core of any major North American city or mall, I see nothing but usually slightly disheveled people, in polyester-blend clothing buying ugly items to fill up their homes which serves to sooth their disconnection from real beauty.
Long -gone are the days when people had their slacks ironed, with razor-sharp looking folds, when people dressed in beauty AND quality, in wool, silks, gabardine, cashmere, cotton and pure linen.
I know I’m sounding like a bit of a snob, but I grew up with a mom who had pure silk saris in every color imaginable, usually with gold embroidery and a dad who dressed like Sean Connery in Dr. No. If I walked out even with slightly rumply looking jeans, I was castigated for not ironing them in advance.
I think that explains my complete disdain, even now of the suburbs. The fake lawns and gardens, the cookie-cutter housing developments, the garish strip-malls. Whenever I visit the suburbs, I always feel sleepy and excessively tired, never rejuvenated. It bothers me to no end that we live is a system where you’re told to go to university, get a degree, get a job, get married, start a family and go buy yourself a piece of this ugliness WILLINGLY.
It’s not just the suburbs, I look at modern design and what I see is novelty being passed off as beautiful. No doubt some of you receive furniture store fliers in the mail? See how modern and streamlined it all looks? I don’t see beauty here. I see something cold, calculated and almost clinical in it’s exactitude and practically designed to make you feel ill at ease. I can’t lie down here comfortably and play with my pug. Is this a place to show off or a place to live in? Unfortunately I see most hotels, spas, restaurants, yoga studios and condos following this aesthetic.
I do however, see beauty here. I see warmth, I see safety and I see a place someone put a lot of love into.
I don’t see beauty here. I see vulgarity, crassness and an excessive display of ostentation.
I do however see beauty here. I see a certain kind of purity in this kind of simplicity and intimacy. No statement, no big declarations. No stupid Cinderella dress and accompanying fantasy. It just is.
I know Ava Gardner was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world back in the day. She counted Spanish bull-fighters as lovers, swore like a sailor, danced on tables and managed to keep a womanizer like Frank Sinatra on his knees most of the time in desperate submission. She even was able to make Richard Burton admit that she was the one woman in the world more beautiful than Elizabeth Taylor. I don’t see a beautiful woman, maybe her features are, but I see a haughty, arrogant woman who was actually lonely and ugly deep down inside. I can say the same for Madonna.
I do however think someone like French actress Juliette Binoche is beautiful. Even if she isn’t rail-thin and is actually a fuller-figured girl, there’s a certain genuine earthiness and warmth in her which comes across naturally on screen especially in films like “Chocolat” or “The English Patient”.
I’m going to leave the last word with John O’Donohue. There is much wisdom in his way of looking at the world. And lots of beauty too.