By now it is clear that beauty is a minefield: any observation one makes about it usually blows up in one’s face. But I have decided to offer a few thoughts anyway. “Beauty” seems suited to those experiences that stop us in our tracks. Whether it’s a painting called Broadway Boogie-Woogie or a scherzo by Paganini, the beautiful is conducive to stillness. It doesn’t excite us, or necessarily instill in us the desire to replicate it; it simply makes us exist as though we’re existing for that very experience. I don’t think I am speaking for myself alone in framing a period of time—before the critical faculties kick in—when we know that there is something beyond the usual twaddle. We know there is beauty. There is organic beauty and ornamental or decorative beauty. There is the beauty of the moment and of the moment gone (“The blackbird whistling or just after,” as Wallace Stevens wrote). There is the beauty of words, of song, of color, and of design. Hogarth identified a line of beauty, and that line was curved; and Leopold Bloom, sitting in a pub, found himself staring at an oak bar, musing: “Beauty: it curves, curves are beauty.”
In one way or another, each of us is a connoisseur of beauty. Elegance, economy of movement, particular combinations of color, sound, and substance, a fusion of purpose, function and action – all make an impression on us, though the impression may vary. To some, logic is beautiful; to others, a painting by Vermeer. O.J. Simpson eluding tacklers in the open field (sad to say) is beautiful, and so is Maria Callas singing “Ebben? Ne Andrò Lontana.” Beauty is everywhere; it’s just not omnipresent. One can find it in the line of a dress, in a line of poetry, in a line of prose; it may be in the faces of people we see for an instant, and it is forever in the face of Charlie Chaplin at the end of City Lights. And yet when we try to account for moments like these, words seem a poor choice for language.
Perhaps this vulnerability to beauty, as well as our inadequacy in explaining it, stems from the fact that beauty is fleeting. It is fleeting when fixed on walls, pinioned to matting, recorded on digital grooves, or printed on the page. It is fleeting even when we’re gazing at the stars or across Lake Como. None of us exists in a state of perpetual delight or wonder, and even the most exalted works of art and nature do not always affect us with the same intensity. Indeed, the paradoxical question arises: If beauty were not temporary, would it last? Beauty may, in fact, exist only because it disappears, because it offers a glimpse of redemption in a world where such redemption is just an idea. That’s why we spend so much time talking about it. (If we existed in a state of grace, talking about grace would be irrelevant.)
We talk about beauty because it matters – because whenever we stumble across it or remember how a poem or piece of music makes us feel, we think that beauty can save us. Beauty should save us, damn it. Doesn’t each of us feel that “if everyone else felt about beauty the way I do” there’d be peace in the world? Because that’s what beauty does: it instills a sense of peace; it rids us of doubts and misgivings; it is, for as long as it exists, all that exists. And it gives us hope. It gives us hope until we recall, or have George Steiner recall for us, the Nazi camp Kommandant who sent thousands of human beings to the gas chamber daily, and in the evening retired to his room, placed a record on the gramophone, and found himself transported by the opening chords of a Bach cantata. It’s hard to believe that beauty will not make us kind. But, then, what poem ever stopped a war, what rose ever put a lion off his leap?
The problem with language—to tweak a lyric of Noël Coward‘s—is that too often the wrong people use it. Those who programmatically explain beauty or demonstrate where it has gone wrong never manage to get it right. Beauty is elusive; it has to be. The reason, of course, lies with consciousness itself, with that old bugbear “dualism” that never hibernates for very long and that, sooner or later, undermines the quest for absolute knowledge. Nonetheless, one can believe in meaning without necessarily believing that life has any. I don’t offer this as a paradox but as the limitation of a mind that hasn’t accepted the possibility of a soul. To such a mind, which resists systematic conceptions of the cosmos, a chance phrase may sometimes encapsulate a view of the world that seems if not absolutely right then the best that we can do: “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” The phrase is Oscar Wilde‘s, and it’s one we might easily pass over. It is not witty. It is not novel. It’s not even informative. Actually, it’s rather simplistic. What does it tell us that we don’t already know? “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” Nine words. Take a moment. Say them aloud. What else is there to be said?
— Arthur Krystal in his essay “Hello, Beautiful: What we talk about when we talk about beauty” in Harper’s Magazine, (New York: Harper’s Magazine Foundation, September 2005), pp. 86-94.