Thursday, May 27, 2010

Everyday Aesthetic

I've been looking to the Germans and the French for a survey of ideas about aesthetics, as many of us do for our philosophy on anything (though surprisingly few schools seem to be teaching that continental stuff at the graduate level -- more on that another time). But as for American approaches to anything art, to me, right now, that's just a huge mixed bag of ulterior political motives and blurred lines between pop culture, high culture and what people actually find beautiful. (Call the patriotism police, quick!) As yet another head-clearing exercise I'm stepping back to record some thoughts on what I think of as the everyday aesthetic, one that doesn't come from dense readings or even poetic ones, but from simply being an aesthetically sensitive person in a word full of images and sounds and life. But what recently made me think of the everyday aesthetic? It was something very American.

Last year, when I started reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham I was a little wary. Woolf being one of my go-to-gals (for criticism more so than fiction), I had high standards for how she (and even her characters) could be treated in a work of contemporary (...discomfort) fiction. I was already softening to the novel when the following viscous washes of words had me for good:

"...she, Clarissa, simply enjoys without reason the houses, the church, the man, and the dog. It's childish, she knows. It lacks edge. If she were to express it publicly (now, at her age), this love of hers would confine her to the realm of the duped and the simpleminded, Christians with acoustic guitars or wives who've agreed to be harmless in exchange for their keep. Still this indiscriminate love feels entirely serious to her, as if everything in the world is part of a vast, inscrutable intention, and everything in the world has its own secret name, a name that cannot be conveyed in language but is simply the sight and the feel of the thing itself. This determined, abiding fascination is what she thinks of as her soul (an embarrassing, sentimental word, but what else to call it?); the part that might conceivably survive the death of the body. Clarissa never speaks to anyone about any of that. She doesn't gush or chirp. She exclaims only over the obvious manifestations of beauty, and even then manages an aspect of adult restraint. Beauty is a whore, she sometimes says. I like money better."
"Clarissa crosses Eighth Street. She loves, indiscriminately the dead television set abandoned on the curb alongside a single white patent-leather pump. She loves the vendor's cart piled with broccoli and peaches and mangoes, each labeled with an index card that offers a price amid abundances of punctuation...[many more squalid, sunny, and musical things she loves]... Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows other people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed?"

My first reaction was how does this man know that a woman might think all these things?! I don't think I've read any other man who writes women so well. And it didn't feel like it had anything to do with his (or his characters') sexual orientation. He just tapped into some fundamental part of the aesthetically sensitive female mind. Love is there. Some semblance of what we may or may not want to think of as a soul is there. Like Clarissa, we may restrain our reactions to beauty, we may share only some of our feelings originating at that impressionable transient core, but above all, we love, and we hold within this love some extrapolated overblown naive love for the whole damn universe. Because of a cart full of vegetables.

These impressions -- dead tvs, sparkling fountains, primitive signage -- cannot be named, as Cunningham tells us. The thing -- a day, a breeze, a vase -- and the feeling it gives "cannot be conveyed in language but is simply the sight and the feel of the thing itself." It is this very inexpressibility that gives us that "abiding fascination" that we can think of as a soul. Not a nugget of everlasting life lodged in the center of our being somewhere, but a transcendent, changing, fleeting and returning thing that makes us glad to be alive, all the more because we are so uncertain it is even a thing.

Not only does Clarissa love the "obvious manifestations of beauty" but she loves, maybe even more passionately, the "rude and indestructible world." For Clarissa this includes the rude people of the world -- the drug dealers she steps over on her walk, the crazy woman ululating under the bridge. I read this (for my own everyday aesthetic) as the dilapidated things of the world, the struggles it gives us, the beautiful predicaments with which it presents us. Our free will pitted against the will of the world. That is huge, and that is worth living for. ("Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed?") Again, all of this can be gone over in the mind on an everyday walk like Clarissa's. Existential turmoil and elation, simply because of a tar-stinking stretch of train track, a glint off a pond, a small girl hugging and mumbling to her cat, or a boy in tears at a bee sting.

Cunningham would call all of this, Clarissa's impressions and probably mine, "beauty." And in the everyday sense of the word, aesthetics is the study of beauty. What does it do, what can it do, should we reevaluate how we think about it, etc. But Cunningham touches on something more deeply philosophical, even if the impressions that cause Clarissa's inner dialogue to wax philosophic are indeed of the everyday variety. Cunningham places beauty -- the recognition of it, the consideration of it, our love for it -- in the soul, or if there is no soul (for he suggests there may not be), he paints it as some kind of unlocateable life force (a force because it is "determined") but without any essential qualities and without any obligation to us. It is hard to get at. It owes us nothing. It is a mere "fascination." But it could be one of the most important, if ungraspable, things/ideas/effects (what to call beauty?) with which man or woman has ever become fascinated.


  1. Beauty as a thing, rather than an idea or an effect, is a really tough thing to think, I think. I'm reminded of Wordsworth's constant temptation to treat words themselves as "external powers": "Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts." What's so striking to me here is the insistence that this beauty is unnamable. What about the beauty of everyday words? I saw "squidgy" on a packet of Jaffa cookies in the store the other day ("the squidgy orange bit" of marmalade underneath a layer of chocolate and on top of a soft cake-like cookie was supposed to be great). It seems too easy to say the beauty of words consists in their mediating between ideas and things, as if they were in truth negating both constantly and couldn't truly rest as things (or ideas) themselves. But maybe with everyday words--in the sense in which you here theorize the everyday--that is the case...

  2. The beauty-thing is a really hard thing to think on (and you caught me stumbling over it!), and as always we end up looking up and down the two-way street between language and thought where the one seems to be strangling or dominating the other, but can't live without it. Words simply as mediators isn't good enough for me either, especially, of course, in literature. But that idea seems to be important to Cunningham's particular semi-definition of beauty here though -- he wants to suspend it somewhere. And that is a beautiful way to think on it, but there are certainly other ways.

    My own preoccupation with words keeps them in front of me most of the time, the exception, I think, being the kind of ephemeral experiences in this Cunningham passage. Funny you should mention dollar store foods as a place to find some beautiful words (Erica made me eat Jaffa cakes when i visited NY) -- that's where I found "quiescent" on a tube (a tube!) of ice cream and was struck by it. Of course I later found out that quiescent is just the proper word for that sort of tube, and no one put it there out of any kind of beautiful stupidity or word mangling as I had hoped. But just the same, the whole tube with its proudly unadulterated, unagitated quiescent wonder inside, stamped with an old lady's face and a town called "Ozone Park" ... those things made quite a beautiful arrangement. And now I'm gushing about an ice cream treat (again). So yes! To answer your question. Everyday words can be beautiful.

    Many of those romantic German fellers want to suspend beauty in different ways too. Almost like thinkers on aesthetics are afraid to look the beautiful thing head-on. Maybe there needs to be different words for beauty or different kingdoms and phyla of it. The words on the page loved by students of literature are very still, and while they might express something sensory or transitory they are always there, looking pretty the same as they were tens or hundreds of years ago. We have plenty of time to sit with them and reflect on them. Somehow that's different than feeling some fountain spray (though often just as refreshing).


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