I remember taking an aesthetics course as a graduate student. Oh. A lifetime ago. So I’m sure all the rules have changed by now. I’m sure the philosophers have rewritten all the rules and what used to be beautiful isn’t any longer. And what used to be ugly maybe isn't either.
So please take anything I say as being qualified by old-fashionedness. By a quaint sensibility. A dowdy sense of artistic and philosophic style.
But one of the things we read. I forget what it was now. Came to us from the wonderful world of Anthropology. A philosopher of beauty wrote this book on representation, see? He tried to suggest that any art has its conventions. Its rules. And representational art was no different, he said.
And he gave as examples the difficulty people in New Guinea had upon being presented photographs of familiar people and things. (New Guinea people who lived remotely and separately from westerners. From moderns. Or post-moderns. Or ultra-moderns. Or supra-moderns. Or whatever we are. Or were then.) Photographs of huts and trees. A village, for example. And how they had no idea at all what they were looking at. How they looked at the photographs and seemed only to get a welter of color and perhaps shape.
As hard as they looked. As hard as they tried. They didn’t get meaningful shape. Identifiable shape and color and identity. The westerners in this example had to laboriously explain to the people in question in their own language what they were looking at. They had to insist on the relation between the objects photographed and the photos themselves.
They had to repeat the explanation over and over again and over again, pointing and gesticulating and jumping up and down and getting red in the face and insistent in their voices until finally. After hours of this tedium. The locals began to see what they were supposed to see. Began to identify the shapes in the photo with the objects they were supposed to represent.
So even objects that are present to the senses are conditioned. Are conditional. Need to be interpreted. Need rules for their interpretation. For their understanding.
Everything needs to be decoded. Everything is provided to us as neutral. As semantically insensible. Or philosophically opaque. And we must bring to it meaning. A priori or a posteriori meaning. Context. Story. Understanding. Imagination.
Oh, an interesting aside. Or I hope it’s an interesting aside. It is to me, but I’m biased, and am not strictly speaking fit to judge. So you be the judge.
Prior to enrolling in this course, I called the professor to see whether I was qualified. Whether I knew enough, basically, to take the course without risking failure. And I seemed to catch her at the cocktail hour, a time of the day when she had imbibed a bit. Had had a couple of glasses of wine and was enjoying everything in God’s creation, in part through the experience of an extraordinary pinot noir.
And I’ll never forget what she said toward the end of our conversation, a conversation in which I told her what courses I’d taken, what sort of course of study I was engaged in, what professors I had worked with and continued to work with, and so on. She said, “Mr. Elkington, I’m sure we’ll have a lovely time. A lovely time. Please do take the course. I know we’ll all have a lovely time.”
I don’t remember using the word “lovely” much prior to this. I don’t know why. But I do like it now. It’s one of my favorite words these days.
And I think of this particularly now because last night I had a conversation with my daughter. And my daughter is a person who, unfortunately, has never met my aesthetics professor. But she said something interesting. She said, “Dad, if there is one word I think of when I think of you, it’s the word ‘lovely.’ It’s a word that you like to use, and it’s a word that I just don’t hear other people saying. But you say it all the time.”
Well, I certainly don’t mean to be repetitive. I mean. Repetition, as my wife likes to tell me, is at best boring and can be maddening. And I don’t want the effect of my words or my presence to be either.
But I do think my daughter may have something there. I must admit to thinking love and beauty do have a great deal to do with one another. Are conflated, one in the other. And further, I do imagine that we are given both. That love is a gift from God. It doesn’t so much originate with us in any meaningful way but is passed through us, if we allow it. If we choose for it to be.
And further, I do imagine that when we allow God to pass his love through us, we are allowing God to pass something of his beauty through us also. But what’s important here is that this isn’t so much us. This is something we allow. And in allowing it, we reap great emotional benefit and understanding.
What I imagine is happening here is that God’s love is a kind of light. It is in the spiritual world the equivalent of photons in the physical world. We are able to see a thing or a person spiritually. To see them steady and see them whole because of this light from God that we allow to pass through us and upon others. And they do become beautiful, nine times out of ten, as a result.
And by the way, we did have a lovely time. The few of us who took that course together. An extraordinary and enlightening time. And I remember that professor with profound gratitude. I learned a great deal from her.
The woman’s name is, oddly, Catherine Lord. And of course, my daughter’s name is Katharine. My daughter was conceived and named years later. A connection. A relation. A meaning. I had not understood before writing this post. Could not have possibly imagined.