–Beauty—a living Presence of the earth,
Surpassing the most ideal Forms
Which craft of delicate Spirits hath composed
From earth’s minerals—waits upon my steps …
(Wordsworth, “Prospectus to The Recluse”)
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Among other things, this well-worn proverb proves the point that truth does not necessarily reside in the popularity or frequency of a saying. The old saw is only partially correct.
It’s most appropriate, perhaps – and most helpful – as applied to the shifting standards of personal beauty. In that arena it would indeed be both fair and accurate to say that Fashion – elitist caprice turned cultural mandate – rules the day. Case in point: taken as a body (no pun intended), the work of the painter Renoir strongly suggests that he and his 19th-century contemporaries had a marked penchant for rather large and fleshy women. We, on the other hand, still haven’t quite got over Twiggy.
Simone Weil – no Cover Girl herself – was thinking of something altogether different when she wrote, “[Beauty is] the only finality here below … Only beauty is not the means to anything else.”[i] This is a remarkable claim. It assumes that Beauty is anything but capricious and subjective; that it is, on the contrary, a solid, self-validating, transcendent Reality – an end in itself.
Even the casual reader recognizes at once that Weil’s statement has nothing to do with the world of the runway or Vogue magazine. Ultimately, it is an assertion of the Absolute. There is such a thing as the Beautiful, Weil insists, just as there is such a thing as the Good, the True, and the Holy. And the pursuit of the Beautiful – ars gratia artis – is one of those rarest of human activities, exceedingly few in number: an experience that has real potential to raise us above ourselves. Like the desire for Truth, the quest for the Good, and the selfless service of uncalculating Love, it has no place in and cannot be co-opted by the systems of the kosmos. These are matters of supreme importance to the Pilgrim.
Edward John Carnell once observed that it is not a matter of mere personal taste to declare a winter sunset more beautiful than a crushed cigar box. We all know that he was right. In the sunset glows an unmistakable Something – ineffable, unnamable – that calls to us from beyond the walls of the world. And in the heart of anyone fortunate – or unfortunate – enough to encounter it, that Something wakes an exquisite and painful longing. A longing for the Infinite.
Precisely because the Infinite is in fact an Eternal Person, this Beauty finds its most compelling expression in living personalities. It’s here that Beauty points most urgently beyond itself; for as Weil goes on to say, “The longing to love the beauty of the world in a human being is essentially the longing for the Incarnation.”[ii]
The poet Dante knew all about this. Seeing Beatrice, a vision in red, Dante caught his breath and said, “Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me.”[iii] And so she did.
It would be nice if we could say that they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, from that point forward the poet found himself obliged to travel a long, tortuous, and consistently disappointing road. As for Beatrice, she married another man and died young.
But that’s not the whole story. For in the end, it was his unflagging devotion to the domineering deity of Beauty, incarnate in the Florentine girl, that led this Pilgrim’s footsteps to heaven.
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[i] “The Love of God and Affliction.”
[iii] La Vita Nuova, Chapter II.