In Act Three of Jules Massenet’s opera Manon, the Chevalier des Grieux, now an abbé, attempts to cast off his passion for Manon Lescaut. He prays for equanimity. But the aria, ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image‘, leaves him broken. However, his passion is soon rekindled. Beauty has him in its grip. Tragedy ensues. Manon dies on the road to Le Havre and des Grieux is left despairing.
The Chevalier has taken beauty seriously. And who has not been subject to its predations? There have been repeated efforts in recent times to explain beauty, meaning the entirety of apprehended life, in all its diversity and configurations. Life is adaptation, due process. A starlit sky: fortuitously reflective random astral matter; a rose: petals, stamens, bees; you have a conversation with your dog after a hard day at work: spare me this anthropomorphic dog delusion. A great love: sexual instinct, add oxytocin; whales rearing out of the ocean: they need air, dominance behaviour, clearing parasites from the skin—anything but ‘the beautiful’, you dolt. We can’t even greet someone affectionately now without another piece of reductive scientism getting its paw jammed in the wheel: we embrace one another on first meeting, an article in Nature proclaims, to assure one another ‘we have no hostile intent’, musings about spider monkeys, ostensibly the subject of the article, providing the corroborative Q.E.D.
Thus is everything limited to the level of explanation. If I ask what you—or I—know about brain surgery, aeroplane mechanics, the geomorphology of Poland, Romania’s political history, Caesar’s eating habits or corruption in Haiti, for example, the answer is, probably, close to absolutely nothing. And yet some people, who can’t predict which nag will win a race in five minutes, or what a stock price will be at the end of the day, with their very little knowledge pumped up to universal wisdom, now hector us with Delphic certitude about the meaning of existence, consciousness and the purpose(lessness) of the universe. Beauty fits in with this bulk disposal lot as just another adaptive response to be ticked off, along with truth, goodness and death. In recent times, philosophy, as far as I understand it, also seems to have let down the side badly, beauty being a stretch too far for protomodern sensibilities. We are now supposed to take seriously the ideas on aesthetics of someone like Heidegger who couldn’t see that Hitler wasn’t exactly a good thing.
I guess these people haven’t been reading Faust recently, wherein a pact with Mephistopheles has the scholar dabbling on the further shores of hubris. Goethe knew humility before the greatness of the world was essential for any real insight into meaning and purpose. The brave new future, where everything is going to have explicatory pins put through it, is only going to end in tears before bedtime if we do not stay open to, and accept, the strangeness and marvellousness of our residence on Earth—’the beautiful’, in other words. This does not entail appeals to the higher superstition, throwing off scientific method or contracting intellectual discourse—the scientific imagination is beautiful too—but it does require an acknowledgement that one’s understanding is finite and that this circumscribed knowledge of the world leaves the vast whole, largely, a terra incognita. A great deal of our knowledge of the world comes to us through our feelings and how they perceive beauty, the gift unsought, and often importunate, but insisted upon.
Happiness, I read elsewhere [Scientific American Feb. 18, 2007], has something to do with accepting ‘declining marginal utility’—whatever that might be—as part of the human lot. As if you could ever define what is going to make any individual happy in any particular instance. Would des Grieux have been happier, known more, or less, beauty, if he had never met Manon? These ‘what if’ questions are beside the point. We encounter beauty, often in the form of eros, unexpectedly, and precipitously. If it is a profile, a Greek vase, the morning light, that sets the heart racing, so be it. Accept it, rejoice in it. It may leave you alone soon enough.
There are people who need to play Cassandra, perpetually rediscovering the fact that the world can be a very bad place—’India to set up orphanages to curb aborted female fetuses’ is one headline I read recently. Some Modernism belongs to this miserabilist school of hand-wringing. You read a book, see a play or go to an exhibition that is saying, basically, I don’t much like the world, or myself, but please, love my work. But why should we love the work if it only offers negativity. This negativity has gone hand in hand with the kind of utterances noted above, though these, unfortunately, are just as numerous in the arts. Eliot says in ‘Burnt Norton’ that ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’. Tell them that at the entrance to Auschwitz or in the slums of Manila. History teaches that human kind has been bearing mountainous reality forever. Eliot wrote one of the great poems of the twentieth century—’The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’—but that doesn’t excuse this kind of holding forth.
When spider monkeys start performing the Appassionata, come and let me know, will you. In the meantime, I’m content to accept the world with its gross imperfections, the beauty in the human and in nature that I don’t pretend to understand, but which is the best truth I’ve found. Like des Grieux, we are perplexed by beauty and sometimes wish the cause of our perplexity to leave us. But we cannot do that. We accept our perplexity and incomprehension, and that is our joy, our greatness.
Take Me To The People Who Know
Quickly, take me to the people
Who have found the truth
Of the way this world is
And what the human means.
I want to sit before them and give thanks
For showing me the error of my ways.
Before, I believed in the heart
And the mystery of being,
That love was the greatest truth
In an inexplicable world.
The millions who pray each day
To their deities—
Why can’t they see their folly,
Like that crowd who showed up
When the Pope expired.
They were certainly in error,
As much as composers like Bruckner,
That peasant from Linz,
Who wrote all his work for the glory of God.
Talk about the future of an illusion.
The torrent of generations
Is turning at my shoulder,
Dust in a glitter of hope.
How miserable their lot,
Not to have had the chance
To know they were wrong, and adjust
Their beliefs to genetic sutras.
Those disinherited led to us,
An evolutionary triumph,
Since progress is always upwards.
But this net of consciousness
Is really due chemical process.
So, quickly then,
Take me to the people who know,
For I need wisdom now.
I am humble before their greatness of mind
That has fathomed the final meanings
And brought from ignorant time
This evidentiary might.
O Beauty! O Truth! O delight!
You can hear Marcelo Alvarez singing ‘Ah! fuyez’ in Paris, 2001 here. 5′ 40”