Sunday, June 5, 2016

That Which Is Rare And Precious: A Sunday Rumination

     In my recent travels I’ve become more aware of rare and precious things, Some of them aren’t as rare as others; nevertheless, they’re uncommon enough to be noteworthy. We seldom take conscious note of that which is commonplace, unless it’s to scream imprecations at it.

     Rarity itself does not confer value. The smallpox bacillus is rare. Despite that, we’d like it to be even rarer: if possible, extinct. Unless it’s done sarcastically, to call something precious is an evaluation...and rather frequently, an observation of the valued thing’s rarity.

     In a quite different context – that of the storyteller – I spoke of the importance of cultivating an eye for the telling detail:

     What is an "eye for the telling detail"? Where does one find it?

Probably the best approach to acquiring this "eye" -- that is, the sense for what ought to be described and when -- is to concentrate on the consciousness of one's viewpoint character. That is: the sensorium, sensitivities, and priorities of the viewpoint character, through whose "eyes" the story is currently being told, should dictate what one describes.

     For example, let's imagine that your viewpoint character is a doctor who labors, as so many do, in a hospital. The hospital is his typical frame of reference. While the precise details of the hospital do matter to him, on a typical work day he doesn't take active notice of ninety-five percent of them. He would not fix his attention on a respirator that he passes twenty times per shift. He would not muse upon the height, shape, or color of a reception desk. He would not remark to himself that Joe Smith is wearing a stethoscope, unless that were in itself an unusual thing that should trigger heightened attention (e.g., if Joe were a janitor, or a serial killer whom your character had thought confined to a jail ward).

     Since the goal of good fiction is to involve your reader in the emotional lives of your characters, your descriptive prose should be guided by a cognizance of the sort of things your characters would care about, and the sort they would glide past, whether from their regularity or from their irrelevance.

     In your real, quotidian life, you are the viewpoint character. What you notice is what has significance for you, within your current context. Sometimes, that’s not immediately apparent. For example, if you’re driving along an expressway, you take no notice of the behavior of the great majority of the drivers around you – as long as they keep to their lanes and behave in a fashion that respects the hazards to which all of you are exposed. They’re there; your senses of sight and sound register their proximity; but your perception remains subconscious until they deviate. It’s the deviation that renders them significant.

     From that perspective, what tends to register with us consciously as we go through our lives?

  1. Unusual opportunities and hazards;
  2. Unusual behavior;
  3. Unusual beauty or ugliness.

     The first two of those have survival implications. Our attention to them is somewhat involuntary. The third item is more complex.

     Beauty and ugliness are not specifically visual phenomena. There are such things as beautiful and ugly sounds, of course. We speak of beautiful or ugly sense impressions of other kinds without fear of being misunderstood. Most important of all, there are also beautiful and ugly ideas and behaviors.

     One of the filters we acquire with age is the ability to confine that which is ugly to the minimum possible degree of perception. We notice it – we must; it’s sufficiently a deviation from the norm that we have no choice – but we “turn aside” from it, mentally if in no other way. No one needs ugliness, the representations of certain “grunge” advocates notwithstanding.

     But we do appear to have an organic desire for beauty. It might even be a need. No only do we notice it; we tend to fix upon it, to savor it for as long as possible. A life well supplied with beauty is a blessed one. A life completely devoid of beauty is a pitiable thing.

     Our ceremonies tend toward beautification. Sometimes, the approach is via regularization and ritual. These things have a calming and uplifting effect on the participant, especially when the ritual itself incorporates beauty, as do the many public ceremonies of the Catholic Church. Sometimes, it’s more about a display of prowess or grace; consider Olympic figure skating as an example. Even those who don’t derive the full benefit from such beauties will usually concede their existence.

     But note this as well: To the extent that something one has perceived as beautiful becomes commonplace – a part of his daily life – he ceases to consider it precious. The rarity is essential to its preciousness; remove the rarity and the beautiful thing, even if he still values it, moves to a different mental category. When he notices it he will still appreciate it, but his conscious recognition of its importance to him will have diminished.

     Does all this seem too obvious to you? Am I writing not merely in platitudes but about “common sense,” such that you feel the urge to mutter “of course” and surf away to something more interesting?

     I hope not. The conviction has come upon me that this is among the most important subjects of our time. Why else would we have become so inured to ugliness? Why else would we be so attentive to those persons, things, artworks, and concepts that rise above the standards that prevail among us?

     For some time, the prevailing public aesthetic has trended negative. Ever less attention has gone to making ourselves and our world beautiful. I’m not talking about celebrity icons or majestic, one of a kind edifices one might have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to glimpse, but about ordinary people and our surroundings on our most ordinary days.

     I could make the case that today’s beautiful people in media and entertainment get far more attention than their predecessors, specifically because what surrounds us has been so leached of its beauty. Speaking for myself alone, over the years that which is beautiful has become ever more precious to me – yet I must admit that an objective comparison with persons and things of decades ago would not unduly favor those of today.

     Test yourself, if you can. The next time a beautiful person – whether it’s a man or woman doesn’t matter – impinges upon your awareness, ask yourself why he seems so magnetic. Ask whether it’s the contrast with all that surrounds him that makes the difference.

     The next time you encounter an elegant bit of writing – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction doesn’t matter – ask yourself whether its elegance is really greater than that of the great writers of the past, or whether its attraction lies in its contrast with the slovenly style that has become today’s norm.

     The next time you come across a striking example of courtesy or consideration...the next time you witness the attention to fine detail that characterizes true craftsmanship...the next time you see someone act with sincere kindness or courage...the next time you encounter a proposition that really gets your mental engine revving...ask yourself “Do I find this precious, and if so, why?”

     I could go on, but I think the point has been made.

     We are what God has made us. If we need beauty, we need look to Him for the reasons. They might not be easily comprehended, but they’re there. He does nothing aimlessly or randomly.

     It’s an old canard that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Few statements so demonstrably false have been so widely echoed. There is an absolute aesthetic principle, else why would there be so much agreement, so near to unanimous, on what is beautiful and what is not?

     Beauty of every sort has become rare, and therefore precious. It need not be so. We are all potential creators of beauty. Nature does its part, of course, but Man’s conscious efforts can go far beyond what Nature provides. Indeed, the only reason “Nature is beautiful” is because we judge it to be so. We are equipped with the innate capacity for aesthetic evaluation that can perceive it.

     Draw from this what moral you will.

     May God bless and keep you all.


LizP said...

Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op.23 Romance and passion. Every time I hear this piece, I thank God for the beauty of the inspiration that composed it.

Anonymous said...

What is it with today's culture that goes out of its way to make themselves so UGLY?

The ghastly makeup, the tattoos, the piercings, the clown hair, the pre-destroyed and mismatched clothing? Makes me want to go out of my way to avoid such people.

Went on a bicycle ride this morning. It was a clear blue cloudless day with the temperature in the mid 60s. The setting was a sub-alpine valley with lush green pastures all around and snow capped mountains in the distance. Really!

Beauty that I'll never get tired of.