Friday, March 26, 2010

Modes of Beauty

What follows is my belated response to Grim's excellent post "Beauty, Love, and Distance," which he published at the Hall on March 28th, 2009. I found myself too pressed for time to comment just then, but the post stayed in my head, so when I finally developed enough breathing space to assemble a response I emailed him this essay.

Grim has since kindly suggested that it might be worth making available for more general comment. Accordingly, I have chosen to post the entire essay in its original form, albeit slightly trimmed of the email pleasantries. See what you think of it, and please add your thoughts.




From my vantage point down here in the musical trenches, I am convinced that at least two types of beauty exist. The first (and less perilous) might be broadly defined as a moment-appropriate balance between predictability and surprise. Where that balance is at any given moment depends on the expectations of the observer, as well as on the overall energy they have made available to deal with the unpredicted.

For example, my training as an orchestral musician involves using my applied instrumental technique to work very precisely and predictably within the printed page's constraining framework of pitch, rhythm, tempo, articulations, and dynamics, while also using that same technical knowledge to shape the phrases so that they catch the attention of the listener by surprise, either through contrast with what has gone before or contrast with what they are expecting to hear next. Perfect predictability would be tuned out, and total unpredictability cannot be meaningfully processed. The beauty is in the balance, which is in turn dependent on the brain of the beholder–although in this case it is also influenced by the skill of the performer and the craft of the composer, as well as the physical resonances which underpin Western harmonic structure.

This is part of why we see so much individual variation in standards of beauty. An "I've heard better!" dismissal of beauty is driven by pre-existing expectations, which is why amateurs and professionals often react quite differently to the same performance. In contrast, "I don't understand this" is usually a way of saying that something is too unpredictable, which is the reason why most of us avoid listening to the insufficiently graspable but nonetheless highly organized structure of serial twelve-tone music.

Given the desire, either dismissal can usually be overcome by an attitude check, a little learning, and a second look. Of course, when this worthy investigative behavior is taken to extremes, it sometimes results in the formation of encysted tightly-knit art movements that become bizarrely incomprehensible from the outside, although they may also be quite long-lasting if their adherents are sufficiently emotionally invested. This behavior is not limited to art and music.

I believe this predictive balance is also what makes natural beauty so compelling, for the systemic shapes made by landscapes, trees, thunderstorms, and water follow broadly simple and explicable rules of process that allow very short-range prediction as to what will happen next, but the nonlinear variability that permeates their overarching structure means that surprise is always available, if you are willing to take time to smell the roses. Fractals, stock markets, emergent behavior in networks, and strange attractors are also in this category. In some cases the surprise is inescapably evident, and in some it is cunningly hidden. Naturally the same is true (in reverse) of the predictable order in the system.

The overall balance satisfyingly reveals that there is large-scale order yet to be discovered in the world, but that there is also newness.

Call this common beauty.

The other type of beauty which springs to mind is more remote and terrible, and it also involves representations and expectations, albeit in a different way. The mental representations that we use to categorize our experiences often function as archetypes–for example, if I say to you "tree" or "mountain" or "beautiful woman," chances are good it will trigger a stock image, which is then modified ("oak tree," for example, or "beautiful old woman") according to context. This archetypal stock image might be a holdover from a first impression or a childhood experience, or it might be an idealized composite of several different experiences, but it is there, up on a pedestal of sorts, as a idealized reference for everyday experiences to be measured against.

So what happens when you encounter someone or something that matches your archetype? What if you hear a "perfect" performance, or experience an ideal summer morning? What if, as in Ted Sturgeon's superb short story "It's You!," you actually meet The Girl?

I would suggest that the extent of congruence between event and archetype is directly proportional to our perception of the second type of beauty, which is potentially much more dangerous–call it archetypal beauty.

The peril inherent in pursuing the siren song of archetypal beauty comes in several forms. Because nothing in this world truly conforms to idealized forms, and because encountering a strong enough resemblance to an archetype can still lead to idealized responses, it is highly likely that these idealized responses will not fit the real situation. If you get close to The Girl and turn up all the lights, you will find imperfections. After several such events jaded cynicism sets in, coupled with its attendant loss of sensitivity to beauty, as the archetype either loses relevance as a useful reference point or actually becomes contaminated with disappointment.

On the other hand, if you fail to find the significant flaws/mismatches until you are too deeply invested, their revelation can shatter the archetype outright.

A third source of damage that can be taken while pursuing this sort of beauty is the loss of the real world item that was the source of the archetype, such as a favorite backyard tree, a childhood home, or a parent, thus shaking the foundations of the archetype itself. This stripping away of stable reference points (which peg both beauty and identity, and therefore emotion by my lights) leads to disoriented and aimless wandering through life, which can only be eased through the establishment of appropriate new archetypes.

When dealing with archetypal beauty, distance is protection. It is close proximity that is dangerous, so impassioned pursuit at a safe distance is quite tenable. This is fortunate, for many surpassingly noble deeds and glorious works of art have been inspired by just such a pursuit. The trick is to gauge the distance correctly so that inspiration and well-being are optimally balanced...

All of this assumes that the centrally important archetypes are well calibrated in the first place, or have at least evolved in that direction, for otherwise happiness and beauty become very difficult to find. It's also worth pointing out that if your own reference points for archetypal beauty are abstract enough that they cannot be fully encompassed by physical happenings, then they tend to form a more durable compass in the face of everyday events. This (even if nothing else, which is far from certain) is an essential systemic role of religion and philosophy, and it is largely independent of the fine details, which matter of course in other important ways.

This framework is far from perfect, and certainly could be more elegantly expressed in places, but I think it offers a decent starting point.