Beauty Is Real
"...and you must change your life."
Violence is troubling, but so is beauty.
For years, Damir and I have been having a low lying debate which essentially boils down to “what counts as real.” It is a debate that flared up in our last podcast together, but you can also see it here, and here, and in hundreds of DMs that will come out eventually after our untimely deaths.
In my very brief (and hopefully not too distortive) telling, I take Damir’s view to boil down to two premises:
violence can always intervene. No matter how well I build my sandcastle, Damir with boot can always come and kick it down.
the implication of premise 1 is that violence—how we plan for it and respond to it—is the serious business of life. Other words like “justice” and “harmony” may have provisional existence, but in the end, it is always violence that constrains (and can obliterate) the reality of the others.
Another way to put this argument is that violence always has a veto, and though it may not exercise that veto in every case, its possibility must always be taken as primary reality, both in thought and action.
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I’m very happy to allow parts of this argument—the prevalence of violence especially. But for as many rounds as we’ve gone, I’ve still never been convinced that there are not other forces in the world of greater consequence to our conception of reality.
I was thinking again of this debate whilst—with the rest of America—watching Tracy Chapman at the Grammys. After the performance, a friend commented “Maybe in five years we’ll look back at this as the moment when America changed.” (Twitter, for what it’s worth, had similar sentiments: “I’m agnostic but I feel like I got a glimpse of God in Tracy Chapman’s face.”)
The last years have had many events that seem to weigh towards Damir’s side of the argument: the gradual re-eruption of violence in Europe, Gaza, Ethiopia, and Yemen. As American hegemony diminishes, it is hard not to agree with Bob Kagan’s inimitable phrase “The Jungle Grows Back.” But our domestic affairs also tip toward the same intuition. The sharp contrast between our political parties makes evident that the one decisive thing for the shape of the future is winning (imagine if 2020 had gone the other way)—and that for that reason one ought not yield.
Some of this is practical and strategic, but it is also experiential. As one encounters violence, one is forced to become “realistic.” Habits adapt. Those habits then harden, and the cycle repeats.
But it’s that word “real” that I want to contest. At the first blush it means something like sobered, non-sentimental, honest. The implicit contrast is that instead of trusting what one wants to be the case, one needs to face up to what is actually the case. This is the “just what it is to be an adult” branding that the foreign policy realists have been trading on for years.
But beneath the word realistic is a more fundamental question—what is real?—and it’s that question that is precisely at issue. Experiences of violence are real, but they are not the only experiences we have. Chapman’s performance at the Grammys—but perhaps even more so her 1988 appearance at Wembley in honor of Nelson Mandela—is real.
I want to state this in the strongest terms I can as an intellectual—it is a major dereliction of philosophical duty, not to face the full, brute power of the experience of beauty.
The experience of beauty is often utterly world bending in the moment, but then gradually over hours and days, other more pedestrian (more real?) concerns crowd it out to the point that one questions even the memory of what happened. But what if one keeps that full force, and its implications, in tact? What happened at Wembley is not really reducible to the scientific description—string vibrations and vocal waves moving through air into the crowd. Nor is it reducible to our ordinary sense of where it fits in life—is music really just a pleasant afternoon diversion?
In Chapman’s art—her presence, her vulnerability—she is catching us up into something. But what? Poetic words feel essential to record the moment well—it’s immersive, transporting, translucent.
I also don’t think that it’s any accident that the song comes from the periphery. As I’ve argued before, most of the language we find in our political culture is hard, inorganic, mechanistic. In contrast to the language of elite professionals, this is a song sung from destitution, and sorrow—but it is also, and perhaps for that reason, a song of longing, of hope, and of presence.
Synchrony, in the snappy prose of the neuroscientific academy, refers to “individuals’ temporal coordination during social interactions.” That sentence restated with more blood means the lines between individuals are not always absolute.
The classic case is mothers and infants—their eyes lock onto one another, breathing and heart rates sync up, they start to move or laugh in rhythm. But it’s not just in mothers and infants. Similar things can happen with fathers a couple years later, when they are playing with their toddlers. Synchrony can happen at sporting events, when thousands of people move in unison. It can also happen at concerts when an 80,000 person stadium becomes transfixed by a single voice.
This is not the only time this aspect of beauty has been noticed. In one of his most beautiful (and most homoerotic) works, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke meditates on an ancient bust of Apollo. It’s lines are vivid:
his torso burns still like a candelabrum
if it did not, the bend
of the breast could not blind you
It’s ending is rightly famous:
here, there is nowhere
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Beauty is a political question. Like violence, it’s not possible to encounter it from a distance. To experience it is to have one’s world invaded, and it is implicating in exactly the way Rilke discerns. The direction of the gaze—from observer to statue is reversed: “you must change your life.”
It’s not obvious whether violence or beauty should be taken as more basic. What is clear is that Damir and I, whether by nature or choice, live in different gestalts and conduct our lives and politics differently. We have both experienced both realities—beauty and violence (and both are realities)—but then end up experiencing the world as founded on opposite principles.
I think a lot about a passage litigated by one of David Hume’s characters in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Philo, the skeptic, is fed up with creationists who are arguing that the whole universe is clearly designed on the model of a watch. Philo attacks this argument at the root arguing that any inference from a specific part of the world to the whole is very difficult, and even if one does want to do this, selecting which part should be prioritized is far from obvious: “If we are going to argue from parts to the whole, let us at least be careful about what parts we select for this special treatment…The world plainly resembles an animal or a plant more than it does a watch or a knitting loom.”
The debate Damir and I are having is similar. Is the world, at root, more like the worst experiences of one’s life, or the best?
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