A Universal Language?

Rollo May spreads a wide net in his discussion of beauty and the arts. Coming from a traditional liberal arts perspective, it’s not surprising he includes myths in his discussion of the arts. I think I was actually introduced to, and beguiled, by Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology in high school. Certainly by my freshman year in college I realized it was vital to have a solid background in Greek Mythology and The Bible if I hoped to understand English literature, particularly poetry. Of the two, Greek mythologies always remained my favorite. I don’t think, though, that I ever ascribed the same importance to them that May does:

Far from being irrational, myths actually save us from irrationality. They make our powerful emotions, which would drive us into psychosis otherwise, into diluted forms which we can absorb. And they do that by virtue of being an art form, as the Iliad and Apocalypse Now are art forms.

The myth has certain characteristics which it shares with other art forms, like poetry, the novel, painting, sculpture, music and dance. These shared characteristics include harmony, balance, rhythm. They are qualities which minister to our inner needs for serenity, for a sense of eternity, and ultimately for courage. All genuine works of art give a sense of meaning which informs us that life is more significant than the disasters, petty or great, which clamor for our attention. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” is attested by numberless events through history like King Saul calling upon David to play music to soothe his madness. The Greeks seem to have been particularly aware of these forms of beauty, and they were not hampered by any commandment against making graven images, as the Hebrews were in their Ten Commandments.

Myths never had quite that effect on me, though I did learn at an early age that the arts could “minister to our inner needs for serenity, for a sense of eternity, and ultimately for courage.” For me, though, it was The Blues that helped to minister to my teenage angst. There was something comforting in knowing that a blues singer could create such beauty out of love gone wrong, even if I couldn’t. Bobby Bland’s I Pity the Fool got me through some tough times and is still one of a very few songs with five stars in my iTunes library.

I’m not a psychologist but Rollo May is a pretty good one and cites several other prominent psychologists to support his contention that myths, and other forms of art helps us to manage subconscious desires:

Art is our way of managing our inner turmoil, transcending our terror, and protecting ourselves from our own psychotic tendencies. From the high tension of Motherwell’s canvases, to the eruption of Hofmann’s brilliant colors, to the despair of Picasso’s Guernica, art relieves our extremes of emotion. Our inordinate passion is drained off; our pressure to act out these emotions in society is relieved, and we are deeply consoled.

Art gives us repose and harmony where there otherwise would be explosion and destruction. Thus art is our universal therapist. It mirrors and gives us catharsis for our terror of dehumanization. As we stand in the presence of de Kooning’s canvases, we are strengthened in our efforts to transcend our inner conflicts. Modern art speaks often directly to our subconscious and preconscious selves, as in Pollock and Rothko. Instead of running from our troublesome dreams, we can welcome them into awareness, as when we look at Hofmann or Dali.

In these ways myth as an art form ministers to us on dimensions below consciousness; it encompasses our irrationality and our daimonic tendencies. Myths thus humanize mankind even though this process is always precarious. Thus myths give us a harmony of rational and irrational, a harmony of antimonies. Myths carry health-giving catharsis, as no one can doubt after seeing a performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. If we wished an explanation for humankind’s invention of myths, we need go no farther than the fact that myths enable us to live more humanly in the midst of our unhuman, warring unconscious. Myths enable us to exist and persevere as strangers in a strange land.

I’ll have to admit that despite my love of myths, I really haven’t given a lot of thought to the function they play in our personal lives. Rollo May has much more to say about the power of myths, which convinced me to order his book The Cry for Myth. I’ll have more to say later on this subject.

Like May, I believe that art somehow manages to make us more aware of the horrors of modern life while simultaneously allowing us to cope with those horrors:

Looking at
Guernica makes us reaffirm our quality as human beings. It presents beauty even in this picture of the gross cruelty of human beings; and this beauty deepens our love for those who suffer. In this respect Picasso has the same effect as Shakespeare in his drama King Lear, or Aeschylus in The Oresteia, and other great tragedies of human history. Guernica is a catharsis; it presents man’s inhumanity to man move vividly than reams of printed paper could do, and it presents the beauty which marks human beings in contrast to this gross cruelty.

Modern art often seems to me to be the area in which honesty is most forthright in presenting the violence in our society. Call to mind Ben Shawn and his pictures of the Sacco Vanzetti case, which did more to expose the miscarriage of justice in the execution of these two men than volumes of writing. Even the improvised sculpture I mentioned earlier, of the wrecked car with a cow’s blood and intestines splashed over the seats, is gross indeed, but if one can empathize with the meaning of the artists, one sees a picture of the violence inherent in modern technology.

Many would find this a strange definition of Beauty, but those who argued that Truth and Beauty are One would accept it immediately. What could be uglier than glossing over reality because it is too hard to face?

Rollo May argues that Beauty transcends time, tying all man together across the ages:

The strange thing about beauty is that it wipes away all boundaries and inspires us to realize our common humanity. Our destiny interweaves us with each other, and our arts make every war nowadays a civil war, a war against our brothers and sisters no matter what nation they happen to belong to.

Beauty overcomes distinctions between all people on this planet. In beauty we have a language common to all of us despite racial or cultural differences-and even despite national and historical enmities. For this very Egypt, to which I was then traveling, later shared with us in America the art objects found in King Tut’s tomb, and crowds of people stood in our twentieth-century lines for hours for the privilege of seeing the statues in bronze and gold which had been buried with this king in ancient Egypt. The colorful Turkish and Persian rugs which decorate the floors of tens of thousands of persons in all countries and have influenced the designs of rugs virtually all over the world, came from the same part of the world as the “terrible Turk” standing politely beside me. And when we think of the contribution of German-speaking peoples-from Boehme to Beethoven to Goethe to Hegel, et al. -our words fail us.

All these are our common heritage of beauty, and never has there been any doubt that they belonged to all civilized people.

Hard to disagree with this. I know I marveled when I saw reproductions of Mayan works or when I managed to personally view Indian petroglyphs.

In fact, May argues that Beauty is the common human language:

We realize now that our common human language is not Esperanto or computers or something having to do with vocal cords and speech. It is, rather, our sense of proportion, our balance, harmony and other aspects of simple and fundamental form. Our universal language, in other words, is beauty.

Beneath our loquacious chatter, there is a silent language of our whole being which yearns for art and the beauty from which art comes. For we find ourselves an integral part of this universe in our breathing, our heart beat, our amazing balance in such a minor thing as taking one step on the path: the earth comes up to meet us, as Newton pointed out, that infinitesimally small distance, and our foot goes out to meet the earth. From this fantastic balance of the human organism comes the art of walking and ultimately to making such forms as the ballet dancers which Degas shows us in his rich paintings. When Kant said, “Two things incline the heart to wonder, the starry sky above and the moral law within,” I wish to add a third. That is the amazing sense of balance that enables us to walk and run and to dance in the ways the peasants and other humans celebrate and express their ecstasy in all parts of the world.

Art is the instrument by which beauty is actualized. Art is the eternal endeavor to realize beauty. Sometimes it is successful, sometimes a failure; but the poignancy of beauty will never let us go.

I don’t know a single word of Chinese or Japanese, but I certainly feel that Lao Tsu, Ryokan, Buson, and many Sumi artists speak directly to me. Who hasn’t been enthralled by artists from a country whose language they know nothing about? There seems to be something int the human genes that responds to art, no matter where it originates.

I doubt that anyone who visits here regularly would disagree with Rollo May when he argues:

One thing is certain: a world that does not have a concern for beauty will not be worth saving. Aristotle was surely right when he wrote, “Not life is to be valued, but the good life.” For all true Greeks, this was central in their concept of Arëtë: the noble life was first of all the beautiful life.

This is the fundamental importance of beauty and of the art that springs from a love of beauty. The humanities, such as art and music and poetry, exist for one purpose alone: to enhance the quality of human existence. There are riches that lie at hand in any library, waiting to make life fuller, to make us more vital, to disclose to us the presence of joys in life which have been there all the time but we were blind to them. There is no library worth the name which does not have the mental inspiration to take us, like Columbus, to new worlds.

In poetry, in art, in literature, in music, there is not only the power “to tame the savage breast,” but to give us the sense of joy and serenity we sorely need. There is music that brings us this with no need for economic riches. Do we need to be awakened to adventure and the sense of passion if our lives are boring? Homer brings us this, as does the poetry in many songs of the Beatles. Taste is a particular approach, but it still can have its value; there is no need to insist that every person experience his soul enlivened by the same things.

Finding Grace in a Graceless World

Mays argues convincingly, at least to me, that the creation of beauty is critical to the well-being of both society and the individual for it is this creation that brings order to the chaos of our lives:

Let us explore the human mind as it engages in the creative act. This capacity to create — which we all have, though in varying degrees —is essentially the ability to find form in chaos, to create form where there is only formlessness. This is what leads us to beauty, for beauty is that form.

Beauty reveals a form in the universe-the harmony of the spheres, as Kepler called it. It is a form which is present in the circling of the planets. It is a form which is felt in the curves and balance of our own bodies. And it is present especially in the way we see the world, for we form and reform the world in the very act of perceiving it. The imagination to do this is one of the elements that make us human beings.

Beauty in this sense is essential not only to the arts but to science itself:

It is not by accident that Pythagoras was the inventor not only of a great deal of mathematics (every one studies the Pythagorean theorem in geometry in high school), but also the inventor of a number of important principles in the theory of music. The tone of a violin is a vibration of a string of a certain length. Pythagoras made the famous discovery that vibrating strings under equal tension sound together in harmony if their lengths are in a simple numerical ratio. So we have laws of harmony and discord, all derivative from form. To Pythagoras is attributed the lyrical line, “The stars in the heavens sing a music if only we had the ears to hear.”

Now in Pythagoras, art and mathematics were identified. This was a beautiful prediction of what was to come in our modern physics. The older concern with molecules and electrons has changed; our physicists are ready to admit that they don’t really know what those are. “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what,” says Sir Arthur Eddington. What they do know is the relationship of one form to another; they recognize the form. They know if the form is such and such, then we have such and such a physical object.

At first glance, this Classical definition of Beauty would seem to describe art prior to the 20th Century, but not modern art. It is clear that if we only think of art as something that pretty, we’re going to have a hard time fitting that definition to much of contemporary art.

Since many of his watercolors seem modernistic, it’s obvious that May would extend his definition of beauty to modern art, too. He cites Henry Miller,

I love the statement by Henry Miller when he says that, “the artist seeks to overthrow existing values . . . to sow strife and ferment, so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life.” Then “I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears.”

Obviously this is not the definition of beauty that most people hold, which might also explain why many people “hate” modern art.

Mays argues, though, that by alerting us to the dangers of modern existence, art restores the harmony we all seek:

A great deal of modern art could be captioned under the cry, “Wake up, humanity! Be alive! Look at this world in front of you!” This is restoring the emotionally dead, resuscitating the feelingless robot, the mechanical condition into which we have been forced by adjusting to a hyper-technological civilization.

There is, on a deeper level, a very powerful relationship between beauty and ethical values. Beauty is that form in which everything is in harmony; and is that not also a definition of ethics?

Such insights, no matter how unpleasant they seem at first, harmonize our perception of reality with reality itself.

But May goes even further, arguing that art:

… can dispense grace. “Art,” Gregory Bateson proposes, is part of “man’s quest for grace.” Art and the beauty which it reflects enable us to integrate ourselves. We can make a synthesis between what Freud called the “primary” and the “secondary” processes.

The function of art can also be described by the term revelation. Art is a constant revealing of beauty as well as truth in a sense parallel to science but in the quite different form. Art produces new knowledge, new forms, often catastrophic in its endeavor to awaken people. The revelation in art comes as an immediate and unique experience. We look at a picture and it immediately reveals a new universe, a new form of experience. This is even true of a picture we have seen hundreds of times. The Miro lithograph hanging in my living room brings me a new experience almost every time I look at it. The world is something different from what I had assumed.

There is a grace that comes in such moments; a new depth of experience in ourselves is awakened. When persons say a particular piece of music carries them into another world, they are testifying to the revelation that is in this music. Beethoven himself once remarked, “Whoever understands my music will henceforth be free of the misery of the world.”

Grace comes as a gift. It is something we do not ask for and cannot command. Indeed, we do not know the new revelation even exists until it opens itself to us. We were living in a narrow world; now, with the grace that comes in art, we suddenly find ourselves in a new world we did not know was there. I recall once, on leaving an exhibit of Hans Hofmann’s work, with the words singing in my mind like a Hallelujah chorus, “If a human being has the courage to paint such paintings, life surely has meaning!” It is the reverse of Dostoyevsky’s sentence in the Brothers Karamazov, “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” If such beauty exists and gives us its grace, then life must be ultimately good.

Creativity gives us a grace in the sense that it is a balm for our anxiety and a relief from our alienation. It is grace by virtue of its power to reconcile us to our deepest selves, to lead us to our own depths where primary and secondary functions are unified. Here the right brain and the left brain work together in seeing the wholeness of our world.

And thus my painting and the creative sketching — indeed, everyone’s creative acts, whatever they may be — make constructive form out of the apparent formlessness of our lives.

I don’t think I’ve ever considered art in quite this way. I know I would never have used the word “grace,” a term I associate too heavily with Churches to use to describe art. After further thought I realized I have stated I have often sought spiritual inspiration in poetry. I absolutely agree that poetry at its best “is a balm for our anxiety and a relief from our alienation.”

The Importance of Beauty in Our Lives

One of the more interesting aspects of May’s My Quest for Beauty is the personal role that art played in his life. At the beginning of his career while teaching English in Greece he says, “…I had what is called, euphemistically, a nervous breakdown.” He finds the answer to that breakdown on Mt. Hortiati.

While walking down the mountain he finds a “a field of wild poppies covering the whole hillside.” This sight evokes these lines from Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils…

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in spritely dance.

I thought how good it would be to sit among these flowers and draw their forms so that I would never forget them. So I went back to the house and borrowed a pencil and pad and came out to kneel among the pop- pies to sketch them. They made an imprint on my mind that seems as vivid today as it was then.

This is the drawing that I did that sunny morning:

May's Poppies Sketch

As a result of this incident, May’s concludes that:

I realized that I had not listened to my inner voice which had tried to talk to me about beauty. I had been too hard-working, too “principled” to spend time merely looking at flowers! It seems it had taken a collapse of my whole former way of life for this voice to make itself heard. This inner voice hereafter would always be redolent with the slight perfume that covered the hillside that morning.

I find this incident particularly interesting because I had some similar feelings when I was in Vietnam and first came home, though it has less to do with beauty, per se, than with literature I’d read helping me to make “sense” of, or, at least, integrate, what happened in Vietnam into my life. I remember telling a friend afterward, that for the first time in my life I really understood what Camus was saying in The Stranger. I still think that my literary background better prepared me for war than those who lacked that background. Great artists, particularly great contemporary artists, help maintain sanity in an ever-changing world.

Later, when I was teaching I found that hiking in the mountains particularly in late summer when flowers were in bloom was a great way to “recharge my batteries,” that I needed those escapes in order to devote the hours that I did to teaching English during the rest of the year. Of course, I also took numerous trips to the beach, to recharge, too. Beauty has been a vital part of my life, making it possible to cope with the less pleasant aspects of our daily existence.

About half way through this work, May introduces a selection of his watercolors with this statement:

Painting is not something done chiefly with a brush and some colors. It is, rather, a way of seeing the world. I shall always remember the surprise I felt on observing the different members of a painting class working on the coast at Rockport. One would have sworn they were painting different scenes: here one emphasizes the ocean there another makes central in his painting the two sailing vessels coming into the harbor, another sees the fishing shacks on the dock as the main theme of her painting, and so on.

You do not have to argue from the point of view of different styles —this one abstract, this one realistic, and so on. No; the important thing is that each saw the same world but they were painting quite distinct and different responses to this world. One’s actual painting is done inside one’s imagination, and it is a function of how the individual relates to the world. The threadbare story of the blind men feeling the elephant and saying it is like a rope, a piece of leather, a rug and so on, is true on a more profound level. Each of us sees the world as an individual, alone, caught up in a vast maelstrom; but by our culture we learn to communicate with our fellow human beings. Poetry, dancing, painting and other arts are all ways of communicating. The philosopher Kant said we not only see the world but the world conforms to our way of seeing it. This is certainly true in the field of art.

The great contribution of art is that, in our threescore and ten years on this planet, we are enabled to share, to give to each other, to communicate, to love the world and, in the broad sense, to love each other. This will sound strange to those who think the world is a cold mass of whirling star dust, but not to those who can form their world in communication by whatever beauty they can see and experience.

I’m sure that many in our society would reject May’s view, those same people who question the value of an old-fashioned “Liberal Arts Degree.” I remember when I applied at a local newspaper after my tour in Vietnam they made it clear that they only wanted graduates with a journalism degree even though my writing courses far outnumbered the number of writing courses required to be a journalism major. I suspect that I would never even be offered the business jobs I was offered then because they now require a business degree.

How many public schools have eliminated music and art in order to emphasize the “basics?”

May’s Concept of Beauty

One of many reasons I love May’s books is how he explores the meaning of words. He devotes the entire second chapter of this book to defining “beauty.” And, typically, he traces the meaning of the word from the Greek meaning of the word to contemporary meanings.

He begins with a definition that might satisfy most people:

Beauty is the experience that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one’s sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment a timelessness, a repose-which is why we speak of beauty as being eternal.

Beauty is the mystery which enchants us. Like all higher experiences of being human, beauty is dynamic; its sense of repose, paradoxically, is never dead, and if it seems to be dead, it is no longer beauty.

Although a rather abstract definition, most people would recognize their own feelings about beauty in this definition, certainly in the idea that beauty gives us a sense of wonder and timelessness.

But Mays extends the meaning of Beauty, offering further possibilities that many of us (at least those of us who called ourselves Liberal Arts majors) may have studied long ago but have probably long since forgotten. May’s commonly returns to the roots of words to discover their meanings.

Classical Greece was not afraid to talk of beauty. The Greeks had two ways of describing it. One was that beauty is the condition when everything fits, when in a scientific theory or the Parthenon one has the conviction that nothing could be added or subtracted. All the parts are in harmony with all the other parts. This was the definition which Aristotle liked; it fits the empirical enthusiasm which characterized him and his countless followers through the ages.

This sounds like what I mean when I say I’m having a “beautiful day,” though the latent mathematician in me still remembers thinking exactly that way when I had found the perfect move in chess or a “beautiful” proof in Geometry.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about Plato’s ideas, versus Aristotle’s ideas, but I’m reminded that I generally sided with Plato’s argument versus Aristotle’s way back them. Perhaps because this:

The other description of beauty, invented by Pythagoras and held by Plato and later by Plotinus, has nothing to do with parts. Beauty, rather, is the eternal splendor of the One showing through the Many. That is, in the many different forms in our universe, the One shines through and gives splendor and meaning to all. The former definition is more passive, the latter more active, as I shall indicate below.

When Plato considered the great trilogy of Beauty, Truth and Goodness, he placed Beauty at the top because Beauty is harmony, and whether Truth or Goodness are harmonious is the test of their integrity. Goodness gives a person self-respect, Truth gives gratification, but Beauty gives both peace and joy simultaneously. Plato believed that Goodness, or ethics, consists of acting in a way that is harmonious with your fellow human beings, and this makes the action testable by its beauty. Indeed, the Greek word for beauty and for goodness is the same, “kalon.” When Rilke wrote his sonnet, “To the Torso of the Unknown Apollo,” and ended it with the ethical challenge, “You must change your life,” he was accurately expressing the Greek view of life. And when Socrates gave his enchanting prayer at the conclusion of the Phaedrus, “0 Pan, and all ye other Gods that haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward man, and may the outward and inward man be at one,” he was illustrating again that ethics follows beauty.

is exactly the way Bill and I used to talk about nature when we hiking high in the wilderness of the Cascades. It also sounds an awful lot like Emerson and Thoreau’s concept of the Oversoul, the Holy Spirit, as it were. There are too few moments in life when I have felt such harmony.

May foreshadows later chapters in his book by contrasting Beauty to Progress:

The timelessness of beauty saves us from worshipping at the shrine of progress, or kneeling at the altar to pray that tomorrow we will make more money than today, and the future will be better than the past, until we are caught up in a sordid merry-go-round that makes it impossible for us to appreciate the delicious calm of a moment of timelessness. The God who became Providence after the Renaissance, and then became Progress after the Industrial Revolution, is not the God of beauty. For beauty has nothing to do with progress. Who will be so rash as to proclaim that our present buildings are more beautiful than the Parthenon? Or our present churches more beautiful than Chartres? Or our present dishware more beautiful than the Greek vases? Or modern music better than Mozart and Bach? Beauty is beyond the confines of progress.

This seems like a provocative distinction to me, particularly in our Progress-oriented society. And, yet, it seems like the kind of choice that artists are generally forced to make. Few painters, much less poets, can earn enough to live on without working outside their chosen profession.

May also introduces Friedrich von Schiller into his discussion of beauty, noting that, “Many people, including myself, believe that the greatest and richest discourse on beauty in our Western culture was written by von Schiller, just before 1800.

Schiller’s central idea-and inspiration, as I would call it-is that beauty is born in play. When I first read this I thought it a frivolous idea; but I then recalled that we speak of Mozart and Beethoven playing the piano, the very opposite of superficiality. And we refer to Shakespeare’s plays; and I agreed that such “playing” describes the most profound and humanizing of all human activities.

Play is the one activity where the fusion of inner vision and objective facts is achieved. Out of this comes the living form which is beauty. This living form is vital, alive, dynamic; and at the same time it gives serenity and repose, as for example in music.

Play unites the inner world of our personal reverie with the outer world of people and nature. “The object of the play instinct, represented in a general statement, may therefore bear the name of living form,” asserts Schiller, “a term that serves to describe all aesthetic qualities of phenomena, and what people style, in the widest sense, beauty.” “A marble block, though it is and remains lifeless, can nevertheless become a living form by the architect and sculptor; a man, though he lives and has a form is far from being a living form on that account . . . . For this to be the case, it is necessary that his form should be life, and that his life should be a form. As long as we only think of his form, it is lifeless, a mere abstraction . . . . It is only when his form lives in our feelings, and his life in our understanding, that he is the living form, and this will everywhere be the case where we judge him to be beautiful.”

For me, the key phrase here is “fusion of inner vision with the outer world of people and nature.” It’s that nebulous quality that most attracts me to a poet, though I suspect that my inner vision, articulated or not, plays a large part in determining whether or not I find that in an artist.

The idea of an artist playing when he’s working also rings true. I’m not sure I consider myself an artist, but oftentimes my best photos are those where I try new ways of photographing a subject and, more importantly, play around with the photos in Photoshop, looking for better ways of conveying what I felt when I shot a subject.

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