ways of being in the world
Post #528 • May 2, 2005, 9:32 AM • 22 Comments
We sat ourselves down on a stone bench near a great, blooming magnolia tree in the informal, English-style south garden. There are many magnificent magnolias there, each one encircled by daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths--shimmering yellows against all shades of purple, some silky, some matte, backed and interspersed by leaves of the blackest green. From where we were sitting, the creamy white underside of the magnolias appeared delicate and thin, like hand-made paper, not waxy but luminous, dappled at the edges with a deep, rosy maroon that, depending on the light, sometimes took on a lavender glow. Randomly spaced within these masses of color were small bunches of intense pinkish-purple buds, only a few still remaining, loose and full, just about to open into single, distinct, pleasing flowers. We had arrived at precisely the moment when the magnolias and the spring bulbs surrounding them were at their most beautiful.
"This is what eighteenth-century thinkers must have had in mind when they tried to define beauty," I said to my husband. For a long time now, I have been trying, with little success, to grasp what the first aestheticians meant when they spoke of "the pleasures of the imagination," the most delightful, for them, being beauty--an aesthetic feeling that has lost much of its resonance over the course of the last century. I have always found Kant's account of beauty the most compelling of the early writers, even if it is also dauntingly abstract. But I don't think I ever truly grasped, before that moment under the magnolias, what he meant when he wrote that beauty is what we experience when the imagination and the understanding come together in free play--pure, "distinterested" pleasure, joy for its own sake. My delight in the optical texture filling my senses was precisely of this sort: It called up no associations whatsoever. I wanted nothing more than to continue taking in this pleasing sight. And my perception was ratified when my husband spoke of the arresting sensation of the late-afternoon light touching and coloring the tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Were other visitors to our refreshing spring garden also absorbed by this quiet, self-contained pleasure?
I began to wonder if the gentle, low-keyed pleasures of gardens might simply fall below the notice of most people living today. "Could whole ways of being in the world simply disappear?" I asked my husband. Which made him think of the reams of drawings and watercolors of weather-horizons, clouds, sunsets, dawns, trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, and grasses, that were once the living embodiment of the attentive eye and sensitive hand of practiced and amateur artists alike. Constable's aerial views of the lumimous atmosphere of clouds immediately came to mind as did Ruskin's painstaking, delicate renderings of herbs, mosses, and feathers. Sunday photographers were out in full force that glorious spring afternoon, but their mechanical and instantaneous interactions with nature made the slow and absorbing pleasures of attentive looking, which had long been the province of Sunday painters, obsolete. And what, we wondered, was happening to the senses and sensibility of that new breed of frenetic observers who go through the world snapping pictures with their cellphones while hooked up to an iPod soundtrack of their own making?
I once wrote about the cult of speed and surface on these pages. I would modify some of what I said in that post, but I continue to believe that frenzied living does art little good. I enjoy art as a contemplative experience, not a social one. At most, I like two or three other people there with me. Sometimes.
Yes, whole ways of being in the world can simply disappear. But societies form around the better ones and cultivate them, even as modern living would mandate against their practices and products. Perhaps we all ought to ask ourselves: how long can I stop for? How much attention can I give over to this thing that does not demand it?