Sunday, November 01, 2009

`Take Up One Leaf and See'

While raking leaves I thought about the beautiful specimen James Marcus posted last week at House of Mirth. Its motley symmetry gives it the look of a stylish Rorschach test. Consider that trillions like it, each unique, are falling across the Northern Hemisphere. Hilaire Belloc noticed such things. In “The Autumn and the Fall of Leaves,” an essay collected in Hills and the Sea(1906), he writes:

“The colour is not a mere splendour: it is intricate. The same unbounded power, never at fault and never in calculation, which comprehends all the landscape, and which has made the woods, has worked in each one separate leaf as well, they are inconceivably varied. Take up one leaf and see.”

Nature is profligate and capricious. Comparing it to a machine betrays a profound poverty of imagination. No human hand could paint such a leaf as James found. Were a painter to make the attempt, the result would be charmless and tacky, pure kitsch. Fallen from trees, plastered to sidewalks, the result is touchingly useless beauty. To reduce such beauty and its audacious lack of utility to evolutionary advantage is as witless as a Marxian analysis of a chess game. Beauty always exceeds necessity. Look at leaves, snowflakes and sea shells – unique beyond calculation, and why? Paul Valery wrote in his great essay on aesthetics “Man and the Sea Shell”:

“Run off by the billions, each different from the rest (though the difference is sometimes imperceptible), they offer an infinite number of solutions to the most delicate problems of art, and of absolutely perfect answers to the questions they suggest to us.”

Valery finds an unexpected kindred spirit in Samuel Johnson. Boswell reports that he and Johnson dined on March 31, 1772, with General Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican patriot exiled in London. The conversation moved from the naturalness of marriage to aesthetics:

“We then fell into a disquisition whether there is any beauty independent of utility. The General maintained there was not. Dr. Johnson maintained that there was; and he instanced a coffee cup which he held in his hand, the painting of which was of no real use, as the cup could hold the coffee equally well if plain; yet the painting was beautiful.”

As reported by Boswell, the next subject of conversation at General Paoli’s was “the strange custom of swearing in conversation.”

1 comment:

Andrew MacGillivray said...

Thank you. 'Take up one anything and see' Blake might have said. Ruskin on leaves

'Star-shaped, heart-shaped, spear-shaped, arrow-shaped, fretted, fringed, cleft, furrowed, serrated, sinnuated; in whorls, in tufts, in spires, in wreaths endlessly expressive, deceptive, fantastic, never the same from footstalk to blossom; they seem perpetually to tempt our watchfulness, and take delight in outstripping our wonder.'

and Hugh MacDiarmid on the stones of his raised beach

'All is lithogenesis — or lochia,
Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,
Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,
Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,
Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,
Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,
Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,
I study you glout and gloss, but have
No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again
From optik to haptik and like a blind man run
My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,
Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles, …'

amount almost to an incantation and make obsolete haeckneyed allusions to haecceity. The words themselves have just as much haecceity as what they describe.