Some critics and bloggers speak of beauty only with contempt and distaste, and seem to evince a pathological suspicion of aesthetic pleasure. They remind me of a small cadre of protesters one often saw at antiwar rallies in the late nineteen-sixties, who wore their hair short and dressed in white shirts and narrow ties, which served to make them conspicuous and a little spooky. They were a humorless bunch, armed with stacks of densely written, single-spaced tracts, and resembled nothing so much as door-to-door Mormon proselytizers. They were members of the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist sect for whom the Communist Party USA was too soft on capitalism. These guys were so dour and bland they looked dangerous, and one can hardly imagine them pierced by the beauty of anything, whether a sonnet or an old barn. Here’s an anecdote Maxim Gorky told about Lenin, as reported by Edmund Wilson in To the Finland Station:
“`I know nothing [Lenin said] that is greater than the Appassionata; I’d like to listen to it every day. It is marvelous superhuman music. I always think with pride – perhaps it is naïve of me – what marvelous things human beings can do!’ Then screwing up his eyes and smiling, he added, rather sadly: `But I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you mustn’t stroke anyone’s head – you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against anyone. Our duty is infernally hard.”
Poor Vladimir Illych. It’s not easy being a beauty-hating sociopath, especially when an aesthetic sense is a component of our genetic makeup, one of the capacities that distinguish us from other species. Even Lenin confesses to a fondness for Beethoven, but quickly retracts his admission of bourgeois sentimentality, just as a blogger came perilously close last week to expressing love for the work of a certain poet, only to dismiss its beauty as a “social construction.” Imagine being so painfully divided against oneself and, by implication, so contemptuous of those who enjoy wallowing in beauty. Better to have no aesthetic sense at all.
I respond to the beauty of a phrase or line before I weigh its truth or any other value it may possess. That doesn’t make me a swooning aesthete. I naturally take the next step and evaluate all the meanings, all the words’ uses, available to me. Artfully arranged language is not stagnant; it vibrates with connotations and echoes, heard and unheard melodies. I can savor the passage in The Pisan Cantos beginning “What thou lovest well remains,/the rest is dross,” and promptly question its human accuracy and reject the anti-Semitic, often incoherent garbage Pound heaped around it. When Ruskin writes in The Stones of Venice – “Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” -- my reactions are numerous, beginning with the fact that Fairfield Porter’s “October Interior,” Hopkins’ “The Windhover” and Satie’s “Gymnopédies” possess much utility in my life. And I can think of many things more beautiful than peacocks and lilies, both of which are a little too emphatically beautiful for my taste, which runs closer to what Yeats wrote in “No Second Troy”:
“…With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern.”