An object seen from a distance reveals only its principle.
Beauty is truth and truth beauty.
I’ve been asking people to try to embody beauty. That is, when you experience something as beautiful how do you feel? What is that like?
This is part of my accelerating quest to encounter the world as a human. Too often I feel alienated. Like I am in the world differently. Like I cannot relate entirely to your experience, nor can you to mine. But, Like Commander Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” I seek to become more than my programming, to be in the world in a way of my choosing rather than a way for which I was destined.
This question of beauty is part of this quest. When I experience beauty, I hear myself say “wow” or “holy @#$%!” but I feel nothing. I sit forward as though interested, stare as though I know I am seeing something important, and think of how I might try to explain this scene to someone later. But I feel nothing.
No emotion, no body sensation, no shaking or waking.
And I am not satisfied with this. I think humans feel something when they experience beauty. So I started asking people what, exactly.
So far, I find I am not as alone as I feel. Others have a hard time embodying this feeling, too. When I ask this question, I get back a lot of philosophical talk or intellectualization, and little feeling. For many people, it seems, nothing is going on in their body—or, like me, they are disconnected from it. They recognize it is happening but cannot identify it.
Then I asked a friend who identifies as an artist. He said he feels tears even though he isn’t sad and goose-bumps even though he isn’t cold. That gooseflesh, it lets him know something important is going on. The last two weeks I’ve been tramping around China with existentialists, and more than one has let me into the secret: they identify what is important by feelings like this. A poet reads something and feels sad, and does not know why. So he reads it again, and sometimes many times over many days, seeking to understand why it is important. In common with the artist is this artist’s view of the world—that what we see is sometimes less real than what it points to.
Now these feelings, I have. I have written before about how I got to existential psychology: by following the pain. Nothing else I read provoked the sense of grief, of something powerful just behind my eyes wanting to get out into the world, of heaving sobs, even though there was nothing of grief or loss on the page. These experiences point me to truth, to something that is fundamental and of vital importance.
I don’t feel this way looking at a landscape or at the ocean (which I think is the most beautiful of things) or at images of space or at puppies, or when reading poems about nature, or looking at sculptures. Nor is it in songs or dances. It is in words about life that resonate, that point at something true and profound.
The first time I read that ode about truth and beauty, I thought it was just romantic-era claptrap, an idealization that leads away from direct experience and into rarified intellectualizations. Now, I am starting to think it might mean something. I don’t get that truth-sense reaction to the line, though, so it is not quite right. Something is missing. Maybe it is not that truth is beauty, but that truth is beautiful.
That’s still too abstract. I want to bring this back to being in the world. I am stuck here for a while and might as well try to suffer bravely, to experience and feel the whole range of human being while I can. I might miss it when I am gone or—worse yet—I might not.
So let’s talk about cutlery and flowers.
This morning, I had breakfast at my hotel. It was adequate. Waffles, coffee, a bagel, and cream cheese. There was a small plastic knife, the purpose of which was to spread the cream cheese.
The knife could not really do the job. The cream cheese was cold and the knife too flimsy. And I wondered if the person who ordered the knives really thought about the job they had to do or if they just saw knives, plastic, 2 doz. in the supply catalogue and chose the cheapest option. That is, they didn’t need any knives. They needed an object that could stand for a knife. The customer would come in at breakfast, look for a knife, and find this object that had the shape and size of a knife and be satisfied.
On the table, plastic flowers rested in vases, a little water in the bottom to reinforce the illusion. But they were not flowers, only representations of flowers. They are real things, of course, but also abstractions. Seen from far away, they might be taken for flowers. They have the intent, the principle, of flowers, but are not flowers. From up close, we can see they lack some uniqueness, scent, life and mortality, growth, fiber, and ecology. They do not seek to make more flowers, do not attract bees, do not provide sustenance for aphids or beetles. They only stand for flowers.
Now, in my reading I have never had this beauty/truth reaction when the subject is these abstract matters about things. Only when the subject is people.
The housekeeping staff at the hotel were quite nice. One made sure to say good morning to each guest, and made sure she smiled for each person. I liked her. Another guest saw her and related to her though her work: you’re almost out of Splenda packets.
The housekeeper was a person. Fact. The guest appeared to see her as a person standing in for something—perhaps a work object? —and related to that role rather than the person in front of her. Was I better, standing back out of the action, doing my best to keep my presence out of the intersubjective field?
And the guest, how did I relate to her? As a person, or as a person-shaped role (guest, villain in my story)?
We see people every day, and some of them are important to us. Where existential psychology is beautiful is the times it tells us to experience the person as directly as we are able, with the least amount of labeling, intending, helping, forcing and so on that we can manage. To be with them and their experience, not hiding our own being and experience. To know them as a person, not as a client or a patient or anything else standing in for a person, and to try to be the same to them.
Later today, I will see my wife and son for the first time in a bit over two weeks. I have been off in the world relating to new people, old friends, strangers, and acquaintances. When I arrive home, will the woman I love be an object to me—a thing standing in for a person? A wife or lover, a receptacle for my feelings and experiences? Or will I be able to relate to her more directly, as a human with whom I have chosen to share a life?
Like my wife, my son is saddled with a role. I can’t describe him to you without it. He is my son, and those two words are fraught with epistemological peril. Can I love him for the child he is, or will he stand in for a person? Riding back from the airport in the car, will I look at him, cross “son: 1” off my checklist, and be satisfied? Or try to be with him in a human way?
I can’t do all of this. At least, not all of the time. Neither can you, I suspect. When people have been unable to embody beauty, they have been sorry for their failure to do so—they knew it was important to me to know, and they thought they were more in the world than they are. But I am not sorry or terribly disappointed. They courageously tried, struggled to find the experience and share it with me. This alone makes me feel less alone. And even the fact that others have this experience of having no experience, of knowing they feel something but being dumbfounded as to —this makes me feel less defective, more like I am in the world largely as intended.
So maybe today you will see people that are, and maybe only people who are not. For me, today, it is enough that we have this problem in common.
— Jason Dias