Because of the Mystery

Do you know what beauty is? I’ve been trying to create it in my novels, and although the finished product never seems to measure up to what I had in mind, I think it’s important to keep working toward it consciously and passionately. Not everyone agrees. In this post I wrote about the strange fact that many novelists rarely think of beauty as a goal in their work. In this one I discussed the reason why a Christian of all people ought to do exactly that, which brings me to the point: when you’re in hot pursuit of a thing, it’s important to understand exactly what that thing is. So what is beauty, anyway?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Everyone has an opinion on how to define beauty, and our opinions vary widely. Like love or the taste of water, it seems beauty is the kind of thing one can’t quite explain. Webster’s defines it as “the quality attributed to whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind,” but notice this describes beauty in terms of its effect and not in terms of what it is. One simply knows beauty when one senses it, and as is often the case with intangibles, this means when we ask, “What is beauty?” it may be simpler to explain what beauty isn’t. Here goes:

“Beautiful” is not a synonym for “pretty.” This fact is embedded in the language. While “beautiful” comes from the root noun “beauty,” there is no root noun for “pretty.” On the contrary, “pretty,” an adjective, is the root of “prettiness,” a noun. This means we can describe a thing as pretty, but pretty in itself is not a thing to be described. On the other hand, beauty requires no object. Beauty is a thing itself, and it is not necessarily pretty. Nature offers countless examples of the difference. The perfect contours of a great white shark are easily an aesthetic match for any sculptor’s masterpiece, and it moves with an effortless grace that any prima ballerina would envy. Surely “beauty” is not too strong a word to define such complete balance of form and function, but who would call that awesome predator “pretty”? Not all beautiful things are pretty, therfore the two are not the same.

Also, with apologies to lingering postmodernists, at its most fundamental level beauty is not relative to anything. Certainly we are conditioned by our cultures to prefer one form of beauty over another in some cases. Many Japanese men think geishas are beautiful. With respect, I prefer less makeup. But that kind of disagreement exists only when we compare what we ourselves create. Everyone on earth agrees sunsets are beautiful. That fact means cultural distinctions are irrelevant when it comes to beauty found nature. Natural beauty—primal beauty—is an absolute which transcends nation, race, gender, religion, age, social mores and language. It is not relative to anything.

Beauty is not always comfortable. Consider forest fires and lightning. Think of the summit of Mount Everest. Are they not beautiful in their own ways? Yet aren’t they also terrifying? Remember the great white shark again, or a black widow or a lion. Some beauty makes us so uncomfortable we feel the need to set ourselves apart from it. And our desire for distance from some kinds of beauty isn’t only due to danger. We were created to care for the garden. To work it. To organize it and arrange it. This explains the impulse many of us feel to make some kind of change in nature. We trim hedges. We separate flowerbeds from lawns. But what of those who take that impulse further? Who set fire to forests simply to destroy them, hunt for animals they do not eat, and fence off land they do not use? Beauty sometimes makes us sense our smallness. It reminds us we are not in control. It whispers “You are only mortal, and none of this is really yours.” Beauty is not always comfortable.

Nor is beauty halfhearted. Sometimes I fail to write beautiful words because of a momentary lack of enthusiasm, a distracted mind, or a prideful hidden agenda, but there is no pretension, no confusion, no uncertainty and no shortage of exuberance in anything of beauty found in nature. Every beautiful insentient thing from the smallest one-celled organism or slightest grain of sand to the greatest sequoia or the highest mountain is completely and sincerely what it is. Indeed, it is only when this is not true—when the purity of nature is polluted—that we call it ugly. Similarly, no crow ever wished it was an eagle. No leopard ever wished it was a lion. Everything of beauty with a consciousness is absolutely determined to be completely what it is, except sometimes for man. Even man is the exception that proves the rule, for who could rightly call a man “beautiful” while he is pretentiously pretending to be something he is not? Such a man may still be lovable (it’s best to love him anyway, for we are him from time to time) but it is not possible to think of him as beautiful. Beauty is not halfhearted.

Beauty is not slipshod or substandard. As long as it lives, a mighty oak will always grow leaves in the spring. It never forgets. It never grows leaves partway, or poorly. It never makes the mistake of growing toads or daffodils, nor does it grow leaves on its roots or over in the next county. Mighty oaks are beautiful in part because they can be relied upon to do what oaks do perfectly, each and every time they do it. In the same way, doves are beautiful in part because they always sing their mournful song without missing a note. Ocean surf is beautiful in part because waves always come, one after the other, on and on with never one that fails to do its duty and surrender to the beach. All beauty in creation must fulfill the promise of itself completely. Beauty is not slipshod or substandard.

Undoubtedly there are many other things which beauty is not, but I have only time and space enough to mention one thing more:

Beauty does not exist for our entertainment. Just as the Rocky Mountains were not raised up for snow skiing, and the Bible was not written to help readers avoid boredom, beauty may fascinate or even hold us spellbound, but that is not its purpose. Entertainment can be pretty. It can be funny. It can be tragic. But if a moment comes when we suddenly realize a pretty painting, a funny movie, or a tragic novel has somehow become beautiful before our very eyes, we mean it has become something more than merely entertaining. Entertainment is always inward focused. Its sole purpose is wrapped up in us, but beauty exists either with us or without us, and often, sadly, in spite of us. Think of the violent and profligate life of Caravaggio, or the egomaniacal Frank Lloyd Wright. Think of their beautiful paintings and architecture. The fact that base and selfish men can produce beauty proves that beauty is true, transcendent and sublime in and of itself, and not dependant on us whatsoever. Beauty is not about our entertainment.

But what does it mean to say beauty is true, transcendent and sublime? I could write a book to explain and add no further understanding to that statement. In the end, there’s only one thing I can say in the affirmative about beauty without fear of contradiction:

Beauty is mysterious, and it is because of the mystery that beauty is most easily defined by looking elsewhere, at the negative. The loss of mystery becomes the loss of beauty. Practically speaking, this means the best chance of finding beauty in one’s work is to concentrate on avoiding all the things that it is not. To create a work of beauty, I cannot write merely pretty words, or comfortable words, or entertaining words. I cannot slavishly conform to culture. I cannot tolerate mediocre craftsmanship, and I cannot write halfheartedly. Beauty is a mystery, so a novelist (or any kind of artist) in pursuit of beauty must never look for it directly. If we do that, we will find beauty has escaped us, much as soap bubbles pop when they are touched and flowers wilt when they are plucked. No one can define the mystery of beauty, but everybody knows it when they sense it. Indeed, beauty is a mystery so powerful it’s blinding. It’s like looking at the sun. I must gaze off to the side, to a place where beauty is not, if I hope to glimpse it as it is.

Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner. His most recent novel, Lost Mission, is his fifth novel in a row to be selected as a finalist for the Christy Award. Two of his novels are Christy Award winners. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.