Beauty And The Life Of Appreciation
( Originally Published 1913 )
IT is because art appeals to the whole human spirit-senses, imagination, emotions, intellect, that it is so difficult to translate into terms of the understanding, as has been evident in all our discussion. We appreciate much that we never understand. It is possible to respond deeply to the appeal of music, and yet be quite in ignorance of principles of melody and harmony. One may enjoy the beauty of a painting, with no knowledge of the technique by which it is produced. So one may appreciate a friend, without having an intellectual judgment of his conduct and character. Indeed, as our previous studies have shown, too much analysis with the intellect may even stand in the way of appreciation, as criticism and creation rarely go together.
Much of our happiness is in appreciation; imagine life denuded of it: how intolerably barren our existence would be! Thus life is always in advance of the understanding: in a profoundly true sense we are better than we know. First we live, and then we think about it, haltingly translating our experience into a theory of the world. Thus the major development of Greek poetry came before any one had scanned a foot or named a measure; and Greek character had reached its fruition and begun to decline, before Aristotle analyzed it into its elements and constructed them into his theory of ethics. Faith is thus "the substance of things hoped for," that is, their realization in life, before we can put them into our philosophy. Many persons, caught in some eddy of thought, feel compelled to reject all belief in the things of the spirit, and yet go on serenely living to them all the time.
Thomas Hill Green, whose philosophy received popular exposition some time ago through Mrs. Ward's Robert Elsmere, pointed this paradox. He spoke of the fact that many earnest men these days feel compelled to accept the philosophy of naturalism, as the whole truth of things, and yet go on finding personal consolation in the poetry of Browning and Tennyson—poetry based on the very ideas, the philosophy of naturalism wholly rejects. Obviously we must give up the poetry, abandon the theory, or else come to a plane of thought where the seemingly opposed elements can be united.
This life of appreciation, let it be noted, is just as real as the life of the understanding. Wordsworth, who stands beside the lake, watching the wealth of golden daffodils nod-ding in the breeze, is just as truly related to that aspect of nature, as the scientist who picks the flowers to pieces, counts their petals and tells us their physical structure and history. So when we look up to an ideal, love it and seek to realize it, we actually produce changes in the material world, and are as truly related to reality as is possible in the life of the under-standing. Similarly the relation to another life in love is even deeper than the intellectual judgment of character.
In a sense the loftiest truth is appreciated in wisdom rather than understood in knowledge. Knowledge and wisdom are upon different planes; knowledge is of facts, wisdom of truth. Facts are the root from which the flower of truth may or may not blossom. Truth is the soul of fact, is fact interpreted; and for right interpretation, wise vision of life in relation is required. Thus one may know much and not be wise at all; and, on the other hand, one may be deeply wise and quite without ordinary learning. That is what Jesus meant when he said : "I thank thee, O Father, . . . that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes."
To enter the kingdom of truth one must have the simple openness of the child. To see true one must be true; and moral sincerity or reality is the deepest basis of wisdom. That is why persons who always ring true are found almost as often among the unlearned as among the highly educated.
Art has thus a closer relation to reality than philosophy.
"Our little systems have their day ;
because in our "little systems" we take the arc we have found of God's truth and twist it into a completed theory of the world. The theory helps for a time, as a basis of life, but inevitably passes. Art, on the other hand, may pre-sent the arc of truth with its curve scarcely changed, since the artist is often inconsistent for the sake of truth, presenting, in all the form and color of life, what experience has taught him.
This was Victor Hugo's meaning in holding that the scientists build, one on the labors of another, but the great artist breaks out through the finite into the infinite, and his work therefore has eternal value. Hence an artistic masterpiece has power to grow with our growth, fresh truth being evident in it as we bring to unlock it the key of deeper experience. There is in every true work of art some-thing of that inexhaustible residuum that is in life itself, giving dignity to the humblest personality. Life is the text all philosophy has sought to interpret, and there is more in the text than in all the commentaries. Indeed, the supreme value of the greatest thinkers, such as Plato and Spinoza, is that they have been artists as well as philosophers, giving concrete insight and the wisdom of life, as well as meta-physical theory. Love, wisdom, faith and beauty thus belong to the life of appreciation, and defy complete translation into terms of the understanding.
This explains why, despite the fact that almost every philosopher, from Plato down-ward, has attempted an explanation of beauty, beauty remains undefined. The most that we can do is to show its aspects and relations. For example, there is in nearly all appreciation of beauty an element of convention; we respond most readily to that to which we are habituated. Consider the different types of human face and figure that have been regarded as beautiful by various races in different times. I recall Stanley's remarking that, after being for a long time in Central Africa, and seeing constantly the bare, rich, brown and black bodies of the natives, the few white men with him appeared singularly washed out and unpleasing.
Erasmus was perhaps the most cultivated man of his age. He loved the beauty of Greek manuscripts and Latin literature. In the vigor of his manhood he crossed the Alps on horse-back, on thé road to Italy to take his doctor's degree. His letters note just three things as impressing, him in Switzerland: the dirty and inconvenient lodgings, the intolerable smell from the stoves, and the sour wine that gave him indigestion!* Not a word of the picturesque beauty of that circle beyond circle of snow-clad mountains rising till their summits seem to touch the sky. The point is, the romantic love of nature beauty had not yet come to consciousness in Europe, and Erasmus, with all his cultivation, was totally without it. Is a better illustration needed of the element of habit and Convention entering into the appreciation of beauty? If so, remember that Shakespeare was regarded by the best critics of one long pseudo-classical period as an untutored barbarian, with great natural genius but no art !
Every lover of beauty would resent, how-ever, our Making too much of its conventional aspect. He is sure there is something deeper and more permanent in the nature of beauty; and he is right. Such a principle is the harmony of the parts in a whole, in the appeal whether of nature or art. Emerson speaks of this in Each and All:
"I thought the sparrow's note from heaven,
So with the appeal to one sense: the beauty of the landscape is not in the lake, river, forest, hills or sky; but in all these fused together in a harmonious whole. Similarly, the beauty of a Corot painting is not in the misty group of trees, the dancing figures, the mellow dawn light or the subtle atmosphere, but in the composition of these into a harmony.
Still deeper in beauty is the harmony of an organism to its function, or of a thing made to its purpose. A beautiful body is one where every structure and organ is well adapted to its purpose. Thus deformity is always aesthetically painful because it interposes a barrier between organ and function. The running of a child in the sunshine is beautiful because the action is so natural and inevitable.
The same principle holds even with things made by thé hand of man. When one sees a great machine smoothly doing its work, with no friction anywhere, one's feeling is closely akin to that one experiences in the presence of the sublime. Indeed, when our mechanical age is far enough in the past to be seen in perspective I have no doubt that our wonderful machinery will be recognized as romantic and almost sublime. Stand beside the railroad track at night, under the stars, and watch a brilliantly lighted passenger train sweep by; and you feel up and down your back a shiver closely akin to that you experience in the presence of sonie masterpiece of art. Henry Turner Bailey says that he hopes, before the steam locomotive completely passes, some artist will paint it, so that its romance may be recorded.
I never Cross on a ferry from New Jersey to New York, in the morning or evening, and see those high buildings, outlined like watch-towers against the misty blush of the sky, without keenly responding to the scene. The "sky-scraper," born of the modern business imagination, is wonderfully adapted to its purpose—that of lifting a vast population into the air and multiplying many times the activities possible on the little end of Manhattan island; and I have never been able to under-stand how artists who come back full of praises for the ragged sky line of towers and crags upon the Rhine, can show only contempt for the equally ragged and, seen in perspective, at least equally romantic sky line of Manhattan island.
Still deeper as a principle of beauty is that harmony of soul and body, content and form, we have previously studied. This is present in both nature and art. To give beauty there must be definitely limited form; the abstract conception must attain concrete realization; and the more perfect the marrying of the body of expression to the soul of meaning, the greater is the beauty.
We may go one step farther. All art, as we have seen, draws its forms ultimately from nature. Thus the final principle of all appreciation of beau y lies in the relation we sustain to the nature world. Now there is a natural rhythm between human sensibility and the forms and colors of nature, which results from the general process of evolution. Our senses have been developed on the basis of the world as it is, and there is thus the same adaptation to environment in our response to beauty, that is present in our relation to the fundamental conditions of life. We can trace the development of the eye from the simple pigment spot sensitive to light, in the body of some early animal, to the wonderful window of the soul through which we look out on the forms and colors of the world. Because our senses have been gradually developed in harmony with this world, it follows that all appreciation of beauty in nature is a coming to consciousness of a rhythm already existing between our senses and the nature world.
Let me try to make this clear by a whimsical and necessarily inadequate illustration. Suppose at noon to-day the world should suddenly turn red—the color of the grass, the foliage, the sea and the sky all brilliant red: What would happen? We would all rush out doors and be strongly impressed and stimulated by this wonderful spectacle of a red world. Before night came, however, those of us who are consciously responsive to the beauty of nature as it is, would be tired out. Then we should have to get up day after day and face the intolerable red world. The result would be an increasing depression in spirit and action. We would have less ambition, less interest in our work, less desire to marry and have children. On the other hand, those per-sons who have never recognized consciously the blue of the sky, the green grass and gray seas, would get on very well with a red world. Do you not see that in the end Nature would select a race of men really enjoying a red world? The illustration is faulty, I know; but it is the best I can give, in reference to something so ultimate in human nature, to show what actually has occurred. Our senses have been developed in relation to this world, though not to all of it. We see certain colors of the spectrum, but when the vibration of light waves in the transmitting medium becomes too rapid or too slow, we see nothing; yet may there not be whole ranges of color beyond ours, seen, for example, by those strange, many-faceted eyes of certain insects? So we can hear only certain limited ranges of the vibration We call sound; but when one looks through the microscope at the mysterious, apparently auricular, organ of certain insects, one wonders again whether, in what we call a still June noon-time, there may not be a wealth of melody and harmony heard by the insect, which simply does not exist for us. Thus our senses do not give us all the world; but they have been developed in relation to it, and our appreciation of the beauty of nature is merely a consciousness of that already existent rhythm. Since art must take its forms from nature and appeal only through the senses, the principle holds for appreciation of beauty in art as well. Thus it is possible to show the elements of beauty and the conditions of our appreciation of it, but beauty itself remains undefined.