How can we search for and encounter the beautiful? Are there ways in which its discovery can be cultivated? The answer is: undoubtedly so.
It is important to realize that the consolations of beauty are more dependent on our mindset than the subject under observation—in certain circumstances, a greasy puddle can be more soulful than a view of the Cheviots on a summer’s morning. The importance of the right frame of mind cannot be exaggerated: a meditative mood, a measured slowness, a lack of distraction, patience and calm are essential attributes of the necessary attentiveness. With hurry, fidgeting and anxiety, nothing is to be gained. ‘Attentiveness,’ Simone Weil reminds us, ‘is the heart of prayer.’ It is certainly at the heart of any search for beauty. Meanwhile we live in a society that is probably the least congenial for the discovery of this, the most elusive of aims. We rush around like water boatmen scurrying across the surface of a pond—we dash to the shops, commute back and forth to work, drive the children to school, heat up prepared suppers, practice one non-stop activity after another and all the while we leave too little time for the enjoyment of a state of meditative calm.
Yet even when this proves elusive, the beautiful can honour us with a visitation. Stuck in a traffic jam or leaning over a bar for a drink, we can always, in absenting ourselves, flick over into a different world. John Cowper Powys provides good practical advice about this technique. ‘The thing to do,’ he writes, ‘is to use your will to force the passing moment to become a medium for the eternal . . . These ‘eternal moments’ of lying back upon the soul and letting ourselves become nothing but pure awareness, nothing but a conscious mind face-to-face with the fragment of the inanimate that happens to be near us, are moments which, if we want to be happy and to live long, we ought to snatch from the flowing of time. Snatch them in buses, in waiting-rooms, in railway-trains, on park-seats, in hallways, in the entrances of hotels and theatres, in public lavatories, on ferry-boats, in taxis, in carriers’ carts, in churches, on your bed, in a chair, in your kitchen, on the steps of your house, over the fence of your garden; snatch them whenever and wherever you can!’ (John Cowper Powys, The Art of Happiness, The Bodley Head, 1935)
What we happen to discern in such moments—the reflections in the back window of the car in front of us or the glitter of a row of spirit bottles—could seem banal, but does it matter? All things await to be enjoyed—if, that is, if we seek to see them. The American painter Edward Hopper saw beauty in petrol pumps and cheap hotel bedrooms; Vincent van Gogh saw it in a billiard table and a rush-seated bedroom chair; Claude Monet in a Parisian railway shed; Stanley Spencer in a scrap-heap of rusting iron, Picasso in a coiled sausage. (…)
To see things clothed in their fullest beauty it is imperative to approach them with an open-hearted receptivity; to jettison all negative and selfish feelings and the prejudice of unfeeling habit. And always, always, to try to see things as if for the first time. (…)
Another procedure is also valuable: the deliberate cultivation of a path to the source. Encounters with the beautiful can take place unexpectedly, but sustained preparation—looking at beautiful images, listening to beautiful music, reading beautiful poetry, collecting and taking delight in beautiful things—can encourage a necessary receptivity of soul.
Beauty teaches beauty; it teaches us wonder and, of course, humility. It carries secrets that we cannot fathom with all our analytical tools. It reveals, as nothing else does, the poetry of truth and calls forth an alertness and generosity of attention.
This is an excerpt from John Lane’s classic book Timeless Beauty. To find out more visit https://www.greenbooks.co.uk/timeless-beauty
Image credit: Pixabay