Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
by Scott Russell Sanders
In memory, I wait beside Eva in the vestibule of the church to play my bit part as father of the bride. She hooks a hand on my elbow while three bridesmaids fuss over her, fixing the gauzy veil, spreading the long ivory train of her gown, tucking into her bun a loose strand of hair, which glows the color of honey filled with sunlight. Clumsy in my rented patent leather shoes and stiff black tuxedo, I stand among these gorgeous women like a crow among doves. I realize they're gorgeous not because they carry bouquets or wear silk dresses, but because the festival of marriage has slowed time down until any fool can see their glory.
Concerned that we might walk too fast, as we did in rehearsal, Eva tries in vain to teach me a gliding ballet step to use as we process down the aisle.
"It's really simple, Daddy," she says, as I botch it over and over.
I fear that I will stagger along beside my elegant daughter like a veteran wounded in foreign wars.
Eva, meanwhile, seems blissfully confident, not only of being able to walk gracefully, as she could do in her sleep, but of standing before this congregation and solemnly promising to share her life with Matthew Allen, the man who waits in thinly disguised turmoil at the far end of the aisle. Poised on the dais, wearing a black ministerial robe and a white stole, is the good friend whom Eva and I know best as our guide on canoe trips through the Boundary Waters. He grins so broadly that his full cheeks push up against the round rims of his spectacles.
"There's one happy preacher," Eva says.
"He believes in marriage," I reply.
"So do I. Remember, Matt and I figured that between you and Mom and his folks, our parents have been married fifty-eight years."
Eva lets go of my arm to lift a hand to her throat, touching the string of pearls she has borrowed from my own bride, Ruth, to whom I've been married thirty years.
Love may last, I want to say, but don't, feeling unsure of my voice. Eva returns her free hand to my arm and tightens her grip. The arm she holds is my left one, close against my racing heart. In her own left arm she balances a great sheaf of flowers--daisies and lilies, marigolds, snapdragons, bee balm, feverfew--and in her left hand she holds a Belgian lace handkerchief, also borrowed from Ruth, in case she cries.
The organ strikes up Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" for the bridesmaids' entrance, and down the aisle they skim, those gorgeous women in midnight blue. Overawed by the crowd, the flower girls hang back until their mother nudges them along, and then they dash and skip, carrying their fronds of flowers like spears.
Finally, only the bride and the father of the bride remain in the vestibule. Eva whispers, "Remember, now, don't walk too fast." But how can I walk slowly while my heart races? I've forgotten the ballet step she tried to show me. I want events to pause so I can practice the step, so we can go canoeing once more in the wilderness, so we can sit on a boulder by the sea and talk over life's mysteries, so I can make up to my darling for anything she may have lacked in her girlhood. But events do not pause. The organ sounds the first few bars of Purcell's "Trumpet Voluntary," our cue to show ourselves. We move into the open doorway, and 200 faces turn their lit eyes on us. Eva tilts her face up at me, quirks the corners of her lips into a tight smile, and says, "Here we go, Daddy." And so, lifting our feet in unison, we go.
The wedding took place in Bloomington, Indiana, hometown for Matthew as well as Eva, on a sizzling Saturday in July. Now in early September, I can summon up hundreds of details from that radiant day, but on the day itself I was aware only of a surpassing joy. The glow of happiness had to coolbefo re it would crystallize into memory.
Pardon my cosmic metaphor, but I can't help thinking of the physicists' claim that, if we trace the universe back to its origins in the Big Bang, we find the multiplicity of things fusing into greater and greater simplicity, until at the moment of creation itself there is only pure undifferentiated energy. Without being able to check their equations, I think the physicists are right. I believe the energy they speak of is holy, by which I mean it is the closest we can come with our instruments to measuring the strength of God. I also believe this primal energy continues to feed us, directly through the goods of creation, and indirectly through the experience of beauty. The thrill of beauty is what entranced me as I stood with Eva's hand hooked over my arm while the wedding march played, as it entrances me on these September nights when I walk over dewy grass among the songs of crickets and stare at the Milky Way.
We're seeing the Milky Way, and every other denizen of the sky, far more clearly these days thanks to the sharp eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope, as it orbits out beyond the blur of Earth's atmosphere. From data beamed down by the telescope, for example, I summon onto my computer screen an image of Jupiter wrapped in its bands of cloud like a ball of heathery yarn. Then I call up the Cat's Eye Nebula, incandescent swirls of red looped around the gleam of a helium star, for all the world like the burning iris of a tiger. This fierce glare began its journey toward earth 3,000 years ago, about the time my Assyrian ancestors were in their prime. Pushing back deeper in time, I summon onto my screen the Eagle Nebula, 7,000 light-years away, a trio of dust clouds like rearing horses, their dark bodies scintillating with the sparks of newborn stars. I study images of quasars giving birth to galaxies, galaxies whirling in the shapes of pinwheels, supernovas ringed by strands of luminous debris, and all the while I'm delving back toward that utter beginning when you and I and my daughter and her new husband and the bright heavenly host were joined in the original burst of light.
On these cool September mornings, I've been poring over two sets of photographs, those from deep space and those from Eva's wedding, trying to figure out why such different images--of supernova and shining daughter, of spinning galaxies and trembling bouquets--set up in me the same hum of delight. The feeling is unusually intense for me just now, so soon after the nuptials, but it has never been rare. As far back as I can remember, things seen or heard or smelled, things tasted or touched, have provoked in me an answering vibration. The stimulus might be the sheen of moonlight on the needles of a white pine, or the iridescent glimmer on a dragonfly's tail, or the lean silhouette of a ladder-back chair, or the glaze on a hand-thrown pot. It might be bird song or a Bach sonata or the purl of water over stone. It might be a line of poetry, the outline of a cheek, the savor of bread, the sway of a bough or a bow. The provocation might be as grand as a mountain sunrise or as humble as an icicle's jeweled tip, yet in each case a familiar surge of gratitude and wonder wells up in me.
Now and again some voice raised on the stairs leading to my study, some passage of music, some noise from the street, will stir a sympathetic thrum from the strings of the guitar that tilts against the wall behind my door. Just so, over and over again, impulses from the world stir a responsive chord in me--not just any chord, but a particular one, combining notes of elegance, exhilaration, simplicity, and awe. The feeling is as recognizable to me, as unmistakable, as the sound of Ruth's voice or the beating of my own heart. A screech owl calls, a comet streaks the night sky, a story moves unerringly to a close, a child lays an arrowhead in the palm of my hand, my daughter smiles at me through her bridal veil, and I feel for a moment at peace, in place, content. I sense in those momentary encounters a harmony between myself and whatever I behold. The word that seems to fit most exactly this feeling of resonance, this sympathetic vibration between inside and outside, is beauty.
What am I to make of this resonant feeling? Do my sensory thrills tell me anything about the world? Does beauty reveal a kinship between my small self and the great cosmos, or does my desire for meaning only fool me in ogists maintain, in my response to patterns I'm merely obeying the old habits of evolution. Perhaps, like my guitar, I'm only a sounding box played on by random forces.
I must admit that two cautionary sayings keep echoing in my head. Beauty is only skin deep, I've heard repeatedly, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Appealing surfaces may hide ugliness, true enough, as many a handsome villain or femme fatale should remind us. The prettiest of butterflies and mushrooms and frogs include some of the most poisonous ones. It's equally true that our taste may be influenced by our upbringing, by training, by cultural fashion. One of my neighbors plants in his yard a pink flamingo made of translucent plastic and a concrete goose dressed in overalls, while I plant in my yard ox-eye daisies and jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair ferns, and both of us, by our own lights, are chasing beauty.
Mustn't beauty be shallow if it can be painted on? Mustn't beauty be a delusion if it can blink off and on like a flickering bulb? A wedding gown will eventually grow musty in a mothproof box, flowers will fade, and the glow will seep out of the brightest day. I'll grant that we may be fooled by facades, may be led astray by our fickle eyes. But I've been married to Ruth for thirty years, remember. I've watched my daughter grow for twenty-four years, my son for twenty, and these loved ones have taught me a more hopeful possibility. Season after season I've knelt over fiddleheads breaking ground, studied the wings of swallowtails nectaring on blooms, spied skeins of geese high in the sky. There are books I've read, pieces of music I've listened to, ideas I've revisited time and again with fresh delight. Having lived among people and places and works of imagination whose beauty runs all the way through, I feel certain that genuine beauty is more than skin deep, that real beauty dwells not in my own eye alone but out in the world.
While I can speak with confidence of what I feel in the presence of beauty, I must go out on a speculative limb if I'm to speak about the qualities in the world that call it forth. Far out on that limb, therefore, let me suggest that a creature, an action, a landscape, a line of poetry or music, a scientific formula, or anything else that might seem beautiful, seems so because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things. The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a gown resemble one another not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe. That grain runs through our own depths. What we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be. Ordinarily, we live in a tension between our perceptions and our desires. When we encounter beauty, that tension vanishes, and outward and inward images agree.
Before I climb out any farther onto this limb, let me give biology its due. It may be that in pursuing beauty we're merely obeying our genes. It may be that the features we find beautiful in men or women, in art or landscape or weather, are ones that improved the chances of survival for our ancestors. Put the other way around, it's entirely plausible that the early humans who did not tingle at the sight of a deer, the smell of a thunderstorm, the sound of running water, or the stroke of a hand on a shapely haunch, all died out, carrying with them their oblivious genes.
Who can doubt that biology, along with culture, plays a crucial role in tuning our senses? The gravity that draws a man and woman together, leading each to find the other ravishing, carries with it a long history of sexual selection, one informed by a shrewd calculation of fertility and strength. I remember how astonished I was to realize, one rainy spring day in seventh grade, that the girl sitting in the desk beside me was suddenly, enormously interesting. My attention was riveted on Mary Kay's long blond hair, which fell in luxuriant waves over the back of her chair, until it brushed against a rump that swelled, in a way I had never noticed before, her green plaid skirt. As a twelve year old, I would not have called Mary Kay beautiful, although I realize now that is what she was. And I would have balked at the suggestion that my caveman ancestors had any say in my dawning desire, although now I can hear their voices grunting, Go for the lush hair, the swelling rump.
If we take a ride through the suburbs and study the rolling acres of lawn dotted with clumps of trees and occasional ponds, what do we see but a faithful simulation of the African savannah where humans first lived? Where zoning laws permit, the expanse of green will often be decorated by grazing animals, docile and fat, future suppers on the hoof. The same combination of watering holes, sheltering trees, and grassland shows up in paintings and parks the world over, from New Delhi to New York. It is as though we shape our surroundings to match an image, coiled in our DNA, of the bountiful land.
Perhaps in every case, as in our infatuation with lover or landscape, a sense of biological fitness infuses the resonant, eager, uplifting response to the world that I am calling beauty. Yet I persist in believing there is more to this tingle than an evolutionary reflex. Otherwise, how could a man who is programmed to lust after every nubile female nonetheless be steadily attracted, year after year, to the same woman? Why would I plant my yard with flowers that I cannot eat?
As far back as we can trace our ancestors, we find evidence of a passion for design--decorations on pots, beads on clothes, pigments on the ceilings of caves. Bone flutes have been found at human sites dating back more than 30,000 years. So we answer the breathing of the land with our own measured breath; we answer the beauty we find with the beauty we make. Our ears may be finely tuned for detecting the movements of predators or prey, but that does not explain why we should be so moved by listening to Gregorian chants or Delta blues. Our eyes may be those of a slightly reformed ape, trained for noticing whatever will keep skin and bones intact, but that scarcely explains why we should be so enthralled by the lines of a Shaker chair or a Durer engraving, or by photographs of Jupiter.
As it happens, Jupiter is the brightest light in the sky on these September evenings, blazing in the southeast at dusk. Such a light must have dazzled our ancestors long before telescopes began to reveal the planet's husk of clouds or its halo of moons. We know that night-watchers in many cultures kept track of the heavenly dance because the records of their observations have come down to us. Did they watch so faithfully because they believed the stars and planets controlled their fate, or because they were mesmerized by the majesty of the night? I can't speak for them. But when I look at Jupiter, with naked eye or binoculars, or in the magnified images broadcast down from the Hubble Telescope, I am not looking for a clue to the morning's weather or to the mood of a deity, any more than I am studying the future of my genes when I gaze at my daughter. I am looking for the sheer bliss of looking.
In a wedding scene that has cooled into memory from the red glow of happiness, I keep glancing at Eva's face as we process down the aisle, trying to match my gawky stride to her graceful one. The light on her skin shimmers through the veil. A ripple of voices follows us toward the altar, like the sound of waves breaking on cobbles. The walk seems to go on forever, but it also seems to be over far too soon. Ready or not, we take our place at center stage, with the bridesmaids in midnight blue to our left, Matthew and his groomsmen in black to our right. My heart thrashes like a bird in a sack.
The minister, our canoeing guide, gives us both a steadying glance. Then he lifts his voice to inquire of the hushed congregation, "Who blesses this marriage?"
I swallow to make sure my own voice is still there, and say loudly, "The families give their blessing."
I step back, lift Eva's hand from my arm and place it on Matthew's, a gesture that seemed small in rehearsal yesterday but that seems huge today. Then my bit part is over. I leave the stage, carefully stepping around the long train of Eva's dress, and go to my seat beside Ruth, who dabs a handkerchief to her eyes. I grasp her free hand, so deft and familiar. Just one month shy of thirty years after my own wedding, I want to marry her all over again. Despite my heart's mad thrashing, I haven't felt like crying until this moment, as I sit here beside my own bride, while Eva recites her vows with a sob in her throat. When I hear that sob, tears rise in me, but joy rises more swiftly.
Judging from the scientists I know, including Eva and Ruth, and those whom I've read about, you can't pursue the laws of nature very long without bumping into beauty. "I don't know if it's the same beauty you see in the sunset," a friend tells me, "but it feels the same." This friend is a physicist, who has spent a long career deciphering what must be happening in the interior of stars. He recalls for me his thrill on grasping for the first time Dirac's equations describing quantum mechanics, or those of Einstein describing relativity. "They're so beautiful," he says, "you can see immediately they have to be true. Or at least on the way toward truth." I ask him what makes a theory beautiful, and he replies, "Simplicity, symmetry, elegance, and power."
Why nature should conform to theories we find beautiful is far from obvious. The most incomprehensible thing about the universe, as Einstein said, is that it's comprehensible. How unlikely, that a short-lived biped on a two-bit planet should be able to gauge the speed of light, lay bare the structure of an atom, or calculate the gravitational tug of a black hole. We're a long way from understanding everything, but we do understand a great deal about how nature behaves. Generation after generation, we puzzle out formulas, test them, and find, to an astonishing degree, that nature agrees. An architect draws designs on flimsy paper, and her buildings stand up through earthquakes. We launch a satellite into orbit and use it to bounce messages from continent to continent. The machine on which I write these words embodies hundreds of insights into the workings of the material world, insights that are confirmed by every burst of letters on the screen, and I stare at that screen through lenses that obey the laws of optics first worked out in detail by Isaac Newton.
By discerning patterns in the universe, Newton believed, he was tracing the hand of God. Scientists in our day have largely abandoned the notion of a Creator as an unnecessary hypothesis, or at least an untestable one. While they share Newton's faith that the universe is ruled everywhere by a coherent set of rules, they cannot say, as scientists, how these particular rules came to govern things. You can do science without believing in a divine Legislator, but not without believing in laws.
I spent my teenage years scrambling up the mountain of mathematics. Midway up the slope, however, I staggered to a halt, gasping in the rarefied air, well before I reached the heights where the equations of Einstein and Dirac would have made sense. Nowadays I add, subtract, multiply, and do long division when no calculator is handy, and I can do algebra and geometry and even trigonometry in a pinch, but that is about all that I've kept from the language of numbers. Still, I remember glimpsing patterns in mathematics that seemed as bold and beautiful as a skyful of stars.
I'm never more aware of the limitations of language than when I try to describe beauty. Language can create its own loveliness, of course, but it cannot deliver to us the radiance we apprehend in the world, any more than a photograph can capture the stunning swiftness of a hawk or the withering power of a supernova. Eva's wedding album holds only a faint glimmer of the wedding itself. All that pictures or words can do is gesture beyond themselves toward the fleeting glory that stirs our hearts. So I keep gesturing.
"All nature is meant to make us think of paradise," Thomas Merton observed. Because the Creation puts on a nonstop show, beauty is free and inexhaustible, but we need training in order to perceive more than the most obvious kinds. Even fifteen billion years or so after the Big Bang, echoes of that event still linger in the form of background radiation, only a few degrees above absolute zero. Just so, I believe, the experience of beauty is an echo of the order and power that permeate the universe. To measure background radiation, we need subtle instruments; to measure beauty, we need alert intelligence and our five keen senses.
Anyone with eyes can take delight in a face or a flower. You need training, however, to perceive the beauty in mathematics or physics or chess, in the architecture of a tree, the design of a bird's wing, or the shiver of breath through a flute. For most of human history, the training has come from elders who taught the young how to pay attention. By paying attention, we learn to savor all sorts of patterns, from quantum mechanics to patchwork quilts.
This predilection brings with it a clear evolutionary advantage, for the ability to recognize patterns helped our ancestors to select mates, find food, avoid predators. But the same advantage would apply to all species, and yet we alone compose symphonies and crossword puzzles, carve stone into statues, map time and space. Have we merely carried our animal need for shrewd perceptions to an absurd extreme? Or have we stumbled onto a deep congruence between the structure of our minds and the structure of the universe?
I am persuaded the latter is true. I am convinced there's more to beauty than biology, more than cultural convention. It flows around and through us in such abundance, and in such myriad forms, as to exceed by a wide margin any mere evolutionary need. Which is not to say that beauty has nothing to do with survival: I think it has everything to do with survival. Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us. It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature. By giving us a taste of the kinship between our own small minds and the great Mind of the Cosmos, beauty reassures us that we are exactly and wonderfully made for life on this glorious planet, in this magnificent universe. I find in that affinity a profound source of meaning and hope. A universe so prodigal of beauty may actually need us to notice and respond, may need our sharp eyes and brimming hearts and teeming minds, in order to close the circuit of Creation.
Scott Russell Sanders was awarded a 1995 Lannan Literary Award for his work in nonfiction. His most recent book, Writing from the Center, won the 1996 Great Lakes Book Award. He is Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. Beauty will appear in his new book, Hunting for Hope, to be published by Beacon Press this fall. Scott is a regular participant in The Orion Society's Forgotten Language Tour. If you'd like to order these (and other) books, please visit The Orion Society Bookstore.
This essay was originally published in the Spring 1998 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.