ART AND ORGANISM
BEAUTY and its ATTRIBUTES
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
(Keats, “Endymion” 1818)
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty
(Keats, “On a Grecian Urn” 1819)
Beauty, like love, doesn’t always make you feel good. The constellation of ideas—beauty, joy, truth—and by extension the sublime[i] and the need to suspend disbelief[ii] in the face of certain truths may be pursued as we pursue all knowledge
Biologists! Why would one pursue potentially distressing truths? Because the benefit exceeds the cost.
“What is beautiful is a joy for all seasons and a possession for all eternity.” (Oscar Wilde in A Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891)
Recalls Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness” (Book 1 of Endymion) and “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.”[iii]
Such observations where time is rendered irrelevant by truth and beauty echoes transcendence are deeply spiritual in that an individual’s uniqueness may be open to transformation and then their senses and the deep meaning of the perceptions converge with context in a perfect storm.
Never doubt the potential power of art—possibly music in particular. The great composer, Mendelssohn once played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the piano for Wolfgang von Goethe – a scientist but also the author of Faust. When the performance concluded, Goethe exclaimed, “It is stupendous, absolutely mad. It makes me almost fear that the house will collapse. And supposing the whole of mankind played it at once” (Goethe’s comment to Mendelssohn after he played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the piano for him)[iv]
· This stirring … this momentary alignment of sound and spirit … recalls what Joseph Campbell called “the crystalline purity of the bed or ground of ones own and yet the worlds true being.”
(apologies to Joseph Campbell 1968: 66)
[ii] Suspension of Disbelief: http://neilgreenberg.com/ao-quote-willing-suspension-of-disbelief/
[iii]. Beauty and truth are associated several times in Keats’s letters: “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth” (Nov. 22, 1817); “. . . in close relationship of Beauty and Truth” (Dec. 21, 1817); “I can never feel certain of a truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty” (Dec. 31, 1818).
[iv] Story related by Maynard Solomon in Late Beethoven Music, Thought, Imagination UC Press, cited in Lewis Lockwood’s review in NYRB July 17 2003 pp 27-29).
[v]. http://www.aip.org/history/einstein/essay.htm And also, Einstein quoted on pg. 289, Adventures of a Mathematician, by S. M. Ulam(Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976). Apparently these words also occur somewhere in What I Believe (1930). Another version: The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery‑‑even if mixed with fear‑‑ that engendered religion.
[vi] The New York Times Magazine, 2 September, 1984. pp. 22-38
[vii] Greenberg, Neil (2011) Songlines. Sermon at TVUUC August 17, 2011.