Tag Archives: beauty

The burden of homey and shapely things.

We’re coming to the end of what is the “school year” for most families, and often thoughts are on what options will be best for the children next year. I offer excerpts from what I found to be a very encouraging article, for all of you loving and diligent parents out there! (And “excerpts” from the lives of homeschoolers I’ve known. 🙂 )

From “Easy Burden” by Graeme Hunter in Touchstone Magazine, Sept/Oct 2012 issue:

“Homeschooling is only countercultural because our culture is suicidal. Homeschoolers stand for what our culture was when it was serious about living . It affirms our Christian tradition, our Christian morality, and our highest cultural achievements. To affirm such things today is countercultural only because our culture has turned its face to the wall.”

“…No doubt there are conservative and conscientious redoubts here and there in the bleak landscape of public schooling, but if it seems to you that your child is being transformed for the worse by attending school, you are likely correct.

“Here are some reasons why:

“First, education means struggle and achievement, but schools are egalitarian. Achievement presupposes discipline, but schools shun discipline, and pretend students are high achievers no matter what they do.

“Second, children arrive in the world as bundles of impulses and desires. Part of education is to teach restraint, a process known as civilization. Schools encourage pupils from the earliest years to act upon their impulses and to be, in the jargon of the education industry, ‘spontaneous.’ Schools are therefore the enemies of civilization.

“Third, one of the finest fruits of education is to become a discriminating person, able to tell good from bad, whether it be in art, in political proposals, or in human conduct. Schools treat discrimination as the only mortal sin.

“‘The wrong of unshapely things,’ says the poet W.B. Yeats, ‘is a wrong too great to be told.’ He explains that when we fail to cultivate discrimination in ourselves and others, we wound the entire human community. Real educators see something beautiful in us, and long to bring it into the light. Yeats calls it an ‘image that blossoms, a rose in the deeps of his heart.'”

“…When we homeschooled, there was a cross to be borne each day, but family life was a delight to us, education was thrilling for pupil and teacher alike, and we had joy in our family that has not diminished even now that our children are grown.

“Furthermore, none of the dire consequences predicted came to pass. Our children are well-adjusted. They love God, and they love life. And they are doing well enough in life, even as the world measures these things.

“Homeschooling did not bankrupt us. How could it? We invested our talents in the children God gave us, and the investment paid off a hundredfold.”

“….The road, then, is cruciform, but the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Homeschoolers: seize the day!”

–Graeme Hunter

Kusamakura

Kusamakura is a complex novel, a small expression of the broad literary and artistic vision of its author, Natsume Sōseki; he said he took one week to write it. Sōseki was born in 1867, on the brink of the historic moment of the opening of Japan after its 250 years of isolation. This story written about 30 years later is a hearkening back to the classical and inward culture even as it portrays a protagonist in a world that has quickly changed and will never be the same.

The unnamed artist narrator, no doubt somewhat autobiographical, is not the sort who might move the action of the story. He doesn’t really do much but philosophize about beauty and art.

His plan for his holiday is to paint, and to maintain a detached, disinterested perspective on everyone he meets, so that he can fit them into the mental painting or poem he imagines, his artist’s way of seeing the world. There the humans might be on a plane with nature, which “…instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry.”

You can hear how elevated his opinion of his own spirituality is, and his pride at knowing true art, as contrasted again and again with particular behaviors and with phenomena tangible or intangible that he calls “vulgar.” But he does truly have an eye and a feeling for beauty, demonstrated in many instances throughout the book.

He muses in detail about every aspect of the beauty of the the old woman who hosts him at a wayside inn. When he gets drenched by a rainstorm, he transforms the miserable aspects: “If I picture myself, a sodden figure moving in this vast inkwash world of cloud and rain shot through diagonally with a thousand silver arrows, not as myself but as some other person, there’s poetry in this moment.” When Sōseki wrote that scene in Kusamakura I wonder if he was thinking wryly about the attitude he might have had toward his own miserable years that he later pictured poetically: “Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”

Of such described scenes and experiences my favorite is this: “…times when the ineffable beauty around one, some presence one can scarcely grasp, mysteriously masters the heart….” For several pages he tries to capture with words this “ecstatic motion,” that “does not originate from outside,” and is tenuous only in that it is “ungraspable.”

With abandon the Painter describes pottery, landscapes, food and people, at times in such a way that a tea-sweet becomes food porn. Humans are considered, to use his image, heartlessly: “I shall aim to observe the people I meet from a lofty and transcendent perspective, and do my best to prevent any spark of human feeling from springing up between us. Thus, however animatedly they may move hither and yon, they won’t find it easy to make the leap across to my heart….”

This coolness is maintained even toward the forward and unattached young woman of the inn where he stays. They have occasional conversations and several provocative encounters, and she seems herself to be the sole element of potential plot, while he remains impassive. He is, however, very interested in her as a sublime object to be painted, if he could just figure out what is  missing from her face.

Elsewhere he muses over a question I had never heard posed before, and in the end I thought this dilemma was significant, too: “…whatever has motion is always finally vulgar…. Should we depict motion or stillness? — this is the great problem that governs the fate of us artists.”

I think that the Painter’s familiarity with the wider world and the culture of the West have made him a bit smug. He judges the West by the refinements of Japan, yes, but he also seems to have lost the modesty and restraint that are part of the Japanese expression of beauty, and can’t help revealing his arrogance to the reader.

Having recently read the reverent Book of Tea, written by a contemporary of Sōseki, I was shocked when the narrator ranted about this Japanese art form, the tea ceremony: “No one is more assiduously pompous than a tea ceremony master, who will fancy himself the quintessence of elegant refinement. Your typical tea master is deeply conceited, not to mention affected and fastidious to a fault. He ostentatiously clings to the cramped little territory he’s marked out for himself within the wide world of sensibility, savoring his bowl of foam and bubbles with a quite ridiculous reverence.” And then I realized that it was the Painter who “fancied himself the quintessence of elegant refinement.” He breathes deeply of the vapors rising from his bowl of peeves and perceptions, and is pleased. On the other hand, doesn’t ranting at least border on the vulgar?

And yet, Sōseki himself did write about this book that he intended it to be a “haiku-style novel,” and that “all that matters…is that a certain feeling, a feeling of beauty, remain with the reader. I have no other objective.”

I felt more confident of my idea that Sōseki intentionally imbued the Painter with these ironic aspects after I read on the Literary Hub site about the author’s stay in Britain, where the government had sent him as “Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar.” During his two unhappy years there he read constantly, and one tome he devoured and evidently thoroughly comprehended was the three-volume Tristram Shandy, which I have only read about, and doubt that I would be able to grasp the satire of it. In his first book, I Am a Cat, his cat narrator makes fun of the intellectual humans, speaking “with Sōseki’s voice, now bitingly critical, now cynically amused.” 

Kusamakura may be a book about the feeling of beauty, but the human relationships naturally get our human attention. My own philosophy and theology are that beauty originates in the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To try to know and appreciate another human by seeing them “objectively,” in a non-emotional or detached way, will never work. You will not see them truly. The Painter is perceptive enough in this case to realize what he isn’t able to do.

Indeed, that “something missing” in the face of the woman the Painter wants to paint, because she is so beautiful, he doesn’t discover until the very end of the story. Perhaps that is the plot, the character development and the problem solved, all on the last page. In a moment of emotion, a motion of the heart toward another person, if you will, he sees in her face the beauty that will make it worth painting.

Wooed by beauty and delight.

Just this morning I reread an old post in which I was musing on the Kasses’ research on young people who don’t fall in love the way previous generations did; I switched from there to my cup of tea and print copy of the current Touchstone Magazine, where Anthony Esolen happened to be exploring a related question in “Surprised by Delight: Divine Love and the Love of Man and Woman Surpass Mere Consent.” He skillfully brings together passages from Paradise Lost, John Donne, the Bible, and other sources to flesh out what he means by the delight of both types of love, and asks also, Why did our grandparents, in spite of hard lives full of suffering, retain a memory of delight in their relationships with the opposite sex? One excerpt, from a passage quoting Milton:

The “virgin majesty of Eve” needs no political program to protect or promote her. Virtue itself, embodied in distinctly feminine form, builds in her its lovely seat of authority, and guards her round about with awe. Eve, too, will acknowledge the superior power of Adam, when she describes her submission to his wooing, saying that from that moment on, she sees “how beauty is excelled by manly grace, / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.”

So should we stress that each sex is for the other, raising boys and girls to be both separate from one another and destined to be united with one another; to use that separate development to endow each sex with peculiar gifts for the other, which the other will experience with surprise and gratitude. Common sense. Familiarity breeds contempt, and nobody ever said, “I love her, because I find nothing surprising in her.” We are swept away not by what we possess in ourselves, but by what we could never imagine in ourselves. If boys and girls are treated indifferently, should we expect them to treat one another as specifically members of the opposite sex with anything but indifference?

I’ve been wanting for a long time to post the poem below, trying and failing to find a painting to go with it. Maybe the descriptions from Esolen’s article (the whole article appears to be available: here) are better at placing the poem in a universal context of the delight of love and beauty and thankfulness, of which we all have our own concrete and sweet examples.

PART OF PLENTY

When she carries food to the table and stoops down
–Doing this out of love–and lays soup with its good
Tickling smell, or fry winking from the fire
And I look up, perhaps from a book I am reading
Or other work: there is an importance of beauty
Which can’t be accounted for by there and then,
And attacks me, but not separately from the welcome
Of the food, or the grace of her arms.
When she puts a sheaf of tulips in a jug
And pours in water and presses to one side
The upright stems and leaves that you hear creak,
Or loosens them, or holds them up to show me,
So that I see the tangle of their necks and cups
With the curls of her hair, and the body they are held
Against, and the stalk of the small waist rising
And flowering in the shape of breasts;
Whether in the bringing of the flowers or of the food
She offers plenty, and is part of plenty,
And whether I see her stooping, or leaning with the flowers,
What she does is ages old, and she is not simply,
No, but lovely in that way.

-Bernard Spencer

I drink and drink…

SEEKING BEAUTY

Cold winds can never freeze, nor thunder sour
The cup of cheer that Beauty draws for me
Out of those Azure heavens and this green earth —
I drink and drink, and thirst the more I see.

To see the dewdrops thrill the blades of grass,
Makes my whole body shake; for here’s my choice
Of either sun or shade, and both are green —
A Chaffinch laughs in his melodious voice.

The banks are stormed by Speedwell, that blue flower
So like a little heaven with one star out;
I see an amber lake of buttercups,
And Hawthorn foams the hedges round about.

The old Oak tree looks now so green and young,
That even swallows perch awhile and sing:
This is that time of year, so sweet and warm,
When bats wait not for stars ere they take wing.

As long as I love Beauty I am young,
Am young or old as I love more or less;
When Beauty is not heeded or seems stale,
My life’s a cheat, let Death end my distress.

-William Henry Davies