“I don’t trust beauty anymore,” I once wrote, “when will I stop believing it?” And elsewhere, “because beauty (fixed, triumphant) isn’t my friend, is it?” That is part of the truth. The other part of the truth is that without a notion of beauty, an embodiment of the possible beyond the abjections of the mundane, I would not have become a poet, would not, perhaps, have left behind the Bronx housing projects and tenements at all. It is very fashionable, indeed almost de rigueur, to condemn beauty as oppressive: at worst an ideological mystification, at best a distraction from the real work. (Lenin couldn’t listen to music for this reason: he distrusted the power it had over him, fearing it would enervate him and make him too soft to do the hard things that had to be done). As poet Jay Hopler writes, “It is hard to believe beauty is the new ugliness./But it must be, why else would so many of my contemporaries mock it so?” And simplified, distorted notions of beauty have too often been deployed for vicious ends: the Nazi cult of Aryan beauty is the most egregious example. (Though I am also reminded that the sculptures of Arno Breker, Hitler’s court artist, are actually ugly. But Leni Riefenstahl’s straining, triumphant Olympians are not.) Adorno’s point remains: “Beauty of any kind has to face the question of whether it is in fact beautiful or whether it is just a fake claim resting on a static affirmation.”
It is common to confuse the beautiful with the merely pretty, an ornamental irrelevance, to oppose the pleasing to some more exigent or severe realm above and beyond the simply beautiful. This perspective situates beauty at the mid-point of a continuum from the pretty to the beautiful to the sublime: beauty is thus a form of mediocrity or compromise. It was Edmund Burke who first distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime as that which submits to us versus that which overwhelms us, that which could destroy us but does not. Immanuel Kant and (more recently) Jean-François Lyotard have elaborated on this distinction. In this view, beauty reassures and comforts: it supplies us with the already known, while the sublime crashes over us like the storm surge of an out of season hurricane. As Susan Sontag has observed, “Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console. The beauty of face and figure torments, subjugates; that beauty is imperious. The beauty that is human, and the beauty that is made (art)—both raise the fantasy of possession. One model of the disinterested comes from the beauty of nature—a nature that is distant, overarching, unpossessable.”
Beauty is insistent; it makes demands. It demands that we see it and acknowledge it, that we acknowledge our seeing, that we be changed by the experience. As Rilke wrote, beauty is the beginning of a terror that we are barely able to endure. And as Francis Bacon wrote, there is no beauty that hath not some proportion of strangeness in it. To quote Thomas Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague,” a poem that celebrates and embodies the beauty of annihilation, a poem whose speaker is, in part, dying of beauty,
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closèd Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
The terror that Kant equated with the sublime is synonymous with Rilke’s beauty: the sublime is beauty’s true face, like Zeus revealing himself to Semele in all his glory, like Yahweh whose back alone can be glimpsed by the mortal eye. Beauty is not kind or benign; it is a natural force, amoral, beyond good and evil. Like the pleasure/pain of orgasm, like Roland Barthes’s jouissance, it is shattering, ecstatic: we are beside ourselves, outside ourselves. Beauty burns and devours: we die to our old selves and rise reborn.
I have quoted and cited, referred and alluded, but I am still no prophet. What do I believe—and which I, and at what time? Perhaps this near-chrestomathy is evidence, however circumstantial, that beauty is not merely personal or idiosyncratic. I have felt haunted by the beauty of men that I did not possess and could not make mine (beauty calls to beauty, after all, though beauty also demands an audience, an audience that is presumably not beautiful: otherwise it would contemplate itself), and felt crushed by the distance between myself and what I wished to have, wished to become. I have felt both enraptured by and utterly alienated from the beauty of nature, which was other to me so fundamentally that there was no feeling of exclusion, but simply pure alterity. There was no wish, no possibility, that I could be a waterfall plunging into a gorge, though I have felt that vertiginous urge to plummet into white water and shale. But there was, there is, a wish to preserve that moment of apprehension. This is one of the things poetry means to me: the possibility of mediating between being and desire, of bridging alterity by articulating it. “To articulate” also means “to connect.” One way a poem begins for me is with the question, “How do these things relate to one another?” Language itself is articulation in two senses: it speaks and it connects. Liminal, nothing in itself but everything in relation, a bridge between the material and the immaterial, between image and idea, signifier and signified, all language is conjunction, copula, commingling. The real waits in a corner, never to be spoken, but only spoken of… Only connect, as E.M. Forster wrote.
I decided I wanted to be a poet (an asymptote, approached but never truly reached: in that regard like beauty itself) because I was overwhelmed by the ambivalent, contradictory beauty of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which seemed not simply to speak to and of my life but to replace it, if only fleetingly, with something more meaningful. Amorphous misery had been made form, suffering had been transformed to shape. I hated the poem for eluding me, for not surrendering itself immediately to my understanding; I loved it for its power of fascination. I sought by becoming a poet a share in that power, to be, if not a thing of beauty in myself (that would have been too much to ask for), then at least a source of beauty. As Frank O’Hara writes in his “Autobiographia Literaria,” “And here I am, the/center of all beauty!/writing these poems!/Imagine!” So much for the unkind animals and the fleeing birds…
I wrote once that many of my poems constitute an argument between beauty and justice, and it has long been the fashion to oppose the two, as if the falsehoods of beauty were unmasked by the unsparing eye of justice. But I believe, with Elaine Scarry and many others, that ultimately, and perhaps paradoxically, beauty and justice are one, that beauty presents us with the possibility of things as they should be. As Susan Sontag writes, “the various definitions of beauty come at least as close to a plausible characterization of virtue, and of a fuller humanity, as the attempts to define goodness as such.”
Beauty is outside the bounds of good and evil, and yet it enacts a rightness of relation that has an ethical dimension. (Stendhal wrote that beauty is the promise of happiness, though that promise is often broken.) In that sense beauty does embody virtue, as Plato believed, and demands of us that we embody that virtue: for who doesn’t want to be beautiful, who wouldn’t be beautiful if he could? The presence of beauty reminds us of its all too frequent absence, and demands that we remedy that absence to the best of our ability, if only to salve the pain of lack. Again in Rilke’s words, there is no part that does not see you: you must change your life. The rightness of beauty is a form of justice: just proportion, just harmony (even in seeming discord), the just relation of parts to the whole and the whole to the parts. In this sense beauty, in its form rather than its content, offers an imago of the just society. Friedrich Schlegel makes this analogy explicit when he writes that “Poetry is republican speech: a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote.” The pain that beauty often induces (beauty is something we undergo, a passion) is the pain of the awareness of the absence of such a thing in or as our lives, beauty’s reminder of our own inadequacy. Rilke’s archaic torso is after all a fragment of a god: beauty shines out in what remains, reminding us of a wholeness just out of reach. It reminds us of the possible which does not exist.
Beauty isn’t particularly good for anything, except perhaps helping one get laid, if one happens to be beautiful, and I like the idea of its uselessness. In a society so over-ruled by instrumental reason, to be good for nothing is perhaps simply to be good: in its inutility, beauty manifests what Kant called the kingdom of ends, in which people and things exist in and for themselves and not as the means to other ends (profit, power). In Sartre’s terms, beauty is the domain of the for-itself and the in-itself. Beauty is gauche and inconvenient and often embarrassing (or at least our responses to beauty are, making us lose composure, lose our cool) and altogether in excess of what is required, what is asked for, what is appropriate. I dwell among these visions of excess, altogether inadequate to their demands, and hope that my failure even to attempt a definition of the beautiful might be taken as an instantiation of my title—beauty can only be approached, but never actually reached—and thus as an assent to beauty’s refusal to be mastered by the understanding.
This essay will appear in my forthcoming book Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, to be published by the University of Michigan Press in 2008.