On the Nature and Impact of Beauty

On the Nature and Impact of Beauty

“So, …. I know, I know, but ….”

Why is the aesthetically positive we refer to as beauty so important to me? Not just in a woman but in landscapes, seascapes, colors, flora, architecture, in short, in everything (a very broad short).

I think that I, like many others, instinctively associate the aesthetic with the positive, the good, the beneficent, the just; as being in concordance with nature and the multiverse’s mysterious purpose; as reflections of the divine, although why such a perception exists is not clear. I think it’s a reactive connection based on the delight that positive aesthetics generate. It’s certainly true that it’s a resonance I sense and which strongly affects me. Still, I can’t help but wonder why and, in the light of personal experience, to speculate that if at any time in the past a connection between beauty and divinity existed, it has long been sundered. All too often throughout mankind’s history beauty and the divine have been very different things.

Our current concept of beauty seems to involve a complex of phenomena, a broad spectrum of perceptual experiences, many sensory in nature but others involving the intangible, the emotive, the intellectual and even the spiritual. Beauty is surreal, elusive, perhaps indefinable in any objective sense, emanating from a completely subjective dimension. It generates extreme emotions: positive when enjoyed, generating ecstasy, euphoria, delight and the appearance of happiness; negative when, once perceived, access to it is deprived. Generally, when something has such a potent long term impact on behavior it has an element of evolutionary benefit associated with it; however, the concept of beauty is an extravagant example of the idiosyncratic, and, seemingly, counter evolutionary from a survivalist perspective. One explanation is its apparent connection with addiction as addictions also generate extremely strong motivational responses without apparent survival based benefits, seeming perversions of things positive, as cancers are perversions of biologically positive processes. Another explanation might be that our current perceptual sense of beauty is merely a perversion of ancient survival based instincts?  Both would seem to make sense where little else does.

I focus on this because I’m in a related quandary. Experience has sought to teach me, not very successfully, that beauty is not only subjective but subject to perceptual distortion: that which is beautiful one day becomes merely attractive on another and perhaps even aesthetically distasteful on a third. A wise person learning from experience would thus not be unduly swayed by one day’s apparent beauty; rather, such person would consider it a pleasant albeit possibly transient experience but which ought never to cloud judgment.

I am evidently not a wise person, at least not in this respect. Still, I am not alone in this apparent deficiency. It seems to cast a wide net and I am drawn to ponder why as I seek to alleviate its symptoms. I ponder these questions because I find myself trapped in beauty’s gravity well, a place from which, despite no apparent benefit, I find it impossible, at least for now, to extricate myself. That’s not to say beauty is the only thing I seek, I at least tell myself it’s only one essential element among many others but too often, as long as the other aspects are present, beauty is what winds up making it hardest to understand that the decision I’ve made is not the right one.

I wonder why.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2013; all rights reserved