The spark of life

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - LIFE - BY PHILLIP ADAMS

Just as the clas­sic “golden ra­tio” can aid an artist in the com­po­si­tion of a paint­ing, there is, we’re told, a math­e­mat­i­cal ba­sis for a beau­ti­ful face. A sort of al­go­rithm, to use that ac­cursed term, wired into our (un)con­scious­ness that, recog­nis­ing a pre­or­dained sense of pro­por­tion, trig­gers a plea­sur­able re­sponse. If the eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks and chin ac­cord to the rule – be­hold! The magic and rar­ity of beauty.

I’ve long be­lieved beauty is more com­plex than maths. In one of child­hood’s eureka mo­ments I saw that beauty (in a face, a land­scape or even an idea) was about life. And ug­li­ness? Death.

The beauty of a baby’s face – or that of a puppy, lamb or kit­ten – comes from the in­car­na­tion of life at its dawn­ing, at its most hope­ful. Ver­sus the ug­li­ness of a face de­stroyed by vi­o­lence or dis­ease, or the im­pla­ca­ble grim­ness of a skull.

Yet there’s a para­dox. Some of the most beau­ti­ful faces are very old faces, al­most ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in their an­cient­ness but so ex­pres­sive of long lives lived. (I re­mem­ber Faith Ban­dler’s face, which was in­com­pa­ra­bly lovely. It was a sig­nif­i­cant an­niver­sary of the Abo­rig­i­nal ref­er­en­dum of 1967 and we were won­der­ing whether it would pass today. Faith doubted it. “Are we more big­oted now?” I asked. “No, but big­otry is bet­ter or­gan­ised,” she replied. The face of big­otry is al­ways ugly.)

This life/death/beauty/ugly ar­gu­ment works well with sym­bols. The Hindu swastika, an el­e­gant sym­bol of eter­nity, be­comes hor­rific when ap­pro­pri­ated by Nazism, ar­guably the most death-ob­sessed ide­ol­ogy in in­hu­man his­tory. And the Chris­tian cross? A sym­bol of one of the Ro­mans’ most sadis­tic forms of ex­e­cu­tion, adopted by a new faith that be­lieved death had been con­quered by its Mes­siah, thus meta­mor­phos­ing from an im­age of hor­ror to hope. How­ever, both sym­bols – cross and swastika – be­come blurred by the un­de­ni­able fact of Chris­tian com­plic­ity in the Holo­caust, de­riv­ing from mil­len­nia of gen­er­alised Chris­tian anti- Semitism and cen­turies of specif­i­cally Ger­man anti-Semitism (read your Martin Luther). Hence my de­scrip­tion of the swastika as “the cru­ci­fix in jack­boots”.

The liv­ing forests of life ver­sus death’s clear-felling. Ver­dant farm­land ver­sus the death­li­ness of the quarry or open cut mine. The term desert de­rives from an An­cient Egyp­tian term for the land of the dead – the end­less sands rather than the fer­til­ity of the Nile, the land of the liv­ing. And, by de­scent, from the Latin de­ser­tum, “an aban­doned place”. Yet there is a pro­found beauty in the desert, in the volup­tuous and rest­less curves of dunes. And re­mem­ber the tran­scen­dent im­age of our blue planet as seen from space, in con­trast to the des­o­la­tion of dead worlds.

An­other para­dox. Much cre­ative beauty in the world comes from the de­sire to de­feat or deny death – in the ar­chi­tec­ture of pyra­mids and cathe­drals, in the glo­ries of great art and lit­er­a­ture and mu­sic. And be­hold hu­man courage in the face of epi­demics, sui­cide bomb­ings and the rav­ages of war. Again and again the ug­li­ness of death cre­ates the beauty of brav­ery in those who defy it.

Imag­ine two paint­ings. One an orig­i­nal, the other a seem­ingly per­fect copy. Yet the for­mer is the more beau­ti­ful be­cause it is full of a life force that even a flaw­less replica lacks.

Beauty in the eye of the be­holder? Some see it in a chalked equa­tion. Oth­ers in the con­tours of a piece of pot­tery or the de­sign of a car. Beauty skin deep? Surely more ap­pli­ca­ble to the merely pretty. Beauty in a hu­man or an ideal has depth. But so has the ug­li­ness of ha­tred.

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