the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

RE­CENTLY I found my­self stand­ing in a big han­gar next to a jet fighter. (I won’t men­tion which fighter it was as I don’t want to make the other fight­ers jeal­ous.) The jet fighter I was stand­ing next to, I re­alised, was an arte­fact of great el­e­gance: its sleek as­sur­ance, its sin­u­ous, van­ish­ing lines, the over­whelm­ing sense of self-con­fi­dence it ex­uded. In com­bi­na­tion, in what seemed per­fect pro­por­tion, th­ese were beau­ti­ful. I ad­mit I was a bit love struck.

I made the mis­take of telling the air force colonel in charge I thought his plane a thing of great beauty. He was miffed. That’s not how he saw it. ‘‘ What would you say if I said you were cute?’’ he asked ac­cus­ingly. Well frankly, I thought, I’d say you were bark­ing mad.

His point, I sus­pect, was the fighter was not meant to look el­e­gant. To en­e­mies, it was meant to con­vey men­ace, to friends, re­as­sur­ance. Cute? Pretty? El­e­gant? No no no no.

None­the­less, I per­sist in my view that this was a beau­ti­ful plane. The colonel’s mis­take, I think, was to con­fuse beauty with pret­ti­ness. They are not the same thing. Of course, beauty is an elu­sive and com­plex qual­ity. Our old say­ing that some­one has a face only a mother could love cap­tures some of this mys­tery. Beauty is a two-way street, so to speak, need­ing some­one or some­thing to be beau­ti­ful, and some­one to ap­pre­ci­ate that beauty.

GK Ch­ester­ton once re­marked, in a for­mu­la­tion that to­day would be re­garded as po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, that the chief chance of hap­pi­ness for the or­di­nary man came from believ­ing a small house grand and a plain wife beau­ti­ful. So I ac­cept there is some­thing sub­jec­tive about beauty. But it is not en­tirely sub­jec­tive and the be­lief that it is is one of the great mis­takes of mod­ern cul­ture. The whole wrong turn mod­ern aes­thet­ics took was to sub­sti­tute the pur­suit of beauty with the pur­suit of in­ten­sity.

It is nat­u­ral not only to seek beauty but to seek in­tense beauty. The mis­take is to think what we are re­ally af­ter is in­ten­sity alone. That way leads to ruin. For it is dif­fi­cult to find and ap­pre­ci­ate in­tense beauty but easy to cre­ate mere in­ten­sity. Noth­ing much is eas­ier than in­tense ug­li­ness.

You see this mis­take played out across much elite cul­ture and in­creas­ingly in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Thus much mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, from bru­tal­ism to post­mod­ernism, is fairly ugly. The Syd­ney Opera House is a supreme ac­com­plish­ment be­cause it is an un­mis­tak­ably mod­ern build­ing that has a clean and suc­cess­ful am­bi­tion to be tra­di­tion­ally beau­ti­ful, pleas­ing to the eye and in­spir­ing to the spirit.

You come across the same con­fu­sion about in­ten­sity and beauty in mu­sic. Have you ever sat through a con­cert of atonal mu­sic? It’s hor­ri­ble. You can of course sur­ren­der to it, sup­press your re­vul­sion at the as­sault on the yearn­ing of your senses for or­der and melody, and re­gard it merely as a phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion to be ex­pe­ri­enced, like jumping into a freez­ing pool, which is un­pleas­ant but can be thrilling. But you have to train your­self to find ug­li­ness thrilling. In the vis­ual arts, this train­ing is all too ob­vi­ous. You find the same syn­drome in many mod­ern nov­els in which the death and dis­mem­ber­ment scene is a cliche. In th­ese cases the artist is tak­ing the easy road to in­ten­sity in­stead of the de­mand­ing path to beauty.

Of course, a thing can be pretty and evil. That is not nor­mally the way in na­ture, for na­ture tells no lies. But as Ge­orge Or­well re­marked in one of his typ­i­cally mor­dant ob­ser­va­tions, you could build a pretty fence around a death camp. This para­dox should not, how­ever, lead us to think that mi­nor beauty is mostly a be­trayal, a false step.

The de­sire to cre­ate in­ten­sity for its own sake is some­thing like the cen­tral and an­cient temp­ta­tion to evil, which is al­ways at heart a temp­ta­tion to a fraud­u­lent sense of power. By cre­at­ing in­ten­sity we feel as if we are gods. We have tran­scended the nor­mal­ity of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence by cre­at­ing some­thing un­nat­u­rally in­tense and ugly. Look on our works, ye mighty, and de­spair.

Whereas I of­ten take refuge in plain­ness (yes, I know, easy when you look like me), which is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent from ug­li­ness. For years I re­joiced in the dag­gi­ness of the cars I owned: an eight-cylin­der Ley­land, a pur­ple Valiant, a tiny Hyundai. They were not beau­ti­ful, but nor were they ugly. Long com­pan­ion­ship ren­dered them, if not fetch­ing, at least agree­able. That was good enough.

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