It is an understatement to say that humans have a relationship with beauty. In the midst of the tragic human condition, it is, in fact, from beauty that we draw meaning and pleasure. Moreover, as we approach the question of artistic creation, we will try to refer to a few great aesthetic traditions, and to distinguish certain criteria for gauging and judging beauty. For the moment, suffice it to say that the beauty I have witnessed is not limited to combinations of external traits, to appearances, which can be described using a whole arsenal of qualifiers: pretty, attractive, colorful, sparkling, sumptuous, elegant, harmonious, well-proportioned, and so on.
Formal beauty exists, of course, but it hardly encompasses the entire reality of beauty. That is more strictly a matter of Being, moved by the imperious desire for beauty. True beauty does not reside only in what is already manifest as beauty; it resides almost primarily in the desire and the impulse. It is a becoming, and the dimension of spirit or soul is vital to it. Accordingly, it is governed by the principle of life. Thus, beyond all the possible criteria, only one guarantees its authenticity: true beauty is that which follows the course of the Way, the Way as understood to be nothing other than the irresistible progress toward open life, in other words, a principle of life that keeps its whole promise open. This criterion based on the principle of life--and I have not forgotten the question of death, which we will come to--excludes all use of beauty as a tool of deception or domination. Such use is ugliness itself; it always constitutes a path of destruction. Yes, we must always avoid confusing the essence of a thing and the uses to which it can be put. How true that is with regard to beauty!
To further clarify my remarks, again, let me add this: beauty is something that is virtually there, eternally there, a desire that bursts forth from within beings, or Being, like an inexhaustible fountain that, more than an isolated, anonymous form, reveals itself as radiant, connected presence, inspiring acquiescence, interaction, and transfiguration.
A matter of being and not of having, true beauty cannot be defined as a means or instrument. In essence, it is a way to be, a state of existence. Let us observe this through one of the symbols of beauty: the rose. By what course of habit and distortion has the rose become a somewhat banal, slightly mawkish image, even while the universe had to evolve over billions of years in order to produce this miraculous entity of harmony, coherence, and resolution?
Let us agree to take a good, long look at the rose. Let us begin by recalling this couplet by the seventeenth-century Silesian poet, Angelus Silesius, who is associated with Flemish-Rhenish mystics like Meister Eckehart and Jakob Böhme:
The rose is without a why, flowers because it
Without concern for itself, or desire to be seen.
Well-known, admirable lines before which one can only bow. Indeed, the rose is without a why, as are all living beings, all of us. If a naïve observer wanted to add something nevertheless, he could say this: to be fully a rose, in its uniqueness, and nothing else at all: that constitutes sufficient reason to be. That requires the rose to bring into play all the vital energy at its disposal. From the moment its shoot emerges from the earth, it pushes in one direction, as if driven by an unwavering will. Through it, a line of force is established that is crystallized in a bud. Beginning from this bud, the leaves and then the petals will soon form and open out, adopting such curvature, such sinuousness, opting for such fragrance, such a hue. Henceforth, nothing will prevent it from completing its signature, fulfilling its desire to be fulfilled, to be nourished by the soil, but also by the wind, the dew, and the rays of the sun.
And finally there it is, the rose, manifested in the full radiance of its presence, propagating its rhythmic waves toward its aspiration: pure, limitless space. This irrepressible opening into space evokes a fountain endlessly pouring forth from the depths. Because in so far as the rose desires to last for the time of its destiny, it also depends upon being deeply rooted. Between the soil and the air, between earth and sky, a give-and-take occurs, symbolized by the very form of the petals, a form so specific, simultaneously curved inward and turning outward in a gesture of offering. Jacques de Bourbon Busset summarizes it in a lovely phrase: “brightness of the flesh, shadow of the spirit.” Indeed it is fitting that the flesh be in the light, the spirit in shadow, in order for the latter to support the principle of life that governs the flesh, so that even when the petals have fallen and mixed with the nurturing humus, their invisible perfume may persist as an emanation of their essence or a sign of their transfiguration.
“In a gesture of offering,” we said. Nevertheless the poet wrote, “without concern for itself, or desire to be seen.” It is true that since the why of a rose is to be fully a rose, the moment of its plenitude of being coincides with the plenitude of Being itself. In other words, the desire for beauty is absorbed into the beauty; it no longer has to justify itself. If we want to continue thinking in terms of “being seen” and “not being seen,” we can say that--beyond the role it plays in “educating” the human gaze--the rose’s beauty, its radiance resonating with the full radiance of the universe, can finally only be taken in by the divine gaze. By which I mean: gathered in, not gathered!