Selling Beauty: The Future of a Sacrifice

Glenn Arbery, Ph.D.

“Beauty is a riddle,” says one of the characters in Dosteovski’s The Brothers Karamazov, and the description seems to hard to deny. Why a riddle? Because it presents all the evidence for something that one nevertheless can’t quite comprehend. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam tries to explain to the angel Raphael how he can enjoy everything else in Eden without undue disturbance, but with Eve and “Beauty’s powerful glance,” he feels “commotion strange”:

when I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best:
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded; Wisdom in discourse with her
Loses discountenanced, and like Folly shows;
Authority and Reason on her wait . . . . . . . .

Greatness of mind and Nobleness their seat
Build in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelick placed. (IX 546-554, 557-59)

(See the concordance to this and 600 other great books at www.concordance.com )

Eve’s beauty, in other words, is serene, exalting, self-sufficient, on the one hand, and on the other a kind of maddening lure, a teasing siren-song, a promise of transcendent fulfillment that never quite seems to be illusory, because beauty is there as its evidence.

 

This, mind you, is Adam still unfallen. What about beauty in the fallen world? For someone able to afford it, either possessed in oneself, like a supermodel’s, or possessed as other persons and things, it seems to offer a bliss outside the concerns of common morality, or so we tell ourselves. Businesses make billions of dollars providing the equipment for its personal pursuit and implicitly promising the powers of attraction that come with possessing it. On the other hand, there are thousands for whom its very power is a curse. Just last week, a report on NPR’s All Things Considered explained how the parents of girls from the poorest districts of Nepal were deceived into sending their daughters away with men who promised them jobs, then sold them into prostitution in India for about $350 each–girls as young as ten or twelve, as many as five thousand a year of them. Prized for their smooth skin and exotic features, they come back home, if at all, brutalized and diseased. Others cursed with beauty fare better. Beauty is the eternal riddle of Helen, the unfaithful wife for whom the Greeks fought a ten-year war, who beguilingly calls herself “a nasty bitch evil-intriguing,” and who–at least in the Odyssey–is rewarded with immortality in the Isles of the Blessed. For Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, it is the transcendental form upon which the truly erotic man attempts to beget his own immortality–as perhaps Plato thought Homer had done with the idea of Helen. For the German poet Rilke in the first of his Duino Elegies, “beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains / to annihilate us.”

This series of lectures will be attempting–in ways that I can’t even begin to guess–to deepen the sense of beauty and to explore how its future might be different from its past, for better or for worse. In the spring, our lectures dealt with the impact of globalization, and one of my first questions, thinking toward this series, was its impact on the world’s beauty might be. What, for example, might the pressure of globalization do to the natural beauty of places that can enter the world economy only by opening themselves to tourism? Will each unique place on the planet be stripped of its essential own-ness, like the Nepalese girls, by those hungry enough for the unspoiled and exotic to make the purchase? Or will they, unlike these girls, be enriched by preserving a simulacrum of their original beauty for sale to outsiders?

Even putting the question this way, of course, I imply that beauty has a natural, unspoiled, Edenic quality that will forever be lost after its first exchange. But perhaps not. Other myths suggest that beauty should not be associated with the first state of nature but with sophistication. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, a beautiful temple prostitute separates the wild Enkidu from his world of animals and domesticates him, more or less, with her arts of love, and in Hesiod’s Theogony, the first woman, far from being deceived, is herself devised by the gods as a “beautiful evil” to punish man for the Promethean theft of fire. In other words, these very ancient stories understand beauty, not as unspoiled nature, but as a kind of artistic or cosmetic glamour that superior beings use to tempt whatever is wild away from mere nature–however much nature might want to go back. In fact, the serpent’s temptation of Eve in the garden story can be understood in the same way, as the presentation of a self-image more deceptively alluring than the natural one (“You shall be as gods.”). In fact, Milton has his Satan exploit the backwardness of Eden by appealing to Eve’s vanity. She should be adored by all creation, he points out,

but here In this enclosure wild, these beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discern
Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
Who sees thee? and what is one? who should be seen
A Goddess among Gods, adored and served
By Angels numberless, thy daily train. (IX, 542-48)

If we think about the appeal of this glamourous sophistication, we have to pose the question of the world’s unspoiled natural beauty in a new way: will the people in these places be tempted, not merely by the promise of an improved economy, as everyone thinks, but precisely by seeing themselves through the superior artifice and subtlety of civilized beauty?

But if the world has to be interpreted in terms of profit and loss, then the logical thing will be to think of beauty, like other intangibles, as a form of capital. Robert Putnam, the genial and well-meaning author ofBowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), is concerned with saving the social fabric of American life; he can demonstrate statistically that the friendships, civic associations, and religious participation of individuals that once made America great have fallen into disuse; he argues that neither companies nor nations can thrive without these webs of fellow feeling that constitute “social capital,” a term that he did not invent and that he uses without sufficient regard to what it sounds like. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, that anybody would get up and go to church on Sunday morning in order to build up “social capital,” but this kind of language is widespread. Intelligent people with disciplined knowledge constitute “intellectual capital” (seewww.intellectualcapital.com ), and a popular book last year showed how vital regions such as the rainforest could be preserved by treating them as “natural capital” that would be impossibly expensive to replace. Perhaps beauty will come to be treated in the same way, and its possession by individuals or nations will come to be understood as wealth in “aesthetic capital” and valued accordingly, as works by famous painters and sculptors are treated now.

An important meaning glimmers there, however, behind the this grey metaphor of capital. We try to imagine a Dallas, for example, in which musicians, poets, sculptors, architects, everyone concerned with form, say, in houses, streets, parks, office spaces–strives to build up “aesthetic capital.” No? But change the metaphor, shift the emphasis away from making money, re-imagine the end or purpose of this kind of striving, and it sounds like the Byzantium that Yeats longed for. As he writes in A Vision,

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers . . . spoke to the few and the multitude alike. The painter and the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject-matter and that the vision of a whole people. (Vision 279).

That “vision of a whole people” involves a single end governed by the conviction that only beauty can sufficiently honor and attract divine presence. His appeal in “Sailing to Byzantium” is to the “sages standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall” whom he wants to be the “singing masters of [his] soul.” To understand the difference between Yeats’s Byzantium and a city with a great fund of “aesthetic capital” we would have to think about the difference between gift and investment.

Before coming back to that more or less familiar ground, however, I want to focus tonight on the image of human beauty as we find it in this millennial year, particularly on two extremely different versions, one that can be inferred from David Gelernter’s book called Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology (New York: Basic Books, MasterMinds Series, 1998) and the other from the “sacrificial esthetic” described by the generative anthropologist Eric Gans at U.C.L.A. David Gelernter is a computer scientist at Yale, the author of a number of books on computers and computer culture, and a member of the Edge.org group of “Digerati”(see the list with descriptions at www.edge.org/digerati/index.html) comprising what is known as “The Third Culture,” distinguished from the “two cultures”–the sciences and the humanities–noted by C. P. Snow in 1959. (I would urge you to see the statement of this group written by John Brockman in 1991: www.edge.org/3rd_culture/index.html). As it happens, though this fact has nothing to do with the book, Gelernter was also the recipient in June 1993 of what he thought was a dissertation but turned out to be a mailbomb from the Unabomber: it destroyed his right hand and eye. His most recent book is about the design of computer software; “machine beauty” is his term for the wedding of power and simplicity that underlies the well-designed machine in motion. Gelernter quotes Oscar Wilde’s description of the Chicago waterworks: “I have always wished to believe that the line of strength and the line of beauty are one. . . . the symmetrical motion of great wheels is the most beautiful rhythmic thing I have ever seen” (Gelernter 3). When I was reading Gelernter’s description of the Hoover Dam as another example, it suddenly struck me that the memory hovering behind my experience of the Greek temple at Segesta in Sicily this past summer was the overwhelming effect that seeing the Hoover Dam had on me almost 35 years ago–both were instances of seeing a form in a landscape that gathered the whole to itself with dramatic beauty, something like Rilke’s “beginning of terror.” But the examples can be simple: “You might experience something resembling machine beauty,” Gelernter says, “when you drive a nail into a board with one clean, graceful hammer stroke” (3). His point is that machine beauty characterizes the best technology and that the search for elegance inspires the real innovators, including those who design computer software, a “virtual machine” that when it is running “doesn’t exist as a matter of actual physical reality” (24). The virtual machine inhabits hardware without being a thing in the usual sense; but it is a designed machine, and its design ought naturally to move toward elegance. In his more recent work, Gelernter has moved from discussion of all personal information in a “Lifestream” to discussion of “cyberbodies” accessible anywhere with a private card. (Seewww.edge.org/documents/archive/edge70.html)

One of Gelernter’s fellow Digerati at Edge.org is the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who has collaborated with William Gibson–the writer who invented the term cyberspace in his novel Neuromancer. On September 16, Sterling had an article on the op-ed page of the New York Times called “Olympic Engineering,” and it dovetails in very interesting ways with Gelernter’s ideas about machine beauty. The difficulty is that Sterling is not writing about the structures that house the Olympics, but about the bodies of the Olympic athletes themselves. Let me set up, first, the by-now familiar problem of the athlete’s body. Anyone who happened to be watching the Olympics on Saturday night will remember this scenario: Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands had just won the gold medal in the 50 meter freestyle. The NBC interviewer who talked to her just after the meet asked her to respond to allegations made by American swimmer Amy van Dyken. After losing to de Bruijn the day before, van Dyken had said, passing a camera, “I could swim that fast too if I were a man.” Van Dyken herself later dismissed her comments as sour grapes, but the network took them seriously, because de Bruijn, after an average career, had suddenly broken a number of world records in the spring, and now she was breaking them again in the Olympic Games. Her achievement had already aroused suspicion that she had been using some sophisticated but undetectable means to enhance her body’s performance. For example, a genetically-engineered version of a natural hormone called EPO (erythropoetin) increases the red blood cell production of the marrow and makes it possible for the blood to carry more oxygen (see wwwext.amgen.com/product/AboutEpogen.html ); although it was developed for severely anemic patients on dialysis, athletes such as bicyclists in the Tour de France have used it to increase their endurance. De Bruijn, like all the other athletes in the Games, has undergone repeated tests for illegal substances without any evidence whatsoever against her. Despite de Bruijn’s obvious disgust with the interviewer’s question in the immediate wake of her victory, NBC’s anchor Bob Costas took the matter seriously enough to give a little editorial on the problem of undetectable performance-enhancing drugs and hormones and the way that they can cast suspicion even on athletes who do not deserve it.

This problem of introduced substances, as I say, has long been familiar, in both its scandals and its absurdities, such as the 16-year-old Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan being stripped of her gold medal yesterday because the team doctor gave her some cold medicine. Bruce Sterling’s idea of Olympic engineering changes the story considerably, in a way that accords with Gelernter’s thesis: “If you want a human body to work to unhuman levels,” writes Sterling, “you have to understand it fully. You have to measure and record everything, from the protein level to the gross mechanics of bones and tendons. Then, once you fully grasp the science of sports medicine, you can re-engineer that body, not with mere crude narcotics, but with the body’s own software and hardware.” I’m not sure exactly what Sterling means by the body’s “software,” but I think that he means the activated and running inner programs for such complex operations as seeing things in color and in motion (see Donald Hoffman’s Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See. New York: Norton, 1998, and Semir Zeki, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2000), but perhaps also the traditional faculties–memory, will, imagination, intellect, and so on. His metaphor (if it is a metaphor) suggests that what used to be called a “coach” is now someone engaged in engineering a machine beauty from the body’s natural performance. In fact, the borderline of the “natural” begins to blur. As Sterling writes,

The masters of the Olympics are anxiously policing the easy stuff. They properly see growth hormone as the international sports equivalent of cheating on arms accords. But the body is subtle, the range of performance is very wide, and there are many clever workarounds. Knowledge is power. If knowledge of the body explodes, then banning drugs is a mere finger in the dike. Suppose you need bigger biceps. You have your arms scanned after every workout with a nuclear magnetic resonator, examining every working strand of muscle by computer. In this case, the athlete has done nothing illegal. But while his rival in Kenya trains the traditional way, building strength with push-ups, our cyber-paragon can tailor a program to his exact needs for more-than-peak performance, while obeying the letter of the Olympic law. (New York Times, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2000)

(Notice, in passing, the third world example. I suspect that the Kenyan athlete would know that he couldn’t build bigger biceps by doing pushups, but that’s a quibble.) Sterling’s real point is that ordinary people love to watch Olympic athletes in part because they want to look like them, but in saying so, he introduces a slightly strange-sounding note: “The path to athletic beauty is the one we will follow forward to the more than human.” What does he mean, “the more than human”?

He means that Olympic athletes already demonstrate “the future of the body” that all of us, he thinks, are in the process of choosing. The ideal of feminine beauty has changed radically, he says, and the women athletes of the Olympics have influenced the desired look that models typically embody. “Compare any contemporary model to the zaftig beach babes of the 1940’s,” says Sterling. “The modern ones are very lean and strong, with backs ridged with muscle and legs fit to kick holes in sheetrock. This is the catwalk to the posthuman future” (my emphasis). There it is again: the future as “posthuman” or “more than human.” For Sterling, Olympic athletes are already now becoming what we will be when we surpass “the human.” In fact, they are “just fighting our battles first, mocking it up in a cleansing social ritual. If they try to slow down, an eager society will just take a route around them.” An analogy seems to be emerging: as the third world is to the global economy, so the human (as opposed to posthuman) body is to bioengineering. Or put it another way: the human body is the third world, nature about to be left behind by sophisticated artifice.

I don’t have time to get into the genealogy of this thinking, but several things about it are clear immediately: it has strong affinities to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman or ubermensch. Already in 1883, Nietzsche’s prophet Zarathustra was prodding the multitude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (in The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: The Viking Press, 1968. P.124) Part of the overcoming was a new emphasis on the body, the animal side of our nature, in the wake of Darwin. In the apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” written just after World War I, Yeats asked “what rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” Franz Kafka also picked up on the cultural shift in his short story, “A Hunger Artist.” The professional ascetic who had mastered self-denial finds himself gradually displaced by a new emphasis on animal power. As interest in fasting wanes, he descends from celebrity to a leftover existence as a minor circus exhibit. At the end, he dies in his cage, and the circus manager has him swept out and replaced by a young panther whose vitality energizes everyone used to the dreariness of the hunger artist: “his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not ever want to move away.” www.lundwood.u-net.com/ahunga.htm For Sterling, something like this feeling, we take it, also characterizes those who follow Olympic sports. But the catwalk to the superman now passes through machine beauty, rather than animal energy. It also involves another twist, what yet another member of the Edge Digerati calls a “cybernetic eschatology.”

In “One Half of a Manifesto,” published in Edge on Monday of this week , Jaron Lanier decries what he calls a prevalent “cybernetic totalism” that seems to dominate the thought of the other Digerati. He lists six beliefs that characterize this totalism, but he puts particular emphasis on the last:

6) That biology and physics will merge with computer science (becoming biotechnology and nanotechnology), resulting in life and the physical universe becoming mercurial; achieving the supposed nature of computer software. Furthermore, all of this will happen very soon! Since computers are improving so quickly, they will overwhelm all the other cybernetic processes, like people, and will fundamentally change the nature of what’s going on in the familiar neighborhood of Earth at some moment when a new “criticality” is achieved–maybe in about the year 2020. To be a human after that moment will be either impossible or something very different than we now can know.www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge74.html

Last spring, in our series on globalization and conscious, Gail Thomas and Dan Russ both mentioned an essay by Bill Joy, head of Sun Microsystems, warning about the dire results of the exponentially increasing speed and complexity of computers. Because of “Moore’s law,” the principle that every year and a half or so computation gets roughly twice as fast for a given cost, Joy accepted a prediction to which Lanier refers, that by the year 2020, computers will reach a “criticality” after which they will simply take over from human beings. Lanier doubts it very much; in fact, he points out a simple problem:

As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources. Now I know I’m not being entirely fair here. . . . But our core techniques and technologies for software simply haven’t kept up with hardware. (Just as some newborn race of superintelligent robots are about to consume all humanity, our dear old species will likely be saved by a Windows crash.)

My point is that Bruce Sterling’s piece on Olympic engineering accepts the “cybernetic eschatology”–this vision of the posthuman future–without question. He does clarify what he means by the posthuman in a reply to Lanier, written a week after his Times piece, but he clearly believes that “the human” will be transcended, and soon. Like many of the Digerati, he thinks that we are moving, in other words, toward a posthuman beauty. To put what he says together with what Gelernter says about machine beauty, this new beauty would be experienced–not only in our pleasure in someone else’s stunning looks–but in our own use of the streamlined and re-engineered hardware and software of the body. Imagine our own interiority–the soul, the spirit–as a virtual machine running in a way that makes its use transparent, like Michael Jordan in the optimal experience of “flow” or Mozart effortlessly composing a piano concerto. Gelernter is careful to distinguish between the human being and the computer, by the way, but I’m not as sure about Sterling, at least form these excerpts.

If all this sounds a little adolescent, it’s no doubt because one has a nagging suspicion suspect that there is more wisdom in Homer or Shakespeare than in these fellows at Edge.org. It seems almost unfair and curmudgeonly to point out that in Book 18 of the Iliad, Hephaistos had already fashioned robots, or that nothing in human imagining has yet surpassed the athletic beauty and excellence of that cyber-paragon, if you will, swift-footed Achilles, who nonetheless had to face the agony of mortality, which remains the issue. “The human” that the Digerati think we are all about to exceed seems yet another version of theancien regime, part of a rhetoric that goes back at least to the French Revolution. What pervades all this writing is a metaphysical numbness, and despite his own deficiencies in this regard, I think that Jaron Lanier at least recognizes it. “For the last twenty years,” he writes at the beginning of his essay, “I have found myself on the inside of a revolution, but on the outside of its resplendent dogma. Now that the revolution has not only hit the mainstream, but bludgeoned it into submission by taking over the economy, it’s probably time for me to cry out my dissent more loudly than I have before. His point is well taken: this resplendent dogma of cybernetic totalism characterizes those who have taken over the global economy; they now hold a great deal of the capital. (Bill Gates, I should point out, is one of the Digeratiwww.edge.org/digerati/gates/index.html ). According to Lanier, they have literalized or totalized the perfectly good metaphor of cybernetics (the science concerned with automatic control systems) and made human beings no more than another kind of cybernetic pattern. The only beauty that this dogma can genuinely conceive, I suspect, is greater sophistications of machine beauty. Better this beauty than nothing. But this is not the way to Byzantium.

At the beginning of these remarks, I mentioned a second version of beauty, the “sacrificial aesthetic” of Eric Gans. This view corresponds to machine beauty in something of the same way that the Dionysian, in Nietzsche’s famous distinction, corresponds to the Apollonian. Machine beauty is Apollonian–concerned with the effect of form, simply. The Dionysian, on the other hand, is passionate and participatory, a matter of ritualized emotion. For Gans, who, I should emphasize, does not use these terms and whose whole understanding is shaped by the work of Rene Girard, all high culture–including great literature and art–exists to defer violence, just as blood sacrifice did in the ancient world. Gans understands the “sacrificial esthetic” as a justification of the ancient social necessity of scapegoating: plots tend to center on a bad guy who becomes the scapegoat overcome by the good guys. The sacrificial form of The Patriot, say, would involve centering the enmity of the audience on the evil Englishman, Colonel Tavington (played by a little-known actor), who kills the sons of Benjamin Martin, played, or course, by Mel Gibson. The evil colonel’s death at the end satisfies a kind of scapegoating impulse that vicariously focuses the audience’s violence on one figure, justifies and cleanses the impulse to see him killed, and expels bad violence with good.Gladiator works in the same way; the whole plot gathers justifications for the good guy Maximus to kill the evil Emperor Commodus at the end.

Gans sees this formulaic plot as the popular remnant of the sacrificial esthetic. Great tragedy, on the other hand, brings the audience into an intense identification with the hero who is also the villain to be expelled: in a tragedy, Benjamin Martin turns out to be Colonel Tavington, without ceasing to be himself. Think of Oedipus, for example, or Othello, or Richard II. Gans argues that tragedy dares to modify and challenge the scapegoating impulse while also recognizing the necessity of sacrifice. But his point is that no one in our own society really takes sacrifice seriously:

Esthetic form remains sacrificial, but sacrifice is no longer understood as a necessary feature of social organization; it is merely a “psychological” element of the human condition. Just as we retain physiological drives, such as the appetite for sugar, that have become counterproductive in modern society, so we retain the cultural drive toward sacrifice that determines the structure of the esthetic work. . . . We no longer really believe in good guys and bad guys, but we need the dichotomy in order to enjoy the narration and the catharsis it effects. www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw184.htm

We see what he means. But what does the future then hold? In effect, Gans identifies everything in art with outdated structures for avoiding violence and dismisses “esthetic form” itself as an ironic anachronism.

“Art is far from ended,” he admits, but “it is fair to say that its sacrificial esthetic is essentially exhausted as a creative force. The future would appear to lie not with fictions but with simulations, the creation of virtual realities in which the spectator plays an at least partially interactive role.” He mentions the spread of pornography as a cultural trend in this direction. He might also be thinking along the same lines as a recent writer who argues that computer video games are an evolving popular art that has the same position now that silent movies did in the 1920’s. Games have already influenced such films as Run Lola Run and The Matrix, and they are quickly becoming an independent medium (see this essay atwww.techreview.com/articles/oct00/viewpoint.htm ). What is striking to me is that, for everything that he says about “esthetic form,” Gans makes no mention of beauty itself, even the kind of “machine beauty” that esthetic form might have as a violence processor in his and Girard’s anthropological theory. Even the computer scientist Gelernter–himself the victim of violence, by the way–finds in beauty a powerful shaping drive and a test of final excellence. For Gans, unless I misread him entirely, the new “simulations” have nothing to do with sacrifice–as though pornography did not involve something like the cult prostitution of the world of Gilgamesh, not to mention the kidnapping of girls in Nepal, and as though the virtual realities being explored in games did not involve dismaying levels of participatory violence. Even on his own terms, Gans seems not to see what the loss of formal beauty might actually mean. (For a chilling prospectus, see the article about sacrificial aesthetics by Dawn Perlmutter in a following issue of Anthropoeticswww.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0502/blood.htm ). Gans’s theory seems to me linked to the “resplendent dogma” of the Digerati in one major way: both of them view history as inevitably moving toward an end governed by what they have decided is the inescapable logic of the present–as though the inmost quality of beauty were not its freedom, its riddling intimations of something unexpected still beyond us.

I want to close by thinking of beauty through Richard Wilbur’s poem, always printed as the last in his collected editions, “The Beautiful Changes.” Addressed, I suppose, to some Eve of the poet’s own admiring, fictional or not, it suggests an alternative future for beauty not governed by inevitability.

The Beautiful Changes

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

(Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. p.392)

A few nights ago, I happened to watch the first competition in a new event that had been added to the Olympics this year–synchronized diving. Two divers stood a few feet apart on the 10-meter board, leapt at some sign they made to each other, and executed the same complicated dives at the same time. In this event, individual mastery of the dive was not enough; it wasn’t sufficient for one diver to perform superbly if the other one threw off the synchronization. They needed to be mirror images of each other, like twins. In scoring them, the judges assessed the difficulty of the dives themselves; they watched the synchronization of the moves between the two divers–in order words, whether they started and ended their midair spins and flips at the same time; they gauged the vertical cleanness of the two divers’ entry into the water–whether they were revolving too far over, whether they hit the water at the same time, whether they were the same distance from the edge of the pool. Using these criteria gave them a way to measure degrees of an overall effect. But what they really looked for, of course, was beauty. Watching it, the spectator’s imagination had to encompass the coordination of two dives, two complexities, as a single form.

What Wilbur does in his poem is this kind of doubling, but with a much greater degree of complexity, both because the likenesses are unexpected and because the reader cannot be a spectator of the poem, standing back and watching it performed. It has to take place in the reader, even if it is spoken of as the poet’s experience. From the verb “wading” (a dulled metaphor) in the first line, one finds “The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies / On water”–all the blossoms intricately balanced on the same level, above the ground, all flowing from the walker’s motion as though on the surface of a pond. Then this first change–dry grass to a lake (compare Heaney’s “The Rainstick”)–becomes the basis for another likeness: the effect on him of the woman to whom he speaks, on his own dryness–not even her presence, but the thought of her, her very shadow on his mind. From the distanced, third-person “One wading” of the first line, “you” suddenly enter the poem–“you” as this Eve, as his reader. We watch him address her, and we feel her effect. She gives him, not simply lakes, but archetypal depths, a mind suddenly “valleyed” with “fabulous blue Lucernes.”

One thing changes to another, and becomes more beautifully itself: this thought, already undergoing alterations, takes him into the next stanza and a possibly chilling meditation. Suppose that the capacity for metaphor and simile were merely Darwinian adaptations that allowed us to adapt to analogous structures in different situations; suppose that poetry were merely part of the poet’s linguistic male display, a kind of peacockery in a mating ritual, a kind of machine beauty of the genes. In thinking about marvels of adaptation, he imagines the protective coloration of the chameleon, the leaf-and-stick construction of the mantis. Already it is clear that it has never been a matter of artifice versus nature, because sophisticated artifice already exists within nature itself. But the beautiful changes ones perspective: instead of imagining the chameleon hidden from a predator, the poet discovers that the forest is changed by the chameleon’s “tuning his skin to it”–notice the music of that, by the way: not just changing his color but doing what a musician does in a whole orchestra. But isn’t this merely a pretty fantasy? How can one chameleon change a forest? Because once one is aware of the chameleon’s disappearance into perfect likeness, one is not sure exactly what one is looking at–forest or chameleon. A leaf grows “leafier” when the mantis grows into it–leafier because it has now been metaphored or “said” by an entirely different creature, from which it finds what it is–leaf, not mantis. The mantis as a natural metaphor doubles the nature of greenness, deepens it as the woman “valleys” the poet’s mind. Likeness does not beget sameness, in other words, but difference and identity.

Finally, the poet turns wholly to “you,” to her. The way that her hands hold roses “says” something–that they are not only hers, but to be shared. In other words, she holds them as a gift already that is already increasing; they are already becoming more bounteous, both in honor of their own beauty and as a spontaneous sign of hers. Since she is beautiful, the beautiful changes in the same “kind ways” (a play on “natural”) that she does,

Wishing ever to sunder

Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose

For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

As the poem moves again toward and through this ending, the completion of its form, we could puzzle over what exactly it is as an event of imagination that takes place in us, how it is that we can repeat it and think about until its deepens and becomes fresher than it was at first. How can it make use of our interiority and actually supplant it, temporarily, with another one, yet leave us feeling in its debt for sundering us from our selves? It is not a virtual machine, though it is carefully constructed and meticulously designed, but a moving form that reveals to the mind its own depth–gives it to itself, perhaps, in a new way. Neither does it seem to be an exhausted form, even though the word “sunder” in the last stanza could be taken as an echo of some distant sacrificial moment or loss. The loss itself is changed, because the beautiful adapts itself to us, to our moment and our future, and transforms the dry field we might have thought we were wading.

© The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture – Permission is granted to copy and redistribute this lecture on the condition that the content remains complete and full credit is given to the author.

  • © 2016 Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture - Contact Us - Admin Login -