Transient Beauties

Remarks on the beauty of rainbows, butterflies and the human face

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever". Well, this can be taken in two ways. It can be taken to mean that the beauty of an object is timeless, ready to be enjoyed afresh by each new generation. Indeed, it may be taken as a condition of ascribing beauty to an object that it be believed to be capable of withstanding the test of time implied here. Less obviously, it can be taken to mean that the beholder's joy in an object remains with them, even if not consciously. But this way of hearing the commonplace is not standard.

Many objects of natural beauty are transient. Thus it is with rainbows and butterflies, and representations of butterflies have been used as symbols of transience, as in Thomas Gainsborough's painting of his daughters, Mary and Margasret, chasing a butterfly ( National Gallery, London). The beauty of a human face is also transient, and it never stands the test of time, for time ravages all human beauties.

No one is living rightly who cannot and does not pause in their business to admire the beauty of a rainbow, a butterfly or a striking face. But is the sense of beauty here connected to the knowledge of its transience? Would these objects be more beautiful to us if they were less transient?

These questions can quickly be answered by saying that emotions and attitudes other than the aesthetic are involved here, and need to be separated out. A rainbow functions as a thing to think with about the sublimity of the powers of nature, able to cast this profligate but transient form across our sky. A butterfly functions as a thing to think with about the fragility and transitoriness of beauty. The beauty of a human face is also a memento mori, since we know in the instant of being struck by it that it must fade and pass. In all such cases, the knowledge of transience calls up emotions of great depth and range, including our feelings about mortality and immortality, whatever particular cast they may take. This has nothing to do with the aesthetic.

"This has nothing to do with the aesthetic." Could that statement be too bold, simplifying into an either/or a topic of some complexity? One obvious remark to make is that our knowledge of the transience of the rainbow focusses us in our attention to it; unlike a painting, we cannot return to it for another look, for it will have vanished forever. To enjoy the rainbow, we have to give it our attention, if only for the short time that it lasts. Another remark which might be made is this: that as far as concerns the rainbow, there is nothing else to be done with it but enjoy its beauty. This is not quite true of butterflies; they can be caught and pinned, and even bought and sold. The same is true of the beautiful face. Women are caught, pinned, bought and sold for their faces. So let's stay with the rainbow for a moment. There is nothing else to be done with it but enjoy its beauty and that enjoyment has to be in the here and now. The pleasure we may take in a representation of a rainbow in a painting, or the trace of a rainbow in a photograph is a different pleasure. The real butterfly can be caught and pinned, but the real rainbow cannot. And, of course, in being caught and pinned the real butterfly loses its grace - for half of a butterfly's beauty is in its flight. A butterfly is colour in motion.

So we might say transient beauties in nature prompt us to an aesthetic attitude and sometimes offer us no scope but for an aesthetic attitude. So the gasp in which we say 'Look!' to someone as we point out a rainbow or a butterfly means this: 'Look quickly, before this thing of beauty vanishes forever'. But the transience also prompts, allows and encourages the attention to form and the acknowledgment of beauty which, in a more enduring object, might go unattended under the pressure of the business of everyday.

But can its transitoriness be an element of the beauty of an object? This question might be paired with another, Can its eternal character be an element in the beauty of an object? No sooner posed than the second question probably prompts thought of the heavens, of the starry sky at night, which from the human standpoint is eternal. Could it be part of the beauty of the rainbow that it is transitory, and at the same time part of the beauty of the heavens that they are eternal?

Here it is necessary to connect to some lines of thought in contemporary aesthetics, which converge on recognising that placing boundaries around the aesthetic object is no easy matter and that some knowledge about the object seems bound up in a great deal of what we class as response to the object. So knowing how a photograph is made, we respond to a photograph in a particular way; knowing that this fast passage of music is played by a human being, not produced electronically, we are the more exhilarated; knowing that this was the first time this particular thing was or has been done enhances our appreciation. So if these things, why not transitoriness and endurance , knowledge of which could be involved with and shape our response?

The issue eventually has to be put something like this: Would the butterfly's flight or the rainbow be the less enchanting if it could be re-run at our will, just as we can re-run our favourite tune indefinitely on tape or CD? And my answer is 'Yes''.

For, first of all, our inability to will the recurrence of that which is transitory forces us out of that proprietorial attitude towards the world which casts a shadow across all aesthetic appreciation - as when we look at a painting thinking of its price tag. Second, it is the transitorinress which is part of the beauty. For we cannot capture the butterfly or the rainbow in all their aspects and can only grasp them incompletely, and depending on how we happen to be situated: on a walk and in a car. So that the pleasure we have is like that, if Peter Fuller is right, which we have in The Venus of Milo. . It is a pleasure enhanced by the psychic work we have to do to complete the part object which we have observed.

No date, unfinished; not previously published

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