“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” - Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata
Many profound thinkers have philosophised over a sense of dualism in life: our night and day, the masculine and feminine, birth and death, the good and the bad. Taoism symbolises this philosophy through the 'yin', representing the negative, and 'yang', the positive. These ancient Chinese philosophers didn't think something could be totally one or the other, but believed that everything had differing levels of both negative and positive.
Following this vein of dualistic thought, it could be theorised that 'beauty' too can share elements of both positive and negative. It is simple for someone to state the positive attributes that make something beautiful - a pretty face, a flourishing landscape, a cheerful tune - but what about the darker elements of beauty?
“Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.” - Wallace Stevens
You could say that 'vulnerability' is a key factor - alluding to a sense of fragility and mortality. After all, experiencing and dealing with psychological discomfort is part of the human condition and death is an unavoidable conclusion for all living things. When these elements are portrayed in art we can relate and sympathise with the subject: it stirs up our own fears and woes, and stimulates our compassion - wherein lies a sense of beauty.
Danger too is beautiful. Think of the destructive forces in nature which fill us with awe: the electrical storm, the tornado, the erupting volcano. Their destructive impact may not be beautiful, but the otherworldly spectacle of power certainly is. Also - as we touched on in the previous blog - the animal world is full of beautiful killers. Lions, tigers and bears are as dangerous as they are beautiful.
You could say that some of the most beautiful creations in art have elements of duality. Arguably the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Mona Lisa', displays a perfect balance between the negative and positive in a human expression: for is she or is she not smiling? What about the haunting and emotive piano works of Fryderyk Chopin that delightfully dance between the 'light' and the 'dark'.
In conclusion, beauty is but an abstract concept within a perceived human reality. It's the seemingly bottomless depths of man's consciousness: our fears, compassion, admiration and aspirations, projected onto the living world to envisage something as beautiful. Anything can be beautiful in the eyes of man: all that is needed is a stimulating connection to the psyche - so beauty truly does 'lie within'.
“The appearance of things changes according to the emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves.” - Kahlil Gibran, The Broken Wings
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In Greek mythology, Halcyone and Ceyx were lovers who incurred the wrath of the god Zeus by mocking him and his wife. Angered, Zeus killed Ceyx.