Thursday, May 17, 2012

On beauty

Lake Pedder in Tasmania, here shown before it was flooded by a highly controversial hydro-electric project, is the opening focus of John Griffin's 'On the Origin of Beauty: Ecophilosophy in the Light of Traditional Wisdom'.

Its destruction as a place whole and beautiful - and the virtual absence in the argument about that destruction of the consideration of its beauty - is the starting point of Griffin's searching, lucid and articulate book.

It is a compelling defence of the traditional understanding of beauty - that beauty is inherent in the nature of the world and that our capacity to see this is dependent on the quality of our consciousness. If we see aright, we see beauty because our seeing is in harmonious accord with the sacred reality of the world, as the divine gift in which the divine sees itself reflected. The more beautiful our living space, the more likely we are in accord with the sacred.

The occlusion of this way of seeing has been through replacing the priority of the intellect as a direct, intuitive perceiving of the real with the fantasy of reason that the 'true world' can be seen indirectly through the manipulation of quantification. This use of ratio and number has been exceptionally powerful - witness the outcomes of science and technology - but it has come at a cost - our fantastic ability to manage ourselves free of the limits of the world that is now fracturing us in a world of climate change and resource constraint.

But as this fantasy of reason has advanced, its actual purchase on our understanding of the world has grown weaker and weaker - possibly Griffin's best chapter is on how as we have penetrated the quantum world, our customary tools of mathematics and our customary assumption that the world is 'out there' and exists independently of our consciousness (and that our ways of understanding are value neutral rather than, in fact, choices) have crumbled. We are at a genuine scientific impasse - and though business continues as usual, the wheels have, in fact, fallen off the intellectual bus (as they have of the global bus). The bus, however, keeps on sliding down the hill: we think of this as progress, where as, in fact, it is more likely a slipping towards the abyss.

I was reminded of a conversation in a kitchen at university where a physics student tried to persuade me that the 'fundamental' reality of the cooker was that it was composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. I maintained that you could equally argue that the 'fundamental' reality of the cooker was that it made my dinner! Protons, neutrons and electrons appear to have collapsed into a welter of yet more exotic 'fundamental' particles, probabilities and waves. Meanwhile, I am still cooking my dinner!

More seriously, is what presents itself to us in our consciousness the starting point for all reflection or is it in abstraction? Griffin argues for the former whilst recognising that our consciousness itself has a hierarchy of awareness. That hierarchy has is most compelling description in traditional patterns of religion, recognised in their esoteric fullness; and, here, described by the Traditional School of Rene Guenon et al.

Ecological awareness is dependent here on a recognition of the creation's dependency on dwelling in the divine - and that we, as humans, are most likely to steward the creation if we see it as gift, whole and beautiful - because in so seeing it, we reach the apex of what it means to be human - a light of the divine mirrored in the beauty of nature and of what we create out of it, beautiful in so far as it reflects its divine making.

This way of seeing gave us (by means of example) the cathedrals of medieval Europe and the complex rice paddies of Bali, both hauntingly beautiful and, in the latter case, yielding three crops, sustainably, a year. It is not a way of seeing that is disposed of lightly.

There is a fascinating recent study from Sweden that looked at the interaction between the residents of a mental hospital and the art that it chose to display on its walls. The only paintings never to be damaged were the landscapes (the paintings that fared the least well were the abstracts). We know, even in our deepest distress, where we arise from and from where our truest healing comes.

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