Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why do we choose not to be surrounded by beauty?

Ralph Williams, in his last lecture at the University, spoke of beauty. He said that something is beautiful when two conditions are met - 1) you never want that thing to die (or go away), and 2) you want to tell other people about it. "Look at this flower!" "Look at that tree of a thousand colours!" You want your bed to be made of them, and you want to be showered in that beauty. But how many of us would say that the structures we construct for bodies and our minds, and the places we choose to spend our lives in are beautiful? If you take a drive along any highway or thoroughfare, especially in the US, the roads are engulfed by objects of humanity that are truly not beautiful - box stores and strip malls, flashy neon lights and billboards, and advertisements for personal injury lawyers with cheesy pick up lines of sorts. These objects are square, drab, plastic and ungraceful. Indeed, these structures are built for our "convenience." These structures are not constructed for our appreciation and pleasure. Just take a look at the buildings on North Campus, or the hallway of GG Brown.

How many of us would say that the trash we create is beautiful? Would I want to show people the trash I was responsible for? No! That's why we enclose the trash in containers that are opaque. We want our trash to die (or go away). If you look at a pile of trash, or a wrapper torn to reveal the granola bar inside, would anyone say that the wrapper is beautiful? The contrast between this wrapper resting on dewy grass with a crunchy leaf bearing witness could not be more stark.

Is this Styrofoam container with Panda Express inside of it beautiful?

What about this plastic bag? 

We must remember that the landscapes we inhabit were not square and full of plastic before they were bulldozed and modified. These tracts were beautiful and vast, and lives were lived here, in beauty. I don't think anyone could describe anything that happens or exists in nature as ugly. Indeed, something may be devoid of life and barren, but maybe lonely or uncompromising would be adjectives we would use. Do we have to give up beauty to live in today's world? Our understanding of what it means to exist in this world and our observations of it are defined by what we create as people, rather than what is defined by nature. And for all of our efforts to replicate nature, we will never come close to making anything physical as beautiful as a prairie or a tree. If we did want to incorporate more beauty in the objects and spaces we create, how would that affect the things we choose to throw away, like trash?

Here are some words from Lia Purpura's piece, There Are Things Awry Here, from Orion.

"The flags are frozen. They're fifty feet high but don't move in wind and they carry no sentiment, like "these we hoist high over our small town/farm/ranch to keep alive spirit, memory, fervor..." The flags have names: Ryan's, Outback, Hooters, IHOP, Waffle House. Wal-Mart on a far - I'd like to say hill but that's out of the question, the hill's been dozed, subdued into rise."
What was here, that a body moved through it?
Back in my room I can't shake the sensation (despite my dandelion in a plastic cup, curtains wide open, basket of apples to naturalize things). A strangeness, an insistence is hovering. The strangeness makes me say aloud to myself - something had to be here, something had been.
Real land is never sad in its vastness, lost in its solitude. Left alone, cycles dress and undress it, chill-and-warm so it peaks, hardens, slides, swells. Real land hosts - voles, foxes, cicadas. Fires, moss, thunder. Rolls or gets steep. Sinks,sops, and sprouts. But this land didn't read. It babbled the way useless things babble - fuzzy bees with felt smiles, bejeweled and baubley occasional plaques, ConGRADulation mugs/frames/figurines. Capped, crusted, contained, so laden with stuff - how can it breathe?
Here, near the Cobb, is the land where Mac wrote, in Fins and Feathers, a little piece called "Our London":
I remember the sun setting over the last rugged corner of Britain in a blaze of crimson magnificence, that we saw when the ship sailed in August. I remember seeing the lights of Toronto start to blink from a small island on Lake Ontario. But best of all—I remember London.

Though I am many thousands of miles away, I see her constantly, not as she stands now, bruised and battered, but as she was when I spent my adolescent initiation within her walls; and I am sorry that I was not able to appreciate her then as I do now. For in those days, Regent Street just signified to me the roads that led from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Street. Charing Cross was just a station that served my purpose in going south. The same applied to Fleet Street, Cheapside and Soho, and a host of other fine places . . .
I knew in this vacancy something asserted. Something strange—that is, real—and insistent was here. The land didn’t mean to be torn and tar covered, wasn’t meant to sprout stock farmers, farm women, and ranchers. The land asked to be considered, and seriously. The land wanted to speak—past the bunkers of rolled insulation, past the earth-eating backhoes and yellow concoction my farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose) force-fed the grass. Here, the land must have been green by the runways. Some of the big trees still here must have seen it. Yes, it must’ve been lush once, before hotels started turf wars along Marriott/Hilton lines, and thick vines choked the trees, and the tractors came and the hot blacktop poured, so the SKUs of Big K—hundreds of thousands—might take root and flourish.  

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully said, I know these feelings, and share them.

    People chose to surround themselves in ugliness, so it's no real surprise tha their kids try hard to escape their parents'sugly world: video games, drugs, alcohol, suicide and even (maybe) shooting like Columbine...