On beauty

central otago

This morning I was driving. And, as I usually do when I am driving, I listened to Radio 4. [If I were ever to leave the UK, I think one of the things I would miss most about this small, quirky country is the BBC, and specifically Radio 4.] It was Desert Island Discs, and the interviewee was Professor Monica Grady. She is Professor of Space Science at the Open University. One of the things she talked about was the beauty of a moon rock.

She explained that when a very thin slice is examined under a microscope, it is incredibly beautiful, in part because there has never been any rain on the moon.

What is beauty? How can a rock be beautiful? How can a wine be beautiful? What is it about a person that makes them beautiful?

These are all questions I have been thinking about over the last few days. These are some of my thoughts.

Beauty is not the same thing as perfection. And beauty is not an absence of flaws. In fact, you could argue that flaws are an important part of beauty. The quality of silence is only made apparent by small noises (‘flaws’) that interrupt that silence. Imagine a hallway in a country house. It is the quiet ticking of the grandfather clock at the end of the hall that makes the quietness apparent, bringing into relief the absence of noise. And some noises have an intrinsic peaceful quality to them, even though they are not quiet: for example birdsong in the woodland, or a bubbling brook.

Think of the physical appearance of a loved one. Cultural messages on beauty promote an airbrushed fantasy, whereas real people have a beauty that requires no re-touching: any ‘flaws’ become an integral part of true beauty, and are integrated into that beauty to the point that it would be absurd to call them ‘flaws’.

For wine, I find that some of my true moments of beauty have come with bottles that have elements to their flavour that a technician might describe as faults. Great wines can carry and integrate ‘flaws’, so that these elements become integrated to the point that they are part of the beauty. Think of hints of greenness, or reduction, or oxidation – or even Brettanomyces. There are wines that are truly beautiful, but which contain one or more of these elements.To dismiss these wines as faulty seems like – to me at least – to be taking the cultural airbrush view of beauty.

Some more thoughts.

Is beauty a property of the object, or something conferred on the object by the observer? Think of Professor Grady’s moon rock. Most people would not immediately describe a rock as beautiful. But to her, it is beautiful. She is ascribing beauty to the rock. A wine is not intrinsically beautiful, but there are some wines that I find beautiful. I confer beauty on the wine as I drink it and appreciate it.

A tragedy: there are many beautiful humans out there who don’t feel beautiful; no one is making them realize that they are. Often, the awareness they have of their flaws stops them hearing that they are beautiful, because they don’t realize that flaws are part of beauty itself.

Some people are good at recognizing beauty. They become so attuned to it that they recognize it in the mundane, or in unexpected places. That is a good capacity to possess.

There is also a temporal aspect to beauty. It can creep up on you and surprise you. As you journey with your fellow humans, you slowly begin to appreciate their beauty. You just hadn’t been looking closely enough before. Beauty can grow; given the right environment it flourishes. We should each make the recognition and nurturing of beauty one of our life’s goals.

7 comments to On beauty

  • Thank you Jamie. I found a great deal of beauty in your writing.

  • Damien

    “Beauty, like supreme dominion
    Is but supported by opinion”
    Benjamin Franklin summing ‘beauty’ up a tad more succinctly.

  • Philip

    Interesting, thank you.
    also, if you value the BBC, please respond to the Government’s public consultation on the BBC’s Charter Review https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/bbc-charter-review-public-consultation

  • David Bennett

    That pic looks suspiciously like somewhere near Peregrine winery’

  • Christian

    Very well put, a lot of insight in this post… It made me think of both wine and other beautiful things; I had a slightly oxidized Nebbiolo yesterday but it was a thing of beauty, never mind the hints of raisin and sherry.

    These posts about other things than wine are like the “flaws” you mention, they offer a contrast to the regular posts and make them stand out more. :)

  • Jamie,

    Thank you for the insightful blog about beauty. I enjoy your perspective.
    I just spent three years researching and writing about the “Aesthetics of Wine” determining the beauty and art worthiness of wine as an object and experience for my master’s thesis. Some of your previous writing is amongst my research.

    My journey isn’t over and I am preparing to draft a book on the topic. I would love to hear more of your thoughts!

    Ciao

    Simone FM Spinner, MH, CWS
    Denver, Colorado

  • Helen J. Conway

    Thank you, a lovely thought for the day.

    By the way, don’t worry, we expats can listen to most BBC Radio programmes on the internet. I love Radio 4 too!

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