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.