FEELING THE WORLD
Media constantly lament that we have created an anthropocene era dominated by humans, expanding the Christian conviction that God made humans the center of all life to a destructive end. But the first episode of the new Attenborough series called “Life in Color” is about birds, fish and bugs exploiting color for food, sexual display, and rivalry, all for the sake of survival and without any contact with humans. This is the trailer:
In elegant measured description, Attenborough guides us through extraordinary video footage, much of it underwater. We see things no humans have ever seen — didn’t know existed. The power of this strategy is immense and based on one basic sense, that of aesthetic effect, the love of beauty. How can we not save the world when it is so beautiful?
Most of us realize we have more than the five senses registered by the holes in our heads: mouth, eyes, ears, nose, as well as our skins. If you explore on search engines, it’s soon clear that the actual number of senses are in the double digits, maybe 44 and maybe more, though some thinkers bunch them into as few as four “realms” according to appearance, what they register, and what they sense. As in the least of bugs, our senses guide us to food, sexual display and rivals.
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ap1/chapter/sensory-perception/ This is a learned medical account.
The sense of beauty, real and powerful as it is, has no single type of cell assigned to it, but is a synergistic, responsive, time-specific construct in the brain. It is essential to the immanence of upwelling mysterium tremendum et fascinans that some call spiritual.
Yet other people are missing this response or have replaced their natural organic openness to awe with culturally labeled objects of admiration like Dolly Parton’s waist and wigs or Trump’s misguided use of fake tan. We overlook the beauty of mountains by chipping portraits of admired men out of their fronts and then discover that those who are admired in one time and place are derided in another.
I have a book that presents what was considered beautiful at some time and place, according to what collected artists emphasized in their portraits. One section is about a period when the most admired women had big feet. Big bare feet were evidently a fetish for a while, much healthier than the famous bound feet of valued women in China. As human brains are various and plastic, so are the inventions of culturally labeled beauty.
Culturally suggested beauty is entwined with wealth and status, just like religion. Both depend upon mercantilism, simple marketing, though the religious version is called proselytizing. Easy to see the relevance to religion, those elements of food, sex, and rivalry all worked out into a theory of felt meaning that people think is final and complete.
Distortions of aesthetics are everywhere, not just crucifixion made into little necklaces. In practise examples of ritual devotion like peak exertion, confinement, and torture exist, but also examples of compassion, intimacy, faithfulness, and the creation of beauty as ornament or dwelling. Usually people think they can explain all of them as doctrine and faith, particularly since we have lost the direct contact and participation with nature that used to be an essential root source. Disneyland primaries or Hallmark pastels expressed in polymer chains of slick primary surfaces dominate the world of children and turn up everywhere in their adult lives.
Years ago the January 1, 1960, House Beautiful produced a famous issue explaining the Japanese concept of “shibui.” About subtle colors and textures very different from American taste, it was a landmark that was made into a book, not currently available on Amazon but noted there. I still have my original tear-outs. I was in college then and through the decades my mother and I continued to talk about it when we saw an example, because it was not just a fashionable style, but a kind of beauty as a guide for life.
I called the UUMM monthly newsletter “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain”. Maybe you know the traditional song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQvc6S674hE I hope the link doesn’t have ads.
But beauty can also be terrible. This “Moby Dick” quote just popped up on Twitter. “. . . he had been a great prophet; in their cracked, secret meetings having several times descended from heaven by the way of a trap-door, announcing the speedy opening of the seventh vial.” Melville’s evocative words sweep us away. The power of beauty can be in its rarity or in its totally ungraspable destruction, often in the sky, sometimes in natural disasters.
The details of neuroresearch remind us that just as oxygen in blood surges through our bodies, a steady flow of information travels along with it as well as in the dedicated pipeline of the nerves. The molecules of ions and versions of hormones make us who we are, made us in the womb, and connect us through our skins to the whole wide world.
There are biblical passages that admonish us to enjoy creation because God made everything and being male he likes admiration for his achievements. Today in a different vision, we know that we are not “owners” or even “guardians”, but participants in the storm of life that created us and continues to exceed us. And we see that the cosmos shelters no other life.