14. Beauty and Mystery?

In Japanese aesthetics yūgen refers to those moments when we feel as if we have had a partial glimpse into a hidden reality.  Such a glimpse is felt to be profoundly mysterious. It is also experienced as beautiful. According to the Nō playwright Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), yūgen “is the beauty not merely of appearance but of spirit; it is inner beauty manifesting itself outwards”.[1] But this manifestation is always marked by mystery insofar as the beauty of the underlying spirit is never completely revealed. Albert Einstein made similar connections between mystery, beauty, and insight into the nature of reality:

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.”[2]

Zeami describes some subtle phenomena that are mysterious yet beautiful gates of yūgen: “To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest with no thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that goes hid by far-off islands, to ponder on the journey of wild-geese seen and lost among the clouds.”[3] Zeami didn’t think these gates were to be pursued as ends in themselves; rather, he thought of them as a means to gaining insights into reality.

Very often approaches to beauty emphasize bounded form, proportion, unity-in-diversity, and various ratios (e.g., the golden ratio) that can be quantified (go here for more on this topic). What can be lost in such approaches is, perhaps, the mystery that the form both conceals and reveals. Something isn’t beautiful because of what we see alone; it is beautiful because of what we don’t see. Now perhaps beauty is only skin deep. Or perhaps it is deeper but not so deep that we can’t get to the bottom of it. But if mystery is indeed a part of our experience of beauty then beauty can be unraveled but never fully grasped, objectified, our possessed: it must remain partially mysterious.

This vision is by no means limited to the above Japanese account. For example, we see it in Plato’s account of beauty in his dialogue Symposium in which our experience of a beautiful body can gradually lead us towards more and more general forms of beauty until, finally, we encounter a mysterious initiation in which we suddenly encounter the perfect Form of Beauty itself. And this encounter helps Eros partially realize its goal – eternal possession of the Good – by allowing the soul to become more virtuous. But the Good itself, as we learn in Plato’s Republic, is “beyond being” and is not something we can directly and fully grasp in our embodied state. In his dialogue Phaedrus Plato describes our recollection of the Form of Beauty in the presence of a beautiful body as one of shuddering and fear. We come to realize that the bounded, physical beauty in front of us is but an imitation of a more elusive, immaterial power to which we are dimly related. And this can overwhelm us insofar as we realize we are not what we thought we were. Again, seeking beauty leads to plenty of mystery (for more on Plato’s Good go here).

The beauty of the baroque manifests this disorienting reaching toward the mysterious as well. Consider this passage from Umberto Eco which picks up on the cosmic orientation alluded to with Einstein:

“Just as the heavenly bodies in the firmament redesigned by Copernicus and Kepler refer to one another within ever more complex relationships, so does every detail of the Baroque world contain within itself a condensed and an expanded vision of the cosmos. There is no line that does not guide the eye toward a “beyond” still to be reached, there is no line that is not charged with tension. The motionless and inanimate Beauty of the Classical model was replaced by a Beauty of dramatic intensity.” (See his book History of Beauty, p. 234).

Eco also notes that this Baroque “reaching for the absolute” transforms proportionate, graceful conceptions of beauty into what might be called “disquieting beauty”: a nebulous form of beauty that is mysterious, surprising, and, paradoxically, capable of being found even in ugliness and death.

Now, this expansion of beauty into such mysterious territory may seem problematic given that the limits beauty provides can be a source of profound meaning, consolation, and purpose in our lives. But it is certainly fascinating to see how this account of beauty and mystery starts to merge with the sublime: an experience of unbounded magnitude or might that transcends our imagination and, although pleasurable, can verge on something terrifying (see my posts on the sublime here). Moreover, the disorientation that can accompany this account of beauty places it in the vicinity of the uncanny: an unsettling experience of the familiar becoming unfamiliar (see my posts on the uncanny here). Perhaps one coherent way to see all three aesthetic categories connected is to think of them as moments in a developmental process of adventure. But whatever the case may be, if Einstein is right – if the mysterious is indeed the emotion from which both art and science emerge – then we would be wise to respect and cultivate the experience of beautiful mystery however disquieting and even uncanny it may be.

For some of my other posts on beauty, please go to the category beauty in the menu.

[1] Makoto Ueda. Literary and Art Theories in Japan. (Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1967), p. 61.

[2] Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Dell, 1954), p. 22.

[3] Arthur Waley, The No Plays of Japan (New York: Dover, 1998), p. 22.

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