“Beauty is a life saving plank in the midst of the ocean.” —St. Augustine, De Musica
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
We live in ugly times. That is, if you listen to the political rhetoric of the 2016 US presidential election. Most particularly, I refer to that ugly cluster of racism, Islamophobia, misogamy, and xenophobia, i.e., the Trump campaign. Like a medieval ball-and-chain flail with deadly spikes, this psychic weapon is whipped about carelessly by Donald Trump and his followers, threatening to rend the colorful and delicate tapestry that makes up our American culture—the creation of our ever-evolving sense of social justice stitched together through 240 years of blood, sweat, and tears.
Who can save us from this peril of ugliness? What can repair the torn places in the fabric of our society and restore a sense of justice? I want to propose that beauty itself can save us. Beauty can heal our society. Beauty is an antidote to the contagion of Trumpism.
But isn’t beauty—the whole realm of the aesthetic—just a tangential quality of life, one best left to poets and philosophers, hardly relevant to the real world? And how can it save us from Donald Trump? Isn’t that asking just a little too much?
I propose that beauty is not only relevant, but necessary for us to repair the injuries caused by the aforementioned metaphorical weapons of hateful rhetoric. At the very least, beauty illumines the false nature of ugly rhetoric, so that it doesn’t fool us and pull us in to its web of lies. Moreover, beauty bursts through boundaries of differences by enlarging our world, restoring our connections, and our sanity. Beauty takes us out of ourselves, open us up to creativity, and therefore to the possibilities of justice and reconciliation. Indeed, every one of us can participate in beauty. Beauty is not just for the aesthete. Beauty is a spiritual siren beckoning each of us to play with it, sing it, write it, paint it, or walk with it under a canopy of stars.
There are many forms of beauty, or many ways “to kneel and kiss the ground,” but they all involve the whole person in deep connection with something greater than oneself. Harvard Professor of Aesthetics Elaine Scarry tells us that the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but injury. She also believes that beauty can be a healing force in our world, and that through its power to decenter our egos and lure us toward creativity, it can lead us to justice. She says, “None of us are the center of the world, but each of us can get into the mistake of believing that we are the center of our own world. Beauty relieves us of this. It not only puts us on the sidelines, but makes us acutely happy to be there on the sidelines. Becoming capable of experiencing bliss in one’s own lateralness may not be itself a state of justice, but it certainly prepares us for doing such work in the world.”[i]
To counter the ugliness of hate speech and bigotry, we need music, art, dance, playfulness, and huge helpings of nature to take us out of ourselves, or what philosophers Iris Murdock and Simon Weil call “unselfing” or what Weil calls “a radical decentering.” Elaine Scarry tells the story of Iris Murdoch, who was in a state of self-preoccupation, worrying about her work and worrying about her status not being fully appreciated when she suddenly caught sight of a bird lift off in flight. At that moment, her self-absorption fell away as she experienced an un-selfing. Beauty can thus help us get over ourselves, pay attention to what matters, see our deeper connections, and experience the more-ness of life. We can find a balm in beauty.
The aesthetic moment—a sudden burst of gratitude for a bird’s flight, the pure sound of a violin, a line of poetry, an ordinary face made beautiful by love, a simple act of kindness, the first sight of a ravishing green meadow—that moment of participating in beauty unveils the possibilities never before imagined and makes our hearts turn over with gladness.
John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet and philosopher, posits that beauty is not mere loveliness, but “a more rounded, substantial becoming . . . an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also, a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”[i] This enlarging quality of beauty defines what we in the playful-yet-serious Fat Soul International movement believe in. We dare to move beyond the narrowness of Us vs. Them categories, making room for the Other. We believe this kind of soul fatness is a high form of beauty—transcending ourselves for the sake of the world. We are unfolding in time together, becoming more beautiful as we enlarge ourselves with the beauty of diversity. We dare to improvise as we go along, enriching one another with our wonder, love, and buoyant gladness to be sharing this thing called life. None of this sounds like Donald Trump. But wait: doesn’t he prize beauty? Look at his lovely wife. A smoky-eyed super model, she’s undeniably beautiful in a slick-magazine, Madison Avenue sort of way. And his children—all beautiful. Look at his big, shiny buildings stamped with the name TRUMP—wow! And what about his ornate golden chairs where he sits, as on a throne, for his interviews? Like kings and tyrants of old, he surrounds himself with beautiful things and beautiful people. And yet he spews out only ugliness.
Donald Trump knows nothing of beauty.
In fact, Trump is a great example of the perversion of beauty. He likes to bandy about the word “beautiful” as in “what a beautiful crowd!” But what he means is: anything that reflects himself, Donald Trump, is the definition of beauty. Instead of experiencing beauty as an “un-selfing,” beauty becomes a mere commodity to enhance his ego. Obscenely rich people sometimes want to own beautiful things like famous paintings, even if they lock them away in vaults, just to own them. To be known to own them. To be important. To prop up one’s ego.
Remember Narcissus from Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection? Such is the tragedy of Trump. A narcissist like Trump can never know the gladness of beauty because he cannot enter it, only own it. He cannot be decentered. He can never find joy in “un-selfing” as beauty calls us to do.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead believed that “the teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty.” He also believed in a beautiful God. In this same spirit, John O’Donohue says simply: “God is Beauty.” He does not mean God is beautiful in a smoky-eyed, glamorous sort of way, or in a gold-leaf look-at-me chair kind of way, but in the way of love, which Augustine says is the highest form of beauty: “love is the beauty of the soul.” Thus, beauty can indeed save us, not only from the dark contagion of Donald Trump, but from our own shadow, our own penchant for secret prejudices, greed, lust, and hatefulness. We all need the salvific power of beauty in our lives.
Just as we must not allow the Religious Right to define Christianity, let us not allow Donald Trump to define beauty. Let us reclaim the authentic power of the aesthetic to enlarge our vision, un-self us, and open up our creativity toward the healing of our injured world. So, turn off the television and immerse yourself in something beautiful. Dare to lose yourself, enlarge your vision, your soul, and discover the alternative to an Us. vs. Them world. Beauty-induced gladness can not only draw us away from the contagion of Trump, but may lead to a contagion of un-selfing, a contagion of connection, a contagion of justice, a contagion of kindness.