It was eleven and a half years ago that I first saw this part of Gippsland that we now call home, and as we drove around exploring I remember feeling incredulous and a bit outraged (those were the days when I still did outrage) that I had never before then seen so much as a single picture of these incredible hills and their golden light, and the green!
We pulled over to the side of the road (now ‘our’ road, where Martha’s school bus travels, where we know all the wombats and which are the best of the wild apple trees) but strange to us then, so that we could really properly look and take in the aliveness of it all.
On that ridge, having come from a place where everything had turned to dust, a feeling a bit like relief, a bit like observing from afar a random act of tenderness, overwhelmed me; tears, sent icy cold by the wind, rolled down my cheeks even while my back was warm in the sun. Beauty. It can do that to you.
This week I spent a delightfully aimless few hours in between things in Melbourne. I haven’t done that for a long time, and it reminded me that seeing things in new ways and thinking through ideas is so much more enjoyable and productive when you allow yourself to be purposeless. In my ambling around I ended up The School of Life’s Conversation Café in Bourke St – if you haven’t been and you’re in town, it’s worth a drop in, I think you’d love it.
It’s been a long time since I was surrounded by so many philosophy books and one in particular caught my eye – On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry. Ah, I remember this beautiful little hardcover! Last time I saw my copy I was living in a Queenslander high on stilts, locked in a vegetable gardening battle with scrub turkeys. The book is lost – lent to someone, I can’t remember who – but the ideas have stayed with me.
I think back to that moment on the ridge looking out over the hills, and those cold tears. To that dark red self sown poppy unfurling brightly among the cabbages that made me gasp this morning. To my old cow Molly gently licking the neck of the young calf, not hers, from whom she is inseparable, glimpsed from my bedroom window. To a guest at last Sunday’s lunch, who sat quietly for most of the meal, before opening the piano lid to play an extraordinary, accomplished, spirited, joyous happy birthday song for one of his fellow guests, before today, a stranger.
It’s what happens in moments like these that Elaine Scarry is interested in; that thing that beauty does to us, the way it transfixes us and in doing so knocks us out of ourselves. Even if just for an instant, we are not at the centre of things; we are humbled; we are equal. And in being so, we are given an insight into another, better (fairer, more just) way of relating to the world and to others. It’s a beautiful and evocative idea.
Beauty generally gets a bad rap in Western philosophy, dismissed as superficial, decorative, distracting and seductive, and therefore all kinds of suspect. But I’m with Scarry. I believe in beauty… and I know there are plenty of us out there! Definitely worth a read.