Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Swoon by Shawna Lemay


I thought by now I’d have logged more time with the women who come and go talking of Michelangelo. Or Anselm Kiefer or Judy Chicago or Paula Modersohn-Becker. In my twenties I went to university because I imagined I’d have long conversations about the nature of art, of beauty. That just going to university would be the beginning of this conversation. And it was, only mostly I have it with myself.

Who has time to think about beauty, or read essays by Susan Sontag where she quotes Gertrude Stein who said that to call a work of art beautiful means that it is dead. Is beauty dead? Are we deadened? Do we believe in art? How that question is tied to the one, do we believe in beauty? Well, we might not, we might not believe in or be consoled by delicate and breakable old beauty, but Sontag says that: “the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions.” We can experience beauty, even if it is sometimes tough to believe in. I believe we can still be astonished by beauty and apples, if not by Vogue magazine and the way 14 year old girls are used to advertise products targeted at 45 year old women.

If you study art or write poetry it’s impossible to avoid the subject of beauty, or at least it should be IMHO. You might ramble through the history of beauty, of aesthetics. Hit upon Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, read the lines by Keats, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty ,—that is all. / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” This is just the tip of the philosophy of beauty iceberg of course, and you can’t think about beauty without bringing in ideas of the sublime, or wrestle with the notion of ugliness.

It’s become unfashionable to talk about beauty, beauty has become neglected, you read this from time to time. It’s problematic, it’s suspect. And it is, you know it is. But people are still arguing for it, quietly, persistently. Kinds of beauty, rather than Beauty. Which itself is pretty beautiful.

What do we talk about when we talk about beauty? (That’s a bit of a rip-off of a Raymond Carver title which you probably knew but in case you didn’t. It’s impossible to catch every single allusion right?). I like to talk about how it’s never one thing, that there are so many possible permutations and that it’s always shifting, our idea of what might be beautiful. The hairstyles and shoes of the 18th century compared to the ones in the 21st century. Discuss.

I make it a point to read or make or attempt to write something beautiful every day. So much failure.

You might say failure has a side to it that’s quite beautiful and light-filled. There’s the potential for light, sidelight, in these instances.

Maybe I’m more interested in light these days than beauty. The way it eases through the slats in a fence late in the day, so golden and sneaky and surprising.

I’m interested in being overwhelmed by beauty, the sturdy experience of it. I’m interested in the swoon. That thing that happens before something overwhelming. A sort of brain-swoon, like brain freeze, the thing you get when you quickly drink a slushy drink from the corner chain store. You’ve mixed it just the way you like, lime, cream soda and coke with a touch of Mountain Dew on top. A kind of ugly sluiced rainbow. Which has nothing to do with the sensation – the sensation that you expect but doubt.

What about the people who drive to their jobs in office towers or warehouses or windowless shopping malls? I guess I’ve been one of those people often enough. So let me tell you it’s quite possible that the expectation or hope of brain-swoon melts away from you. And it hurts, throbs, if you’ve known beauty however thinly, however splintered.

Listen. If I have known beauty
let’s say I came to it

(That’s Phyllis Webb)

I’ve learned to stay away from women who come and go and refuse to talk about Michelangelo. Of course with the friends I have, we talk about our children as well, about what and who we love, and sometimes we exchange recipes and gossip and tell stories. But there’s this one person I keep meeting, Helene Cixous talks about this phenomena, of meeting the same person in a different guise throughout a life, the one who impedes us from living joy. Living the blue flower. Or reaching for the blue flower. The blue and delicate longing that lies incessantly at one’s heart.

"I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart and I can imagine and think of nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers?"
(This is from the novel The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald about the German poet and philosopher Novalis)

In Buddhism, there is also the recognition of the soul who repeats in your life, for a reason. Which has to do with what you can learn from that person, how to be kinder, better. Remember the rules that Henry James set out: 'Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind." Or maybe in repeated meetings, encounters, what happens is that you learn how to relate to this person who perhaps works in the cubicle next to you every single livelong day so that you can smile like the Dalai Llama. You learn how to smile and wave, smile and wave, and how to be in their presence, at peace with yourself and you find out how at last, you can simply take a few steps back, and then walk away, smiling.

There is the beauty of thanking one’s enemies. There were two bully girls, we called them the mean girls, where I once worked, years ago now. I tried many approaches with them. But in the end I read somewhere that sometimes the only way to resolve such dreadful blue flower killing episodes is with your feet. So I left. And it took me a while to find beauty again, but you know it was always there. It took years but now I thank them, even though for a while I felt like the next best thing to unemployable, because of the paths I’ve been on since. Without their insidious and secret meanness who knows where I’d be.

A terrible thought got me through this ordeal with the mean girls though. I didn’t think they knew how to experience beauty, and I did. Rotten, I know, and possibly wrong. For them, I imagined a murky rainbow brain freeze rather than brain swoon. Still do. Can’t help it.

Be happy and write. That’s a line from an Ondaatje poem. I always think of the line in fancy curly brackets, but I don’t think it’s printed this way. {Be happy and write}. It’s sort of a happy/beautiful line though because it’s so futile. Even so it’s bored into me. Someone is telling this to the narrator who is going through a kind of personal hell, fleeting though it is, he has no way of seeing his way out at present. The narrator responds, not happy, but lucky, yes.

When I’m writing I’m usually happy, but kind of a weird tortured perfectly grey happy you know. A delicate heartbreaking tenuous happy. An overcast happy but with that soft light on a light blue wall. Rilke (who Ondaatje references in his poem) says, “I basically do not believe that it matters to be happy in the sense in which people expect to be happy.” I have this underlined in my copy in a very vibrant spring green colour. May green.

Rilke, this mournful castle dwelling creature has a lot to say about working cheerfully, about how magnificent this unforeseeable life of ours is, how to endure, how to get through. His was a gloomy happiness, and what beauty he produced! Impossible to argue with that at least it is for me.

The passionate flying of strange birds and terrifying angels. That’s as good a plagiarized definition of beauty as any perhaps.

The rejection of beauty troubles me. How people hold themselves quite intentionally from the experience of beauty. A withholding of the self. I guess I’ve made peace with the rejection of things that I’ve made, things I’ve tried to fill with light so that they might be of interest. I’m interested in strange little bits myself, things not for everyone. Beauty for mad women, that kind of beauty. The kind of beauty that refuses to be called dead. I’m interested yes in going on, working toward it anyway.

 Shawna Lemay is a writer who has published five books of poetry, a book of essays, and an experimental novel.  She is currently working on her second novel as well as a long prose piece on beauty. She works part time at the Edmonton Public library.

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