Beloveds, I’ve started to conceive of each sequence on a certain topic (e.g., beauties of nature) as a month-long prototype for a course that I might develop. Most of the content that I present in this weblog comes from my forthcoming book, Values and Virtues: A New Philosophy of Living.
As a proper educator, proceeding step by step, I would have left today’s topic until today. But I hoped that some of you might want to jump on this opportunity and develop your aesthetic appreciation optimally during this month, so on August 4 I set forth an initial post on harmonious contrasts. There I gave you examples from John Muir’s simplest kinds of harmony, and I gave you what I regard as his most helpful model for beginners to imitate. You can easily find this post by going into the archive indicated on the right panel.
Today I give you a long chunk of text on more difficult harmonies.
My strategy in emphasizing the harmony of contrasts is predicated on the belief that we can occasionally enhance our perception of spiritual value by maxing out on our contemplation of intellectual meaning. It is the intellect that grasps the harmony of contrasts. This dimension was always the hardest for my art students.
In class I would suggest to people (especially ones with no belief in God, and especially those who did believe in God) that they identify a physical contrast, then hold that in mind . . . and wait . . . for beauty to dawn.
I gave art students the idea in many ways, beginning with a study of portions of Plato’s Symposium, that beauty is a magnificent reality—that there is really something to discover. With that stimulus, plus an experience report to hand in after six weeks, lots tremendous discoveries happened. People really went for it, sometimes heroically; and rewards were commensurate with the added receptivity generated their effort.
So here we go.
Four types of harmony are not immediately apparent. They are found in a scene where the initial impression indicates no intelligible order, in a tree that does not fit one’s typical notion of beauty, in a canyon that at first just seems strange and almost scary, and in a unity of contrasting geological processes. Muir also observes that the very basic aesthetic tendency to focus on a particular harmony is overwhelmed by the magnitude and majesty of a scene.
It took Muir two weeks of patient observation and geological reflection before he gained insight into the harmony implicit in a mountain range that was at first glance unintelligible.
“Generally, when looking for the first time from an all-embracing standpoint like this [the top of Mount Ritter in Yosemite], the inexperienced observer is oppressed by the incomprehensible grandeur, variety, and abundance of the mountains rising shoulder to shoulder beyond the reach of vision; and it is only after they have been studied one by one, long and lovingly, that their far-reaching harmonies become manifest. Then, penetrate the wilderness where you may, the main telling features, to which all the surrounding topography is subordinate, are quickly perceived, and the most complicated clusters of peaks stand revealed harmoniously correlated and fashioned like works of art—eloquent monuments of the ancient ice-rivers that brought them into relief from the general mass of the range. The canons, some of them a mile deep, mazing wildly through the mighty host of mountains, however lawless and ungovernable at first sight they appear, are at length recognized as the necessary effects of causes which followed each other in harmonious sequence—Nature’s poems carved on tables of stone—the simplest and most emphatic of her glacial compositions.”
This is a story of the aesthetic effect of persistent effort to discover causes, an effort that verifies once again a faith in the workings of a majestic cosmos.
The next difficult harmony is found in the typical regularities of a tree that seems at first simply huge and irregular.
“The perfect specimens [of sequoias] not burned or broken are singularly regular and symmetrical, though not at all conventional, showing infinite variety in general unity and harmony; the noble shafts with rich purplish brown fluted bark, free of limbs for one hundred and fifty feet or so, ornamented here and there with leafy rosettes; main branches of the oldest trees very large, crooked and rugged, zigzagging stiffly outward seemingly lawless, yet unexpectedly stopping just at the right distance from the trunk and dissolving in dense bossy masses of branchlets, thus making a regular though greatly varied outline, —a cylinder of leafy, outbulging spray masses, terminating in a noble dome, that may be recognized while yet far off upheaved against the sky above the dark bed of pines and firs and spruces, the king of all conifers, not only in size but in sublime majesty of behavior and port.”
One quickly senses the complexity of an object described with such detail. A great sequoia, too tall to appreciate from up close as a unity, is a challenge to aesthetic perception on account of features which Muir acknowledges as he weaves his noticing of what is crooked, zigzagging, stiff, and seemingly lawless, into a portrait of nobility.
Some scenes are strange, uncanny, if not frightening. In Yellowstone there is a canyon “twenty miles long and a thousand feet deep,—a weird unearthly-looking gorge of jagged, fantastic architecture and most brilliantly colored.” Despite the impression of its strangeness, “The lovely Linnaea borealis [sic] hangs her twin bells over the brink of the cliffs, forests and gardens extend their treasures in smiling confidence on either side, nuts and berries ripen well whatever may be going on below; blind fears vanish, and the grand gorge seems a kindly, beautiful part of the general harmony, full of peace and joy and good will.” Here small-scale beauties, set in contrast with their background, trigger a sense of cosmic harmony.
A final sense of harmony manifests on many levels. Just as Muir sought harmonies on a large scale spatially, he also sought harmonies on a large scale temporally. His implicit teleological faith about the evolutionary destiny of nature and persons enabled him to place that which transiently manifests as ugly in a wider time perspective. In a first example, Muir gives a profile of Yellowstone’s past.
“While this [glacial] ice-work was going on, the slumbering volcanic fires were boiling the subterranean waters, and with curious chemistry decomposing the rocks, making beauty in the darkness; these forces, seemingly antagonistic, working harmoniously together.”
“We see Nature working with enthusiasm like a man, blowing her volcanic forges like a blacksmith blowing his smithy fires, shoving glaciers over the landscapes like a carpenter shoving his planes, clearing, ploughing [sic], harrowing, irrigating, planting, and sowing broadcast like a farmer and gardener, doing rough work and fine work, planting sequoias and pines, rosebushes and daisies; working in gems, filling every crack and hollow with them; distilling fine essences; painting plants and shells, clouds, mountains, all the earth and heavens, like an artist,—ever working toward beauty higher and higher.”
Truths of geological and botanical evolution give rise to observations that lead to delight in aesthetic evolution. Each of these discovered harmonies is described with cosmic overtones, suggesting analogies that encourage faith and add perspective to daily life.
At the limit, the necessary conditions for discovering harmony are absent, because no contrast emerges; no object distinguishes itself, no figure arises against a background. In the following scene no one phenomenon stands out in the totality of what can be seen. Rather, the experience here is the very balance of the whole, where no part upstages the general impression.
“It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain Yosemite grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized they are mostly hidden. Sheer precipices three thousand feet high are fringed with tall trees growing close like grass on the brow of a lowland hill, and extending along the feet of these precipices a ribbon of meadow a mile wide and seven or eight long, that seems like a strip a farmer might mow in less than a day. Waterfalls, five hundred to one or two thousand feet high, are so subordinated to the mighty cliffs over which they pour that they seem like wisps of smoke, gentle as floating clouds, though their voices fill the valley and make the rocks tremble. The mountains, too, along the eastern sky . . . and the succession of smooth rounded waves between, swelling higher, higher, with dark woods in their hollows, serene in massive exuberant bulk and beauty, tend yet more to hide the grandeur of the Yosemite temple and make it appear as a subdued subordinate feature of the vast harmonious landscape. Thus every attempt to appreciate any one feature is beaten down by the overwhelming influence of all the others.”
The majestic vastness of the whole puts even grand things in their places.
The mind’s intellectual discovery of harmony is the crucial pivot between the physical and spiritual levels of aesthetic experience. A perceptually attentive, scientifically informed, empathic, and imaginative noticing of attractive features is not yet a realization of beauty in its fullness.
Invitation to experience: identify a harmonious physical contrast, then hold that in mind . . . and wait . . . for beauty to dawn. What do you experience when you try this?