I have my own favorite essay by the Jungian psychologist James Hillman: “The Practice of Beauty.” In it Hillman elaborates on what he says, in the essay Carolyn cites, about the body’s aesthetic radar.
Beauty is no frill, says Hillman. It is essential because it ties us to the natural world, which, in its present state, cries out for our help. “Duty, wonder, respect, guilt, and fear of extinction are not enough. Only love can keep the patient alive”—the patient being the devastated Earth.
“Suppose we were to imagine,” Hillman writes, “that beauty is permanently given, inherent to the world in its data, there on display always, a display that evokes an aesthetic response.”
In other words, what we appreciate and respond to as beauty is not a simple matter of individual preference, but rooted in the natural world. The aesthetic response is a physical, emotional response, and we all have it.
I developed a heightened awareness of my own response to the physical world years ago in a summer walk in the “sensory” section of a botanic garden. As I ran my fingers over lamb’s ears and breathed in the sharp fragrance of lavender, I was aware of feeling good, which was not unusual. But, for the first time, I noticed where the good feeling showed up in my body: it was a warm tingling around my solar plexus, as if my body was opening to the garden. This visceral good feeling got my attention.
As I walked through the garden, I continued to pay attention to what my solar plexus was doing. I noticed the response again–the warm, opening-up feeling–not often, and not necessarily when I would expect it, but unmistakable. Not in the rose garden that day but in the Japanese garden. Under a willow. At the sound of the waterfall. By the lily ponds. Sometimes I stopped to look at things, expecting the sensation, and nothing happened. Expectation seemed to kill the thrill. It was as if my body was saying, “Don’t tell me what to like; I’ll tell you.”
At that moment I realized that “liking” was more than a mental attitude; it was a direct, physical response. So was “disliking,” for that matter. That day, whenever a jarring note was introduced, when I saw a crowd of noisy school children approaching, for example, my stomach did a little turn, a mild version of what it does at the scent of rich food when I have stomach flu.
Obeying my senses rather than my intentions had something to do with leading me to the places that were right for me on that particular day. But the senses alone could not provide guidance. Senses are always “on.” We see and feel and smell constantly. It was the combination of sensory perception and this subtle body signaling that led me uncannily to the best places. Eyes would see, but the body would have to say its little momentary “yes” to identify the best spots in the garden.
Christopher Alexander, author of fascinating and expensive books on design (A Pattern Language) hints at a similar kind of experience in The Nature of Order:
“About twenty years ago, I began to notice that objects and buildings which have life all have certain identifiable structural characteristics . . . . I began writing these characteristics down informally, and I began to ‘keep watch’ on them.
“What I did was straightforward and empirical. I simply looked at thousands and thousands of examples, comparing those that had more life with those that had less life. Whenever I looked at two examples, I could determine which one had greater “life” or greater wholeness, by asking which of them generated a greater wholeness in me” (emphasis added).
Alexander’s feeling of “greater wholeness,” Hillman’s aesthetic response, and the tingling in my solar plexus are all saying the same thing. They’re saying that the gut reaction is not to be ignored. It is as essential as science, the human intellect, and moral commitment when it comes to restoring and preserving a world for future generations. These responses are about beauty, and they are about love.
“Our love has left the world. . . . For love to return to the world, beauty must first return, else we love the world only as a moral duty: clean it up, preserve its nature, exploit it less. If love depends on beauty, then beauty comes first.”
Aesthetics is not simply a matter of response. It can point us toward health and wellbeing. Beauty can be a guide to how we make places for ourselves in the world, what work we do, how we shape that work, the very art of our living. Aesthetics and ethics, the exercise of moral duty, are not far apart. But we activists, scientists, and healers would do well to experiment, now and then, with starting with beauty and trusting beauty to lead us to, and show us, the good. We may even learn to trust beauty to make good.