I am nothing if not a sentimentalist and an aesthete. There are times (until, that is, you see a photo) you could be forgiven for picturing me wandering through dappled meadows with billowing curls and a gaze of Wordsworthian rapture. Beauty has always mattered to me as a lover of all forms of art, and also as a creator of art. I may not share your ideas of what is beautiful. Indeed, I would probably be rather scared of meeting you if we did. But beauty stands alongside passion as a pillar of overriding importance in art.
I have been thinking in particular detail about the notion of beauty while writing my most recent book, which features a rather ragtag group of outsiders and misfits whose stated purpose in life is simply to “make the world a more beautiful place.” What they mean by beauty is somewhat more akin to my own definition than what you might find on the pages of OK magazine, and examining just what I do mean by beauty, and why it is so important to me, has been a fascinating, often uncomfortable journey into places within myself and my art that are at once dark, frightening and, well, beautiful.
I wonder if you would care to walk with me for a moment.
The beauty of decay
It is a fundamental tenet of urban exploration (as well as Peter Greenaway films) that decay is beautiful. One of my characters puts it like this:
“I love decay,” she said. “It reminds you that everything’s temporary and that’s OK, that death is the most natural thing in the world. What could be more beautiful than having the freedom to stop breathing. Any time you want. No reproach, no wailing, no gnashing, no tearing of clothes. No get your homework in or pay your bills or be nice to the assholes who want you to suck dick or wash tables and bow and say thank you for the privilege. The freedom just to stop, right where you are, and not breathe anymore and slowly return to the soil and the air like everything else. Decay tells you death is OK, death is beautiful. And that makes the life you have in the meantime beautiful too.”
This is the beauty we see in crumbling buildings and angry, calloused concrete and steel that has given up the fight and the bloated bodies of roadkill and the cataracted eyes of broken down cars whose light has gone out for good. It’s a beauty that reassures us, winds itself around us in a blanket and whispers that here, if nowhere else, here we are not outsiders, here we are understood, here we can be our own fragile selves and not apologise.
This notion of the beauty of belonging is something I come back to again and again. It’s not belonging in a narrow, jingoistic sense. It’s not exclusionary. It doesn’t say beauty is being part of the elite, beauty is being marked out, superior. It’s a deliciously inclusive notion. It’s about there being a home for all outsiders, a home that exists, er, outside regular constructs of beauty and reassures us that our beauty is not relative to those constructs but is absolute, is ours simply because we exist, because we do the one thing that unites every single element of our world – we decay.
The beauty of tears
I first came across the notion of “the saddest story ever written” in Milan Kundera’s remarkable book “Immortality.” Of course, he was only giving voice to something we all recognise– the self-emptying joy of crying and crying until we are wholly, beautifully spent. Just describing the process, of course, suggests something sexual, and that connection is something incredibly powerfully expressed by Haruki Murakami in his novel Norwegian Wood when the narrator Toru first spends the night with his beloved Naoko, and they make love and then they spend the whole night in each others’ arms whilst she sobs uncontrollably.
Just as decay is beautiful because it tells us that whoever we are we have a home in the world, because, that is, it takes us absolutely into ourselves, so tears are beautiful because, and in proportion to the extent, they are utterly self-emptying. Because, that is, they take us absolutely out of ourselves. To cry uncontrollably in the arms of beauty is to be taken so out of oneself that one becomes, for that moment, the size and shape of another’s skin. It is only grief of imagined and infinite intensity that tells us categorically we are not alone, that there is an “other” whose place in the world fits us perfectly. As readers, that transcendent experience of leaving ourselves completely through a stream of tears is the hit of crack we long for books to give us. As writers it is the hit we long to peddle.
Beauty as Doing
Beauty takes us inside ourselves and outside ourselves. And that is the final clue to its riddle. Beauty is never static. It is experiential. Beauty is nothing to do with “the look” or “the gaze” or any of those other objectifying myths that place an absolute premium on the inequality of subject and object, viewer and viewed, voyeur and victim. Beauty is about moving with something or someone so freely and completely that the boundaries between you melt and concept dissolves totally into the flow of experience. I guess that’s why my last novel draws so heavily on the worldview and vocabulary of parkour, with its motto “only move forwards” and its myriad ways of moving through space so that the practitioner and their surroundings become each other’s skin and eyes.
The answer to how we make the world more beautiful? By living in it as fully and freely and uncomplicatedly and unapologetically and uninhibitedly and empathically and creatively as we possibly can. What could be hard about that?