As I flew into Minneapolis, I turned off the reading light and looked out the window. The night was beautifully clear. Surrounded by a geometrically perfect array of lights, the city itself, rising out of the plain, appeared as a complex, luminous crystal.
It’s easy to forget to look at what we see. When we remember to, we walk, as the Navajo say, in beauty far more often than we realize.
The Greek island of Santorini formed when its more ancient predecessor, Thera, exploded some 2,500 years ago with a power that dwarfed the later Vesuvius and Krakatoa. Stand on its cliffs around sunset and you’ll see a marvelous vista. I’m jealous of geologists who regard the same view: I’m sure that in their minds they can see the eruption itself in all its terrifying power.
I learned this in the Black Hills of South Dakota thirty years ago. On a college field trip I looked at a spectacular landscape, admiring the beautiful view. Then our geology professor explained what we were looking at — how and where the earth had folded into mountains, then partially eroded away. As he did so, my sense of the place’s magnificence increased immensely, but he, I think, in his mind’s eye, actually saw the mountains form.
There are those who think that analyzing and understanding something exquisite somehow negates its beauty, making it cold and emotionless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Renaissance artists studied human anatomy to become better painters and sculptors and their increased knowledge improved their sense of beauty as well as their works: The difference between a craftsman and an artist is, after all, in the mind, not the hands.
By the time of the Renaissance, if not before, humanity had amassed more knowledge than any single human could learn in a lifetime. Certainly by the time Sir Isaac Newton died he had personally discovered more than most modern Americans ever learn, and the human race has learned infinitely more since then. Perhaps discouraged by the impossibility of ever learning even a tiny fraction of what’s known, many appear to prefer ignorance and make a virtue of it. What, after all, is the point in trying?
If there’s no other point, there is always this: While ignorance might be bliss, it certainly isn’t a pretty thing. We live in beauty, if we only know how to look. As evidence, those who truly understand music find gorgeous sound even in the ghastly (to me) twelve-tone compositions of SchÃ¶nberg and Webern, impossible as it seems.
The more we know, the more we’re able to see beauty, since it is, in the end, in the mind of the beholder, not in the eyes and ears.
This holiday season, take the time to find it.