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Beauty is a seizure

We strive to change the world in various ways. However, the point is to learn how to interpret it. And by doing so, we shall also learn how to direct its endless becoming. The fact is, that interpretation is not a matter of mere opinion, nor a quest to find one ‘true meaning’ that we might catch in our conceptual nets. Interpretation is a subtle art, reaching into the depths of reality so to overcome cognitive obstacles that have long seemed insurmountable. While we are often torn between total adherence to the letter of the world, and total dismissal of what we might deem as mere appearances, the art of interpretation suggests a way running between these extremes. If we wish to truly interpret something, we must be able to apprehend the object of our interpretation as at the same time true and lacking truth, present and absent. The letter of the liber mundi (‘the book of the world’), if properly interpreted, is both respected and overcome. It is respected for what it is, and it is overcome for what it is not. Thus, interpreting the world is a way of respecting the different dimensions that constitute it, leaving to each of them the legitimacy which it deserves, while also moving beyond each one – seeking not ‘the one’ monolith that explains the whole, but the whole as such. The totality of the object, as understood by the art of interpretation – let us call it with its proper name, hermeneutics – is a paradoxical complex, in which seemingly opposite aspects are able to coexist without merging into one another.

As often noted by mystically-inclined thinkers – from Plato, through Sufi masters to Marsilio Ficino, etc. – beauty is a perfect ground to observe the workings of the hermeneutic art. Regardless of whether beauty is primarily in the thing or in the ‘eyes of the beholder’, it is certainly a dimension that exceeds both the realm of pure objecthood and that of pure opinion. As an intermediate dimension between the object and the gaze, beauty is a prime example of that intermediate realm within which hermeneutics operate. This passing mention of beauty’s ‘intermediate’ position, shouldn’t be overlooked too fast. Its fundamental implication is that such in-betweeness requires a movement outside both positions involved: outside the object towards the viewer, and outside the viewer towards the object. The beauty of anything doesn’t fully belong to either pole, and it remains adamant in its request that both parties exceed their own specific boundaries to meet in its frontier-land. In this sense, beauty is a place, as well as an aesthetic value-judgement. Learning to apprehend the beauty of anything, first requires learning how to exceed our own personal limits – to be in ecstasy, in the etymological sense of ‘standing outside’ of ourselves – while at the same time learning how to draw an object out of itself. It is an art that runs opposite to the practice of exorcism, and closer to the desire for what Luc de Heusch called ‘adorcism’: rather than striving to be returned to oneself and away from the spirits that threaten to kidnap our soul, it aims at making oneself possessed, dragged out of their limited self, as well as at inducing possessedness in other beings. Beauty opens a realm between beings, a place in which encounters are made possible precisely because there are no longer two fully contained entities that encounter each other: in the place of beauty, beings meet as foreigners to their own respective name.

Yet, accessing beauty is a difficult process, requiring a form of initiation – that is a form of learning that changes the very core both of the person undergoing it and of the object being observed. Here we can grasp the true extent of the hermeneutic art: it is not just a matter of ‘changing one’s perspective on things’, but a transformation that affects the foundations of both the viewer and of what is viewed. But how can we change the foundations of the object that we observe, seeking its beauty? If we are walking through the suburban streets of a Northern metropolis under a heavy November sky, how can we change their essence to the point of allowing their beauty to emerge? Indeed, it is not an easy task, and in fact the already seemingly insurmountable difficulty of having to initiate oneself to the ‘beautiful gaze’, is matched by the even more daunting task of having to initiate the object itself to its own beauty. How can this be done? The answer lies, appropriately enough, at an intermediate level between both forms of initiation – until we shall realise that, in fact, it is a matter of one initiation alone. By exceeding our own individual self as a tidy name in the dictionary of the world – that is, by discovering at our core an ineffable kernel that resists any form of linguistic classification – we can embark on that ecstatic movement ‘outside of ourselves’, heading towards the place where beauty lies. The same process, if applied to the object of our contemplation, allows us to accompany it beyond its own linguistic classifications, pulling it towards the same field of foreignness in which our own ineffable dimension lies. There, in that space-in-between, both forms of foreignness – our own, and that of the object of our gaze seeking beauty – can finally meet in a no-man’s land that is, in fact, beauty’s very own territory. Not just beauty’s of course, but also horror’s, eeriness’, weirdness’, and so on. That is the realm of aesthetics, as it can be properly understood.

But again, how to get there, beyond merely abstract formulae? If we observe closely the rare instants in which we are able to find the beauty of things – whether celebrated artworks, or one’s face in the mirror on a Monday morning – we can notice a particular process at work. Whenever we look at a semi-dead bush growing at the edge of the street and we find it beautiful – but equally, whenever we look at a painting by Raphael and we see its beauty – it is as if our perceptions had contracted to a state of nigh-paralysis. Beauty is a seizure, binding both our physical and our ‘subtle’ senses to a condition in which they can no longer converse with each other or with our discursive intelligence. This is the symptom of a passage beyond our own name, as our entire sensibility is made to focus on a focal point in the object that impairs the kind of vision which we would require to remain operative towards it – or even operative in ourselves. The inner dialogue within our understanding is interrupted, and it turns into a choir, with each voice describing the object in a particular aspect, while not attempting to suffocate the plurality of voices into one single perspective. It resembles the way in which we can willingly let our eyes go astray, losing focus completely, and yet remaining able to observe the infinite plurality of details emerging through our blurry vision.

Yet, we shouldn’t believe that this process affects our vision alone. Like in the art of theurgy, as described in late-antiquity by Neo-Platonic theosopher Iamblichus, the way in which we arrange ourselves is also capable of inviting external forces to make themselves manifest. Likewise, accepting to fall into beauty’s seizure, allows the ulterior dimension of the object of our gaze to emerge and to reveal itself. By pushing ourselves outside of ourselves, we are able to invite the object to exceed its own boundaries. In the state in which our oblivion of ourselves as mere names – that is, as entities that fully coincide with their linguistic classifications – meets our equal oblivion of the name of the objects, the intermediate world of beauty finally opens its gates. That, is the proper realm of aesthetics. And since aesthetics lies at the heart of ethics, that is also the realm in which we can find the directions that can later accompany our ‘normal’, operative, everyday life. After all, any moral injunction always befalls us as if from without, and indeed it is precisely from that realm – in which we fall outside ourselves – that we can find the origin of aesthetic/ethical demands. When deriving from that place, such injunctions emerge as if from a neutral space of supreme objectivity, or, as we used to call them centuries ago, of divinity: neither from me, nor from you, and yet from both me and you.

The art of letting oneself be grabbed by an aesthetic seizure has many affinities with aspects of the shamanic art. As in shamanism, the quest for beauty is a process that leads us outside ourselves, along a journey in which we find the equivalent excess of all other beings. And as shamanism, the new territory in which our beautiful gaze finds the beautiful object, is one where both us and the object exist as peers, despite our different origins. Finally, as in shamanism, our quest for beauty entraps us in a state in which we are as if ‘made secret’ to the conventions of everyday life in society. Beauty’s seizure unveils a new world while veiling the old one, much like trance states made the shaman unavailable for any other societal activity apart from its spiritual journey. Seeking shadows, we become shadows – connected, yet shrouded, from the clear-cut contours of the world that knows no beauty.

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