I got into a French mood the last couple of days. It rained pretty much non-stop in San Francisco and it seemed that Edith Piaf should be the backdrop here. I love the wistfulness of music from that far-away time. I was wondering about that feeling, so powerful, that romantic yearning for a different era. I was overtaken for an afternoon and watched Les Regles du Jeu, rated the all-time best French movie, from 1939. I got lost for a while in the romance of it all.
I feel so much gratitude for this ability to fall so deeply into this sort of emotion. Beauty is sustaining. I know that Edith Piaf’s life was difficult and yet out of it came music that can fill up a rainy evening with exquisite depth and magic. This music stretches through the years and lights up a life so far from where it originated, both in time and space.
I have to remember, not everyone feels this way, gets so moved. I knew a man who grew up on a large farm and who had worked very hard as a child through the Midwest winters. He told me he would be happy if every bit of nature was leveled, poured over with concrete. He was not moved by the beauty of the land. It was as if his childhood had caused him to be at war with nature forever.
How shocking to meet someone who doesn’t share what you think are intrinsic emotions. I laugh when I think of how narrow my vision of reality can be. The idea that a person can look at the sunrise and not be moved by the magic and beauty of it will always be shocking to me. I guess I’ll always see that as the result of some kind of injury or damage, that which prevents a heart from responding to beauty.
In my friend’s case, the injury came as a child. I don’t know what it was like to be forced to work so hard, on a farm with thousands of animals. I imagine that his feelings had more to do with the family dynamic than it did with the actual work. I know someone else who grew up on such a farm in Montana and he writes beautifully of the joy he took, even as an eight year old, in the gorgeous landscape. I have to remember how experience can mar something as basic as appreciation of beauty.
It is heartbreaking for me to think of that. How delicate we are. We don’t even realize how we can be stripped of something so nourishing and basic. The appreciation of beauty isn’t for a select few, isn’t for the privileged. It is sustaining for humanity. The greater culture hammers at us that to take simple joy in what we find beautiful is frivolous and unnecessary. Better we spend our time in making a living, getting from place to place, worrying, fighting, strengthening ourselves for the terrifying future. We don’t have time for appreciating esoteric things. We don’t have time. It is not of use.
I’ll always believe that appreciation for beauty is a window into solving all the world’s problems. In that appreciation is peacefulness, connectedness, a bigger purpose, a grand vision of the best to which we can aspire. There is also a recognition of having to care for, to nurture, to protect. Compassion springs from the open heart that can appreciate the face of beauty, whether natural or manmade. We look into the face of God, and the heart opens.
I admit, I am sentimental in a way that is a privilege. I am a woman, first off, and because of that alone I am excused when I stand in front of a painting in a public place and weep. I am a musician, so I get excused if I am completely transported by the music I love, to the point that it becomes as sacred to me as anything can be. I am on the outside of usefulness, too old or too weird to have any real pull on the big picture of society, so I am allowed my eccentricity, allowed to fall into reveries of times long ago, to weep at the gorgeousness of the ballet, to get overwhelmed by a Francis Bacon or by Rodin’s Gates of Hell and stand there, wiping away tears at the power of the beauty. I am allowed to be overwhelmed by the Strandbeest, freely and without a single thought to anything other than its depiction of the magic of mathematics as it crawls over the sand, and get dumbstruck by my emotion.
I can live for a rainy afternoon in the vision of another country and a long ago decade and fall into a fantasy of what it would have been like to be there, even while knowing that my ideal is nothing like the difficulties of the reality. 1939 Paris, of course it was difficult. Edith Piaf’s life, on the street, drug addiction, heartbreak. Of course. The past is never what we fantasize it was. Yet the fantasy, the dream, the images on the screen and her beautiful songs, poignant and romantic, carry me away into emotion. It is all exquisite. It is transporting. It ignites a creative spark that fills my life with meaning.
It is a kind of ache, a hunger, to love this much. I guess that is why so many refuse to be moved in this way. There is a kind of pain in opening up your heart to beauty. The pain comes in imagining the loss of the thing you are loving. The precariousness of the Earth and sky, the tenuous relation of humanity with nature, the inability to possess the work of art. The dancers will dance their final step and then the stage will go dark. The song spins out in the darkened room and we will never write something as moving or perfect. The poem is perfect. I will never write something as beautiful as those three lines.
We bring ourselves into the beauty, and our own mortality gets spot-lit. How will I live up to this perfection. Maybe this beauty only shines a light on my failings and inabilities, and in that sense, it is too painful to look. Should I just avoid looking directly at the sunset so as not to see my own inadequacies illuminated? If I never give in to fantasy then I can try my hardest to look right in front of me, make sure that my body is comfortable and my vision focused on the here and now. Is the prosaic life less painful? Is a life lived not allowing myself to be moved by beauty less painful than knowing that I will never achieve a single moment of such perfection?
Or will I just volunteer to be hurt over and over and over by this perfection. In this light, I see myself reflected, my heart opening wider and wider, hurt deeper and deeper by my own inabilities, but one day, in the opening, I see that this too is beautiful. This willingness to risk comfort and safety in order to experience the depth of love that has created these things for which I feel so deeply, this too is where beauty lies. I long for the ribbons of light to bare my heart to all of the sky, all of beauty, all of nature. I long for the song spilling into the room to lay bare my romantic heart and love completely the depth of which humanity is capable. I long to forever be that strange lady in the audience, freely weeping. Beauty, lay heavy on my heart and tear the self to shreds. Reality, I will never see you be paved over. I will be wide open until I die.
You can hear me read this here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/la-vie-en-rose