“The ugly and stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. They live as we all should live—undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet. They never bring ruin upon others, nor ever receive it from alien hands. Your rank and wealth, Henry; my brains, such as they are—my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray’s good looks—we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Brains and Beauty: Reflections on the 2021 ahfest Theme by Foley Schuler

Male tree crickets—according to a recent report on NPR’s All Things Considered—announce their availability to potential mates by furiously rubbing their wings together. You know the sound—that familiar chirping, synonymous the world over with being in the country. While the larger, louder males naturally find more favor with the females, the smaller, less desirable ones have, over time, developed a trick to enhance their prospects: By punching a hole in a leaf and sticking their head through it, they have figured out a way to amplify their chirps, creating out of this tiny cone, a speaker of sorts. The only thing perhaps better than the image itself is the fact that the technique, which is said to “more than double the volume of a cricket’s mating call,” is known as “baffling.”

Baffling, indeed. And so it has always been, not only for our cricket counterparts, but for us—not to mention the roughly 8.7 million other species that inhabit the earth. Beauty and brains have forever worked in tandem—baffled us—and kept the world turning as long as there’s been a world to turn. Too much emphasis on one or the other is the source of much misery in this life—though also a fair amount of at least momentary mirth—and has led to countless mishaps, many a good tragedy and more than a few fine farces.

Beauty. Is there any word in the language (in any language) more open to interpretation? It is subjectivity itself. After all, what else has so long been held to exist in the “eye of the beholder”? And yet, there is enough overlap—even, it would seem, agreement—in our collective perceptions of it to make one wonder if something larger and deeper were afoot…a step into the realm of aesthetics, no doubt, and in a dozen other directions. And where would be we without the brain needed to perceive that beauty—and at times even create it ourselves? Where do we get our sense of what is beautiful and what is not? From what mystery springs such a sensibility and assessment? Such speculations have sustained entire libraries and lifetimes of reflection. Indeed, our quest to experience and apprehend beauty encompasses such a range of human experience and endeavor as to stagger the imagination—from Platonic ideal to the fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

For ages Beauty—in all its totality, with capital “B,” what is sometimes known in philosophy as the Sublime—was the ultimate value to which to aspire and on which to base one’s life. Even now, we see more than faint glimmerings of its former primacy. How often do we hear that a person is “beautiful—inside and out”? And why quibble over religion or the “existence” of God? Can we not just sit, slack-jawed, before a sunset, starry sky, ocean, a mountain range or a Mona Lisa? The sense of mystery and awe produced within us in such moments is evidence enough of something. Right?

That sense of mystery is both within us and without. Ned Rorem, celebrated American composer, brilliant essayist and self-professed Francophile, in one of his piquant and incisive observations, once famously distinguished German and French culture by saying that “the Germans are superficially profound, while the French are profoundly superficial.” The truth is, as Rorem is the first to admit, both approaches are needed for making our way through the world, especially if we are to fully appreciate its wonders.

At its best, beauty lifts us out of our head in those moments of sheer transcendence, but the brain of course is needed to perceive and process the experience, even if that experience is beyond words (which, of course, is where the poet comes in). Enter Wordsworth, whose definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” comes to mind; Enter Wallace Stevens, who (in a poem entitled, in fact, “Of the Surface of Things”) would write, memorably: “In my room the world is beyond my understanding. But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.” It was the mind, of course, of Keats, ruminating on the design of an ancient Greek vase, that would famously formulate, with perfectly uncertain certainty:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

And observe the brain of one Emily Dickinson, meeting head-on—and taking measure of—the most mystery-soaked and time-honored of our emblems of endlessness:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For- hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound.

Many of the essential reference points in our human experience—not to mention a good number of deeply-held stereotypes, ripe for exploding—spin forth from this dance of beauty and the brain. There are so many ways they go hand in hand. Mathematics—that most cerebral of disciplines—and, related, chess—to name two, are often said to have a certain “beauty” (one usually likened to that of music). We often speak of an “elegant” theory, or equation. And it of course often takes great intelligence to create great beauty—intelligence that comes in a myriad of forms. Beauty, in some portion, is so often the thread running through everything else. Who can forget the inspiring speech given by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, as the teacher he plays in the film rallies his students: “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.”

Though often pitted against each other (just consider those perilous halls of high school and the roles we all played then), and though each has on its own inspired whole fields of study, brains and beauty are perhaps ultimately best seen and experienced as complementary, and together speak to an ideal of the complete being.

That the combination “brains and beauty” is so often applied to women reveals some of the deeply entrenched biases and double-standards of our culture, that are only now just beginning to change. There is, for instance, a photograph I love of Marilyn Monroe—that icon of beauty transcendent of the medium that made her a star and sex symbol—who, though possessed of great intelligence, is so often portrayed by our culture (including several of her own most famous roles), stereotypically as “the dumb blond.” In the photo she is on a playground, sitting on a children’s merry-go-round, in a swimsuit, while reading a hardcover copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses—the famously difficult modernist masterpiece of such depth, scope and daunting formal innovation that Joyce himself once declared, with obvious glee, that it would “keep critics busy for three hundred years.” Critics…and one Norma Jeane Baker of Los Angeles, California.

She gazes at the book, balanced on her knees, with rapt attention, even wonder. Some see this as ironic. Some claim it to be merely staged. I would point out, though, that if one looks closely to where the book is opened, it is clear that she has almost finished it (delighting, one imagines, in Molly Bloom’s ecstatically frank celebration of womanhood—of brains and beauty—that concludes the book.) And I would also point out that Ulysses was just one of many—more than 400—volumes known to have graced the screen icon’s shelves, a detailed record of which has, thankfully, been preserved. Joyce is there, as is Tolstoy and Twain…Camus, Proust, Schopenhauer, Rilke, Emerson, Freud, and the afore-mentioned Dickinson. The list goes on and on—an inner portrait of an insatiably curious mind. As for the photo being staged, I would invoke that ever-useful saying of the Italians: “If it’s not true, then it should be”—and if seeing Marilyn Monroe wielding a copy of Joyce is cause for surprise or taken as ironic, it says little about her and everything about us.

The point is of course to always be questioning our assumptions and stereotypes—and also that, where brains and beauty are concerned, even if we like to play one against the other, they do, more often than not, come in the same package. The simple truth is we can’t have one without the other—which is to say, a mind without a body to encase it (just try it!), nor an experience or even notion of beauty without a mind to perceive and appreciate it. Both are mysterious absolutes. Taken together or separately, neither can be bought nor otherwise acquired, nor are these gifts bestowed equally—within us, or amongst us—and yet we clamor for them and make our various deals, both petty and profound, with the price being predictably high.

It was, after all, for unlimited knowledge and earthly pleasure—brains and beauty again—that Faust made his fateful bargain with Mephistopheles, in one of the fundamental myths of Western culture and a major lens through which our civilization has seen itself for centuries.
So often—indeed, despairingly so—works of great beauty are created by those who are themselves, in fact, inwardly ugly. This sobering reality has lately been further laid bare by the #metoo movement and other recent and necessary reckonings, leading us to wonder—among countless considerations—can we separate one from the other, and love the art while abhorring the artist? Can we, who are so deeply flawed, redeem ourselves, at least to some degree, through the beauty we create? The Muskegon Area Arts and Humanities Festival encourages you to confront such questions and conundrums, and many more, this October, as ahfest presents a month-long celebration of the mind and spirit, exploring the dialogue—and unending dance—of Brains and Beauty.