In the Netflix Series “Surviving Death” the first story is about Doctor Mary Neal, an Orthopedic Spine Surgeon who spends 30 minutes pinned underwater after going over a waterfall in a kayak.
She drowns, but her body is eventually found and she is revived. During her time lifeless under water she experiences a trip through another realm in which she has a feeling of arriving home where other beings communicate with her. One of the things they tell her is that her 9 year old son will die and she has the sense that he will die before his 18th birthday. This troubles her greatly and she asks why. “Beauty comes of all things,” she is told.
This phrase might have struck me as a trite platitude at one time. It it a very general statement, and generally, I dismiss generalized statements. Beauty comes of all things? All things? Really? That is hard to believe. But. In this case, it struck me because I had a similar experience with a message about beauty.
13 years ago I was walking in Collier Dam park beside the middle lake thinking about the usual troubles that most people have. Family, friends, work, health. The sun was sparkling on the water and I could see it through gaps in the alder branches that surrounded that side of the lake. The branches were studded with the new leaves of spring and they were glowing here and there where the sun struck them.
The sparkling out on the lake reminded me of the random flashing lights on the control panels of the bridge of the Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. Like there was a hidden message if only I could decode it.
But I could see no sense in it, so I turned to continue walking. All of a sudden I was struck with the words, “trust the beauty.”
Trust the Beauty
I turned back to look at the glittering water. I noticed the silence. No beeping tones of the enterprise computer, no wind in the trees, just a cottony softness to all the sounds around me. I began to pick out the slight rustle of leaves, the hum of distant traffic, the bark of a dog somewhere down by the parking lot. But no more words, no meaning in the patterns. It was a lovely tranquil moment but I turned to go. Then I heard a quiet but firm voice in my head, “Its all going to change.” I turned back to look, thinking the change would be in the lights, but I stood for a long time looking through the branches and leaves, throwing my eyes out of focus, trying to clear my mind to hear more, but the sparkling continued and I could make no sense of it other than, well, that it was beautiful.
What changed was my life. Within a few years I was separated from my wife of almost 30 years, living on my own in a townhouse near the marsh, walking for hours at night, going faithfully to therapy, like a religion. And then a few more years I was getting a divorce, re-marrying, moving to a new house, then another new house. Health issues and overcoming them, issues at work, and overcoming those. A pandemic, inflation, wars and rumors of wars, billionaires getting richer while more people became homeless. House prices were out of the reach of our kids. And on and on. I had a more or less constant feeling of uncertainty and awareness of the suffering around me.
Did I “Trust the Beauty” through all this?
No, not consistently. But that phrase nurtured an acceptance and perhaps conviction that through all the strife and suffering there is an ephemeral thread of something like beauty. Not a beauty as we usually think of it. It is a beauty that exists in spite of, or maybe because of, the dark grit of existence. Change and beauty are inextricably entangled. I had seen it most clearly in my experiences with wabi sabi. Change is a hallmark of that kind of beauty. Transience is the thing that makes it poignant. Other beauties are full of excellence, or contrast, or anger; or even humor, a response to the tragic. And so on.
Those sparkling lights on the water were years ago. Still, that message works in me like a koan, breaking me out of my daily routines when I least expect it, reminding me that there is something important I’m supposed to be seeing, and trusting.
What am I supposed to be seeing and trusting?
When I fall into the pattern of jut being a dooer, checking things off a to do list, trying to accomplish or obtain, I am reminded, “its all going to change.” Beauty is the antidote to false ambition. It brings us back to being. As we gaze upon something beautiful we are in a state of rapture, or curiosity, or openness or awe. This is how it heals us, by dissolving the grasp and the grasping. We are stymied into stillness.
Being an Idiot
Somewhere in the time between that moment at the dam and now, I came across a similar koan, treasured and quoted by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to whom it is sometimes attributed because he uttered it at his Nobel award acceptance.
Dostoevsky originally penned it. The constantly repeated phrase, “Beauty will save the world.”
While I was quite ill with a respiratory infection last week I listed to “The Idiot,” the book from which the quote is taken.
Beauty is a theme that runs through the book. A woman is said to be beautiful, and the beauty gives her power. We see men doing irrational things for one of the beautiful women in the story. This rings true for me in that I have observed that many who gaze on a strikingly beautiful woman lose their rationality. And vis versa, women who gaze on hyper-masculine men do the same.
The central character, Myshkin, has an eye for beauty and also sees the corruption of society. Beauty and ugly intermixed. Myskin utters the phrase about beauty saving the world, and it initially strikes his friend Rogozhin as idealistic and unrealistic, but eventually they agree first that love has the power to save the world, and finally that beauty does too.
Some commentators have noted that Rogozhin initially scoffs at Myshkin’s statement, saying, “Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing! It is terrible because it is endless…”
That statement also seems to me to be very evocative. Is it terrible? Is it endless? I am beginning to think this might be the more powerful and true quote of the book.
Konstantin Barsht in “The Beauty of Myshkin’s Soul and the Tragedy of Dostoevsky’s World” said, “The famous phrase “beauty will save the world” is, in fact, one of the most controversial and mysterious statements in Dostoyevsky’s works.”
Gary Saul Morson, in “The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot'” said, “The phrase “beauty will save the world” is a statement that can be interpreted in many ways. It may be seen as an expression of Myshkin’s idealism, or as a reflection on the redemptive power of beauty. Whatever its meaning, the conversation between Myshkin and Rogozhin reveals the tension between the ideal and the real, and the power of love and beauty to transcend that tension.”
I agree that Dostoevsky was exploring the question of redemption to some degree, and I can see that there is a potential commentary on idealism in the book as well. Myshkin arrives in Petersburg with a secret. He appears to the reader as penniless, but he knows he is not. Perhaps this is like Jesus the peasant carpenter who is actually God. If Jesus is going to far, then perhaps St. Francis. Except in reverse. He starts penniless and in the care of a doctor, and from this lowly perspective he sees the way the villagers ostracized a young woman so he bring love to her, first through his own efforts, and then by influencing the children of the village. His efforts to counteract the shunning, was a heroic effort, because of it’s sincerity and ethical clarity. He showed solidarity with the outcast. Like Francis, he was not really naïve, or an idiot, but instead clear minded or clear hearted.
Once the novel reveals that he is in fact, wealthy, things begin to change. The emotional roller coaster experienced by many of the characters, the manipulations, gossip, and nastiness seem to win in the end. Where is the redemption in that?
Perhaps Dostoevsky wanted to write about healing and redemption, but it does not happen for the characters in the novel. Myshkin’s seems healed when we first meet him, but is very ill at the end. He does not fully appreciate or calculate the power and complexity of human emotions and politics to destabilize his integrity.
In a letter from May 27, 1869 Dostoyevsky wrote:
The principal idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful person. There is nothing more difficult than that in the whole world, and especially now. All the writers, and not just ours, but even the European ones, who ever undertook the depiction of positively beautiful person, always had to pass. Because it’s a measureless task. The beautiful is an ideal, and the ideal—both ours and that of civilized Europe—is from having been achieved. There’s only one positively beautiful person in the world—Christ, so that the appearance of this measurelessly, infinitely beautiful person is in fact of course an infinite miracle. (The whole gospel of John is in this sense; he finds the whole miracle in the incarnation alone, in the appearance of the beautiful alone.) But I’ve gone too far. I’ll just mention that of the beautiful people in Christian literature, Don Quixote stands as the most complete. But he is only beautiful because he’s ridiculous at the same time. Dicken’s Pickwick (an infinitely weaker idea than Don Quixote, but still an enormous one) is also ridiculous, and effective in fact because of that. Compassion appears for the beautiful that is mocked and does not know its own value, and, therefore, sympathy appears in the reader, too. That arousal of compassion is in fact the secret of humor. Jean Valjean is also a strong attempt, but he arouses sympathy by virtue of his misfortune and society’s injustice to him. I have nothing like that, absolutely nothing, and therefore I’m terribly afraid that it will be an absolute failure.Quoted by Jérome Thélot in his fine analysis Jérome Thélot commente L’Idiot de Dostoïevski (Paris: Gallimard, 2008), 44. (English translation: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Complete Letters, vol. 3, ed. David Allan Lowe and Ronald Meyer [New York: Ardis, 1990], 17.)
The key line in that excerpt for me is, “Compassion appears for the beautiful that is mocked and does not know its own value, and, therefore, sympathy appears in the reader, too.”
I think there is some deep wisdom here. Myshkin is most beautiful when he is most unaware, most unselfconscious. The narrative that people both liked him and considered him an idiot, drew me to his side, rooting for him to be wise. I think Dostoyevsky himself understood Myshkin to be a reality check for all those like me who might aspire to be good. He shows how beautiful a good person is, and what happens to such a person in human society.
Upon listening to the story I found myself wishing to know more people like Myshkin, and the story does show believably that reality is not kind to such people. But instead of being convinced that fairy tale heroes are not real, I contemplated how Myshkin might have succeeded. Was he too attached to ideals, too naïve to the brutalities of the world? Perhaps. But I wonder if it might not be, rather, that he actually saw reality too clearly.
And this brings me back to my flashing sunlight on the water and what I learned in my long journey from being a lot like Myshkin to being me now.
I don’t believe that beauty will save the world, not in the way Dostoyevsky suggested. Myshkin was Dostoyevsky’s creation of an ideal. A positive beauty. This creation is full of the expectations of Dostoyevsky about the world. First of all, he was talking of human beauty, primarily. The beautiful woman and the beautiful man. And in this he was quite revolutionary. Myshkin was beautiful because he was honest and considerate and had integrity. He was also engaged emotionally and ethically. He saw the failings of humans, the evil, to use that old word, but he did not bend to that evil. This is Beauty for Dostoyevsky.
Myshkin may not have bent to evil, but it did break him. And so the lesson for me is that trusting beauty, and trusting that beauty comes of all things involves a readjustment of our perceptions and judgments of things.
Michel Terestchenko observes, “Idiocy signifies the way that the prince appears in society; goodness or compassion is the fundamental mode of his relationship with all others he meets, whether they are suffering or not; epilepsy, in turn, is the moment of illumination that, far from being pathological or sickly, is an almost “mystical” perception of life as harmony. This primary “experience” merits particular attention, as it offers us the “key” to this enigmatic hero.”
The only way to meet the reality of life AND remain true to the ideal that is Myshkin, is to stand back from our judgments. Calling someone an idiot or a fool, calling someone proud or arrogant, conniving or treacherous, a bitch or a bastard. These are all judgements designed to reduce someone’s status, to make oneself feel superior, better, or more justified. Judgment is justification to proceed with revenge, retribution, abandonment, or just disinterest.
Beauty, the kind my flashing lights were about, the kind that the beings beyond death told Dr. Neal would come, is a beauty that exists in all these things, in the suffering, death, cruelty, and pettiness of humans. For those that have eyes to see.
Like in the movie American Beauty, this type of beauty is not a solid objective thing, but instead an internal ability, the seeing of more than our cultural frameworks can afford. Seeing beyond our biology, culture, and preferences.
Beauty of this sort is not easy to see or create. There is no formula, nor an perfect arrangement. It does exist, however, and it exists to the person who has begun to spend more time in that field Rumi talks about in his famous poem.
That is a very remote and sparsely populated field. Those of us who find ourselves there have not come looking for it, in most cases. Beauty and suffering both bring us there, perhaps working together.
The details I have yet to work out. In fact my stays in that field have so far been brief. My feet reside there only haphazardly, like a diver reaching the bottom of a lake. He barely touches down on the soft silt when he begins to bob back to the world of light and longing. Of right and wronging. Rumi described the place, the destination, but as far as I know, neither the route, the transportation, or the way to stay.
Where does someone like me find a reliable map, motor, and anchor?
Perhaps when we seek to trust and follow it, and also to create it, we see it more clearly, and eventually, we see that it comes from everything.