When I am at a party with old friends, or am caught by a song when I enter a store, or when in a busy day I somehow lift my glance and remember the sky, something happens. My heart beats fast, taken by a sense of longing and wonder, and I look around for that flash of grandeur that seems to call me, luring me with glory and pull and presence, flinging wide like a window to the transcendent. It is a mysterious, charged moment, but in the next second the window is shut, and I look desperately at the party atmosphere, at the note in the song, at the wideness of sky to find what resonated so deeply with me, but it is not there. It was an echo, a brief crack in the tectonics of time, and I am left thirsty for what animated simple textures with transcendent glow.
This hunt for beauty, and for the content it communicates, animates so much of our thoughts, wishes, and especially, our art. One can find elaborate depictions of human craving in songs, portraits, stories, but it feels we are all panting after the indescribable. Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, for example, recounts a particular interest in butterflies. He describes running after those colourful insects as a boy, the dusty encyclopaedias of butterflies he discovered one day in the attic, and the thrill of noticing new species in hidden corners. But when he investigates what pulled him so strongly into this hobby, even Nabokov’s eloquent pen fails to pinpoint the reality behind his passion for butterflies.
“And the highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapunctual genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humouring a lucky mortal.”
What strikes me in Nabokov’s picture is that, if one dares to portray sublime experiences of beauty, even with the most articulate of vocabularies is forced to use religious terms. He talks about timelessness, ecstasy, sense of oneness, fate, tender ghosts humouring a lucky mortal. And so are the words we use when enthralled by beauty – wonder, transcendence, glory, splendour. We feel the drawing close of something beyond our sight, a flash of presence wooing and calling us forth.
This is why the experience of wonder and amazement is a crucial clue to the enigma of existence. It gives us heartfelt reason to ask what lies behind it all. And more than that, it gives us to reason to wish to encounter what lies behind it all. Every experience of beauty is a calling: it invites to desire and to rejoin the sense of presence it irradiates.
And if beauty’s religiously-colored vocabulary is right, and we may use a big P to name the Presence that surrounds us, and if we are attracted so forcefully by pretty faces and horizons right now, one can only imagine the wonder we’ll feel when this world vanishes decisively, and we find ourselves in front of God’s commanding glory, and there is absolute silence and majestic awe, and we savor every second of stillness, before the great symphony starts again, sounding forth a new creation of color and concretude, with more splendorous butterflies at our fingers and the gratitude that the gap is finally bridged, that echoes are no more, for now we drink from the source, now we can enter and bathe and splash ourselves in beauty, now God’s being is immediately at sight.