Updated: Mar 10
"A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird's, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face. She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantoness. (...) - Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul in an outburst of profane joy. (...) A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. Oh and on and on and on” - "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", James Joyce
The transcendental experience of beauty described through the eyes of Joyce's hero is not at all, new or unique to this specific work. Symbolism as a literary movement carried within itself idea that things and objects are a source of abstract revelation. Similar sentiment to the one described in the above mentioned excerpt from Joyces's book, can be found in Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies". "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic Orders? And even if one were to suddenly take me to its heart, I would vanish into its stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear" says he in the dramatic opening of his monumental piece. This experience of the great all-consuming beauty is a portal to Dionysian depths where the differences, distinctions, reason and ego dissolve. The terror that accompanies it is the terror of the dissolving ego, who always desires to be distinct, different, separated and yet - it "vanishes into stronger existence" of the experience, it faces its own fragility. However, the reason why this essay opens with this specific quote is because in it, the source of revelation is body, in this particular case, the body of another, a woman. Much of the cultural, religious, spiritual, anthropological, philosophical, political and ideological discourse in Western (but not only Western) thought is defined by, very often, opposing polarities. The polarities that are present, are, often, not harmonious but opposing, disturbing each other. It does not matter whether one takes typical Christian dualism or Cartesian dualism - it is present within both theological and secular frameworks. The dualism between body and spirit or body and mind appears to be so deep in the cultural subconscious that no matter in which direction the cultural paradigm shifts, the result is the same - body is left abused, defiled and demonised. Body is dragged between puritanical, repressive restrictions, ideas of it being a source of sin, its pleasures damned or necessary evil and ideas that every whim, appetite should be indulged in and that abuse and mistreatment of body is not at the same time, abuse and mistreatment of the mind.
Renaissance, it is well known, saw revival of the Classical celebration of the human form. The Neo-Classicists of 18th century were drawn to the simplicity and symmetry of Renaissance and Classics, in opposition to asymmetry and noise of Rococo. Regardless of the artistic movements and trends, what seemed to have happened over the period of time is that body was left out of any profound, holistic and organic philosophical idea. After being seen as locus of Holy Spirit in Christian thought or evidence of cosmic, divine craftmanship in traditions of Classical Age and Rennaissance, in 17th century body was wrapped in Descartian idea of "human machine". The vocabulary that surrounds the body has become the vocabulary that describes a machine - fuel, pump, function. While possibly useful in the realm of natural sciences, when made part of one's internal linguistics, it hardly can help one see their body in any other way. Body is then, simply a machine to be fed, exhausted, tried, tortured, used, and abused. It rouses no amazement, it is no source of revelation - it is either "prison flesh" and source of alienation or means for the various forms of vulgarization seen in the popular media.
Dualism, Duality and Pythagoreans Even if one is a philosophical Monist, it may be difficult to ignore the argument, that in nature, or the world of "forms" in the Platonic sense of the word, there is a differentiation and that there are evident polarities - night and day, left and right, cold and hot, dark and light, female and male in the world of plants, animals and humans. But there is subtle difference between dualism and duality. Duality represents complementary polarities. Early Pythagorean thought was defined by strict dualism, or opposition between principles. They went as far as believing that when two opposites are in contrast, only one of them represents the perfection, while the other one is erroneous and evil. Later Pythagoreans like Architas, under the influence of Heraclitus, abandoned the idea of strict oppositions and disharmony, and embraced the idea of equilibrium between opposites which results in harmony. Harmony, is, then, achieved, not by removing one or the other, but in letting them be in harmonious, complementary tension. This principle, on the level of visual expressions, translates into symmetry - one of the core principles of classical art. "Now as principles are neither equal nor of the same sort, they could not have been ordered into a cosmos without the addition of harmony, regardless of how it be added. If principles were similar and of the same sort then there would be no need for harmony: but those elements that are dissimilar and of different sorts and diversely ordered must allow of envelopment by harmony, which can hold them firmly within a cosmos." ("Fragmets of the Pre-Socratics, Philolaus) Following the logic of this excerpt, one can say, that for a Late Pythagorean, beauty of human body would be expressed in the harmonious relation between the different parts of the body or face. Symmetry was the harmonious law of the cosmos for Pythagoreans and human beauty was more perfect the more it reflected that same law.
Body as Revelation
Joyce's hero from the beginning of this text, Umberto Eco's monk in "The Name of the Rose", who struggles to feel guilty or sinful for his one sin, hundreds and hundreds of poems written, all whisper, that in that specific moment when they felt outpowered by desire, there was something bigger than desire happening in the background. Desire and lust are often selfish, caring little for anything else but to have their needs fulfilled. What sets apart all of those experiences from experience of animal lust is the moment of contemplation. At that specific moment, the protagonist, or the one singing a poem of his or her experience, stops, distances from their lust, to contemplate the angelic, divine beauty of their beloved. In that moment, they are not just an object of one's desire, a thrill of life desiring to extend and prolong itself, but rather the very personification of "Song of Songs" (Umberto Eco) and Rilke's powerful angels (James Joyce). Just after they had been taken into Dionysian depths, Apollo's potent rays shine and suddenly, the object of one's desire is transformed into a source of heavenly, divine light. The darkness of Dionysus has become locus for the light of Apollo, the terror disappears and one bathes in light.
" That which menaced Is now seduction. That which frightened Is now pleasure. And the bites of panther and hyena Are new caresses And the serpent’s sting Is but a burning kiss.
And thus the universe resounds With joyful cry I AM! - "Poem of Ecstasy", Alexander Scriabin
Links: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", James Joyce "The Name of the Rose", Umberto Eco "The Birth of Tragedy", Friedrich Nietzsche "Duino Elegies", Rainer Maria Rilke "Fragments of Pre-Socratics" "Poem of Ecstasy", Alexander Scriabin Become a Patron