…But all this is not evil because it is transient. A line of poetry is beautiful in its own way though no two syllables can be spoken at the same time. The second cannot be spoken till the first is finished. So in due order the end of the line is reached.
- St. Augustine, On The True Religion
All around us we feel the movement of time, the progression of the days and the hours as they pass us by without a glance. Try as we may to hold on to the moment, it slips through our fingers and puddles on the ground to evaporate in the heat of the day.
The beauty of things- the glint of the diamond that twinkles in the eye or the crescendo of a movement that raises the heart to heights of ecstasy- is bound to this unrelenting sequence of arrival and departure, hello and goodbye. In the space of a breath the feeling is gone, the glory of the thing lost forever, exiled to the shadowland of memories and forgetfulness.
In our opening passage St. Augustine considers the transitory nature of beauty in what is created, how it grabs at our eyes and our ears and our hearts yet leaves us standing alone on the corner. Beauty in our world is not a sticky thing- it isn't bound or imbued for an eternity but finds its cause in the very lack of persistence.
Here is precisely where the fleeting meaning of temporal beauty is meant to end, for how could it last forever? Unfortunately, we as humans have a tendency to hold on to the shiny things, even though inwardly we know they eventually become rusty and dull. Perhaps we rebel against the fading of the note or the flaking of the paint because we realize that all worldly beauty is a mirror to our own selves, an all-too-uncomfortable reminder of the end that awaits us all.
All men are like grass, and all that.
For in trying to hold on to fading beauty, we miss the point of it entirely.
There are certain songs that I listen to for one or two notes. They usually occur near the end, sort of a consummation of everything that has come before. When they sound I find a curious rapture, as if some facsimile of perfection has suddenly broken upon the world.
In some of these times I find myself wanting that moment to last forever, I want to grasp tight and not let go.
But while one tone of a song may be divine, apart from the song as a whole it becomes demonic. Were I to play that one delightful sound continuously, not only would it just as quickly lose its luster, but would become gruesome and grating, good only for waking me up or signaling a disaster.
Holding on to fleeting beauty can turn a melody into a fire alarm.
Instead, the tone is only divine in the context of the whole- without the song it becomes a meaningless sound. The point quickly comes into view- the reason for the individual notes and the succession of chords is to draw them in their individuality back into a unity. The rhythm compels us forward so we don't get left with a sound but so we can be ushered into a symphony. It is only within its proper place that the note becomes something greater than just a noise.
This is the difference between Mozart and an air horn.
Even the pixels that form the art we create lead into this greater unity. A tiny box of black or blue may be interesting for a moment, but lingering too long leaves one wanting more. Indeed, if you have ever experienced a camera with a bad pixel, you know firsthand that it not only does not add to the image, but distracts and even perverts.
And that's when you toss the camera.
Pixels like notes have their order in the whole, the underlying aesthetic which gives them meaning.
Even our devices represent this movement- the ratcheting up of resolutions is meant to lose the differentiation of pixels in the whole. Curves relinquish their jaggedness and type is easier to read. The less the pixels become, the more the whole does in its turn.
But beauty is more than songs, and prettiness more than pixels. It is all around us in our world, even when we fail to see it.
And as the notes and the pixels and the variegated colors and patterns of our world are meant in their very transitory nature to lead us beyond themselves, so all the beauty in our spinning home has by virtue of its fleeting-ness a line running back to something deeper, something more permanent on which they are grounded.
In every note and in every pixel an angel can sing or a demon can be hatched; the only difference lies in where it resides. The beautiful is good because it lets itself fade in the light of the Maker of beauty but goes wrong when it tries to have its own pretensions to the everlasting. Instead of the sublime it sinks into nothingness, just a vast abyss of dis-meaning trying to break out of its self-enclosure.
Throughout our lives and our world we come face to face with this tendency that transcends art to encompass all of reality- we like to paint our pictures in boxes too small and with colors too few. The great lie of our sin is that we can be more free in and of ourselves. We hold tight to the fading lights around us, straining and striving to generate a spark.
But all that glimmers in this world only shines with reflected light; carrying the transient luminance deeper into the dark only leaves you with a pile of rocks, when all the while they meant for you to lift your gaze to something brighter and fairer still.
Beauty in our world is a symbol whose depths must be plumbed while at the same time transcended. The paradox is that the deeper you go the more you find you have to go beyond it, for it simply won't do- something that transitory cannot be the end of the matter. There must be something more.
The choice lies before us every day in what we see and in what we make- do we try to hold on to sands of beauty that slip through our hands, or step back to notice the expansive nature of that which lies beneath our feet, whose waves and breakers crash against the shore in a glorious song of the Maker of it all.