On Beauty

We don’t really have a word for what “beauty” is supposed to mean.

Beauty is not an attribute of things or people or scenery.  Not like height or color or translucency, and not like intelligence, or humor, or stylishness.  Beauty is a feeling.  A feeling (yes) in the beholder, like anger, or appreciation, or attraction.  Saying someone is beautiful is like saying someone makes you mad, or turns you on, or warms your heart, or makes you laugh.  They make you experience beauty; they inspire the recognition of beauty in you.  This is different, of course, then saying they make you feel beautiful.  If you “feel beautiful,” this means, in our language, that you yourself are responsible for the feeling of beauty.  (Unless you are using it as a turn of phrase to mean “I feel like I am attractive to the people I want to be  attractive to,” or you are joking.)

If we had a word for it, it would make more sense.  The problem is that the word we have, “beautiful,” is, inaccurately, an attribute word.  We simply do not possess a word for the feeling one feels when one looks at something beautiful.  It is not attraction, for that is to do with eroticism or interest; it is not awe, for that is to do with power and majesty; it is not adoration, for that is irrespective of beauty; it is not love, either, nor is it the feeling we describe when we say we are “touched,” nor is it the feeling of serenity, nor entrancement, nor wonder.  The closest phrase we have for this internal feeling is “struck.”  We might say we are “struck” by someone or something beautiful.  But this is inadequate.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus“baby, you really light up my orbitofrontal cortex”

Just as if two people go to see a movie which one finds funny and one does not, the first one will have a response called laughter.  “Funny” is the attribute that viewer assigns to the movie which inspired that nameless feeling which results in laughter.  So it is with beauty –  except we neither have a word for that nameless intermediate feeling, nor for the result.

(Here are some comparisons.  “Infuriating” or “enraging” is the attribute of someone who inspires “anger” in us, the result of which is “an outburst” or “seething.”  “Sexy” is the attribute of someone who inspires “attraction” in us, the result of which is “desire” or “being turned on.”  Whereas, “funny” is the attribute of someone who inspires ____ in us, the result of which is “laughter” or “snorting milk out your nose.”  And “beauty” is the attribute of someone who inspires ____ in us, the result of which is ____.)

In a way, the experience of observing something beautiful is particularly similar to the experience of observing something funny.  Our brains seem to be wired on some level to find certain configurations of the universe to be such that we can only react to them with laughter; it is a subconscious, almost mystical feeling, completely inexplicable by logic or direct explanation, almost as if the laughter-triggering part of our brains recognizes a subtle math in the universe, and expects this math to operate a certain way in society and nature.  When the math is subverted, our subconscious mind hiccups over the  incongruity, and we can only respond by laughing.  It is like a computer self-correcting for erroneous code.

Beauty is similar to this, as said; whereas something funny is incongruous, something beautiful is perfectly congruous.  We find something beautiful when it fulfills the hidden math of the universe, and we have the nameless reaction which is equivalent to laughter.

The opposite of “beautiful” is not “disgusting” – “disgusting” is the opposite of “appetizing” or “comforting” or “sexually appealing.”  No, the opposite of “beautiful” is “funny.”


One comment

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