‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
What Keats doesn’t mention, however, is that sometimes there is too much beauty to fully take in, so does that mean some of the truth is lost?
I think it was my tendency to posit such irritating questions many years ago that kept me at a lowly C-plus level in my university philosophy course.
Back to my premise. Sometimes beauty can be too great to handle by conventional means. I remember reading once that the late Elizabeth Taylor went dateless for much of her teens because males found her so beautiful that they were afraid to ask her out since they knew instinctively they would be rejected.
I have met women who will virtually take one’s breath away and it is difficult to describe the sort of psycho-physiological awe that sort of beauty can evoke. I mean, some people are just dazzling. This, no doubt, applies to very handsome men, too, though I don’t waste a lot of time looking at males, and cannot really judge them with esthetic regard.
Places can have similar effect. Human sensory equipment can seem too limited to embrace superlatives in scenery. Many of us have dreamt of being in an Eden-like spot (as many of us might have indeed dreamt of encountering an Eve-like woman; not me, of course) that would fulfill a realm of fantasies. For me, such a spot involves tropicality and all the lushness and pulchritude that might be evoked by an accident of climate and geography.
Once, standing on a white sand beach of a tiny islet on the far side of Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga and looking towards the palms and flowers of the islet that was fringed by the azure waters of the crystalline lagoon, I was struck dumb and could only utter a banality like: “Hey, it doesn’t get better than this,” or something equally lame. You see, I wasn’t in possession of adjectives sufficient to describe what lay before us. Wordsworth wouldn’t have been. “Yep, this is a damn nice spot, all right,” might have been the best he could’ve mustered, too.
The Hawaiian Islands, as another example, have too much staggering scenery. Oh yeah, there are dirt backroads with derelict cars cluttering the seedy verges, and the bad neighborhoods of Honolulu are as crummy as in any large city. But, then you get to a place like Waimea Canyon, or the streaming verdancy of the Hanalei Valley, or the almost orgasmic splendor of the Napali Coast and all you can muster is a kind of inadequate and profane, “Holy fuck, is that amazing, or what?” Again, you have been stuck by too much beauty. You can’t handle the onslaught. Hawaii is filled with such bits of fabulousness, as are so many other parts of the world. The mountain panorama before my front window is virtually unexcelled, but I can’t really describe it and do it justice.
A friend once told me the first glimpse he had of the Himalayas from a spot in northern India could only tell him he had never actually seen mountains before because he was dumbfounded by their size. This was a guy who had grown up in the shadow of our own Rockies.
I cannot begin to describe the verdure of the Irish countryside in springtime. ‘Green’ just doesn’t cut it. When I first saw Niagara Falls, I was far from disappointed. I was a bit incredulous, despite the tacky tourist crap around me. The falls themselves? Staggering.
I could go on, but won’t. Have you ever been struck dumb by a scene before you that excelled your expectations so much you couldn’t describe it? Let me know where. Was it only when you looked at your photographs later that you really saw what it was; yet it wasn’t quite the same because you weren’t there?
And when I speak of a surfeit of beauty trumping truth, I mean that even if you can muster words to describe the scene, can you muster words to describe the emotional impact of the scene? I’m guessing not.