I can gorge myself on grit. Ride for miles along the gravel shoulder of nowhere roads, wander endlessly though industrial badlands, and run my hands along a weathered beam. And these things, for me, are things of richness; of delight. They are things of beauty.
We can all experience the same single moment, the same single stimuli – live in the same city, say – and see different things. And these different things define our ideas and, in fact, our lives.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig discusses frustrations he had trying to troubleshoot a friend’s bike with him:
“I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was… We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension.”
“What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be.” (56)
Both visions of reality were, in their own right, valid. This is because we define our own versions of reality. And this is, in fact, the only definition of reality that we have.
“The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination.”
And when we trip upon things in our day to day lives, especially when they delight us, it is our natural tendency to try to capture them; tuck them somehow into boxes or into frames, to bring along.
“We top the rise, see a new spread of land before us, the road descends and the drone of the engine falls away again. Prairie. Tranquil and detached… ‘It’s so beautiful. It’s so empty’… ‘This is the hardest stuff in the world to photograph… You see it, and then you look down in the ground glass and it’s jut nothing. As soon as you put a border on it, it’s gone’… We move down the empty road. I don’t want to own these prairies, or photograph them, or change them, or even stop or even keep going. We are just moving down the empty road.” (48-49)
I once told a woman I admire and had paid to be my coach for three one-hour phone calls that I “exist through presence, not through possession,” going on to clarify: “too many people see their place as something they own, and they align their identities with their surroundings (or vice versa.)” I don’t do this. I live in places and exist lightly against their surface, on the tips of my toes and not rooted, always as though ready to bolt. (It’s true.)
There is no merit in experiencing things by trying to conquer them. It is, of course, our natural tendency to do so – to capture things, take pieces of them with us, and tuck them into boxes and into frames. To slice and/or dissect them.
“The application of the knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us – these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road – aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We cold not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.” (79)
We take things. We strip things from our surroundings, and we hold these pieces of things as the whole things, these fragments as suitable substitutions of the rest of the bodies from which they came.
We are touching a part of it. And this part of it is a part of the whole and, if that’s true, then maybe touching it here is really enough to say that we have touched it at all.
It has realness because it is real to me. This representation becomes my reality. This handful of sand is my world.
Einstein had said:
“Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world. He then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it… He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”
And Kant, too:
“That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt.”
We are, ultimately, “all alone in our private universes.”
We come upon things, and we map them to our mental models. Pirsig offers the example of a motorcycle and our ability to identify it, regardless of context or state:
“We have in our minds an a priori motorcycle which has continuity in time and space and is capable of changing appearance as one moves one’s head and is therefore not contradicted by the sense data one is receiving… This a priori motorcycle has been built up in our minds over many years from enormous amounts of sense data and it is constantly changing as new sense data come in.” (132)
And not just with motorcycles. We do this with all things in life, bumping things up against models, running them through a mental inventory of images and ideas of things to find things to which they relate in some way and, if needed, making changes to those models.
And how are we to judge the “goodness” of these models?
First, by rite of their existence for us. Because they are ours, they have validity: “Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it.” (255)
Every one of our own assessments of what’s beautiful is valid.
Pirsig loves the motorcycle and loves, perhaps even more, the maintenance of it, and yet he adheres to a peculiarly limited view of what’s beautiful about the machine – or if any of it is beautiful at all. He takes great pleasure in taking it apart and, although he never says so, one might argue that that experience is beautiful, but it’s not clear he would agree. He of course sees beauty in a young girl at a diner, and does admit that a skilled and dedicated welder’s work is “beautiful.” But a bolt covered in grease, for example, is deemed “ugly.” He subscribes to an almost bizarre metric of beauty; something constituted by classic viewpoints and convention.
But who’s to say?
I am captivated by what is “ugly.” Truly, wholly, genuinely captivated, with the full attention of my artist’s eye. Slabs of concrete are beautiful; corroded areas of iron beams, where the rust is overtaking the surface and changing its composition and rendering it to confetti chips, are beautiful; Detroit is beautiful. Someone once argued that while a mind can be “beautiful,” in a figurative sense, the brain itself – the gray matter; the lumpy organ – is not. And I outright begged to differ.
I like the grit and I like the dirt under my nails. I think a little ruggedness and rough-around-the-edges is outright gorgeous. And yeah, I think that greasy bolt probably was well.
I think beauty is in what’s true and real and raw. I have far less appreciation – almost no value whatsoever; sometimes even veering closer to disinterest than outright disdain, as it barely grazes my perception – for the “polish;” the “veneer.” For me, there is almost no merit whatsoever in revering what is faked; what seems offered but is really put upon. Give me instead the stripped down, de-layered, broken up. Let me taste the imperfections.
I subscribe to Socrates’ assertion when he points out that cooking and cosmetics are both “a form of flattery, or pandering,” saying: “these activities are aimed at surface adornment, an impersonation of what is really good.”
“What is really good” being, then, the unadorned. The raw. The real. And yes, the gritty. And the greased.
So what does this “beauty” mean?
It’s worth exploring more, but what we can take at face value is this: regardless of your articulation, it’s valid.
“The Quality which creates the world emerges as a relationship between man and his experience. He is the participant in the creation of all things. The measure of all things.”
What is good; beautiful?
It is us. And how we find it.