The Abyss of Beauty

The Art of Seeing the Natural World

Ian Marcus Corbin
Ian Marcus Corbin is a writer and philosopher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is currently the co-director of the Human Network Initiative at Harvard Medical School and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita.

Albert Camus writes that if you’re truly paying attention, beauty, for all its sweetness, is “unbearable.” Beauty, he says, “drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”

For most of us, Camus’s pronouncement sounds dubious; it has the ring of tragic poetic fancy. We may feel revulsion or despair at the sight of misery and death, but beauty? What sort of pain could attend the apprehension of a sunset or a flower?

And yet it’s easy to be unsure if he’s correct, because true looking is rare. Our customary mode is to look for things rather than at them, to register them just long enough to tell whether they’ll harm or help, what we’d better steer around, what we should pick up from the ground and pocket for tomorrow.

One afternoon last summer, I was sitting on a bench in a small urban park, my youngest son Leonard asleep in his stroller. I’d consciously chosen to leave my iPhone at home, determined to look around me as I went. It’s an ongoing ethical project, a way of life I aspire to and too rarely achieve. I have a running suspicion that I could really, deeply love life, or a day or afternoon at the very least, if I could just be quiet and look, stop the incessant scheming and worrying and mental grappling. When Gerard Manley Hopkins sits still, he finds that the natural world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” and exults in the knowledge that its “blue-bleak embers” “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.” That’s what I want. I want to see embers, blue-bleak and dying, to see that when they fall and gall themselves, gold-vermillion gashes out into the visible world. How different would that be from my current life of cars and sidewalks and text exchanges, of long nights in my restless, thought-infested bed? Perhaps we can see ourselves to life.

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Image: Peer Christensen, Crabapple Study, oil on canvas, 2020 Artwork by Peer Christensen. Used by permission.