So I’ve been thinking lately about a concept Joseph Campbell uses some times. He talks about how we see a logical progression throughout prehistoric evolution between the higher primates and our own species with regard especially to tool manipulation and fashioning. You can see for example some of the great apes occasionally developing systems of sharpening sticks in order to dig into termite mounds and such. It is readily clear how this could have progressed in the progenitors of man to refinements in tool craft and in tandem, refinements in his eye-hand coordination and in the brain that drove this dialectic throughout eons of evolution.
A child can understand this. Something startling happens though when we look at the crudest and oldest tools of the neoliths and their ancestors. At some point we see blades that are designed to be not just useful but to be beautiful. Why would man do this? Why make a blades that are increasingly curved, serpentine, or embellished? Strictly speaking there was no necessity for it and if anything it makes the tool much more difficult to make and potentially, arguably – less useful?
We see that beauty is really a kind of principle in nature but one which to a superlative degree – man latches on to as a kind of conscious value. Why? Why spend time – lifetimes even, honing a poetic tradition? Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about this at length in part of her interview by Kristina Tippet in “On Being”. She discovered scientific reasons for Asters and Goldenrod to be found so frequently growing together when they look so beautiful and complimentary as compared with their growing separately.
So there may be many thoughts along the lines that man’s pursuit of “Divinely Superfluous Beauty” may be a spiritual longing which is unique to man and somehow outside of the purview of evolutionary science – this interpretation may also be too limiting. It turns out that Asters and Goldenrod – being complimentary colors, do better together because they attract more pollinators then when growing separately. Therefore they breed more prolifically than when growing apart so that growing separately is a less favorable circumstance for each. We might say that beauty brings with it – greater fecundity and if that is so in many circumstances in nature we can see easily how there is an evolutionary advantage to it.
In any case- the degree of the superfluity(seeming non-necessity let’s say) and divinity(deliberately aspirational and inspirational character lets say) of that beauty in the mundane life of man is sometimes staggering when we take a moment to think about it. It’s easy to point these things out in grand works like the Sistine Chapel or (personal favorite) the sand mandalas of the Buddhists, but that has not been on my mind. I have been more fascinated by the mundane divine superfluity in our quest for beauty – the more mundane the more fascinating. It mirrors my deepening fascination at the ingenuity of the humble, ancient pocket-watch – almost comprehensible but just beyond intellectual reach of this humble wayfarer. I have no deep fascination with the inner workings of my (vastly superior) cell phone because at that level it just may as well be magic it is so far beyond my comprehension.
I have snapped a couple photos related to my fascination about mundane pursuits of beauty. Here is a picture from a couple of days ago – the 22 of March. I was having a conversation with my friend Brandon Mealer. He generously let me record his dream in pursuit of a notion I have to eventually put up a podcast syndication about dreams, personal stories and other ponderous tops of interest to me. Here is the coffee beverage I was served – a delicious “Monkey Mocha” – a superbly crafted Mocha Latte infused with fresh banana puree. Wonderful. But look at that foam? Actually they have tenders there that do a better job than this with specific images of hearts or flowers. Superfluous, Divine, Beautiful. Nothing to do with taste or nutrition – but a delight. Of course we could talk about the embellished wood finish or the cup or the ring but again – I am more fascinated in my mood these days by the most ordinary and frivolous instances of this phenomenon. It is as wondrous to me as the antics of the birds of paradise as they attract their mates.
Then here is a case of something fairly ugly which is beautiful only in abstract but it came to mind for me in this vein. My compost heap. It’s troublesome and ugly but it is the beginning of an aesthetic experience which is holistic, comprehensive and aesthetically immersive – that of gardening while reducing the garbage and carbon footprint of my family. From a survival standpoint it’s an incredibly superfluous activity – composting. Capitalists are probably allergic to the very idea – but for me it’s kind of a wonderful thing.
We sometimes find contradictions in our quest for beauty. The hippie in me likes to eat organic broccoli for example – but I buy this stuff at Kroger and the packaging is abhorrent to that same inner-hippie. I think – “Didn’t manufacturers realize that by making a tag that is so difficult to recycle they would be putting off the very people that want to buy their organic products?” But at the same time – the little tag is attractive and neatly and beautifully constructed. It’s a battle of two opposing aesthetic paradigms – one ideological and one physical.
Finally – the most mundane of all – here I find my self spending ten minutes deeply, frenetically and OCD-ishly engaged in chipping away and the minutest imperfections after a “pretty good” paint job of the new railing we installed at the kitchen stage of our old property. I’m enraptured by this activity and my endorphin are surging. I can feel a kind of joy at noticing and banishing such small and persistent details and wiping them clean I feel a kind of beatific joy. We do all these things without noticing them but for me- perhaps just for this one month of my life – I’m noticing a lot of things in the human world which involves our pursuit of beauty. Are their evolutionary explanations for that or spiritual explanations for that? Everyone can and should make their very own answer but my answer – a Bahá’í answer is that very harmoniously – there will be both which are fully and equally valid. Beauty, and a sensitivity to and thirst for it is something which evolved and on the other hand – evolution it’s self for that matter may be more than beautiful – it may be divine..