This morning I was felled by an attack of vertigo and spent most of the day in bed. It was weird: I was up tending to a sick kid at 3:30 and I was perfectly fine. The alarm went off at 6:20 and I tried to get up for a 7:00 meeting. It was immediately evident that I wasn't going anywhere. I am mostly better and am freshly grateful for the concatenation of small miracles that makes possible my usual good health. Once I was a little better I finished Lear. I also had lots of time to think, and one of the things on my mind was Melanie's comment about beauty. She asked if I would describe Shakespeare as beautiful. What makes a work of literature beautiful? I have a formula for your consideration.
Phi is for phrasing. From the time I was small I have always loved a wordsmith, always felt a little shiver of pleasure at a thoughtfully constructed sentence. (It doesn't have to be clever phrasing, just memorable -- like Lear's "Never never never never never" today. Love that train of trochees.) But phrasing isn't enough. I often enjoy David Foster Wallace's writing, but I'd never call it beautiful. The more important part of beautiful literature, I think, is that it brings a moment of recognition, a glimpse of an enduring truth that is both familiar and unfamiliar.
The υ is for the unfamiliarity factor, the blending of known and unknown. There's a range of ratios that works, but it's important for me that both be present. Too much unknown and it feels too alien to be beautiful; too familiar and it seems trite. The τ is for truth. To be beautiful, a work needs to tell you about something that matters. This weekend I read Sign of the Seahorse to Stella. It scans beautifully; there are some clever turns of phrase. But the wanderings of saltwater trout don't offer much in the eternal truth department.
And I'm going to part company with Keats here: I disagree that truth is beauty. The world, I think, is awash in ugly truth. I've got that gamma in there as an exponent because what makes truth beautiful is seeing it through the lens of goodness. Maybe it's human goodness; maybe it's divine goodness. Naked truth can be monstrous, though. I haven't seen Hotel Rwanda, but I doubt I'd call it beautiful.
So that's my parenthetical term. The thing about beauty, though, is that you have to be in the right place at the right time to see it. The μ is for mysterious readiness. You can read Keats in a cynical mood and think "Shut UP, pal." You can see beauty in Calvin and Hobbes if you're feeling receptive. Sometimes it's about state of mind; sometimes it's about life circumstances. I was especially responsive to the bits of Lear that talk about frailty and death today, given the malfunction of my vestibular system.
This is my favorite Shakespeare quote, from Merchant of Venice: Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it. It ticks all of those boxes: there's so much food for thought in the phrase "muddy vesture of decay." It puts me in mind of "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" It reminds me that there are better things beyond us that we cannot see. I came across it in late December one year, as I was reflecting on the year that was passing away and the year that lay ahead. There is a longing in that last line -- we cannot hear it -- that speaks to my heart year after year.
This is a post in which I could tinker and edit and feel dissatisfied for a long time. But I am going to take my slightly wobbly self to bed, in hopes that a little extra rest will be good for the parts of my muddy vesture of decay that manage my sense of balance. Please tell me what you think -- I'm curious about your thoughts, and your favorite Shakespeare quotes, and the literature that you find beautiful yourself.