Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Beauty

Mark Helprin is certainly one of the best writers still at work. Although everything he writes is interesting and thoughtful, I still think his best is A Soldier of the Great War. This is a good interview with him. Note this exchange on beauty:

DT: Why are you so obsessed with beauty?

MH: Because it’s beautiful.

DT: [laughs] This is something I’ve gotten from all your work, over and over again.

MH: That’s an interesting question. See, that’s one of the questions that I’ve never, never had put to me. So I’ll have to think about that for a second. I suppose it’s the inverse of why I am repelled by ugliness. One is attracted to beauty. Beauty is the coordination of things, in such a way, that it is what attracts you. It’s almost self-defining. I know at a personal level, I have always been interested in it, and I have always sought it out, and was comforted by it, because it was comforting. I think in one of my books I say it’s a promise that there is a purpose in life, because if things can be arranged, coordinated in a way that made you react in that fashion, then perhaps it means that everything has a purpose in the end.

Discussions - 14 Comments

What a good story Helprin makes of himself! He certainly talks a lot for a self-described shy person.


But I think what I liked best in this piece was his articulation of how informal and flexible things once were. Maybe that is a particular and peculiar nostalgia of my own. Helprin is speaking specifically about Israel and how he, well, virtually, joined the Israeli Air Force. Yet I remember all sorts of things being more informal and flexible, once upon a time. For example, Social Security pretended, after 9/11, that I was not myself if I used my nickname instead of my full given name. I had to choose, and it was a legal choice that had to be formalized. To have to formalize my nickname as to avoid being accused of operating under an alias, was just so silly. Helprin’s last novel had that, too, the sort of slipping into places and employments of the protagonists that seemed to me the only really impossible thing in his fantasy. It was anachronistic. Such things happened thirty or more years ago, but it is hard to imagine such things happening now, or even in the many years up to 9/11. Is this, probably, because of computers and the growing ability to document and track everyone and eveything? Since we can, we feel that we must.


There is so much to enjoy in this interview. Thank you for mentioning it.

A man who saw a TRULY ravishing woman would never have had to ask a question about beauty. Such a woman’s remembrance is literally branded upon his soul, and leaves him ever afterward, with an aching for the mere sight of her.

And for the record, I read Helprin’s book, and was not impressed. It had it’s moments to be sure, but overall....not impressed.

I liked the part about jumping on trains...also liked his take on hanging out with the suit types...

Dan:
That is true, and I think we should stress that it is not only the beautiful person which is branded upon a man’s soul. I think it is pertinent that all beauty, true beauty (be it in nature, architecture, what have you), has that same effect.

Dan,

That was lovely, but can she cook?

Even more sincerely, I say, take a picture of that ravishing woman. Take many pictures, as we fade all too quickly.

Which Helprin book did you read and were not impressed? I have found at least one beautiful passage, often more, in each of his books that I have read; beautiful especially in the way he describes beauty, above.

Tony, beauty as you put it is what makes living possible. The soul just watches for beauty, wanting to be pierced. There might be some beautiful thing to discover or rediscover in any day, a promise that there is a purpose in life. The hope in that promise makes getting up and getting on with a day seem a reasonable proposition. If we can not find something beautiful to lift us, then at least something funny really is just about as good, though a more temporary and mundane pleasure.

The wisdom of the poet:

Believe me if all those endearing young charms, which I gaze on so fondly today were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms like fairy gifts fading away.

Thou would still be adored as this moment thou art, let thy loveliness fade as it will. And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart would entwine itself verdantly still.

It is not while beauty and youth are thine own and thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear. That the fervor and faith of a soul can be known to which time has but made thee more dear. No, the heart which has truly loved never forgets but as truly loves on to the close. As the sunflower turns to her god when he sets the same lok which she gave when he rose.

Believe me if all those endearing young charms ... .

One of my late, great teachers said: poetry makes experience possible (but articulating the experience before you’ve had it, so that you can experience it more fully and articulately.) Momma’s and papa’s: teach your kids (good, beautiful, and wise) poetry!

Next time I’ll quote A. E. Housman’s "When I was one-and-twenty ... ."

the penultimate paragraph should have "by articulating" instead of "but"! Grrrh. Where’s "Eliot" when I need him?

Kate, lol. Well, if she can’t cook, there is always the Food Network. She can watch Emeril and that attractive Giada DeLaurentis, and she can learn. She can learn.

And Kate, I read the book that has been described as one of the best war novels ever written, A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR. I found it so boring I had to make a mental effort to wade through it. I was really disappointed. But I’ve read some of his columns so I know he can write. Maybe it was just me.

Dan, Yes, I found that one tedious, too, and felt guilty about it, thinking maybe I didn’t give it enough of a chance. There is so much to read in the world that if something doesn’t please, I grab the next thing. I just read Joe Queenan who said he has 27 books going, now, at once, and a similar number going at any given time. Maybe if I kept Soldier to read between the other several things I am reading it would go better for me. I loved Winter’s Tale and Freddy and Fredericka and even City in Winter though not as well. His articles are always good. Maybe it wasn’t you, but just the book.


paul, that Moore poem is always very sweet and comforting for the old wife to read, but the Houseman less so for any woman at all.

Dear Kate, the Housman poem expresses an experience and lesson-learned that many a first-time male lover has. (You might say that "the wise man" is too much in love with (the freedom of) wisdom and that his advice cuts too deeply or widely. Arguably true. But many’s the young man who unwisely fell head over heels in love with someone not worthy of such devotion, or not compatible with him. I’m not sure it’s as much about "women" as the pitfalls of first love.

Dear Paul, Yes, I see. You are quite right. It echoes, in it’s way, Proverbs 4:23 Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it is the wellspring of life. Truly, it works as advice for man or woman. And it is cause to warn Dan again to be very careful of his "TRULY ravishing woman" and remember what Lemuel’s mother said
especially Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting


This also reminds me of the experience of my oldest son, who has been fruitlessly and painfully (for all of us) engaged three times. I ought to tatoo him with the Houseman poem.

Nice biblical passages.
Do with your son as you will; thanks for tacitly correcting my misspelling of Houseman’s name.
What think ye of Helen, as in she whose face launched a thousand ships? Homer was quite aware of the dangers involved with stunning beauty.

I did think about her, ravishing as she must have been. Poor Helen, tossed about as she was; given here, given there, by father and goddess. Troy under siege could not have been much of a joy. Then, if she was spared by Menelaus and taken back to Sparta, what sort of merry life would she have led? Which, of course, is just about her, and not mentioning all the others who died for her face.


But all of that was also about honor and "dignified" Greeks, not just beauty.


It is hard to picture her beauty in terms of the Helprin definition, above. Do you suppose it was a comforting thing? I mean, you can see the "branding on the soul" bit the other guys mentioned, but not "comforted by it, because it was comforting." as she was a discomfiter who led a whole nation to discomfiture.

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