Tag Archives: beauty

Dappled Beauty

Recently, I mentioned a book club which I was so graciously invited into a couple of years back.  Many of the women have a long-standing history with one another, and yet graft newcomers in seamlessly.  If you read my last blog post I describe our latest read – Tolkien’s delightful Letters from Father Christmas in which he fantasizes to his children on the happenings at the North Pole each year.  Each December the book club members bring a wrapped book to exchange.  It is always interesting to see what is contributed to the pile and what each person ends up with – from fiction to memoirs, cookbooks to devotionals.  This  year I came home with Booked by Karen Swallow Prior in which she confesses early on that she “thought [her] love of books was taking [her] away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.”

My own love of books dates back to the farthest reaches of my memory when, as a toddler, I would pile the books from shelves around me in bed as I drifted off to sleep.  Instead of a favorite stuffed bear, I slept with all the characters and words collected from my day.  As I make my way through Prior’s tribute to the written word, I feel an immediate affinity with her as I have struggled to express what various works have meant to me over the years.

Here she quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins in her effort to explain the place language and text and story, especially poetry, held in her life as she used it to guard against feelings of awkwardness.  The written word is not merely an escape, but a means of explaining that incomprehensible truth from Scripture, “my power is made complete in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Beauty may be hiding in those places the world may see as ugly.  Don’t forget the travel-weary, Jewish carpenter huddled with a young girl and a shriveled newborn in a back stable.  Today, do you feel your soul to be stained seemingly beyond worth?  Or rather, is your soul crying to escape the prison of an ugly, unwanted body?  With regret and confusion I recall the hours spent in tears and frustration because I was not as I should be….that my child felt the pain and confusion of not being “right” in this world.  Oh, dappled beauty!  May we always see things as they truly are and praise Him.  Whatever is fulfilling its purpose, or better still His purpose, is imbued with beauty beyond description, even if it be beyond our vision.  Here is how Gerard Manley Hopkins describes it:

Glory be to God for dappled things-

For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour;  adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Isaiah Berlin and Muriel Barbery on Tolstoy and Truth: a juxtaposition

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  This is the opening of the essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by philosopher-critic Isaiah Berlin.  Remembering these words was what prompted me to pick up Muriel Barbery’s second novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog in a local bookstore about five years ago.

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I was instantly reminded of Tolstoy.  Yet when I read the synopisis on the back cover, I was disappointed.  No mention of Tolstoy, nor Berlin.  The premise still intrigued me, yet it was not until last month that I actually read the novel.  Indeed, there are references to the great Russian writer.  The story takes places in Paris, concentrating on characters who reside in a high-end apartment building.  The main character, Renee Michel, owns a cat, not coincidentally, named Leo.  Later, she is stunned to discover her new neighbor’s two felines are called Kitty and Levin (p. 150).  These are, of course, specific references to Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina.  Renee, though a humble, formally uneducated concierge, loves philosophy, Japanese art films, and War and Peace.

The novel makes no mention of Isaiah Berlin, nor his essay.  The true Tolstoy connection, however, is the one that is unspoken, assumed in everything.    Renee describes herself as “short, ugly and plump” (p. 19).   It is this unassuming elegance, however, which eventually attracts the attention of Kakuro Ozu, the mysterious, new Japanese resident in her building.

“She’s not what we think.” Ozu confides in twelve-year-old Paloma, a fellow resident and philosopher.  “She radiates intelligence…Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the simple refinement of the hedgehog; a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary-  and terribly elegant.”

Indeed.  Awkward externally.  Internally a searcher of beauty and one single truth.  Recalling a camellia growing  against moss, she defines her focus for us as the “contemplation of beauty within the very moment of life.” (p. 101).

Defining Renee as a hedgehog has further implications.  Not only is she a peculiar mix of beautiful and awkward, but she is single-minded, focused.  In short, she is Berlin’s interpretation of how the Greek poet Archilochus depicts the hedgehog.

“one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.  For there exists a great chasm between those on one side who relate everything to a single central vision…and on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory” (Berlin).  Berlin continues to name Dante as a hedgehog (having one central vision), but Shakespeare as a fox (pursuing many ends “with no moral or aesthetic principle”).  According to Berlin, foxes would be Aristotle, Erasmus, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac and Joyce.  Hedgehogs are Plato, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Ibsen and Proust.  DSC_0044_2465The remainder of Berlin’s essay proves to his readers how Tolstoy, an intuitive fox, strives to transform himself, and thoroughly believes in being a hedgehog.

This single-minded focus is even mirrored in the precocious Paloma, the neighbor who at twelve years old has despaired of a purpose to life and has determined to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.  Paloma still retains a sense of sweetness even while arrogantly demeaning her family and neighbors in the journals she faithfully maintains.

As she is pulled in by her father to watch a rugby match, she describes the Maori player during his haka, or “warrior chant.”  She writes, “What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy…it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself by staying centered.  That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance – everyone could feel it…giving his strength to the group.” (p. 40-41)

A single central vision.  A hedgehog.

We begin to see the struggle of hedgehog and fox surface in an early comment which Renee delivers to fellow-resident Bernard Grelier.  “War and Peace is the staging of a determinist vision of  history.” (p. 49).  Again, this drives us back to Berlin’s interpretation of Tolstoy as a conflicted hedgehog.  According to Berlin, Tolstoy fought to believe in “great men” determining their own destiny, but succumbed to the mere illusion of free will.  Tolstoy’s preoccupation with history led him to wrestle with the appearance of a free will and “first causes” of events.  He tried to create a “unifying pattern of the world for a monistic vision of life on the part of a fox bitterly intent upon seeing in the manner of a hedgehog.”   It was a search for meaning, a single over-arching purpose in life.  For a sharp contrast, for example, one might juxtapose Tolstoy’s War and Peace with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in order to examine their differing views on free will and fate.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog revolves largely around the blossoming friendship of Renee Michel and Kakuro Ozu.  Renee learns to discuss the qualities of Dutch and Italian painting, her favorite Japanese films, as well as her troubled, neglected past with Kakuro in an easy fashion.  Even so, the emphasis is on the “contemplation of beauty.”

Renee discovers from her one friend Manuela that Kakuro has decorated his apartment with elegant, assymetrical designs.  One lamp of a kind.  One singular table.  Nothing is the same.  Nothing matches.  Renee’s reaction is noteworthy: “I’ve never thought about it.  But it’s true that we tend to decorate our interiors with superfluous things.” (p. 161)  Manuela does not seem to comprehend.  Indeed, I am not sure I do either.  It is as if she were speaking of her soul, and not merely her living quarters.

Muriel Barbery has written a book in which the reader can appreciate the delicate flavors of zaru ramen and Jasmine tea, alongside the quiet beauty of a camellia.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a beautiful book on the possibilities of unlikely friendship and on finding the one truth and beauty in life.

 

 

Unequal Beauty

Arid, desolate, withered, brown and devoid of life.

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Scorching, dangerous, treacherous, exposed, intense and cursed.

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Are these apt descriptions to you of the desert?  Barren and dry?  God-forsaken?

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Recently my family and I returned from two weeks in the Sonoran Desert.  I enjoyed the distinctive beauty all around me.  The sun was still relatively mellow at this time for central Arizona, but a blinding beauty as we came from the harsh realities of this year’s Midwestern winter.  Yet there are many who view the desert as ugly, harsh, without natural beauty.  Who would prefer a thorny barrel cactus, or ocotillo to a lush, full oak?

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DSC_0177_2255The desert is rugged and the sunsets are gorgeous, but how can you compare it to a winding path in a maple wood, celebrated by a bubbling brook?  Must there be comparisons?  This may be where all the troubles begin.

 

 

Comparison is the death of joy.

~Mark Twain

Haven’t we seen this already as parents, moms in particular, as educators, as Christians, well, let’s face it, as human beings?  Must one thing be more beautiful than another?  Which one of your children is more beautiful?  Cannot two completely incompatible scenes of the LORD’s creation bring us a wondrous sense of awe and bafflement?

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Then I peer deeply into the differing eyes of my three boys, my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ about me, into my own soul, and marvel.  Which one of us is the thorny ocotillo, initially so unappealing and rough?  Which one possesses the unsung beauty of the Sonoran sunsets?  Even the prickly pear shows its springtime blooms.DSC_0129_2216

 

 

 

 

Have I experienced a beauty others might name as scorching, arid, intense, devoid of life?

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God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.  Genesis 1:31

One of my sons may be socially awkward at times.  Seemingly self-centered.  Aloof.  Gawky.  Obsessive.  Intense.  Piercing.  Heartfelt.  Tender.  Perceptive.  Observant. Is he the arid desert, the dry rocky hills, or the lush oak, the verdant field of blooming wildflowers?

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

I Corinthians 12:17-18

Comparing beautiful scenery may be like comparing inner beauties.  Incomparable.  The introvert’s unseen acts of love and service may not be arranged the same way as the gregarious person’s warm smile and full embrace.  And yet they are both beautiful.  Unequally, incomparably beautiful.DSC_0132_2218

 

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom…they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.

Isaiah 35:1, 2b