Beauty and Aesthetic Arrest
"The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object....
you experience a radiance.
You are held in aesthetic arrest."
~ Joseph Campbell
A glorious sunset over the ocean. A double rainbow vibrantly arching across the sky. A sculpture of grandeur and poise. The elegant movement of a dancer as she nearly floats through space. A temple, mosque, or church with giant arches rising up towards the heavens. Why is it that we are so deeply affected by beauty?
Joseph Campbell used the term "aesthetic arrest" to describe the state we enter when we encounter what we perceive to be profound beauty. This is a phrase he borrowed from James Joyce, who said that when confronted with beauty, “the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”
In the TEDx talk by landscape photographer, Tom Reed, titled Natural Beauty and Aesthetic Arrest, he said, "when we are stunned by what we perceive to be profoundly beautiful, we first breathe in and we are filled with what might be considered divine. Then the mental construct of self can expire.” In Joyce’s words: “the instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani … called the enchantment of the heart” (source). Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, the authors of
Stealing Fire, would call this "ecstasis."
In the face of profound beauty, we step outside the self. The beholder becomes merged with the beheld. The incessantly chatty mind quiets, pauses. We are left in a moment of stillness, in what Jamie Wheal calls the "deep now."
Like the flow state, ecstatic state, or moment of being overcome with awe, loss of self is a signature feature. Stepping outside of our small self and merging with the moment can be a profound experience. Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler say that during these states people are thought to experience what is called 'transient hypofrontality,' a momentary lessening of activity in our prefrontal cortex. Subjectively we experience this as a place of quiet mind. As my former Professor, Csikszentmihalyi, always said, once we return from such states, by integrating the experience into our mental models, we return as a fuller, wiser, richer person.
“The ego mind is stopped and we are left face to face with the true nature of reality: one immense, infinitely complicated, interconnected miracle that our consciousness is part of yet can be enraptured by." ~ Tom Reed
Before going any further, it must be clarified that I'm not talking about glamorous Hollywood standards of beauty or socially constructed narratives of what constitutes beauty. Such narratives also happen to have billions of dollars of advertising dollars pumped into them in hopes of perpetuating feelings of inadequacy and selling products. I'm talking about a much deeper sense of beauty, something deep in our heart that is awakened by witnessing the magnificence of the Grand Canyon or a shooting star on a clear night. Setting aside debates about aesthetics or what is learned and what is innate, we all know the moment when beauty truly touches our heart. That's the beauty I want to explore.
I am inspired by the perspective on beauty by the Irish poet and philosopher, John O'Donohue. When asked in an interview what pictures come to mind when he thinks of beauty, John O'Donohue responded:
When I think of the word 'beauty,' some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty, I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me by people that have cared for me in bleak and unsheltered times... I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes who you never hear about, who... manage somehow to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility.
In the same interview, John O'Donohue also poetically said, "beauty isn't all about just nice loveliness, beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming... Beauty in that sense is about an emerging wholeness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depths, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life."
Alan Watts spoke cheekily about our small notions of beauty in this talk:
You know, we pick up shells. I always keep one around... and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.” Now I wonder... if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat? Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced." Cause' that’s what we do. See, we don’t realize that all of us... are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at... – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous. And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful!
In John O'Donohue's book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, he makes the case that in a sense, our contemporary crises can be condensed into a crisis of the nature of beauty and how much we are willing to tolerate vulgarity, coarseness, and the artificial. When we experience beauty, we come alive, we feel at home, there is a trueness to it, returning us to our higher selves. He asks what the world would look like if beauty were brought into politics, education, healthcare, families, etc. In this recording, when asked how beauty might be an antidote to our pressing global crises