The word and concept came up in passing, as it were, during a conversation I had recently with a young woman whose benevolent and romantic orbit I have found myself closer within than that of any other over the past few years. I stated to her that I was intimidated by her beauty, by way of some reassurance I felt she was owed due to less than complimentary comments she’d received from another person close to her. The genuineness of the comment extended far beyond a deliberately-timed attempt at flattery. Beauty has always intimidated me, but not in the sense that I draw fear from it. More that I draw awe from it. It’s like they say through the old cliché: that a woman might be good looking enough to “stop traffic”. This is what beauty in all its forms has the power to do. It has the power to capture. To give pause. To inspire self-reflection, not in a truly self-conscious sense but more in a sense of how the perceived beauty might affect the reality of the individual perceiving it.
Take epic mountain, desert, or ocean vistas, for example. Tales of the beauty of such places as the Canadian Wilderness might reach such other places vastly distant to it as small desert towns east of Perth, in Western Australia. The tales (through marketing or word-of-mouth) might have such power that they are able to draw people, often at great cost, from such a relatively far-flung part of the world all the way to the aforementioned Place of Beauty. Then when the people arrive at the POB – besides eating or drinking or engaging in local physical or educational activities – they will inevitably spend some time simply gazing at its beauty. What runs through the minds of everyone who makes the effort – whether transcontinental or a short walk from their backyard – to submit themselves to such awe is largely up to them. The point is its effect on most if not all of its perceivers: quiet, if not silent observance.
The same effect is elicited from the woman mentioned above: in our romantic moments of whatever intensity, often I will be struck apparently dumb by the simple fact of how beautiful she appears to me. Again, the genuineness of that comment which I have not yet had the chance to explain to her (naturally, because at all such times in which I’ve experienced it I’ve been quite incapable of speaking) goes far beyond her physical beauty. Put Miranda Kerr in front of me, and chances are after at least a forced hello I might be rendered silently awe-stricken as I would with any other superficially aesthetically-pleasing source. But, if Miss Kerr was to promptly reveal herself to be a foul-mouthed bigot, I would likely then have little or at least less appreciation for her external charms. It’s all about context. I found the formerly mentioned young woman to be physically beautiful before I came to know her, and our interactions physical, intellectual and emotional since then have only heightened this appraisal.
The distracting awe felt at the perception of beauty is key to the point I’m trying to make. In the case of beauty embodied in natural and man-made geographical and architectural splendours, many of us are gluttons. We may not, depending on our means, be satisfied at witnessing just one example of such an enrapturing experience, and may spend a significant portion of our lives touring the globe’s greatest visually arresting spectacles. This is for each of us to choose to do – or not. Personally – and from experience, I must stress – I find there’s a limit to either practical or philosophical benefits to be gained from gazing at multiple canyons, mountains, tropical paradises or other such natural attractions. And when it comes to man-made attractions, the limits are equally keenly felt – especially if one has not bothered to understand the history and function of the particular structure. The reason I find this activity – generally known by the awful near-tautology “sight-seeing” – unsatisfying is simple.
Beauty of the kind within and external of people whom we love can never be replicated in anything which is neither alive nor possesses emotional intelligence – the latter of which includes animals, whom even in the form of dolphins or apes can’t quite claim to be on humans’ level. This is why humans have children and tend, with occasional exceptions, to keep them close their entire lives. This is why humans develop long-term friendships with people to whom they’re not necessarily even sexually attracted. And it is why humans will try (and often fail many times) to form an intellectual and/or emotional and/or sexual union with another person that could potentially last until both their deaths. When we find someone physically attractive, they are akin to the Grand Canyon or Taj Mahal: worth enjoying for a few moments, hours or days. But when we begin to value how they make us feel and – most importantly – to care about their welfare and happiness they acquire beauty that both massively accentuates, and far exceeds in power, their physical form. It is the greatest experience of awe. It is the truest manifestation of love. It is the purest form of beauty.