12 November 2012

Beauty, truth

Seventeenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 9: Iridogorgia

page 134: symmetry, beauty and why they exist in the world. Symmetry can follow from atomic structure but this is seldom apparent to our senses. One case where it does is snowflakes: "the form of the six-sided ice crystals gives a direct view of what should be invisible: the geometry of atoms [in a water molecule],"  writes David George Haskell in The Forest Unseen. Beauty and the sublime (see page 149) are linked to emotion and cultural context. So, for example, Rainer Maria Rilke:
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.
page 134: Metallogorgia looks like a delicate, pink acacia on top of an impossibly thin trunk:

page 135: revolution in the arts. The argument goes on. So, for example, Simon Critchley:
It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.
page 136: in translation, the full title of Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum is Cosmic Mystery, or The Secret of the World.  Forerunner of the Cosmological Essays, Which Contains the Secret of the Universe; on the Marvelous Proportion of the Celestial Spheres, and on the True and Particular Causes of the Number, Magnitude, and Periodic Motions of the Heavens; Established by Means of the Five Regular Geometric Solids

page 138: organising force. See also the neo-Confucian concept of Li, which has been linked to statements such as this by the biologist Brian Goodwin:
much (and perhaps most) of the order that we see in living nature is an expression of properties intrinsic to complex dynamic systems organized by simple rules of interaction among large numbers of elements.
Compare Henry David Thoreau and William Donald Hamilton. This is from Spring in Walden (1854):
Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented. The material was sand of every degree of fineness and of various rich colors, commonly mixed with a little clay. When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard's paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves; destined perhaps, under some circumstances, to become a puzzle to future geologists. The whole cut impressed me as if it were a cave with its stalactites laid open to the light. The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable, embracing the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish. When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water itself, they are converted into banks, like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom.

The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of a mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank—for the sun acts on one side first—and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype.
And this from Between Shoreham and Downe: Seeking the Key to Natural Beauty (1996) by W. D. Hamilton:
I remember as a startling gift of nature my first sight of how oil spreads on a pool and makes it become alive with colours; how easy it was to cause this magnificent display again with a drop from the household can. I remember as a favourite environment the bare ploughland at the foot of our garden where amid screaming lapwings I would wander hunting for colourful flint stones and fossils.. In the same field again after rain I remember how at the lower end, water coursing in the furrows laid out flat deltaic fans of pale silt beautifully marked. Firm underfoot to a first step, if trampled a little, these fans, losing their braided patterns and turning to mud would suck my bare feet down as if with a living appetite.

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