Beauty & Justice

He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

–  Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses. Knopf, 1992.

***

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurels they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, – but the rest is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love –
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. I am not resigned.

–        Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Dirge without Music”. HarperCollins, 1958.

McCarthy’s “vision of a single flower” is a comic moment in the great tragedian’s world, as if the frailest example of beauty on a battlefield might account for the blood shed by nations. The sentence, a flower in itself, is the character’s yearning to justify the violence wrought by nature and man.

Millay on the other hand, doesn’t buy that there is enough beauty in the world to justify the loss of the beauty inherent in a person, especially those tender, kind, intelligent, witty, and brave souls who go quietly and gently into that good night.

Both McCarthy and Millay long for justice. And both figure beauty into the balance.

What type of beauty, were it found or cultivated, would make a person whole after a loss of this magnitude? Millay doesn’t think there is such a beauty, but she almost refuses to acknowledge the deficit, too. McCarthy’s corpus would probably suggest, “What does it matter? The impersonal world will go on long after we’re no longer able to behold and mark beauty. Enjoy beauty before you become indiscriminate dust.”

***

                   “I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.”

–        Ecclesiastes 3:10-11. King James Version, 1611.

The writer of Ecclesiastes sees something else: that beauty in itself is a kind of tragedy because of its time limit. In our beholding of beauty we already recognize its end, which creates a longing for eternity where beauty will not pass away. Maybe even a beauty where all our loss is restored to us, even if that loss, as McCarthy would say, came at our own hand.

                  How exacting is it then that God, in the form of a man who marked beauty – tender, kind, intelligent, witty, and brave Christ who went quietly and gently – died violently by the hands of men in the ultimate act of injustice, and He did so with the intent that our loss would be restored? How exacting and beautiful?

What work is God about from beginning to end?

Chauvet Cave, France. Horses. Circa 31,000 ago

Lascaux Cave Paintings in France. Circa 31,000 years ago.

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