Making Sense of Beauty: Making Beauty of Sense

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Making Sense of Beauty: Making Beauty of Sense

Kat McCormick

Looking at it, laying there, just ejected out of the skull cap- that patch of horns, mess of fur- I began to recognize structures: medulla, pituitary, brains once orderly now splatted on the texas earth, steam rising off them still warm from life in the cold morning air. And I wondered that even these thoughts, my thoughts, only occurred due to exchange of ions: potassium, sodium, calcium, glucose, making their way across countless synapses—all those compounded simples somehow summating in the complexity of human thought, desire, and identity. And of this deer, what was spilled on the dirt there is nothing more that those same ions. The basis of life on this planet is nothing more than keeping those ions in a vital imbalance; controlling where they can and cannot go. And that controls what my hands do and do not do, whom my heart does and does not love, and whether it beats.

There has to be some sense in us all having such corporeal bodies and corporeal minds- bodies that shit and sweat and require constant energy and attention, needing three meals a day, and our organs all designed to help us interface with the world outside of us. As John Dewey states in his work Art as Experience (1), “Only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.” What the sense is, I don’t know, but I think Dewey is right in suggesting that the interface between self and other is the canyon from which beauty springs, but along with it, also ugliness and everything between. Beauty acts as a bridge across this canyon between humans, and ugliness is that bed of rocks, or raging waters, or molten lava –whatever lies at the bottom- that seeks to keep us in our lonely sphere of isolation. And while I didn’t find the experience of killing a deer beautiful, it did powerfully remind me of my own corporeal form and its capabilities and needs. Despite the messiness, I find THAT beautiful- being human, having a brain, and a body, and thought, and sensation. So there is my tenderness and my humanity. I want to be tasted and enjoyed, relished and coveted. The root of beauty is performing this task for another. In its way, the canyon of separation itself is beautiful; it is the wellspring of possibility. As Dewey (1) comments, “ It also makes possible for him to carry to new and unprecedented heights that unity of sense and impulse, of brain and eye and ear, that is exemplified in animal life, saturating it with the conscious meanings derived from communication and deliberate expression.” Ultimately, from this follows all the experiences that people say are beautiful- love between people, nature, the familiarity of home, and the occasional movement to tears. What is beautiful is the extremity of feeling made possible through our separation in the uniquely human condition: in short, the experience of interaction of a human and the world beyond it’s own skin. What follows are some of my own descriptions of beauty and a cursory analysis of what makes them so.

On the beauty of Tears:
The beauty of tears is in that they are the strongest physiological response that humans experience due to emotion. Also beautiful is their mystery: biologically, there is no reason for crying except to release and communicate strong emotion. They are a sensory response to a sensory stimulus, be it one of joy, of pain, of surprise, or sadness. Crying is a funny thing for me sometimes- I feel myself trying to compress, trying to pack hard and tight within me what is tough and what is true. I clench my muscles and try to bleed out through my tears anything that cannot stand up to this. I try to wring out all my impurities, till I am nothing but taut fabric, twisted expertly between two strong hands, streamlined, ready for use, centered on the moment, intent on maintaining this form. I release with my tears anything that cares, anything that feels, anything that emotes because these are the things that are dangerous; these are the things that can break you. The distillation is also profound, and both parts of it are beautiful: the concentrated emotion that escapes through my ducts, and the dry resolve that is left behind.

On the beauty of familiarity, nature, and home:
Having grown up in west Texas, since I left I have found no place like it. Although when I lived there I was eager to leave, I now find my memory of this specific land hauntingly beautiful, and I am no more convinced of its existence when I stand before it, still haunting, just on the other side of the reality of my life now. Leaving it in the car to return to the academic life, I reflect that this drive has long been cathartic to me: moving from origin forward, the dusty streets of the high plains, descending the Caprock, noting what grows where, the huge weather forms that play themselves out on the spanning canvas of sky. The vast wind lifting the red dirt and flinging it through the plains grasses, tumble weed assaulting the cars as they likewise make their way across the expanse of space. A building storm reaches down its spindly fingers, molding the dirt into funnels of dust-devils like a potter, the rotating earth its spinning wheel. Although I have traveled far, some part of me is still tied to this land, an umbilical with utmost elasticity, and I can identify with being flung from it by a tousling wind. This beauty is one that echoes vastness and power, as well as the beauty of a memory of childhood temporally separated from the present. Our susceptibility to time is another aspect of being a corporeal human that adds to the beauty of our experience in the form of memories.

On the beauty of love:
Love between humans, I would wager, is the most widely cited source of beauty. It is both intimate and universal, specific to the unique quirks of each relationship, yet the themes are so broadly transferable. The beauty of love is experienced and expressed by us corporeal humans through the senses: a soft touch, a sensuous curve that we visually follow, a characteristic smell, the sound of a laugh, or the thrill that comes of hearing “I love you” from the right person at the right time. The following is a sensory description of love that I found beautiful, which emphasizes the physicality of the human experience of love:

I cradle your face in both my hands, drawing you to me, palms running up your neck, fingers extending into the soft mystery of your hair. Standing behind you, both of us bare-chested in the soft glow of the room, I slowly follow the fluid line of your shoulders and neck with my cheek. My hands linger around the curves of your waist, hips, back, breasts- I am lulled to sleep by the lullaby of your fingers on my skin. Keeping time with the soft intake of breath as I fill my lungs, wondering if I am full of you, of that same air which has given you a moments nourishment. And even when you are no longer mine, how can I regret having you, curling behind you protective as we sleep, whispering our minds into the dark of night. How can I regret the travels of my fingers? And I hope someday, if you do not have me, I hope if you are cold and alone, you will not forget the way I cherished you.

What is so beautiful to me in this description is not only the love that it describes, but the description of the ways that humans experience love- through communication of touch and talk, through craving unity while knowing that experience will remain individual, despite love. As Dewey (1) says, “ ‘Sense’ covers a wide range of contents: the sensory, the sensational, the sensitive, the sensible, and the sentimental, along with the sensuous.” It is through these experiences of sense that we determine beauty, and all that we find beautiful: love, family, art, thought, and each other.


1) Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Perigree, 1934.

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