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The experience of beauty

February 22, 2017

I finally got around to reading Huxley’s The Doors of Perception after finding a copy at a booksale last week. In the same volume was Heaven and Hell, described as a sequel. I was particularly struck by this passage, quoted in Heaven and Hell:

“I was sitting on the seashore, half listening to a friend arguing violently about something which merely bored me. Unconsciously to myself, I looked at a film of sand I had picked up on my hand, when I suddenly saw the exquisite beauty of every little grain of it; instead of being dull I saw that each particle was made up on a perfect geometrical pattern, with sharp angles, from each of which a brilliant shaft of light was reflected, while each tiny crystal shone like a rainbow…. The rays crossed and recrossed, making exquisite patterns of such beauty that they left me breathless…. Then, suddenly, my consciousness was lighted up from within and I saw in a vivid way how the whole universe was made up of particles of material which, no matter how dull and lifeless they might seem, were nevertheless filled with this intense and vital beauty. For a second or two the whole world appeared as a blaze of glory. When it died down, it left me with something I have never forgotten and which constantly reminds me of the beauty locked up in every minute speck of material around us.”

It turns out the title “Heaven and Hell” is totally misleading. The book (or essay, rather – it’s very short) is an exploration of how people have sought transcendant beauty, including glowing colour and shiny surfaces, in religeous artefacts and through art.

Huxley reflects on how little beauty was available in only the recent past. He was writing in 1956, as we were about to be plunged into a glut of beauty and wonder in the form of brilliant colour and new materials, culminating in having all the treasures of the world easily accessible online.

It’s interesting to be reminded of how rich the world we inhabit is in colour, texture and design. Is it all too much? I think not, since the kind of direct and immersive experience of beauty that this passage is describing is still available and still as refreshing when we experience it.

 

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