Very interesting question, Blanca, thanks.
This reminds me of Musil’s essay on the “Modern Woman” where he describes women’s clothing of the nineteenth century: the frills, the lace, the petticoats, “the infinite multiplication of the erotic surface.” With the change in clothing styles, he says (paraphrasing here), these moments which so thrilled people of a previous generation – the glimpse of an ankle, the brush of a dropped handkerchief – are completely lost to us.
I would say that maybe this is an interesting way into thinking about beauty. I would distinguish the attraction (the “erotic surface”) of a person, object, place, which can really only be accessed from inside a certain culture and a certain alphabet of gestures, from what I would call their beauty, which is universal insofar as it has to do with feeling a real force of life.
One sees this sort of distinction not just in people, but in Rome and the Grand Canyon, for instance. A devout Catholic who sees Rome as a sacred landscape will find it lovely for perhaps very different reasons than a classicist, and from an American visitor for whom this is the first experience of Europe. Someone for whom the Grand Canyon represents the immense freedom of space on the Tuesday they happen across it will feel differently from someone who has grown up there and who, looking at the same clouds, remembers that they have not looked this way for twenty years. These moments of literacy, where you experience yourself and another person, city, work of art as existing in something of the same immense fabric, participating in the same kind of experiment, are extremely personal, and almost impossible to transfer.
But at the same time there is a commonality to these sorts of encounters, when they are true. Rome is not simply a place where people can hang their dreams, where people wander about and encounter their own thoughts and feelings coming back to them in the image of art and other people. Rather I would say the city has an enormous force of life, and it is the encounter with this that perhaps brings things inside you to the surface, heightens a certain experience, sets things on edge.
Likewise encountering a beautiful person. It’s true that in order to understand the rich fabric of that person’s expression – why they chose this color lipstick or did that with their hair, why they allow themselves to exaggerate this posture or gesture, what possibilities they circumscribe for themselves – it’s necessary to have a common culture. Nonetheless there is something unmistakeable about what seems to me to be most beautiful in people: an aliveness, a presence, a force of life that has the effect of making one feel that one had been living in a two-dimensional world and suddenly discovered it had three. Perhaps this is what Art means that it can’t be captured in an image.
It’s so rare in the world that one encounters people who one feels are truly alive.