John Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but the truth of this beautiful formulation is that we don’t seem to get what beauty is, or can be at times. I admit that it may seem odd that this picture of Diana appears on my web pages and other productions with great regularity, but I’ve never been able to get it out of my mind. A slight erotic confection by F. Boucher and nothing more you say? Well, its rococo frivolity is all the more fascinating given the story behind it, as rendered here in an 18th century translation from the Metamorphoses by Ovid:
Now all undrest the shining Goddess stood,
When young Actaeon, wilder’d in the wood,
To the cool grott by his hard fate betray’d
The fountains fill’d with naked nymphs survey’d.
The frighted virgins shriek’d at the surprize
(The forest echo’d with their piercing cries).
Then in a huddle round their Goddess prest:
She, proudly eminent above the rest,
With blushes glow’d: such blushes as adorn
The ruddy welkin, or the purple morn;
And tho’ the crowding nymphs her body hide,
Half backward shrunk, and view’d him from a side.
Surpriz’d at first she would have snatch’d her bow,
But sees the circling waters round her flow;
These in the hollow of her hand she took,
And dash’d em in his face, while thus she spoke:
“Tell, if thou can’st, the wond’rous sight disclos’d,
A Goddess naked to thy view expos’d.”
Thus said, the man begun to disappear
By slow degrees, and ended in a
Actaeon was simply out hunting, his passion, with his best companions, his dogs, when he happens upon the beautiful goddes Diana, the virgin huntress, bathing with her entourage after a hot sweaty day at the chase. She punishes Actaeon for his unwitting invasion of her privacy by splashing water in his face, which has the effect of immediately starting his transformation (metamorphosis) into a a stag, which his own dogs then proceed to run down and devour. He did nothing wrong but cast his eyes upon the beauty of a goddess, a terrible beauty. Which brings me to my point, at last.
Our notion of the universe, and of beauty in it, tends to be sentimentalized. Huxley wrote an essay some years ago called “Wordsworth in the Tropics.” Would he have written so lovingly of nature if he’d grown up amongst enormous termites and voracious leeches that appeared in every burbling brook? No, the Greeks understood that beauty, in women, in nature, in the world, can be terrible, and they frequently describe the piercing flash of a goddess’s terrible eyes. Beauty, terrible to behold. Lookout Hallmark Greeting cards! Meteors crash and destroy eons of evolution’s work, galaxies collapse into peanut sized kernels of energy, taking whatever was in them there too, stars become engorged with physics and turn into red giants that destroy whole solar systems, and…from the viewpoint of our back porch, it’s such a wondrous site, those heavens up there!
So, that terrible beauty is everywhere, serving as some sort of a portal to the terribly violent and indifferent reality that is the world. Look into Hera’s eyes, and glimpse the seething ground of being. The universe is a cold and hostile, or rather, cosmically and crushingly indifferent place. A place to be fearful and feel alone. Rush back to the beauty of flowers, smiling children, the warmth of hearth and home, until you feel the need to get another shot of the great unknowing reality. Or go to the museum…
Now here’s an image that captures the terrible, the true, and the beautiful all at once – Judith severing the head of Holofernes, by Caravaggio. Look at her posture, that determined…and beautiful face…as she goes about the nasty business of saving her people while the old crone looks on. It’s a dirty job, but some fair maiden’s got to do it. As far as I know, Carravaggio didn’t do subjects from Greek mythology – what a shame. And finally, the folds. Folds of cloth in a Renaissance Flemish masterpiece, the Merode Altarpiece at the NYC Metropolitan Museum. Huxley, in his mescaline induced euphorias rhapsodized about the “dharma in the hedge,” the Buddhist apprehension of the ultimate reality and beauty in a simple green, garden hedge. He identified it here too, in the crinkled gothic folds of a garment in oil paint. Why did they paint fabric endlessly, after all? They must have seen something there.