I’ve been reading a lovely book, On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry, a combination of scholarship and poetry. It’s not an easy book, but, heck, there are plenty of easy books around.
The first chapter is titled “On Beauty and Being Wrong” in which Scarry says we all have moments in which we’ve discovered we were wrong about beauty. Her example is her realizing that palm trees are magnificent, not ugly. (She then follows the “beautiful palms” theme from Homer to Matisse … wow.)
I thought she was wrong about us all having those moments until I remembered one of my own. For no particular reason, I stopped listening to music in the mid-70s. I was in my 20’s and music just became uninteresting to me. Then, in the late ’80s, I was commuting 5 hours every weekend to see my ailing mother—truth to tell, she was dying, not ailing—and on one trip, on I-95 going past Groton, CT, I put Glenn Gould’s early version of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” into the CD player.
I had always considered Bach to be overly formal … pretty but without heart. But whether it was Gould’s interpretation, my mother’s dire illness, or just my age, I heard Bach as if for the first time. His endless inventiveness within the rules now seemed to me to express exactly our human and plight and glory, the musical equivalent of “Here’s your time, here are the possibilities, go have a life.” Something like that. I had heard the rules in Bach’s music, but not the playfulness, hope or joy. Somehow I’d missed it all.
It was just as Scarry says. I had been wrong about beauty. And the discovery of that wrongness showed me something important—and hard to express—about the world.