Although I’ve never been able to find the exact quote or book section again–I’m almost 100% certain that James Joyce, in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, has a ten page exposition on beauty that basically notes that Beauty comes from pain. For something to be beautiful, I so remember, it has to to have an edge of some kind that can cut you–so that you appreciate the goodness that is often so fragile and rare in this world.
In other words, a rose without its thorns is still pretty, but with its thorns, it is an object of beauty.
In any case, as I continue to undergo my self-imposed choice to reduce my physical mass by a number of kilograms, I have been able to reflect on the relationship between beauty and pain a lot. It’s not that the process has been especially painful–because I generally don’t get very painful hunger pains–but it did definitely have moments when I could perceive my body in ways that had been fairly uncommon in my daily experience over the past ten years.
Thinking about this, I made two inferences.
1. First, while the beauty comes from pain relationship is pretty clear to me, my experience told me that an addendum or connected axiom was that pain/work/beauty all were pretty closely related in my mind, but that they all had pretty positive connotations. Work is something I place deep meaning in–it is not something I avoid–but rather perhaps the most primary means by which I express myself in this world. I see work as one of those things that makes us human–because it is an expression of our ability to think, to bear and endure material reality, and often to engage in certain forms of creativity.
Now.. work doesn’t just mean “your job” to me–but instead is the more general aspect of one’s effort to make their way in the world.
In any case–work can also often be unpleasant. Cleaning the bathroom is work and it’s not fun–but a clean bathroom makes me happy and the happiness I get from having accomplished it is always tied to the work to achieve it in my mind.
Thus, work, which can entail some pain, is a manner to achieving beauty. Examples of this abound—keeping a relationship going is work… Raising kids is work.. building a house is work… cooking is work… all of these things are work, all of them often contain pain, but all of them are beautiful to me and they are what I mainly focus on to achieve happiness and meaning.
2. It always astounds me how many people seem to fail to see this beauty/pain/work connection. Work is only drudgery to them. Beauty is found in a picture in a magazine. Pain is to be suppressed with simple solutions that don’t require work and often leave you with less capacity to be a complete human actor on the societal stage.
Now, of course, there are exceptions here. Working slave labor is only drudgery. There are beautiful things to be found in our rich material culture. Chronic pain caused by horrible diseases should be reduced any way it can.
Nevertheless, these exceptions to the rule often seem to become “the rule” in mainstream society and even in the lives of many of my closer acquaintances. They look for beauty, for happiness, for meaning–but instead of thinking that these things will take work–they just try to take a shortcut there (often at the urging of people and messages that don’t have their best interests at heart) and then they never really get there.
They often get a lot of short-term pleasure in the process–but as Aristotle knew over 2000 years ago–pleasure and happiness are not the same things. Pleasure is easy and it can be fun–but real happiness comes from the realization of your full potential as a human being and your own work to realize your goals.
In the end, it just seems like too many people categorically want to deny that Beauty and Pain are related–and that is a part of reality that they should instead embrace.