In ancient times, when the poet Sappho pondered the same question, skyscrapers were not even a figment of human imagination. No matter. In the world of fashion, real life or fantasy, beauty continues to command from on high, head and shoulders above the rest. Its authority is irrefutable and needs no theorems to justify its existence. And while the Golden Ratio may determine the exact divine proportions in the world of art – such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or architectural splendours like the Pyramids in Egypt or at The Louvre in Paris – beauty is not of those wonders defined by a sequence of numbers or even words.
According to writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, beauty cannot be put into words, even less so than happiness. And it is not merely what our eyes behold; experiencing beauty is an intimate affair, like setting eyes on the Machu Picchu as it soars majestically above the clouds. Beauty touches the soul, indiscernibly, like the reflection of the moon that seemingly enticed Chinese poet Li Po to drown in the river, overcome by its allure.
Critics brandish it vain and venomous, convinced that the pursuit of beauty ultimately ends in loss. But perspective is key. Beauty comes in to its own when it serves as a guiding light. “In the darkness”, wrote René Char, “the whole place is devoted to beauty”.
Beauty is the source of well-being in which we seek solace when our heart is broken. It is magnetic, echoes of which are found in the lyrics of The Smiths: “There is a light that never goes out.” Ephemeral of character, its effects will stand the test of time. As Paul Claudel was to observe: “A flower is short but the joy it brings in a minute is one of those things that doesn’t have a beginning or an end.”
In beauty, Stendhal saw “the promise of happiness” and “a new way of providing pleasure”; as if its charms were a shortcut to a better world.
A face, melody or landscape – the form it assumes is of little importance: beauty is like a profession of faith, capable of convincing the greatest sceptics that paradise on earth truly exists.
In its presence, we find lost hope and renewed sight, and almost forget to touch the ground. “For under the spell of beauty”, concludes Immanuel Kant, “we experience the poetic struggle known as life”.