What is beauty for?
To find out, notice anti-beauty.
There are places where people yearn for other places.
Where a traveling salesman calls his wife. Where a truck driver texts his son and waits for a reply. Where a cashier has a dusty photo of the family she sends money to back home.
Occasionally, I will get in my car and take off across the desert of California, heading East, back home to the swamps of Louisiana.
I like to stop in those forgotten places. The in-between realm. The upside down. Middle-America Purgatory. A random gas station in Luddoxburg, New Mexico. One guy, clearly high on something, sits behind the counter at 1 am, watching you decide between sugar-free Redbull and regular Redbull. Which is worse for you, sugar or fake sugar?
The decor is perfectly hateful. A barely perceptible fluorescent flicker over-lighting a cardboard cutout of an MMA guy. Someone who didn’t want to be there paid someone else to build it as cheaply as possible. You really shouldn’t be there if they have any self-respect. Just a much-needed stop on the way to somewhere that matters. This is a place of lesser demons.
It all says to me, “I hate you.” But, like a horror movie, I seek it out. I can’t look away.
They are not just ugly. They are anti-beauty. They are transcendent ugliness.
These places beg the question: what is the opposite of this?
What is beauty for?
Everything that can be created will reflect the motivational state of the person or organization who made it.
You can try to hide it, but it’s how it is.
Go to any chain hotel across the country, and you will see phony hominess. Particle board covered in a plastic film meant to look like a real piece of wood that a real human hand-carved.
But you know — and it takes less than a second. You clock the attempt at a personal touch as phony. And that’s how your body reacts to it. Take your blood pressure at a place like that, it’ll be higher than when you’re in a natural place, that’s for sure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for our extreme abundance. I’m happy that getting a warm room with running water and an attempt at beauty is cheap, easy, and widespread. That’s no less than a miracle.
But we can’t ignore the spiritual plague. These places are so bone-crushingly lonely it’s hard to put words to it.
The point of beauty
In our post-war great economic expansion, we thought we could get away with faking beauty.
We thought, in all our left-brain arrogance, that beauty was just wallpaper you put over something useful.
Right now, there are more tourists in France than there are citizens. People come from all over the planet to gaze at genuine, soul-deep beauty. And that’s billions of dollars a day in real money, by the way, being generated by what was built by illiterates.
Those illiterates knew something we’d buried under layers and layers of forced education, anxiety, and thinking of our body as separate from ourselves.
Beauty is an expression of meaning.
It’s not something you can fake.
And you can’t live without it.
How to orient yourself toward beauty
As long as humans are around, there always will be ugly places in the world.
Feel the horror of these places. Then, feel the awe-inspiring beauty of other places. Compare them. Strive to bring slightly more beauty to your local environment. There is nothing more powerful you could do.
Seriously, subscribe to my suggested Substacks. Go on Etsy and buy someone’s art. Get a handmade quilt. Buy jewelry from an artisan for someone you love. Develop your taste over time. It’s of cosmic importance, strangely.
Don’t believe me?
Drive across the country, stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, and gaze into the abyss.
What’s moving me:
“People see only the thing they desire, never that they hold what others want.” —Nomad King
“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The general function of dreams is to try to restore our psychological balance by producing dream material that re-establishes, in a subtle way, the total psychic equilibrium.” — Carl Jung