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Beauty and Boundary

Lately I have been reading sonnets, particularly those of Petrarch but also modern English interpretations of the form. I love the containment, the rigid selectivity of the language, the artificial architecture of a structure that, by some unnameable trick,

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morphs into an organic creative necessity. The best poems, probably like the best architecture or the most beautiful landscapes, contain something rebellious, or depart, in some manner, usually subtle but not always, from the proscribed symmetry of the usual historical rulebook or background.

Petrarch left us the gift of rima sparse, or scattered rhyme, which lends to his poems a sense of spontaneity and free inventiveness. It is extraordinary, actually, how modern his voice remains: vernacular, strange, often erotic and even more often unreliable (who was Laura, anyway?). It would be interesting to know what John Berryman thought of Petrarch and his consciously laid out imperfections.

Thinking about the varied, seemingly limitless universes poets create within the iambic rhythm of fourteen short lines reminds me of the way in which the rules of invention and beauty appear always to comingle, like intertwined vines or strands of DNA, in almost every form of art. It is the boundary itself that seems a prerequisite to the manifestation of aesthetic pleasure; oddly it is the subtle violation of that boundary that brings interest to loveliness. We often crave perfection as if it will solve all the mess of a mortal life, but it is the interplay of the ideal and the imperfect that catches the eye and traps it there.

I have in my mind the image of Charlotte Rampling. In her youth, it might be said of Rampling that she was one of the Great Beauties of her age. She was some kind of impossible combination of Lauren Bacall and Giselle, and her eyes had the glint of cerebral wisdom, weariness and sex. A tired but witty god created her.

And then she aged. And her beauty became irresistible. I know straight women who would easily cross over for her, and lesbians who dream of her, and young men… well young men can’t even look at her, because they know they are of a separate, lesser world. Her eyelids now droop and her mouth is crooked. The perfect mold that made her was cracked by time, as well as an obvious refusal to fight it with needles and surgical knives, and now she is compelling in an intimidating, unique way. No one now would compare her to Lauren Bacall or Giselle, because she has claimed her beauty, partly by allowing the rules of sameness and symmetry that often define beauty, particularly of the feminine sort, to be bent if not broken.

Indeed the older I become the more I realize how boring symmetry is, and it is for this reason I can no longer look at modern fashion, and the female dictatorship fashion has become, as art. Now, as opposed to the post-war years of Dior and the even earlier years of Vionnet, Lanvin, and Patou, fashion largely consists of pop culture, silly blogs kept by silly women craving free goods and a pass to New York Fashion Week, and, most depressingly, photo shop, which is the great enemy of expressive and interesting art.

The most compelling woman in fashion photography, for me, is the wife and great muse of Irving Penn, Lisa Fonssagrives. Her beauty was almost bizarre in its extreme proportion: her neck too long, her limbs too thin to be believed as human, her brows arched, amused, contemptuous. Her eyes were enormous but her face was thin, and her lips, while perfect, had an intelligent and knowing smirk. I adore her. Now there are photoshopped replicas of her ¨type,¨ (Linda Evangelista, Karlie Kloss playing dress-up), but they are inventions, imitations. They are symmetrical, and follow the rules of marketing. And following, as we all know, leads to only one place: repetition and boredom.

Living within every artistic endeavor, perhaps, is the shadow of the Platonic form, flickering in perfect silhouette against the wall of the creative mind. And in the striving to arrive at this form, to somehow break through the inherently imperfect manifestation of human inventiveness, no matter how imbued with genius it might be – it is there, in the striving itself, that one finds the presence of beauty. Most artists, whatever their medium, appear to lean in toward godliness, and in the inevitable division that arises from that effort, art somehow, in its mystery and majesty, appears.

George Balanchine was as close to a modern deity as any artist in the 20th Century. He created a new universe of movement, music, and human expressiveness. Even gods, however, must follow some law of physics: he had to use the energy and creative patterns of his art as he found them. Balanchine, in the process of channeling the old to the new, had to confront the entire histories of ballet and music, and all the boundaries surrounding them. In essence, he had to take the inheritance of Petipa (the primary originator of Classical ballet), and both use all the funds and then break the bank.

Everything Petipa grandly put in Balanchine just as grandly took out. His dancers became attenuated, unadorned, long of limb, with exaggerated feet and moved with even more exaggerated speed. The gorgeous, endless flirtation of the Vaganova head tilts and arcing necks, the flourishes of the hand and fingers, were removed; what was left in place was music, and bodies reflecting that music like a multi-dimensional mirror.

Balanchine took a rich, fecund art and made it empty. He emptied it of its previous rules, its previous boundaries; he emptied it of its history even while acknowledging and altering that history. He broke a sacred vessel, and made it new, and newly perfect. In doing so, he created of course a new paradigm, one that now looms over the dance world, but that is another essay.

I think now of Keats. One must often think of Keats, it keeps one alive and grateful and also sad, which is probably the best way to be. Keats opened one of his most beautiful sonnets with the words ¨Bright star.¨ (¨Bright star, would I were as stedfast as thou art…¨) Those two words can be read in many different rhythms. Every rhythm except, crucially, an iambic rhythm. From the start, the great sonnet breaks a cardinal rule that defines its own form. The penultimate line, too, reads the same way: ¨Still, Still to hear her tender-taken breath…¨

It is so beautiful it makes the heart stop. Beautiful and perfectly imperfect, which is the best sort of art, the best sort of life, really, and probably the only sort available to us.