Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On Intimacy

and the thrill of harmony.

I'm eating a piece of cake, and it's delicious. Savoring each bite I revel in the flavors, first the rush of sweetness and the velvety cream. Then tonguing away the cream I reach the strawberry which pops between my teeth like a balloon, radiating its tartness around my mouth. At last the soft banana base rounds out the experience.

Why should food taste so good? Why is a fine confection so satisfying? Aristotle said that man takes delight in his senses because he delights to know, and coming to know the world he comes to know himself. I would propose to elaborate on this, that sensory delight is akin to a sense of harmony.

Harmony, that elusive, seemingly chimerical balance of elements has been sought after by creators of every stripe, be they philosophers or artists. What sense of rightness we find in harmony. Whenever we find it we experience it as a universal, as if we've stepped out of our corporal confines into a perfect, infinite home. In an instant we are lost in the ecstasy of consummate belonging, for it seems harmony knows no limits since the more details we uncover, the more intimate our encounter and the more thrilling the reverberations.

Of personal affairs, is it not thrilling to get to know someone? I find it terribly exciting to learn someone's tastes, what thoughts turn in their minds, and what makes them laugh. What delight is there in giving someone an intellectual tickle. At the highest level of friendship, though, rests a mutual and magnifying satisfaction in being, a reflexive love of oneself as other. This is naturally an affection which exists in activity, but though the activity can be cut off by distance, the friendship and love persist in the existence of in the friend's virtue and verisimilitude. With people we experience harmony as sympathy, but Cicero of course elevated the concept of friendship not only to consensio but consensio omnium divinarum humanarumque rerum cum benevolentia et caritate. 

This cosmic, transcendent dimension of harmony is available to us, besides in the ineffable, through art.   I am never more transported than in this one mere minute, one tiny fugato of Bach's cantata 102, but what world in this grain of sand.

It's an entrancing passage, the accented rising quavers and descending semiquavers cutting through the increasingly dense texture, here above, there below, each a fleeting revelation above the ceaseless walking of the bass line.

The pleasure of harmony is essentially sympathy with the beautiful, whether in character or appearance.  Such is why, as Aristotle and Cicero observed in friendship, that one must cultivate it in oneself to experience it in perfect sympathy with someone outside oneself. In art, one must be orientated toward the beautiful. In neither case can one simply "be oneself" for the bad and ugly will find no sympathy with their opposites.

Our own experiences of harmony, fleeting in art and firm in friendship, are far more than aesthetic or moral experiences, but glimpses of what Benedict XVI called the "mystery of infinite beauty," that ineffable reconciliation of the self and the transcendent.

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