Let Us Pray Now as Filthy Men: On Hinting at Beauty
During the long cold darkness of the so-called pandemic, I was helping my family punch and block cattle down a lane while I was smoking a cigarette. As I was twisting a tail to move a bull towards the chute, he bucked and cracked me on the chin. I lost my cigarette, heard a brief ringing in my ears, and then redoubled my effort to wrench the tail. The bull shot forward, my cousin caught his thick neck with the head gate and slammed the bellowing yearling to a halt.
Dazed and with a dirty face, I leaned against the fence and the entire process replayed before my eyes: smooth, intentional, filthy, physical, artful. In a moment of clarity, with my ears ringing and the smell of shit in my nostrils, an epiphany arrived in the form of a single word: “Perfect.”
If you’ve ever experienced a concussion, you will know about these sorts of insights. Emotionally they’re overpowering. Logically they’re gibberish. Unless you take time to reflect on them, they dissolve into nothing. This wasn’t my first blow to the head (or the worst I’ve taken), but this time I took pen to paper after we were done working. On a torn yellow legal pad I wrote down the word “Perfect,” and a few other lines of expansion as I sat in the cab of a dusty F-250.
After a week, I added another sentence: “The Beauty of God and the Beauty of Man overlap, but are not the same — the former is automatic and spotless and the latter is effortful and soiled.” Two months later I flipped back to those words, half-forgotten in the notebook where I’d copied them. Three words stood out: “Beauty,” “effortful,” and “soiled.”
There is a Beauty that is soiled by nature, I thought: the Beauty of Man. The Beauty of God is effortless, violent, and unsurpassed. Man is made in the image of God, but he is not God. He does not possess the power and understanding of his creator. The beauty of man is an effortful imitation of something man strives towards but can never attain.
When man creates, he creates in imitation of God, but God creates beyond the bounds of space and time. God is Beauty, and man’s truest creations unfold from that blueprint, but man creates on Earth, in time. His works are finite attempts at Cosmic Beauty and finally must begin and end in man’s fundamentally soiled state.
But soil is not dirt per se. As any farmer will tell you, “soil” is the top layer of earth’s solid surface, while “dirt” is, in the words of Lord Palmerston, “matter out of place.” There are no “dirty” mountains or deserts, no matter how much soil collects on them. These landscapes retain a sublime beauty. Many of man’s buildings, statues, and physiques are beautiful, but only through concerted effort.
Many people have an instinctive and childlike sense of Beauty. Provided this sense is not perverted with theory, that is more than enough to supply a basis for faith. In some cases, a more advanced awareness of that childlike sense can be developed. This is the awareness that exists in every great work of art. Art takes what is instinctively known in childhood and uses life experience to inform it.
Great art does not explain the mysteries of existence, it engages with them through an act of imitation that creates a kind of resonance. This tends to happen suddenly, like a tuning fork being struck, bringing moments of wonder and tragedy into harmony. In my case, it took a literal blow to the head. And the first thing I intuited, the first thing that harmonized? An experience from late in my childhood, on the cusp of my first years of responsibility, working in the 90-plus degree heat in a tobacco patch.
Before I was old enough to wield a tobacco knife, I dropped sticks. “Sticks” are 1×2 inch poles averaging between four and five feet long that must be dropped on piles of cut plants so that the leaves can be impaled upon said sticks and hung in the rafters of barns. When I was done dropping sticks, I would sit beneath the shade of a nearby cotton wagon and drink ice water out of paper cups. I would stare out over the part of the field we’d already cut and loaded — nothing but scalped, baking earth, snapped off and torn leaves, and stumps shorn as close as possible to the ground.
The feeling that the sight of a cut tobacco patch conjures in the heart of anyone who has worked in one is a blend of vengeance made manifest and effusive relief. Staring at that blasted swath of stumps, I would drive the heel of my boot into the red earth and dream of the day I could pick up a knife.
I thought this was because I hated tobacco and wanted to destroy it so that I might go on with my life. This was the right lesson to take from my emotions. It’s a destructive act that would profit my family, profit my soul, and see that the stumps of that field got turned under by the plow and put back to corn or pasture. For no matter what some neo-agrarian ex-urbanite romanticist tells you, cutting tobacco is like mining and ditch digging, except the process has seen virtually zero automation in 200 years.
The day I was allowed to pick up a knife and do just that, I did not understand that I felt empowered because I was engaging in a fundamental act of human labor – harvesting, reaping, clearing – but I did enjoy it immensely. I intuited that reducing that patch to an expanse of scorched red clay and stumps was a thing of Beauty.
Anyone who’s raised crops in less than optimal conditions understands the necessity of clearing fields. And anyone who has halter or saddle-broken animals understands that some are more amenable to domestication than others. Both processes are backbreaking toil, but from each springs a prerequisite for man’s approach to Beauty: discrimination.
Discrimination existed in Man’s wild state to secure his survival — this berry is poison, that game is indigestible – but with the advance of pastoralism and agriculture man discriminated to thrive. If livestock, for example, had desirable traits it was selectively bred with other useful specimens. Over time, through this process, man changed the physical and psychological composition of entire species — a fine imitation of his maker’s activity and ultimately the basis of his new civilized world.
The more Man exercised discrimination, the more beautiful his works became. In tandem, as he focused on distilling the best, the concept of “utility” evolved. Man’s intuition took on a metaphysical character. His evolving sense of discrimination intersected with his natural understanding. No matter how lowly, God’s creations emanated Beauty, but many of own own creations were flawed. In what must have been an epiphany, Man realized that, while he could more closely approach the Beauty of God’s creation in his own works, he could never match that level. But hot on the heels of that revelation, he realized that this failed attempt to perfectly imitate God’s standard was itself the way to grow closer to his creator and therefore was the highest form of worship.
I believe I’ve toiled enough in the presence of Beauty to intuit the truth of it. After being slammed in the head by a bull, it would be nice if I’d had such an expansive “understanding” to write down in place of those initial, scribbled notes. At best, this is a finger-pointing at the moon. But does it really need to “make sense”? In as much as it’s dirty, pointed in the right direction, and attempting to imitate the contents of a genuine, God-given epiphany, I still count it as a beautiful effort. And if much of it amounts to shit, here’s to hoping that what little isn’t hits you between the eyes.