Cruelty & Beauty Together

“Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder. . . . The neighs were not as frightening as the silence following a kick of hind legs into the lifted lips of the opponent. Then it stopped. . . . One dropped his head and pawed the ground while the winner loped off in an arc, nudging the mares before him. . . . They were so beautiful. So brutal.” So begins Toni Morrison’s short novel Home, and with it comes an important question: How can something be beautiful if it’s so brutal?

Joseph Addison, in the opening paragraph of his essay Pleasures of the Imagination, discusses the “pleasures of the imagination which arise from the actual view and survey of outward objects; and these, I think, all proceed from the sight of what is great, uncommon, or beautiful.” He asserts that regardless of whatever “horror or loathsomeness” an object may bear, there can still exist a “mixture of delight in the very disgust it gives us.” He goes on to elaborate on his use of greatness, by which is not meant “the bulk of any single object, but the largeness of a whole view, considered as one entire piece.” He provides examples from nature, such as “huge heaps of mountains” and “a wide expanse of water.” Finally, as far as this paper is concerned, he states: “Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity.”

 While Addison is surely correct in his assessment of physically great things in the mind—as testified by poets, who have been inspired by sunsets and sunrises, oceans and great mountains for thousands of years—, far more interesting is his idea of considering something “as one entire piece.” If we consider something in that way the actual size of the object becomes wholly irrelevant, and we can fill our minds with small things that nonetheless feel great in size. For example, a beautiful woman “considered as one entire piece” can enthrall one’s heart and imagination insofar as every part of that woman would be magnified in the mind many times, in spite of her actual relative lack of size compared to the Sahara or the Alps.

 “The most beautiful time is the first period of falling in love, when, from every encounter, every glance, one fetches home something new to rejoice over.”* Regardless of any feelings of love for this beautiful woman, one can “fetch home something new to rejoice over,” from any part of her, from her eyes, lips, fingers, laugh, or a common mannerism that appears great because she’s doing it. In other words, the actual size of the object isn’t responsible for its being great or not. Rather, its absorption and magnification within the mind makes it great. In this sense, the mind very much “is its own place” and it can be understood how even wholly abstract ideas, such as those found in religion, philosophy, or poetry, can be so beautiful.

In Homer’s Iliad it can easily be seen how an admixture of “delight” with “horror or loathsomeness” can exist within the mind, as similes are very frequently used to contrast the violent world within the war, and the more peaceful world outside, creating a very broad view of the world. In the following passage, Homer compares the violent killing of a soldier with a flower:

“The archer loosed a fresh shaft from the bowstring

straight for Hector, his spirit longing to hit him—

but he missed and cut Gorgythion down instead,

a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince,

and the arrow pierced his chest, Gorgythion

whom Priam’s bride from Aesyme bore one day,

lovely Castianira lithe as a deathless goddess . . .

As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,

drooping its head to one side, weighed down

by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,

so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,

weighed down by his helmet.”

When taken as an entire piece, the simile demonstrates that the beautiful can exist together with “horror or loathsomeness” or with butchery; the peaceful, idyllic outside world in which a blooming garden poppy can droop after a spring shower is contrasted with the slaughter of the war; the greatness of the contrast, between extreme violence and extreme peace, is enough to fill the mind, because the mind can easily become populated with the things that exist between those two states.

Another wonderful and similar comparison can be found in Crime and Punishment, which, in my own experience, created an enormous contrast between everything I’d ever heard or considered about “eternity” (or, as I considered when reading the passage, Heaven), with something opposite:

“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?”

The beginning of Morrison’s Home follows the same principles. The young protagonist saw the contrast between these (to his eyes) physically imposing creatures, normally thought of as highly docile and even majestic, and their violence against one another. Within the paragraph there’s an obvious contrast created between winner and loser of the duel, with the winner boasting to the women: “[loping] off in an arc, nudging the mares before him” and the loser having “dropped his head and pawed the ground”—imagery that very much seems to evoke a plaintive suppliant or sulking child. 

There are countless examples of beauty found alongside cruelty within and without literature (e.g. in film, music, visual art). Toni Morrison’s opening to Home is but one small example, and it succeeds very well in introducing the reader to the beauty and cruelty to be found within the story; beauty in the sacrifices characters are willing to make and the pain they’re willing to suffer, and cruelty in the way they’re often treated by the outside world. Even in that cruelty beauty can be found, the very fact that such cruelty is possible can, itself, be a very beautiful thought.

*Spoken by the pseudonymous author A in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

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