My family is both a stiff-upper-lipped English stereotype and an absolute emotional mess at times. We’re not unhappy people. We just feel certain things very deeply. There’s one sure way to trigger an emotional response from us: the hymn “Jerusalem”. There’s something about it. Two years back it was played at my cousin’s wedding, one year ago it was played at my grandmother’s funeral. Both ceremonies were in the village church where every family wedding or funeral has happened in the last thirty years, and both times my whole family sobbed.
For all the stoic philosophy I’ve filled my mind with, I can be a bit of a wimp (although usually in private). Holst’s Jupiter makes my lip wobble. Standing and looking at J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery in London makes me need to have a moment. If I’m feeling preoccupied, I will likely be sidetracked by any number of the oh shit moments of sublime wonder that Switzerland serves up every day. Perhaps you don’t become immune to the sublime by being surrounded by it; maybe you become more susceptible to it.
I also think we get strength from enjoying beautiful things. And we can keep getting it by internalising it, or saving it in our memory for when we might need it later. That’s why I try and memorise poems, remember beautiful views, or just be mindful of nature.
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I’m not exactly the most cultured person – I definitely have far to go to scrape the surface of what I feel I should know about art – but I’m drawn to it anyway. What moves me most is often the exceptionally overdramatic stuff; the paintings, pieces of music or mountain views that make their presence known and shout to be looked at.
I’m going to go off on a tangent that might well make you cringe, but it makes me think of that scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy, played by Tim Robbins, hijacks the prison tannoy system and the full prison’s attention with a Mozart aria. Andy’s punishment was two weeks of solitary confinement in the hole, but afterwards shared that, “I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company… That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you”.
Occasionally, I think back to my most memorable university lecturer, who specialised in Spanish literary romanticism. He was middle-aged, very Welsh, wonderfully well-read, and one of the most endearingly good-willed and open people I’ve met. He taught in the modern languages department, but it always seemed like his real passion was for English literature and the classics. He’d quote these, and then he’d usually cry.
One time he cried in a lecture during an explanation of Plato’s idea of the soulmate in The Symposium. Of how, according to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces, but fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.
Another time he cried was after reciting a passage from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”. I thought of this very recently. I’d made it a goal to learn a poem by heart every month this year, and I remembered how much I loved this one. Especially the section my lecturer read that time:
It’s an ambitiously long choice of poem to memorise, but you never know when such things might come in useful. Long train journeys, difficulty falling asleep, imprisonment. If you choose to tuck away beautiful things in your memory vaults, all the better.
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There’s that Dostoevsky quote that “Beauty will save the world”. I’m not entirely sure about that, but I’m constantly reminded of the privilege it is to be alive and have so many stunning things to witness – and try and savour for later too.