Ex Die in Diem


Clouds Edged with Golden Lace

Beauty is only skin deep.

But that just isn’t true, is it? The only way you could believe that is through a very blinkered understanding of what we mean when we say beauty. To my mind, beauty is never what things look like; beauty is what they are, when they’re right and good, and push us to feel things.

The things that are beautiful can be objects: my battered old zippo is beautiful. They can also be relationships: it was with good reason that Humphrey Bogart was called back to the studio a month after the filming of Casablanca had ended to record that final line. Whatever form they take, beautiful things can make us feel, in the words of Scott Rosenberg,

…full of the single greatest commodity known to man - promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow. This particular ore can be found in the gait of a beautiful girl. In her smile, in her soul, the way she makes every rotten little thing about life seem like it’s going to be okay.

This is what I mean when I describe something as beautiful. It’s a feeling that describes things which make us feel a certain way.

One thing that can be said of almost any kind of beauty, regardless of what exactly the word means to you, is that it fades. Familiarity breeds contempt, and so even the beauty we know can stop pushing us, stop making us feel that way that we value so much. To find things truly beautiful, we must not stay static, but rather move and change and be accepting of the differences we find.

Transience is itself beautiful: there is an additional pathos to events or situations which we know can’t last which can elevate them to the first rank of beauty. The delicate shapes in the sand below a tide line, or the curves and sway of a river; forget–me–nots in bloom or the warm roar of a fire: these things are beautiful and short-lived, and their appeal would surely wane with constant exposure.

There’s a special kind of beauty that is produced by the confluence of transience and serendipity: the kind that you experience when you look up from the everyday pattern of your life and are surprised by what you find. One of my favourite surprises is clouds edged with golden lace: Backlit storm cloudsthat sight, so temporary as to render it truly rare, when storm clouds are backlit by the falling sun, and their edges light up and reveal their tenuousness to their unsuspecting spectators.

I love these tricks of the light: insubstantial coincidences that give a fleeting impression of the complexity of our world. Another favourite is the way that light reflects from moving water onto the roof of a tunnel or underside of a bridge. Iain Banks described this phenomenon better than I ever could in Stonemouth:

I sat listening to the air–conditioning hum and watched the reflections the water cast on the ceiling and walls; their long twisting veins of gold shimmered across the artificial sky and flickered amongst the grooved surfaces of the white plaster columns. I looked down at the chopping waters of the pool, recalling how perfectly still and calm they had been when we’d arrived.

Ultimately, those long twisting veins of gold epitomise the strongest, strangest, kindest sort of beauty: the kind that slips into your life unexpected, makes you realise that existence is good, and is spirited away before it has a chance to tarnish. The sort I ran into whilst trying to find a picture for this post:

Beautiful Sunset

This is from the