I used to argue it was perhaps the least useful word in the whole of the English language. After all, why do we use it? To describe something; to convince someone that a thing is impressive and compelling and engrossing and arresting and all the other breathless restless three-syllable words. But the ‘beautiful’ does no work towards that end at all; it is absolutely opaque. You might as well say it was ‘goodly’. It tells you nothing except about my perception as an onlooker.
In that sense, the word is a token. When I tell you something is beautiful, I am saying that I had an overwhelming response to it, and that if you trust my judgement and tastes to be like yours, you’d have that pleasure too. So it is really about me as much as the beautiful thing. But why would you trust my judgement? Why would you trust my tastes?
Far better, I said, puffing up my chest, to choose a word that expressed some kind of quality – that a mountain was vertiginous; that the painting was fine and detailed; that a face was bright and agreeable as the summer of youth. Or at least say something more specific about my feelings, my perception – that I was overwhelmed, dominated, or that I skipped a breath maybe.
And after all, isn’t the word ‘beautiful’ so objectifying? A beautiful thing is looked at; it isn’t doing anything. All the action and specifics are happening in the observer’s head. Doesn’t that rob the object of its power, in a way? It’s such a clichéd, vulgar word, isn’t it?
‘Vulgar’. That’s the real reason I wouldn’t use the word: I thought it was beneath me.
I’ve always felt insecure about my language, because I’ve always felt insecure about my intelligence. If I can’t throw a basket of words at someone, how can I convince them I’m clever? And I must do that, without question, else how could they respect me? How could they like and want me? Best to be doubly sure, and emdash for a synonym or two. It’s sad, really.
After all, what’s the purpose of language except to bridge the gap between ourselves and another, to make a moment’s spark of empathy? It’s obvious really, but instead I was using language to sever myself from the world: show that I was different; conceal my vulnerabilities; direct my attention inwards.
So I write these essays to practice writing ‘outwards’. I look at the world, think about it, and respond honestly. That’s not to say I want my prose to be artless. But when I learn the art, I do so for the sake of expressing myself – bridging the gap a little more – not to prove my special-ness or shore up fragile self-esteem.
I do not yet know how to conclude essays.