“crumbling into every digressive”: a week of thinking about beauty & empathy.
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
Text and Photography by Catherine Owen
As a response to the first Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms call for writing and art about the idea of “revolution & beauty,” Catherine Owen wrote what I would never have expected. First, though, she translated revolution to ‘empathy’ — which I, along with the manifesto of this magazine, whole-heartedly agree with: the heart of revolution being the practice of caring and connecting beyond the individualized ‘self.’
In terms of the unexpected, however, how serendipitous it is that this first publication on the connection between revolution and beauty focuses not only on the challenges and contradictions contained in the practice of empathy, but has also provided me, personally, the opportunity to empathize with another’s view that I otherwise would never have considered. Thank you, Catherine Owen, for your bravery and candor in what follows.
Karen Moe, Editor.
Beauty is to empathy as ugliness is to selfishness? No, that can’t be right. Belinda Parmar, the CEO of Lady Geek, a company committed to empathic business practices, claims there is no true empathy in the beautiful. “Beauty is not good at empathy” she asserts in an essay arguing that business and politics are most effectively practiced in the “uglier” parts of a town, “It stands aloof, distant and remote.”  She speaks of the context within which things get accomplished, the tangible landscape of gardens and valleys, suburbs and urbanities. Is it true that one is more likely to care about the suffering of others if one embeds oneself in a scarred landscape rather than a smooth one, a ruptured realm instead of a sleek, aesthetically soothing one?
In 2018, I moved away from one form of beauty, the sublime kind of water and mountains and forests, a beauty I felt I couldn’t afford in the long run, to a lesser, or at least more particularized form of beauty, in flowers and snowflakes and thunderstorms, that I thought was better for my budget over the long term. And I would own it. This beauty. But whether I gaze out over the divinely stirring Fraser River or sigh in delight at the ripening Crimson Passion cherries on my delicate new prairie tree, am I more or less empathetic to the plight of my son, who has been homeless off and on for some time in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side? Perhaps I should detach from this magnet of beauty and go and live in a sordid rooming house instead? Should I divest myself of the knickknacks, books, instruments and art that compose my beautiful interior living space, collections accumulated over years? Possibly I should trash my garden, rip out my vegetables, slash down my berry bushes. Will that assist him more effectively? Or am I happier and more grounded when I seek the beautiful and thus in a stronger psychic space to listen to him, give him funds, try to offer him smidgens of the hope I can feel during bird hour at dusk in the cedars or before, as the sun burnished the rust-loveliness of the Pattullo Bridge. I don’t know. But as for wholly rejecting the beautiful (if this were even possible), I am too selfish. Beauty is the foundation of my ability to create.
We have differing conceptions of beauty but we have the same definition of empathy. Is this true? Beauty is a particularity, for instance large eyes on babies. Konrad Lorenz, Nobel prizewinning researcher, proposed that the attractive facial features in infants actually unlock an “innate releasing mechanism”  of instinctually caring behaviors in parents. Without this appealing symmetry would more children be rejected at birth, abandoned? And yet there are people in this world who don’t seem to require anything verging on physical perfection to care for a child. Are they over-riding their biological predispositions to raise a handicapped infant? Is this an example of “bigger picture” compassion thought-processes rather than “smaller scale” empathic associations?
Elaine Scarry’s key text On Beauty & Being Just describes beauty initially as provoking a desire to “replicate” (50). When you see a beautiful person, you want to procreate or recreate their image. With a beautiful landscape, you hope it persists ad infinitum and aim to make it do so by branding it into your psyche with photos, videos, or paintings. If prolonging the experience of beauty through the process of replication can be viewed as a just an act, then one could deduce that making beautiful things, whether babies, national parks, or sonatas, is a form of revolution because one cannot revolutionize without replicating what is powerful and worth preserving.
When I was seeking to preserve a local forest in 1999, the quest was doomed by the area’s dearth of originary beauty. “It’s just second growth,” developers claimed, “little more than bush.” And though I worked to engage their imaginations with this paler instantiation of beauty (the slender young alders, the ripe salmonberries, those shade-bright blooms that gave the plot its new, more evocative name of Trillium Trails), to them the original beauty had been lost somewhere at the turn of the century with the early loggers and so there was nothing to revolutionize their building plans for. The destroyers’ blueprints manifested in the absence of a communally-acknowledged beauty.
Do we feel more empathy for the beautiful? Today I watched a Dove commercial that demonstrated how, when women identify with other women on an empathic level they describe them as much more beautiful than the woman describes herself. Is this because, being in our own bodies, we can’t obtain the required distance to feel for ourselves clearly, without preconception, that our mirrors will always be distorted while those outside of us, desiring our happiness, seeing no benefit to cruelty, can feel for us sufficiently that the beauty in us enlarges, or is possibly even created by this correction?
The word “empathy” is relatively new. It only appeared in common usage in 1908, from the German Einfuhlurig or “in-feeling.”  It originally meant the transposition of one’s personal feelings and perceptions onto an object in order to imaginatively enter its presence. Although empathy is now understood to mean that one can engage with the suffering of another without having experienced those feelings personally, is this leap even possible? We now use the word “sympathy” to represent the actions that empathy used to invoke, but perhaps, if any kind of aesthetic perception is involved, then these modes of engagement are essentially the same.
“If a sparrow came before my window,” the poet John Keats wrote in an 1817 letter,  “I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” He was describing what we may readily dub empathy, a feeling of entering into the bird’s sensibility and presumably into care for its fate. I’m watching a sparrow right now as it dips and twitches in the green tangle of grasses, aiming its beak towards seeds I tossed down this morning. Is it beautiful to me? Yes, because everything non-human or inhuman is beautiful precisely due to its lack of the characteristics that plague humanity: greed, awkwardness, self-consciousness, a need to win, an urge to judge and so forth. Do I feel empathy for it? Insofar as I can transcend my narrow human condition, yes. Feeling sympathy towards anything retains the taint of superiority, pity. Empathy is an ideal state of self-transcendence, a melding with the world, an elision of boundaries and constructions. Yet empathy may not be possible between humans without the incentive of beauty. Or money.
In a University of Oregon study called “Gender Differences, Motivation and Empathetic Accuracy: When it Pays to Understand,”  Kristi Klein and Sara Hodges found that without a monetary incentive women scored much higher than men on empathic reactions but when men were paid to take time to respond and think through their engagement with the test subject’s feelings, they scored almost equivalently to women. Would this have the same result if the subject was beautiful to them, if empathic reactions obtained them sexual favours? Does there need to be a reason to feel for others?
Beauty and empathy are about the one not the many. Can we generalize in this way? Rumi, the ancient Persian poet, wrote “Lovers find secret places inside this violent world/where they make transactions with beauty.”  In these exchanges, what prompts them to seek the beautiful is the obsession with the one, with each other. During those early days of love, the couple is as if in a trance of desiring and everything their gaze lights upon: a tree, a fork, a glass of water, a web in which a silver spider sits, waiting for the gorgeousness of blood - all are imbued with a similar transfiguration. Once, I had a mud massage with a lover at a spa on an island and after we had intimately sloughed off our symbolic layers with an aromatic vat of 3000 year old wet clay, we felt that the entire world was rejuvenated. We literally floated to dinner. Everything we ate was delicious and all our differences were dissolved for an hour or two, so transcendent were we, so devout with an empathy for existence.
That beautiful empathy didn’t truly extend beyond ourselves though. It was an ecstatic empathy, almost Dionysian, that evaporated with the endorphins generated by experience. Those “transactions with beauty” enclose the lovers, bring them respite, spin them a whorled shell in which to subtract themselves from a society that would violate them. Beauty is a shield against the rupturing that a true, grounded empathy would produce. In empathy you leave yourself to acknowledge another, then another, then another. There is no en masse to empathy, no solace. For this, you will need compassion.
It’s not beauty that leads to revolution; it’s loss. Is this usually the case? My backyard is my Elysium. Barred from it in winter by thigh-high snow, I planted it in spring with copious blooms, veggies, bought a cherry tree I called Scarlett, set up stained glass trellises and metallic sunflowers. I’m comfortable here. In fact, I rarely leave my home’s shaped-to-my-tastes environs to venture down to the rough areas of the neighbourhood, three blocks away. The homeless pick up the cans I leave in the back lane and I care, in a general sense, about their plight, but mostly, I don’t want anyone to destroy this beauty. If, viewing me as privileged (which I am, but also, scarcely live above the poverty line and the down payment for my house came from my deceased spouse), they gathered as one and decided to smash up all the knickknacks, tear up the garden plots and otherwise wreak havoc on what I’d carefully, over time and at certain expense, created and called beauty, would I then have to mount my own revolution? Would I work to get neighbours and law enforcers on my side to cease the willful destruction even if it could be viewed as a partially just, or at least a comprehensible act?
Historically, along with raping the enemy’s women, invaders of all kinds have aimed to destroy the beauty of those they plan to oppress. From the olive groves of Tunisia to the Summer Palace in Beijing, places of beauty (and historical, cultural, economic import) have been razed, pillaged, thieved. Taking beauty is an act of deep violence and a response to that loss may be, at that time or subsequently, revolution. Is the empathy then felt for the land lost, the artifacts ruined? Or for their plundered makers? Humans make beauty primarily for themselves, at least initially. Think of Ernst Dunger’s account of a German lieutenant imprisoned in a Siberian camp who eventually constructed himself “a silent piano with wooden keys.”  This act of beauty was self-consoling as only he could hear its strange music, though quite possibly even the visual of him “playing” was soothing to the other suffering inmates. Albert Camus pronounced, in 1951, “Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions. But a day will come when revolution will have need of beauty.” Beauty, which he defines as “this living virtue on which is founded the common dignity of man and the world he lives in.” My garden makes me feel dignified, calm. Empathy for another individual may lead one to feel ravaged, eroded. Are these impulses the inverse of each other then?
Religions or spiritualities that possess more aesthetically-oriented practices, rituals and objects, are inherently more empathic. Having been raised in the Catholic church, I am aware that many Catholics indeed consider their excessively ornate religion ethically superior to more pared-down, stark, devoid-of-icon religions like Protestantism. Beauty, to them, is a glorification of God and is thus connected to an elevation of the sought-after qualities of Christianity. Usually the word empathy isn’t invoked however, but instead, the word compassion is used. According to its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with,”  taking the identifications of empathy one solid step further by incorporating action’s essential response.
You can feel sympathy for the starving without experiencing hunger, empathy if you were raised with the plight of often going without meals, and compassion if you cannot sit passively within this thought or feeling but must work in soup kitchens or developing countries to bring relief. Compassion gathers in, collects; empathy hugs, weeps and then releases. Empathy can lead to emotional exhaustion while compassion is able to renew itself on the basis of action and impact rather than just feelings. Many religions have banished beauty as a distraction from worship or as an expression of being too attached to the world - in other words, as diminishments of empathy or, more accurately, compassion. If you are fiercely connected to the beauties around you aren’t you more difficult to persuade to a participation in wars or missionary work or pilgrimage? My spirituality inheres in utter beauty and my compassion for the thriving of each form of it in my house and garden prohibits me from leaping beyond it to care for other individuals with equivalent intensity and hope. Does it? The world is full of contradictions. Beauty and empathy and revolution don’t escape such irreconcilabilities.
Beauty isn’t reducible to empathy; it encompasses all. “If you’re a poet you do something beautiful,” Franny says to Lane in JD Salinger’s novel, Franny & Zooey (Lemay, 49). Beauty is its own end. Could it be a spur, a panacea, an elaboration? Sure. But first and foremost, beauty is amoral. Wilfred Owen, WWI poet, stuck in the flooded, muddy trenches piled high with corpses, stated that “the poet suffers more…because he is more sensitive to beauty” (Cuthbertson, 164). And thus its loss, he implies. Is he feeling more empathy for his fellow soldiers because of this dearth of beauty? Would he feel more compassion in an aesthetically-transformed landscape? Or would flowers, velvet draperies, fine silver, or whatever else constituted his notions of beauty turn into private ciphers for his contentment instead, enclosing him in a personal relief and a public detachment.
Beauty, as the cliched maxim goes, is in the eye of the beholder. And so is empathy. You literally need to find yourself beautiful and worth saving and then see those qualities in another. But it appears to be a more enlarging (and perhaps more dispassionate) compassion that kicks you out of your recursive identification zone and into an active working towards solutions realm. But why say beauty is, beauty does, if you know beauty then. Just say beauty and rest in the corolla of the sunflower awhile.
1. Title: "crumbling into every digressive" from Graham, Jorie. The End of Beauty. New York: Ecco Press, 1987.
Cuthbertson, Guy. Wilfred Owen. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014
Graham, Jorie. The End of Beauty. New York: Ecco Press, 1987
Lemay, Shawna. Asking. Ontario: Seraphim Editions, 2014.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Paperbacks, 1999.
About the Artist:
Catherine Owen is the author of 15 collections of poetry and prose. Her latest books are Riven (ECW, 2020) and Locations of Grief: an emotional geography, 24 memoirs on loss and place (Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). Raised in Vancouver BC, she lives in Edmonton, AB, Canada. You can read Catherine's poetry reviews on her blog "Marrow Reviews" at https://crowgirl11.wordpress.com/