Understanding What We Like

To appreciate something means to prize it, to put and hold a value on it. Life is such, thankfully, that we each come to have a range of things we value, some in common with everyone else and some more particularly our own. But whatever we value, we should be able to give a reason why we prize it so. Without a reason, you like what you like, I like what I like, and up go the walls between us. Life is much more wild than that.

A reaction, though, is not a reason. React is what we do when something hits our senses. We react for a reason, but just reacting doesn’t get us very far. If we’re not reacting, we’re not alive, fair enough; but it’s only when we can understand the reasons behind our reactions that we’re on our way to a richer, more peculiarly human experience. So if we can react and then look closely at what we’re reacting to, trying to understanding the way something strikes and holds our attention, we might then be at the beginning of a larger set of reasons that can more fully account for why we like (or don’t like) something. And those first basic reasons build a bridge for someone else to evaluate on their own what we see and like.

Let’s look at what I think is a beautifully drawn passage by Frank Waters, an author of the last century concerned with the life and culture of the American Southwest. These three sentences are from his Pumpkin Seed Point (Swallow Press, 1969), and are describing the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl:

He came as a great king to lay the foundations of their culture. He discovered the maize which he gave to men; taught them to polish precious stones, to weave fabrics with cotton, to make bright-colored robes from the feathers of the quetzal; he taught the priests how to measure time from the movements of the stars, to institute ceremonies, and to fix the days for prayer and sacrifice. He was wise, good, and chaste.

If I say I find this passage beautiful, I should be able to direct your attention to certain features of it that can account for why I regard it so. Beauty is a very large word; something can be beautiful in many different ways, and so I should first point to the kind of beauty I see in it. When I call these few related sentences beautiful, I am referring to their construction, their linguistic architecture, so to speak. The ideas the words represent are serious, perhaps even noble, but I can only think about those high ideas because certain words, arranged in sections and composed into sentences, carry those ideas to me in a certain way. And it’s that certain way that arrests my attention and pleases me. But the question is, how?

The first and last sentences of the passage are simple in structure and straightforward in meaning: he came and he was. The predicate of each is not too elaborate, and together the two sentences tell us in a downright way what the great god did (lay the foundations) and what he was (wise, good, and chaste). But it’s between these two points that the mountain of the thought rises to a peak, for the middle portion of the passage is a long, well-balanced sentence, held steady by a semicolon at its middle (quetzal; he taught). Balanced sentences are often complex in the number of ideas they array, and here that is certainly the case: on one side of that semicolon are the actions of discovering and giving, teaching and polishing, weaving and making; and on the other side are the ideas of teaching and measuring, instituting and fixing. The shape of the passage, then, begins and ends in a deliberate simplicity, and in that we feel the conviction with which the author holds his assertions. Held together between these two points, then, is an organized set of actions which give evidence for the conclusion that the god was, indeed, wise and good. The three sentences cohere into a unified statement—and unity is always beautiful.

Much more could be said about the construction of this delicately balanced middle sentence: the omission of the subject he before the first instance of the verb taught but its inclusion before the second instance; the triadic structure of the infinitives in both halves of the sentence (to polish, to weave, to make and to measure, to institute, to fix); and indeed the effect the absence of any participles has on the strength and balance of this weighty sentence. All of these points would have to do with the composition of the passage, not its ideas yet, and to recognize that is important, because it reminds us that the shape or appearance of something is only (but not inferiorly so) the outward sign of something else—its meaning.

So when I say I find this passage beautiful, it is its form I first find beautiful, the technical way in which it controls the complexity of its ideas, the energy of this complexity never exceeding its bounds because of the two simple sentences which contain it like the banks of a river. If our appreciation of something can begin in an understanding of the form in which we perceive it, we are on solid ground to build a higher criticism, or evaluation, of what we find we like. That higher thought will take us into the world of ideas, which, we must remember, is never anywhere else than in the design of the very things we perceive in this world.




Leave a comment

Join the Discussion