Beauty and Pain

Waking up startled to sunlight reminds us that the bright and beautiful can hurt.

We speak of “piercing” beauty, say beauty “transfixes” or “stuns” us—as if beauty were an archer, a sword, or a sudden blow to the head.

You miss the hit that lands.

Instead of catching it with your eye you find it with your gut.

Your eye catches up with experience.

That reverses the normal order, where the eye tells us what to expect, what to feel.

Here feeling tells you where to look, shock and pain tell you why. 

Maybe that’s why beauty appears in language like a boxer’s fist, striking us dazed while we recover in wonder.

That love can hurt us – that love may be our greatest pain – is a paradox and a common place.

Just look at your own wounds.

Beauty arouses desire.

Desire pulls us forward, the movement made in pleasure’s wake.

Pain repels, sends us away.

Caught between pain and beauty, fear and desire, the pressure of both would leave us perfectly poised, unmoving pursuant of doubled desire.

In short, rendered suddenly motionless by an impelling force.


So we find one possibility of beauty’s pain: distance in the face of desire.

Sight itself separates us when union is what we want.

We die even our little deaths with eyes closed.

We have found what we want, to be: one.

Beauty reminds us we are not ourselves.

The moving memory of our incompleteness we call love.

Love honors the space between a reality worthy of our desire and our feeling of fragmented selfhood, and it wishes well for what we want even if we cannot have it.

When we love we bestow a desire for eternity.

We long for what we love to last.

What parents, able to grant undying life to their child, would withhold the blessing?

Humble acts of preservation show the shadows of love beauty casts.

The care of flowers, watering a wilting bloom, tending the dying—futile nurturance of evanescent life, made lovely even by the inevitability of its end.

Poignant is what we call the pain we wouldn’t wish away.

Love fosters unregretted sorrow and unmourned lament.

Death mingles in beauty’s essence as the mockery of our immortal hopes.

Yet is not death love’s wish, the closed eyes of tranquility untroubled by the turbulence of desire?

Some split the paradox and see different drives, one for life, one for death, but if we let it lie it appears natural and one.

We wish to will away our desire in its completion, to cancel the pain of absence with possession, and can imagine no success that cannot be translated into eternity or death.

Time terminates in completion, for absent alteration it measures no change.

The pleasures of mortality lie enmeshed in its pains, all woven from a single thread of death, life, and love, a single image in beauty’s face.