The Beauty That’s There

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot”, the protagonist of the story, Prince Myshkin, sees a painting by the 16th Century Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger and is at once both captivated and terrified by it. It’s the famous Holbein piece The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (2CV warning to all my Reformed friends. Also, the title is exactly what the piece is, so…). In the story, Prince Myshkin’s fascination with the piece is so strong that he alleges it has the power to make a believer lose their faith. This scene in the novel, however, was based on Dostoyevsky’s own fascination with the painting. He would stare at the painting in an almost obsessive fashion. For hours at a time he would sit examining the artwork, captivated by the subtle message it conveys of the paradox that Life itself could be subject to Death. It’s said that, at times, his wife would literally have to drag him away from the painting or else he would forego sleeping, eating, and drinking, inducing an epileptic seizure (apparently it had happened before).

Dostoyevsky’s fascination with the painting is itself fascinating to me. Was it some strange neuroticism that led to this kind of behavior? Probably. But it was his intentional immersion into the masterpiece that produced the inspiration that led to one of his many literary masterpieces in The Idiot. He filled his mind and time with something brilliant, and was able to produce something brilliant in turn.

This kind of activity, what I’ll call “intentional immersion”, is somewhat of a lost art these days. In a world full of sound bites and tweets, headline after headline filling our newsfeeds, and a constant barrage of notifications drawing us out of any kind of concerted effort to ponder or think or admire for any meaningful length of time, intentionally immersing ourselves into something beautiful or challenging or worthwhile is difficult to make happen.

I experimented with this idea of intentional immersion myself once. During one of my insomniatic episodes, I listened to I, The Mighty’s Connector album from front to back two and a half times through. At 45 minutes long, this took me about two hours. The album itself is, in my opinion, a musical masterpiece (it’s a “post-hardcore” album, which means it’s a little bit on the heavier side of the musical spectrum, although still very poppy and catchy. Just a friendly warning if you’re unfamiliar with the genre and your curiosity is piqued). The album is produced and written to flow cohesively from one song to the next, the lyrics are full of plenty of allegory, symbolism, and poeticism to keep your interpretive wheels turning, and the variety of sounds and experimentation on the album keep it fresh from front to back. It has all the elements of a truly fantastic piece of art.

I laid in my bed in the dark, the cool air from the fan blowing on my face, and I was able to devote all of my focus and attention to just listening. I’ve listened to the album countless times, but on this occasion I noticed things I’d never heard before: how the synth swell covers a subtle key change from E to Ebm into Psychomachia, the title to the song being a reference to a poem from the early 5th Century describing the Christian’s battle between various vices and virtues; the once obscure but now obvious reference to the trap of misery intended in the lyrics of The Lying Eyes of Miss Erray; the female harmonies in (No) Faith in Fate that, upon closer inspection, are quite unconventional from a music theory perspective, but serve to magnify the main theme of the song that things don’t always go the way you want. And I could go on and on.

At the end, I developed a deeper appreciation for the album because I now know it so much better. I feel I’m much more intimately knowledgeable about the intricacies of the music. I’m much more appreciative of the beauty of the art.

This exercise in intentional immersion has allowed me to write 310 words about an obscure album, from a relatively obscure band, in a relatively obscure genre. I’ve been able to produce something of value (I hope!) because I intentionally immersed myself in something beautiful. Similar to Dostoyevsky, I’ve been inspired by certain motifs and patterns in the album that I’m sure will fuel my writing tank at some point down the road. But without intentionally immersing myself into the music, I never would have attained this level of appreciation, inspiration, and knowledge.

Although I do think music is a worthwhile medium to intentionally immerse yourself into, I wonder what benefits would be gained from intentionally immersing myself into other activities: photography and artwork, films, books, etc.. This kind of immersion is obviously hindered by the busy pace of most of our lives, mine included, but I can’t help but wonder how much beauty we are missing out on because we don’t have the time, focus, or attention spans to see it. And if we don’t see it, we can’t offer the world anything beautiful in return. Too much static can ruin an otherwise beautiful song, not because it affects the song, but because it distracts us from it. It’s interesting to think what kinds of beauty could be released into the world if we decided to regularly take time to block out all the noise and immerse ourselves into the beauty that’s there.

So I’m curious: what do you find yourself easily immersed in? Are there any books, albums, poems, films, photographs, landscapes, ideas, topics, etc., that you find particularly mesmerizing? I’d like to invite you to pass anything along that you think fits the bill. My world could stand to be filled with more beauty.