Elaine Scarry asks us to consider an instance in which we have made an error regarding beauty. Have we dismissed a thing that we were certain could not be beautiful only later to realize how beautiful it really was? Or given the power of beauty to a person or place, an object that did not deserve it, that we later find is not beautiful at all, but plain, even ugly?
For her it is palm trees, a thing she once dismissed. And then one day she finds herself eye-level with a palm ” arcing, arching, waving, cresting and breaking in the soft air, throwing the yellow sunlight up over itself and catching it on the other side, running its fingers down its own piano keys, then running them back up again, shuffling and dealing glittering decks of aqua, green, yellow, and white” and without meaning to change her mind, it has changed.
For me it was Los Angeles, a concrete coffin, smog-blasted and sun-drenched, populated by all the mad people in all the cars on all the roads, going nowhere, circling in time. For two years I did not see beauty while I lived right in it, spun myself in hideous circles. Then one day I drove back from a friend’s house on the 405, the freeway from San Diego to Los Angeles. It was 2 am and the traffic was at a complete standstill in Long Beach, which meant the red lights poured up one side of the freeway and the yellow down the other. I had noticed before, that this could essentially be pretty, that lights are attention-catching, colorful. This was not the unprecedented thought that occurred to me. In fact it was all the mad people in all the cars on all the roads, with me, thrumming along, blaring their horns, that lifted me. Indeed my heart quickened. I came quite alive. These are the things that happen to you, Scarry says, in the presence of real beauty.