Semantics

Gus: We didn’t find Fong, Driggs did.
Shawn: It’s all semantics, Gus.
Gus: It’s not semantics at all.
Shawn: Note to self: look up the word semantics.

— Psych

Shawn and Gus

There are two ways to look at the study of beauty. The first we can ascribe to the Scottish philosopher David Hume (though it no doubt precedes him): Beauty is subjective. When we find something to be beautiful, there is nothing inherent in that object that makes it so; rather, it is our perception of it, colored by our tastes and personality and maybe our ability to see, that makes it beautiful. Call this the “Humeian View.” The second we will ascribe to another Scottish philosopher, Lord Kames. According to Kames, beauty is reducible to a set of rules. If something is beautiful, it is because it approaches identifiable proportions, colors, and shapes. Predictable ratios are involved. To Kames, we can measure and quantify what we find to be aesthetically pleasing. This we will call the “Kamesian View.”
Da Vinci
If you are to explain this paradigm to someone, I think most people would describe themselves as Humeian. I would not. I agree fully with Kames: we can break down and understand the things we find pleasing to our senses. We understand the ratios that make a major chord sound, well, major. We can grasp the notion that there is a balance at play between salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami that reconcile to a singular, delicious flavor.
Now, calling myself Kamesian does not mean I think everyone should be able to agree on what is beautiful. The world is far more complex than that. When you really step back and look at it, though, you’ll notice that almost everyone can be divided into groups based on what pleases us. Rather than a random distribution of likes, almost everyone adheres to small, coherent clusters. This is why there are only a handful of musical genres instead of, say, thousands. (That and marketing.) And even then, the principles beneath those genres tend to be similar. One person may like hip hop and another folk, but when you break it down they operate by the same rules. We don’t seem to be built to see just anything as beautiful.
I’ve embraced this philosophy in the way I think about everything. (If you’ve read any of my blog before, that should probably be self-evident.) If it exists, there is a way to gain a rigorous understanding of it. Maybe you believe some things cannot – or SHOULD not – be subject to such analysis. But this is the lens by which I see the world. I cannot and will not tell anyone they should not hold the Humesian view. Nor should anyone tell me my Kamesian outlook is fundamentally wrong. Agree to disagree?

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Reversals

“Everybody has reversals. If you were never down, how would you know when you were up?”
— Anne (State & Main)

There is a girl who used to board the 16 with me, Monday through Friday, at 8:30. She has straight black hair and big almond eyes. She wears black Chucks and has a skull patch on her backpack. I always got the idea she was Greek, though I am so bad at picking out ethnicities I thought my friend Joel (a Filipino) was Mexican the first time we met. She got off at the stop outside the Allina Clinic, so I had assumed she must have worked there in some capacity. When I stopped working in Dinkytown, I stopped seeing her and thinking about her altogether. Then I started riding the 84 north in the mornings, and there she is, boarding with me on an entirely different stop with an entirely different destination.
We have never spoken, and I don’t imagine we ever will. But she is like any number of other small coincidences you, I, we encounter on a day-to-day basis. The middle aged bearded man – he looks to be the model of conservatism if you ignore the worn brown leather jacket and the oddly large hoop earring – with whom I used to ride the 21 in the mid-afternoon but now see on the 61. Even the bitter, aggressive driver of the 63: he used to cuss out riders for their rudeness and demand they get off his bus. He would park between stops and idle until they acquiesced. Now he drives the 50. I imagine backstories and trajectories in all of their lives: some of them ascending, others tumbling. I also imagine I couldn’t be farther from the truth in any case.
The last few weeks at Hope we’ve been talking about reversals of fortune. I think, though, that we need to bear in mind that not every reversal is on the scale of the Jews in Esther or the disciples of the Gospel. Have you ever gone from clothes-rending despair to life-changing elation in the course of 48 hours? (I suspect there are some out there that could claim the opposite, and that’s fair: it’s much easier to tear down than to build up.) No, most of our reversals are on a much smaller scale. A job change that gives us better opportunities down the road …or a raise that keeps us from moving onto a better track. A rebuff from a paramour that opens our eyes to see a better fit with someone else. The biggest turning points of our lives may be something so small that we don’t notice it at the time, and might even be hard to pinpoint in retrospect.
I guess the not-so-subtle super-saccharine point of all that is this: your life might be changing right before your eyes. Pay attention, and thank God just the same. None of us are exactly where we want to be, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going somewhere.

The Pitfalls of Flattery

Flattery is like cologne water: to be smelt, not swallowed.”
— Josh Billings

I noticed something today. I’ve been complimented on my outfit for five consecutive days. This has happened before: fall of my senior year of college – my super senior year, I guess – I had a little extra money from an unexpected refund so I spent almost all of it on clothing. For the entire month of October that year, someone remarked at least once a day about how nice I looked. It got to the point where I expected it. And today, though I remember receiving those compliments, I only remember the source of two of them: one from a woman I cared for and deeply respected, and one from the guy on campus who was particularly known for his style. Every other superlative clumped together into a single group applause.
Now, young men specifically, take this lesson to heart. Imagine you’re a woman of particular beauty and style. If I could dress myself in such a way that I got complimented daily – and remember, I’m a weird-looking, surly gent – just how often do you think attractive women hear about their looks? Now just how meaningful do you think they find it when just another guy comes up to them and offers their unmerited approval? (By the way, insert this into your lexicon: JAG, the Bill Belichick term for “Just another guy.” I will be using the shorthand in the future.)
Bel
I’m not saying women (or men) don’t appreciate being praised. What I’m saying is it’s not particularly meaningful to hear unless you are a person from whom they want to hear praise. This extends beyond just superficial things: I can tell you a compliment on my cooking means far more for me if it comes from someone I care about or someone I know has a good palate. Also, forget the fact that hearing something over and over can sometimes cause us to stop believing it. Just understand, we are suspicious of people we perceive are trying to flatter us. And if we don’t have a reason to care for their good opinion, that’s exactly the conclusion we’ll draw.