A second-year psychiatry resident two months into the addictions rotation and a PhD candidate researching her second case study on Indonesia’s policies for oil revenue management quietly crept out of their apartment building one dark and freezing Friday night and ran away from Saint Louis. They took a plane to a city by the sea, and rented out a little silver car that took them through hills and valleys covered with vineyards to a charming little cottage where nobody knew their name. She wore her bright red coat and he his handsome scarf. They danced on the sidewalk to songs they made up. They read by the fireplace and nibbled chocolate and cheese. They roamed art galleries. And they drank wine.
They swirled glasses of velvety reds and creamy whites, smelled, and sipped once, twice. First the tannins. Fruit tannins that coated the tip of their tongues and oak tannins that dried up their throats. Then the aromas. Citrus notes were summer afternoons chasing siblings around the orchard. Full-bodied blackcurrants were wrapping paper excitedly ripped off presents on Christmas Eve. Sparkling Proseccos were birthday toasts and little black dresses, and the luscious syrupy Saint Germain was a lingering kiss on a thousandth date.
Then they ran out of time and money. So they packed their postcards and suitcases and returned to Saint Louis just in time to resume their purposeful lives on Monday morning.
A perfectly beautiful weekend. A perfectly useless weekend.
We live in a monetized world that runs on maximized efficiency and utility. In it, everything, even time, has an assigned economic value, and everything must serve a purpose. The ultimate purpose of the human race, of course, is survival and continuity.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution presumes that we are complex creatures that evolved naturally over time from more simplistic ancestors. In this ‘descent with modification,’ we underwent beneficial genetic mutations that weeded out useless characteristics, keeping only those genes that aided our survival and optimized our performance. He called the process ‘natural selection.’
That could be how we lost our tails and a considerable amount of body hair, stood up straight and nearly tripled the size of our brains. We kept the pace with an evolving environment and lightened our genetic and intellectual load for the journey. But if all we were ever designed for was survival and continuity - nutrition, reproduction, and defense – then why did we not weed out beauty?
If survival is the ultimate goal, then beauty has no purpose. That is what we sensible, sober intellectuals have been educated to believe. It is inconsequential, ‘since it explains nothing, solves nothing, and teaches us nothing.’
Beauty for its own sake simply does not cut it; wine is fermented grape juice, art is a mixture of chemicals and oils slapped onto a canvas to recreate inaccurate versions of reality, and a weekend spent spouting out words that rhyme and dreaming away at the sight of falling leaves is not only unproductive to society, but contrary to human nature.
Yet somehow we still have museum curators and wine critics, handcrafted cheeses and painted sunset landscapes, good vintage years and heartbreaking verses to drink them to.
Imagine a world without them.
Evolution did not weed out beauty because beauty is the ultimate expression of evolution. Alongside our bodies and our minds, our souls too have evolved, and our capacity to appreciate and lust for beauty is the highest form of intellectual transcendence possible. Beauty, then, is ‘a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors.’ It sets us apart from all other living creatures; it elevates us from merely living life to tasting it.
The experience of beauty is the result of the convergence of body, mind, and soul. Form and function melt together. Art and science dance.
- Tucker Viemeister
If survival is the goal of any species, then ‘pure, unadulterated beauty should be the goal of civilization.’ The philosophy of beauty… the Italians call it la bella figura. Literally translated as ‘the beautiful figure,’ it means the reverence of beauty. Through art, architecture, wine. In the elegant folds of a skirt or the perfect cut of a suit. Fare una bella figura is to make the best possible impression in all things.
Those readers who have ever sat in a piazza late in the afternoon and dipped a lingua di gatto in a perfectly brewed espresso will surely agree: the Italian civilization has reached its goal.
The continuity of our species does not depend on beauty. The survival of our souls does. And I, for one, need a world in which I can pair a glass of light Chianti with a 65% Madagascar chocolate.