Making Life More Beautiful by Dan Holloway

I am nothing if not a sentimentalist and an aesthete. There are times (until, that is, you see a photo) you could be forgiven for picturing me wandering through dappled meadows with billowing curls and a gaze of Wordsworthian rapture. Beauty has always mattered to me as a lover of all forms of art, and also as a creator of art. I may not share your ideas of what is beautiful. Indeed, I would probably be rather scared of meeting you if we did. But beauty stands alongside passion as a pillar of overriding importance in art.
I have been thinking in particular detail about the notion of beauty while writing my most recent book, which features a rather ragtag group of outsiders and misfits whose stated purpose in life is simply to “make the world a more beautiful place.” What they mean by beauty is somewhat more akin to my own definition than what you might find on the pages of OK magazine, and examining just what I do mean by beauty, and why it is so important to me, has been a fascinating, often uncomfortable journey into places within myself and my art that are at once dark, frightening and, well, beautiful.

I wonder if you would care to walk with me for a moment.

The beauty of decay
It is a fundamental tenet of urban exploration (as well as Peter Greenaway films) that decay is beautiful. One of my characters puts it like this:
“I love decay,” she said. “It reminds you that everything’s temporary and that’s OK, that death is the most natural thing in the world. What could be more beautiful than having the freedom to stop breathing. Any time you want. No reproach, no wailing, no gnashing, no tearing of clothes. No get your homework in or pay your bills or be nice to the assholes who want you to suck dick or wash tables and bow and say thank you for the privilege. The freedom just to stop, right where you are, and not breathe anymore and slowly return to the soil and the air like everything else. Decay tells you death is OK, death is beautiful. And that makes the life you have in the meantime beautiful too.”

This is the beauty we see in crumbling buildings and angry, calloused concrete and steel that has given up the fight and the bloated bodies of roadkill and the cataracted eyes of broken down cars whose light has gone out for good. It’s a beauty that reassures us, winds itself around us in a blanket and whispers that here, if nowhere else, here we are not outsiders, here we are understood, here we can be our own fragile selves and not apologise.
(Please join me in Oxford on August 1st for The New Libertines, a celebration of the most beautiful self-published writing from across Europe)
This notion of the beauty of belonging is something I come back to again and again. It’s not belonging in a narrow, jingoistic sense. It’s not exclusionary. It doesn’t say beauty is being part of the elite, beauty is being marked out, superior. It’s a deliciously inclusive notion. It’s about there being a home for all outsiders, a home that exists, er, outside regular constructs of beauty and reassures us that our beauty is not relative to those constructs but is absolute, is ours simply because we exist, because we do the one thing that unites every single element of our world – we decay.

The beauty of tears
I first came across the notion of “the saddest story ever written” in Milan Kundera’s remarkable book “Immortality.” Of course, he was only giving voice to something we all recognise– the self-emptying joy of crying and crying until we are wholly, beautifully spent. Just describing the process, of course, suggests something sexual, and that connection is something incredibly powerfully expressed by Haruki Murakami in his novel Norwegian Wood when the narrator Toru first spends the night with his beloved Naoko, and they make love and then they spend the whole night in each others’ arms whilst she sobs uncontrollably. 

Just as decay is beautiful because it tells us that whoever we are we have a home in the world, because, that is, it takes us absolutely into ourselves, so tears are beautiful because, and in proportion to the extent, they are utterly self-emptying. Because, that is, they take us absolutely out of ourselves. To cry uncontrollably in the arms of beauty is to be taken so out of oneself that one becomes, for that moment, the size and shape of another’s skin. It is only grief of imagined and infinite intensity that tells us categorically we are not alone, that there is an “other” whose place in the world fits us perfectly. As readers, that transcendent experience of leaving ourselves completely through a stream of tears is the hit of crack we long for books to give us. As writers it is the hit we long to peddle.

Beauty as Doing
Beauty takes us inside ourselves and outside ourselves. And that is the final clue to its riddle. Beauty is never static. It is experiential. Beauty is nothing to do with “the look” or “the gaze” or any of those other objectifying myths that place an absolute premium on the inequality of subject and object, viewer and viewed, voyeur and victim. Beauty is about moving with something or someone so freely and completely that the boundaries between you melt and concept dissolves totally into the flow of experience. I guess that’s why my last novel draws so heavily on the worldview and vocabulary of parkour, with its motto “only move forwards” and its myriad ways of moving through space so that the practitioner and their surroundings become each other’s skin and eyes.
The answer to how we make the world more beautiful? By living in it as fully and freely and uncomplicatedly and unapologetically and uninhibitedly and empathically and creatively as we possibly can. What could be hard about that?


JO said…
What a wonderful, thoughtful post. Thanks, Dan.
CallyPhillips said…
Interesting... doing a lot of work on 'sentiment' and 'sentimental' at the moment as it is levelled as an 'accusation' at S.R.Crockett all the time. The more I explore it the more I realise that quite apart from the changing 'meaning' of the word, there is actually nothing wrong with being 'sentimental.' So I'm about to stand up and be counted for sentiment as an acceptable form and even... deep breath... a 'justification' for melodrama. Beauty... how can that not be something positive. That video clip (I've just realised it IS sentimental) is one of the most beautiful/powerful and meaningful things I've seen (and you know Rutger Hauer claims he 'made up' the words - which is one in the eye for the screenwriter if true!) But then of course Keats said it all and said it best when he said
'beauty is truth, truth beauty/
that'a all there is and all you need to know.'

I'd be very interested if you have any references for studying 'sentiment' or the 'sentimental' in culture/literature Dan, more grist to my mill...

and thanks for the post of course! Never mind the New Libertines, maybe I'll start the New Sentimentalists! That should make me even less popular in cyberspace than I already am!!
Dan Holloway said…
Thank you, Jo.

Cally, let me have a think. Setimentalism is something that makes me deeply nervous, because I know that among other things it is at the heart of the nazi aesthetic - that's one reason I wanted to try to distinguish a sentiment of action and doing and motion from one of stasis and objectification and attempting to preserve - preservation, conservation, for me are always bad and change is always good becase it acknowledges our entropic nature - so even decay, change for teh worse, is a good whereas nostalgid sentiment, the attempt to return to something former, is always bad because it's inimical to our nature.

As a starting point, I'd suggest anything by Martha Nussbaum, who is the world's leading expert on "affect" - specifically the notion of appetitive reason and rational appetite - she writes wonderful things about sentiment and encompasses everything from Aristotle to Mahler. I'd also recommend Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting, specifically the two stories titled "Litost"
Susan Price said…
Is 'sentiment' the same as 'sentimentality'? - How do you define these terms?

If beauty is truth, and truth is beauty, and all we need to know - does that make evil imaginary?

Is a shark tearing off a swimmer's leg, or a wolf-pack eating a deer alive, beautiful?
Dan Holloway said…
Those were exactly the questions I set out to ask and answer in No Exit, Sue. And teh answers I semi found were one of the reasons I mused so long and hard about publishing it and whether or not to include trigger warnings. The book is a spiralling inward of two characters' lives toward a single moment when, having never met, they commit murder together. It features suicide and torture that are portrayed in non-judgemental terms (in the two hardest to write passages in terms that could be construed as aesthetically-motivated), but it also portrays those same acts in different contexts in very negative terms. It doesn't really reach a fimr conclusion, but it does ask the question whether what we think of as good and evil acts really are that way.

I absolutely don't believe in good and evil, I should say. There are things that repel me, though, and things I would like to eradicate from the world. Where that leaves me is in a very uncomfortable ethical place. I want readers to be left in that place, because ethics should be uncomfortable and difficult.
Lee said…
Change is always good because it acknowledges our entropic nature? Circular reasoning, Dan: you're arguing that change is good because it's change.

And in any case, just acknowledging something in our nature does not make it right or good.
Great to see Kundera/Immortality getting a mention, Dan (not to mention Blade Runner)!

On the subject of sentiment versus sentimentality, I must reach for Norman Mailer:

"Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment."

Dan Holloway said…
Lee, yes, I get confused when I use words like good because I don't like it as a concept but there are prcious few other words to use. What I mean is when we resist change we are trying to set ourselves apart from the natural order, and that's denying something fundamental to us and yes, that's not "bad" in the way we might commonly use teh word bad but it's kind of sad and a waste of a life that could have been more.

John - great line!
Lee said…
Well, Dan, some changes are important to resist. I would certainly resist the adoption of a dictatorship in my country, for example.
Dan Holloway said…
Oh I absolutely agree, Lee, and it would take a book to do justice to the subject, but in short, as I intimated about nazism in my comment above, dictatorship is about stasis,and as such a change to a dictatorship is not really change in the sense I mean it of an ongoing process

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