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The Future of Beauty

February 12, 2024

(for N. Scott Momaday, in gratitude)

The first Europeans to enter the North American continent from across the Atlantic Ocean were ill-prepared for most of what they were to encounter. Nothing was more astonishing than the lushness of the landscape and the abundance of creatures that inhabited it. Their written accounts contain wide-eyed descriptions of schools of fish so dense one could imagine walking on them, bird flocks so big they blocked out the sun, mammals of every size and description hunting and foraging under a nearly seamless canopy of trees stretching into whatever distance one cared to gaze.

Homo sapiens also thrived in this landscape. Some tribes had settled into permanent villages, some preferred to hunt and forage in mobile bands. However they chose to live, these inhabitants had managed to do so for centuries without diminishing either the abundance of other living beings or the supply of the natural gifts – clean air and water, healthy soil – upon which life in all its forms depended.

The ancestors of these Eastern tribes did not exhibit the same restraint. The peoples who first entered the same continent – whether they traveled by boat or across a land bridge connecting Siberia to Alaska in the late Paleolithic is an ongoing debate – hunted to extinction the megafauna they encountered. Recent research suggests that climate change may have contributed but the timing of this mass extinction event from continent to continent suggests that human predators were decisive participants in it.

This is the riddle N. Scott Momaday undertook to solve in “A First American Views his Land.”[i] Doing so, he figured, would involve determining how a group of people came to the idea that land was sacred and therefore needed to be treated with a reverential kind of respect. How, in particular, did a heedless predator “come to understand that there is an intimate, vital link between the earth and himself, a link that implies an intricate network of rights and responsibilities [?]”

A tough question for sure, and one that no one who currently holds decision-making power in a fossil fuel-powered society believes to be worth pondering. But it is hard to imagine a more important question to ask and then answer in a way that might restore the intricate network that, on Momaday’s account, Native hunters eventually came to perceive. Perhaps his answer might provide a helpful starting point for us as we look to displace the heedless predators at large in our world.

Momaday contends that the notion of sacred land probably spun out of a recognition of beauty. In the poems and ceremonial songs he references, he consistently finds a delight in the look and feel of the natural world that registers both fine-grained details and expansive interconnections. In the artifacts these people made – from spears and canoes to dishes and dresses – he discerns the same aesthetic principle at work. Further, this beauty is not that of a painting hung on a museum wall. It inheres in relationships rather than objects, in how things come to be arranged in a customary setting rather than how they erupt within a heroic act of romantic imagining.

To clarify this point, Momaday provides an account from the oral tradition of his own Kiowa family. The storyteller conjures up a patch of tribal land, just “south of the pecan grove,” where a woman has been buried. We know neither her name nor the exact location of her body. But we are told that she was buried “in a beautiful dress” – made of “fine buckskin” and “decorated with elk’s teeth and beadwork.” Momaday calls attention to what is noted in the story (the woman, the dress, a particular plain) and what is not (her individual identity, a grave marker) and deduces that this tale is, at its heart, “a declaration of love the for land.” In the vision it places before our mind’s eye, all the different elements of the story become “one reality, one expression of the beautiful in nature.” The beauty of the dress lies not just in the materials and the craft but in the way it infuses meaning into a hallowed landscape. By this process beauty acquires moral and spiritual dimensions, as it requires us to consider what is and is not “appropriate” use of land so conceived.

From a Native American perspective, Momaday concludes, the beautiful and the appropriate are “indivisible.” When we refer to land as sacred, it is this unity that we are honoring. Without a proper reverence for the beautiful in nature, a sense of the appropriate use of land loses its mooring in the habits and rituals of its inhabitants. A full-hearted concern for what might be appropriate gives way to the single-minded pursuit of what will turn a profit. The unity of beauty and wise use is thereby dissolved and suddenly no one can see the absurdity in celebrating Hudson River School paintings while tolerating pollution of the rivers so gloriously depicted. A tragic unity – civilization and its discontents – is reconstituted under the sign of Progress, a fated rather than a willed process. The Indian dress hangs in the museum to be admired by the literate and well-informed; Indian land is disfigured by the usages that mark the civilized subject as the member of an “advanced” society. Soon enough it all gets ugly – the land and the people who no longer feel any connection to it. Momaday chose a good time to seek greener pastures.

There are other roads that might lead us to the land-based aesthetic Momaday discerns in Kiowa culture, other affiliations that might acquire the integrity, hence the wisdom, of the settled tribe. In Underland – A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane recounts a modern version of a vision quest. He explores a series of places, natural and man-made, where one can travel beneath the earth’s surface and have a look around. His journeys are arduous and, often, perilous. He does so for the pleasure of extreme adventuring and in the hopes that he might find and articulate insights available only to those willing to put themselves at risk in a lightly explored, inhospitable terrain. He is attentive in particular to the liminal quality of these underground sites – their situation between a world open to the sky and inner worlds beneath. By exploring the latter, he hopes to gain a fresh perspective on the former. From that perspective, he seeks to understand what those who migrate between worlds – whether tribal shamans or modern daredevils – might tell us about the ways of the imagination.

The insight I wish to emphasize occurs during Macfarlane’s exploration of sea caves on Norway’s western coastline. These underground sites are only accessible by two routes – a long, hazardous trek over ice, snow, and scree-covered slopes or by boat through one of the globe’s strongest whirlpool systems (the one Edgar Allen Poe featured in “A Descent into the Maelstrom”). They contain some of the few cave paintings found above the sixty degrees north parallel. Members of a Bronze Age hunter-gatherer-fisher tribe braved the perils of getting to these caves to paint a series of stick figures – humans, mainly, with some human-animal hybrids – on the walls with red iron oxide pigment. The figures appear to be dancing.

After barely surviving his journey along the land route, Macfarlane wonders what might have compelled these people to paint their red dancers on these particular walls. Perhaps, he argues, the caves were chosen not just for shelter and preservation but precisely because, from the artists’ perspective, they were enfolded within a larger context that included both the powerful whirlpools and wild coastline beyond and the spiritual depths from which the urge to paint radiates. The caves are part of a web connecting an outer and an inner landscape, the dancers a dramatization of the powers one might tap into by acknowledging, through art and ritual, one’s place in that web. This observation leads him to a conclusion that replicates the moral Momaday extracted from the Indian dress tale:

Any encounter – modern or ancient – with those painted figures will therefore necessarily be shaped not only by the confrontation with the red forms themselves on the cave wall, but also by the details and moods of the landscape beyond the point of darkness – by the fall of sunlight or snow, the temper of the sea, the gliding presence of eagle or the flowing presence of otter – and by the experience of reaching the caves of the dancing figures in the first place.

So we encounter yet again the convergence of tribal styles of meaning-making with such modern varieties as are attentive to the power of place and geared to disregard the boundaries inscribed in our thinking by Western styles of rationality. It is a happy convergence, full of promise for anyone seeking a pathway out of the manifold messes that modernity has created. Whether we are beholding beauty or seeking truth, the holistic approach refocuses our attention on the larger – social and ecological – landscapes within which the arts and sciences take shape. It fits an isolable object into a web of connections so that it might reveal features that will not emerge when hung on a wall, viewed through a microscope, or stripped down to a naked statistical probability. Thanks to the onset of the polycrisis, we are finally, if too slowly, coming to understand that these features may be the most important ones to consider.

To be sure, the Indian dress, to Momaday, is beautiful in itself. Macfarlane finds himself enchanted by the red dancers as framed by the cave wall alone. A reductionist science has added significantly to human knowledge and well-being. But unless the dress, the dancers, and the molecules are reconnected to their moorings in social arrangements and the natural world, they cannot speak to the crises that the unbridled pursuit of human well-being has generated. Beauty and truth alike grow stunted when severed from their roots in relations of affection and reverence. Art oscillates between avant-garde provocation and stock entertainment, empirical methods breed senseless destruction.

Macfarlane journeyed in the company of other explorers drawn for their own reasons to the underground sites he visited. They were a varied bunch – countercultural rebels, wayward youth, and well-rooted localists bound together by curiosity and, typically, a prideful nonconformity. These are voluntary affiliations, but Macfarlane endowed them with qualities common to tribes, like Momaday’s, born of kinship ties and shared history. As he put it in a conclusion written to commend his underland traveling companions, these people were

… mappers, really, of networks of mutual relations, endeavoring to stitch their thinking into unfamiliar scales of time and space, seeking not the scattered jewels of personal epiphany but rather to enlarge the possible means by which people might move and think together across landscapes, in responsible knowledge of deep past, deep future, and the inhuman earth.

The difference, of course, is that Macfarlane and his tribe come as visitors to their favored places. Home is the place they return to when their journeys end. Like nearly all of us in the overdeveloped world, they are “scatterlings” (Martin Shaw’s term), thinking and moving “across” a landscape without settling in long enough to become native to any part of it. Their experiences give them access to knowledge that Macfarlane has a right to call “responsible” but that is still a far cry from the “intricate network of rights and responsibilities” that Native tribes honored on lands they learned to call sacred.

If the grounded sense of beauty Momaday derived from Kiowa cultural expressions is to play a role in shaping our response to social and ecological collapse, it will need a territory that can sustain it. If truth is to find a grounding in its proper domain, scatterlings will need to dig in and occupy a real patch of earth – a land base that we come to know, learn to love, and through that knowing and loving determine what constitutes appropriate use of it. Without the kind of reverence Momaday celebrates, we are not likely to find either the wisdom or the strength to make our way to any kind of safety.

for an idea about how we might acquire such a land base, please visit occupythehearth.org

[i] First published in 1976 in National Geographic; reprinted in American Earth, the volume of nature writings edited by Bill McKibben for The Library of America.

Brian Lloyd

Brian Lloyd graduated from West Virginia University in 1976 with a B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology. He returned to his home town in eastern West Virginia and played in rock and roll bands for seven years, then headed out to Ann Arbor for graduate studies at the University of Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in American Culture in 1991. He is the author of Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1900-1922 (Johns Hopkins, 1997), assorted articles on philosophy and the American left, and, most recently, “The Form is the Message: Bob Dylan and the 1960s" (Rock Music Studies 1:1, 2014). He is now engaged in a study of the interplay between political aspirations and formal innovations in 1960s rock and roll.