You could say it fades, but what does it fade into? Does it permanently disappear into the darkness that never again sees the light of its gracious bounty? Does it fade into background grey, ready to lend color to this world once again upon the opportunity? An opportunity that lies more in the eye of the beholder, rather than any necessary incumbent conditions?
If you walk in winter, you could easily see all the dead roses as the nightmare before Christmas. It would be equally possible, if not equally easy, to see where dead roses come from. The nourishing soil that, full of minerals that are star stuff, provides vigor to the roots, such that, through their desire to create beauty, they absorb what might be otherwise fashioned as dead rock into their capillaries, and transform them into the juice, travelling up the verdant stem, into the leaf, which receives all that the sun has to give. But don’t stop there. This infinitely alive and sentient thriving solar battery knows how to combine with the power of a noxious gas of carbon, to give all the oxygen to the world as if consciously to power the pulse of all the diverse and wonderfully strange exotic living things in the animal kingdom. And, as a cherry on top, the reproductive cycle of the rose hip is festively dressed in the garland of petals which we so commonly call a flower. Beauty, no?
This skeletal rose hip full of seed sits at the tip of the promontory of what we are calling “a dead rose” is less deceased than poised ready to give a profligacy of new life. Ready to start this mysterious event called new life once again, a series of events perhaps unique in all the cosmos to our singular planet. We could ask the question again in a different way: “Can we see the beauty of this mildewed and blackened husk of a rose, which asks us simply to regard its dormant dignified splendor and nod to all the beauty it creates in all its different phases and parts?”
This points to the fact that beauty does not die, not only because it always returns, but because there are many different forms of beauty. This piece is too short to even begin to give a thumbnail sketch the taxonomy of beauty. The nature of its essence has been parsed and particulated since well before recorded history and was certainly one of the hot topics when the recording of human thought began. Defining what is beautiful is both a collective and an individual obligation. Our aesthetic is embedded in our morals.
This is due in part to its necessary apposition to its opposite: disgust. Neuroscience has recently discovered that the phenomena called “disgust” is more than a human emotion; it is part of the hardware of the brain that evaluates what is pleasing against that which is revolting, dangerous or poisonous, from the body’s point of view. Disgust, one might argue, is even more fundamental and visceral than anger or love: “Disgust is a bodily experience that creeps into every corner of our social lives, a piece of evolutionary hardware designed to protect our stomachs that expanded into a system for protecting our souls.” (NYT, 12/27/21 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/27/magazine/disgust-science.html).
Disgust is complicated too. It seems to gain its intensity of energy from the fact that something disgusting contains elements of both the pleasing and the foul. Take rotten berries for example; our immediate ideation of a berry is positive, and yet to see one in decay, is … disgusting!
Just as we have a visceral and chthonic need to immediately recoil from toxic sensory experiences, we also inferentially are drawn as moth to the flame to those things which best represent the opposite of disgusting. The inevitable human dance of aversion and attraction.
One would think that only perfection would do for the mental apprehension of beauty, as the opposite of that which is fatally flawed. But Francis Bacon says: “There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” A flaw gives us the safety of not being overpowered and diminished by that which is so perfect as to denigrate our shortcomings: a flaw renders endearment, as long as it is not fatal. As an aside, let me close with this from Annie Dillard: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” And writing, to find all the beauty beyond any immediate disgust, say, looking at a dead rose, for example. Our job: to give it so many other names. Beauty, for one.