We are driving in LA, where any false move might prove fatal, and Mike—like me, no spring chicken—is at the wheel. Every four minutes a thousand brake lights flare and six lanes come careening to a halt. High-speed life: glass-shattering death: zoom, screech, zoom, screech, zoom zoom zoom. Put on some music, Mike mutters tightly. And so I do: Erik Satie’s 3 Gymnopedies and 6 Gnossiennes, glittering traceries of sound, felted wooden hammers striking tempered high-carbon steel, the delicacy of piano notes somehow holding off mayhem and death.
Philosophers who try to explain why beauty has such power over us (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Burke) wind up resorting to unbeautiful language. Intractable questions have plagued us for generations by now: Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or does it exist outside the mind of the perceiver? What are the standards by which we judge it? Who cares? counter its acolytes: according to Dostoevsky, beauty will save the world, and Keats is of the mind that in some way or another, “Beauty” is synonymous with “Truth”—which, he says, is all we really need to know.
So as we hungrily devour the breaking news and navigate the freeways, as we stew about the chaos in our land, let us not forget about the healing gift of beauty—of painting, of novels, of poetry, of gardens. Of the way that a beautiful piece of music and a well-played piano can take six lanes of zoom-and-screech LA traffic and turn them into slanted sunlight through a line of birches on a quiet country road.