I’ve been drawing for a while now, and the mindset of art has changed the way I understand human beauty. I find it strange now that people can admire the beauty of a body as a whole without really noticing the shape and movement of the limbs, the folds of nose and eyelid, the manner of the fingertips, the position they take, the way they hold steady or fidget or tremble. It’s strange that people can love the beauty that’s skin deep without really seeing the muscles and fat underneath that skin, how they slide over under one another and give that skin shape, the bones they attach to creating levers and joints to move that skin, give it ways to touch the world and interact with the world with purpose, with meaning. And below the fat and muscle and tendon and bone is the brain and other assorted organs, keeping it all moving, giving it all intent and life. How odd to only feel the exterior of that system is the beautiful part. The exterior is the part we see, the exterior is the part I draw, but every part of how that exterior is shaped and positioned is a symptom of and consequence of these underlying structures – what makes it beautiful is this relationship, this system of causes and effects, this machine that we call human.
It’s not actually drawing that made me feel this way, though. I’ve always solved problems by tracing backwards, to determining, once I find an end-state, what must have occurred to bring it about. I’ve always observed the reverse to revere the obverse, understanding things from both ends, conflating the effects and their causes: What is effect and what is cause is mostly a matter of perspective. It’s how a lot of humor works: Show the audience a situation that is, at first, inexplicable, and then connect it just tenuously enough to its antecedents to give them the delightful sensation of discovering the explanation for the inexplicable.
When we tell stories, if we tell them well, every moment leads to the next in a way that seems inevitable. We create not just a series of moments, a set of scenes, but also a set of connections between those scenes. A moment in the story may be exciting and beautiful, but what gives it meaning isn’t just that moment, it’s the moments that made the moment happen. There’s the whole ‘butterfly effect’ idea, of how a butterfly flaps its wings and down the line by the by eventually causes a great storm – but it’s never just one butterfly, it’s the breeze of a million insect wings, heartbeats, falling leaves, that somehow coalesce into a great consequence. There’s nothing special about the butterfly or its breath, and the great consequences could descend from any sufficiently long chain of insignificant events, moving the world by weight of a sufficiently long lever and place to stand.
You can’t be so blinded by the beauty of the system at play that you cease to care about results though. Every system is equal if you stop caring about results – death and life, sickness and health, liberty and fascism, these all may emerge from systems of beauty and elegance, but some are far less agreeable than others to those of us doomed to live in these systems. There’s no difference between the accidental systems of natural happenstance and the (supposedly) carefully cultivated systems of human society – except that (again, supposedly) the systems of human society provide results more congruent to the purposes of living a comfortable human life.
There’s a sense of inevitability when you look at the moving gears, at the anatomy of the world. But there’s no reason why the gears need to be where they are. There’s no reason for us not to move them as needed. We may, in fact, only be a tiny part of the system. It may, in fact, only be guesswork what will happen when we move things around, when we seek to change the system. And yeah, occasionally our spasms will cause earthquakes and our wings will cause hurricanes… but earthquakes and hurricanes happen anyway. We’ve lived in a system long enough to have some idea, some idea of what might lead to what. We can move. We can change. And though we will be attended by disasters and though harm will be caused, the world will change with us, and we will create more than we destroy, and we can slowly tune the heartbeat of the world into harmony.