Albert Camus writes that if you’re truly paying attention, beauty, for all its sweetness, is “unbearable.” Beauty, he says, “drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”

For most of us, Camus’s pronouncement sounds dubious; it has the ring of tragic poetic fancy. We may feel revulsion or despair at the sight of misery and death, but beauty? What sort of pain could attend the apprehension of a sunset or a flower?

And yet it’s easy to be unsure if he’s correct, because true looking is rare. Our customary mode is to look for things rather than at them, to register them just long enough to tell whether they’ll harm or help, what we’d better steer around, what we should pick up from the ground and pocket for tomorrow.

One afternoon last summer, I was sitting on a bench in a small urban park, my youngest son Leonard asleep in his stroller. I’d consciously chosen to leave my iPhone at home, determined to look around me as I went. It’s an ongoing ethical project, a way of life I aspire to and too rarely achieve. I have a running suspicion that I could really, deeply love life, or a day or afternoon at the very least, if I could just be quiet and look, stop the incessant scheming and worrying and mental grappling. When Gerard Manley Hopkins sits still, he finds that the natural world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” and exults in the knowledge that its “blue-bleak embers” “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.” That’s what I want. I want to see embers, blue-bleak and dying, to see that when they fall and gall themselves, gold-vermillion gashes out into the visible world. How different would that be from my current life of cars and sidewalks and text exchanges, of long nights in my restless, thought-infested bed? Perhaps we can see ourselves to life.

Peer Christensen, Crabapple Study, oil on canvas, 2020. Used by permission.

On the other hand, maybe what we’ll see if we truly look is cruel, unbearable. In the little park my eyes came to rest on a tree whose branches stretched in over the chain-link fence from an uncultivated little area outside. It was August and the leaves were thick and vibrant, lusty almost, and a hot afternoon sun lit them from behind. On the ends of its branches hung thick clusters of pea-like orbs, some sort of reproductive vehicle, bearers of the next generation of stubborn urban weed-tree. The normalest thing in the world.

But deprived of anything more urgent to look at, my eyes grew settled and quiet, the tree’s announcement of itself grew louder. It became marvelous. That heavy, fruitful, virtuosic hanging; tucked in this ignored corner, unattended, these rich, bursting clumps of waxy green generation. So much plenitude there, so much gratuitous newness, a production of far more fullness – new life – than I could ever fashion with my busy mind and hands.

I have, as should be clear, Romantic tendencies, and I was enthralled. So much, so much on this little unplanned burst of branches. I had no practical interest in the seeds, or whatever they were. But I wanted to keep them. It was too much beauty to let go with indifference. That rich plumpness – what a thing to exist. I marveled at this unaccountable, unnoticed beauty. I wanted to have it forever, to live somehow in its presence. Life, I felt strongly, is better than I normally live it.

And yet, what the hell could it mean? What could I do? These little seeds were here for a week or a month; they would probably not succeed in making another tree. They would fall and shrivel; by now they are certainly rotted into dirt. I felt, suddenly, a pang of dismay, or even despair. I was too far from them; I can hardly recall now what they looked like. Seeing them felt like a torture, a tease. As I walked home, I was reminded of “Fruit,” by one of our great modern guides to these things, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski:

… How unattainable
afternoons, ripe, tumultuous, leaves
bursting with sap; swollen fruit, the rustling
silks of women who pass on the other
side of the street, and the shouts of boys
leaving school. Unattainable. The simplest
apple inscrutable, round.
The crowns of trees shake in warm
currents of air. Unattainably distant mountains
Intangible rainbows. Huge cliffs of clouds
flowing slowly through the sky. The ­sumptuous,
unattainable afternoon. My life,
swirling, unattainable, free.

What a strange kind of animal we must be, to feel ourselves perched on the periphery of something, always only almost living. The thing in front of us, just a hair past our reach, seems ideal, if we could get to it. But can we? Does such intimacy exist? Are we delusional to hope so?

What a strange kind of animal we must be, to feel ourselves perched on the periphery of something, always only almost living.

Camus knows, and is sad but brave. Hopkins knows different, and is full of gratitude. For him every small cluster of berries is charged with spiritual grandeur, because “the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Camus, too, seems to have glimpsed some shadow of divinity around the skirts of material beauty – it’s precisely an evasive, illusory “eternity” that hurts him, because he knows he cannot make it stay. Zagajewski also sees this shadow, but he doesn’t really know, not like Camus and Hopkins do. His is a poetics, an aesthetics, even a spirituality that is charged with longing and generosity – knowing little, refusing to give up hope, relentlessly honest. I find myself, in fits and starts, there with him.

But not everyone is stuck in limbo. Some people know, or at least believe. But how? I have spent well over a decade poking at these questions with the tools of philosophy, and I know at least that arguments can’t be the answer. Perhaps we can begin to sight a map by looking at the story of Václav Havel, the Czech writer and intellectual who was influential in the world of underground arts and letters in Soviet-Bloc Czechoslovakia. In 1989, he helped to foment the bloodless anti-Soviet “Velvet Revolution,” and subsequently became president. Ten years before, Havel had been arrested on charges of subversion, and sentenced to a four-year prison term. One day in the courtyard of the prison at Heřmanice, he had a dramatic epiphany that amounted to something like a conversion experience. He wrote to his wife, Olga:

I call to mind that distant moment in Heřmanice when on a hot, cloudless summer day, I sat on a pile of rusty iron and gazed into the crown of an enormous tree that stretched, with dignified repose, up and over all the fences, wires, bars, and watchtowers that separated me from it. As I watched the imperceptible trembling of its leaves against an endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once, I seemed to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time in which all the beautiful things I have ever seen and experienced existed in a total “co-present”; I felt a sense of reconciliation, indeed of an almost gentle assent to the inevitable course of events as revealed to me now, and this combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced. A profound amazement at the sovereignty of Being became a dizzy sensation of tumbling endlessly into the abyss of its mystery; an unbounded joy at being alive, at having been given the chance to live through all I have lived through, and at the fact that everything has a deep and obvious meaning – this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the infinite”; I was flooded with a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning. I would even say that I was somehow “struck by love,” though I don’t know precisely for whom or what.

This epiphany grants to Havel what he describes as “a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning.” But how, why has this happened? What is it about this particular tree – and by extension, any ordinary beautiful thing – that might explain this sort of experience?

We can’t finally know, of course, but we would do well to begin with Havel’s description of the tree. The tree is “enormous,” stretching out its branches with “dignified repose, up and over all the fences, wires, bars, and watchtowers” as its leaves “tremble imperceptibly” against “an endless sky.” His epiphany seems to be fostered by the juxtaposition of the tree and sky, each illuminating his apprehension of the other.

Openness requires a degree of brokenness, and may be difficult and painful.

He sees living things stretch out with “dignified repose,” in their ceaseless, simple, unreflective excellence. Zebra fur just does grow in stripes, cuts heal, magnolia trees bloom in the spring. Within the simplest cell, structures and functions of great complexity and elegance operate independent of human comprehension or control. And this sort of virtuosity is beautiful to behold, as Aristotle observes: “Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in Nature’s works in the highest degree, and the resultant end of her generations and combinations is a form of the beautiful.”

This beautiful virtuosity goes further than we can imagine, perhaps infinitely further. Havel is struck by nature’s “own great and mysterious order, its own direction.” Our sciences, especially physics, aim to map out an explanatory basement, an account of the forces that finally underlie the structure and order of trees, hands, and eyelashes. But even if we embrace string theory we can always wonder what accounts for the cohesion and function of their tiny vibrating strings of energy. Living things have depths which are simultaneously orderly and incomprehensible to human knowers.

Confronted by mystery, Havel is dizzy at his own finitude. He sees – with relief – that he simply cannot make himself omnipotent, nor should he try. And so he describes a feeling of “gentle assent to the inevitable course of events as revealed to me now … combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced.”

Still he feels “a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very ‘edge of the infinite.’” Havel has come to see that the human quest for total understanding and mastery is destined to remain frustrated. As parts of nature, we humans contain the same infinite depths as Havel’s enormous tree, but as knowers and actors, we are incorrigibly finite. This bittersweet realization makes Havel receptive to the marvelous insight that if we can’t understand everything, maybe there’s a lot we can’t understand.

Each tree, each ant and person rises and falls beneath an infinite sky; we may flourish on this day or that, but the passage of time will see to our physical annihilation. The virtuosity of life is all the more striking – it might even seem miraculous – when it emerges in a context which also foregrounds its fragility. Here we all are, for a few short minutes – tiny, brittle, ignorant, and unspeakably beautiful. Confronted with this juxtaposition, Havel suddenly, unexpectedly receives the intuition that behind the façade of ubiquitous flux, a limitless, incorruptible reality exists. This is the reality that traditional metaphysics and theology try to talk about.

We are left with one main imperative: humble, careful attention.

Havel gratefully accepts his intuition, and his posture towards life is transformed, though he does not go so far as to label himself a convert: “I would even say that I was somehow ‘struck by love’ though I don’t know precisely for whom or what.” Like a number of theologians, Augustine and Aquinas among them, Havel senses the difficulty of attaching words to our experience of the ineffable.

And yet, unlike them, he feels unable to accept any doctrinal attempts to do so, though he does say in other writings that he wishes he could. He writes in another letter to Olga that “by perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we accept our responsibility for the river as a whole.” Havel’s aesthetic rapture doesn’t whisk him away from the bonds of human solidarity, but reshapes and strengthens them.

Faced in that moment with the juxtaposition of fragility and virtuosity, Havel suddenly knew that fragility was not the final word. Particular people and things are indeed fragile, but there’s some ineffable spiritual reality that unites and harmonizes the particulars into a beautiful, invulnerable whole. The universe is not, he saw, cold and indifferent.

Why on earth did Havel come to this conclusion? Though “conclusion” is the wrong word: this was not the result of long consideration or weighing of evidence. Havel stepped like an ordinary prisoner into a dusty courtyard, and suddenly metaphysics bubbled up, unbidden. And he was swept away by its truth.

To underline again: Havel was not logically forced to his conclusion. We can marvel at nature’s virtuosity even if fragility is indeed the last word. But to Havel, again, it did not seem to be the last word. The perception of a moment of beauty snowballed into an intuition about beauty itself, that gathered and pulled all of existence into its orbit. But if beauty sometimes seems to open a small window to a realm beyond our fragmented, time-bound existence, every adult knows that things are not always how they seem. Herman Melville, writing in 1851 to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, says:

In reading some of Goethe’s sayings, so worshipped by his votaries, I came across this, “Live in the all.” That is to say, your separate identity is but a wretched one – good; but get out of yourself, spread and expand yourself, and bring to yourself the tinglings of life that are felt in the flowers and the woods, that are felt in the planets Saturn and Venus, and the Fixed Stars. What nonsense!

But he adds,

N.B. This “all” feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

For Havel, the all feeling was a glimpse of a genuine truth, and it transformed him. For Melville it was a temporary “feeling or opinion,” to be enjoyed but not to be trusted as revelatory. Why did Melville “know” that the seeming reality of the “all” was to be rejected as fancy? Why did Havel “know” that it was to be embraced?

As thinkers – appliers of concepts, technicians of logical implication – I fear that our line of inquiry has to end here, in disappointment, with these questions. All we can say for sure is that some experiences of beauty make the world seem a certain way – as if it is “charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. On the other hand, to his contemporary Matthew Arnold, the world seems to be a “darkling plain” where “ignorant armies clash by night.”

Deciding which understanding to embrace as true cuts so close to our fundamental experience of reality that it’s hardly a decision at all. Philosophers dig, Wittgenstein says, until we hit rock, and the spade turns. And the spade turns here. How, on what grounds, could Havel convince Melville to believe the all feeling? How could Melville convince Havel to disbelieve it? We are not in the realm of logical confirmation or refutation here, or even of persuasion. The question is closer to one of trust. Havel and Melville are perhaps comparable to a young groom receiving a pledge of love and fidelity from his would-be bride. Should he believe her? Only he can make that decision – there’s no a priori way to adjudicate it. Some experiences can only be lived through, and listened to.

So we are left with one main imperative: humble, careful attention. This is the only way to begin to examine the great question Havel and Melville answer in their own, radically different, ways. The sort of attention that can approach the question is perhaps what Simone Weil describes as “empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”

Peer Christensen, Tamarack Study, detail. Used by permission.

Weil’s image comports very uncomfortably with the aggressive, penetrating style of attention that took pride of place in the Enlightenment. This style still reigns as the paradigmatic posture of serious inquiry, vindicated every day by the fantastic advances of modern science and technology. It is perfectly articulated in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, when he says that reason “must approach nature in order to be taught by it. It must not, however, do so in the character of a pupil who listens to everything that the teacher chooses to say, but of an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer questions which he has himself formulated.” This is, of course, a rather cramped and narrow way to approach nature, at least when we act in our capacities as mere humans rather than scientific investigators.

The Kantian approach has steadily become the default way of experiencing the world, in the process helping to make experiences like Havel’s rarer. Kant’s approach has its time and place, to be sure, but some topics – like the fundamental nature of reality, or the likelihood of marital concord – require a more open, variegated, sensitive approach.

This openness, though, requires a degree of brokenness, and may be difficult and painful. It is not without resonance that Havel’s epiphany took place while he was imprisoned and powerless – Havel’s awareness of his finitude, his confrontation with a world that is too great for his capacity, is reinforced by physical confinement. It is difficult to adopt Kant’s posture when one’s illusion of mastery has been so unceremoniously and convincingly destroyed. It makes sense, then, that thinkers from Boethius and Thomas More to Wittgenstein, Pound, Dostoyevsky, and Martin Luther King Jr. have penned masterpieces from prison. The power of suffering and humiliation to open our eyes is a guiding theme of some of Dostoyevsky’s most powerful work, which is to say, some of the most powerful ever created.

When the writer and atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens was first diagnosed with cancer, he announced that if he should, in the grips of decline, begin to soften his stance toward theism, the public should ignore him. This Christopher Hitchens, he said – still robust, pugilistic, lustful – was the real one. The diminished, sad, terrified Christopher Hitchens of advanced-stage cancer would be just a shadow of the full man. Hitchens here has broached a massive epistemological question – do we see more clearly in our weakness or our strength? Dostoyevsky answers definitively for the former, but with a qualification: the kind of weakness he finds illuminating involves a careful distinction between guilt and shame.

We can see this distinction summed up in the story of Markel, a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. Markel is a haughty, cynical boy, who mocks his mother’s piety, until he is struck with illness. Then he is progressively weakened, progressively humbled; he comes more and more to embrace the piety he once mocked. Speaking to his mother, Markel calls her “heart of my heart, my joyful one,” and tells her to “know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me.” From his new perspective, Markel turns in humble repentance toward the people who surround him and toward the broader creation: “There was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all.”

Shame and guilt here are polar opposites. Shame is denial, a desire to hide one’s true nature from oneself and others. It is what Hitchens imagined religion might be – a scrambling, pathetic attempt to escape finitude. The guilt that Dostoyevsky has in mind is the opposite. It is a letting go, the generous acknowledgement of what one truly is, the hospitable acceptance of one’s own flaws, finitude, mortality. This acceptance liberates a person from stifling falsehood and instead creates the possibility of reunion: with oneself, with others, with nature. Markel’s mother tries to save him from this liberation, assuring him that he is not so guilty as he claims, and he reproves her: “Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise. Am I not in paradise now?” These are heavy, fragrant words.

From some deep part of me I feel their affirmation; if there is a key to my overheated encounter with some pea-like tree fruits in a local park last summer, it would seem to reside here. Reading through the lenses of Havel and Dostoyevsky, it seems we could say that my hands and eyes were too weak to grasp what I saw – I could neither hold the fruits in perpetual existence, nor see to their core, to understand and love the force that animates them. Dostoyevsky suggests that my lack of control is the simple human reality, and my anguish at it a blinding, crippling form of shame, perhaps the great human disease. He suggests that I could have kept looking, I could have kept feeling my powerlessness. This sort of fortitude, in the face of my limitations, might have led me to a posture of guilt; it might have led me to understand what I am and to embrace it as good. From there, some large things – far too large to put into words – might have presented themselves to me.

Dostoyevsky asks a lot; it sounds like hard, hard, harrowing work. It sounds like being shaken to the core in a small grubby park, with nannies and yuppie parents all around checking their phones and herding their little strivers. It sounds, maybe, like more than I could take. It also sounds, however, like the way reality is glimpsed – whether that reality be crushing or saving, eternity or death.