Traveller's tales

Sunday, September 03, 2006

To admire greatness and rejoice in beauty

Daniel Bell, writing in the 1990s, said that whereas former ages had been characterized by man’s struggle with the world of nature, and then the struggle with manufactured nature, this age of ours is characterized by man’s struggle against man.

There is something in man that needs to struggle, that seems clear. Barnes Wallace, the innovator responsible for the ‘bouncing bomb’ during the struggles of the 2nd World War, said that ‘life is a battle, and when the battle is over, so too is life.’

Man has conquered to achieve, and in his conquests found his greatest achievements. The ability to create machines that can fly, or till the soil, or kill has been his keenest, most developed ability.

To admire greatness, man has either had to conquer it, in its natural form, or produce it through innovation. Kipling urged us, though, not to be overtaken in our admiration of the machine; he said that ‘they are only the children of our mind’, putting them firmly subordinate to us, which is right and proper.

Now that we seem to have entered this final phase of Bell’s; one characterized by man’s struggle against himself, we have come to lack the greatness to admire. We no longer have Newton, da Vinci or Darwin to look up to and aspire to. In the West, in particular, the decline of our greatness in manufacturing has brought with it our obsession with the new, disparaging the obsolete as though it never existed or had its uses.

The geological map of Britain, and the A4 Pacific locomotive, the fastest steam powered locomotive ever, signify, to me at any rate, all that should be admired and all that has beauty. True, neither has the beauty of a symphony, or the majesty of the stag in its highland haunts, but look beneath the surface, as you must with both artifacts, and you will learn of the vast amount of knowledge and expertise, the skill and the diligence necessary to produce both.

We can stand and admire a painting by Van Gogh, a statue by Michelangelo, or a dome by Brunelesci, as simple onlookers, marveling at their beauty, but it is only in the understanding of genius, partial though this may be, that true greatness and real beauty come to be apparent. And that is probably what we are losing, may have lost already, but it is in understanding that one comes to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty, from the hand of man, or his creator.

Robert L. Fielding

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