The word of the day from dictionary.com on July 30, 2016 was “aesthete.” I can rarely think of this word without considering a Calvin and Hobbes Sunday comic strip from 1989. Calvin and Hobbes are stomping and slopping in the mud, as every six-year-old boy and his tiger should do, when Calvin turns to his smiling tiger and says, “Let’s face it, we’re aesthetes.”
It is a rather awkward word, not often used, and means “a person who has or professes to have refined sensitivity toward the beauties of art or nature.”
Aesthete is derived from the Greek aisthētḗs, meaning “one who perceives.”
It is very difficult to perceive, to see what is really there, to see what is real. Gary Hastings in his book Going Up the Holy Mountain, reminds us of an uncomfortable truth: “Most of us only see what our minds let us see, not what’s there. We aren’t aware of what truly exists, were only aware of what we think exists.”
Most of us never notice anything unusual or startling in this remarkable world. It takes the artist or poet to see and perceive and then remind us with pictures or words of something long forgotten or never known.
Consider what Laura Vargas, in her poem “If there is a” [in her collection An Animal of the Sixth Day], sees on a winter morning:
If there is a God, he has a lot to answer for.
Crocuses, purple cups that bloom through snow.
Cerulean, cornflower, azure, turquoise, ultramarine.
Mist off round haybales along the Sand Road
just after 5 a.m., when the foxes go to ground.
Not only the obvious evils, but also these other things
we should not mistake for easy.
The first line is arresting, as if she might be angry or disappointed with God for some recent disaster. But she abruptly switches our thinking, noting instead the stark beauty of purple against white. And are we even aware of the multitudinous shades of blue? And have we regarded mist, haybales and foxes as something of wonder? Without question, there are many evils in this cold world—we are dutifully notified every hour by “Breaking News.” But there are many wonders—and none of them easy.
How much would our life change if we saw everything in this way? What would be our frame of mind? Our expectations? About what would we worry?
Can we be “one who perceives”?