“Artist of the Beautiful”

Photo by viviannedraper on Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo by viviannedraper on Flickr via Creative Commons

Four weeks ago I enrolled in a free online literature course that studies science fiction and fantasy literature, examining their effects on culture and the development of the genres. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the stories and books we’ve already covered. This past week the focus was on short stories and poems by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Hawthorne, I knew, had penned The Scarlet Letter which I read in high school. The themes of shame, scandal, misogyny, and sexual ethic were powerful, and my young teenaged mind created a general haze of oppression around the title. So when I began reading his stories last week I was reticent. I worried they would be heavy in some ubiquitous but vague way, and I couldn’t imagine the historical narrative writer pulling off decent science fiction.

Which goes to show how narrow-minded I often am. The first story, “The Birthmark,” was beautiful, clear, and melancholy. It was also great science fiction. Interest piqued, I tore through the next few short stories in a few hours until “The Artist of the Beautiful” was the final Hawthorne title on my list.

This is far and away one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. We follow the protagonist along a roller coaster of creative phases, from almost maddening intensity to alcoholic despair. We watch him love in vain, hope in waves, compare himself in futility, and dream fantastically. His story ends in a way that should be sad, but weirdly infused me with hope that an artist who proves themselves through all the challenges thrown at them can rise above even bitter disappointment sustained on the life of the creative force within them.

Over the summer I watched a show called “Numb3rs” while all of my friends were gallivanting around the country with their families. Something about the story, and a few characters in particular, opened my mind to the beauty in science and math, fields I always shrugged off as cold and sterile. I saw characters in love with the earth, open to God, curious about spirituality because of their study of science and math.

This fictional version of the physics and math worlds created in me a new appreciation for the actual fields, which in turn allowed me to more fully appreciate “The Artist of the Beautiful.” I saw in Owen my own struggles to believe that I have something worth saying, that the nebulous presence of inspiration is worth all the failed attempts, terrible first drafts, and mundane blog posts. Through his perseverance I was reminded that no effort toward bringing greater beauty in the world is ever wasted, be it through art or science or kindness or economics or gratitude. If it comes from love, if it drives toward love, if it elicits love, it is beautiful. We are all artists of the beautiful.




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