There was an instinctive sense of beauty in childhood years. The countryside in mid-Somerset is not classic picture postcard stuff, but there were sights and landscapes that had a special quality. Every village and every town had at least a handful of medieval buildings. Daily life was lived in a direct encounter with nature. Music and art and literature, the conventional channels for the conveyance of beauty, were often superfluous on spring and summer days when flowers and trees were a riot of colour and shapes.
How important is such beauty in creating a society that is safe to live in? Crime rates were, and remain, low. It is not that rural England is especially privileged: during the 1981 riots over poverty and alienation in English cities, the unemployment rate in parts of Cornwall was over 20%. It is more that life is lived in a different context. The brutal ugliness of many urban landscapes has no sense of timelessness, no sense that life is more than a banal existence.
Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myshkin is mocked for his belief that beauty can save people from the worst:
Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!
Myshkin’s concern with the reality of the Russia in which he lived and his hopes of transforming that world threaten his relationships:
If I hear you talking about capital punishment, or the economical condition of Russia, or about Beauty redeeming the world, or anything of that sort, I’ll–well, of course I shall laugh and seem very pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don’t look me in the face again! I’m serious now, mind, this time I am really serious.” She certainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she looked quite different from what she usually was, and the prince could not help noticing the fact. She did not seem to be joking in the slightest degree.
Myshkin, The Idiot of the book’s title is naive in his understanding; the world is quite simply not the place he imagined it might be, but is he so wrong in his hopes? Doesn’t the encounter with beauty change people for the better?
For generations working people organised to allow beauty to be accessible to all – the national parks movement in England from the 1930s, the reading rooms, the educational associations, the libraries, the summer camps, the ramblers’ groups, the choirs, the brass bands – yet having achieved the goals, it seems almost as though the struggle was given up. Reality television and tabloid stories now fill the hours which were once taken with companionship and culture.
Would the world be a better place with a little less government policy and a little more beauty? Or is that just plain idiotic?