I luxuriated in Joseph Brodsky’s extended essay Watermark: An Essay on Venice, and was thrilled to walk by a plaque along my favorite area, the Giudecca Canal, that is dedicated to him for his writings about Venice. This is another one of those books on which I perpetrated my bad habit of turning down the tiny corner of pages that have something on them that speaks to me, and another one of those books that have too many such tiny turned corners, so rich were the thoughts I found in there. He wrote, “For this is the city of the eye; your other faculties play second fiddle. The way the hues and rhythms of the local facades try to smooth the waves’ ever-changing colors and patterns….”
He wrote, “…[N]ow and then across the canal, two or three well-lit, tall windows, half shaded with gauze or tulle, reveal an octopal chandelier, the lacquered fin of a grand piano…the gilded rib cage of a ceiling’s beams–and you feel as though you are looking unto a fish through its scales, and inside of it there’s a party.” He talks of Venice as being water made, well, if not flesh, edifice. “Splashing, glittering, glowing, glinting, the element has been casting itself upward for so long it is not surprising that some of these aspects eventually acquired mass, flesh, and grew solid.”
But he uses Venice also as a point from which to speak about beauty, and our hunger for it. “The eye is the most autonomous of our organs….The eye keeps registering reality even when there is no apparent reason for doing this…Why?…Because the environment is hostile. Eyesight is the instrument of adjustment to an environment which remains hostile no matter how well you have adjusted to it….In short, the eye is looking for safety. That explains the eye’s predilection for art in general…the eye’s appetite for beauty, as well as beauty’s own existence…..When the eye fails to find beauty–alias, solace–it commands the body to create it, or, failing that, adjusts itself to perceive virtue in ugliness….[B]eauty is where the eye rests. Aesthetic sense is the twin of one’s instinct for self-preservation and is more reliable than ethics. Aesthetics’ main tool, the eye, is absolutely autonomous. In its autonomy, it is inferior only to a tear. …Assuming that beauty is the distribution of light in the fashion most congenial to one’s retina, a tear is an acknowledgment of the retina’s, as well as the tear’s, failure to retain beauty.”
“…[T]he eye identifies itself not with the body it belongs to but with the object of its attention. And to the eye, for purely optical reasons, departure is not the body leaving the city but the city abandoning the pupil….A tear is the anticipation of the eye’s future.”
Oh romantic stuff, and I could quibble with quite a bit of it, but you have to admit, it’s kind of a lovely idea.