Why do encounters with beauty often make us sad? Along with euphoria, I experience pain as I become more aware that my limited senses and attention span cannot fully comprehend or exhaust the possibilities of the sublime reality before me. As Edna St. Vincent Millay exclaimed, “World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!” Yet that pain is, in its own way, sweet. Brett McCracken reflects on this fact in “The Aesthetics of Absence” from Relevant Magazine:
The climax of watching the sun set is knowing that in a scant few minutes, it will be gone, consumed in the revolving horizon. And we feel this tension of impending loss—as joy, as tragedy, but above all as beauty.
And the more I think about beauty—and art—the more I realize how central absence is. What hits us the most—what goes beyond our senses and touches our souls—is not what is present, but what is absent. For good or ill, the state of being hungry and seeing some delicious food is undoubtedly more thrilling than constantly having a full table. To want, to pine, is always more fulfilling than constant satisfaction.
The importance of absence in art can be easily seen if we look at the aesthetic manifestations of it. In music, for example, beauty comes from a withheld melody or an elusive “home” chord. If a song is full of dominant chords, we don’t have any reason to keep listening; if it is all melody, it would be boring….
But why is absence so central to art? Perhaps absence is crucial to art for the same reasons that art is crucial to human existence. Art is how we cope with time.
If you think about it, everything in our conscious lives is some sort of absence. Our memories are about the past; our worries and hopes are about the future. Our every movement, mental process, emotion, etc is a reaction against something that is now over or might be coming. The pain we feel when we step on a nail may seem instantaneous, but it is really a delayed—however minutely—reaction. Presence is instantaneous, lived for a moment and then gone. All else is absence….
We long for the experience of presence—the suspension or transcendence of time. But in this life, presence is as permanent as the wind. What we are really longing for is heaven, God, the eternal. In this spinning planet, where the sun sets, rises and then sets again, the only constants are decay, change, goodbyes and impermanence. But thanks be to God, he gave humans a mind to see beyond this depressing state. He endowed us with memory, imagination—the ability to conceive of and hope for places beyond ourselves, for presences outside the asphyxiating stranglehold of time….
Art should not shy away from those things we associate with absence—loss, sadness, depravity, uncertainty. For without absence, there would be no reason for art. Art comes from the heart, and every human heart is like that empty tomb on Easter morning: missing something.