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My Quest for Beauty by Rollo May (Saybrook: $18.95; 243 pp., illustrated by Rollo May)

January 12, 1986|Kenneth Atchity | Atchity has just published "A Writer's Time: A Guide to the Creative Process From Vision Through Revision" (Norton).

Rollo May begins his essay on personal aesthetics with an epigraph from Walter Pater: "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame,/to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." The ideal May establishes is clear and attractive, reminiscent of Jose Ortega y Gasset's imperative: "I think the only immoral thing is for a being not to live every instant of its life with the utmost intensity."

Though Rollo May's reflections on his lifelong relationship with art and the idea of beauty lacks Ortega y Gasset's intensity, "My Quest for Beauty" offers sensitivity and insight worthy of a major contemporary humanist and psychologist. May's earlier "Love and Will" filled a profound need in our culture, reminding us of the classical Greek recognition that abiding relationships depend upon voluntary commitment rather than the temporary whimsies of passion.

In this more personal and more uneven book, May recounts his adolescent experiences as a student in Saloniki, Greece, where introspection led to life-shaping realizations. May recounts his mountain-climbing and his exploration of tiny villages. It was in one such village, Hortiati, that May began the drawings that enhance the text--and his life. His note-taking echoes Kazantakis' Zorba:

" . . . I answered in my halting Greek, 'I write, what is life?'

"They all leaned back with guffaws of laughter. One of them spoke out, 'That's easy! If you have bread you eat, if you do not have bread you die.' "

At a crucially impressionable juncture in his development, May was exposed to the natural forms of beauty in the Greek countryside and internalized those forms until they became archetypes of a personal myth that he would spend a lifetime reinvoking and expressing in his art. The book describes his 1932 visit to the peninsula of Athos, free of women since the 11th Century. The Greek Orthodox monks led him to further insight: "It seemed that I had not listened to my inner voice, which had tried to talk to me about beauty. I had been too hard-working, too 'principled' to spend time merely looking at flowers . . . it had taken a collapse of my whole former way of life for this voice to make itself heard. . . ."

"What is beauty? . . . Beauty is the experience that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one's sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment a timelessness, a repose--which is why we speak of beauty as being eternal."

May reconciles the two classical descriptions of beauty--as the condition in which all the parts form a harmonious whole (Aristotle); or as "the eternal splendor of the One showing through the Many. . . " (Plato, Plotinus, Pythagoras). He cites Schiller's argument that beauty is born in play: "Play is the one activity where the fusion of inner vision and objective facts is achieved. Out of this comes the living form which is beauty." His book is testament to the truth of Freud's summary of "the two purposes of life: to love and to work." Both activities express creativity.

Relating the pursuit of beauty to his profession of psychology, May comments on Wallace Stevens' famous line: "Death is the mother of beauty." "Beauty calls up in us the qualities that go beyond death, such as eternity, serenity, the use of the imagination to project us beyond time and space, even to Peer Gynt's imagining the snow piling over him after he dies. . . . Beauty is eternity born into human existence."

May's description of his painting confirms my feeling that so-called artistic "immortality" comes from the timelessness of the act rather than from any foreshadowing of one's place in history: "As the colors flow into each other, merging and fading, and reforming, I have a sense of participating in the universe. I experience a kind of ecstasy, great or small as it may be." A poet, as e.e. cummings said, is someone who cares only for making, not for things made. Doing brings more satisfaction than having done, just as being is more vital than having been.

Despite the book's myopic meanderings into cynical and superficial commentaries on film, literature, contemporary culture, art and politics, May has given us a deeply moving essay, beautifully and vividly illustrated, that can affect our thinking as deeply as his own thought and action were once affected by the spirit of beauty.

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