The Cult of Beauty
a quasi-religious obsession with aesthetics
The Bergonian archeological and historical record quite amply demonstrate a thoroughgoing, sometimes very self-conscious devotion to beauty. This began in the ancient Kuan civilization (in eastern Bergonia)-- where the first cities in Bergonia appeared. The Kuan loved landscapes and natural vistas. Kuan verse-masters produced copious amounts of poetry describing and exalting the moon, sunsets, mountains, lakes, flowers, and the other delightful things of nature. They had the idea that poetry could evoke the "ambience" or "spirit" of a place or time, and that one could reproduce the feeling of direct experience with the poem. In this sense poetry did for low-technology archaic cultures what movies do today for us-- obviously the methods are quite different, but the function is the same. Though the Kuan were the first Bergonians to urbanize-- by 400 BC the city of Mragatai had 100,000 people-- they continued to look outward with adoration at nature's grandeur.
Long before the coming of Ierecina, the Great Prophet, the Ancita (Nacateca people of the western Ifuno Plateau) gave worship and reverence to particular items-- skulls and bones of great men, fossils (especially of trilobites), unique stones, bird feathers. They called these collectibles claresa (Nac.), and believed they were imbued with pivotal, heavy concentrations of holy spirit. A devotee could direct his prayers toward the claresa and have them magnified. The believers often identified the claresa by their beauty (if not their dreadful power, e.g. the skulls). The special beauty signified or manifested the inner power.
Claresa had originally included only natural objects, though often altered. But in Ierecina's time, the Ancita had begun to manufacture claresa-- beautiful ceramic vases and statuettes, wooden carvings, cut jewels, small marble statues so exquisite that people ascribed to them the same mystical properties as the natural claresa. Finally a different sort of Claresa was recognized in the beauty of nature.
From belief in claresa the Ancita came to the more generalized idea that holiness manifested as beauty, and manifesting in all beauty, and that experiencing beauty promoted one's holiness. Ierecina implicitly endorsed this idea, and so it became part of Shufrantei religious belief. Shufrantei believed that a person's soul was directly formed and reformed by the person's experience. Partaking in evil acts sickened and ultimately killed the soul. Suffering sometimes strengthened the soul, and other times weakened it. Both doing good and enjoying the good nourished the soul. Beauty, since it mirrored holiness, uplifted and strengthened the soul.
When the banda warriors spread the Shufrantei religion and Ancita values all across Bergonia, they carried the idea that beautiful art had a quasi-religious significance.
Bergonia cosmology even in ancient times tended to take an atomistic view of things, thus imagining a world of simple elements combining to form complex forms. Everything-- people, personalities, ocean water, rainstorms, acorns, the light of dawn, a tikai opera, or a banda warrior's tomahawk-- were compositions and combinations of simple forms. In this regard Bergonian tradition finds verification in the physical sciences. These complex things in the Bergonian mind were more than structures of simple elements, but also syntheses of the simple elements. Some combinations were disharmonious, others harmonious. The disharmonious combinations (wild storms, personality disorders, anger, racism, cancer, filthiness, tackiness, and ugly crap for sale at Spencer Gifts) are obviously bad for the body or the soul. Obversely, the harmonious combinations (a beautiful painting, a beautiful sunset, meditative calm, "Flow," and the tikai opera) strengthen and uplift the soul. There was nothing static at all about the Bergonian worldview-- in this respect utterly unlike the Aristotelian world-view-- with the elements combining and recombining like a kaleidoscope, always in flux, always changing.
In any event, the Ancita understood the common external properties to all Claresa: order & harmony contrasting with surprise & novelty, plus temporality, as beauty is always frail and fleeting. Beauty, like life, is fated for death.
So, as a result of all these beliefs, the Bergonians have for centuries revered their own fine art. Rulers, temples, rich iregemi nobles all patronized the arts. Good artists and craftsmen could always find work. Fine works of art were put on display, mounted in alcoves on pedestals surrounded by lamplight. People were invited for meditative viewings of beautiful pottery and statuary. Even in the small towns people gathered in the square for poetry readings. All this "art" was a little more imbued with religious significance than in any Eurasian civilization, and there was certainly no real distinction between "sacred" art and "secular" art. All good and true art was holy.
People also attended to beauty in nature. They gathered on patios built next to pools & streams for sunset prayers or to enjoy the dramatic rise of the full moon. They gathered on grassy hilltops at night to watch the stars. They rowed boats on lakes and in the rivers for the view. Even the peasants built stout wooden benches in pretty groves and on shady hillsides where they could enjoy nature's peace. Often the Chinese are cited for their love of natural beauty, but the Chinese were known to carve characters into the rocks of the cliffs they liked, something no Bergonian would dream of doing. In a contrary sense, ancient Bergonian tieri designated what we now call wilderness areas, forbidding human settlement and activity in selected forests, around pretty waterfalls, meadows and cliffs, and on certain mountains (such as Gablaru). One of these, the Emperors' Forest in northwest Rasecin state, was spared all exploitation until the early 1900s, when wholesale logging began. (For a parallel story about how capitalist values trumped traditional values, see the Book of Dreams)
The Cult of Beauty required establishment of a relationship between the beautiful object and the observing subject. At first, the object looks empty, devoid of anything to have a relationship with. But the subject is naturally sentient to the beauty, and then cultivates his natural propensities into disciplined skill. The natural ability of observation becomes cultivated contemplation, then lengthens into sustained attention and then meditation, which necessitates respect and produces love The observer's love, manifest in his continued presence and attention will finally evoke the spirit within the object. But of course a lot of doubt was cast on this final extreme form of the cult, and a little ridicule. Many people spoke in terms of "the coldness, the indifference of the moon," and compared the observers love to the unrequited love of a young romantic.
During the Imperial and Medieval eras many literati wrote essays on claresa, on other beautiful things and experiences, and on beauty itself. When the empires broke apart, when the world plunged into war, atrocity (see Prakai Eleusi) and famine, they wrote about how beauty exists in tandem with suffering. Some would have said that suffering taunts beauty, and makes it ridiculous and vain, But there flowed out of the pens of the literati moving, passionate accounts of how beauty in the world provided them with consolation in their times of need.
Suffering is the symptom of the hideous slide downward toward the black door of death, made worse by the fear that arises from the human knowledge of the door. Death pulls life toward it, like the ground pulls objects in the air, and human will becomes weak and puny. But art reminds us perpetually of the opposite tendency in life, the distinctly human tendency to build, make and create, where man becomes the creator, the ultimate expression of human will, finding the disparate pieces of creation and recombining them into a new creation, a force bravely resisting death and suffering, a godlike force opposing the gods' decree of death.
Rev. 22 Nov 02