The Mentawei people of Sumatra file their teeth; they adorn themselves with brightly coloured beads and feathers, and engrave their entire bodies with the most delicate spiraling tattoos.
They go about all daily activities like this, fully adorned, dedicating their lives to the pursuit of aesthetic beauty.
The reason for this is not narcissism, but an unwavering spiritual devotion; the Mentawei see beauty as an expression of the divine. They believe that the spirit world resides in the beauty of the the plants and the birds and the sky, and that they, in order to fulfill their duty in the world, must do honour to the spirits by aligning their own bodies with the beauty they see around them, or else the spirit world would retreat, causing all life to perish.
For the Mentawei the cessation of beauty means the cessation of life.
This alternative perspective of beauty, as spiritual necessity, rather than superfluous luxury brings life to an old quandary of mine. I have to admit it, I am, and have always been, deeply connected to the world, not through intellect or reasoning, but through the sensory impressions etched into me by my experiences of beauty.
A stirring piece of music or verse, a sunrise, or the sight of my loves unmade bed are things that engage my internal world, which is not rigid and methodical, but soft and undulating. I am often stopping my car just to watch the breeze move through an open field, or the sun peel away, orange and melancholy, from the western sky.
Things that are beautiful make me feel at home in the world; it is through these sense impressions that I find a deep understanding and connection with things.
I felt mildly ashamed for a long time about my preoccupation with lovely, flowing things. In the west there seems to be a stigma attached to the pursuit of beauty, as though it were a wasteful occupation, something supplementary, but not essential to the vitality of the beating, humming world.
Perhaps this has something to do with our interpretation of it. When I typed the word “beauty” into Google Images I found myself scrolling through page after page of pretty, symmetrical, Caucasian faces.
There is no great and honourable Mentawein imperatives, no depth and breadth to our sight; it’s beauty for beauty’s sake in the west.
What we fail to grasp is the poignancy, the vastness of meaning that lies within our reaction to beautiful things. Is not the generous pink smear of a sunset or the gentle, clear curve of a wave a kind of important spiritual experience? Does not the movement and vibrancy of things stir some deep internal satisfaction in us—a satisfaction necessary for us to connect and thrive together in the world?
It may appear to us in differing forms, but we all know beauty.
It’s in the towering domes and spires of our places of worship, in the deep velveteen night sky; it’s in the forests and the deserts and the oceans; it gilds the faces of those we love, and it follows us deep into our dreams. When confronted with it we cannot help but stand still, full of a moment, gathering all of our senses in around us, and forgetting the ticking away of time, and the haste, and the drama, and the worry and the shadows. It is in these pure moments that we find real connection.
I imagine, like the Mentawei, a world devoid of beauty being a world devoid of life. Not in a literal sense of course; we wouldn’t perish in beauty’s absence, but I think that something of us would indeed slide away. An important conduit between ourselves, and each other, and the world would crumple.
So even though we’ve been told all our lives that beauty is not a priority, let’s take some time to appreciate the abundance of it all around us, and perhaps take a peek inside why beautiful things make us feel so good. Because our shared experiences within the depths of beauty are a fundamental part of what shapes us, and connects us to our world and each other.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Assistant: Judith Andersson / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: jesus-at-art/Deviant-art Creative Commons