978: And the Beautiful

20231017 SD

978: And the Beautiful

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Shira Erlichman.


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

A few nights ago, I was paused at a crosswalk. Mid-running-errands, while my head spun with tasks, I had my breath taken away. To my right stood a man in white sneakers, arms heavy with pots, head completely hidden by six huge bouquets of hydrangeas. When I turned and first glanced at him, he appeared half-man, half-flower. The shock of the soft, purple explosion where his head should have been tore me from my neurotic to-do list.

I was snapped out of what queer theorist Jose Esteban Muñoz calls “straight time”––a mindset obsessed with productivity––into what writer J Wortham elaborates on as “queer time…a sensate way of life…the kind treasured by people who perhaps understand with crackling urgency…the importance of pleasures that even in small doses can sustain you for weeks, months, years after the moment has passed.”

The half-man, half-flower has stayed with me. I don’t think of my sight as having made a mistake. Instead, the awe I felt in that moment humanized me; it brought me out of my busy mind and into my senses. The night crisped around him––black and blue, sharp and lovely. My fellow pedestrians, overlooked just moments before, were flesh and blood, cast in glowing green by a hovering streetlight. You could say that the hydrangea-headed stranger was Grace itself. He imparted to me, in the words of scholar Christina Sharpe, “beauty and its knowledges.”

What does beauty know? How might beauty educate me? What might I need to be taught by beauty? I recall, after a particularly dark and disastrous Bipolar episode, the impulse to sit at my desk with watercolor and pen. I created stone-like shapes rivered through with color. Have you too, in your darknesses, sought out moments of quiet, of color, of awareness?

“Beauty is a method,” says Sharpe. I know what she means. It is not adornment. Color is not just a nice thing to look at, flowers are not just pretty. Rather, as Toni Morrison writes in the Afterword to Beloved, “Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.” We do beauty to honor humanness. To pay tribute to what’s possible besides violence. To foster, hopefully, a more gentle world.

The work of today’s poet, Paul Celan, was marked by genocide. When Romania came under Nazi control in World War II, Celan was sent to a forced-labor camp, and his parents were murdered in a concentration camp. This small poem by Celan reckons with what is brutally taken, what is lost. He doesn’t offer us superficial answers to endless grief. He offers only questions. And I sense, inside the questions, the immense task of facing a violent and brutal world.

And the Beautiful
by Paul Celan

And the beautiful you tore out, and the hair 
you tear out:
what comb
combs it smooth again, the beautiful hair?
What comb 
in whose hand?

And the stones you heaped up, 
that you heap up:
where do they cast their shadows, 
and how far?

And the wind that sweeps over it, 
and the wind:
does it grab one of these shadows, 
does it allot it to you?

“And the Beautiful” from MEMORY ROSE INTO THRESHOLD SPEECH: THE COLLECTED EARLIER POETRY BILINGUAL EDITION by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris. Translation, Introduction, and Commentary © 2020 by Pierre Joris. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.