No, not garbage, nor a disturbing twig sculpture out of True Detective.
Though, all in all, given where we travel in this essay, similarities abound. A male satin bowerbird crafted the construction at the top of this post. Why? I found the answer in David Rothenberg’s Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution. He’s traveling through an Australian rainforest with ornithologist Syd Curtis when they come upon a pile of blue spoons.
“Look right behind the spoons. You’ll see what’s left of a structure made of dried grasses.” I squinted. He was right, there were two walls built there, with a bit of a walkway in between. Like a country road guarded by two short parallel hedges. “Who built this?” I wondered. “A male satin bowerbird.” Syd smiled. “This creation is called his bower. It’s not a nest, but an artwork he builds with the hopes he can attract a female to visit it, observe his performance in and around the bower, and if he’s lucky . . . mating just might occur!” (1)
Rothenberg goes on to explore “a creative process millions of years older than the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux” (20). And, in making that analogy, sets up a larger argument, one signaled by his turn to Charles Darwin and a peacock.
As thrilled as he was by the vast range of phenomena his theory of natural selection could explain, Darwin was by no means satisfied with it. One thing he had a hard time explaining was the excessive beauty so prevalent in nature–plants and animals brimming over with unnecessary frills and flourish. “The sight of a feather in the peacock’s tail,” he wrote, “whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.” (4)
In The Decent of Man, Darwin proposes sexual selection as a guiding principle in nature. Females prefer certain male traits, and then choose those males for mating. What explains the male peacock’s elaborate plumage? Sex. Sex determined by the choices of his lady. We could stop right here and declaim as generations before have, it’s all about sex. Just listen to the amazing Etta James.
Certainly Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin makes this choice. In his first chapter from The Physiology of Taste, he connects our senses to the arts, and the arts and sciences to sex: “Thus sight gave birth to painting, sculpture, and spectacles of every sort.” He moves through sound, smell taste, touch and then arrives at physical desire.
“Physical desire, to all that can prepare for or embellish the union of the sexes, and since the days of Francis the First, to romantic love, coquetry, and fashion; especially to coquetry, which was born in france, and has no name in any other language, so that every day the elite of foreign nations comes for lessons in coquetterie to the capital of the world.
And yes, coquetry includes the sciences.
We said above that the sense of physical desire had influenced the organs of all all othe other senses: its effect on the sciences has been no less profound, for a close examination will show that all the most dfelicate and ingenious ancievements in science are due to the hope or desire of one sex to be united with the other. (30-31)
So, far a nineteenth century naturalist and an eighteenth century gourmand it all comes down to flirting. And, of course, a 1967 film entitled The Graduate.
I’ve seasoned bone-in chicken thighs with salt and pepper, lifted the skin and slid in sage and garlic, bedded all in flour then gently rested the bone and its meat in bacon fat to turn a crisp gold, and finally laid this midsummer night’s offering on a plate with porcini mushrooms, poured out two glasses of Beaujolais for a woman I was falling in love with, and I hoped would fall in love with me. Think 9 1/2 Weeks with chicken.
I’ve written words tracing a body I desired, tracing my own desire. Lines that appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of The Gettysburg Review.
She notices the letters, close but not too close,
on her nightstand. In a time and place of reading,
she unhooks her bra, pushes her skirt down
to her knees, which scissor, loosening the fabric
from her hose. The skirt gathers on the carpet
until she steps out from its circle and scoots
it out of view of her full-length mirror.
She watcher her hands cup her breasts.
Her right leg sweeps out to the side, then to the front,
almost a pivot, but actually she walks into herself,
offering herself her body. It is all in my letter,
even when she presses her lower lip against
the mirror’s glass. She reads well into the night.
when finally tired, she places the letter in an envelope,
reseals the flap, addresses it to me, then leaves
it till the morning when she will slide it under
a magazine in her nightstand drawer and wait.
A few days later, when I have forgotten all this
and I’m only a ghost, I’ll write a letter to her,
fold it in half, wedge it between the bottom lip
of the window screen and the ledge, look up,
and believe the mirror in her bedroom
gently nudges her, wakes her with a whisper,
then begins to comb glass through her hair.
However, Rothenberg does not stop with Anne Bancroft choosing Dustin Hoffman’s bower, does not hesitate as I pour another glass of wine, as I unhook a bra, push a skirt down. He has a more nuanced point to make.
Should Darwin instead have named this process aesthetic selection? Could we simplify it as “survival of the beautiful”? Life is far more interesting than it needs to be, because the forces that guide it are not merely practical. (5-6)
Concerning the bowerbird he asks,
Look what he has created–an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as assign or code for something more mundane and hidden? What if the bowerbirds attract, mate, and procreate for the propagate of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection, and you can find the roots of the history of art beginning millions of years before humanity with these remarkable birds. (9-10)
So as much as sex drives us, the more encompassing artistic drive shapes the world we live and breath in, that is, the Venus and the Sorcerer cave painting at Chauvet tells an old story of humans not only representing their world through art, but fashioning that world and giving it meaning it at the same time. We live in a world of our conscious, which does allow a view of a greater world we are part of, but we never glimpse that larger landscape outside of our mind and body. Art is that conscious, art is that landscape. Yet, this aesthetic selection also terrifies us with its transforming powers, its ability to overwhelm our thinking. Consider Edmund Spenser’s “Bower of Bliss” in The Faerie Queen.
Acrasia (1888) by John Melhuish Strudwick captures a moment when a knight lays back in the arms of Acrasia, the embodiment of the sensual realm, of sexual desire in Book II of Spenser’s poem. In an oil and gold world, a falling chalice, rose petals, elaborate flora and girls with lutes and harps enchant a young man, with a woman much like Circe in The Odyssey at the center of it all.
Enter the temperate Sir Guyon who travels to Acrasia’s island, passing by another reminder of The Odyssey, Siren-like figures tempting with song who with “their sweet skill in wonted melody; / Which euer after they abusd to ill, / T’allure weak trailers, whom gotten they did kill.” (II.31)
It’s all there. Art and beauty possess a power that shapes thoughts, alters intended paths, and enhances or diminishes life. Guyon and his squire arrive at “The Bower of Bliss.”
A place pickt out by choice of best aliue, / That natures worke by art can imitate: / In which what euer in this wordly state / Is sweet, and pleasing unto liuing sense, / Or that may dayntiest fantasie aggrate, / Was poured forth with plentifull dispence, / And made there to abound with lauish affluence. (II.42)
The best, the sweetest, the most pleasing and all with layers and windings, and so much of it that everywhere resides splendor. A definition of art is offered. Consider Abraham van Beyeren’s Banquet Still Life (1667).
Or Jan Brueghel the Elder’s A Fantastic Cave with Odysseus and Calypso (1616).
Yet, Guyon walks into this wonderland to destroy it.
But all those pleasant bowres and Pallace braue, / Guyon broke downe , with rigour pitilesse; / Ne ought their goodly workmanship might saue / Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse, / But that their blisse he turn’d to balefulnesse” (II.83).
Why? To save the young man who sleeps under Acrasia’ power? To serve notice that embellishments will have limits? To put the powers of seduction in their place? All and more. Of course, Sir Guyon lives in a world of nine-line stanzas elaborately constructed, a most lavish poem, so though one bower may have been demolished, the bower of poetic art remains to entrance a would-be reader. Art and science then are the twin puzzles we never solve from outside, but always within large scale ceiling frescoes, chiaroscuro and gavottes. We share much with the bowerbird indeed. It may look like we’re out to get that girl or that guy, but really we’re amazed by our own artifices. David Rothenberg emphasizes this observation,
Don’t tell a bowerbird that all the hours he spends building a bower according to exact aesthetic rules is arbitrary. For the artist immersed in the style, it is the most necessary act in the world. These birds cannot live and thrive without art, and most humans probably feel the same way. (22)
I’ll let Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds take it from here. Bon Appétit!