Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Aesthetic Arrest

The term aesthetic arrest was first used by James Joyce in his book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The philosopher, historian and theologian Joseph Campbell, also a Joyce scholar, explained aesthetic arrest as,"A simple beholding of the object... you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest. This radiance, the perception of beauty, is regarded as a communication of the hidden power behind the world, shining through some physical form."

As an artist, I live for moments when I'm caught in aesthetic arrest. While it can come from a breathtaking vista, it usually happens when I'm watching a film or a live performance, listening to music or reading a novel. I feel a surge of emotion that's so strong it's visceral, sometimes even painful. They usually occur far and few between, but if I'm watching a really good movie trailer, where the images are perfectly wedded to the music and the subject matter strikes a personal chord, I'm done for throughout the duration of the trailer. Dark Knight, Inception, LOTR to name a few -- films with high adventure that more than likely have a score composed by Hans Zimmer. I'm very fortunate that my husband is exactly the same way, so we completely understand each other when we're the only ones in the movie theater crying during the previews. The worst was when it happened at Disneyland; we were watching the Lion King parade, and the music coupled with the amazing dancing set us off. No one cries at Disneyland! And no matter how many times I watch certain films, the same scenes get me every time: the clowns coming up out of the floor in Finding Neverland, about 80% of Amelie, the Globe Theatre shots in Shakespeare in Love, the pounding on the fake sky wall in the Truman Show, a garage door opening in the rain in American Beauty, and the imaginary piano being played by Hank Azaria in the Cradle Will Rock are the ones that spring to mind. My poor husband teaches film to college students and has to endure their ever-increasing apathy. He stopped showing his favorite films because it was too painful for him to hide his emotion, and the students were too bored anyway.

Although it's more rare, I do experience aesthetic arrest when I'm reading. When this happens I have to put the book down to savor the sentence I just read; usually it's a stirring metaphor or simply an amazing way of phrasing something mundane. The first time it happened when I was reading -- in this case it was E.M. Forester's Where Angels Fear to Tread -- I finally had my epiphany that there's more to writing than just telling a story, that there is so much to be said for beautiful writing. Anyone can tell a story, but it takes an artist to tell it well.

I would love to say that someday I will write well enough to put a reader into aesthetic arrest. Regardless of my talent, however, my chances are probably pretty slim. The majority of our society has never experienced the phenomenon, as if they're cut off from an essential emotion. I may just have to be content with finding more avenues to fall into aesthetic arrest myself.

Once you feel it, there's no going back.

Ashley J. Barnard

Dark Fantasy with a Contemporary Twist


Linda Kage said...

Hey, the beginning of Lion King was just plain awesome. You could just feel the importance of the moment thrum through your chest.

So I know exactly what you mean about a story that you can experience them from the inside out. They're amazing.

Big Mike said...

I think its why we write. We're caught in the beauty, conflict, curiosity, or wonder of the world and characters we create.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year, (2008 and 2009)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Beautifully written and expressed, Ashley. Your well on your way to your moment,and the choice of music doesn't hurt.

My husband's movie is Cherriots of Fire. If he played that on the CD during dinner, I knew he was gathering strenght for the next day at work.

I take comfort in the words of Greg Isles and Anne Lamott, and the music of George Gershwin.

Annabel Aidan said...

It's a wonderful feeling. Every time I open a book, I hope to find it. It rarely happens, but when it is, it's completely worth it.

January Bain said...

Gosh, do I understand. Some words, some images, some music just takes you away to that higher realm where its all possible because of that true sense of oneness with the universe. We need to continually try as artists and writers to evoke that feeling in others to help them better understand what a miracle our very existence is.

Jude Johnson said...

Wonderful post, Ashley, and it is truly a blessing to be open to aesthetic arrest. There are certain openings of songs that put me there: the guitar in Hotel California,the strings of "Overture, Marriage of Figaro" by Mozart...

That touch of wonder and inspiration is definitely joy in our existence.

Unknown said...

I had this happen to me after about a week after 911. I saw a swan moving across the water with such grace, its simple elegance and refinement of movement stirred me until I had to cry.

infoanalysis said...

Last of the Mohicans, right before she jumps to her death off the cliff. Wes Studi should have won an academy award for his single gaze and gesture.

infoanalysis said...

But sometimes I wonder if the text pulls you in is that not a form pornography? My friend said she was reading Mailer's American Dream and just could not put the book down, staying up well past her b ed time.

Men watch porn women read it.

Kenneth C Anderson said...

Miles Davis with the Gil Evans Orchestra's album Sketches of Spain, Flamenco jazz, never done before or since. That recording coupled with good head phones makes me float beyond the ceiling.