“For beauty is but the beginning of terror/which we are barely able to endure.”
This passage comes from the first of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and these lines capture an essential quality of aesthetics: fear. Fear is what makes us human, even though we are always running from it. Fear is something the majority of people share. It transcends differences of culture, language, and religion. Fear is woven into the very fabric of our existence.
Take for example Hokusai’s ubiquitous print Under a Wave off Kanagawa.
At first, the viewer is inclined to imbibe the beauty of the tremendous wave. Look at how it dwarfs Mount Fuji, the highest peak in Japan, and for centuries, a source of reverence and awe for the Japanese people. Now look at the boats. The fishermen in the boat slightly away from the center appear as if they are headed home after a long fishing trip. It doesn’t look as if they will make it.
At the front left, Hokusai leaves us with an ominous forecast. A smaller wave is thrashing a boat bereft of passengers. The two other fishing boats don’t have a snowball’s chance of making it back to their wives and their families. Like all great artists, Hokusai makes us keenly aware of our own mortality. He shows us that even on a beautiful day, when all is going well, the puppeteer can pull our strings too tightly, and we will choke.
Let’s compare the wave to a work of Western Art, painted roughly forty years prior to it: Christ Crucified by Goya.
The element of fear in this work is more nuanced and complicated than Hokusai’s, but I think it is worthwhile to ponder a little. Goya’s image is rooted in the context of the Christian faith, wherein Jesus Christ through his death and subsequent resurrection redeems mankind from its sins. His death, should in theory, absolve Christians of their fear of death, and give them hope for a life after the grave. However, many Christians, like many humans of all creeds throughout the world still have fears of when they may cease to exist.
Goya takes us to a time when this fear was much more poignant and where much was at stake. The painting is difficult to look at, because you are compelled to witness Jesus’s agony, the pain of a man being killed through no fault of his own. We see Jesus looking upward in an act of faith. He is hopeful, but the state of his body, and the darkness of the backdrop leave the viewer in doubt.
Goya takes his viewer back to the time of the gospel when no one was certain of any outcome, when Jesus’s followers had to reconcile their fears with their leader’s teachings. By doing so,Goya reminds us that fear arises from the tension between faith and doubt. Despite our striving to be strong and do good, sometimes fear taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that it is an integral part of who we are.
The struggle with fear permeates the great works of art that resonate with us. I have merely shown you two examples. The tragedies of Shakespeare and the sustained pauses in Beethoven’s compositions show glimmers of the terror that lives inside. Without fear, there is no courage. Fear allows us to see what we are capable of accomplishing.