Appreciating beauty is a matter of attention. The quality of our attention is largely determined by time.
The Greeks realized this and had two words for time. One was chronos, from where we get the words chronometer and chronic. This is the time of appointments, schedules, and calendars. Ordinary time, passing time, forty-hour workweek time, run out of time. Quantitative time.
Then there is kairos. This is qualitative time. Special time. Now. That moment where we break out of chronos into a moment of truth, of wonder, of being.
The grim reaper is a symbol of chronos. While kairos represents life.
We can only do so much to live in kairos. Just think of the books that tell us to be here now or that exhort the one hundred things we must do or see before we die. If the journey happens in chronos time we will arrive frustrated, exhausted, and late — obviously missing the point of the trip. While a moment of kairos could happen, now.
Kairos keeps her own schedule. The American poet Randell Jarrell describes it:
“A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightening five or six times.”
Jarrell implies the poet is living open to, if not actually in, kairos. His life is lived with antennas raised, poised and willing. He may be touched by kairos daily living like this.
But in this quote he means being hit by the experience so hard that even after translating it into words he felt the experience still came through. He was talking more about giving expression to kairos, not just experiencing it.
The great art historian Kenneth Clark once said you could take the work of any artist and destroy all of it except the three or four best works and their reputation would stand on the foundation of those three or four pieces. The three or four pieces when lightening struck.
It raises an interesting point about one person shows of thirty paintings year after year. How often does kairos affect all that work? How do we open ourselves to karios and so affect our work, staying steeped in the poetics of thought, awaiting the aesthetics of wonder. For this is where beauty resides.
I love the short Japanese poem form of haiku, which attempts to capture the moment of kairos.
lighting the woodstove
he kneels absorbed
in last year’s newspaper
a piece of driftwood
charred at one end
After the snowfall…
deep in the pine forest
the sound of an axe
— sorry don’t know who this is by.
A good haiku cuts us into that moment. We’ve all had them, that expanded moment of connection and being. Here I think lies the foundation of beauty, and wonder, and mystery. And the foundation of art that is meaningful.