(An argument about an argument about beauty)
by Sahar Khraibani
March 9, 2019
I am thinking about beauty.
There’s a line that separates the sea and the city. And on that line lies a little boy.
On the morning of September 2, 2015, a photograph by Nilüfer Demir of a little boy whose drowned body was found along the shore in Bodrum, Turkey, circulated all over the Internet. The photograph has an air of eerie peacefulness to it: the child lays face down on the sand, gentle waves lapping around. Though his red shirt and blue shorts are soaked with water, his shoes are still on his feet and his hair is perfectly combed, as if he were simply sleeping. He was asleep like the soldier of Rimbaud’s 1870 poem Le Dormeur Du Val (The Sleeper In The Valley):
There’s a green hollow where a river sings,
Silvering the torn grass in its glittering flight;
And where the sun from the proud mountain flings:
Fire —and the little valley brims with light.
A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed,
With the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue cresses,
Sleeps; Under the sky and on the grass his bed,
Pale in the deep green and the light’s excess.
His feet in the yellow flags, he lies sleeping. Smiling as
A sick child might smile, he is having a nap:
Cradle him warmly, Nature: he is cold.
No odor makes his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, hand upon his breast
Tranquil, with two red holes in his right side.
Like the stream that passes through the valley Rimbaud describes, the poem advances slowly. The young soldier seems at first to be deeply asleep among the ferns and the flowers, his mouth slightly ajar. Rimbaud, who uses unexpected analogies to present harsh reality, compares the soldier’s expression to the smile of an infant, a symbol of benevolence and innocence. His image of the sleeping soldier in the valley and Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi are strikingly similar. Both are innocent, and unaware of the horrifying circumstances they have succumbed to. And yet, amidst the atrocity, they are both surrounded by nature—quiet, peaceful, and beautiful.
Rimbaud’s poem is written as if it were a scene viewed through a telescope. First, the poet presents a panoramic view of the valley, from which he moves to the mountains before focusing on the body of the soldier in the meadow. He zooms in on the soldier’s feet and then his face, specifically his smile. The tenderness the poet feels for the soldier is obvious. Rimbaud implores Nature to keep the body from growing cold. Cold here is symbolic of death, and he waits until the last line of the poem to reveal that the soldier has lost his life to warfare. The body of the soldier is lying in a valley that is bursting with life, with its singing rivers and its brimming light. Even amidst death, life, and perhaps beauty, can be found.
The photograph of Alan Kurdi’s body caused a dramatic escalation of international concern over the Syrian refugee crisis, which began with the onset of the nation’s civil war in March 2011. It is considered to be the largest displacement crisis of our time, with more than 6 million people to date forced to flee their homes. The photograph of Kurdi juxtaposes the ostensible serenity of the toddler with the harsh realities of war, all backdropped by that beautiful Mediterranean Sea.
How to capture beauty?
A couple of years before her death, Susan Sontag wrote “An Argument About Beauty,” which was eventually published in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. In her essay, Sontag set out to transcend the common, social definition of beauty as “a gladness of the senses.” Instead, she called for the reader “to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility.” Ultimately, Sontag argued for the deconstruction of the term beauty so as to arrive at a new understanding of it. Drawing from examples of the act of viewing in various cultural practices (for instance, the ritual of observing the cherry-blossom in Japan), she concluded that the most touching and effective beauty is the most evanescent, soon passing from memory or existence, impermanent.
The sea is permanent in its impermanence. The waves constantly arrive and depart: they are evanescent. Demir’s image of Kurdi anchors the sea’s gentle waves within the peripheries of a child’s body. What was once beautiful and evanescent thus becomes a menace, a dark devouring entity. The photograph is a testament to this meeting of opposite ends: life and death, beauty and terror. John Berger writes: “A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording, that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.” Demir’s photographic record declares that this particular act of human atrocity, that a boy’s drowned, tiny body has washed ashore trying to flee war, has been seen, and that this juxtaposition between the elements has been recorded. Berger continues to argue that the only decision a photographer can make is “as regards the moment he chooses to isolate;” but it is this particular limitation that actually gives a photograph its power and strength: “What it shows invokes what is not shown.” Through showing this stark contrast between the body of a child (as a sign of life) and the elements of death (embodied by a treacherous sea), the image invokes what is not shown: that beauty and terror can coexist in one landscape.
How to have an argument about beauty in the face of terror?
In his Critique of Judgment—a body of work that Sontag was reading at the age of fifteen—Immanuel Kant discussed four particular features of aesthetic judgments on the beautiful, and, subsequently, the sublime. Kant qualifies these four features as “moments.” In the fourth moment, he attempts to show that aesthetic judgments must pass the test of being “necessary,” which effectively means, ‘according to principle’. However, he considers this necessity exemplary and conditioned. The judgment does not follow or produce a determining concept of beauty but instead exhausts itself in being exemplary of an aesthetic judgment. This fourth moment is grounded upon the principle of taste or, in other words, our feeling for the beautiful. Sontag argues that judgment did not attain its intended effect of supporting taste, or make it democratic: “Taste-as-principled-judgment was hard to apply, since it had the most tenuous connection with the actual works of art deemed incontestably great or beautiful […] taste is now a far weaker, more assailable notion.”
I remember a line from the film Waking Life (2001): “The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving.” This, to me, is the most accurate depiction of the Mediterranean Sea, as seen from the shore where Kurdi’s body laid. It is where the waves come to both appear and disappear. The sea has always been there, in the background, brilliant and lurking. Kind but merciless. Gentle, but ferocious. An inherent contradiction. In the concluding section of Sontag’s “Argument,” she writes: “Beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous,” as if she were arguing against the need of having to argue for beauty. Beauty regains its inevitability when it is utilized as an aspect needed to make sense of one’s driving force—especially when that force is unfathomable. Recalling Nietzsche’s conception of existence as an aesthetic phenomenon—of a world suffering from its own plenitude—one can begin to articulate the notion of beauty as one that might neither be tangible nor easily agreed upon, but instead accepted as an intermediary path into an understanding of existence.
It has been almost
four years since Alan Kurdi was found on the shore of Bodrum, and we have yet
to pinpoint words apt enough for these kinds of Janus-faced images—words that
can relay both the agony and the beauty of their existence. The beautiful sea ceases
to be beautiful when a corpse lays at its edge: “What is beautiful reminds us
of nature as such – of what lies beyond the human and the made – and thereby
stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality,
inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.” 
In essence, the sea will remain beautiful, but that photograph will never be.
Can you conceive of saying to someone: “This image is beautiful?”
 Rimbaud, Arthur, Collected Poems, ed. Oliver Bernard. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1997), 105.
 Sontag, Susan, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches, ed. Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump (England: Penguin Books, 2008), 208.
 Berger, John. John Berger: Understanding A Photograph, ed. Geoff Dyer(New York: Aperture, 2013). Accessed as .pdf file.
 Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment, trans. Warner Plubar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2010), 141-143.
 Sontag, 209.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Ian C. Johnston (Malaspina University College, Nanaimo, British Columbia: Blackmask Online, 2003), 4.Accessed as .pdf file.
 Sontag, 209.