Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Vanessa Atalanta

A red admiral butterly dips over the fence into my garden and alights on a budleia bush and, immediately, I am aware that Vanessa Atalanta represents more than one thing to my apprehension of its presence. If I consult the knowledge garnered in my mind, I am, of course, aware that what I am looking at is the product of millennia of evolution. The velvety wings will be velvety for an evolutionary advantage to do with survival. The whorls and splashes of white, blue and red will contribute to the attraction the male has for the female and, of course, therefore, the process of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, as well as to presenting itself in a way which will aid in disguising it from predators. Studying such things may even add to the sum of knowledge that scientist have and which contributes to the development of our own technologies. All of this is undeniably true and may even give me a certain intellectual pleasure, but such a response from me requires a conscious and deliberate movement of my intellect alone. I have to think about it.

Then, there is a different kind of response. This is the one which, on adverting to the arrival of the butterfly, is simply one of aesthetic amazement and delight. This creature holds out its wings in the sunlight to display a damasked and painted beauty that can make one gasp. And this, inevitably, leads one to ask why it is there, suddenly paraded before my consciousness. The prosaic answer is the one given in the first paragraph above. And, on rational grounds, it is undeniable and seems to make my second response a mere accident or by-product of the first. This leads me to reflect on the fact that the only creature on earth who could register either reaction, intellectual or aesthetic, is a human being. Even the female Vanessa responding to this glory has a purely visual, hormonal and functional reaction to it. If humans are the only creatures who can have the two reactions I describe then it is interesting to examine, in oneself, which is the most satisfying, which displaces the other to give the greatest pleasure. For me the evolutionary facts are certainly interesting and informative but the pleasure they afford is soon exhausted – they are merely things known. There are those who claim to be moved to ecstasies at such things alone but, for me they end in a certain dryness. I think this is because the pleasures of reason alone, and there are certainly such things, do not give the highest pleasures. These seem to come when there is an alliance of the senses and beauty with the reason (which is by no means excluded and certainly adds to the experience) which combine to be things experienced. In other words, this kind of response seems to involve the whole of myself and it is much more natural to engage with the whole of myself than to do so with one selected faculty while the rest of me is suspended. This is a strange and precarious reaction.

For me, the moment of the butterfly’s arrival is a feast of sensual pleasure. Certainly I have in the back of my mind an awareness of the evolutionary facts but, once known, they play a smaller part in my response. I am happy to let such cold considerations be subordinated (not erased) to wallow in the aesthetic. This fact leads one to ask an interesting question. What, in this universe, has supremacy? It might appear that all those millennia of adaptation, perceived by our reason, have taken place purely in order to afford these moments of pleasure to human observers. This, of course, will be censured for being anthropocentric. However, if such supreme pleasure only exists in human observers might it be justified, for precisely this reason, to give their perceptions primacy? The alternative is, of course, to suggest that such extraordinary responses are simply random accidents that happen to cause our minds to dilate with pleasure. My view might seem to suggest that the role played by humans in the universe is a special one and one which rejects absurdity. For beauty exists only if there is a beholder and it seems that that is what we are. Without us, the whole of us, Vanessa Atalanta would go unremarked and unappreciated. For this reason what we find ourselves preferring might be worth paying attention to.

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