When a flashmob choir sings the Hallelujah Chorus in a mall food court, the unsuspecting bystanders are enraptured. What is it about beauty that captivates us?
Aleteia’s new hub for reviews and commentary on the arts, entertainment, and culture, “Call” launched with the following message:
“In ancient Greek the word for beauty is derived from a word which literally means a call. Beauty is a call. Beauty is a shock. Beauty is a wound that raises us above the world of what philosopher Jacques Maritain called our sense needs and sentimental egos – into the realm of the transcendent.”
I thought of this connection between beauty and “calling” as I watched a 2010 video of a flash mob in a mall food court (watch it above). It’s one of the most intriguing and share-worthy videos I’ve ever seen on YouTube – which might explain why it has well over 40 million views.
“At noon on November 13, 2010,” the video begins, “these unsuspecting shoppers got a surprise while enjoying their lunch.” What’s remarkable at first is how unremarkable the scene is. It probably looks just like the mall in your town at this time of year. Families bustle, couples chat, a little church-lady-like woman in a Santa hat plays at a piano – typical mall people. We see an Arby’s, a Subway – typical mall food. The scene is commonplace, even a little drab.
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But then something very atypical happens. A young woman, holding a cell phone to her ear, stands up and breaks out in song over a church lady’s organ.
“Uh-oh,” everyone’s face seems to say. “Here we go. One of those public freakouts I keep seeing online. I knew I shouldn’t have come to the mall today. Is she here alone? Should we call the police?” One man directly in front of her buries his face in his burger, hoping it will all be over soon.
But then, a disheveled man in a hoodie stands up at his table and joins in. “Oh great,” some faces say. “Now we have two crazies on our hands. What are the odds of this? But wait – they both actually sound pretty good. They are in tune and on beat. Maybe this isn’t a fluke?”
Two more voices join in. The harmony expands. Soon enough, more people are singing than not singing; children are enrapt, hands reach out to hold each other, non-singers fumble along; it’s too loud to talk, think, or even eat; and every jaw has dropped either in shock or in song.
Five minutes of ek-stasis pass like an instant, or an infinity, or both. Everyone’s boredom, worry, loneliness, regret – typical feelings for so many this time of year – seem to vanish, as the everydayness of shopping, eating, and talking is invaded by this unexpected rising of heavenly music. A “call of beauty” moment has graced a “call of duty” world.
But a call to what? And why?
In his 2002 masterpiece of phenomenology Being Given, French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion considers the experience of a call in light of the hearer’s “responsal.” Marion writes that “the ‘Here I am!’ of the responsal is the only thing that can give the status of ‘There you are!’ to the call, therefore attribute a name to it.” In other words, a responsal – paradoxically – reveals and, in a way, precedes a call.
The example Marion uses to illustrate this idea of response-and-call is the painting “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio:
“We see it – this call – appear in Matthew’s gaze infinitely more than we do in Christ’s gesture. For Matthew, who lifts his eyes from the table and turns away from the coins, does not perceive Christ so much as the gaze of Christ, which is intended for him. Not Christ as another spectacle to be seen, but Christ’s gaze as a weight that weighs on his own gaze and holds it captive. Then – and here is the decisive moment – caught in the crossing of the gazes, Matthew, with his left hand, makes the merest suggestion of a gesture pointing to himself in silent response to the call, which is neither said nor heard, and asks or else announces: ‘Me?’”
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The painting is also a favorite of Pope Francis who, in his first major interview as Pope, talks about seeing himself in the deer-in-headlights gesture of the tax collector. “That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew…It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”
A response is no less crucial when it’s beauty that calls us. Beauty seizes us, saturates our sense of control, and demands that we bear witness to it, long before we can even call it a “call” or know what we’re being called to, or by whom. Our response reveals the call.
This is just what we see in the food court flash mob. The crowd doesn’t know who is singing, or why, or maybe even what the words are. But they are all held captive, compelled to respond. Some try to ignore the call, but in doing so validate it even more. As people hold up their phones and look around with bemused smiles, they – like Matthew – seem to be pointing to themselves saying: “Us?”
And like Matthew, the crowd doesn’t look on the anonymous source – the giver – so much as the gift of the call itself. But like Christ’s gaze in Caravaggio’s painting, the call of beauty is unique: it impels us heavenward. Even famed atheist Christopher Hitchens knew this feeling well, saying: “The sense that there’s something beyond the material – or, if not beyond it, not entirely consistent materially with it – is I think a very important matter; what you could call the numinous, or the transcendent, or at its best I suppose the ecstatic.” The call of beauty compels us to hope – even demand – that a transcendent caller show itself and lead us on.
And he has. As beautiful as this exultant flash mob is, its beauty – not only the lyrics, but the sheer glory of the music – is derivative. Its light simply reflects that shadowy figure on Caravaggio’s canvas who, through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, and through the living witness of the Church, he has shown us the way to eternal life and love and happiness, to the very source of the call of all things beautiful.