In a recent article, we joined a chorus of Catholic voices calling for Catholics to commit to the restoration and promotion of beauty in our modern world. Certainly, our world has need of it. In so many ways we seem to live in a jaded world committed to the bland, the functionalist, and the utilitarian. Modern buildings are too often uninteresting at best, and depressing at worst. My graduate school, Rutgers University, had one particularly ugly building that followed this philosophy, an Athletic Center on one of its campuses.
Blocklike, concrete, and entirely unappealing, this is only one example of the tendency to the functional and utilitarian in our world. And one can’t help but notice that this tendency has come to infect too much of our ordinary life from grand to simple ways. Many children’s books and cartoons seem to become more and more poorly illustrated and animated. Many modern Churches seem to follow bare and utilitarian styles, seeming more worthy of a beige auditorium rather than the worship of Him who made the heavens and earth and all they contain.
This article, however, considers no particular grand form of beauty, but only one very simple one. We may not feel we can do very much about large trends and large new buildings, but we can, in our own lives, make seemingly small choices to allow the gratuitous and the non-utilitarian in. We can hang prints of great art in our homes, cultivate a love or skill in art or music, or even simply learn to appreciate it. And we can learn nicer handwriting.
That last suggestion may surprise, but I am entirely in earnest. One of the most interesting aspects of my wife and I homeschooling our children is the way in which as we plan their classes, lessons, and book year after year, we compare them mentally to what my wife and I had ourselves growing up. And often we think: “we can do better than that.”
We had this experience most recently with handwriting. Our children are just beginning to learn cursive and we had the usual homeschooler search for an inexpensive, but nice and effective handwriting book or system. There are many good ones available from Catholic publishers. But looking over the cursive books, we noticed that they were all in the modern style.
The modern cursive is the one my wife and I learned in the schools ourselves. It was meant to be a simple cursive able to be taught by one teacher to a roomful of 30 students in a relatively short time. There is nothing particularly wrong with it. But then, neither is there anything particularly nice about it. It is simple, functional, and utilitarian.
On the other hand, compare it to a standard mid-19th to early 20th century script (before the rise of widespread compulsory education): Spencerian writing. It is not calligraphy, but was meant for ordinary handwriting or daily use. Hence, its style was meant to be picked up by anyone. And yet, how different it is from modern cursive!
Our move from its use to modern cursive represents one of those small beauties that we’ve lost. It is not overly complex. In the grand scheme of things, a handwriting style seems like a fairly small thing. And yet, this is exactly the point. It is a fairly small thing, an accessible thing that anyone can learn to do to add a little more simple beauty or attractiveness into their ordinary life. There are many good books or even free websites where one can learn it. Children could learn it from scratch or switch to it after learning modern cursive. I’ve recently begun learning to use it and have started using it.
And there is an interesting effect. Writing, the actual physical act of handwriting, becomes more fun and more interesting when learning to write in a more attractive hand. Most of us will never be artists or learn calligraphy. Many of us have neither the time nor the ability. But we can still learn little ways to try to make handwriting more attractive and interesting and add, even in a very small way, a little beauty or interest or our lives. Even these seemingly minor aesthetic choices are so nice because they are not strictly utilitarian. There is a gratuitous element to them. And in a small way, it adds something nice to our lives that should not be lost.
These small rebellions against the functional and utilitarian are important. They remind us that we are not merely parts in a machine or workers in a utilitarian, functionalist world. They remind us that there are things in life that are not useful at all, but are nonetheless still worth doing. They can be a testimony to the world, but are also a reminder to ourselves that we have not only a stomach that needs to be fed, but a soul, and that was made for more than this world alone.
When we do this, we find something further: in a real way, the beautiful is also the most useful. Not useful, perhaps, in the bare utilitarian sense that caused Charles Dickens’ Scrooge to ask the use of Christmas, but useful in a more real and meaningful sense. The beautiful is ultimately useful precisely because it is directed toward the whole person. It feeds the soul as well as the body and it is that that is the most characteristic part of the human person. Even apparently minor or small choices toward the beautiful and non-utilitarian can feel the soul, enrich our lives, and lead us to wonder, awe, and worship of the God who is ultimately the source of all beauty.
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I have never heard of this style of cursive, but I will look into it. When I read books written in generations past, I am struck by the common man's sensitivity to nuance and beauty and how dull and barbaric our current sensibilities are in contrast. Men noticed the subtle blush on a woman's cheek (they scrutinized it too, to ascertain if it was artificial). Children noted the types of birds they saw and in what types of trees they were roosting. Women saught to gague something of a man's character based, not only on his word choice, but his very handwriting when they received missives from new acquaintances. So much has been lost with the cheap, "memey" verbiage, the tawdry fashions, and the high-octane entertainment of our day.