Finsbury Park, London. It is November and the falling leaves are beautiful: red, yellow, and brown; sinking, swirling, crunching. Of course, it is uncontroversial to point out how beautiful the natural world can be at this time of year. We all agree on this, partly, perhaps, since the notion is so deeply ingrained in our culture.
I am more interested in how the beauty of the falling leaves might seem paradoxical, once we consider that their beauty stems from their death – something usually associated with suffering and tragedy. Modernity, after all, makes us fearful of death, our ageing and decaying, to an unprecedented degree. We habitually shy away from finitude: hiding it away in the hospices and slaughter houses, and stifling its signals through cosmetic and digital enhancement.
How, then, could the fresh corpses of a thousand leaves manifest as so effortlessly magnificent?
Because of this apparent paradox – call it the paradox of falling leaves – autumn always reminds me of the ancient Greek concept of a “beautiful death”. In the Homeric era, living well included dying well, which itself was associated with a process of swapping the finite (eschaton) for the infinite (telos). In this way, and in complete contrast to modern understandings, a good death was not just bearable: it was a thing of magnificence, to be celebrated rather than mourned.
I like this concept not just for its own sake, or because it helps dissolve the paradox, but also because it shows the boundless extent to which cultural norms and practices can affect how we react to natural and, indeed, inevitable aspects of human existence. The hope that arises from this is as follows: if it is possible to see even human death, or at least a good death, as beautiful, then is should similarly be possible to re-orientate ourselves towards freeing other natural aspects of human beauty through a likewise more positive lens.
By partial analogy, consider how modern life is similarly so fearful of neurological difference. Currently, we pathologise and medicliase the neurodivergent; we associate neurodivergencies with suffering and tragedy; parents mourn when their children are identified as such; we try to coerce and train them into normality from the moment of identification; and we segregate them into sub-standard schools.
Whilst this may seem ordinary and intuitive to us, by contrast, many traditional cultures managed to see profound (albeit in some ways problematic) beauty in the neurodiverse. In medieval Russia, for example, those bodies now labelled autistic were often seen as “holy fools“. Far from being an insult, the term “fool” (durachok) in this context indicated a blessed, principled, and innocent detachment, which was appreciated by Russian society and celebrated by the likes of Dostoyevsky. Similarly, in traditional prehistoric cultures, those bodies we pathologise as “schizophrenic” were revered for their shamanic insight. Indeed, even in some contemporary non-Western societies, they are still taken to be seers who can, for example, draw wisdom from dead relatives, and so are considered valuable and important members of the community.
In noting this I am not calling for a return to these worldviews: they are long gone, or going. And let us also beware of how such representations fetishize neurodivergence. But I do think we can take the insight that neurological difference, more than just being (usually begrudgingly) accepted and accommodated, could be again seen as beautiful.
I am reminded here of one of the gentler passages from the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who urged us to learn to see beauty in human difference in a similar way to how we habitually see beauty in nature. To quote Nietzsche himself:
“In the way we go around in nature with cunning and glee in order to discover and, as it were, to catch in the act the beauty that is particular to all things; in the way we, be it in sunshine, under stormy sky, in the palest twilight, make the attempt to see how every piece of coastline with its cliffs, inlets, olive trees, and pines achieves its perfection and mastery: so too ought we to go around among people, as their discoverers and scouts […] so that their own particular beauty can reveal itself”
In other words, just as we learn to comport ourselves towards different natural landscapes – or, indeed, falling leaves – in order that their beauty emerges for us, so too should we learn to comport ourselves to natural human difference in a similar manner.
I think this consideration is particularly pertinent when it comes to the neurodiverse. Whether we come to see beauty in the physical appearance of the model with Down’s syndrome, to relish the writings of the autistic poet, or take joy in the interactive performance of the dyspraxic actor – our capacity to see beauty in such difference will come in part from how we comport ourselves towards the unfamiliar, the different, and the seemingly disordered.
Much more importantly, this will also be the case when it comes to our encounters with those we consider to have multiple and more profound learning disabilities. Just as with anything else natural, ‘beauty’, Nietzsche goes on, ‘for one person unfolds in sunshine, for another in the storm, and for a third only halfway into the night when the sky is pouring rain’. That is to say, just as how a particular tree, leaf, lake, or mountain can manifest as beautiful in some light or another so too can each different person’s beauty manifest in light of the angle best suited to them, even if it is hard to notice at first glance.
To make this a shared habit, perhaps especially when it comes to our encounters with the more profoundly disabled, could benefit us all. Just as we, as a culture, can see beauty in each different dead leaf – not to mention how they all appear together: for they are far more beautiful in their shared diversity than alone – so too might we one day learn to comport ourselves towards the different modes of being, forms of life, and ways of relating, that constitute the wonderful neurodiversity of the natural human world. And if at some point this becomes a deeply ingrained habit, then we will thereby have made the world more beautiful in the process.