[blue rare]—Nights in Lisbon: On the Beauty of the Imperfect

[blue rare]—Nights in Lisbon: On the Beauty of the Imperfect

I have been spending some time now, soaking up the incomparable charms of the Alfama district of Lisbon—the venerable, magnetic soul of this city: labyrinthine streets, with delightful surprises around every corner, music and golden light pouring out of doorways onto ancient cobblestoned alleyways.

Last night, I was at a series of fado bars.  For those of you who might not know, fado is a musical genre with obscure origins, dating back to at least the early 19th century, and perhaps much earlier.  The music’s emotional resonance is best captured by the Portuguese word saudade, which is apparently is difficult to accurately express in English, but essentially evokes a sense of melancholy and longing.  So, there I was, listening to a succession of male and female singers, accompanied by accordion, violin, cello, and especially the sublimely melodic twelve-stringed guitarra, vocalising poetic odes to lost loves, drowned sailors, distant heaths, broken dreams, abandoned hopes.

What struck me most singularly was the intensely emotional, imperfect beauty of these singers and their songs.  The way the very imperfection of their warm voices, straining and cracking with emotion, seemed to capture some ineffable human truth.

This sense that a thing can be made all the more magnificent by its flaws seems to me to reverberate throughout Lisbon, a haggard but still-vital city that was once the beating heart of a thriving empire.  A hub of commerce, tyranny, exploitation, creativity, and exploration, the whole city is a fabulously multi-layered, disheveled collage of haphazard streets, ornate tile, crumbling plaster, colorful buildings, inspired art,  peeling posters, explosions of graffiti, poetry, music, delicious food, and laughter.  The whole mess bound together by passion and  trolley car lines.  I don’t think I’ve felt more at home or more alive in any other place.

The lure of imperfection has been much on my mind of late.  For a while now, I have been putting together a big album of my favourite glitchy photographs.  Blurred faces, out-of-focus nighttime shots, drunken compositions with cut-off heads, features made ghostly pale by camera flash.  They are like postcards from the heart.

Is there a patron saint of imperfection?  I do hope so.  I imagine she has runs in her stockings, wears a faux fur dress, sports wings made from the feathers of peacocks and crows, and has a tinfoil crown, worn askew, embellished with lost trinkets and costume jewels.  On Judgement Day, she will blow a saucy, out-of-tune air upon a battered and tarnished trumpet, and we will all dance in the streets as the moon and stars tumble from the sky.

Late in life, I have realized that true beauty arises only from what is flawed.  I have no interest in the pristine, the perfect, the sterile.  No time for it.

I once bought a Chinese lucky cat that had been dropped and smashed into a couple of dozen fragments, then meticulously repaired, glued back together by the love I gifted it to.  It seems to me there is a metaphor in that.

I desire only what has been broken and redeemed by love, by hope, by force of will, by letting go.  As Saint Leonard once wrote, “there is a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in”.  Whoever and wherever you are,  dear reader, I do hope it shines long and brightly for you.