The allure of fireworks
Last night my community of Shelter Island hosted their annual Fourth of July Fireworks show on Crescent Beach. They advertised it as the “60th Annual Show” which had me calculating how long ago they began and darn, that was impressive: 1957! Back then the east end of Long Island was primarily agricultural and fishing with only a small community of wealth in East Hampton and Southampton. A number of artists lived out there as it was cheap and the light refracted off the ocean and bays creates a luminous palette. Or maybe just because it was cheap. Now, “The Hamptons” have been ruined by their own success and I refer to my home as “the Disney Hamptons” as everything is exaggerated and there is a feeling that we are in a “1788” mode — right before the French Revolution. Shelter Island has just begun to teeter totter towards rack and ruin of the rule of the 1%-ers — but I digress.
So, back to fireworks. I live close enough to the beach that we walked over in the cooling night air around 9 PM to see the show. There was a lovely breeze off the water which not only created pleasant temperatures but kept the mosquitoes away. I am their very favorite food. There were boats on the water, their blue and red lights shining. glowing in anticipation of the sky show. As dark descended the fireworks began. Everyone’s eyes soared up to the sky as burst after burst of color, form, swirling patterns lit up the night sky. What fascinates us so about fireworks? In his wonderful book The Six Names of Beauty Crispin Sartwell explores the many ways we humans parse the beautiful in our selves, in objects we make, and in nature around us. The Hebrew word for beauty is Yapha, a kind of glowing. We long for beauty in our lives and we are always seeking it. When Plato wrote the Symposium and depicted a group of friends attempting to define love (a project we have yet to successfully complete) he ends up with Socrates connecting love with beauty. Love is the longing for the beautiful. And while Socrates urges us to move beyond physical beauty to realize what we really seek is the beauty of institutions, of ideas, of ideals, and ultimately what he calls Beauty itself, all of us on the beach were entranced by the beauty of each burst of color and form, even as its beauty immediately faded into vapor trails spidering outward. Some of them resembled nebulae of a distant galaxy. The ephemeral nature of beauty is so intensely captured by each exploding array of color and swirling tendrils. We gasp; it is gone.
So is beauty timeless or absolutely enmeshed within the temporality of our existence? We want it to transcend and be, just be forever, but as fireworks are acts of becoming and dissolving, so too are we. Fireworks remind us of how beautiful it is to burst forth, glow, and yet ultimately fade — but to be followed by the next burst. Until, of course, the show ends and we all pack up and trudge up the hill to cars and homes. — Still marveling at the beauty we just saw as we return to our darkened world. But wait, the moon reminds us that beauty has not left; it is still with us. And perhaps that is why the Hamptons remains so alluring: the beauty of light, ocean, intense green captures us just as Plato through Socrates said two millennia ago. We humans seek the Beautiful in all its forms, including those fireworks.