Not Rocket Science

Alexander Nehamas

  • On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry
    Princeton, 134 pp, US $15.95, September 1999, ISBN 0 691 04875 4
  • Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey
    Art Issues, 216 pp, £15.95, September 1998, ISBN 0 9637264 5 5

Our century has been distrustful of beauty. Our philosophy follows Kant, who found beauty only in a contemplation of nature and art which yields an ‘entirely disinterested satisfaction’, pleasure bereft of desire. In literature and the arts, Modernism prized what is difficult, discomforting and edifying. As the gap between high and low culture became ever wider, the beauty which mattered to intellectuals, when it mattered to them at all, came to seem different in kind from the beauty which mattered to the world at large, and, for that reason, irrelevant and empty: the higher the pleasure it provoked, the less like pleasure it seemed.

Beauty which inspires desire, passion and pleasure – the beauty of people, clothes, popular art – was correlated with fashion, marketing and advertising. Post-Modernist authors eventually denounced even the austere satisfactions of Modernism and accused Modernists, too, of colluding with a corrupt global market. Lingerie and landscapes, corsets and concerts, navels and novels: all have been presumed to manifest – and, by making them attractive, to reproduce – unjust and oppressive social arrangements. In all its forms, beauty came to seem morally and politically suspect as well as intellectually embarrassing. Now, however, at the turn of the millennium, beauty is suddenly back, even if, at first sight, different, and indeed conflicting objectives seem to have been gathered under its rubric, leading one to ask how we are to account for it. Why, once again, are we willing to acknowledge that beauty is worthy of love?

Elaine Scarry answers this question by uniting beauty and morality. In the tradition of 19th-century aesthetics, On Beauty and Being Just describes, evokes and manifests the loving attention that beautiful objects provoke. It also argues that this attention leads irresistibly to goodness and truth. To the extent that a moral firmament still exists, beauty is at its centre – justice made visible. With all the exuberance of Agathon in the Symposium, for whom Eros was the most beautiful god and so the most beautiful thing there is, responsible for everything that is good in the world, Scarry writes:

Sacred, lifesaving, having as precedent only those things which are themselves unprecedented, beauty ... incites deliberation ... [and] almost without any effort of our own acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labour, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction – to locate what is true.

Her book, like Agathon’s speech, is fresh, eccentric and uncompromising. Both leave you suspended between admiration and doubt, eager to praise and compelled to criticise.

Wherever it appears, Scarry says, beauty produces the same experience: a strong, almost physical sensation of pleasure which blends the need to stop and stare at the beautiful thing with the urge to connect it with the rest of the world: ‘Beauty causes us to gape and suspend all thought ... but simultaneously what is beautiful prompts the mind to move chronologically back into the search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation ... to bring things into relation.’ This mixture of memory and desire, which bears no trace of cruelty, also includes a ‘radical decentring’. When we see a beautiful thing, our own importance is diminished: ‘It is not that we cease to stand at the centre of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the centre of our own world. We willingly cede the ground to the thing that stands before us.’

Such feelings are apparently produced by things which exhibit some sort of symmetry, ‘the single most enduringly recognised attribute’ of beauty. This is not persuasive. Scarry acknowledges that the Romantics disagreed, believing that what makes things beautiful is a tension between symmetry and departures from it, but she has nothing further to say about the connection between symmetry and beauty. What beauty is remains unclear, even though we can clearly be wrong about it. ‘Errors in beauty’ are crucial to Scarry, for through them she can link beauty with truth.

These ‘errors’ are of two kinds. One occurs when we realise that something we loved no longer strikes us as beautiful; this causes pain: ‘The faithful object has remained within reach but with the subtraction of all attributes that would ignite the desire to lay hold of it ... leaving the brain bereft.’ Is that true? I’m not sure how an object’s attributes can be ‘subtracted’ from it: perhaps they’re still present but somehow robbed of their power; perhaps they were never there in the first place. In either case, if I come to feel I was wrong to take pleasure in something, seeing my error is likely to cause me not grief but delight (remember how wonderful it felt when you began to hate Hermann Hesse?). If the attributes are still there, but unable to move me, then either it was an error to enjoy them earlier or an error to be indifferent to them now. I could be wrong because I used to think that something was beautiful, when in fact it wasn’t, or wrong because I’ve come to think that something isn’t beautiful, when in fact it still is. These may be errors, but they’re not all occasions of pain.

The second kind of error concerns not the loss but the discovery of beauty, ‘the sudden recognition that something from which the attribution of beauty had been withheld deserved all along to be so denominated.’ Something to which you had been hostile or indifferent suddenly enters your world ‘as though, when you were about to walk out onto a ledge, you had contracted to carry something, and only once out on the precipice did you realise that the object weighed one hundred pounds.’ The best part of Scarry’s book is her wonderful account of coming to see the beauty of palm trees: a prolonged meditation on the tree as it appears in the world, in Homer and in the paintings of Matisse.

But Scarry stretches language too far when she says that her earlier indifference to the palm tree was an error. To make an error I must be unable to acknowledge something of which I should have been aware. But what of simple ignorance or casual indifference? To a great painter, Ruskin wrote, nothing is ‘not beautiful in one degree or another ... nothing can possibly present itself to him that is not either lovely, or tractable, and shapeable into loveliness.’ What, then, of a mere failure to notice what sometimes only a great artist can see? To find beauty where one hadn’t seen it before is to look at the world with new eyes, and that is an expansion of the self. It may or may not be an improvement, but not every improvement is the correction of an error. And not every improvement need bring us closer to the truth.

Scarry discusses error only in connection with an individual’s change of mind. She doesn’t address the intense disagreement judgments of beauty can provoke among different people. If she thinks it an error that she once failed to see the beauty of the palm, I wonder how she would describe me: I don’t care for trees and find flowers indifferent, but I love the broad horizons of the sea and deserts. Is one of us wrong? What does our disagreement signify? Can we resolve it? Do we need to? The passionate opposition aesthetic differences often provoke does not usually prevent us from getting along. That may suggest that little is really at stake and explain in part why truth, which demands universal agreement, has seemed so much more important a value than beauty.

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