A thing I hate with some degree of passion: when beautiful individual sentences or paragraphs are ruined by their context, that is to say, when the whole of a text prevents me from admiringly quoting its parts. This is the case with Elaine Scarry’s essay, On Beauty and Being Just, which I've been reading in an attempt to sort out my feelings about a Zadie Smith book that borrows half of this essay's title and, I'm afraid, some of its ideas. For what is more quotable than:
What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.
This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet suddenly cuts through a certain patch of sky.
The first part of this essay - the section called On Beauty and Being Wrong - flows with the seductive smoothness of a just-so story. Beauty prompts replication. This is the urge that underlies artistic creation (we draw and write about beautiful things), scientific endeavors (we strive to find and explore beauty), staring (“the first flash of a bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld”), procreation, and stalking. This is what Scarry calls the “forward momentum” of beauty, its future-oriented impulse.
But beauty also has a backward momentum. When you see a beautiful object, you try to find its precedent in your past experience. What you find is that beauty is either unprecedented or – and Scarry absurdly claims they are the same thing – that it has precedents only in those things that are themselves unprecedented. For example, in the Odyssey, when Ulysses sees Nausicaa, he tells her “I have never laid eyes on anyone like you, neither man nor woman (…) Wait, once I saw the like – in Delos, beside Apollo’s altar – the young slip of a palm-tree springing into light. (…) No shaft like that had ever risen up from the earth.” In Scarry’s logic, the fact that Ulysses does in fact find a precedent for Nausicaa’s beauty is not really a problem for her theory, because he finds a precedent just as unprecedented (“no shaft like that had ever risen up from the earth”). We are thus treated to the startling announcement that “the feature of unprecedentedness stays stable across (…) two objects” where one precedes the other! Such, I guess, are the paraconsistent heights writing about beauty propels one to.
At this point in my reading experience, the spell of the seductive first sub-section was starting to dissipate and annoyance to creep in. But things were going to get worse. Now, when one claims that the present experience of beauty gives the mind both an impulse towards the future and an impulse towards the past (which, if one’s not very fussy about details, may roughly cover all mental operations), when one further claims that beauty is singularly fit to accustom our mind to the experience of error, because we sometimes change our opinion about things (as evidenced by the fact that Scarry herself took a long time to realize palm-trees are beautiful), you shouldn’t be surprised that one advances to claiming that beauty is actually the mainstay of our mental life and the source of our aspiration towards truth. (I say “claim” rather than “argue” because there is precious little argumentation going on, though there are some charming extended comments on palm-trees and Matisse. So extended that, were it not for their charm, one might fear they rather belabor the point.)
|Although, okay, all the Matisse paintings are pretty|
On beauty and truth, then, and how they fit together:
It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is “true,” but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error. This liability to error, contestation, and plurality—for which “beauty” over the centuries has so often been belittled—has sometimes been cited as evidence of its falsehood and distance from “truth,” when it is instead the case that our very aspiration for truth is its legacy. It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude. It comes to us, with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor.
I have to give it to her: if it's nonsense, it's beautifully-spun nonsense. (And if it's not entirely nonsense, it's at least stuff that hasn't been properly argued for at all.) With it, we reach the end of the aptly-titled section On Beauty and Being Wrong.
The section that follows, On Beauty and Being Fair, opens with a problem. You see, unfortunately for beauty – and rather inexplicably, given the case our author has built for it so far – politically correct academics have tried to bury it. We no longer talk about beauty, though we continue to be surrounded by beautiful things. Scarry is here to remedy that, but her answer will have to wait till tomorrow to get my grumpy analysis (spoiler alert: beauty solves everything).
I feel that I should perhaps say something about the experience of reading this. When she describes the experience of unexpectedly discovering something is beautiful, Scarry says: "it is 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 realize that the object weighed one hundred pounds." I had the opposite feeling reading her essay: it looks heavy and solid, but when you pick it up, it weighs almost nothing. It's that uncomfortable sensation best described by this made-up word:
|Leertretung - stepping down heavily on a stair that isn't there. From here.|