A dreaded thing happpened yesterday. I was riding my bike, about 25 minutes from home, when a bee, or some kind of stinging insect, flew into my mouth and stung me. I managed to spit the thing out, or it flew out of my mouth, I’m not sure. I rode home in pain, trying to figure out if my throat was going to swell up and make it difficult to breathe. I haven’t had allergic reactions to stings before, but still, one never knows. If necessary, I was ready to flag down a car to drive me to the hospital. But nothing like that happened; I hurt a lot, but I made it home and took some benedryl and spent the afternoon dozing and reading. I guess there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, right?
In between my naps, I read Elizabeth Taylor’s novel In a Summer Season and enjoyed it, with some reservations. Has anyone else read Taylor before? I’m not entirely sure what to think. It seemed a little slow getting going, and still, even though I’m 2/3 of the way through, not much is happening. I’m usually fine with plotless novels, but I’m the tiniest bit skeptical that there are other rewards here to make up for the lack of plot. But I’m not sure yet. There is some subtle wit, some excellent characterization, some quiet humor, some great analysis of conversation. Part of the problem, I think, is that I picked this up after Saramago’s novel Blindness, which dealt with such large issues and had a much broader scope of character and event. In contrast, Taylor’s description of upper/upper-middle class people with money problems just doesn’t seem that important. This isn’t really being fair to Taylor, I realize. I like novels with a smaller scope too.
And last evening, when the soporific effects of the Benedryl had begun to wear off, I felt up to tackling some more of Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just. She is pulling together a definition of sorts, although perhaps I should say she is describing some of the qualities of beauty, since she doesn’t claim to offer anything as definitive as a definition. She began the book talking about how beauty replicates itself:
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 replications and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.
And these replications don’t stop; they continue on and on appearing in many different forms — in a drawing, in print, in a conversation. An object of beauty, then, can become immortal in the sense that it inspires unceasing replications.
A little later, she gives us two more qualities of beauty, its sacredness and its lack of a precedent, and then goes on to discuss another quality:
These first and second attributes of beauty are very close to one another, for to say that something is “sacred” is also to say either “it has no precedent” or “it has as its only precedent that which is itself unprecedented.” But there is also a third feature: beauty is lifesaving. Homer is not alone in seeing beauty as lifesaving. Augustine described it as a “plank amid the waves of the sea.” Proust makes a version of this claim over and over again. Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.
Beauty also incites deliberation. It has the effect of stopping us in our tracks and making us want to stare at the beautiful object, but beauty also:
prompts the mind to move chronologically back in the search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation, to move conceptually over, to bring things into relation, and does all this with a kind of urgency as though one’s life depended on it.
I love the idea that beauty incites a feeling of life and action; it can make us stop and stare but it also makes us create things ourselves, in whatever medium we choose to do so, even in a medium as ephemeral as a conversation. Haven’t we all read a book and felt energized while doing so? Haven’t we all gotten excited at one time or another by a beautiful sentence and felt inspired to write our own, or to copy the beautiful sentence so that someone else can enjoy it? Doesn’t that make you feel happy and joyfully alive, if only for a moment?
Scarry has begun to talk about beauty and truth; I will have to describe her argument in a later post.