More on beauty

I am now half way through Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just, which is a very short book, by the way, and so I can read a few pages at a time, spend some time pondering them before I pick it up again, and still make good progress through it. It divides into two halves, one called “On Beauty and being Wrong,” and the other “On Beauty and Being Fair.” What strikes me about the end of the first section is the way Scarry talks about beauty as something that provokes flexibility and capaciousness of mind:

I began here with the way beautiful things have a forward momentum, the way they incite the desire to bring new things into the world: infants, epics, sonnets, drawings, dances, laws, philosophic dialogues, theological tracts. But we soon found ourselves turning backward, for the beautiful faces and songs that lift us forward onto new ground keep calling out to us as well, inciting us to rediscover and recover them in whatever new thing gets made. The very pliancy or elasticity of beauty — hurtling us forward and back, requiring us to break new ground, but obliging us also to bridge back not only to the ground we just left but to still earlier, even ancient ground — is a model for the pliancy and lability of consciousness in education.

A bit later she says of an encounter with a beautiful object that “the perceiver is led to a more capacious regard for the world.” Litlove pointed out in a comment to an earlier post on this book that Scarry is interested not in what beauty is but what it does: that we are used to thinking of a beautiful object as merely existing — it’s a thing, to be gazed at — but that Scarry emphasizes the effects that the beautiful object has on us — the beautiful object reaches out to us and changes us. In that case, it really doesn’t matter much if we disagree on what things are beautiful and what things aren’t, because what really matters is what happens in our encounter with what we perceive to be beautiful.

And what beauty does is to make us want to make more beautiful things, it makes us look back into the past to find other similar beautiful things, it makes us think about other things that are beautiful that we might have failed to recognize:

This very plasticity, this elasticity, also makes beauty associate with error, for it brings one face-to-face with one’s own errors: momentarily stunned by beauty, the mind before long begins to create or to recall and, in doing so, soon discovers the limits of its own starting place, if there are limits to be found, or may instead — as is more often the case — uncover the limitlessness of the beautiful thing it beholds.

This discovery of the limitlessness of beauty coupled with the potential for error within ourselves sets the perceiver of beauty off on a quest for truth. Scarry talks about the relationship of beauty and truth and says they are associated but are not necessarily one and the same; after all the statement “1=1” is true but not beautiful. But beauty:

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.

In previous posts about this book, I’ve quoted Scarry writing about Proust; as I read Proust, I’m coming across other passages that illustrate what she’s talking about. In this passage, the narrator talks about learning to recognize beauty:

Sometimes in the afternoon sky the moon would pass white as a cloud, furtive, lusterless … I liked finding its image again in paintings and books, but these works of art were quite different — at least during the early years, before Bloch accustomed my eyes and my mind to subtler harmonies — from those in which the moon would seem beautiful to me today and in which I would not have recognized it then. It might be, for example, some novel by Saintine, some landscape by Gleyre in which it stands out distinctly against the sky in the form of a silver sickle, one of those works which were naively incomplete, like my own impressions, and which it angered my grandmother’s sisters to see me enjoy. They thought that one ought to present to children, and that children showed good taste in enjoying right from the start, those works of art which, once one has reached maturity, one will admire forever after. The fact is that they probably regarded aesthetic merits as material objects which an open eye could not help perceiving, without one’s needing to ripen equivalents of them slowly in one’s own heart.

The narrator finds the moon beautiful and thinks of other beautiful places he has seen the moon — novels and paintings. His mind moves outward from the beautiful object — the moon — to other beautiful objects in the flexible and capacious way Scarry describes. But his idea of what makes a moon beautiful is not static; changing over time, it shows the possibility of error in recognizing beauty: at first he missed the “subtler harmonies” that Bloch later pointed out to him and now he recognizes the beauty of the moon in places he couldn’t before. And he disagrees with his grandmother’s sisters that beauty is something that merely exists and waits to be recognized (“aesthetic merits as material objects which an open eye could not help perceiving”). Instead, a person develops the capacity to perceive beauty over time; this capacity is something that ripens and grows as a person has more and more beautiful experiences. The more we seek out beauty, the more capable we are of seeing it.

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Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

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