art book review Musings reading

On Beauty and Being Just

As my first book of the year, I read Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. I am very glad I read it and I liked it a lot — though, as Scarry says about beauty itself, I find it thought-provoking rather than (simply) true; and the beauty Scarry works to embody and describe is perhaps too tame and tasteful a beauty for me. Disclaimer, though: this is my first real venture into aesthetics, so a lot of what I say will probably be clueless and wrong.

At the root of the book is, I believe, the contention that good, beauty, and truth are, if not identical, intrinsically allied. The part of me that wants to be religious would like to think this. The rest of me…would not, because I want to be able to like a lot of things as beautiful that are both false and, to my judgment, morally suspect. And all of me profoundly doubts even the alliance as she describes it.

My complaint about the tameness of Scarry’s beauties suggests — though, as C.S. Lewis would remind me, such personal psychological speculations about authors are perilous in the extreme — that she either naturally or through personal effort has an aesthetic that is aligned with her morality….which seems like cheating! Or, perhaps better to say, I wish she would directly address the question of the immoral beautiful, or, if that’s how she’d say it, the immoral-that-seems-beautiful-but-isn’t-because-it’s-despicable, or the beautiful unreal. This is one of many things that would, I suspect, take her further into the weeds than she wants to go in this book, but would help ignorant lay readers (who may or may not be part of her intended audience).

More explicitly, On Beauty and Being Just attempts to defend beauty’s place in the study of the humanities, to counter arguments that the admiring gaze is inherently harmful to its object, and to explore a number of ways in which beauty is beneficial. With these aims I am much more sympathetic.

Regarding the place of beauty in the study of the humanities — certainly, I don’t feel a direct and naive discussion of whether art is beautiful would have been acceptable when I was an undergrad, almost a decade after this book was published — and it is depressing to be asked to sidestep 50-90% of the reason you love art in the first place when you try to study and write about it. What’s more, while I tend to think quite a lot of beauty (not — perhaps — all) is in the eye of the beholder, I also tend to think that the openly subjective might have some place in scholarship (if nothing else, to re-channel the clandestinely subjective, the “this art bugs me so it must be really politically egregious,” for example; not saying most political critique is this, but I’ve certainly seen it).

Regarding the admiring gaze, I am similarly in agreement with Scarry (as I read her) that beauty can heighten attention and care. Her dismissal of the idea that perceiving the things as beautiful harms them I find a bit suspect; to answer her highly abstract, birds-eye view with something similar, the intense emotion aroused by beauty heightens attention but it also arouses expectations, and it can distort perception hugely. To descend from abstraction, there are poems of which I love primarily probable misreadings, misreadings that stick in my head because they are so beautiful to me, and while my insensitive but intense first reactions would not harm the poem written on the page, if I were to spread them abroad they would harm the poem as an entity in people’s minds, and the poet would (hearing my misinterpretations) most likely be understandably irritated; people are all too likely to cut beautiful flowers; and while a beautiful woman does, as Scarry perceptively observes, render the people who fall in love with her vulnerable to her, that very vulnerability is harmful to her if she doesn’t reciprocate and they are not heroically self-sacrificing. The vulnerability of Romeo in love with Rosalind and Juliet or of Yeats in love with Maud Gonne is very real, and deserves honor insofar as honor can be offered safely, but it can also be the emotion of a stalker.

I suspect Scarry is fully aware of all this; I think she addresses it indirectly in her first chapter, “On Beauty and Being Wrong,” suggesting that beauty’s tendency to make us aware of our foibles corrects the errors I describe above, which she would call errors in the sense of beauty and not the sense of beauty itself. Possessiveness and the tendency to rank things or people mercilessly and obsessively according to their beauty are likewise not, perhaps, an integral part of the experience of beauty. I suspect she wants to offer a corrective to a too-austerely anti-beauty academe as part of a beautiful, not-harshly-argumentative encomium to beauty and thus does not address these overly basic objections, a stance I respect; it makes me think harder.

I have a few issues with some of her generalizations about the human sense of beauty, mostly that they don’t seem true of me. (For a few instances: I find it easier to think of intellectual errors I’ve made than aesthetic; beauty does not, that I can tell, make me aspire to certitude; while, in the instant, it can be “radically decentering,” on the whole it makes me more rather than less self-centered because I keep trying to get it back; and there are more, but I’m not thinking of them at once.)

I also find her argument that a love of symmetry in objects drives a society toward/reminds a society of the goodness of symmetry in social relations too fanciful. For one thing, an aesthetic based in symmetry is fairly foreign to me and, I think, to most people today (I do not think her fantastically waving palm fronds are particularly symmetrical as they move in the wind, for example); for another, equality among people is one of the things I find good but not beautiful at all (tales of feudal loyalties, for example, are lovely and moving, whereas tales of friends getting along are…meh.) Perhaps Scarry would say this is my problem, my errors, and I’m open to the possibility — but I do think this book speaks less to me as a result.

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