Monday, May 30, 2005

The Conservation of Anxiety

Donald Davidson argues that there are no strict psychological laws; but I have discovered one. It has the defect of applying only to me. Some people – like one of my colleagues – claim to have an inexhaustible fund of anxiety, applying itself greedily to new objects whenever they arise: tenure, house, relationships, health, money. Others – also colleagues – appear to spend long periods anxiety-free. In my case, the level of anxiety is constant, varying only in its focus. When work is going well, I worry about my health. When I am in shape, I worry about work. And so on. I am always anxious about something, but the total quantity has a limit. This allows for strategic self-management: I can reduce anxiety about one thing by deliberately mis-handling some other part of my life. But it has a darker side. When everything seems to be going well, I experience the irrational fear that I will suddenly die.

Monday, May 23, 2005

"On Beauty and Being Fair"

The second and longer essay in Elaine Scarry's book, On Beauty and Being Just, is about alleged "political complaints against beauty": that it "distracts attention from wrong social arrangements" and that the aesthetic gaze "is destructive to the object".

The second of these is puzzling. Scarry takes it to be expressed when we speak of "reification" – which I read as a stylistic variant of the more familiar "objectification" (a word Scarry does not use). According to Scarry, "the argument that perceiving beauty brings harm is, at most, applicable to persons and cannot be generalized to gods, gardens, poems" – since gods cannot be harmed, and gardens and poems "exist for the sake of being beautiful and for the sake of having that beauty [perceived]". What is more, "the argument does not stand up even with respect to persons since, if anything, the perceiver is as vulnerable as, or more vulnerable than, the person looked at."

Who would have thought that a Professor of Aesthetics would be so literal-minded? "Objectification" is meant to be bad the way contempt is bad, or misuse; it's not a fist to the guts, or a dousing of herbicide. It is a mistake to speak of it as "harm". Still, there is something wrong with the person who treats Rothko like wallpaper. What needs to be argued is that she is not perceiving its beauty. – This isn't obvious. And it would be even harder to show that appreciating as surface the beauty that is skin-deep, or treating people as decoration, is either morally harmless or a matter of misapprehension. Perhaps it can be done; Scarry does not see the need for it.

Her principal argument is about the first "political complaint", to which she replies that beauty is the friend of justice, since "the very symmetry of beauty [...] leads us to, or [...] assists us in discovering, the symmetry that eventually comes into place in the realm of justice". Beauty is proportion and equality. It therefore points us to fairness as the "symmetry of everyone's relation to one another": "it presses us to bring its counterpart into existence [and so] acts as a lever in the direction of justice."

Are these claims true? Like some of what is said in the earlier chapter, they have the flavour of armchair psychology. But they may admit, in part, of a more austere and metaphysical reading: justice as fairness is an instance of beauty, and so a general love of beauty would be a love of justice, too. (This is stronger, but no less plausible, than the claim of analogy to which Scarry is drawn.)

Even if we grant the premise of this argument, however – and, like Hume in the Treatise, we may struggle to find beauty in the justice of returning the miser's hoard, while others starve – the difficulty is to convince ourselves that love of beauty is inherently general. Here I think of Utz, the connoisseur of Meissen porcelain ambiguously described in Bruce Chatwin's novel. His obsession is not only narrow but morally indifferent:
'Wars, pogroms, and revolutions,' he used to say, 'offer excellent opportunities for the collector.'
Where is the Form of Beauty when you need it?

Monday, May 16, 2005

"On Beauty and Being Wrong"

Elaine Scarry's essay on beauty and truth (in her short and physically beautiful book, On Beauty and Being Just) begins by claiming that beauty demands replication: we are inspired to paint beautiful scenes, to recite beautiful lines, to stare at beautiful people. "Beauty brings copies of itself into being."

I find this aphorism at once perceptive, and hard to place. What kind of claim is it? A psychological generalization? It doesn't feel like one, and Scarry offers it instead as pointing to the essence of beauty. In order to make this remotely plausible, however, she has to construe any desire for repetition as a desire for replication. In doing so, she picks on one of the traditional marks of pleasure (its desiderative inertia), and makes her dictum both less interesting and more familiar.

The purpose of the book is to respond to the "critics of beauty", here by arguing that it is the friend and not the enemy of truth. It is a shame that Scarry's "critics" figure as disembodied voices. Who are they, and what is their problem? (It is one thing to criticize beauty, another to wonder about its place in, say, the academic study of literature.) If I were forced to think of an argument against beauty, it would be that concern for beauty inspires a kind of narcissism: it threatens to collapse into concern for one's own responses to things, not the things themselves. Beauty's pleasures are private and ungenerous.

Scarry doesn't talk about this objection, but she invites it, in her references to Proust, to pleasure, and in her argument for a connection between beauty and truth, which is incorrigibly inward-looking:
The beautiful, 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 labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction – to locate what is true.
Notoriously, a desire for conviction is not the same thing as a desire for truth, and may be inimical to it. Something has gone wrong.

I don't know how to repair this argument; I don't really believe in a partnership of beauty and truth. But I think Scarry's idea about replication might help to block the charge that aestheticism is self-indulgent or narcissistic. One of the disarming properties of Scarry's book is that it enacts her thesis: a brilliant discussion of Matisse's paintings of Nice is littered with sketches by Scarry intended to display their palm-tree structure. Moved as I was by this, I couldn't help being jarred by the ugliness of the drawings, right down to the freehand addition of titles in (what I assume is Scarry's) bad handwriting. This may seem cruel, but it refers to an experience I certainly associate with beauty: the frustration of the desire to reproduce what is beautiful. In this sense, beauty has to do with error and limitation. It is, or can be, an affront to the ego, not a lazy pleasure – a humbling exposure to the authority of a value outside oneself that cannot be encompassed or taken in.

It is no doubt too optimistic to relate this thought to Iris Murdoch's already optimistic view, that "although [the humble man] is not by definition the good man perhaps he is the kind of man who is most likely of all to become good."

Monday, May 09, 2005

Being mortal, think of mortal things

Despite my failure to conjure much enthusiasm for his philosophy, I am deeply fond of John Stuart Mill. Like many others, what I really love is his Autobiography, which describes his extraordinary education at the hands of James Mill: Greek at three, Latin at eight, with the teenage years devoted to logic, political economy, law and psychology. Most of all, I love Mill's touching account of his nervous breakdown. Mill was certainly clever, but until light dawns in the poetry of Wordsworth, his words are congested not only with despair but with self-deception.

Consider, for a moment, his own attempt to diagnose the crisis:
The experiences of this period [...] led me to adopt a theory of life, very unlike that on which I had before acted, and having much in common with what at that time I certainly had never heard of, the anti-self-consciousness theory of Carlyle. I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.
An interesting thought, this, about the paradox of egoism, but obviously irrelevant to Mill. The starting point of his nervous breakdown was that his "conception of his own happiness was entirely identified" with being "a reformer of the world". So, he already met the conditions of Carlyle's theory, aiming not at his own happiness, but at the happiness of others. Yet somehow he remains unhappy.

I suppose we should not expect self-knowledge from a man who could observe, without irony, that the first "small ray of light broke in upon [his] gloom" when he "accidentally" read the passage from Marmontel's Mémoires that "relates his father's death [...] and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them – would supply the place of all that they had lost." Writes Mill: "From this moment my burden grew lighter." I wonder why?

Despite his startling self-opacity, Mill does say things that help us understand his problem, and its solution. The key, I think, is in the following lines:

In [Wordsworth's poems] I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy [...] which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence. There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did. I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation.

Is the echo of Aristotle here deliberate? It is in any case illuminating. Mill's description resonantly recalls the argument in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics that, since the best good must be "final without qualification" – worthwhile for its own sake, and not for the sake of anything else – it must be contemplation rather than morally virtuous action.

This argument has been found puzzling. On the face of it, "final without qualification" means "valuable but useless". (This is too quick, of course, but let me run with it.) It is a strange argument that attacks the moral virtues on the ground that they actually help people!

But what Aristotle says is not so strange; it is akin to Mill's remark about the need for good things that have no part of "struggle or imperfection". He says that "the virtues concerned with action have their activities in politics or war, and actions here seem to require trouble." In the case of virtuous action, or reforming the world, being worthwhile for the sake of something else goes along with a dependence on strife. It is because there is need, privation, hardship, vice, that the moral virtues must be active. But just as "someone would have to be a complete murderer if he made his friends his enemies so that there could be battles and killings" and thus occasions for courage, so it would be mad to want people to suffer so that one could be a saint. The ideal life would have no need for morally virtuous action. And so, if human life is not to be absurd, we have to find another picture of what it might contain. This is why we turn to what is "final without qualification", valuable but useless, like philosophical contemplation, or the poetry of nature.

I wish I could end on this note, but two problems remain. None of this explains why, when life is not ideal, we must still make room for the happiness of leisure, as both Mill and Aristotle claim. Is it simply so that we never lose sight of the point of fighting? And why should we concede that everything useful, everything worthwhile for the sake of something else, depends on needs we would be better off without? To put the point in its simplest form: what about work?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Love as Work

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster remarks that the "main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death." This is the set-up for his profound and very amusing comparison of homo sapiens and homo fictus. The latter species
is generally born off, he is capable of dying on, he wants little food or sleep, he is tirelessly occupied with human relationships. And – most important – we can know more about him than we can about any of our fellow creatures, because his creator and narrator are one.
(The sixth main fact about human life is that, unlike our fictional cousins, "we are people whose secret lives are invisible.")

What is missing from Forster's list, most strikingly of all, is work. It might be thought that this falls under the rather abstract rubric of "food". But that implies a formidably impoverished conception of work ("a man's gotta eat, don't he?") and in any case conflicts with Forster's interesting description of love:
When human beings love they try to get something. They also try to give something, and this double aim makes love more complicated than food or sleep. It is selfish and altruistic at the same time, and no amount of specialization in one direction quite atrophies the other.
Work is as complicated as love, or can be – love can also be uncomplicated, when it goes wrong – and Forster's words might in fact apply to both. In work, we try to get something and also to give something, and this makes work more complicated than mere survival, or getting through the day.

Philosophers have sometimes tried to deal with love, and while much of their writing is strictly false, it can also be insightful and even profound. They have a had much less to say about work. This strikes me as dissonant. Forster complains that homo fictus is madly obssessed with love, love, love; and that people are not like this.
Passion, intensity at moments – yes, but not this constant awareness, this endless readjusting, this ceaseless hunger. I believe that these are the reflections of the novelist's own state of mind while composes, and that the predominance of love in novels is partly because of this.
How can novelists and philosophers then miss the importance of work, which is present to them all the time? Is it because they are too immersed in it, just as one cannot see the outlines of a shape if it is pressed against one's eye?

The problem may be more serious: in neglecting work, philosophers and others are prone to misunderstand love, to be romantic about it. Here I defer to Rilke:
Like so many other things, people have misunderstood the position love has in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure are more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, precisely because it is the supreme happiness, can be nothing other than work.
I want to say: this passage does not conflate love with the loving relationship, or not illicitly. Love is not an attitude. When people remark – as a cliché – that one must work at love, they do not speak metaphorically. Unlike attitudes of belief and desire, love is subject to the will. One can decide to love; though, like all decisions, this one is bound to be constrained. There are necessities of will.

Unless we concede these points, and think of love as itself a kind of work, it will be impossible to imagine how – except perhaps by extraordinary luck – a marriage can be good; and a core of human life, the part the happens when the novel of romance is done, will hardly make sense at all.