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."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The act of replication is centered in the study of the thing to be replicated. Kind of like the act of writing is centered in the act of thinking through what one wants to write. If I draw a rose badly, such that it appears ugly to others, at least I have learned more about the rose's beauty by trying to replicate it.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Ray Davis said...

Art as practice frequently goes missing in contemporary aesthetics. The assumption seems to be that the prototypical artistic experience is to watch TV, read a book, insert a CD, or go to a museum. There seems little recognition of how much this might distort a cultural history of ceremony, memorization, amateur theatricals, nights around the piano, and copying by eye, or how much art production depends on the pleasure of the artists themselves.

In what you quote, it sound as if Scarry comes just close enough to this thought to snap her fingers in its face and run away.

11:42 AM  

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