Sunday, September 10, 2006

An Unheard Melody

The objection was made by T. S. Eliot:
This line ["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue.
I used to agree with this, but I recently changed my mind. This happened in the course of reading Cleanth Brooks on "Keats' Sylvan Historian" – though not because I was persuaded by his take on the disputed lines, as a dramatic interjection by the urn not to be attributed to Keats. The poet who wrote these words was surely concerned with their topic on his own behalf, writing, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth."

The question raised by Eliot is a version of Richards' "problem of belief", which has been mentioned here before. What is fascinating about the present example is that the object of putative belief is a doctrine about the aesthetic significance of belief. In the presence of self-reference, paradox should come as no surprise.

Consider the principle that a poem is harmed, as a poem, by philosophical error. This would be the premise of Eliot's objection to Keats. If the premise is false, the objection is mis-placed. But if the premise is true, the objection fails again. For it is plausible that the doctrine expressed at the end of the poem is precisely the one that is being discussed, that what is beautiful must be true. The poem ends with a mistake only if this principle is false. But if the principle is false, it doesn't matter that the poem ends with a mistake.

Eliot's objection can therefore be ignored. What cannot be ignored is the sheer inelegance with which the doctrine of truth and beauty is framed. Right or wrong, it is ineptly said in Keats' bald and clunking syllables. I continue to believe, with Eliot, that the line is a serious blemish on an otherwise beautiful poem – but for reasons that have nothing to do with the problem of belief.


Blogger GF-A said...

I must be insufficiently caffeinated. I don't see how 'a poem is harmed, as a poem, by a philosophical error' is "precisely" 'What is beautiful must be true'.

I can see 'A poem is not[/less] beautiful if it is not true,' as a paraphrase of Eliot's claim; and that's identical to 'If a poem is true, then it's [more] beautiful.' If (that paraphrase of) Eliot is true, then we do plausibly get that truth is beautiful; or, if you prefer not to reify truth and beauty, whatever is true is beautiful. But that does not give us the converse direction, i.e., whatever is beautiful is true. (And that was always the more suspect direction of Keats' claim.) So we're still short of Keats' claim, as far as I can see.

12:38 PM  
Blogger GF-A said...

Sorry about getting lazy about quotation marks as the post went on. I'll again plead insufficient caffienation.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I was taking the core claim to be: if it's not true, it isn't beautiful; or, equivalently, if it's beautiful, then it's true. That's the premise of Eliot's objection, and a plausible reading of Keats' letter to Bailey.

Unfortunately, "beauty is truth" suggests a biconditional: something is beautiful if and only if it's true. Acknowledging that would ruin my defence of Keats, because the truth of the former conditional would not exempt his closing lines, taken now to express the biconditional, from the charge of philosophical error.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A work of art is not "damaged" in any way by containing a philosophical error, unless the work was created to promote that error, in which case it has no value.

Brideshead Revisited is a stinkingly awful novel because we are required to accept the idea that Lord Marchmain's willingness to accept viaticum represents a miracle that challenges the agnosticism of Charles Ryder. But Ryder's "agnosticism" is a blank nothingness like the rest of him; he has no existence as a character. Waugh cannot draw him or invent a life-change for him because his version of "belief" is itself just play-acting: agnosticism dressed up and giving boring sermons about how the silly athiests don't know anything either. The novel is hollow and false because its author's "faith" was a conceit every bit as modern and fashionable as Cyril Connolly's parallel obsessions.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous phosphorious said...

A work of art is not "damaged" in any way by containing a philosophical error, unless the work was created to promote that error, in which case it has no value.

What about satire? Can't it be expected to "hit its target" as a condition for its aesthetic success? And "hit its target" means something like "accurately portray the object of the satire".

5:51 PM  
Anonymous Pacifist Viking said...

Re: biconditional.

I wouldn't interpret the line with "if and only if" but with "therefore."

Something is beautiful, therefore it is true; something is true, therefore it is beautiful. And then I would latch onto the line from Keats' letter on imagination to suggest that both beauty and truth, in this context, are really what the imagination latches onto as beautiful and/or true, and thus it is typical of the Romantic elevation of imagination.

3:06 AM  

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