On Beauty and Being Just

Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just is one of the strangest books I have ever read; certainly the oddest I’ve ever encountered that was written by a literary scholar. (Scarry holds an endowed chair in Aesthetics at Harvard; she is the author also of The Body in Pain, which at its best is a powerful and provocative book).

I read On Beauty and Being Just because I am interested in aesthetic theory, and particularly in the revival of interest in the notion of beauty in the last decade or so, after a century during which it was pretty much disparaged (modernism either preferred the sublime to the beautiful, or disparaged beauty as being an atemporal and apolitical ideal). In my own work, I have been trying to look at how Kant’s theory of Beauty is really a theory of singularity, how this resonates with certain themes in the work of such more recent philosophers as Whitehead and Deleuze, and how this way of looking at beauty can illuminate the phenomena of consumerism and commodity fetishism in our current cultural moment of frantic sampling and recombination, and of networked, informational capitalism, (what Virginia Postrel calls the “Age of Aesthetics”). I have also been concerned to distinguish what I am saying about the beautiful from the (unfortunately all-too-prevalent) neocon argument that seeks to invoke Beauty as an alibi to dehistoricize and depoliticize art (to emphasize its supposed atemporal absoluteness and High Quality, and to deny precisely the singularity, contingency, and evanescence that I find in Kant’s discussion of Beauty).

Scarry writes her book as a defense of beauty, and a protest against “the banishing of beauty from the humanities in the last two decades” as a result of “a set of political complaints against it” (57). Yet she is certainly no neocon. She strives rather to align beauty with a liberal (Rawlsian) account of justice, something that no “high standards,” anti-“political correctness” neocon would ever do. At the same time, far from preaching the “virtue” to be found in the canonical Western tradition (as neocons like Allan Bloom and William Bennett do), Scarry comes off rather as an enthusiastic, sensitive, and slightly deranged aesthete, positively gushing over the sheer loveliness of Homer and Dante and Matisse (as well as palm trees and flowers and the sky at sunset). All this is rather wonderful, because it is so ungrounded and unlikely and (above all) unmodern. Despite one relatively long passage about the Matisse prints on her walls, Scarry basically writes as if the twentieth century had never happened. I must confess to being rather charmed by this; there are so many academic critics who pretend to be oh-so-informed and up-to-date, but whose conceptual categories nonetheless fail to reckon in any way with the immense scientific, technological, and socio-economic changes of the last one hundred or so years, that it’s a relief to find someone like Scarry who is so utterly frank and straightforward about her untimeliness. Unlike nearly every other academic critic whose work I have read, Scarry is utterly unconcerned by the possibility that she will be judged naive; as a result, she’s free from the all-too-frequent academic vice of disguising simplemindedness behind long sentences and fussiness about methodology.

Where does that leave me, as a reader of On Beauty and Being Just? I cannot say that I found the book to be intellectually stimulating or useful to me in any way whatsoever — but in matters of beauty, perhaps usefulness is beside the point. Nor do I wish to bash the book for its incoherences of logic and argument — something that is all too easy to do (as Denis Dutton does, for instance, from something of a neocon perspective).

Rather, I would praise the book (though Scarry might not appreciate the praise) for its sheer otherness. On Beauty and Being Just seems to be written by someone from another planet, or better from an alternate universe, a Bizarro World whose subtle yet profound difference from ours is the result of some quantum bifurcation. Scarry appeals repeatedly to common sense: or more precisely to psychological observations that she assumes her readers will share with her. Yet in every case the observation is one that is not only counter-intuitive, but so odd as to be unreconcilable with any known human psychology.

For example, Scarry writes: “It seems a strange feature of intellectual life that if you question people — ‘What is an instance of an intellectual error you have made in your life?’ — no answer seems to come readily to mind. Somewhat better luck is achieved if you ask people (friends, students) to describe an error they have made about beauty” (11). Now, I have never met a single person about whom this statement might even possibly be true (though, admittedly, I have never met Scarry herself). But Scarry goes on to derive from this observation the most broad and astonishing consequences. What’s more, the blithe tone of Scarry’s prose suggests an utter unawareness that anyone might not find her formulations as self-evident as she does. (It reminds me of the beginning of a Jane Austen novel — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” — only where Austen ironically deconstructs the seemingly obvious sentiment with which she begins, Scarry conversely treats her own unusual assertions as if they were transparently obvious to everyone).

I can only conclude that Scarry does indeed live in the world she describes, a world I find utterly unrecognizable. And I find the report she sends back from this world to be strangely beautiful, even though I cannot say it is a place that I myself would want to inhabit.

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