Denis Dutton on Elaine Scarry


Mad About Flowers: Elaine Scarry on Beauty

Philosophy and Literature 24 (2000): 249-60.

Denis Dutton

Beauty’s on the comeback trail. After a century out in the cold, it’s once again all right to pronounce the B-word in intellectual discourse. The banishment was originally modernism’s idea. Go back to Clive Bell’s 1913 tract, Art, and you’ll find him already in the first chapter giving reasons why talk about the beautiful ought to be avoided in aesthetic theory. Most people, he says, use “beautiful” in an unaes­thetic sense, as in “beautiful huntin’ and shootin’,” and especially in references to “beautiful women.” To the man for whom the most beautiful thing is a beautiful woman, he said, the next most beautiful thing will be a picture of one. And so on with the arts, since the beautiful in music will probably be defined by such a man as “emotions similar to those provoked by young ladies in musical farces,” while beautiful poetry will be understood as whatever incites feelings once felt for the rector’s daughter.

However obnoxious his snooty regard for ordinary “men,” Bell did at least try to give a positive account, however fallible, of what he thought ought to replace “beauty” in everyday discourse. The concept of Significant Form created in the end more problems than it solved, but it was in its time a brave attempt to say something new (or, as Kantians have always realized in Bell’s case, something that seemed new) about what excites us in aesthetic experience. “Brave” is also a word used by J. M. Coetzee, in a jacket blurb, to describe On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry (Princeton University Press, $15.95). I’d guess Coetzee means the book addresses the idea of beauty in an academic atmo­sphere that treats beauty-talk as bourgeois or elitist. Things have shifted since the time of Bell: he entertained no doubts that beauty existed, although he thought we’d become hopelessly confused in distinguish­ing it from sentimentality and the dramatic content of art. Today, it is the very existence of beauty as an intrinsic property of art that is in doubt. Beauty, Marx-inspired social constructionists tell us, is but a figment of class interest or social indoctrination, and anyway it only came into existence at the same time as the fine arts in the eighteenth-century. Today, loving beauty, like enjoying cigars or thick steaks, or having a Mexican maid, is something we are supposed to regard as politically awkward.

Elaine Scarry

To her credit, Elaine Scarry is unashamed in her love of beautiful things. If there’s a range between cold philistinism on one end and sincere, warm gush about beauty at the other, she’s well to the gushy side. She’s mad about flowers, taking delight in naming the flowers in a Breugel painting: “jonquils, roses, fritillaria, tulips, irises, peonies, hyacinths, lily.” Besides plants of all kinds and gardens, she mentions vases, boys, birds, sunsets, poems, and girls (as described by Homer or Proust). It’s pleasing to read her enthusiastic list of beautiful objects, but one would like some kind of general account of what beauty is, and of this she gives no indication. While this is disappointing from the theory side, it has for readers such as myself, and I believe some other reviewers of the book, the odd effect of anaesthetizing the critical spirit. Professor Scarry is such an obviously generous and sensitive person, it seems churlish to subject her work to the same rigorous examination one would give to a book on beauty written by some more robust or aggressive soul. Be that as it may, it’s our job at Bookmarks to describe and evaluate honestly books we encounter, and we shall do so here.

Scarry begins with a curious idea, asking in the first sentence, “What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird?” Her answer: “It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” Beautiful things require that we draw or photograph them, record or reproduce them in some manner. Sometimes, she says, the replication is exact, other times it’s only a resemblance, and still other times it produces “things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.” Note the slippage from exact replication, to something less than exact, to something that’s not replication at all, an object completely different from the original beauty, though inspired by it.

This initial thesis is false in much of my experience, though Scarry’s experience may well be different. I’ve never come out of the ballet wanting to replicate anything beautiful I’ve seen there, fortunately for those around me. Nor have I taken a videocam into the theatre, although I wouldn’t be alone in sometimes wanting a record of an experience of beauty (I might buy a CD of a concert I’d enjoyed, if one became available). Sometimes we want a reminder, such as a museum shop postcard, but often enough we don’t desire either record or reminder, and are content with the memory. That all these kinds of cases are jumbled together by Scarry as potential replications of the beautiful object is confusing enough, but then Scarry adds yet another form of replication, its “simplest manifestation,” which is “the everyday fact of staring.” She explains: “The first flash of the bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later — as long as the bird is there to be beheld.” So just continuing to look at something is now defined as a kind of replication. Is she serious that we’d wish to look at a bird we found beautiful for as long as it was there? Forty-five seconds is a long time to stare at any unchanging thing (try it, if you doubt this), but what about five minutes, or five hours?

Scarry explains this expanded sense of replication-as-staring: “People follow the paths of migrating birds, moving strangers, and lost manu­scripts, trying to keep the thing sensorily present to them.” Who would follow the paths of migrating birds simply to see the birds? A hunter might follow birds, the better to bag a few more. An ornithologist might, in order to understand migration patterns. But can we imagine someone following the migrations of birds, south to Central America just to look longer at them? Scarry’s idea of following some beautiful stranger in the street to get a better look, or a longer one, makes more sense, but what about a lost manuscript? Do people follow the paths of lost manuscripts “trying to keep them sensorily present”? If a manu­script is lost, you precisely don’t have it sensorily present; that’s why you’re looking for it, because that’s what “lost” means. Anyway, the normal reason to search for a lost manuscript is not to look at it as a beautiful object to be kept “sensorily present,” but to read it, or publish it.

Confused? It gets worse. Scarry says that works of art such as the Divine Comedy and the Mona Lisa are themselves replications, because “something, or someone, gave rise to their creation and remains silently present in the newborn object.” She refers not to the artist, but apparently to some unknown thing (Beatrice, or the sitter for Leonardo’s painting? — she doesn’t say), “the generative object,” which continues to be present in the thing of beauty. She makes the strongest possible claim here: “It is impossible to conceive of a beautiful thing that does not have this attribute,” i.e., the attribute of begetting, or generating, or creating, or replicating. I defy anyone to distinguish these four terms as she uses them.

The vagueness of Scarry’s approach is not just in the construction of her argument; it is also found in her idea of an opposition. As remarked, beauty has had bad press from academics, especially over the last generation, and Scarry wants to see it rehabilitated. But just what are the objections to beauty that in her view must be overcome? “Beauty,” she explains, “is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, as when a legion of people begin to style themselves after a particular movie starlet. . . .” But who ever criticized beauty on the grounds that it causes people to imitate it? One might criticize Garbo, but I cannot imagine criticizing beauty in general or Garbo’s beauty in particular because it generated imitators. Much the same could be said for any artist that brought on imitators: Wagner, Picasso, Dylan Thomas. It’s the imitation and the imitators who are disparaged, not the originals, and not beauty itself. There’s more: “Again beauty is sometimes disparaged” — by whom? — “because it gives rise to material cupidity and possessiveness. . . .” Did anyone ever trash Raphael or Monet, or the beauty they created, just because their paintings are today objects of speculation or greed? We might blame the art market, but who “disparages” artists or the beautiful objects they make or beauty itself because such objects are prized to the point of avarice? Here as everywhere else in On Beauty and Being Just, Scarry does not name or quote a single person who actually holds any of the views she disputes. Whatever her intentions in doing this, it has the further effect of comfortably insulating her from criticism.

Part One of the book is entitled, “On Beauty and Being Wrong,” and when she finally does get to the central topic, it at least presents an provocative question. “It seems a strange feature of intellectual life,” she proclaims, “that if you question people — ‘What is an instance of an intellectual error you have made in your life?’ — no answer seems readily to come to mind.” This seems an odd observation. It doesn’t take me long to begin a list of intellectual errors I’ve made in a fallible life, in philosophy, economics, and politics, just for a start. For her part, Professor Scarry would, I hope, immediately remember her implausible but widely disseminated conjecture that TWA flight 800, which blew up in mid-air off Long Island, was caused to explode by radio waves generated by military aircraft in the area. It’s fine for English professors to suggest or entertain such physically improbable theories, but it was a serious intellectual error on her part to go into print in The New York Review of Books on the subject about which she obviously understands so little. All she accomplished was to feed general public suspicion about a government cover-up of the menacing fact that military airplanes apparently send out mysterious rays called “electromagnetic radiation” capable of causing “interference.”

In this book, the intellectual error she has in mind is one closer to her scholarly home: it’s the question of being wrong about the value of a work of art or other beautiful things. She says that generously overcrediting an object for its beauty is not as bad a mistake as undercrediting it. This seems plausible if we’re thinking of generosity towards people, but is less certain applied to art. It might be possible, for example, for a culture to be too “generous” and tolerant of mediocrity and ugliness in art or other areas of potential beauty. She says that “losing” a beautiful object by discovering that one had overrated it is “painful” — “the desirable object has vanished, leaving the brain bereft.” This rather peculiar phrase is an instance of the flowery language Scarry frequently relies on as a surrogate for plain analysis. Here’s another example, describing the discovery of being wrong about something you thought wasn’t beautiful: “. . . a beautiful object is suddenly present, not because a new object has entered the sensory horizon bringing its beauty with it (as when a new poem is written or a new student arrives or a willow tree, unleafed by winter, becomes electric — a maze of yellow wands lifting against lavender clapboards and skies) but becomes an object, already within the horizon, has its beauty, like late luggage, suddenly placed in your hands.”

How like a jet-setting academic to characterize beauty in terms of the late arrival of bags on the conveyor belt at Logan Airport. Not everyone, however, will be convinced by the analogy. If you’ve landed in some remote city and your luggage seems not to have arrived with you, its appearance is a great relief (or partial, good news/bad news, relief: “We’ve found your luggage, sir. It’s in Omaha.”). The discovery of beauty is more often an agreeable (or astounding) surprise than a relief after tense uncertainty. Scarry develops her account of beauty by analyzing what Odysseus says to Nausicaa when, having been washed up on the shore, he first encounters her. It’s an odd choice as a “discovery of beauty,” because (as Scarry herself later admits) the crafty Odysseus realizes that he must be careful with what he says to the young girl so as not to frighten her off, and be left there to die of hunger and exposure. There may be no denying the beauty of young Nausicaa, but Odysseus’ praise of her (“such a bloom of beauty. . . . I have never laid eyes onanyone like you,” etc.) is hardly ingenuous: it’s calculated to get him out of yet another tight fix. From this passage, Scarry draws what she describes as “three key features of beauty.” They are that beauty is sacred, that is it unprecedented, and that it is lifesaving.

Unfortunately, she fails to develop these features. Right after intro­ducing them, she notes that beauty is often described as a “greeting.” “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you,” it comes forward to welcome you. Despite providing an etymology of the word “welcome,” and citing the authority of Plato, Aquinas, Plotinus, Dante, and Pseudo-Dionysius, this suggestion also comes to nothing. Turning from greeting, she then explains the association of beauty with immortality in a most improbable manner. Many poets from Homer to Heaney have perceived beauty to be “bound up with the immortal” because beauty “prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts a search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backwards until it at last reaches some­thing that has no precedent, which may well be the immortal.” This application of the cosmological argument for the existence of god as an explanatory principle for beauty is daft: people do associate beauty with divine immortality, but not because they ask themselves what the precedent for this beauty is and, finding another beauty, ask about it, so arriving at an immortal First Beauty. Anyone who finds a hint of something immortal in the Beethoven Opus 131 Quartet isn’t thinking about precedents at all — the putative immortality is right there present in the music. Looking for precedents is in fact not normal behavior for aesthetes at the moment they are captivated by beauty. It is normal for academic critics doing their academic job.

As grand and improbable observations about beauty continued to issue forth from Professor Scarry (“beauty is a starting place for education”), I found myself wondering whatever happened to making errors about beauty. David Hume, for example, wrote a great essay, Of the Standard of Taste, which makes a pretty good start at analyzing the question. A well developed artistic taste, he says, requires much practice in assessing an art form, and acquaintance with a wide comparison base of many works in a genre. Personal temperament is a factor, along with age: we can’t expect at age fifty to enjoy the same things that were such a thrill at twenty (and that’s not always because the twenty-year-old is in error). Using an amusing story from Cervantes about a cask of wine and a rusted key on a leather thong, Hume makes a intriguing case that not all aesthetic judgments are mere opinion. Overall, he gives us a solid, straightforward discussion of standards, accuracy, and error in aesthet­ics, about being right and wrong about beauty. Scarry, on the other hand, provides only a long personal account of how she didn’t appreciate palm trees until paintings by Matisse taught her how beautiful palms can be. The proof of this, as far as I can understand it, is given in purple passages in which Scarry tries to demonstrate how moved she now is by palms and by Matisse. Of actual argument, there is none. (This section includes amateurish copies that Professor Scarry has herself made of Matisse prints hanging in her home. They tell us nothing about Matisse, and like the poetic passages, they suggest a desire on the part of the author to convince us just how sincere her attachment to beauty is.)

Given all this talk about replication, greeting, and immortality, it comes as a compete surprise when, on the next to the last page of the first section, Scarry proclaims, “I have tried to set forth the view here that beauty is allied with truth.” She had not seemed to this reader to be arguing that at all, but rather something like, “It’s desirable to make true judgments about what’s beautiful and what’s not.” She explains that of course she’s not claiming “what is beautiful is also true.” That only happens sometimes, she says, such as with the statement “I = I.” But what a bizarre choice to illustrate the coincidence of truth and beauty! I regard “I = I” as a trivial truth that is too boring to be beautiful. Scarry concludes by further explaining how beauty and truth are “allied,” as she puts it: “It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is ‘true’, but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experi­ence, as well, of error.” Beauty comes to us, in her final words, “with no work of our own, then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor.”

As though in general people turn over the last pages of novels, walk out of concert halls, or leave art galleries prepared and eager to search for truth. Plato’s whole project in the philosophy of art makes a plausible case for just the reverse: he held that the experience of art is so seductive, pleasurable, and compelling that it is bound to distract us farther from truth, not bring us closer. Having begun the chapter with the dubious hypothesis that the experience of beauty makes us want to reproduce it, at the end she would have us believe that the experience of beauty makes us want to know truth. To the contrary, it’s more probable that the experience of beauty, Verdi operas, for instance, will make us to want to experience more Verdi. Sure, we may eventually want to know more about Verdi’s life or the history of opera, but seldom does the Verdi-incited pursuit of truth extend beyond that (an honest show of hands, please, of those whose experience of Verdi alone has made them go back to read the Schiller plays on which some of the works are based, or made them want to master Italian history). Most people, gazing at the night sky in the desert will express their awe at its beauty. But disappointingly few will bother even to ask about the names of stars or constellations, let alone undertake a serious study of astronomy. Some professors — like Scarry, or me, or many readers of this journal — do on occasion pursue truth as an outcome of the experience of beauty. But we’re a paltry minority of a mass of humanity: for most, beauty in art, popular entertainment, or nature does not issue in a willingness to undergo “a giant labor” of searching for truth.

The first part of On Beauty and Being Just leaves the impression of a writer who is rather too willing to impute her admirable interests and values to anyone or any situation, if it seems comfortable to her. There is no evidence of self-questioning or tough examination of her dreamy opinions: if what she says seems right to her, especially if it’s poetically expressed and displays her sincere regard for beauty, it simply must be so. The second part of the book, “On Beauty and Being Fair,” continues in this register. There are two reasons why a reverence for beauty has become unfashionable in the humanities, she explains. The first is that beauty distracts us from the proper political mission to improve “wrong social arrangements.” The second is that we destroy, or reify, something by looking at it. For neither argument does she actually give us examples of wrong social arrangements which some writer or thinker has claimed beauty distracts us from. Nor does she give us an example of a writer who argues that something is harmed or destroyed by being looked at. The reader can therefore fill in slavery, patriarchy, capital­ism, or whatever for the former, and possibly the so-called male gaze for the latter. In any event, these two arguments cancel each other out, she says. Apparently, if a beautiful object is politically incorrect, it would be the welcome thing to subject it to a reifying gaze. And if our gaze were directed at a social arrangement that needed improvement, that would be okay, since its cold, reifying stare is just what wrong social arrange­ments deserve.

While she once again provides no examples of someone who held the views she wishes to refute, she imagines “an opponent of beauty” who tries to persuade us “that a human face or form or a bird or a trellis of sweet pea normally suffers from being looked at.” I wonder if anyone ever did argue that sweet peas “normally” suffer from being looked at. Later on, she says forthrightly that flowers are emphatically not hurt by being seen, and that gardens are even made to be looked at, but Scarry’s book would be a whole lot more interesting if she attributed to actual people some of the positions she wants to oppose. For all I know, maybe somebody did once recommend hanging black cloth around gardens to block reifying human gawkers and save the flowers from suffering. I once saw a museum display of human skulls that had been beautifully decorated a century ago by Melanesian artisans. A sanctimo­nious, culturally sensitive curator had draped black cloth around them, while leaving them in their display cases (this baffled some Melanesian artist friends: they knew quite well that those skulls were made by their ancestors to be looked at). The curator was trying to protect these old body parts — bones, clay, and paint — from the destructive gaze of museum visitors, no doubt. The examination of such a single, real-life example would have helped knock some realism into Scarry’s discussion.

The lack of realism is demonstrated by a discussion of what Scarry describes as “the problem of lateral disregard.” When she first raises it, she says it’s “what has been called” the problem of lateral disregard, but she again fails to name the intellectual pioneer who first identified it. In any event, this is “the worry that inevitably follows in the wake of observing the beautiful: ‘something’s receiving attention’ seems to involve ‘something’s not receiving attention’.” Is this a serious worry? It’s possible to drive and listen to Beethoven at the same time. It’s possible to listen to Beethoven and view El Greco at the same time. But you can’t listen to Sousa and Beethoven at the same time (Charles Ives might have imagined what it would be like). Our inability to listen at the self-same moment to two pieces of music or read two novels is, however, a fact about perception and attention, not about beauty: it’s not a worry. This doesn’t prevent Scarry from giving a solution to this problem: “It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to percep­tion, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.” It turns out that the “problem of lateral disregard is not, then, evidence of a weakness but of a strength: the moment we are enlisted into the first event, we have already become eligible to carry out the second.” What a relief to know that even though I cannot listen to Sousa and Beethoven at the same time, listening to Sousa does make me eligible to hear Beethoven. He’ll just have to wait his turn.

And so this odd little book wanders about, inventing artificial problems in order to land implausible solutions on them. The result is an odd kind of ersatz philosophical meditation which tries to impart the feeling that lofty issues are being addressed, but which actually evades the hard questions or answers them with woeful inadequacy. The major example of this is the main thesis of the book’s second half, “On Beauty and Being Fair.” Scarry claims that “beautiful things give rise to the notion of distribution, to a lifesaving reciprocity, to fairness not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect but in the sense of ‘a symmetry of everyone’s relation to another’.” Although she is exceedingly vague in her use of the word “distribution,” she seems to have in mind a distributive theory of justice. She fails to explain what she means by “symmetry” in human relations, except that to her it seems to suggest equality. She says that the “symmetry of beauty . . . leads us to, or somehow assists us in discovering, the symmetry that eventually comes into place in the realm of justice.” In support of this, she quotes some sentences from Augustine, including the claim that although water has unity, “Air has greater unity and internal regularity than water. Finally the sky . . . has the greatest well-being.” In loving colors, cakes, and the smooth surface of the body, Augustine explains, “the soul is in quest of nothing except equality and similitude.” She then asks rhetorically if anyone could read this passage and fail to come away with an intensi­fied yearning for equality. The answer is “yes.”

From the side of art, symmetry is not a necessary condition for beauty. Kant, with his usual insight, ruled out simple, symmetrical geometric shapes as beautiful. He even found the symmetry of formal French gardens less potentially beautiful than the rugged irregularity of English gardens. In supporting her connection of beauty with symme­try, Scarry refers to recent studies indicating that right-left symmetry is associated with beauty in evaluating human attractiveness. But this fact of evolutionary psychology probably has its genesis in the way left-right symmetry is associated with health; it’s hardly the sense of “beauty,” or the sense of symmetry she’s been discussing in her book. Turning to politics and human social relations, symmetry describes many well-ordered dictatorships.

So it is no surprise that the climax and conclusion of the book is confused not only about beauty, but about justice. Justice for Scarry is fairness, and fairness is, as she quotes Rawls, “a symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other,” which for her also has to do with equality and “aliveness.” She finds an association between stepping out of her front door to be greeted by “the four petals of each mother-of-pearl poppy, like small signal flags” and the fact that all over town well-behaved citizens are obeying traffic signals with “the resulting absence of injury.” Poppies, she notes, are fragile and susceptible to injury, but so then is “each car, each driver, each road surface with its white dividing line, each blinking light.” It is “the susceptibility of the world to injury that requires justice,” she tells us. Scarry’s thought processes seem distinctly medieval, where any resemblance or metonym she fancies turns in her mind into a substantive, if not causal, relation. For the medieval scientists, just as there are seven days in the week and seven orifices in the head, so there must be seven planets. For Scarry, as beautiful things exhibit just proportion of their parts, and the petals of a flower are like little signals (traffic signals, in fact), so the just society is proportioned justly with regard to its parts, which are human beings to whom justice is distributed symmetrically (and therefore traffic behaves itself). In this way is ethical fairness — a symmetrical, equalitarian, and just society — “assisted” by aesthetic fairness.

Only a moment’s thought reveals that this is a staggeringly naïve hypothesis. Great art has been used by dictators of the most unjust societies of the twentieth century to promote solidarity, indeed, in the case of Stalin, as helpmate in the enforcement of equality. I write this just having heard this afternoon the Texaco broadcast of the current Metropolitan production of Die Walküre. As a work of art, this opera’s profound sense of symmetry and its exploration of justice are sublime and breathtaking enough to bring tears to my eyes. Does anyone need to be reminded how this art was used, or by whom, in the last century? And it wasn’t only Wagner: the Nazis used that great egalitarian, Beethoven, just as effectively. These considerations are decisive counter-arguments to Scarry’s main thesis about the intrinsic connection between beauty and political justice. That she does not feel she must bother herself to address them is the mark of a writer who has been allowed to get away with a lot for a long time; but then, I said at the outset that her generous and sensitive spirit seems to switch off some readers’ critical faculties.

On Beauty and Being Just is a scandal, a travesty of art theory. Were it a master’s thesis submitted to a New Zealand university, I could imagine passing it in today’s environment, but I’d explain to the writer that it was high time she started the task of hard, critical thinking. The mediocrity of this book is appalling because the writer is not a grad student, but the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and the book records the Tanner Lectures, given at Yale in 1998. This book represents a severe decline in standards of argument in the academy. It’s a decline not found everywhere, I’m thankful to observe. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of attending a psychology conference where many of the values displayed in the conduct of sessions was the opposite of Scarry’s mindset. Researchers presented papers with clearly defined and articulated theses, which were usually then shown to be supported by experimental data. The same pattern was repeated in the discus­sions: a good-natured, respectful attempt by the audience, sometimes even with sympathetic guidance from the presenter, to argue alternative ways to explain the data, and by the way invalidate the main thesis. I’m used to this sort of thing from philosophers, and how refreshing, even somehow stirring, to see it so vividly at work in the communal scholarly efforts of scientists. I saw at that meeting a true intellectual egalitarian­ism, what Scarry might call symmetry: nobody’s thesis was privileged, and much of the imaginative scientific work — creativity, really — went into trying to invent or discover alternative hypotheses or points of view. In quite the opposite spirit, Scarry treats each of her ideas as teacher’s little pet theory, awarding it an “A” without any serious examination of alternative, competing ideas. This amounts in the end to an unforgiv­able form of intellectual self-indulgence: if she likes some notion, she’ll show why it just must be true, with barely a nod toward a straw-stuffed opposition.

Because the initial premise of Scarry’s book — that beauty is in need of a new defense — is so entirely right, her shoddy treatment of the subject is all the more regrettable. We can console ourselves that the love of beauty continues to flourish, and that books like this do it no damage.

Copyright © 2000 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.