Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just”

As part of my reading project to get more acquainted with the field of aesthetics, I read this weird little number from Elaine ScarryOn Beauty and Being Just.

Cribbing from wikipedia, I know that Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, which means at least some other people think she knows a thing or three about aesthetics. For my purposes though – that is, thinking more seriously about the body and its experience(s) as the primary site of theological thought –  this book was elusive. Wild, weird, and a bit fun, yes. But still elusive.

 

From Pages 111-113

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to Simone Weil, requires us "to give up our imaginary position as the center…  A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions." Weil speaks matter-of-factly, often without illustration, implicitly requiring readers to test the truth of her assertion against their own experience. Her account is always deeply somatic: what happens, happens to our bodies. When we come upon beautiful things—the tiny mauve-orange-blue moth on the brick, Augustine's cake, a sentence about innocence in Hampshire—they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space; or they form "ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world,” or they lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else's sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.

The radical decentering we undergo in the presence of the beautiful is also described by Iris Murdoch in a 1967 lecture called "The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts." As this title indicates, her subject is goodness, not beauty. "Ethics," Murdoch writes, "should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct, it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and about how this can be achieved." How we make choices, how we act, is deeply connected to states of consciousness, and so "anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.” Murdoch then specifies the single best or most “obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for 'unselfing' and that is what is popularly called beauty.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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