The Truth About Beauty

It can be downright ugly

As Hemingway would say, "Isn't it pretty to think so?" For thousands of years, beauty's ability to help us enlarge our regard for the world did nothing whatsoever for notions of equality. (It may, in fact, have contributed to inequality.) Certain experiences of beauty have moral effects, but there are plenty that are distinctly amoral, or even immoral (from Scarry's humanistic point of view). I don't see how Baudelaire's poetry, or Richard Wagner's music, or Warhol's art or Godard's films are supposed to lead to a moral regard toward humanity or the world. They make you appreciate experience more voluptuously, but the moral content Scarry thinks is implicit is pure bourgeois wishful thinking.

If beauty has anything to do with justice, it's serendipitous. What beauty does for me is refresh my senses and make me want to look, listen and feel harder. It makes me feel momentarily like the Earth is my true home: it does a (temporary) end-around alienation. When I see a beautiful woman's face or body, or watch Kobe Bryant sail toward the basket, or stare at van Gogh's yellows, or hear John Lennon sing "Ah-ah-ah-ah" (in "A Day in the Life," after Paul says, "And then somebody spoke, and I went into a dream. . . ."), I feel privileged to be attending the passage of such events through my consciousness. At such moments, beauty utterly trumps reason: beauty feels like the real, like a heavenly visitation, a quick glimpse through a magical open window in a house that's otherwise all walls. It's a pause in the flow of experience that makes you concentrate on something utterly pleasurable to the mind and heart, and it makes you feel as though your normal way of perceiving things is starved and the world deserves your awe. But to think that such awe leads to justice is folly: Plato kicked the poets out of his Republic for good reason.

On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry; Princeton University Press. 134 pages. $15.95 hardcover.

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