Saturday, November 30, 2013

On Beauty and Being Just

Two quotes from Elaine Scarry in her book 'On Beauty and Being Just'.  With thanks to Kate Brennan


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The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterward one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction— to locate what is true. 

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Homer sings of the beauty of particular things. Odysseus, washed up on shore, covered with brine, having nearly drowned, comes upon a human community and one person in particular, Nausicaa, whose beauty simply astonishes him. He has never any- where seen a face so lovely; he has never anywhere seen any thing so lovely. “No, wait,” he says, oddly interrupting himself. Some- thing has suddenly entered his mind. Here are the lines:
But if you’re one of the mortals living here on earth, three times blest are your father, your queenly mother, three times over your brothers too. How often their hearts must warm with joy to see you striding into the dances— such a bloom of beauty. . . . I have never laid eyes on anyone like you, neither man nor woman . . . I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.
Wait, once I saw the like—in Delos, beside Apollo’s altar—
the young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light. There I’d sailed, you see, with a great army in my wake, out on the long campaign that doomed my life to hardship. That vision! Just as I stood there gazing, rapt, for hours . . . no shaft like that had ever risen up from the earth— so now I marvel at you, my lady: rapt, enthralled,
too struck with awe to grasp you by the knees
though pain has ground me down.
 
Odysseus’s speech makes visible the structure of perception at the moment one stands in the presence of beauty. The beautiful thing seems—is—incomparable, unprecedented; and that sense of be- ing without precedent conveys a sense of the “newness” or “new- bornness” of the entire world. Nausicaa’s childlike form, playing ball on the beach with her playmates, reinforces this sense. But now something odd and delicately funny happens. Usually when the “unprecedented” suddenly comes before one, and when one has made a proclamation about the state of affairs—“There is no one like you, nothing like this, anywhere”—the mind, despite the conŠdently announced mimesis of carrying out a search, does not actually enter into any such search, for it is too exclusively Šlled with the beautiful object that stands in its presence. It is the very way the beautiful thing Šlls the mind and breaks all frames that gives the “never before in the history of the world” feeling.

Odysseus startles us by actually searching for and Šnding a pre- cedent; then startles us again by managing through that precedent to magnify, rather than diminish, his statement of regard for Nau- sicaa, letting the “young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light” clarify and verify her beauty. The passage continually re- starts and refreshes itself. Three key features of beauty return in the new, but chronologically prior, object of beauty. 

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