Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 249-260
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Mad About Flowers
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, [End Page 249] 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.
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...