EIGHT Aesthetics and Evolution
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Eight A E ST H ET IC S A N D E VOLU T ION I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. Umberto Eco, postscript to the name of the rose T5170.indb 154 T5170.indb 154 12/10/09 9:19:48 AM 12/10/09 9:19:48 AM Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty Thus it is not so much that philosophers have given up pursuing the truth as that art and literature have also taken on that function. Umberto Eco, on literature “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Of John Keats’s ekphrastic “Ode on a Grecian Urn” most readers remember just this final couplet, perhaps not even for its intrinsic beauty as for the sentiment it professes. It is, after all, one that has reverberated in literature and literary studies ever since. William Faulkner was only one of many who seized on Keats’s manifesto as a bedrock for his own pronouncements on the artist’s responsibility to his art. “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate” is how Faulkner notoriously put it to the Paris Review in 1956; “the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”1 This archetypal equivocation, or at least intimation, of kinship between truth and beauty is, naturally, far from confined to literature. Robert Adams, a photographer and theorist of the medium, inquires at the outset of Beauty in Photography, “Is Truth Beauty and vice versa?” before sensibly concluding: “The answer, as Keats knew, depends on the truth about which we are talking” (1981, 31). The Mathematical Gazette furnishes proof that even the proverbial queen of the sciences has not remained heedless of Keats’s equation, beginning with Diogenes O’Rell’s mathematically mind-twisting verse titled, appropriately enough, “On the Symmetries of a Grecian Urn” (1992). The reason Keats’s lines have resonated with so many is not because T5170.indb 155 T5170.indb 155 12/10/09 9:19:48 AM 12/10/09 9:19:48 AM 156 Literature, Analytically Speaking their sentiment is especially groundbreaking. On the contrary. Capping a long history of similar assertions, the poet only gave expression to what, in Pope’s words from “Essay on Man,” was “oft thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Indeed, the tradition of pairing beauty and truth goes back at least to antiquity. While Plato was the first thinker we know by name to link truth to beauty, he has been echoed since by countless others, beginning with Plotinus (who threw good into the mix for good measure ). This neo-Platonic lineage extends for more than two thousand years right down to the Romantics and the Transcendentalists’ efforts to link innate aesthetics to moral knowledge. Nor do theories positing some form of union between aesthetics and cognition stop with the nineteenth century. Walter de la Mare, for example , argued prominently that human beings are equipped with an innate faculty of imagination, which either atrophies with adulthood or else matures enough to face the world in the verses of the poet. Hence, de la Mare contends, the polarization of the human faculties: some are acquired and deductive, others intuitive and inductive (in the modern lexicon, we might describe the latter as innate adaptive evolutionary modules). Characteristically, the poet-critic again cast this distinction in Keats’s terms: “The one knows that beauty is truth, the other reveals that truth is beauty.”2 Neo-Platonism forms only one strand among philosophers, writers , and critics who throughout the ages grafted truth on beauty—or vice versa. “You may take sublimity in all its truth and beauty exists in such works as please all men at all times” (1965, 115), wrote Longinus in the first century ad.3 Waxing on the nature of art, Shakespeare had no doubt in “Sonnet XIV” that “truth and beauty shall together thrive.” By the time we come to Poe’s Eureka, the bond between the two is as firm as rhetoric can make it. “I offer this Book of Truths,” states Poe right at the outset, “not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth” (1997, 4). A full twelve years earlier, of course, Emerson articulated in “Nature ” much of what...


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