- Ethics, Knowledge, and the Need for Beauty:Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Ian McEwan's Saturday
The postmodern attitude has died in a kind of fin de siècle despair at its inability to interrogate the consequences of its own provisionality and indecipherability; or in horror at deadly conflicts like those in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, or the Middle East; or in shock at the repeated sight of planes crashing into the twin towers and into our sense of security and complacency. But one phoenix that has arisen from the ashes of the postmodern world view is beauty. Of late, there has been a flurry of books on beauty, including Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just, Peter de Bolla's Art Matters, Denis Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty, and most recently Alexander Nehemas's Only a Promise of Happiness.1 In the last several years, two British authors have taken part in this otherwise philosophical discussion, adding their observations on the daily and particular effects of beauty on their characters to the more theoretical conversation: Ian McEwan in Saturday and Zadie Smith in On Beauty, the very title of which acknowledges the influence of Elaine Scarry. Smith's acknowledgments also cite Simon Schama's Rembrandt's Eyes as another source. In McEwan's novel, the recitation of 'Dover Beach' astonishes and calms an angry man determined to rape Daisy Perowne and probably kill her family, and makes him hopeful about a cure for the disease that is shortening his life and promising a horrific death.
These two novels instantiate what the philosophers imply: they illustrate the role beauty plays in our ways of knowing, judging, and being in the world, and its role in the conversation we need to have about that knowing, judging, and being. Moreover, reading them together suggests the way the preoccupation with beauty's role in society has reached a kind of critical mass and no longer simply fascinates [End Page 757] philosophers. They complement one another insofar as On Beauty considers the effect of an individual's relationship with beauty on his or her character, whereas Saturday concerns itself with the way in which beauty enlarges our attention to and knowledge of the world. In both novels, beauty operates as a touchstone, a potential way of thinking outside the self and thus of attending to the complexity of others. At the same time, characters' inability to connect with beauty and its representative in the social world – art – is implicated in their inattention to the humanity of others and their limited view of the world, whereas their engagement with beauty opens up a space outside themselves that can reflectively include other people and other perspectives.
The very title of Donoghue's book points to the principal difficulty and the primary virtue of beauty: because beauty is universally experienced but never entirely agreed upon, we need to speak about it. Definitions are legion, as his first chapter illustrates, yet they capture neither an objective set of qualities nor beauty's subjective effects, thereby producing an indefinability that Kant identifies as precisely the source of our pleasure. Thus Donoghue argues that because beauty is universally experienced but never agreed upon, it is crucial that we undertake the conversation about what is beautiful,2 just as de Bolla argues we need to undertake the conversation about what constitutes art. These conversations – about which landscapes to preserve, which art to include in our public galleries, which stories to tell – are a crucial part of a civic dialogue about what matters to us, what we value.
Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just has argued rather more forcefully that beauty has ethical significance.3 For Scarry, beauty is tied to our attention to the particular. In turn, our attention to the particulars of beauty is transformed into our attention to the ethical particulars of our world; our attention to the 'aliveness' of beauty transmutes into our sense of the aliveness of the beautiful. Because we are sometimes surprised into seeing the beauty of the 'other,' beauty takes us outside our egocentric experience; because beauty surprises us into ceding 'our ground to the thing that...