Unbearable beauty, neither good nor fair

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The Independent Online

I spent much of yesterday arguing with a book. Indeed I think you could call this disagreement a quarrel, since it quickly tipped over from polite demurral into the kind of yelping contradiction which reveals a mild loss of control. I began to take it personally.

I spent much of yesterday arguing with a book. Indeed I think you could call this disagreement a quarrel, since it quickly tipped over from polite demurral into the kind of yelping contradiction which reveals a mild loss of control. I began to take it personally.

The book was Elaine Scarry's On Beauty And Being Just, two lecture-length essays which set out to defend the notion of beauty against recent charges laid against it - abuse of power, fraudulent practice, corruption of minors and various other misdemeanours. These are taken more seriously in American academic life than in most places (Scarry teaches English at Harvard, so is filing from the front line), but it's broadly true that the idea of beauty has been under suspicion for a while, usually as a kind of distraction from the real issues. Certainly the idea of writing a book about beauty has an archaic flavour to it, so that JM Coetzee's jacket puff - "a brave and timely book" - doesn't seem simply absurd.

When you read a theoretical work like this, the experience can often be oddly like travelling with a driver you don't know. You start by giving them the benefit of the doubt, but the longer you go on, the harder it is to suppress the back-seat driving. You wince as the author sails through a glaring red light, and mutter under your breath as the correct turning passes by unregarded. Every crashing gear change and navigational error makes silence more difficult until eventually you can't help yourself. The thwarted urge to take the wheel begins to vent itself in half-stifled cries of dismay and groans of disbelief.

The journey wasn't all bad. For one thing, Scarry is unabashedly in favour of beauty and, a certain breathy gushiness aside, is occasionally capable of it herself. For another, it wasn't just a dull commute through the unexceptionable - a landscape of truisms so flat and familiar that it barely impinges on your consciousness. I certainly knew I'd travelled by the time I came to the last page. For all that, though, the trip was a noisy one.

The first exclamation was prompted by Scarry's basic contention that beauty incites the act of replication. "When the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants to reproduce that person," she writes, and she reinforces this dubious contention by redefining the "homely act of staring" as a kind of urge towards replication itself (the notion being that we are making a copy of the beautiful object in our mind). But both descriptions seem like the evasion of a truth she doesn't want, for political reasons, to concede - that what the body "wants" is satisfaction of an appetite aroused by beauty, and that staring is one of the few means we have of not having our cake and eating it.

Even if you don't believe that looking is a kind of predatory act in itself (one of the contemporary prejudices Scarry deals with in her book) it clearly is a special case of consumption - a way to absorb something desirable and make its merits part of us. And Scarry gives the game away elsewhere when, without acknowledging what she is confessing, she writes of a beautiful object "moving out of her reach" and of her "desire to lay hold of it". However abstracted they have become today, these appetites surely have an ancient history. (One of the most conspicuous "missed-turning" moments comes when Scarry notes the conspicuousness of beauty - the way an object will stand out "as though [it] were designed to 'fit' your perception". Well, it probably was - by some evolutionary accommodation long buried beneath rationalisations like this one.)

The loudest yelp, though, was prompted by Scarry's attempt to rehabilitate beauty as an agent of moral improvement. Its detractors, she notes, raise the problem of "lateral disregard" - that is, that paying attention to beautiful things makes us neglect those that aren't. On the contrary, she argues, the experience of beauty raises our ethical game across the board. Cherishing the beauty of one vase, she suggests, will make us more careful of all vases. More fundamentally - and her argument is too technical to paraphrase with justice here - beauty and fairness are two facets of the same abstract virtue; a sense of balance and symmetry.

The problem with this is that it won't even match her own accounts of how beauty is felt, let alone mine. If it stands out from its surroundings, how can it do so without diminishing them? The very act of discerning beauty - discrimination - has a kind of prejudice against also-rans at its heart. Beauty isn't fair and doesn't offer lessons in civic responsibility. What it does do I'm still not sure, but it would be churlish not to thank Scarry for raising the question, even if her gear changes leave a lot to be desired.

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