May 27, 2018
I’ve been revisiting Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which I first encountered many years ago via Zadie Smith’s novel inspired by it, called On Beauty. The first part of the book is a lengthy qualification of what is meant by beauty. Scarry understands the notion as a generous and generative one, not at all allied with symmetry and lyricism, or verisimilitude and replication, or the legacy of Anglo-European aesthetics. Trust me on that one; it’s a big notion of the beautiful that I can’t do justice to here. What I’m thinking a lot about now is the ways she has enumerated the “great work of labor” she says that we do when we attend the beautiful and let ourselves be influenced by it. Namely below, where she cites the writer Iris Murdoch to set up this analysis of “unselfing”:
The radical decentering we undergo in the presence of the beautiful is described by Iris Murdoch in a 1967 lecture called “The Sovereignty of the Good over Other Concepts.” As this title indicates, her subject is goodness, not beauty. “Ethics,” Murdoch writes, “should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct; it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and about how this can be achieved.” How we make choices, how we act, is deeply connected to states of consciousness, and so “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity, and realism is to be connected with virtue.” Murdoch then specifies the single best or most “obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing,’ and that is what is popularly called beauty.”
She describes suddenly seeing a kestrel hovering: it brings about an “unselfing.” It causes a cluster of feelings that normally promote the self (for she had been “anxious…resentful…brooding perhaps on some damage done to [her] prestige”) now to fall away. It is not just that she becomes “self-forgetful” but that some more capacious mental act is possible: all the space formerly in the service of protecting, guarding, advancing the self (or its “prestige”) is now free to be in the service of something else.
It is as though one has ceased to be the hero or heroine in one’s own story and has become what in a folktale is called the “lateral figure” or the “donor figure.” It may sound not as though one’s participation in a state of overall equality has been brought about, as though one has just suffered a demotion. But at moments when we believe we are conducting ourselves with equality, we are usually instead conducting ourselves as the central figure in our own private story; and when we feel ourselves to be merely adjacent, or lateral (or even subordinate), we are probably more closely approaching a state of equality. In any event, it is precisely the ethical alchemy of beauty that what might in another context seem like a demotion is no longer recognizable as such: this is one of the cluster of feelings that have disappeared.
Radical decentering might also be called an opiated adjacency. A beautiful thing is not the only thing is the world that can make us feel adjacent; nor is it the only thing in the world that brings a state of acute pleasure. But it appears to be one of the few phenomena in the world that brings about both simultaneously: it permits us to be adjacent while also permitting us to experience extreme pleasure, thereby creating the sense that it is our own adjacency that is pleasure-bearing. This seems a gift in its own right, and a gift as a prelude to or precondition of enjoying fair relations with others. It is clear that an ethical fairness which requires “a symmetry of everyone’s relation” will be greatly assisted by an aesthetic fairness that creates in all participants a state of delight in their own lateralness.