Summary of lecture by Harley Rubio
Dr. Scarry’s highly interdiscplinary lecture focused on how beauty presses us to a greater concern for justice, or a greater concern for the diminution of pain. Though beauty is often personal, its usage and relevance to humanity has allowed it to be incorporated into different realms of subject matter. In English, both beauty and justice have a shared synonym and that is the word “fairness.” In the issue of beauty, one often associates fairness to fair faces, fair vistas, and fair skies, but in concerning justice, one would think of fair arrangements and fair playing fields. Etymologically, the word fairness as we use it today in concerning justice originated from its use in the aesthetic realm: “loveliness of countenance” or “perfection of fit.” It is also important to note that in both cases, the shared antonym is the word “injury.” (The word “jury” is intermixed, referencing once more to the idea of parallel in punishment, and decision-making in the political system.) Though often one would associate the opposite of “fairness” to be ugliness, the word seems incomprehensible whereas injury, to Scarry, makes perfect sense.
Whether one is speaking of the beauty seen in paintings, Keat’s poems, the work of Emily Bronte, Scarry makes the point that one is always speaking of one of three sights:
1. Oftentimes, we described beauty in terms of its physical characteristics such as symmetry, unity, and clarity. Though we often describe beauty in flowers, children, paintings, there is an underlying relationship to justice. Attributes such as parallel and symmetry anticipate attributes in the realm of justice. Beauty in being just: symmetry seen in beauty anticipates a symmetry in human relationships. Oftentimes punishments are sought out so they their weight is in some way symmetrical to its crime. In the same likelihood, compensation should be symmetrical to the work carried out. As well as Hume’s regulation of fulfillment and its symmetry in concerning expectation.
2. In the presence of beauty, it elicits a response in the viewer. It stimulates a cognitive event that relies on the perception that one makes towards beauty. For example, Socrates in coming in the presence of a beautiful boy becomes overwhelmed by emotions, breaks into a fever and begins to fall over. Oftentimes, we describe the effects beauty elicits because they are what make us feel marginal in our existence. In one instance, in the words of Iris Murdoch, it issues forth an “un-selfing” or in Simone Weil, the “radical de-centering.” Iris Murdoch makes the example that she often is concerned with personal affairs, such as her status, but at the sight of beauty, loses the preoccupation with herself. Scarry terms this experiences as “[opiated] adjacency” because there are many things in the world that put us in a state of acute pleasure, but there are also things that make us feel marginal to the world. Beauty is the only thing that can accomplish this simultaneously; it not only accomplishes a state of bliss, but it also helps the morality between people.
3. The third sight once more concerns the viewer but instead of the describing the immediate response, the third sight concerns the aftermath or the delayed response. Describing in which it gives rise to creation. This sight focuses on the link between the beautiful and the aftermath that evokes a desire to create. For example, Diatema tells Plato, who tells Socrates, in the “Symposium,” that being in the presence in the beloved incites a desire to bring beauty into the world. Oftentimes, we do not take notice, but it is innate human nature to focus on the idea of reproduction and in seeing the beautiful, it prompts the idea of the creation of children to carry on that beauty. In other cases, it inspires us to write poems, many different forms of literature, philosophy, treaties among a few things. “When the eye sees the beautiful, the hand wants to create.” Mathematicians and scientists rely on beauty in the forms of symmetry; Math must be “pregnant with possibility to endure for a millennia” as quoted by Robert Langlands from the Institute for Advanced Study. Or in other cases, many cubic and quintic equations often produce many possibilities and would therefore elicit responses to discover. In the real world, there is an emphasis on replication when in the presence of beauty. We seek to preserve the continuity of beauty in forms of photographs, phones, recordings, and communication among other forms.
Though beauty exists in a natural and artifactual state, justice is solely artifactual. There is an impulse towards plentitude, as seen in the words of distribution and infinity. There is a need to not only take care and protect beauty, but also to replicate it for others to witness.
In further discussing her argument, Scarry includes some visual examples:
As seen in Josiah McElheny’s artwork, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely, the ideas of replication and symmetry are richly apparent; the smoothness and uniformity provides for the viewer a tactile experience of symmetry. There is also the feature of “un-selfing” as the viewer is not present even in the reflections of the work.
Similarly, Shiro Kuramata’s Miss Blanche, named after Miss Blanche from Tennessee William’s A Street Car Named Desire, makes the notion to break off from reality. It explores the relationship between male and female sexuality, and makes homage to the act of preservation of life. Blanche DuBois, in this salute, is relieved of the mental weight she has in her concerns with aging, as seen when one finds relief in a chair. Likewise in Glass Chair and How High the Moon, beauty is not only elicited in its responses, in its in-depth meaning, but also in the intricate features of proliferation, of multiplying and subtracting at the same time.
Then there is the discussion of what makes us want to make good, to do good?
There is the theory that beauty is what drives the idea of morality.
Often poets speak of beauty such as William Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:--feelings too 30
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
The unremembered acts of kindness and love coming from his experiences, of the beautiful, at Tintern Abbey.
Likewise, Thomas Hardy in “At the Lunar Eclipse” explores a proliferation of shadow unmatched by the earth; that we do not live up to the beauty of our own planet.
Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon’s meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.
How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?
And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?
Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?
The discussion continues to explore the relationships of the beautiful and social justice, and how it relates to the relationships within humanity. Beauty and justice reside in the immortal realm, but at the same time, there is an issue brought about that those who do not injure are kept in jail while those who do are not. This relates to the obvious asymmetrical quality within the justice system. Though we oftentimes seek out a symmetry within crime and punishment, we do not bring it into fruition. Likewise, this asymmetry exist economically and also in the issue of weaponry.
Do we fear symmetry? Do we fear a sense of balance in the world?
A life pact exists between the beautiful and humanity. An account exists in Homer and the sense of awe Odysseus finds in Nausicaa as someone so beautiful, mirrored in Dante’s account of Beatrice, the “new life.” There is a sense of wanting to preserve the beautiful; it brings about a sense of renewal. It repairs ground and restores a trust in us for the world. At the same time, it elevates our acuity and perception of life and its beauty.
Though there is the argument that beautiful things rob attention from others, Scarry suggests to reflect when confronted with a beautiful person.
Was one paying attention to everyone to begin with, or was one paying the necessary attention to beauty, singling them out as a result of that beauty?
It spurs a sense of aliveness, and social contract.
On that note, there arises the issue of weaponry and how it can affect the preservation of beauty. The imbalance in unnecessary nuclear weaponry affects the world in numerous ways. The inclusion of clocks in magazines incites a feeling of replication but also universality in beauty, especially during a time where clocks provoke a feeling of “doomsday.” The idea of destruction becomes relatable to what the clock stands for, especially in its spherical qualities that mirror the Earth. It is as if destruction against nature affects not only that specific location, but also the idea of the beautiful, of humanity and social justice.
Because beauty appeals so much to us, there arises a life pact to preserve it as an innate responsibility. It elicits us to take care and protect what is alive, but at the same time, the reciprocal life-pact, the concern for surfaces as if it were live tissue, gives rise to its inclusion to many documents such as the Magna Carta’s 14 charter, the Epic of Gilgamesh, legal treaties, and in many works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
In its universal quality to experience beauty, in making us alive, there is also the same duty to preserve it, and its continuity. This, I think, is key to the underlying relationship between beauty and social justice.