On Beauty and Being Just
by Elaine Scarry
Princeton University Press, 134 pp., $15.95
Elaine Scarry is reviving, in her style of thought, a tradition that might have been thought to be dead or dying. It is the grand style of Ruskin and Pater, which became a principal inspiration for Proust in the long passages of his novel where he was trying to be more precise in describing his impressions and sensations than any novelist had ever been before. In this style, the secret of life is to be found in the arts of attention, in an exaggerated noticing, as in Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice.
“Précisez, monsieur,” Proust irritably commanded the young Harold Nicolson, who was trying to describe for him a diplomatic reception during the Conference of Versailles. Every flicker of an eyelid has meaning, and perhaps the flicker of an eyelid has beauty, if one comes close enough to it and stares long enough and intently enough, without shame or prejudice. Language, masterfully used, can bring the reader very close to the observing person’s sensations and can both engender and record the acute reactions, the “hyperesthesia,” that are the outcome of strained attention. Scarry writes in On Beauty: “How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.” Of a palm tree whose beauty she had not recognized, she writes, “It is everything I have always loved, fernlike, featherlike, fanlike, open—lustrously in love with air and light.”
There are readers, particularly philosophical readers, who will probably dislike these sentences because of their unrestrained directness and because of their confessional tone. Scarry is certainly not arguing with skeptics, but rather drawing attention, by all the means available to her, to a particular type of experience which she thinks everybody in different degrees shares. Of course beauty is of many different kinds, and no set of examples can conceivably exemplify more than a few of the infinitely various kinds. Scarry believes there is a core experience of beauty that we today tend to repudiate or overlook for some philosophical or moralistic reasons. She calls this experience an “intense somatic pleasure” which has a “sentient immediacy.”
The word “somatic” is well chosen here because of its quasi-theoretical vagueness. The experience is emphatically not simply a bodily pleasure, but rather is comparable to the borderline experience, both mental and physical, which A.E. Housman described in his famous lecture “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” He knew he had encountered genuine poetry when the effect on his skin, while reading, made it impossible for him to shave, at least for a time. I can testify that I have more than once been surprised and embarrassed to find myself beginning to weep watching Fred Astaire dance, which is for me a strong aesthetic experience. I have had the same somatic experience listening to Victoria de Los Angeles singing Schubert naively and without the familiar mannerisms of lieder singers. John Pope-Hennessy, the English art historian, used to say that when he as a …