Elaine Scarry
Elaine Scarry; drawing by David Levine

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 schoolboy first saw the Italian pictures in a room in the National Gallery in Washington, he immediately vomited.

This is perhaps comic, but the point is an important one, because the anti-theoretical theory of Housman implies that there is a core or essence of beauty which literally makes itself felt in a recognizable type of mind-body sensation, which has many different physical expressions in different individuals. A philosopher might argue by analogy that truth, like beauty, is of many different kinds, and so also is knowledge, but that the experience of arriving at truth after error or ignorance, or of the acquisition of knowledge, is everywhere and strikingly the same. But it is not a somatic experience.

Those philosophers are deceived who, following Wittgenstein, have argued that things, natural or artifactual, are accounted beautiful in virtue of some “family resemblance” between them. Not at all: beauty—in poetry, music, painting, and in nature—comes forward and announces itself clearly and forcefully, as we meander inattentively through the world along our separate pathways. ”

Scarry examines here a case of her own error, the error of inattention, when she for a long time overlooked the beauty of the play of light in and around a palm tree which was as if formed to produce this effect. But any philosopher will ask his favorite and (he thinks) unavoidable question: How do you know that this intense somatic experience is what it purports to be, a response to beauty? What justifies the certainty? The answer must be that the sensation is not just a sensation, but a sensation instigated and surrounded by a peculiar kind of thought. This accompanying thought returns upon itself as reflection on the experience. It seems to authenticate the experience as of one peculiar kind.

Kant, in his analysis of judgments of beauty in the Third Critique, emphasizes this link between perceptual sensations and surrounding thought. Evoking such a link, Scarry writes:


It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.

The surfaces of the world are aesthetically uneven. You come around a bend in the road, and the world suddenly falls open.

When we come upon beautiful things,…they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.

I think this is exactly how we simultaneously think and feel, in a single undivided perception, in many different places and at many different times.

The beauty of these wake-up calls in nature is prolonged in the beauty that similarly announces itself in writing, painting, and music, always certified by the intense somatic experience surrounded and sustained by thought. Notoriously it is difficult to specify confidently and clearly the typical content of this thought, except that it often refers to some stronger radiance, or realm of imagined perfection, or to “some vaster space” of open possibilities. Within the Housman-Scarry hypothesis the single experience sweeps together the most various things, natural and ” artifactual, so that the proposition that they are all beautiful in the same sense of the word would be considered crazy if it were not a fact of common consciousness: that beauty announces itself in the same way in Astaire’s dancing as in Ulanova’s, in Vermeer’s View of Delft, or in Hardy’s poem “Afterwards,” or in the last two verses of “Le Bâteau Ivre,” or in the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Finnegans Wake, in the temple at Paestum, or in the view from the hill in Delphi. It is natural to run on randomly about such experiences, but Scarry prefers to pick on small unconsidered objects that are beautiful: “Why should this tiny fragment of flying brick color [a moth] stop your heart?”

Scarry alludes to an argument, which Kant actively deploys, positively identifying the source of my conviction and hers that beauty is unambiguously affirmed (or, as logicians say, “predicated”). Beauty, and the experience of it, “decenters” us, Scarry claims. When we come upon beautiful things—her characteristic example is a “tiny mauve-orange-blue moth” that has alighted on a brick—we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before.

We cease to stand even at the center of our own world…. It is as though one has ceased to be the hero or heroine in one’s own story and has become what in a folk-tale is called the “lateral figure” or “donor figure [i.e., a bystander or subordinate character].”

This is a particularly vivid expression of the fact that affirmations of beauty claim their own kind of objectivity and that they accept the constraints of objectivity: the beauty of the moth ought to be recognized by anyone who is alive and alert in his or her perceptions and who attends to it carefully. A self-absorbed or severely practical person, sitting at the center of her world and its preoccupations, is unwilling to be “decentered,” and therefore is not in a position to notice the true physiognomy of things, to attend to the colored subtleties of a moth on a brick or of a fern or of a feather. Scarry has a useful and original metaphor for the successes and failures of aesthetic perception: ”

Beauty is…a compact or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver. As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.

This amounts to an ingenious denial that the polar distinction between objective and subjective applies to the perception and judgment of beauty. The beauty is set alight by the perceiver’s delighted attention and the perceiver’s attention is captured by the latent beauty of the object.

Kant posed the problem whether, in our judgments of the appearance of things, we could distinguish between the charm of pleasant associations suggested to us by an object—that is, its purely subjective charm—and the identification of beauty recognized in some natural or artifactual object, a fully objective recognition of a property external to the person. The claim to objectivity in Scarry’s book is the complex claim both that everyone ought to agree with the recognition of beauty and that they will agree if they can escape, perhaps only for a moment, from the chains of their own subjective associations and interests—Scarry’s “decentering.” If beauty in Kant’s sense is essentially something perceived and never inferred, and if there can never be true agreement that is compelled only by argument or evidence, how can we claim that everyone ought to agree, universally, in their judgments in the presence of beauty? Why should we assume that humanity can be, and ought to be, united in this evaluation of its perceptions, and not only in its reasonings?


Scarry has a cunningly sketched, eloquent, but not altogether clear answer in a passage which begins with an account of several works of Matisse painted in Nice. Like many others before her, she remarks that

it sometimes seems that a special problem arises for beauty once the realm of the sacred is no longer believed in or aspired to. If a beautiful young girl (like Nausicaa), or a small bird, or a glass vase, or a poem, or a tree has the metaphysical…behind it, that realm verifies the ” weight and attention we confer on the girl, bird, vase, poem, tree. But if the metaphysical realm has vanished, one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the vase, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty. If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems self-centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard.

How can we explain “this immense regard,” and the solemn tone in which aesthetic judgments are declared, if such judgments are not in some way revelatory and if they do not reveal some superior and supernatural, or at the least nonnatural, reality be-hind the appearances perceived? In Wildean mood one may answer that it is only the superficial who despise surfaces and appearances, but for philosophy this is no adequate answer. I believe that at least the beginnings of a possible answer are to be found in On Beauty and Being Just.

For Scarry, Matisse is a talisman, and his painting suggests the clue to a philosophical answer. Matisse, she claimed, “believed he was painting the inner life of the mind; and it is this elasticity that we everywhere see in the leaf-light of his pictures, the pliancy and palmy reach of the capacious mind.”

The mind is elastic and capacious when it is imagining. Add to this familiar suggestion a sentence of Scarry’s that for me strikes home: “Beautiful things, as Matisse shows, always carry greetings from other worlds within them.” For Scarry the thought that surrounds the somatic sensation of beauty, and that identifies it, is typically thought of a more perfect arrangement of things, of a more noble realm in which objects are perceived as more distinct and free-standing, as not encumbered and entangled with other things, but framed and bordered, not frittered away trivially in their interconnections, but isolated and proudly salient.

The material world constrains us, often with great beneficence, to see each person and thing in its time and place, its historical context. But mental life doesn’t so constrain us. It is porous, open to the air and light, swings forward while swaying back, scatters its stripes in all directions….”

To recognize the historical context of a person or thing, and to understand why it occupies this particular time and place, is to perceive it as a solid reality in the ordinary external world. This knowledge of causes in their contexts enables us to control and manipulate the environment as we must. But a beautiful thing also has an immaterial and detached reality, detached from its context, and has a part in the free play of “capacious minds,” where it suggests infinite possibilities. There exists an unavoidable contrast between, on the one hand, the imaginative realm of objectively beautiful persons—persons with objectively beautiful faces, for example—and beautiful things, isolated and framed in our minds and, on the other, the confused realm of persons and things which we evaluate for their utility and their connections with other things. When we lost the sacred and the magical as the required backing for the weight and gravity of our aesthetic judgments, these imaginings of a superior realm replaced the metaphysical affirmations of it. The work of God, or of the gods, was replaced by the play of our own occasionally capacious minds.

We are not deceived in the thoughts surrounding our aesthetic experiences, and we always know that the images of perfection and of radiance, stimulated by the beauty that we see, are the product of imagination. The capacious mind, itself a natural object, deserves the glory which formerly went to a supernatural agent. Scarry writes,

What happens when there is no immortal realm behind the beautiful person or thing is just what happens when there is an immortal realm behind the beautiful person or thing: the perceiver is led to a more capacious view of the world.

In other words, a sense of transcendence of ordinary fact is involved in any experience of beauty, and this sense remains the same whether it is attributed to an immortal agent or to the human imagination, which constructs its own images of perfection, free from any limiting context.

Following Scarry along a path that runs parallel to the speculations of Kant and Schiller, one must ask what is meant here by “a more capacious view of the world.” Empirical realities, “the world,” hem us in and hold us ” back and limit our freedom even to imagine the infinite possibilities of perfection of form that might be revealed to us. But from time to time we stumble across a view, or a song overheard, or a butterfly, or a vase, and suddenly there is a tear in the curtain and the light of less imperfect possibilities shines through. I say “suddenly,” because in the appearances of beauty there is typically an aleatory element, a flash of the unexpected which classically was symbolized by the capricious arrivals and departures of pagan gods and goddesses. Kant’s Romantic concept of genius was a recognition of the fitful, of the uncertain, of the peculiar and blinding moment, which is a forceful part of beauty in poetry, painting, and music. By choosing small, unconsidered things as examples (the moth on a brick), Scarry makes the same point about the suddenness of beauty in its appearances and disappearances, and about the irreducible element of apparent randomness and accident.

Scarry’s title, On Beauty and Being Just, links a supreme value in aesthetics with a supreme value in ethics in defiance of the philosophical tradition that has usually held the two categories apart. Scarry herself remarks that a person who pursues, enjoys, and protects beauty is not necessarily required to be beautiful herself, while a person who claims to pursue and protect truth and justice is in logic required to be himself as knowledgeable and just as he can. Secondly, she admits that beauty is always realized in some material or quasi-material medium and it is always open to the senses, even if the sky, for her usually a paradigm of beauty, is near to the vanishing point of materiality.

Justice is not open to the senses and is not material. But she makes an interesting connection between aesthetics and ethics through the notion of symmetry, because one can intelligibly speak of “the symmetry of everyone’s relation to one another” in talking of justice. There is a certain kind of republican social equality which is illustrated here by the oarsmen in an Athenian trireme and was revived by some of the ideals of the Founding Fathers in America. Scarry tells of a secretary of war who in 1786, arguing before Congress in favor of a militia, spoke of the beautiful canopy or fabric of military equality. ”

This is charming, but evidently there have been societies in which many beautiful things were created and enjoyed and in which republican virtues, and the rudiments of justice and fairness, as we conceive them, were unimaginable. Scarry persuades me that there is an analogy between the recognition of beauty and the recognition of just or fair social arrangements, and that the analogy proceeds through the pleasure we find in just balances and in the equitable fitting together of disparate elements.

This connection by analogy, however, falls far short of any causal connection between the occurrences of beauty and occurrences of just arrangements, whether social or per-sonal. Beautiful silverware was produced in England under the Commonwealth, characteristically sturdy and severe, and beautiful silver was produced again under the Restoration with a very different cavalier wit and extravagance. I am too impressed by the unpredictability and randomness, and by the sheer heartlessness, of beauty in all its genuine appearances to accept that it has causal connections with justice. Beauty is altogether lost if it is thrust away among ethical concepts like good intentions, or just deserts, or honest toil. It is alive elsewhere, wherever perception is most alive.

The elsewhere has always been imagined as a garden, not necessarily the garden of Eden, but any garden anywhere, whether around a country vicarage or in Monet’s Giverny or in Pope’s Twickenham. A garden is created for pleasure because it is created for beauty, and these two notions are tied together as tightly and eternally as any two notions can be. If many of our contemporaries are telling us not to speak about beauty, as Scarry claims that they are, it is likely to be because they are frightened of pleasure in its more intense and dominant forms, and therefore particularly of aesthetic pleasure. Schiller in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man predicted that we will become so specialized in our skills and sciences that we can communicate with each other across frontiers and as whole human beings only through shared ” aesthetic experiences. It is, or should be, part of the function of humanities departments in universities to arrest, or at least to complicate and slow up, this process of losing the uniting pleasures of perception, before we are all chilled or frozen into virtuous productivity.

It is encouraging to have this utterly original blast for beauty now from the Harvard English department, where Scarry is a professor. It is not too late. Scarry, unlike her great nineteenth-century predecessors, does not preach, and in her short book does not even lecture. In a light and allusive and gentle and unpolemical style, she insinuates that we might learn to look and to listen better and to attend more closely to shapes and forms in art and nature, and to protect any beautiful things that we haphazardly encounter as we stumble along under the growing weight of the dull and indifferent things, which are always supposed to support us and which we are to take seriously.

Ms. Scarry makes a strong case for concentrating seriously on Matisse and colors (striated or in stripes) and ferns and feathers. In his article “A Plea for Excuses” the philosopher J.L. Austin recommended that we should forget about the beautiful for a while and “get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.” For philosophical analysis of aesthetic assertions that was probably shrewd advice. But one must occasionally fly the flag, and the flag, incorrigibly, is beauty.

This Issue

November 18, 1999