LI is very interested in beauty. We are a beauty maven. The whole thing, the aesthetic, the striving for it, the failing, the study of it. Hell, at the moment we are working part time copyediting the fashion issue of a magazine, so we are rubbing our nose in the manufacture of it, right down to the ColorU blush in Lilac. Yet, whenever we see calls to bring beauty back into the study of literature or art, it seems like the machine starts out all over again. First, the lament that somehow – through theory or through identity politics – they’ve guillotined beauty and are cavorting in her shambles. Then of course there is the appeal to the canonical and emotional power of beauty. That it soothes the wild beasts and the undergraduate at the same time. And then the whole train of associations are dragged into it – as we see in this article on teaching beauty by Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan at Inside Higher Education. It begins with an anecdote about the idiosyncratic veneration all readers give to certain of their favorite texts.
“When his turn came to speak at Norman Mailer’s recent memorial service in New York, the novelist Don DeLillo began by simply holding up his creased and worn 50-year-old copy of Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead.
All lovers of literature understand the nature of DeLillo’s gesture; they understand that behind the little paperback that he lifted for the audience to see lay years of private aesthetic pleasure in its pages — from the college student marveling at its prose to the venerated author of Underworld marveling at the same thumbed passages. That’s the sort of writer Mailer was, DeLillo meant to say: He wrote novels you’re never finished with; and the scuffs and scratches and stains you put in them over the years add up to the archaeology of your own literary life.”
This isn’t a bad start. Unfortunately, instead of asking about that contrast between scuffs and scratches and the glamorous spell cast by immersion in a work, by which the work becomes immersed in the reader – the praying mantis work of reading – we are, instead, taken by steps from attentiveness to the soul – and then the soul becomes the launching pad for the usual, quasi-religious complaint:
Who would ever enter a classroom and invite their students to consider the beauty of a work because, as Nicolas Malebranche puts it, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul"? The word “soul” doesn’t get much exercise in English departments any more, and neither do concepts associated with it — inspiration, consolation, communality, transcendence, love. What do these have to do nowadays with the study of literature? In our public neglect of such concepts in favor of the political and the material, our answer is clear: nothing.
“Of course, literature professors who graduated from English departments in the past 30 years can defend their neglect of matters related to the soul, since in their studies no one talked much about these things either. An English professor recalls the facile “contingency” arguments of her day, which did so much to undermine judgments of aesthetic value: “I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my humanist convictions about ‘what sustains people’ — my faith for example in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful.... I was writing about [James] Joyce’s insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead — an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I was afraid I’d be attacked for ‘essentializing’ — for supposing that there are features, shared across cultures, that constitute the essence of being human.”
Surely “essentializing” — a poor choice of word for an acknowledgment of shared humanity — is necessary in the imaginative work involved in recognizing the existence of someone else. As Iris Murdoch argues, that recognition is difficult and demands a leap into the sort of empathy which the imaginative demands of literature encourage. When Murdoch expresses her admiration for T.E. Lawrence because he “let the agonizing complexities of situations twist [his] heart instead of tying his hands,” she reminds us that the real-world value of great and complex art can accustom us to the intricate and often painful ambiguities of the world.”
I can’t resist a side note here – Theophile de Viau, in his Apology, uses the pretty funny verb “quintessentializing.” With which I am well pleased. But to proceed…
This notion of the theory mafia that roamed the halls of academe when I was a grad student – yes, I was a member of Derrida’s Hells Angels in the 80s – would be funny. Except that I had a recent communication, with a professor I am editing, who told me that though my suggestions on how to make her argument tighter were excellent, they would involve “theory” – and, she added, anything that smacks of “theory” now gets you sorted into the non-tenure file. I’m not sure that she wasn’t exaggerating a bit. Still, more than one source has confirmed a backlash against theory in the humanities lately. But as Green-Lewis and Soltan’s article shows, without the constant barking of the theoretical guard dogs, there is an intolerable backsliding into quasi-Victorian malarkey. Which, of course, has nothing to do with beauty. One could well find beauty a universal factor in human societies without finding beauty universal – if that means that some set of objects or styles is universally considered beautiful. This is because the discourse of beauty that, for instance, connects it to the universal is easy to trace to historic conditions. And those same conditions tell us that beauty for the modernists, far from being this soul satisfying moment of universal communion, was considered the result of the most extreme contingency and alienation. For a modernist lineage coming out of Baudelaire and running through the Surrealists, Bataille, pop art, etc., beauty is inseparable from alienation. Here is where I, at least, would begin to talk about beauty – how it transmigrated into an art that hungered for alienation the way the fragment hungers for the whole. It is one of the notable things about surrealism, by the way, that it was quickly adapted by an international group of poets, painters and writers. It was seen to express the landscape of the end of the colonialist period – the twenties and thirties – by Chinese, Turkish and Antillaise poets, Spanish film makers, etc., etc. However, to tell this story about beauty would mean telling a story about transformations, losses, and what the individual attention cannot hold. To block this, Green-Lewis and Soltan bring in the soul.
If they had not so composed their piece as to create that local opposition between theory (which is anti-beauty) and appreciation (pro-beauty) which marks a very limited discourse on beauty, their views on teaching beauty would become much sharper:
“Critics of aesthetics tend to dismiss the “better world” orientation that often accompanies a serious interest in beauty as sentimental, religious, and naïve, an indulgent distraction from the hard truths of our time. But they are mistaken in this dismissal. The ability to establish strong personal agency, and then project certain futures, certain human potentialities, as novelists often do, and the ability to enter into and respond emotionally to those projections, as strong readers do, is a realistic and mature way of expressing faith in the possibility of humanity’s capacity to improve itself.
Dmitri Tymocko, in describing Beethoven’s brilliance, evokes precisely this disposition of passion and reason: “[We] can have tremendous, Beethovenian passions without losing all sense of our own limitation. (As one can have powerful political convictions while still recognizing that reasonable people may disagree.) Beethoven himself may not have achieved the perfect synthesis of these two, complementary qualities. But the evidence of both his music and his life suggests that he tried. Passionate maturity, neither resignation nor moderation nor fanaticism: that, perhaps, is what is truly
The display of “passionate maturity” may be in fact the best that we could ever hope for in our teaching of literature. The centrality of aesthetic experience in the struggle toward adaptation to a world forever changed by the particular political traumas of our time, and in the struggle toward the creation of a more humane world, means that professors of literature have in fact a special, even extraordinary, responsibility. In conveying the fullness of powerful aesthetic gestures, they must convey more than the form and content of particular poems, plays, and novels. They must embody in their very mode of teaching the paradox of passionate control which so often characterizes the greatest works of art; and they must embody the moral value for each individual of this dynamic act of balance.”
Are we to think that beauty is delimited by the “better future” that emanates from the ‘form and content of of particular poems, plays, and novels”? This seems to me to seriously understate the nostalgia in beauty. As for the dynamic act of balance, I’m not sure what exactly that means, here, but I think it entails a very narrow kind of aesthetic practice.