Douglas Jones, Editorial Director of Canon Press, has recommended On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry:
“Never trust a book on aesthetics that lacks style. Sadly, that would wipe out most books on beauty. But not this one—Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. It’s been out for a while (1999), and it’s not written from a Christian perspective, but it can provoke Christians down all sorts of interesting and surprising paths. Scarry not only shows how beauty urges us on to truth and goodness, she also, unknowingly backs into something of a Trinitarian and covenantal angle on beauty: “Beauty is, then, a compact, a contract” of a reciprocal “gift of life.” Wonderful work, and she argues tightly but not in typical, stilted, Anglo-American ways. One of the best parts is that her prose is always human and sensuous. Great fun. And moving. “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Read this book slowly a few times.”
About the author: Elaine Scarry teaches in the English department at Harvard University, where she is Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value.
Publisher’s Description: Have we become beauty-blind? For two decades or more in the humanities, various political arguments have been put forward against beauty: that it distracts us from more important issues; that it is the handmaiden of privilege; and that it masks political interests. In On Beauty and Being Just Elaine Scarry not only defends beauty from the political arguments against it but also argues that beauty does indeed press us toward a greater concern for justice. Taking inspiration from writers and thinkers as diverse as Homer, Plato, Marcel Proust, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch as well as her own experiences, Scarry offers up an elegant, passionate manifesto for the revival of beauty in our intellectual work as well as our homes, museums, and classrooms.
Scarry argues that our responses to beauty are perceptual events of profound significance for the individual and for society. Presenting us with a rare and exceptional opportunity to witness fairness, beauty assists us in our attention to justice. The beautiful object renders fairness, an abstract concept, concrete by making it directly available to our sensory perceptions. With its direct appeal to the senses, beauty stops us, transfixes us, fills us with a “surfeit of aliveness.” In so doing, it takes the individual away from the center of his or her self-preoccupation and thus prompts a distribution of attention outward toward others and, ultimately, she contends, toward ethical fairness.
Scarry, author of the landmark The Body in Pain and one of our bravest and most creative thinkers, offers us here philosophical critique written with clarity and conviction as well as a passionate plea that we change the way we think about beauty.
Other reviews & endorsements:
Nina Ayoub – Chronicle of Higher Education
She begins her defense of aesthetic pleasure with musings on the nature of beauty. Beauty begets, she argues. It constantly provokes copies of itself. That replication is not only in art, for example, but also in perception, as in the desire to continue beholding as long as possible. Beauty’s link with truth requires no belief in an immortal realm. ‘The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction,’ she says. That mental state is so pleasurable ‘that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction-to locate what is true.’ The heightened perception that comes with beauty’s life-affirming capacity to awaken us to our world is part of what alerts us to injustice, she writes.
Kenneth Baker – San Francisco Chronicle
Full of striking observations about beauty in and beyond the arts.
Julia Burch – Library Journal
Scarry (English, Harvard Univ.), the author of the powerful and important The Body in Pain, has long been interested in ideas about creativity, imagination, and justice. In her groundbreaking earlier work, those themes were tied to the human experiences of pain and embodiment in strikingly original ways. In these two new works, she continues her explorations, using her formidable analytic talents to understand the function of the imagination in reading literature and to investigate the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, especially in contemporary academic discourse. In Dreaming by the Book, Scarry wonders how the best writing enables us to produce images and scenes in our minds that carry something of the force of reality. She deftly unfolds an answer by identifying and explicating several general principles and five formal practices by which authors invisibly command us to manipulate the objects of our imagination. While not everyone will be convinced by all of her conclusions, her analyses are always original and illuminating. The book is valuable not only for its insights but also for the pleasure of simply following Scarry through her explorations. Part 1 of the shorter On Beauty and Being Just is similarly engaging. Here, Scarry examines the experience of apprehending or misapprehending beauty in art, literature, or the world around us. But in the second half of the book, which builds to a claim about the relationship between beauty and justice, she casts her argument against an ill-defined set of “opponents of beauty” who are so generalized and obscure as to be straw men. Also, because of the reflective nature of her text (some of which was apparently presented in public lectures), she offers no citations or specific references to the individuals or philosophies she means to critique. The result is tiresome, misleading, and unfortunate, since the ideas she is exploring are important and provocative ones.
With exemplary clarity, Elaine Scarry argues that admiring the beautiful is
nothing to be ashamed of; that on the contrary beauty fosters the spirit of justice. A brave and timely book.
Tom D’Evelyn – The Providence Sunday Journal
This short book could change your life. . . . Beauty makes us better, more honest, more judicious, more humble, nicer people. And dare I say, this little book, taken to heart, will do the same.
Stuart Hampshire – The New York Review of Books
Scarry persuades that there is an analogy between the recognition of beauty and the recognition of just or fair social arrangements . . . . [She]. . .does not preach and . . . her short book [is] light and allusive and gentle and unpolemical [in] style. . . .
Paul J. Johnson Religious Studies Review
Any sophisticated reader not mummified beneath protective layers of irony will find this book not only pleasant to hold in the hand, but valuable to hold in the mind.
An essay that aims to recover beauty as a serious topic for academic discourse and, more ambitiously, to reconnect beauty with truth and justice. Scarry (English/Harvard) delivered these thoughts on beauty as the Tanner Lectures of 1998 at Yale and then retired to a research institute to work them up for publication. Though her book is brief, the studied awkwardness of Scarry’s style makes it seem long and serves perhaps as a signal that these ruminations are for the happy few which is too bad, because what she has to say is both interesting and original. Scarry has noted that for a couple of decades now, professors have been avoiding any talk of beauty. Beauty all too often masks power, say some, and beauty unfairly objectifies the body (usually female), say others. Scarry strongly objects and argues that the reverse is true: “the beautiful person or thing incites in us a longing for truth because it provides by its clear discernibility an introduction (perhaps even our first introduction) to the state of certainty yet does not itself satiate our desire for certainty since beauty, sooner or later brings us into contact with our own capacity for making errors.” This sample of her prose is typically heavy-handed, but it contains a scintillating thought that beauty can awaken in us a “longing for truth.” And beauty’s characteristic qualities balance, symmetry, equality of proportion are deeply linked, she argues plausibly and controversially, to being fair, a word that means both “lovely” and “just.” The radical nature of Scarry’s views is not be underestimated, but because it challenges the status quo from an unexpected quarter, it will likely be greeted with widespread silence. A heated polemic disguised as a cool philosophical essay; exciting for those willing to work through its laborious prose.
Colin McGinn – The Wall Street Journal
Are beauty and morality on friendly terms? Does beauty create and sustain virtue or does it work against virtue? Nowadays beauty tends to get a bad rap, especially from the politicized academy. The production and appreciation of beautiful objects is taken to be an enemy of social justice, of equality for all. Literal talk of beauty is also taken to reflect a naive objectivism about aesthetic categories — the enlightened view being that beauty is a mote in the eye of the biased beholder, as “socially constructed” as anything can be. To defend beauty is to defend a reactionary hierarchy of taste. … Elaine Scarry , a professor of English at Harvard, has written a short, spirited book, based on her 1998 Tanner lectures at Yale University, that contests the antibeauty orthodoxy.
Daniel Mendelsohn, The Village Voice
On Beauty is a tiny, “elegant” book of less than 150 pages; it’s divided into two roughly equal parts. In the first, “On Beauty and Being Wrong,” Scarry suggests that beauty and truth are not (pace Keats) identical, but allied–linked in a common project because beauty “ignites the desire for truth.” The experience that alerts us to the truth, Scarry wants to argue, occurs when we make “mistakes” about beauty–particularly when something we hadn’t noticed was beautiful suddenly strikes us with its beauty. The feeling of having been wrong about beautiful things is so powerful in humans, she implies (although, typically, she’s the only human she cites as an example) that it leads us to believe that there must, in turn, be something “right”–that higher-truth thing.
Alexander Nehamas, London Review of Books
Describes, evokes and manifests the loving attention that beautiful objects provoke…. [It] is fresh, eccentric and uncompromising.
Meredith Petrin – Boston Review
Scarry makes a fascinating case that seeing beauty reminds us of our own marginality, and therefore our equalness to other people. And she very skillfully defies traditional political criticisms of beauty.