The Language of Beauty

Beauty is difficult to discuss: it hardly emerges in critical inquiry, as Denis Donoghue found when he was a student at University College, Dublin. He read Latin and English and was introduced to the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and Horace, but the matter of their beauty was not raised. He found the same to be true when he studied classical singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where, he comments, the focus of Brian Boydell’s tuition was on breathing: beauty was taken for granted and never discussed. Yet he would have been informed and inspired, he believes, if he had been introduced in context to beauty. It would have opened his mind and heart to a new depth of meaning. The matter of the particular music and literature would have been deepened and widened for him through arousing awareness of its relation to other dimensions. Then, in turn, an enhanced sensitivity and insight would have assisted not just his “aesthetic appreciation” but what he could aspire to achieve in physical performance. Moreover, there are wider implications. Donoghue goes on to say, “If I did not think about beauty in those years, it follows that I never heard of its social and political implications” (Donoghue, 2003, p. 5), and, I would have to add, its moral interest.

The loss of the word “beauty” in context is not a small matter. Sociologists of language have shown how profoundly language can impact the attitudes, feelings, motives, and behaviors of society and of groups (such as the professions). The importance of language teaching and language acquisition can, therefore, hardly be overemphasized. The fact that “beauty” was not a word that turned up in critical conversation meant for Donoghue that the dimension of the beautiful was absent from his critical armory. Even if beauty is intuitively experienced, the fact that we cannot name it will diminish our capacity to appreciate it; certainly it will make it impossible for us to deepen our understanding of it by engaging in conversation with others about it.

Mari Ruti notes the active power of language in shaping “new” worlds: “Among other things, [language] is a versatile medium for introducing new values, ideals, meanings, and patterns of appreciation into the world. In addition, even creative endeavors that do not rely on language, such as painting, sculpture, photography, garden design and dance, can be enriched by an encounter with language. In other words, the reward we get from a painting (to take just one example) can be multiplied by our ability to attribute various meanings to it, so that as much pleasure has arisen from our efforts to decipher Mona Lisa’s smile as from the smile itself’ (Ruti, 2013, pp. 57-58). Ruti’s introduction of the concept of meaning is critical here. Conversation about beautiful things is an ingredient of “the good life,” which may take us by surprise and keep alive our awareness of the truth deep in the heart of things—and their meaning.

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