The Power of Beauty

The power of beauty stems from the fact that when we come across something that is beautiful, it can, as I have said, take us by surprise—it attracts us and makes a difference to us. Scarry is aware of what seems to her to be the dynamic quality of beauty and its role as stimulus for the desire for truth. She claims that beauty and truth are allied but not identical: “It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is ‘true,’ but rather that it ignites the desire for truth . . . It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude. It comes to us, with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor” (Scarry, 2011, pp. 52-53). It demands to be copied, to be brought into relationship with all other experiences of beauty, and to be made real in ordinary life. Yet its ultimate reembodiment in another particular is beyond anyone to achieve completely. Above all, attention to a beautiful object evokes the virtue of gratitude, which in turn stimulates the desire to share the experience.

Beauty is not something we can possess; it cannot be privatized. Indeed there is something obscene, even sacrilegious, when a work of art is hidden in a bank vault: such behavior violates the public world of shared experience and amounts to criminal trespass—even theft. Beauty has to be shared. In pointing to a painting, reading a poem aloud, or introducing a student to a new field of mathematics, I open myself to a new conversation in which I hold together the public and the private experience. I thus confirm the personal (not individual) nature of all experience that only comes to life when shared: “An understanding of beauty and an enthusiasm for it are one and the same thing” (von Ebner-Eschenbach, 1994, p. 24). Not wanting to share beauty is to refuse to be grateful for it and therefore to be denied the depth of experience that is an integral part of it.

The language we use to discuss our response to beauty is important, for with it, we share ourselves with others in the search for meaning. We recognize the difference between mere description and evaluation, which puts matters into not just one context but many. It is likely that the number of contexts in which we find ourselves will be increased by conversation with each person, since no two situations from which beauty is perceived will be the same. But above all, our attention will be drawn to the objective nature of the beautiful, and beauty’s permanence though it will be impossible to define beauty or ultimately describe it. It will be important for us to come to terms with this and respond to its stimulus.

Permanence is a vital aspect of beauty, but the permanence is not unchanging. C. S. Lewis talked of recognizing a piece of literature as a “classic,” by which he meant that it was possible to return to it again and again, to discuss it with others, and always to find something new. It is, in one sense, always contemporary. Von Ebner-Eschenbach said, “People who read only the classics are sure to remain up-to-date” (p. 31). Anthony Saville talks of a work having “stature,” by which he meant that it stands the test of time.

 
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