Thursday, April 23, 2009

Boyle and Beauty

Well, I've heard 'em say there's one for everybody
And I just knew somehow that you'd be the one for me.
'Cause making love to you's not just a hobby
It's the flame the burnt the forest down in me.

Iris DeMent

Shamelessly spongeing as usual off of Arts and Letters Daily, I had noticed a while back a review of Roger Scruton's On Beauty (as yet not tracked down by me), authored by one Sebastian Smee (is it real or is it Dickens?). Smee cites Scruton's contention that beauty serves two crucial functions: it makes us feel at home in the world (a kind of grace unlooked for by the resigned and the gloomy, it is that felicitous and consoling deception without which, as Nietzsche wrote, we would die of the truth); and it serves a rallying point around which we seek to build consensus with our fellows.

Both of these ring true for me. With respect to the first point, real beauty, whether derived from nature or artifice, entails a spiritual sense of surprised wonder. It is uncanny, bearing the imprint of the beyond, even if one believes in no beyond. Second, when we are convinced that we are in the presence of beauty, we cannot help universalizing it; our minds seek out reasons why others ought to degree that this, indeed, is beauty. This would accord with one evolutionary psychological explanation for aesthetic response, that the arts tended to bind groups together in remote time.

In his review Smee also refers to a John Updike comment to the effect that no man is likely to see anything more beautiful than a naked woman. This seems to be very characteristic of Updike, and exemplifies why his work often grates on my nerves, because this seems to me to be exactly wrong. Erotic attraction differs from beauty precisely because the former does not involve any stipulation of universality. If I find a book or piece of music particularly compelling, I cannot help but think that a friend not only may find it so too, but that he ought to. But if I find a woman attractive, I couldn't care less about whether others agree; she is "beautiful" to me, period. Eros is primarily visceral, whereas beauty, while it obviously has sensuous components, is ultimately rational.

However, in a pursuit as sensuous as music, which Schopenhauer deemed the greatest of the arts because it somehow penetrated to the essence of things, and toward the condition of which Walter Pater said the rest of the arts continually aspire, there may be more overlap between the visceral and the rational. We may be more "rationally" drawn to vocal beauty if the singer is attractive. Thus the global brouhaha over Susan Boyle--can 34,000,000 Youtube hits be wrong? The serendipity of beauty in unexpected places embodies the quasi-grace of aesthetic wonder, while the worldwide hysteria reflects a drive for consensus, probably all the more desperate because we struggle so much more these days to agree about anything, even music (the fuss over Boyle is a kind of transient microcosm of what living through Elvis or the Beatles must have been like).

Cynics argue that Boyle, far from being an actual gem in the rough, may well be a highly artificial reality-TV product, and the truly jaded claim that there is really no such thing as authenticity. Certainly, beauty can be achieved by highly contrived means (think of Ulysses as compared to, say, The Odyssey), but I think there is a particular attraction for beauty in its less self-conscious manifestations, which represent the reassuring hope that beauty is ultimately beyond our busybodying influences. We may shape it and refract it, but it was here before we were and will remain when we're gone.

Recently I've fallen in love with another rough-hewn beauty with a weirdly transcendent voice: Iris DeMent, three of whose great Youtube clips (with regrettably rather fewer than 34,000,000 hits) can be found here, here, and here.


leigh said...

I find a woman attractive, I couldn't care less about whether others agree; she is "beautiful" to me, period. Eros is primarily visceral, whereas beauty, while it obviously has sensuous components, is ultimately rational.

I love this. And the essay, and Iris DeMent.

Remember when Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts and there was a brouhaha. I've always found Julia Roberts to be bland, and have had a crush on Lyle Lovett from that first note...When Mystic Pizza came out, I remember thinking Lily Taylor was so much sexier and more appealing than leading lady Roberts. So there it is. The Susan Boyle phenom seems to have a lot to do with the setup. Reality shows as the arena for humiliation. Anyway, don't stop blogging yet, I've just found you.

Anonymous said...

I think there are two types of beauty: beauty as an ideal and beauty as a relativism. The former is a consensual spiritual ecstasy - a universally acknowledeged near-absolute truth; the latter is an entirely subjective whimsical resonance - an idiosyncratic personal absolute truth, contingent on nothing but the present state of the beholder's mind.

It's interesting how beauty seems to potentiate the perception of another co-existent human ideal (like intelligence), whereas if it were to exist within a less beautiful symbiosis it would be considered more ordinary. The same argument could be made for ugliness (which is the inverse ideal of beauty) - ie it accentuates the co-existent positive ideal, but by virtue of contrast, not congruence.

Beauty is not self-conscious. Beauty is an anomaly. Beauty is perfect in spite of its imperfections. Beauty scorns idealism, but is itself an ideal.

'The serendipity of beauty in unexpected places' - that sums up its nature ....well beautifully.

Weeds/fictions/shadows/lies - beauty is definitely not pretentious.

It's instinctual, not rational.