Does beauty really equal truth?

Philosopher Elaine Scarry defends beauty from p.c. critics and wins over one cynical writer.

Published November 9, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value at Harvard University, has just published a rather wonderful, slim little book, "On Beauty and Being Just." Its twin premises may seem curious. First, she defends beauty against charges that it is politically incorrect. She then argues that (as the book's flap copy puts it) beauty can "press us toward a greater concern for justice."

I wasn't quite convinced that I fully understood the above tenets. So I phoned up professor Scarry at her office in Cambridge, Mass. I must confess that after our conversation I found her beautiful. Not her appearance. I don't know what she looks like since her photograph does not appear anywhere on her book. It was her conversation. Her discourse. Her very lucidity. My tongue is a lumpy potato compared to hers. I treasure having talked with the woman.

I asked your publicist if I could speak to you because I'm sort of an amateur interested in beauty --

We're all amateurs, by the way.

Can it be true that "beauty" is not p.c.?

Beauty has been a taboo subject.

What's the argument against beauty?

There are two separate political arguments. One is the claim that beautiful things distract us from injustice, and therefore sabotage our ability to dedicate our energies to increasing the overall well-being of the world. The other is that when we look at a beautiful object, whether a person or a flower, we actually damage the object by turning it into a mere object that we feel superior to.

Not only are both of these arguments wrong, but they even contradict one another. In the first one, we're assuming that human acts of looking are very good things, and therefore we want human attention to be directed to something such as an injustice so that an act of repair will come about. The second argument just assumes that we are incapable of generous and capacious acts of looking, and that we will actually damage anything that we're staring at.

Beauty prevents one from standing up for injustice?

Oh, sure. Lots of Marxists worry about this. [Bertolt] Brecht has a poem: "I will sing no more of rooftops by the seaside, of apples ripening in attics." I'm not quoting the poem exactly, but the point is, "I will no more be caught up by the beautiful surfaces of the world when there's pain and injury going on."

This is kind of sideways, but I just saw a great Takeshi Kitano gangster film called "Fireworks" where he plays the part of this jaded cop. Kitano can't really act, so he just has a perpetually stoic expression and wears these John Lennon sunglasses and becomes this beautiful, iconic face who just observes injustice: people getting shot, beaten up, double-crossed.

Your implicit question is, I take it, the problem that comes from the fact that we can imagine an act of looking that is amoral or even willfully immoral because it may be licensing the injuries coming about. And certainly there are instances where something beautiful gets enlisted into a cruel act.

I would say, by the way, as a kind of primary response, that I think that one of the reasons that violence has in our own era been so easily anesthetized is precisely because we've gotten unanchored from beauty. If we were more conversant with beauty, we would not so easily let something that involves an injury to someone ever get associated with the aesthetic. But just going on from that to the deeper question: What does it mean that something that is cruel can actually appear beautiful? What I would say to that is: All good things can be enlisted into acts of injury. That's really sad but it's true. For example, a cruel person could have somehow used some incredible act of higher mathematics in that act of cruelty, yet we would never get confused and think, "Gee, that must mean that higher mathematics is inherently suspect."

Yeah, that's like the cliché image of guys who run concentration camps coming home and listening to Mozart.

It certainly doesn't make Mozart evil. It's strange that anything about the Nazis could ever get confused with beauty.

To move sideways again, in your book you talk about "mistakes of beauty" -- when you suddenly realized that a palm tree was beautiful. You could say that everything is beautiful. We're only limited because of culture and education.

I think that may well be the case. Certainly many people have argued that way back starting with Plato -- that when you see one beautiful thing, if it's truly beautiful and if you're truly vulnerable to its beauty, it will lead you to eventually see the beauty of everything.

I do a lot of cultural criticism, and I find just as often the opposite is the case. For example, someone who loves opera isn't even going to consider that there is beauty in Japanese noise guitar.

What's really peculiar about that argument is that only once I like opera do you begin to expect me to begin to be capable of liking the Japanese ... noise guitar?

Noise guitar.

And that I refer to in the book as the problem of lateral disregard. That is, what I argue is that a beautiful object seizes our attention often without our volition. But then either on our own or because a neighbor taps us on the shoulder and says, "You know, here's something over here that deserves just that kind of attention from you" ... Beauty makes us eligible not only to look at the things that seize our attention, but makes us eligible to go on and be caring about other objects as well, and the same thing can be said of persons.

Consider that African tribe where they extend the women's necks with metal rings. If you belonged, those women with their giraffe necks would be beautiful, whereas people outside the tribe are likely to see them as grotesque. How much of the appreciation of beauty is natural, and how much cultural?

To everyone's surprise, there's been a lot of work in the 1990s by scientists that seems to suggest that norms about beauty are much more widely shared culturally than we've been saying. But let's assume that people really did have their own taste in beauty, that cultures have their own taste in beauty, and see where it would lead us. Is that an argument against beauty? In a way, it's an extreme example of the fact that each person everywhere always gets to choose for himself or herself what's beautiful. The most stark place in which that's true is in the choice of a spouse or a mate. And the individual always is the arbiter of what's beautiful. That is long in advance of the notion of individualism and pluralism in the realm of justice. It took cultures a long, long time before they understood that one person, one vote was the best rule. But in beauty it's always been one person, one vote.

Can too much beauty dilute the concept? If you went to a party where absolutely everybody was beautiful -- the people, the art on the wall, the food -- would you eventually numb out? Doesn't beauty need an opposite?

Kant said our desire for beauty is inexhaustible, that any other pleasure we can get exhausted by -- too much food, too much this, too much that -- and yet the one thing we can't get tired of is beauty.

Is cynicism a formal philosophic school?

You're a cynic?

Can't you tell? I cynically look at beauty. I appreciate it, but know everything beautiful usually ends up dying or disappearing. So, I always take that into account.

I think that cynicism is a very knowledgeable position, but it can be a somewhat self-protective position. I guess you might counter me and say, "Well, optimism can also be very self-protective because you don't want to see how quickly things can be deflated." But in a way, I guess I believe that wishing for good things to be the case is always the prelude to good things being the case. It's not likely to be the case that good political situations can come about if there aren't people wishing that good situations come about. And if what cynicism does is sabotage -- there's a Latin statement that Beckett loved that says: "Where you are worth nothing, there you desire nothing."

Not to go into my psychology, but I became a cynic after I was run down by a truck 10 years ago. I now know that a truck can always come at any time. Even worse, just 'cause you get struck once doesn't mean a truck can't run you down again. Cynicism is self-protection.

That's certainly true. It's funny because what's a little startling is that our starting places are kind of the same. I've had the good fortune not to be hit by a truck --

You're not missing anything!

I know -- believe me, I can immediately feel that. I did work on physical pain for a long time ["The Body in Pain"]. And in part I worked on it because I certainly wanted to attend to it before the world sent a truck and harmed me directly. One of the things the book starts out by simply saying is that beauty is not guilty of the political injustices it's been accused of.

And it's not just that beauty is neutral with respect to justice. Beauty is, actually, very much leading us to justice. So by this account, it would be my vision of things that we are able to create a world in which caring about beauty also leads to a diminution of injury.

And the word injury and the word injustice are the same word. And I try to put forth a number of arguments to show that Plato was right, and many other classical philosophers were right when they said that beauty is a call on us to create something better. And surely what that better thing would be is a world where people don't get injured by trucks.

But don't you think that justice is a human conceit?

Well, I certainly think that justice is a human construct. (That's probably what you mean.) It isn't going to take place unless we willfully make a set of arrangements that bring it about.

So as a cynic I would say that more often than not the unjust rules.

That's certainly true. A tremendous labor seems to be involved in having the just rule. But, couldn't you be said to be guilty of laziness?

In what way?

The fact that the odds are against you doesn't really relieve you of the responsibility of trying to make the world better. The fact that you perceive that the unjust often rules only makes you a cynic if you give up. Whereas if you're a cultural critic, it means you haven't given up, doesn't it?

I think I believe in karma more than I believe in justice and injustice. And it never dawns on me that I should make the world a better place. Maybe it's just because I live in Manhattan.

[Bowman laughs. Scarry doesn't.]

I just don't know if you're being completely straight. It seems to me that someone in your position can't hold a view that things will happen of their own will.

[Embarrassed] Well, I didn't mean to reveal too much. Beauty does that to you.

It's true. It's absolutely true.

So you teach this -- beauty?

I teach a graduate seminar.

What is the general age of your students?

Well, because they're graduate students many of them are very young. Maybe 22 to 27. What's the import of that question?

I'm 41. I was more optimistic when I was in my 20s. I probably would have looked at beauty differently then.

OK, here's a plan. I think if you take more time to look at beauty, you'll recover all your strength.


Beauty restores your trust in the world. During this past 13 years I've been working on a big project about nuclear weapons and the fact that the current military arrangements we have are not compatible with democracy. The more I work on that, the more it happens that I need to read poems. And work my garden. Beauty restores your trust in the world.

That strikes a chord. I review a lot of records and there's a tendency to get caught up in just being a cog in the publicity machine. Then suddenly you hear a record that comes out of nowhere, and it's beautiful. [Pause.] I can imagine there's some guy who scouts out beautiful women for a modeling agency who's jaded about beauty. Then suddenly, a beautiful woman comes out of nowhere and walks down the street and he falls to his knees.

I like your description. What you say is true. You are sort of front-and-center working with beautiful objects. And so it does have that liability that it can desensitize you. But you don't sound that way. I bet we'll go away from this interview thinking opposite thoughts of each other. You'll think that I'm a cynic and I'll think you're actually quite touched with the beautiful.

Yes! No! I mean, you're not really a cynic, right?

Oh no. Not in a million years.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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