To speak of beauty in this day and age (its significance, its necessity) is to mark oneself a snob. “Beauty,” writes Alexander Nehamas in his recent reflections on the matter, “is the most discredited philosophical notion—so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited. Even if I believe that beauty is more than the charm of a lovely face, the seductive grace of a Mapplethorpe photograph, the symmetry of the sonata form, the tight construction of a sonnet, even if it is, in the most general terms, aesthetic value, I am not spared. For it is the judgment of aesthetic value itself—the judgment of taste—that is embarrassing. It is embarrassing ideologically, if to be able to judge aesthetically you must be educated and learned and if, as Pierre Bourdieu claims, ‘it is linked either to a bourgeois origin or to the most quasi-bourgeois mode of existence presupposed by prolonged schooling, or (most often) to both of these combined…’” To speak of beauty today is also morally embarrassing, as Nehamas is quick to explain: “The aesthetic judgment collapses into an instrument of political oppression or into an implement of moral edification.”
It is a problem with which I myself I have struggled for years. As an ardent admirer of the work of Marcel Proust, of his novel Á la recherche du temps perdu (even citing the French title of which now makes me seem pretentious), I have long felt the truth of what Nehamas says. After all how can I not be an elitist, a snob, if Proust—of all writers (matchless critic of snobbery though he was)—is one of my favorites, a rich, pampered, dandified aesthete?
For me the key to answering the question is this: as much as I admire the work of Marcel Proust (to cite but one example), I do not hold his fiction as the standard of either literature or beauty for you. I am the first to acknowledge that I have led a relatively privileged life and that that has shaped my perceptions, my values, my tastes. I, like you, have been predisposed by my upbringing to see beauty in particular ways, in ways that suit me, feel natural, feel right. Which is not to say that they are natural or right, let alone objective as a measure of things—a point with which some readers are sure to take issue, insisting as they will on a host of time-tested attributes and principles, each exemplified by particular paintings and sculptures, by particular odes and concertos, by particular novels, films, and plays.
While I certainly have my standards (my prejudices) when it comes to literature, when it comes to beauty itself, I make no claim that they are or should be definitive to you. I have read enough, I have travelled enough, to know that the deep appreciation of beauty is hardly just the bailiwick of my kind. Venture anywhere in the world and you will find it, the sort of purposeful, artifactual beauty that is cultivated by men and women of every level of education, of every race and tradition, of every culture, class, and creed. While there is, has been, and always will be widespread disagreement about the ultimate nature of Beauty (what is in fact a largely academic matter, preoccupied as it is with the judgment of taste), it seems plain to me that the only prerequisite for the appreciation of beauty is that of being simply, dreadfully human.
Still, having said this, I do not believe that beauty is merely a private, subjective, finally solipsistic thing. I am convinced that, for all its variation, beauty is also and essentially communal, collaborative, contingent, a trust we hold in common with others. At the risk of generalizing, what seems to characterize all forms of beauty is their ability to enrich and intensify experience, to lend it depth and dimension, to make resonant, even eternal, the facts of what is otherwise but a bluntly mortal life. We find through beauty that we are capable of more.
For some time now I have taught (and wrestled with) Alain de Botton’s smart and illuminating book The Architecture of Happiness, a laymen’s introduction to the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical implications of architecture, of the built environment in which we—at least an increasing proportion of us—now live. I say that I have wrestled with the book because, while it is clear that the author’s intention was to help popularize the conversation about beauty, about architectural beauty in particular, at points he does seem to imply (by his allusions, his language, by the very things he takes for granted) that the deep appreciation of beauty does indeed require a level of education and exposure well beyond the reach of most human beings. I think this inadvertent, the perhaps inevitable product of his own vernacular, of his own education and interests. Like Proust, like all authors, De Botton assumes a certain type of reader for his book, a reader who (for a host of different reasons) may or may not be you. No matter. For as with everything in life (love, sexuality, art, music, literature, food, ritual, politics, and faith), we engage with the world in whatever ways, at whatever levels, we find meaningful, true.
Even the Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, acknowledged the fundamental necessity of beauty and art:
It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry.
No wonder he was murdered.
“It is in a dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value,” suggests De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. Perhaps that is why the older I get the more I am alert to beauty, to the deft, complex, often fleeting relationship between subject and meaning and form. Nowhere is this truer for me than with literature. When I read I read with beauty in mind—the beauty of an image, a phrase, the beauty of a character, a setting, a scene. Just as beauty can be simple, reassuring, familiar, it can also be complex, horrific, sublime. What seems inarguable to me is that the need for beauty is an innately human thing. It is what moves us to think, to feel. It is what moves us to be.
Peter Adam Nash