In the first chapter of his new book, Beauty, Roger Scruton reviews the ancient arguments over beauty being “the object of a sensory rather than an intellectual delight.” He notes that “aesthetics” as a modern word was derived by Kant from the Greek aisthesis, meaning “sensation.” Scruton concludes that a comprehensive definition of beauty, despite its centrality to human experience, may be beyond human reckoning:
“A beautiful face, a beautiful flower, a beautiful melody, a beautiful colour – all these are indeed objects of a kind of sensory enjoyment, a relishing of the sight or sound of a thing. But what about a beautiful novel, a beautiful sermon, a beautiful theory in physics or a beautiful mathematical proof?”
Scruton pursues his toughest example, the novel, the beauty of which cannot be reduced exclusively to its sound (as a poem might be, though he doesn’t address this). In fact, a novel of pure sound (not even Finnegans Wake meets that definition) would not be a novel at all but a freak, a stunt, and probably unreadable in any conventional sense. Scruton continues:
“In appreciating a story we certainly are more interested in what is being said than in the sensory character of the sounds used to say it…a novel is directed to the senses – but not as an object of sensory delight, like a luxurious chocolate or a fine old wine. Rather as something presented through the senses, to the mind.”
The distinction is crucial and, at least to this reformed aesthete, convincing. And which writer of fiction does Scruton select to bolster his case?
“Take any short story by Chekhov. It does not matter that the sentences in translation sound nothing like the Russian original. Still they present the same images and events in the same suggestive sequence. Still they imply as much as they say, and withhold as much as they reveal. Still they follow each other with the logic of things observed rather than things summarized. Chekhov’s art captures life as it is lived and distills it into images that contain a drama, as a drop of dew contains the sky. Following such a story we are constructing a world whose interpretation is at every point controlled by the sights and sounds that we imagine.”
In his memoir, Gentle Regrets, Scruton describes Shakespeare’s plays as “works of philosophy – philosophy not argued but shown.” Beyond argument, this is true, and Chekhov’s stories are philosophy in a similar sense. His characters, unlike Dostoevsky’s and other Russian writers’, are never mouthpieces for their author’s religious or political hobbyhorses. His stories, like Shakespeare’s plays, never argue but show. Though his linguistic palette is circumscribed, Chekhov’s prose, like Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry, has a plainness and lack of ostentation that survives the inevitable blood-letting of translation. Its lucidity, modesty and attention to detail are beautiful. As Nabokov says in Lectures on Russian Literature:
“…Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was.”