Monday, January 13, 2020

'As a Drop of Dew Contains the Sky'

"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?”

We’ve all known people indifferent to beauty. The capacity for perceiving and appreciating it seems to be absent or vestigial. To liken this condition to blindness or deafness is mistaken because beauty is too elusive and various a quality to be limited to a single sense. The blind and deaf can know beauty. Perhaps its more like deadness of sensibility, something essentially human that goes missing.

Aquinas reasoned that beauty must meet four standards: actuality, proportion, radiance and integrity. In my experience (I’m no philosopher), radiance is primary. A beautiful phrase in a poem that is not in itself especially beautiful seems to shine from the page. So too, a beautiful pair of eyes in an otherwise undistinguished face. Or a singer’s small gesture (the way Sinatra pauses for a beat between “You lie awake . . .” and “. . . and think about the girl”). Beauty, for those open to its unexpected mystery, is a great consolation.

“[I]t becomes obvious that we are not describing a property like shape, size or colour, uncontroversially present to all who can find their way around the physical world. For one thing: How could there be a single property exhibited by so many disparate types of thing.”

To his credit, Roger Scruton never lets the difficulty of defining beauty, of pinning down its essence, inhibit his hunger for the beautiful. The passages quoted above, from Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2009), suggest Scruton’s lifelong engagement with so powerful a gift. He pursues his toughest example, the novel, the beauty of which cannot be reduced exclusively to its sound. In fact, a novel of pure sound (not even Finnegans Wake meets that definition) would not be a novel at all but a freakish stunt, probably unreadable in the 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 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.”

Sir Roger Scruton died Jan. 12 at age seventy-five.


Montez said...

It's practically a dictum to say that philosophers make a fool of themselves whenever they try to define beauty; even Plato could not escape the cap and bells, no matter how plumed it feels.

Scruton never seemed a fool. Which is miraculous. Wonderful post!

mike zim said...

This post prompted me to read (and enjoy) his 2005 "Gentle Regrets".
Blurb: an "account of the ways in which life brought him to think what he thinks, and to be what he is."

Favorite chapter, Growing up with Sam, which was about a dog, then a horse, and lastly his son. A few excerpts:

p 99: "He allowed me to lead him by the mane back to his box, exemplifying a wondrous docility which has always earned forgiveness, ..."
[Perfectly describes a situation I have with someone.]

p 110: "What I had reproached in my mother as timidity I remembered now as gentleness; ... what I had feared as anxiety I knew to be love -- love baffled by my selfishness, love that would not intrude since it cherished my freedom and wanted only what was best for me."