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February 15, 2004


Elaine Scarry describes the effect of beauty as a sudden, surprising opening of the boundaries of the universe, an identification of the perceiver with the object perceived. One is struck by a line of music, a stormy sunset, the shiny elytrum of a Japanese beetle, and for a moment the center of the universe is no longer securely contained within one's skull. The flower becomes the center of the universe. The jewel is in the lotus.

We are subject to too many distractions. We are barraged by ideas, images, turns of phrase, photographs, blends of colors, music, from our computer screens and our televisions and radios and billboards. Our cities grow more crowded, and each of us sees far more distractingly beautiful people than we are likely evolved to handle. To thus be consistently removed from the seat of perception makes one an inefficient consumer, as appreciation of such things is both fulfilling and generally inexpensive. And yet without all that overstimulation, how will we know what to consume?

A solution: We counter the compelling ideas and music and imagery by demoting them all to "information." Use a value-neutral term rather than "art" or "craft" or "poetry" or "thought", and the danger is reduced. And I wonder if the last few years' faddish irony might not be a further defense. Irony denigrates the emphatic impact of beauty on one's soul, distances one's self from the immediacy of the esthetic experience, ridiculing the straightforwardly beautiful and good so as to reduce its ability to knock us from our safe seats in the centers of our worlds.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 15, 2004 10:03 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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You've hit the mark precisely, once again, Chris. We're afraid, I think, not only of the opening of the universe by beauty, but of the corresponding opening this perception creates in our souls - could it possibly be that WE are a mirror of IT, and vice-versa? And what might that imply about the purpose of our lives?

Posted by: beth at February 16, 2004 08:12 AM
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Thanks, Chris, for this post about Scarry's book: somehow I'd missed it, but now I'm itching to read it. How interesting that Scarry writes about pain in one book & beauty in another: is there a connection between the two?

Posted by: Lorianne at February 16, 2004 02:20 PM
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