Abstract: There often seems to exist, in many contexts, no boundary between beauty horror, monstrosity and ugliness. How these divisions came into being? The readings on beauty branch into multiple concerns in the papers included in the volume. In this collection, the authors engage with and problematise beauty from many angles and disciplines. The aesthetic-ethical interconnections; historicity and contextual specificity of beauty; beauty as a contentious political category; illness, disfigurement and the aesthetics of corporeality; liminality of beauty, horror and cruelty; representations of beauty in texts and art; justice and subalternity are some of the themes discussed herein.
Keywords: perception of beauty, intersection of beauty, enigma of beauty, aesthetics of beauty
Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time. (Camus 3)
The understanding of aesthetics and ethics of being and doing may call for a more nuanced view than a facile perception of beauty as an attribute of objects or individuals. In other words, interpreting beauty as a tangible quality vested in objects or persons and the discernment of beauty in sheer dichotomous terms (internal and external; divine and worldly; physical and spiritual; pure and impure; etc.) would limit the scope of beauty as an idea and experience. Horror is an interrelated concept that collages excessive awe, fear, repulsion and shock. It could also be a response to beauty when beauty is extreme, menacing, strange or ruined. In approaches to beauty that meander through justice, truth, virtue, violence and corporeality, as charted by the papers in this collection, one cannot avoid passing through thresholds of horror.
Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just captures the layered and enigmatic conceptual intersections of beauty, justice and truth. This text was used as a launch pad for the deliberations in a seminar on the theme, “The Enigma of Beauty” jointly organised by Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences, Baroda, Gujarat and Saint Berchmans College, Changanassery, Kerala. Some of the papers in this volume were presented during the seminar.
Elaine Scarry, in her analysis of a general blindness to and stigmatisation of beauty in the 20th century, suggests that the condemnation of beauty as a distraction from significant issues could be one of the reasons for such an attitude. Privileging of virtue and sublime over beauty and a general failure to see deep temporality in beauty (i.e. the popular perception of beauty as transient, frivolous and superficial) resulted in the lack of interest in beauty as an idea. Scarry’s book is a reaffirmation and defense of beauty and also a protest against “the banishing of beauty from the humanities” (57). What Scarry said in an interview with David Bowman justifies the relevance of her enthusiasm about beauty:
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.
This view gives the inkling of an optimistic aspiration that beauty inspires love, passion and joy even in a grim world; it fills the individual with “aliveness,” taking one away from the realm of self-preoccupations. Beauty brings about a radical decentering of the self. Beauty and horror may push one deep into oneself or become instrumental in distancing from the self. There is a blend of fascination and fear in our responses to beauty and horror. Scarry suggests subtly, the encounter with a beautiful thing, which makes one vulnerable to the sheer force of its beauty, would lead to appreciation of the beauty of everything. In her interview with Bowman, she defends her stance that seems to ‘universalise’ the responses to beauty:
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.
Beauty may generate the desire to possess; but it also inspires the desire to protect. Horror sometimes takes us past such feelings as revulsion and dejection to pity and compassion. Hence horror gives rise to an urge to help and care for. Witnessing the horror of a tragic accident, calamity or illness could be the first step towards reaching out to those who have suffered. Horror is thus indirectly connected to ethics.
Scarry explores the interface of beauty and ethics by pondering on how an aesthetic experience evokes loving kindness and blissful attentiveness towards beauty. Beauty inspires the desire to create and replicate, argues Scarry, citing the example of awe-stricken Leonardo drawing a wild rose again and again. One may doubt the validity of this claim that beauty for everyone is an inspiration for replication and creation. Scarry is aware of the awe that beauty inspires which makes one oblivious of the self and the world; at the same time beauty creates an urge to connect with the self and the rest of the world. There is interplay of memory and desire in the realisation of beauty. Beauty can hold one spellbound; but that moment is full of allusions and memories. The encounter with beauty evokes memories as the mind moves back in time in search of parallels and patterns from the past. Such an encounter also fuels a desire for creating something beautiful and similar to the object that spellbinds. Scarry illustrates how a concern for beauty leads us to concerns about justice. The instinct to conserve attached with our perception of beauty paves the way to justice and fairness. This formulation has idealistic and romantic undercurrents.
The interface between beauty and pleasure is a difficult terrain. Augustine’s dilemma whether things are beautiful because they give delight, or whether they give delight because they are beautiful and his affirmation of the latter (247) indicate a prevalent sense of intrinsic value which existed around beauty. Keats has suggested that a thing of beauty is joy for ever; the sensation of joy lingers even after the beautiful thing ceases to be. The aesthetic joy and bliss and ecstasy and pleasure derived from art has multilayered neuro-cultural implications. The genre of horror in art fascinates, spellbinds and can be highly enjoyable to many. The relationality of tangible corporeal beauty with reference to individuals (measurable and standardised according to the norms of media-consumer culture) and happiness is finding new commercial possibilities. Some self-help gurus try to make us believe that being beautiful (feeling beautiful) depends on the happiness one has, or the happier one is, the more beautiful one looks.
Philosophers in their inquiries on whether beauty is subjective or objective also differed considerably. Some saw beauty through the lens of such notions as virtue, justice, fairness, love, desire and truth. Beauty is discussed in terms of idiosyncrasies, taste, class and upbringing. The inter-subjective nature of beauty and its socio-cultural ramifications figured in philosophical debates across time. European philosophy was also concerned with the relativity and relationality of beauty and its entanglements with virtue and truth.
It is through a notion of ‘errors in beauty’ that Scarry links beauty with truth. One kind of error comes to light when a person realises that something that s/he held as beautiful and hence lovable does not seem to be so anymore; this is a feeling that might prove painful. The second error is acknowledged when one recognises that something that had not been deemed beautiful deserved to be appreciated as beautiful. These errors are subjective experiences and do not point to any universalizable notion of beauty. It is interesting how Scarry accommodates the notion of error in the concept of beauty:
The claim… that beauty and truth are allied is not a claim that the two are identical. It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is ‘true’, but rather that it ignites a desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error… It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude. It comes to us, with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labour. (52; emphasis added)
Can there be definitive principles and norms about beauty? Is it that we come across more exceptions than rules? There often seems to exist, in many contexts, no boundary between beauty horror, monstrosity and ugliness. How these divisions came into being? The readings on beauty branch into multiple concerns in the papers included in the volume. In this collection, the authors engage with and problematise beauty from many angles and disciplines. The aesthetic-ethical interconnections; historicity and contextual specificity of beauty; beauty as a contentious political category; illness, disfigurement and the aesthetics of corporeality; liminality of beauty, horror and cruelty; representations of beauty in texts and art; justice and subalternity are some of the themes discussed herein.
In this compilation, the idea of horror is not treated as the opposite of beauty; it is rather a relation of complementarity and coexistence.
This coexistence, deceptively appearing to be oxymoronic, intensifies the enigma. The papers in the collection direct our attention to an inevitable conjunction of beauty and horror. As one ruminates on the aesthetics of ethics, illness, violent sports, death and altered body states, strategies of beautification in the media-consumer culture, the thoughts can but be awash in myriad hues of horror.
Aesthetics and ethics inform each other at the conceptual realm. In the domain of experience, which often influences theoretical ideation, the dialogic exchanges between aesthetics and ethics are hard to ignore. When one says that art and life have several occasions of convergence and disconnect, a negotiable polarity is implied. Thinking of the aesthetics of ethics as creating oneself as a work of art gives a new dimension to our ruminations on life and art which deconstructs such a polarity. Bharani Kollipara sheds light on this prospect through an evaluation of Michel Foucault’s proposition about a mode of ethical agency of the subject which enables to construct one’s life as art. Creating life as a work of art gives rise to questions of freedom and understanding.
A twilight zone, grey domain of the uncanny, one might pass through while exploring beauty lies between the terrains of horror and aesthetics. Pramod K. Nayar’s reading of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988), maps the realms of horror “from pregnancy and parturition through the maternal, the family and finally to the human race and its lineage/continuity itself.” This horror permits a glimpse into the Gothic. The experiences such as motherhood, institutions like family, and birth of an infant which are conventionally considered ‘beautiful’ or romanticised as the sublime poetics of human existence slip into the zones of revulsion and ugliness.
Benoy Kurian’s paper gives an overview of the evolution of the idea of beauty in philosophy and art and re-views several questions concerning the approaches to the understanding of beauty: one and the many, objective/disinterested and subjective/involved, etc. for him are categories that do not capture the complex polysemy of beauty in art or life. Benoy draws attention to the countless possibilities suggested by ‘interpretative communities’ in making sense of the specificity and multiplicity of beauty as a concept and experience.
Anway Mukhopadhyay ponders on how differently the enigma of beauty was interpreted by Socrates and Diotima and substantiates that Diotima’s view on beauty was embedded in “a non-Socratic episteme of goddess spirituality.” Elucidating Diotima’s views on beauty and eros against a cross-cultural spectrum of feminine spirituality, he considers a possible dialogic engagement between matter and spirit. Drawing on the view that Diotima might have been a hetaira, Anway presents her as “a votaress of Aphrodite the Magna Mater, a comprehensive deity of love, sexuality and wisdom.”
Drawing attention to the hierarchical division of the aesthetic domain into the sublime and the beautiful by Kant who viewed beauty as a dismissible, weak and diminutive, Scarry opines that in the realm of the political, beauty is sometimes considered menacingly powerful. She is aware of the damaging cultural constructs around the notion of beauty and the regulating and destructive effects of the gaze targeting an object considered to be beautiful. The views on beauty influence the views on ugliness. Such dichotomous divide creates conditions for marginality. Radical self projections and expressions challenge and subvert the stereotypes of beauty and ugliness. The last papers of this volume engage with notions of beauty embedded in the socio-political. Raghavi Ravi Kasthuri and Sathyaraj Venkatesan’s joint paper reads into the corporeal-pathological nuances of beauty and ugliness and affirms that self love and self esteem can thrive despite fatal and disfiguring corporeal conditions. Through an analysis of African American writer Marvelyn Brown’s memoir, they reflect on how recording the experience of being HIV positive amounts to an act of radical subversion of the views on beauty, attractiveness and being desirable. Bageshree Trivedi explores another site of injustice: pathologising or criminalising the ‘non-normal gender’. When the notion of beauty presupposes a normative ideal, the non-ideal sexualities are pushed off to the fringes. Yet the hopeful/ skeptical question remains: By acknowledging that the ill and the non-normal are ‘beautiful’ (which suggests the aestheticisation of otherness) and by re- inscribing those corporealities perceived to be ugly with an alternative script of beauty, will justice and protection be ensured?
Gore, violence, death, blood and pain do not usually fit into the collage of beauty. In the Bowman interview, Scarry remarked:
I think that one of the reasons that violence has in our own era been so easily anesthetised 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?… All good things can be enlisted into acts of injury. That’s really sad but it’s true.
Shahla Ghauri examines the aesthetic representation of the violent sport of bull-fighting in the novels of Hemingway through the lens of Scarry’s text and brings out the tensions in and alternatives to Scarry’s notion of beauty as life-giving and protecting. She also highlights the paradox of fairness: is it fair to continue a violent art/sport in which humans and animals are killed though it has been a source of inspiration for artists?; is it fair to preserve a tradition, which despite the horror and bloodshed gives rise to collective enjoyment and alternative aesthetic experiences wherein an aficionado functions as connoisseur?
It is from the hazy precincts of horror and beauty as traced in fairy tales and literary fiction that Shivani Jha starts her investigation. She follows the strategy of montage in her paper while examining beauty as a social construct shaped through complex mechanisms and processes; by doing a perceptive juxtaposition of literary and social texts and contexts, she highlights how beauty turns into a potential tool for oppression, and subjugation. The prejudices surrounding the body, the politics of valorisation or stigmatisation of the body and the poetics of altering the body with little or no concern for ethics and agency point to this problem.
Beauty and horror are a multilayered ideas and experiences which are not easily interpretable. Despite the attempts to theorise and contextualise, beauty remains enigmatic and evasive; so does horror. Many unmapped, inaccessible zone tease the explorer who passes through the intersections of beauty and horror.
Camus, Albert. Carnets: 1935-1942 (Albert Camus Notebooks Volume 1).
London: H. Hamilton, 1963.
St. Augustine. Earlier Writings. J. H. Burleigh, ed., New York: WJK, 1953. Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
—.An Interview with David Bowman, 9 November 1999, http:// www.salon.com/1999/11/09/scarry/.
BINI B.S. Is currently an Academic Fellow at Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other human sciences, Baroda. Her PhD. Was an analysis of the idea of the alternative history and historicity of fictional narratives with special reference to the theories of Michel Foucalt. She was part of the OUP translation Project, An Anthology of Malayali Literature. Her research articles, poems and translations have appeared in national and international Journals and anthologies including Poetry Chain, Kritya, Samyukta, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, JWS: A journal of Women’s Studies, South Asian Ensemble, Kavyabharati and the Virtual Transformation of the Public Sphere (published by Routledge) Bini B.S. is the editor of Anekaant: A Journal of Polysemic Thought and the Managing Editor of the Journal of Contemporary Thought.