Cover image for On beauty and being just
Title:
On beauty and being just
Author:
Scarry, Elaine.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
134 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm
Language:
English
Subject Term:
ISBN:
9780691048758
Format :
Book

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BH39 .S322 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Summary

Summary

Have we become beauty-blind? For two decades or more in the humanities, various political arguments have been put forward against beauty: that it distracts us from more important issues; that it is the handmaiden of privilege; and that it masks political interests. In On Beauty and Being Just Elaine Scarry not only defends beauty from the political arguments against it but also argues that beauty does indeed press us toward a greater concern for justice. Taking inspiration from writers and thinkers as diverse as Homer, Plato, Marcel Proust, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch as well as her own experiences, Scarry offers up an elegant, passionate manifesto for the revival of beauty in our intellectual work as well as our homes, museums, and classrooms.


Scarry argues that our responses to beauty are perceptual events of profound significance for the individual and for society. Presenting us with a rare and exceptional opportunity to witness fairness, beauty assists us in our attention to justice. The beautiful object renders fairness, an abstract concept, concrete by making it directly available to our sensory perceptions. With its direct appeal to the senses, beauty stops us, transfixes us, fills us with a "surfeit of aliveness." In so doing, it takes the individual away from the center of his or her self-preoccupation and thus prompts a distribution of attention outward toward others and, ultimately, she contends, toward ethical fairness.


Scarry, author of the landmark The Body in Pain and one of our bravest and most creative thinkers, offers us here philosophical critique written with clarity and conviction as well as a passionate plea that we change the way we think about beauty.


Author Notes

Elaine Scarry teaches in the English department at Harvard University, where she is Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value.


Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Best known for her 1985 study of torture and physical pain, The Body in Pain, and for her much-publicized contention, first expressed in the New York Review of Books, that electromagnetic interference caused the crash of TWA Flight 800, Harvard English professor Scarry turns her critical lights on the question of how we transform literature into compelling mental imagery. Given that imagination is, by definition, less vivid than actual perception, she asks, why should a poem by Wordsworth, say, or a novel by Charlotte Bront‰, bring the material world to life so palpably? Although Scarry bases her argument largely on close literary readings, her approach often recalls that of such Enlightenment philosophers as Descartes and Hume as she attempts to solve the riddle of how the mind works. Scarry is an original, interdisciplinary thinker. She writes like someone enraptured by both the natural worldÄespecially flowersÄand by language. Unfortunately, Scarry takes for granted that her reader is as obsessive a gardener as she. Is it really universally the case that "people seem to have long languorous conversations describing to each other the flower they most love that morning?" And is this observation a useful basis for a universal theory of the mind? In the long sections of the book devoted to the habits of a certain sparrow in Scarry's garden, or to charting every reference to vegetation in the works of Homer, Flaubert and Wordsworth, Scarry appears lost in her own lush imaginative world. (Oct.). FYI: In September, Princeton Univ. will publish Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just ($15.95 134p ISBN 0-691-04875-4), a pair of lectures intended to rescue the idea of beauty from academic neglect. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Scarry (English, Harvard Univ.), the author of the powerful and important The Body in Pain, has long been interested in ideas about creativity, imagination, and justice. In her groundbreaking earlier work, those themes were tied to the human experiences of pain and embodiment in strikingly original ways. In these two new works, she continues her explorations, using her formidable analytic talents to understand the function of the imagination in reading literature and to investigate the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, especially in contemporary academic discourse. In Dreaming by the Book, Scarry wonders how the best writing enables us to produce images and scenes in our minds that carry something of the force of reality. She deftly unfolds an answer by identifying and explicating several general principles and five formal practices by which authors invisibly command us to manipulate the objects of our imagination. While not everyone will be convinced by all of her conclusions, her analyses are always original and illuminating. The book is valuable not only for its insights but also for the pleasure of simply following Scarry through her explorations. Part 1 of the shorter On Beauty and Being Just is similarly engaging. Here, Scarry examines the experience of apprehending or misapprehending beauty in art, literature, or the world around us. But in the second half of the book, which builds to a claim about the relationship between beauty and justice, she casts her argument against an ill-defined set of "opponents of beauty" who are so generalized and obscure as to be straw men. Also, because of the reflective nature of her text (some of which was apparently presented in public lectures), she offers no citations or specific references to the individuals or philosophies she means to critique. The result is tiresome, misleading, and unfortunate, since the ideas she is exploring are important and provocative ones.ÄJulia Burch, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

Part 1 On Beauty and Being Wrongp. 1
Part 2 On Beauty and Being Fairp. 55
Notesp. 125
Acknowledgmentsp. 133