On Beauty and Being Just

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Overview

"With exemplary clarity, Elaine Scarry argues that admiring the beautiful is nothing to be ashamed of; that on the contrary beauty fosters the spirit of justice. A brave and timely book."—J.M.Coetzee

"Here is a writer almost magically summoning up the world through words and ideas, in a new way, and so guiding the reader, lovingly, to receive the treasures and accept the pleasures of this book as naturally as breathing. Here is a book so measured in words and yet so exciting in ideas, a book that explains the world, even as it is explaining itself. This writer, Elaine Scarry, always leading us to consider justice, has given us a book that is beautiful and inspiring to such a degree that after truly reading it, the reader cannot help but be changed."—Jamaica Kincaid

"Among a restorer's solvents, imagine one so marvelous that what it repaired, what it returned to sparkling freshness, was not some beautiful object, but our damaged perception of Beauty itself. Elaine Scarry's imagination works just this wonder: potent enough to dissolve our every grimy resentment, yet so delicate that in Beauty's renewed radiance we discern, long invisible, the subtle outline of an ethics."—D. A. Miller, Columbia University

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Editorial Reviews

Chronicle of Higher Education
She begins her defense of aesthetic pleasure with musings on the nature of beauty. Beauty begets, she argues. It constantly provokes copies of itself. That replication is not only in art, for example, but also in perception, as in the desire to continue beholding as long as possible. Beauty's link with truth requires no belief in an immortal realm. 'The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction,' she says. That mental state is so pleasurable 'that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction-to locate what is true.' The heightened perception that comes with beauty's life-affirming capacity to awaken us to our world is part of what alerts us to injustice, she writes.
— Nina Ayoub
Boston Review
Scarry makes a fascinating case that seeing beauty reminds us of our own marginality, and therefore our equalness to other people. And she very skillfully defies traditional political criticisms of beauty.
— Meredith Petrin
San Francisco Chronicle
Full of striking observations about beauty in and beyond the arts.
— Kenneth Baker
London Review of Books
In the tradition of 19th-century aesthetics, On Beauty and Being Just describes, evokes and manifests the loving attention that beautiful objects provoke. . . . [It] is fresh, eccentric and uncompromising.
— Alexander Nehamas
Religious Studies Review
Any sophisticated reader not mummified beneath protective layers of irony will find this book not only pleasant to hold in the hand, but valuable to hold in the mind.
— Paul J. Johnson
The Wall Street Journal
Ms. Scarry's writing is evocative and lively. . . . Her book is a bracing antidote to the glum puritanism of many opponents of beauty, and it makes some insightful observations about how beauty figures in our perceptual, emotional and moral lives.
— Colin McGinn
The New York Review of Books
Scarry persuades that there is an analogy between the recognition of beautyand the recognition of just or fair social arrangements . . . . [She]. . .does not preach and . . . her short book [is] light and allusive and gentle and unpolemical [in] style. . . .
— Stuart Hampshire
The Providence Sunday Journal
This short book could change your life. . . . Beauty makes us better, more honest, more judicious, more humble, nicer people. And dare I say, this little book, taken to heart, will do the same.
— Tom D'Evelyn
The Wall Street Journal - Colin McGinn
Ms. Scarry's writing is evocative and lively. . . . Her book is a bracing antidote to the glum puritanism of many opponents of beauty, and it makes some insightful observations about how beauty figures in our perceptual, emotional and moral lives.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Nina Ayoub
She begins her defense of aesthetic pleasure with musings on the nature of beauty. Beauty begets, she argues. It constantly provokes copies of itself. That replication is not only in art, for example, but also in perception, as in the desire to continue beholding as long as possible. Beauty's link with truth requires no belief in an immortal realm. 'The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction,' she says. That mental state is so pleasurable 'that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction-to locate what is true.' The heightened perception that comes with beauty's life-affirming capacity to awaken us to our world is part of what alerts us to injustice, she writes.
The New York Review of Books - Stuart Hampshire
Scarry persuades that there is an analogy between the recognition of beautyand the recognition of just or fair social arrangements . . . . [She]. . .does not preach and . . . her short book [is] light and allusive and gentle and unpolemical [in] style. . . .
The Providence Sunday Journal - Tom D'Evelyn
This short book could change your life. . . . Beauty makes us better, more honest, more judicious, more humble, nicer people. And dare I say, this little book, taken to heart, will do the same.
Boston Review - Meredith Petrin
Scarry makes a fascinating case that seeing beauty reminds us of our own marginality, and therefore our equalness to other people. And she very skillfully defies traditional political criticisms of beauty.
San Francisco Chronicle - Kenneth Baker
Full of striking observations about beauty in and beyond the arts.
London Review of Books - Alexander Nehamas
In the tradition of 19th-century aesthetics, On Beauty and Being Just describes, evokes and manifests the loving attention that beautiful objects provoke. . . . [It] is fresh, eccentric and uncompromising.
Religious Studies Review - Paul J. Johnson
Any sophisticated reader not mummified beneath protective layers of irony will find this book not only pleasant to hold in the hand, but valuable to hold in the mind.
From the Publisher
"Ms. Scarry's writing is evocative and lively. . . . Her book is a bracing antidote to the glum puritanism of many opponents of beauty, and it makes some insightful observations about how beauty figures in our perceptual, emotional and moral lives."—Colin McGinn, The Wall Street Journal

"She begins her defense of aesthetic pleasure with musings on the nature of beauty. Beauty begets, she argues. It constantly provokes copies of itself. That replication is not only in art, for example, but also in perception, as in the desire to continue beholding as long as possible. Beauty's link with truth requires no belief in an immortal realm. 'The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction,' she says. That mental state is so pleasurable 'that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction-to locate what is true.' The heightened perception that comes with beauty's life-affirming capacity to awaken us to our world is part of what alerts us to injustice, she writes."—Nina Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

Scarry persuades that there is an analogy between the recognition of beautyand the recognition of just or fair social arrangements . . . . [She]. . .does not preach and . . . her short book [is] light and allusive and gentle and unpolemical [in] style. . . . "—Stuart Hampshire, The New York Review of Books

"This short book could change your life. . . . Beauty makes us better, more honest, more judicious, more humble, nicer people. And dare I say, this little book, taken to heart, will do the same."—Tom D'Evelyn, The Providence Sunday Journal

"Scarry makes a fascinating case that seeing beauty reminds us of our own marginality, and therefore our equalness to other people. And she very skillfully defies traditional political criticisms of beauty."—Meredith Petrin, Boston Review

"Full of striking observations about beauty in and beyond the arts."—Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

"In the tradition of 19th-century aesthetics, On Beauty and Being Just describes, evokes and manifests the loving attention that beautiful objects provoke. . . . [It] is fresh, eccentric and uncompromising."—Alexander Nehamas, London Review of Books

"Any sophisticated reader not mummified beneath protective layers of irony will find this book not only pleasant to hold in the hand, but valuable to hold in the mind."—Paul J. Johnson, Religious Studies Review

Laura Penny
There is an aged shampoo commercial tattooed on one of my synapses: An implausibly shiny supermodel looks straight into the camera and purrs the indelibly irritating tagline -- "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." In her latest work, cultural critic Elaine Scarry makes a similar case, urging her fellow scholars in the humanities to stop being suspicious of beauty. Scarry fears that the humanities have become "beauty-blind," dismissing beauty as a diversion and distraction from more politically pressing issues such as justice and inequality. This is not to say that academia is, en masse, sticking up for the ugly. This is merely to note that beauty no longer enjoys an easy relationship with truth and goodness. Such absolutes are, as the kids say, sooo five minutes ago. Scarry's campaign for beauty as an absolute value is thus unabashedly retro, as are her classical sources: Plato, Homer, Dante, Kant and Proust.
Globe and Mail
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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 world--especially flowers--and 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. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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.--Julia Burch, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Susie Linfield
On Beauty and Being Just," Elaine Scarry's concise new book, makes the far more counterintuitive claim that beauty is an intrinsically moral, indeed politically beneficial, force. Most illuminating is Scarry's discussion of the relationship between beauty and truth, which is a bit more complicated than the poets told us. Beauty and truth are not synonymous, Scarry argues, but they are intimately connected: Encountering the former will inevitably prompt us to seek the latter. Beauty is a double agent that introduces us to "the state of certainty" yet also, "sooner or later, brings us into contact with our capacity for making errors. The beautiful . . . acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction--to locate what is true.The Los Angeles Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
An essay that aims to recover beauty as a serious topic for academic discourse and, more ambitiously, to reconnect beauty with truth and justice. Scarry (English/Harvard) delivered these thoughts on beauty as the Tanner Lectures of 1998 at Yale and then retired to a research institute to work them up for publication. Though her book is brief, the studied awkwardness of Scarry's style makes it seem long and serves perhaps as a signal that these ruminations are for the happy few—which is too bad, because what she has to say is both interesting and original. Scarry has noted that for a couple of decades now, professors have been avoiding any talk of beauty. Beauty all too often masks power, say some, and beauty unfairly objectifies the body (usually female), say others. Scarry strongly objects and argues that the reverse is true: "the beautiful person or thing incites in us a longing for truth because it provides by its ‘clear discernibility' an introduction (perhaps even our first introduction) to the state of certainty yet does not itself satiate our desire for certainty since beauty, sooner or later brings us into contact with our own capacity for making errors." This sample of her prose is typically heavy-handed, but it contains a scintillating thought—that beauty can awaken in us a "longing for truth." And beauty's characteristic qualities—balance, symmetry, equality of proportion—are deeply linked, she argues plausibly and controversially, to being fair, a word that means both "lovely" and "just." The radical nature of Scarry's views is not be underestimated, but because it challenges the status quo from an unexpected quarter, it will likely be greeted withwidespread silence. A heated polemic disguised as a cool philosophical essay; exciting for those willing to work through its laborious prose.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691089591
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 592,020
  • Product dimensions: 4.52 (w) x 7.35 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Table of Contents

PART ONE On Beauty and Being Wrong 1
PART TWO On Beauty and Being Fair 55
NOTES 125
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 133

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