Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Undefinable beauty

Being on sabbatical is making me a boring blogger. When I'm not reading aesthetics or Woolf criticism, I'm walking in the woods or making big dinners.  I don't have the delight of students challenging me and teaching me new things, forcing me to go in new directions.  In fact, the very point of this sabbatical, from one perspective, is to finally express what I know and have been thinking about Woolf on and off for the last six years.  Fortunately--and this probably speaks to what I love about Woolf and about literature and art more generally--that task is always going to be full of surprises, twists, and turns.  

Also fortunately, there's sometimes a delightful consonance between walking in the woods and reading aesthetics.

I love this time of year on the prairie.  When it's full summer, the world in Regina is an explosion of green punctuated by people's gardens, but I think in the main we feel delightfully enveloped by some whole, large impression of a world in the thick of fecundity.  Being in love with prairie autumns is to have your attention captured differently.  Mostly, I notice detail.  The texture of dried grass punctuated by enthusiastic weeds that have invented playful and effective ways of scattering their seeds.  Or the texture of a pile of leaves that has fallen, brown and sere, in arabesques and curlicues. The architecture of trees as they reveal themselves to me day by day.  Colour.  Colours that can't be captured by a single word, that make you concentrate to express what you see.  Much of the green has gone greeny-gold.  Or olive-greeny-gold.  We're suddenly aware of brown, but aware of how many shades--from the greybrown of bark to the redbrown of those weeds you see at the side of the road, to the goldbrown of fallen aspen leaves.

Bill and I drove out the old Lumsden Road yesterday, and the fields were the colour of creamed honey, except that describing it that way gets the texture all wrong.  It's not silky, like creamed honey; it's more like an inventively-combed brush cut.  There's one place on the road where I made Bill stop because the farmers, who are on one of the Qu'Appelle Valley tributaries, have had to be very creative ploughing their fields to both get the most crop and go with the flow of the land.  In some ways, it looks like the raked sand of a Japanese garden, but that texture isn't right either.  It just is itself.

I was delighted today, then, when I was reading Alexander Nehemas's Only a Promise of Happiness (which is how Stendahl defined beauty), to come across his sense that beauty always eludes us.  That's part of what makes it beauty:  "The problem is with the idea that we already know the features that account for the beauty of the object before us, which doesn't acknowledge the fact that as long as we find something beautiful we feel certain that it can still yield something of value, despite the fact that we don't know what that is....Just as nothing we know is enough to prove that something is beautiful, everything we love is always a step beyond our understanding.  The pleasures of the imagination are pleasures of anticipation, not accomplishment" (75-6).  We love a poem for its unending complexity that no reading ever captures.  We love a beautiful child for a million reasons, but one of these is for the child's sense of potential, of becoming someone who surprises us, often daily.  We love a painting, whether it's a Mark Rothko or a Vermeer or a Kenojuak owl because we can never exhaust the delight we take in the image, can never exhaust a sense of significance and vision that lies beyond our ability to describe it.

When I started the Woolf book, I was entirely new to aesthetics (now I'm just new), and began reading anything people would recommend.  I thank Betsy Warland for introducing me to Elaine Scarry's groundbreaking On Beauty and Being Just and Ken Probert for bringing in a review of Only a Promise of Happiness.  I found Dennis Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty on my own.  None of these books on beauty told me what I finally had to learn from Gadamer, Adorno, and Jusdanis:  that art's autonomy guarantees its freedom to critique the world it lives in, which I wrote about in my last post.  But books on beauty nevertheless do some important things.  First, they take the discussion of aesthetics out of the art gallery or concert hall or classroom and bring it to daily lives, which is where most of us experience beauty daily (I hope).  But second, these writers agree that we have to talk about beauty, that it can't be simply defined, just as I can't simply define the fall colours I love.  And that has a potential to create a sense of community.

When you expererience something beautiful, you want to share it with other people.  Think about it.  How often have you said "You have to read this book/go to this movie/listen to this music"?  As far back as Kant, we have realized two things about what he called the judgement of beauty.  One is that you imagine that everyone should share it.  The second is that you respect the sense that they don't.  You can't force people to agree with you about what's beautiful.  And imagine how impoverished and homogenous the world would be if we all agreed on what is beautiful.  Somehow a world that totally agrees about what's beautiful evokes images of uninventive, gargantuan concrete walls for me.  So if some of you, taking Nehemas's line on the "promise" of beauty, are thinking about my love of fall colours and observing that the only promise is winter and you think Saskatchewan winters suck, that's okay.  Because I have this goofy theory that what we find beautiful is an inherent part of our personalities, of who we are.

The photographs are by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.

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