Monday, December 04, 2006

This Could Be the Start of Something Beautiful

I began reading Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just over the weekend. Dorothy had some great posts about the book awhile back and between her and Proust I decided this was a book I had to read. What strikes me right off is Scarry's assertion that "beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people." This reminds me of Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire in which he discusses plant evolution from the plant's point of view, giving them agency in their survival and the manner in which certain species have become indispensable to humans. Scarry's statement makes beauty into an agent, a thing that acts on its own and that gets us to help it along in its existence. It is sort of a freaky, mind-bending idea. If you're like me your imagination starts to get a bit too wild wondering if beauty has some kind of consciousness and if so what are its ultimate goals? World domination? Would that be a bad thing? No doubt there would be some sort of horror-movie twist and we'd be longing for something, anything, ugly just so we could rest from the constant dazzlement. I think what Scarry says about the copying is true. Van Gogh admires the beauty of a starry night, he paints it. The painting replicates the beauty and is itself beautiful. We can buy posters and postcards of it, have it as our computer backgrounds, wear it on shirts. Simon and Garfunkel wrote a song. There are poems. I am writing about it here. I like that. But then I think of Proust and the character Swann's tendency to turn people into paintings. Swann falls in love with Odette because she reminds him of a painting he loves. In In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower Swann is disappointed that Odette does not like to wear some of the clothes he bought her that match the clothing in the painting he sees her in. Odette is so annoyed that Swann does this to her and gives in only once, the rest of the time refusing (rightly I think) to be the woman in the painting. The replication of beauty in this instance is an error on Swann's part. There is nothing wrong with him seeing Odette's face in the painting. The error is that he goes too far, trying to turn Odette into someone and something she isn't. Scarry calls this copying of itself that beauty does "replication." She chose this word carefully and uses it because it, among other things, "reminds us that the generative object continues, in some sense, to be present in the newly begotten object," and because the word "recalls the fact that something, or someone, gave rise to their creation and remains silently in the newborn object." I like the idea that the original beautiful object is present in the copy no matter how far removed it is from the original. I also like the idea that the creator of the object is also part of it. Thus, especially this time of year, if you make gifts for others you are giving them a part of you as well and really, can there be anything more generous than that? I'm only on page nineteen of Scarry's book. This is going to be a great read.