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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Beauty: Elaine Scarry and Jonah Lehrer

Thinking about beauty. I wonder about the connection between beauty and goodness/truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue, and John Keats wrote that beauty is truth, truth beauty, and Elaine Scarry wrote about the connection between beauty and justice (see the bottom of this post). I just don't know. I saw an interesting post today at The Frontal Cortex by Jonah Lehrer -- Why Does Beauty Exist?. It's a long article but here's just a little bit of it ...

[W]hy does beauty exist? What’s the point of marveling at a Rembrandt self portrait or a Bach fugue? To paraphrase Auden, beauty makes nothing happen. Unlike our more primal indulgences, the pleasure of perceiving beauty doesn’t ensure that we consume calories or procreate. Rather, the only thing beauty guarantees is that we’ll stare for too long at some lovely looking thing. Museums are not exactly adaptive.

Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out ..... It’s what happens when we see something and, even though we can’t explain why, want to see more. But here’s the interesting bit: the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way ........

The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out it. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony – the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t [know] what. That’s why we call it beautiful.


About Elaine Scarry -- you can find videos of her giving a lecture on her book about beauty and justice, but interesting is a short video (sadly unembeddable) someone made, commenting on Scarry on beauty and being wrong, using Susan Boyle as an example ... she writes that there are two mistakes people make about beauty: one is judging something beautiful at first but later seeing it's not; and the other more serious mistake is not attributing beauty to something that is, due to a lack of generosity. Jonah Lehrer's post above quotes Nabokov as saying that beauty makes your hair stand on end -- when I first saw the original video of Susan Boyle singing, it did make my hair literally stand on end :)

1 Comments:

Blogger Deacon Denny said...

I know that "hair standing on end" feeling, about beauty. I remember when I first saw the lower falls at Yellowstone -- I couldn't look away! It brought tears to my eyes. And yes, there was that tingling feeling in my scalp...

4:32 PM  

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