the way up is down

In blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha

Today is something different.

In fact, this week has been something different, owing to my unannounced silence. I didn’t announce because I didn’t know about it in advance, but I found it advisable to take a week away for my health. But now I am returned to plague you further, my readers, with arcane pedantry and whimsical digressions about writing and fairy tale.

That brings us back to today, and how it’s different.

In her post on Monday, Jenna asks:

So what are we to do with this concept of Beauty—that strange thing that makes us smile and weep and yearn and laugh and tremble and relax in turn? Beauty, which we cannot objectively quantify, but can recognize with all confidence? Beauty, which I find in Harry Potter, Masha finds in Hemingway, and Mr. Pond finds in grim old fairy tales, though we may occasionally look askance at each others’ choices?

Jenna’s own response is to return to the discussion of art, where and if there is a needful distinction between Art and Entertainment. She suggests the distinction between Art and Entertainment appears to some extent arbitrary and unhelpful. Masha responds by asking for clarification: why does the distinction seem, in fact, unhelpful and arbitrary?

It’s a courteous and thoughtful exchange that includes an invitation for us to come to hers for coffee (next time I’m in that hemisphere, I accept!). And it would be, to some extent, impolite for me to engage with the matter before Jenna’s had a chance to reply.

So let me instead return to her initial question: what are we to do with this concept of Beauty?

My contribution to this concept as it’s emerged was to suggest that ‘Beauty is not. Nor is it bounded.’ Which, I said, implied that the empirical world is real and Beauty unreal, and/or vice versa. Jenna admits to finding these statements ‘rather shocking’. And Paradoxes regular Carrie-Ann had questions of her own:

Aren't qualities of things and relationships between things just as real, though, as the objects that carry these qualities and relationships?  Then the tiger lily, the beauty of the tiger lily, the scent of the tiger lily, that the tiger lily is five feet from the house, etc. are all equally real in a non-reductive, experientially rich way.  Or at least that's what I believe is the case, and which would account for Beauty's objectivity.  

She cites Aristotle’s theory of categories, in which ‘the are ten categories of being, all of which are “really real” (my silly phrase)’; by this understanding, ‘[a]ny logical positivist/radical empiricist who says “Show me Beauty? Well, what color is it?” is committing a fallacy called a category mistake.’

Now, no one is compelling me to write a blog, and since I put my silly ideas out there for the world to disagree with, I fell I owe you all a bit more explanation than I’ve given them. I’ll start first with the theory of categories, whilst singing a loud PRUBON! over my own head; if I completely miss Aristotle’s point, forgive me.

The second half of my erstwhile definition seems to me to address this. Beauty is not bounded; therefore, to assign it its own category, or to suggest a category where beauty is ‘really real’ would be its own sort of fallacy. Beauty, by this definition, potentially inhabits all the categories whilst being none of them.

So this raises the question of whether the ‘qualities of things and relationships between things’ can all be considered equally real. Well—yes. And no. And perhaps.

Because by suggesting that ‘Beauty is not’, I do not intend to suggest that Beauty has no being. We see Beauty, or hear it or taste it—experience it, is perhaps a more inclusive term—and know that it exists. But it ‘is not’. Not in a way we know ‘is-ness’. Not on the level of Being in which we routinely inhabit.

I’m not writing like a proper philosopher here—I’m not one, so that would be rash and dangerous. What I am trying to do is create an inherent contradiction—a fruitful tautology, to borrow Douglas Adams’s term—or perhaps a paradox. Because we see that Beauty is, and because we also experience that Beauty somehow transcends our experience of it, and our experience of ‘is-ness’, we can assert that Beauty is not.

At the root of this assertion is—if not a conviction, then at least an suspicion, that Being and Non-Being are the same.

To assert that ‘Beauty is not’ is to create a demonstrable tautology, which if seriously considered is meant to elide of our apprehension of the bounded, sensory world. If Beauty is not, then what we experience in Beauty must be an illusion—yes? But the experience of Beauty carries with it an overwhelming conviction of reality, that this, here, is real, and the world more real because of it. So perhaps what we are experiencing is the reality of non-reality; that an ‘illusion’, something that ‘is not’ and does not, empirically exist, Is more emphatically than things that Are. That Non-Being is, as it were, more real than Reality.

I said I’m not writing this philosophically (a rash and dangerous assertion). In fact, for those interested, I’m largely extrapolating from Underhill’s Mysticism (1911), ch. 1, tempered, as always, with a dose of the absurd. Because the idea is that what we perceive as ‘reality’, the physical, empirical, categorical world of subjectivity and objectivity, might in fact be ‘unreal’, and the unreal world of Beauty, the transcendent place which we consider non-being, might in fact be ‘really real’. And that the experience of Beauty awakens us to a desire to unearth the reality of unreality—and aventure perhaps as rash and dangerous as my assertion that I’m not being philosophical.

Because the mystics and the poets and the prophets and the madmen all tell us that there is danger and darkness in the Other Place, in non-being, in the place where Beauty dwells. As Tolkien wrote uncomfortingly, ‘there are traps for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold’. It is partly a sense of caution and prudence that looks for shelter in tautology, absurdity, and negation. If we are only saying what isn’t, we’re at least not uttering lies. We might not know what Beauty is, but at least we know that it is not.

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6 thoughts on “the way up is down

  1. Fascinating piece. I kept thinking about the Velveteen Rabbit reading it. 🙂 What is Real? Why, not merely to have a physical existence, but to be loved. To live by a transcendental power, above and beyond the empirical realm.

    Great Tolkien quote, too.

  2. Oh, so much in here, Mr. Pond. (I think you said a similar thing recently about one of Jenna’s posts…..) I’ve been mulling over this post for a few days and now know that it will take me a few comments over a few more days to extract and articulate my thoughts cogently.

    I’ll not deny that there is an allure about your poetical discussion of Beauty, and there is much insight in here that is true. For the moment, there are a couple of quick philosophical comments that I’ll make (for philosopher I surely am, and bard I surely am not). You say:

    “Because by suggesting that ‘Beauty is not’, I do not intend to suggest that Beauty has no being. We see Beauty, or hear it or taste it—experience it, is perhaps a more inclusive term—and know that it exists. But it ‘is not’. Not in a way we know ‘is-ness’. Not on the level of Being in which we routinely inhabit.”

    Call me a metaphysical pluralist, if you will, but there seem to be different ways in which something “is.” There are at least the “is of identity” and the “is of predication,” and then there are many ways to predicate qualities of things. I think you are right to note that Beauty may not be reduced to one such category of being, but rather could be a very complex collection of qualities that cross categories of being that we can posit about various things (people, paintings, sunsets, flowers, etc.).

    It may be a matter of perspective as to what “level of Being . . . we routinely inhabit,” for I suspect that all of us in this conversation see a great many things differently from some other folks. That is, we see hope, beauty, love, etc. where others see only despair, weeds, naivete, etc.

    And I simply cannot wrap my mind around asserting that something that is, “is not.” Existence is, and anything else cannot be spoken about. That seems to be the power of Naming (which Madeleine L’Engle explores in a way I find helpful)–that things that exist have essences and we can name them after recognizing them even if we cannot fully understand them. Something could cease to exist as the thing that it was (so that a formerly functioning car will turn into a pile of rusting metal when its engine ceases to work beyond repair), but the essence of that kind of thing will always be what it is and there will always be something left behind that now has a different set of properties. I’ve worked through some of these arguments when I’ve taught courses on Metaphysics, so there’s lots more that could be said, but I’ll stop here for now.

    One more thing… did I mention that I love this discussion (and this blog, and all of the blogs you link to)?

  3. My apologies that the previous comment ran wholly into the metaphysics aspect of the discussion about Beauty. The metaphysical status of Beauty is not unrelated to the topic, but is not squarely wrestling with “What is this thing called Beauty?” We all (at least those of us who have been posting or commenting on the posts recently) agree that there is Beauty, and there is some overlap about what we pick out in the world as Beautiful, and we seem to differ in some ways about how Beauty exists.

    But even if we settled those issues, the original question of your wonderful Blogalectic still remains…. And with respect to that, I’ve not really written anything helpful. I am realizing that in order for me to do so, I need to get clear about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. My husband (who is also a philosopher) has been working on a project exploring whether there is any relationship (and if so, what it is) between appearance and character. In our long discussions on that topic, he has pointed out to me that I work with a largely moralized conception of Beauty–and of that charge I am guilty. The nature of the relationship beween Goodness and Beauty, though, is not yet clear to me. Is ethics the overarching sphere, and aesthetics informed entirely by that, or are ethics and aesthetics overlapping but distinct spheres? If the former, then a proper definition of Beauty must somehow incorporate an element of goodness. If the latter, then it need not. I think that I mostly incline toward the former, but there are some artworks that I think are beautiful but seem to have nothing to do with goodness (but rather with proportion, color scheme, etc.), so maybe I really believe a version of the latter that heavily leans toward the former. (If I recall, some of this came up over at Jenna’s blog a couple of weeks ago about how the Good fits into all of this.)

    At any rate, if I had to sit down and write my “first try” at defining Beauty, it might look a lot like the Merriam-Webster version (which is not entirely helpful, but a decent start):

    Beauty is “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”

    This definition is quite similar to the meaning of the ancient Greek word ‘kalon’, which means fine, beautiful, noble, fitting–which covers both the purely formal aesthetic and the moral goodness aspects of Beauty. What those qualities are, how they give rise to such types of pleasure, what that pleasurable/satisfying experience is about are issues that need to wait for other comments (whether on this blog post or on others you devote to a continued exploration of this topic).

    I think that I’ll sit back for a bit and take in all of your far more artistic and poetic thoughts on this topic before jumping back in.

  4. For the record, Carrie-Ann, I didn’t find either of your comments of this thread off-topic, and really appreciate the insight and depth you bring to the conversation. So, thank you! Feel free to ‘jump in’ at any time!

    And, yes…it depends on what you mean by the word ‘is’! (Sorry, I’ve been trying to avoid saying that ever since I started writing on this topic.) I think the biggest discrepancy here is that I’m approaching this from a more mystical view, and you’re approaching it from a philosophical view. My point, as you rightly said, is that Beauty is not any one thing, or even any one combination of things–it’s something else entirely that in my view doesn’t fit with our normal conceptions of Being.

    Also, what you said about ‘Existence Is’–I think that’s the biggest hurdle for a philosophically inclined mind to get over. And of course, it’s quite true that existence is. But the idea the Existence Isn’t is not quite a philosophical truth-claim in the same way that ‘I think, therefore thinking exists’ would be. That’s why I’ve chosen to call it a fruitful tautology. It’s manifestly illogical, but rather than just being silly–like, say, the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster–if used within a framework of question and contemplation it can actually be quite helpful to perceiving what Is, and what we mean by the word ‘is’.

    Although that might not make any sense.

    I’m completely fascinated by your husband’s research, and your reflections on it here. Knee-jerk total layman reaction says it seems to relate to our email dialogue (and I will reply to you once I’m through this deadline!), and depend on whether one’s Platonic or Aristotelian in bent: if the True and the Beautiful and the Good and the Absolute are all one and the same–that great tenet of neoplatonic thought–then, yes, of necessity beauty requires goodness, because what is not Good is not True is not Beautiful. But if, in an Aristotelian sense, Beauty and Goodness are not necessarily in the same category, then there may or may not be overlap.

    Which, because I’m all artsy and weird like that, brings us back to this song: http://vimeo.com/6594578, with special attention to the bridge (1:27ff). Aside from being Exhibit A that John Linnell is probably one of the best and most esoteric lyricists since Dylan, it’s either a particularly striking ‘fruitful tautology’ or indicative of something even more profound and harmonious. (Well, I think so at any rate.)

  5. Thanks, Mr. Pond! I had never listened to that band before (yes, I know, I live under a rock…). It is beautiful if not everyone gets what they want, though only if the things that some people want are bad. Also, even if someone wants only good things, he needs to work for and earn them, so it shouldn’t be instant gratification, lest he never know the beauty of hard-won accomplishment. A little like The Rolling Stones’s line about not always getting what you want, but sometimes getting what you need. Or am I mis-reading the underlying meaning of the lyrics?

    You captured “to a T” the Platonic linking of truth, beauty, goodness, and the transcendent absolute. What I find dismaying about Plato’s conception is that the transcendent Forms have a higher and more real reality than the “physical images” of them reflected in particular things in the world. This makes all Art “a copy of a copy” (in Book X of the Republic), and hence Art inferior to the particular objects that the Art is a “copy” of. One could not truly understand Beauty until one has gazed on the Form of Beauty (apprehended purely by one’s reason) apart from the physical. So a “beautiful” object (whether a flower or a painting of a flower) is only a pale imitation of true Beauty.

    The Aristotelian view is a bit trickier. You say: “But if, in an Aristotelian sense, Beauty and Goodness are not necessarily in the same category, then there may or may not be overlap.” For Aristotle, the connection between truth, beauty, and goodness does not correlate to categories of being per se, but rather to types of substance, which is not cross-category. The first category of being (ousia) is that of particular substances, and of these particular substances some are non-living and other are living. (All of the other categories of being are either qualities or relational properties of particular substances.)

    Of the non-living substances (e.g., the heavenly bodies, tables, pens), it can be said that they exist truly and that they are beautiful when they function as what they are, that is, when they are properly ordered. Beauty here is a formal aesthetic property.

    Of the living substances (e.g., humans, cats, tiger lilies), they can be said to exist truly, are beautiful when properly ordered, and are good/manifesting value when they are functioning properly. Beauty here combines formal aesthetics and the well-functioning of good/valuable members of living species. And both form and function are immanent (or how a particular thing is “being-at-work-in-the-world”–sorry to get a bit Heidegger here, but it’s more accurate in getting at Aristotle’s meaning), so the Beauty/Goodness is “in” the object (but not like an engine is in a car). More accurately, Beauty and Goodness are “of” the object, and are really present to be seen. It’s almost like an “inner light” of Beauty that radiates outward–an image I am quite taken by. The beautiful/good beings are sufficient unto themselves being-what-they-are without needing to get their Beauty and Goodness from some other source.

    Perhaps this would lead to a definition of Beauty as “the ability of something to pleasurably exalt us when it is properly unfolding/becoming what-it-is.” This would give lots of room to many types of things–whether great or small–being Beautiful, and also for Beauty to track Goodness and Order.

  6. A quick p.s. on my previous comment: I failed to note that of non-living things created by humans, some are craft (e.g., house-building, boat-building) and others are arts (e.g., drama, poetry, painting). The crafts are purely functional (though can still be beautiful), while the arts are Art in virtue of engaging our highest faculties of contemplation and moral appreciation. Art is Good in virtue of embodying something Universal and True for us to appreciate, contemplate, and either emulate (if depicting virtue) and avoid (if depicting folly).

    If you are interested in my husband’s research on possible connections between appearance and character, one of the audience members (Ari Schulman) at a conference that Irfan (my husband) presented it at recently posted a summary and response on his blog at The New Atlantis. Irfan sent Ari a long response that he will post up very soon. Ari’s blog is called “Futurisms” and he posted his summary and response to Irfan’s talk on August 4th under the title “Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character: Does Real Beauty Come from the Inside?”:

    http://futurisms.thenewatlantis.com/

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