Elaine’s Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just

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Notions of beauty and truth are central to Elaine’s Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (2001). The claim that Scurry explicitly makes is not about beauty and truth being “allied” to the point that they are “identical,” but that beauty, as such, “ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.”[1] What I find that Scarry is essentially arguing is that beauty cannot, in itself, be equated with truth. I would agree with that, and suggest that this is a very critical part of the argument about beauty and truth.

To some extent, it is easy to propose that beauty “is” truth, since beauty, as some would argue, is meant to represent truth, particularly with respect to whomever defines those parameters. The problem with this is that there is no one truth. In other words, “truth” never reveals itself as “The Truth,” but, rather, as a “version of the truth,” or as “a truth,” or, essentially, as a representation. So, the key word is “representation.” As such, beauty is only “a representation” of the truth, something that is subjective and relative to the individualized meaning that any individual places in that representation, in terms of its overall aesthetic value.

When thinking about Scarry’s argument, I would go so far as to say this: beauty opens the possibility for us to embrace the truth in all its complexity and, then, illustrate it to the best of our abilities. What I think is very important to understanding the truth is that the “truth” is an idea, a concept that must be bracketed through Husserlian phenomenological reduction. To that end, “beauty” is what we use to bracket the truth. I am sure that Scarry would agree with this, since beauty is, in its essence, a transcendental idea, as Immanuel Kant would propose. As such, “beauty” is a transcendent object, containing the same transcendence as “justice,” “equality,” and “rights,” where, in order to truly contextualize that transcendence, we must concretize it into something tangible. In the same manner that we attempt to represent the ideas of “justice,” “equality,” and “rights,” “beauty” is a Kantian object of understanding that, when we encounter it, we are compelled to discover truth within and from it. This is what Scarry maintains when suggesting that beauty does, in fact, “ignite the desire for truth.” One important way that I can describe the nature of this “ ignite[d] desire for truth” is through, as Gilles Deleuze would contend, an immanent event, which Deleuze defines as an “actualized state of things and of the lived that make it happen.”[2] Scarry extends her argument in this direction as well when she imagines a “freely arriving perceptual event.” So, in my view, when we encounter “beauty” and assess the aesthetic value inherent it, we encapsulate that experience within an event, where we make aesthetic judgments about what we see.

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[1] Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1999), 52.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Immanence: Essays on Life, Translated by Anne Boyman (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2001), 31.

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