Mentioned in the superb Generous Justice by Tim Keller, old Nelly tracked down this little book by the Harvard literary critic Elaine Scarry.

Here is the book summed up:

the beautiful person or the thing incites in us the longing for truth because it provides by its compelling “clear discernibility” an introduction (perhaps even our first introduction) to the state of certainty yet does not itself satiate our desire for certainty.

Our desire for beauty outlasts the object of beauty; the pleasure we take in it is inexhaustible. It also an experience of certainty- we have no doubt when we have encountered a thing that is beautiful and in this we see how beauty overlaps and informs the quest for justice. That this appetite for beauty is not one that comes to an end is elaborated:

Many human desires are coterminous with their object. A person desires a good meal and – as though by magic – the person’s desire for a good meal seems to end just about the time the good meal ends. But our desire for beauty is likely to outlast its object because, as Kant once observed, unlike all other pleasures, the pleasure we take in beauty is inexhaustible. No matter how long beautiful things endure, they cannot out-endure our longing for them.

She tells a beautiful story about how she (who loves trees) had once disregarded palm trees as barely worthy of the classification. Then one morning, under its leaves she noticed the way they swayed as a unit in the wind, and perched on top of the tree under which she lay sat an owl:

Stationed in the fronds, woven into them, was a large owl whose whole front surface, face and torso, was already angled toward the ground. To stare down at me, all she had to do was slowly open her eyes. There was no sudden readjustment of her body, no alarmed turning of her head – her sleeping posture, assumed when she arrived each dawn in her palm canopy, already positioned her to stare down at anyone below, simply by rolling open her eyes in a gesture as pacific as the breezy breathings of the canopy in which she was nesting. I normally think of birds nesting in cuplike shapes where the cup is upwards, open to the sky, but this own (and I later found other owls entering other palms at dawn) had discovered that the canopy was itself a magnificent nest, only it happened to be inverted so that it cupped downward. By interleaving her own plumage with the palm’s, latching herself into the leaves, she could hold herself out over the sixty-foot column of air as though she were still flying. It was as though she had stopped to sleep in midair, letting the giant arcing palm leaves take over the work of her wings, so that she could soar there in the shaded sunshine until the night came and she was ready to fly on her own again.

Deadly, right?

I could write similar paragraphs. I can still recall the physical reaction that the scarred beauty of Liebskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin brought out in me.

Liebskind's Jewish Museum

Against contrary arguments to beauty – that in reifying that which is beautiful we distort it and that in revelling in beauty we are distracted from injustice – Scarry argues that the experience of beauty maps onto to the symmetrical fairness that justice seeks after. As such, beauty prepares and paves the way for those who enjoy it to be just. When we seek justice, we become just (or at least hope to). When we seek truth, we become knowledgeable. But when we seek beauty we don’t therefore expect to become beauty itself. Instead, beauty elicits imitation. She cites Plato, who in the most tactful of phrases, claimed that when we see a beautiful woman, we want to bring about a copy of her in the world.

So that beauty-imitation itself produces beauty. Struck by the glory of God and the grace He shares, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist write The Trumpet Child. Yet when that song is sung right, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up. You want to join in. Or write your own.

This principle, Scarry calls distribution. The implication for justice is obvious. Justice involves appropriate distribution.

So the book is a great little musing device on a topic that gets far too little attention in contemporary writing and dare I propose it, in your own commute to and from work or running in the gym or sweeping of the floor. Disappointingly, it itself is not a beautiful book. The discussion of Matisse’s paintings would have been much more effective if there fresh colour plates depicting the art in question. But the idiosyncrasy of the book is charming.

Your Correspondent, The plumber told him its not the toilet, it’s him.

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