The recent revival of popular books on philosophy is a Good Thing in my opinion. Two friends, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong are hard at it publishing a book or two every few years. I’ve just finished reading The Secret Power of Beauty which I enjoyed. If you’re well read in the philosophy of aesthetics it may well bore you. It’s fairly carefully written to be simple, and some of the reviews I’ve read of it tend to argue ‘so what?’.
But being both curious about and at the same time largely ignorant of the philosophy of aeasthetics I enjoyed the book which has an enjoyable tone. Anyway, I wouldn’t have written anything here, but when I read the last three pages of the book, I thought it was marvellous. So courtesy of my trusty OCR program and scanner, I’ve reproduced them over the fold.
In one of his more memorable – but typically obscure – formulations, Hegel writes that: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads her wings only at dusk.’ What is the thought behind this poetic image, an image which is supposed to communicate something important about the nature of philosophy? Hegel was obsessed by one of the big problems of thinking and, by extension, of writing. The ‘owl of Minerva’ stands for the process of understanding. So, he says, we begin to understand what it is we are interested in only as we approach the end of our inquiry. This is to contradict one of the most beguiling ideals of philosophy. Couldn’t we start with absolutely clear and precise propositions – as Descartes did when he tried to deduce every important truth from the simplest and clearest of starting points: ‘I think, therefore I am’? To apply the point locally: couldn’t we first of all say what beauty is and then move on to a discussion of its significance? Less idealistic, Hegel’s point reflects a painful fact. We start in confusion, so we cannot immediately come up with the right definitions. Sadly, knowing where to start is something we only really see afterwards – when, of course, it is too late. It is only at dusk that we become wise – by which time we have already had to endure our own midday follies.
And the idea of ‘dusk’ suggests something else as well. It hints that it would be a mistake to suppose that such an elusive notion as beauty -or any other deep concept – could be made completely lucid and brought into the clarity of daylight. Our comprehension of such things might become dim just when it becomes serious. Such a suggestion gains force from a simple observation. The deep appreciation of an idea necessarily resists easy formulation; for the process of deepening our thought is that of gradually drawing out a range of associations, of subtleties and of refinements. It is not in the nature of such a cumulative project that its results can be neatly summed up. We should not be surprised – though we might still be disappointed – that an increasing attachment to individual beautiful things should be accompanied by a hesitant uncertainty about the nature of beauty itself. Perhaps this is not a paradox. It is the same with people; to know and love a single individual may be the richest possible encounter that life affords; but this would preclude, rather than encourage, the thought that one could sum up that person’s nature – or human nature -in a line or two of prose.
Nevertheless, perhaps it is possible to take a further step towards defining beauty. We have seen that attempts to articulate the nature and value of beauty can be divided into two basic types. On the one hand, we may concentrate on the fact that beauty is something apprehended in perception – beauty is something we can see or hear: it is rhythm, line, shape, structure. In this way we hope to identify the secret of beauty. On the other hand, we may concentrate on the spiritual or moral aspects of the encounter with beauty; hence we might be tempted to say that beauty is truth; or the promise of happiness, or the intimation of moral perfection. Such suggestions hint at the power of beauty. But might we not be able to bring the two together? Might we not go some way towards defining the secret power of beauty? If the two tendencies are so well established it is perhaps because each, in its own way, is correct. The fuller grasp of beauty does not require us to decide which is right and to abandon the other approach. Rather, it requires that we see how the two are connected.
The experience of beauty, we may then say, consists in finding a spiritual value (truth, happiness, moral ideals) at home in a material setting (rhythm, line, shape, structure) and in such a way that, while we contemplate the object, the two seem inseparable. To be human is to experience life under two guises: physical and spiritual – this is how it seems, whatever the underlying facts. Thus the experience of beauty is a reflection, as it were , of what it is to be human. Not in the ordinary times, when we feel divided or dissatisfied, but in the moments of deepest satisfaction. And while our best moments are passing and irrecoverable, the beautiful object is permanently available, waiting for our love.
In Western culture there are two magnificent portrayals of the love of beauty coming into its own; but both give this a tragic aspect it is only with the onset of death that beauty’s profound personal importance becomes clear, and we realize we should have loved it more. In Mahler’s song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde the last, and longest, of the symphonic songs is a farewell. It is, really, a farewell to life. The female voice that carries the song surveys her melancholy position: she is alone, it is dusk, life is ebbing away. And then, in a rapturous passage near the end, she finds a sense of the immense beauty of life and the world. The song ends on a moment of great tenderness – and she sings of eternity in the sweetest, most beguiling melodic repetition: ‘Ewig ewig, ewig ewig’ – ‘For ever and for ever and for ever and for ever.’
In Death in Venice (11913), Thomas Mann lets his literary hero, von Aschenbach, die in a deckchair on the lido at Venice in a moment of aesthetic epiphany. Seeing the graceful pose of a beautiful boy standing in the water, gazing out to the sea and the sun, Aschenbach at last recognizes something that has been missing from his life. The persistent earnestness of the writer, his highly developed urge to self-discipline, has led him to miss – creatively and personally – something very simple. There is an unreflecting joy and ease, a naturalness, about the beauty he finds here. But he finds it only in the last moments of his life.
Mahler and Mann each place the final recognition of beauty at the most emotive, but least productive, moment of life – the last. The hope of culture has always been, in effect, to improve our timing. That we might be in a position to appreciate beauty more fully not when life comes to an end but when we close a book.