Tuesday, October 20, 2020

“What Is It You Really Like About This?”

     I remember first confronting the above question in high school. I had a remarkable eleventh-grade English teacher, Edward Kelly, who refused to stop short in analyzing the works we read for his class. The title question was one of the first he proposed to us. If memory serves, it came shortly after the class read 1984.

     Opinion was, as you might expect from a gaggle of unlettered teenagers, mixed. Most sixteen year old heads are filled with concerns far removed from the study of great literature. But Mr. Kelly would not relent. Most members of the class concurred about having liked the book, though one or two of the girls thought it was “too depressing.” But why they liked it seemed at first to elude them.

     Style, we eventually concurred, was part of the answer. Orwell’s writing style is graceful and evocative, well focused and not at all pretentious. But that wasn’t the whole of it. As we realized after having read a couple of other novels that are equally well written but far less emotionally compelling, the story itself, the vision of ultimate oppression and the way it crushes protagonist Winston Smith was an inseparable part of the answer.

     Story, as I’ve written before, is identical to characters confronting and coping with crises. Style alone doth not a story make.

     Though Mr. Kelly continued to pursue the question of what you really like about this, it wasn’t until long afterward that I got a sense for what he was driving toward.

     Some years later, I had occasion to reflect at length upon the core question of esthetics: What is beauty? What position does it play in metaphysically given reality and Man’s experience thereof?

     I was hardly the first person on Earth to address this, of course. But there were related developments in progress as I pondered. Some of them have proved critical to the inquiry:

  • Trends in the visual arts and architecture;
  • Trends in music, including popular music;
  • Trends in women’s clothing, shoes, hairstyles, makeup, and ornamentation;
  • And of course, trends in fiction.

     Those trends were often multifurcate, such that streams of thought and practice were moving in many completely divergent directions at once. Some of them appeared to have no animating idea other than to mock and defy earlier notions and norms. Others built upon those earlier norms, preserving their core ideas while evolving new variations upon them. A complete survey is obviously impossible within the confines of a reasonably compact essay.

     These developments challenged us with the questions What do you like about this...if you do? Is there beauty in it? Indeed, those questions appeared to be more insistent, and to require more penetration, than ever before in Western history.

     Hindsight, as always, is twenty-twenty. From today’s perspective we can see that some of the quasi-esthetic trends of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties were unconcerned with beauty. They were attempts to shock, to scream “I am different!” often with a subtext of “And here’s what I think of you!” Beauty mattered to their practitioners less than their ability to attract attention. In consequence, today they’re mostly matters of minor historical interest.

     Yet as I wrote the above, I found myself wondering: What if it had been the other way around? What if the mockers and defiers had prevailed, and those who clove to the norms of earlier times had dwindled away? Would we have had a convulsion, an inversion in our concepts and standards of beauty?

     It’s difficult for me to contemplate...yet it remains possible. A parallel consideration of standards noted by Robert A. Heinlein in his early novella “Gulf” come to mind:

     "Each shape of society develops its own ethic. We are shaping this the way we are inexorably forced to, by the logic of events. We think we are shaping it toward survival."
     "Are we?" mused Greene-Gilead.
     "Remains to be seen. Survivors survive."

     To determine what characteristics are critical to survival, one must survey survivors, note their commonalities, and note their differences from those who failed to survive. The same is true for esthetic standards – and just as with survival, it’s impossible to “run the experiment twice.”

     It is possible – indeed, many have done it – to dismiss beauty and all questions of esthetics as subjective matters, resoluble only one viewer / listener / reader at a time: it’s “just what you like.” Robert M. Pirsig took a clawhammer to this in his analysis of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

     What the classical formalists meant by the objection “Quality is just what you like” was that this subjective, undefined “quality” he was teaching was just romantic surface appeal. Classroom popularity contests could determine whether a composition had immediate appeal, all right, but was this Quality? Was Quality something that you “just see” or might it be something more subtle than that, so that you wouldn’t see it at all immediately, but only after a long period of time?...
     ... he rejected the left horn. Quality is not objective, he said. It doesn’t reside in the material world.
     Then: he rejected the right horn. Quality is not subjective, he said. It doesn’t reside merely in the mind.
     And finally: Phaedrus, following a path that to his knowledge had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two.

     Beauty, like Pirsig’s Quality, is an event. It occurs when the mind encounters some aspect of the world distinct from itself, embraces it, and finds it good. That “goodness” cannot be separated from either the mind or the thing assessed as beautiful. Both are required to create the beauty event.

     But such “goodness” is at no time universally agreed upon. There were people who genuinely liked the noisy “metal” music and the almost blatantly anti-esthetic “grunge” fashions of the Nineties. There still are, though there aren’t as many as there were, nor are there nearly as many “musicians” and “designers” promoting such things. Esthetic notions far closer to the older ones that “metal” and “grunge” sought to eclipse are the stronger ones today.

     Which suggests that while “what is beauty?” may be a matter of dispute at any given time, what’s really beautiful will persist and be celebrated when its mockers and defiers have been forgotten.

     I know I’ve seemed to veer a bit from the original question of “What is it you really like about this?” It’s time to return to it.

     “What you like” – the constellation of characteristics that give rise to a beauty event – is inseparable from either the mind or the thing perceived, embraced, and assessed. But then, events are like that, aren’t they? No matter how long the event endures, whether it’s over in a millisecond or illuminates the mind for many decades, the essential interdependence of all the elements remains. This has strong implications for a concept of integrity as beauty, though there remain reductionist approaches to things one finds flawed yet appealing in certain parts or aspects. (See also Douglas Hofstadter’s discussion of holism and reductionism in Godel, Escher, Bach.)

     A little abstruse for an early morning essay from the Curmudgeon Emeritus of Liberty’s Torch, eh what? Well, it’s been on my mind lately, in particular as I’ve struggled to review several books I’ve read recently. But the triggering event (“OMG! Fran’s been triggered! Is no one safe?”) came yesterday afternoon, when I set all my labors aside, sat back, and luxuriated in Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Eric Clapton never tried to bury the listener in a storm of sixty-fourth notes. He refused to set pointless demonstrations of empty virtuosity above genuine musical quality...and beauty. He knew what he liked.

     As usual when I get like this, your mileage may vary. But do have a nice day.


JWM said...

Remember Paul Harvey's, "If I were the devil"?
Well, if I were the devil I'd make war on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. But beauty is the focus here.
A while back G. Vanderleun shared a story about a woman who had a 1950's themed lifestyle, right down to her cars, and clothing. Look at advertising or fashion photography and art from that era. The women were meticulously groomed, and beautifully dressed. A few of the female commenters immediately began sniping at how horribly uncomfortable all that 50's stuff was to wear. Of course they weren't from the era. Now I have no doubt, that it was a lot more work, and less "comfort" for the gals to do their hair, wear dresses, heels, hose, and foundations than it is to throw on a pair of slacks, sneakers, and a t-shirt.
But consider also, that wearing a sport coat, hat, a tie, and leather shoes isn't exactly mow-the-lawn comfort for men either.
Nonetheless, being well dressed has a huge impact on behavior and deportment. You think twice about flipping the bird, cussing, or, being rude when dressed to the nines.
All that meticulous grooming began dying out in the late 1960's- early 70's. Now it is spectacularly rare see to anyone dressed well. A woman wearing a dress, or a man in a suit is enough to make you stop what you're doing, and stare for a minute.
But if I were the devil, I'd do more than encourage everyone to run around looking like a slob. I'd want to make war on female beauty, right down to their bodies. I'd encourage beautiful young women to deface themselves with hideous tattoos, body piercings that belong on livestock, shaved heads, and now ugly, filthy masks to cover their very faces whenever they're in public. And I'd make them believe it was the cool thing to do so.


Tracy Coyle said...

Well said JWM.

Beauty to me evolves around the concept of 'flow'. Do the lines of the building flow or do they interrupt and change direction abruptly? Does the music lead me, emotionally, from one place to another? Does a person move with grace, or a lumbering slouch? Are they dressed to enhance their movement or does it mar the surface (going to JWM's comment).

Beauty can be in the words that evoke images or thoughts that present the above.

So, for me, beauty isn't what I see, but HOW I see it where it resides.

Paul Bonneau said...

Back in 1980 I spent a year in Paris. French women then spent a lot of effort on looking good. You could hardly find a fat woman. I shudder to think what it's like now.

Francis, I'm curious what you think of this youtube. To me it looks beautiful, although the camera cuts are a little too fast for my taste.
The song translation is quite interesting, too. Here's one:

I too am a fan of Pirsig's book. I read it when it first came out, then again a few years ago. It has weathered the years well, although I was shocked at the death of his son mentioned in an afterword in the later edition.