Unselfed and Decentered by Beauty

Excerpts from "Beauty & Justice," a To The Best of Our Knowledge conversation with Elaine Scarry (Feb. 9, 2014): 

When we speak about beauty sometimes we're talking about the beautiful object itself which could be a child's face, or it could be a beautiful glass vase, or it could be a flower. Sometimes when we talk about beauty what we're talking about is the experience that happens to us when we come into the presence of something beautiful...

I think that we would probably agree with Plato that we're sometimes, by beautiful things, put into contact with a metaphysical realm or maybe one could say with our own best selves or with something greater than ourselves. There's a description that's given by two mid-20th century women philosophers...

Iris Murdoch talks about the fact that she's sitting there being preoccupied by the fact that maybe the world, maybe her colleagues, maybe her friends aren't treating her as well she deserves and then suddenly she sees a beautiful bird lift off the ground, but she could've easily said she suddenly hears a piece of music. And she says,

I undergo an unselfing. Suddenly I move to the periphery of my own world. I'm emptied of self.

Simone Weil, the French mystic said something very similar. She said we undergo a radical decentering, and I use an awkward term for this which is opiated adjacency...There are lots of things in the world that give us acute pleasure. There are also lots of things in the world that make us feel marginal. But there's almost nothing other than beauty that does those two things simultaneously, that gives us acute pleasure at the very moment that it makes us feel marginal and happy to be on the margins, to stand back, to listen to the piece of music and just feel awe at what has been created.


Header photo: Exposure, 2010, by Antony Gormley