Oct 13, 2010

The Birds Begin to Sing

Have you taken any interest in Roger Scruton's new book, Beauty, which came out with some fanfare last year? One short essay among several that were published to promote the book drew my attention some time back, the piece on the desecration of the beautiful in the City Journal (spring, 2009). I had wanted to write about this short essay when it came out, but was distracted by other matters. The piece was entitled "Beauty and Desecration: We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness."

It's a hard-nosed look at the desire of artists to "throw dirt" on everything normally considered beautiful in life and thought, past and present. Scruton exagerrates quite a bit about how much dirt is being thrown and how often it's being thrown, but he appears to have at least a somewhat valid point. As we all know, a number of avant-garde artists have taken to desecrating anything and everything they can get their paint on (to mention just one artistic medium getting rather dirty nowadays). Scruton's answer to the problem, since the human desire to sense beauty remains strong, is not to return to the masters of the past who cherished the truly beautiful, however that might be determined, but to look anew for beauty in our lives, at least the kinds of beauty Scruton thinks are truly beautiful.

I have my doubts about Scruton's idea, however, since as laid out in the essay, and the book itself, the idea plays right into the hands of the romanticism that led to the break down in traditional conceptions of beauty in the first place — that led to the desire to make everything new, to break apart every trustworthy and trusted convention, to show that everything people thought was beautiful is dying or dead. Such general topics came up frequently, if obliquely, in the criticism of Yvor Winters. But before we get to Winters, though, here's Scruton on the ordinary beauties that have become commonplace in criticism in our age:

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists — one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation — that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Is this not tripe? A band of sunlight "trembles there"? A bird "bursts into song"? Can a man as thoughtful and learned as Roger Scruton be serious? As nice and sweet as all this sounds, I believe that Winters would have thought Scruton's now commonplace distinction between concept and feeling, which arose from romanticism, too wide and sharp. Winters didn't think there is any unbrigeable chasm between sensing something to be beautiful and gaining insight into it, or even putting it to use (putting aside my longstanding puzzlement, which I have oft discussed, at why in our age critics and artists consider the usefulness of art so horrible). Winters seemed to combine thought and feeling nicely in his artworks and criticism, both of which are deeply powerful. Winters believed that the final cause of the literary arts is understanding, in what we now call a holistic sense — that is, embracing both concept and feeling, thought and emotion. (That is a "use," by the way, and I don't think there is anything the least ugly or dirty about being useful in such a manner.) Scruton's defense against dirt, as tremblingly admirable as it might appear on the surface, gives far too much ground to the romanticism that helped breed, in our late decadence, the desire to exalt ugliness, the unending obession with breaking all traditions, which Emerson, Winters's one-time bĂȘte noire, did so much to help make, in the early days of American culture, the shibboleth of modern culture.

Incongruously, the ugly dirt-throwing art often seems stronger as art than the trivial, trembling, mostly decorative "thereness" or "thisness" that recent poetry has sought to express. At least the dirt throwing is trying to say something, to help us understand some subject, rather then to wallow in trivial experiences like birds singing in trees and sun-rays falling. Winters was sharp on this point, once again in the long-ignored essay on John Crowe Ransom from In Defense of Reason. (Let me pause to note that this wonderfully insightful essay has occasioned almost no comment at all from other critics, even those directly engaged with or inspired by Winters, in the past 70 years).

At this point I must interrupt again [concerning Ransom's comment that Winters thought the only kind of poetic experience is ethical experience] to comment. I believe, to be sure, that ethical interest is the only poetic interest, for the reason that all poetry deals with one kind or another of human experience and is valuable in proportion to the justice with which it evaluates that experience; but I do not believe that a descriptive poem is negligible or off the real line of poetry. A descriptive poem deals with a certain kind of experience, an extremely simple kind, but one of real value; namely, the contemplation of some fragment of the sensible universe. This is a moral experience, like any other, and the task of the poet is to evaluate it for what it is worth.

Roger Scruton believes that artists should once again adopt the goal of art as pure descriptive beauty (in his manifestly shallow sense). But this idea has slowly wrought the damage that has led to the greater and greater loss of beauty in the literary arts, down to the dirt-throwing desecrations of the present age, as ever more artists have refused to seek understanding as the final cause of their art — the evaluation of experience, as Yvor Winters put it.

Nonetheless, Scruton's piece is worth reading. What is the role of beauty in a classical, moral theory of art as Yvor Winters roughly sketched it in his criticism? Winters didn't have enough to say on that important topic — in fact, he sometimes irritably dismissed the whole matter, as in the opening paragraphs of the "Preliminary Statement" to Forms of Discovery. I believe that the subject of beauty, however, needs much deeper study among classicists as the field of aesthetics has become prominent once again.