Friday, January 28, 2011

Emerson on Beauty

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson has a chapter on Beauty in his 1836 book Nature.  It begins with emphasis on the beauty of the world.  This in itself would distinguish it from many contemporary discussions of beauty.  He thinks that two things contribute to beauty:  the constitution of things in nature and the capacity of the human eye to shape what it sees.  As a result of these two factors we gain pleasure from what he calls "primary forms" which seem to be major form types in nature, i.e. sky, mountain, tree, and animal.  He is somewhat of a formalist here:  what gives us pleasure is "outline, color, motion, and grouping."  The perspective from which he sees nature is at least analogous to that of an artist. (Allen Carlson would probably accuse him of appreciating nature as though it were an art gallery.)  For example he refers to the eye as "the best of artists" in its shaping of nature.  The eye in conjunction with the laws of light produces something else important to the typical landscape artist:  perspective.  This is something more than mathematical perspective however:  it is something which "integrates every mass objects...into a well colored and shaded globe."  The globe is the imagined globe of perception within which we walk (see the sky as the top of the globe, the earth as the bottom, and the horizon as the diameter).  By referring to it as well-colored and shaded, he seems to be evaluating the globe as though it were a three-d painting.  (So he is at least not guilty of that aspect of what Carlson calls the landscape model of nature appreciation.) We also find that "where the particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose is round and symmetrical."  This, taken with the material that follows. implies that even a landscape that does not arouse emotion in us nonetheless has certain simple aesthetic qualities based on its existence within this perceptual globe.  Light, already mentioned in terms of its laws, is brought in once again:  "just as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters."  Again the perceptual globe of consciousness is seen as a work of art.  And, just as boring or ugly landscapes gain some aesthetic qualities from being in perspective, so too "there is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful" (as one can see sometimes at sunset!)  Indeed, "a sort of infinitude which it hath..makes all matter gay."  I suppose that this infinitude is the feeling one gets when looking at something in intense sunset or sunrise light, a feeling that it somehow transcends ordinary experience, somehow goes on forever. Contemporary philosophers often speak of the theory that everything in nature is beautiful.  Emerson subscribes to that idea.  As he puts it "Even the corpse has its own beauty."

Now at first Emerson spoke of a "general grace diffused over nature" by perspective and by intense light.  But he also finds that "individual forms are agreeable to the eye" and these include such things as pine-cones, wheat-ears, and eggs.  Some of my artist friends are fascinated with these things, for example Altoon Sultan with her photographs of things she finds on her walks in Vermont, and JoAnn Freda with he photos of the organic eggs from the Vegelution farm in East San Jose.  Judith Miller, another artist friend, is constantly incorporating images of things she picks up on her walks into her paintings.

The essay then looks into three aspects of Beauty.  The first is "the simple perception of natural forms is a delight."  This leads immediately into a comment about how when one is stuck at a job indoors nature can act as a restorative medicine.  I know exactly what he means since after several hours of working yesterday I just got tired of it and went out for a walk in my neighborhood and it was sooo delightful (especially in the Spring weather we were having these January days...sorry east-coasters!)  Now Emerson and I differ on one point since in this passage he seems to just want to contrast the "din and craft of the street" and "the sky and the woods" implying that only the later can restore.  But actually, going out for a walk in my neighborhood exposes me to both, and they really seem to restore together.  Sill, I am enough of a romantic to wish that I had a lovely walk in the woods that I could easily take after my work.  Living in the center of the 10th largest city in the U.S., such things are unfortunately pretty far away.  I do kind of like the line, "The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon," however. In relation to this,  I think of how dramatic it is when I get up out of the flats of San Jose onto Hwy 280 and am able to get a clear view of the clouds hanging over the coastal range:  it is often very moving.

Emerson notes that sometimes Nature satisfies just by its loveliness:  "I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.  How does nature deify us with a few and cheap elements!"  We become one with nature, we become enchanted by it, and we also become god-like (isn't this a bit extreme?...well maybe it means that we feel as if we were gods).  Here Emerson goes into this thing about how nature can provide me with riches as great as those of great empires.  He mentions different experiences matched to the special offerings of different great countries, for example mystic philosophy matched to Germany.  All of this seems to imply that nature is trying to say something, something that could not even be expressed fully by a great poet..  Emerson however tries it himself, waxing poetic in a rather nice way when he describes a winter experience when "the leafless tress become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background." He refers to all of this as a kind of "mute music." For more on Emerson on beauty see this post.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Where does Ethics Leave off and Aesthetics Begin?

I have long wondered about the boundary between ethics and aesthetics although I am not sure I have anything interesting to say about it.  There do seem to be two different types of person:  those who primarily see the world through the eyes of ethics and those who primarily see it through the eyes of aesthetics.  The second group seems to be much smaller.  I tend to find myself in the second group, but I do not know why and cannot really justify it.  If I look at my typical day I do not seem to have very many ethical choices to make, whereas my life seems filled with aesthetic phenomena.  Of course I am fortunate enough right now not to face any dire ethical dilemmas:  the situation can change fast!  In general I tend to see ethical dilemmas as things to get through so as to be free to pursue what is really important in life, aesthetic enrichment.  But others look at it another way:  the really important stuff for them may be living a more virtuous life...doing more moral things.

Marcia Eaton in an article called "Aesthetic Obligations" (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 66:1, 2008, 1-9) explores the territory between aesthetics and ethics.  One example of an in-between case is when I have a moral obligation to tell a good story about someone, as in when I write an obituary.  I agree that telling stories about others is an important phenomenon of everyday life, and here one finds both moral and aesthetic requirements.  Morally, I shouldn't tell stories about people that hurt them, and perhaps I should also tell stories about them that help them, especially if they are deserving, or if I have certain familial or friendship obligations to them.  Obviously if those stories have good plot lines, are appropriately humorous, are elegant, and so forth, then they will do better at helping people.  It is not clear to me that this is really an in between case though.  It just seems that there are two levels of evaluation:  telling an aesthetically good story may help out the mourners better and hence help one to fulfill one's moral obligation on the occasion, but producing a good story and fulfilling a moral obligation are different things. 

I suspect that a lot of choices the moralists see as moral choices can be seen as primarily aesthetics choices by aesthetes.  For example, currently there is a debate over whether to revise Huckleberry Finn to leave out certain offensive terms.  A moralist would talk about this issue in terms of rights, whether author's rights or the rights of oppressed minorities.  An aesthete would talk about it in terms of taste:  some aesthetes might see it as bad taste to revise the book, whereas others might see it as bad taste not to.  So how do you know whether an issue is one of taste or morality?