Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Perilous Beauty

I've been slowly (the way I seem to read everything) reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest since December, and the other night I reached the chapter, about half-way through, where Joelle Van Dyne/Madame Psychosis explains to Don Gately why she always wears a veil. In the world of the novel, veils are worn by the members of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed. Earlier in the novel, Madame Psychosis spent an entire episode of her radio programme listing out ways in which one could be hideously or improbably deformed. But she's not deformed; rather, she is so beautiful that anyone who sees her becomes obsessed with her, longing to be with her, seeing her as what will fulfill all of their desires. She is so beautiful that, in her words, her beauty is a deformation.

When philosophers, especially Catholic philosopher, talk about beauty, it's often in glowing terms. Beauty is what is ordered, proportionate, splendid; what pleases when seen; it is the revelation of the form in matter. Without beauty, goodness is dry-as-dust moralizing, hardly worth pursuing, and truth is reduced to mere information, unable to satisfy the longing of the intellect; but with beauty, goodness is worth doing entirely for its own sake, and truth worth knowing. One can rest in beauty. One can trust beauty. As Dostoyevsky says (or rather, as Ippolit questioningly attributes to Prince Myshkin), beauty will save the world.

I don't disagree with anything in the last paragraph, but Joelle van Dyne reminded me of another feature of beauty, one we must not lose sight of: that beauty is perilous, seductive, enchanting. I'm currently reading The Fellowship of the Ring to daughters Prima et Secunda. Tolkien, especially in his depiction of the elves, portrays in a deeply convincing manner this perilousness of beauty. The beautiful does not only save and heal, it is not only what pleases when known. It exhibits a force of its own. It is uncontrollable, provoking a response, nay, conjuring a response. To apprehend the beautiful is to be in ecstasy--that is, to go out of oneself. Who knows what will occur then? The elves have a power that cannot be wielded by mere mortals, seen in their rings first of all, but it is also in the very air of Rivendell and Lothlorien. The fear that Gimli feels when entering the latter is not misplaced, not mere prejudice. There is a real terror in beauty.

There was something of a debate in twentieth century phenomenology (and it continues somewhat in twenty-first century phenomenology) as to what the most fundamental metaphysical attitude is--that is, what attitude puts us face-to-face with the mystery of Being itself. Martin Heidegger contends that it is anxiety (which I can relate to): one is not anxious before any particular being, but in anxiety all the particular beings fall away, and one is left confronted with being itself. Jean-Luc Marion argues that boredom, in which one loses interest in all beings, plays this function, but once one has broken beyond considering beings as beings (by which he means considering them as comprehensible by us) we can come to see them as transcending our concepts, and so see them shining forth as beautiful. Gabriel Marcel counsels hope as our fundamental attitude. Edith Stein contends that we are best aware of the fundamental structure of being when we have childlike trust, a sweet and blissful security in being upheld in Being at every moment, and this leads us to see all things as beautiful.

But each of these attitudes reveals a world very much having to do with the intellectual, introspective self, what Charles Taylor has called the "buffered self"--an experience of the self as contained, a finite being existing in the world and in society, not at the mercy of various spiritual and psychical forces flowing through one's environment.

To see beauty, to really see it, is no longer to live in the world of the buffered self. It is to become "porous", to be enraptured, possessed, enchanted by what one sees (and otherwise senses). Hence the sheer danger of beauty. But it is not the danger of a physical peril that one can more or less guard against. It is the peril of the unexpected faerie in the fairy tale, the unexpected compulsion of the face that launches a thousand ships. When I go to the art museum, I am left drained, cranky, the world outside those beauty-enclosing frames suddenly dry and shriveled. It is the sudden, the inexplicable violence of the Lord Who came upon Moses in the inn and would have slain him. The whole world can display this peril and this fascination; it is this beauty beyond all order that we can deploy and so appearing perhaps at time as de-formed, not the merely pleasant or splendid beauty, that make the true worth knowing and the good worth doing, even if the very knowing and doing should slay one, even if in the very seduction of its glory one be utterly undone. To feel the perilous beauty of the world: this is, I think, the (or at least a) fundamental attitude.


  1. I've loved reading this. Thank you for writing it. I'm Edith on this one! :) Not sure I completely agree with Heidegger on anxiety (perhaps it's the Levinas in me) but it certainly plays a big role. You know, I've been meaning to read Infinite Jest, but damn thing is big and daunting. But this whole passage or scene with veiling - now that got me intrigued, esp. since veils are in my dissertation. Glad you started this blog, Mark!

    1. Thanks, Emina! Infinite Jest is a fun book, and pretty insightful; I wouldn't say it's a "must-read" but it's definitely worth your time. And despite being quite long, it moves along pretty quickly. Wallace has this uncanny ability to present rather disturbing material as simultaneously disturbing, really sad, and blackly hilarious.