Gustave Flaubert, in a letter, posited two “axiomatic” “truths”:
(1) that poetry is purely subjective, that in literature there are no such things as beautiful subjects, and that therefore Yvetot is the equal of Constantinople; and (2) that consequently one can write about any one thing equally well as about any other.*
Yvetot is a small town in Normandy; in other words, nothing, or Hell, or both. How unwise to follow Flaubert too far in any direction, and here he clearly goes too far. How unfortunate that I agree with him. What is beauty in literature? What is beautiful writing? In dark moments, I suspect that there is no such thing. Flaubert may be claiming that he can write beautifully about ugly subjects, any subject. I'm not even sure about that.
I never use the word,”beauty,” not about writing. I don’t know what it means, so I don’t use it. Startling, original, invigorating, sublime, good, but not beautiful. I would like to reclaim the concept. Oh, that would be so much work. I have in front of me a Modern Library collection titled Philosophies of Art and Beauty. The compilers have thoughtfully selected 63 pages of Kant, 63 pages of Hegel, and 47 (only?) pages of Schopenhauer for me. Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin.
Actually, I use the word all the time, about scenery, and art, and music. Direct sensory stimuli. Sir Thomas Browne “cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare, or an Elephant, ugly, they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes” (Religio Medici, 1642, paragraph 16). Browne goes too far the other way, doesn’t he? If I call all of God’s creation beautiful, I’ve emptied out the word again. But he’s right – if I want to say that the garden toad is ugly and the iridescent poisonous frog is beautiful, I should think about why.
John Ruskin tried to find that Logick. One reason I read him is that his aesthetics underpin a lot of received ideas about beauty. Like Browne, he needs God for his argument, or Nature. Beauty in art, any art, is “the expression of man’s delight in God’s work” (The Stones of Venice, Vol. I, 1851, XX.iii). Note that the human creator is necessarily present here. In Plate VII, above, Ruskin looks for beautiful forms in nature and finds them everywhere – in mountains, branches, shells, and leaves. The top curve is a view of a Swiss glacier. My favorite, for some reason, is the bottom middle one, a direct tracing of half of a bay leaf. Beautiful man-made form imitates beautiful natural form. Readers of Alan Hollinghurst will observe that Ruskin is updating Hogarth’s Line of Beauty here.
Too bad Ruskin wrote so exclusively about visual art. I want to argue by analogy, borrowing from the visual arts, but the fit is so poor. Can any writer describe (beautifully!) the curve of that bay leaf? Fundamentally: open a book with your favorite page of beautiful writing (calligrammes excepted) and set it next to your most reviled page of ugly writing. Print out something from Wuthering Expectations, perhaps. Step back several feet. The additional mediation required by literature changes too much. Ruskin provides just a clue.
I would hate to see “beautiful” go the way of “lyrical,” which now, as a description of prose, means little more than “uses adjectives.” I don’t know how to use the word. I should learn.
Advice and guidance much appreciated. Anything: aesthetic manifestos, critical dissections, single sentences as piercingly lovely as the last umber ray of the autumn sun reflected from a still turquoise pool into, um, the crystalline eyes of a, hmm, a tourmaline, let’s see, fritillary.
* Letter to Louise Colet, 1853, as found in Jonathan Raban’s recent New York Review of Books piece (p. 27) on Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. Raban does not otherwise specify the date of the letter, and I can’t find the passage in the Penguin Classics Selected Letters of Flaubert (1997).