Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In literature there are no such things as beautiful subjects - Or, The expression of man’s delight in God’s work

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).


  1. So is "beauty," to you, only a useful concept if it inheres in the piece itself rather than in the junction between piece and reader? I am always confused by attempts to define beauty in its own right, because it seems like its very conceptual value is in our subjectivity - the word "beautiful" describes an individual reaction of visceral, aesthetic pleasure. When I experience that feeling while reading a piece of literature, I call it beautiful. (I suppose this is my atheist's version of Ruskin's "man's delight in God's work.")

    But this seems to me the same process we all go through when judging anything beautiful or ugly, be it visual art, a novel, a symphony, or a person walking by on the street (Rubens's ideal female form is nowadays widely considered ugly and obese, to use an oft-cited example). So maybe you're not talking about subjectivity, but about some other reason literature isn't "beautiful"? Hmm. Will await the future posts I assume are coming.

  2. Good question. Ruskin wants to push back from the subjectivity, to systematize. I do, too, for a similar reason - if beauty resides solely in the individual reaction, how can I communicate anything about it? Is there anything to say?

    Say I point to a sentence or passage as beautiful, and you say "What, that!" Are we done talking, or is there some way for me to make my case?

    That's part 1. Part 2: often, my visceral, aesthetic pleasure comes from writing that is in no conventional sense beautiful. It's often downright ugly - or weird, or grotesque, or gleefully insane. To simplify Burke, the sublime is scary, yet a great source of aesthetic pleasure. Is this all just beauty?

    I don't think the process is the same with literature as with paintings or people. But I'm not sure I have the terms I need. I hear a strain of music, something I've never heard, or see a painting from across the gallery, and immediately say, Ooh. How often does that happen with a novel? Instant beauty, without thinking? Maybe it happens to other people! Or other books.

    Great questions, better than good, really thoughtful. I guess I'll push on with this a bit, but not directly. I genuinely do not know where I'm going. The end point is not "and so I've proven that literature is never beautiful." The opposite, the opposite! Everyone else is right, everyone but Flaubert, and I want to join in the fun.

  3. Dear Wuthers, damn you.

    You've gone and comlicated my life.

    I should like to rise to the defense of beauty, not just any old conept of beauty, but of beauty as understood by Schopenhauer, in his aestehtic theory of literature, no less.

    Please give me 18 weeks. That should do.

    In the meantime, I can safely say that beauty in schopie Schop has to do with breaking the identification of the "I" with the ego and suspending the dictates of one's will so that the world can be seen in it's purely objective aspect.

    Of course, this needs to be unpacked and defended.

    Hence, 19 weeks.

    Did I add one?

    Good for me!


    P.S. Tomorrow an unusual post from me. Ignore it. But please read the postscript, where I call attention to three posts on Per Peterson. The second in the series is the best I can do, period. I think it's very good and would like your opinion on it. I hope you've read the book. We can look at books as "engines" and take them a part, but we can also look at books as "problems" with tactical solutions, blah blah blah...

  4. So go straight for the Schopenhauer? Can do! He says, with false bravado. Your description of Sch. sounds like exactly the opposite of what Emily is describing, and also, perhaps, impossible. I know, it's all in the striving.

    Looking forward to tomorrow's post!

  5. Flaubert's letter: June 25, 1853; (p.188-189, in Steegmuller's The Letters of GF 1830-1857).

  6. Thanks for the reference. Dagnabbit, it was in my Penguin. Wish I'd found it - I would have used the next sentence (italics belong to GF):

    "The artist must elevate everything; he is like a pump, inside him he has a great tube that reaches deep into the entrails of things, into the furtehst layers."