Friday, October 1, 2010

An utterly beautiful curve - complex beauty

If nothing else, writing about beauty, and some helpful, challenging comments, have convinced me that the idea is worth pursuing.  More reading, more writing, perhaps even more thinking.

I’m looking at Speaking of Beauty (2003) by Denis Donoghue, which appears to do what I want (“My theme is not beauty but how we talk about it”, 23).  The book begins:

I started thinking of writing a short book on the language of beauty when, over a period of several months, I read nothing but Ruskin. (1)

Specifically, mostly, The Stones of Venice.  So one lesson here is to not read John Ruskin.  It causes one to start blathering about beauty.  Leafing through Donoghue, a quotation-heavy book, it becomes clear that a lot of high-quality eyewash has been generated on the subject.  This week, I have certainly contributed my share.

“ Oh Beauty, monstrous in simplicity” babbles Charles Baudelaire.*  I now see my problem:  I want “beauty” to be both simpler and more complex than it is.  Perhaps there is actually a range.  Perhaps irony does not destroy beauty, but only “mere” beauty.  Something more complex then emerges.  If I am reluctant to call the result “beauty,” it is because the word is so often used to end discussion, not continue it, a relative of the curse of book blogs, “reaction.”

W. G. Sebald, like Jenny Erpenbeck, is another man-in-the-landscape writer, in the tradition of Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Storm.  I have written before about how Sebald has even, strangely, seemed to be an influence on Storm and Stifter. From The Emigrants (1992)**:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots. (23)

This is the end of the first chapter.  That first line has, I think, become the most circulated Sebald quotation.  Like Erpenbeck, Sebald writes from a great distance, almost fending off the reader, keeping him away from the emotional core of the story.  This first chapter is a brief story about a landlord of Sebald’s, someone he barely knew, and the returned dead in this case is someone the landlord knew and Sebald read about in a newspaper.  Sebald uses Nabokov as a sort of ministering angel in The Emigrants, appearing first in a photograph, then in a book, then in person but far away, and finally (twice) right in front of the characters.  Sebald’s art creates distance but then somehow closes it.

The third chapter, about Sebald’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth, ends with a journey to the Holy Land. Yes, another – if Sebald didn’t read Clarel, I’ll eat an apple hat.  The Jerusalem of 1913 is presented as a diseased Hell.  Inverting Melville, clarity and calm appear on the way to the Dead Sea:  “One wrongly imagines these shores as destroyed by fire and brimstone, a thing of salt and ashes for thousands of years” (143).

The travelers, Ambros and Cosmo, are a homosexual couple, a fact mentioned once, obliquely:  “Of course, said Uncle Kasimir, he was of the other persuasion, as anyone could see, even if the family always ignored or glossed over the fact” (88).  Ambros is nominally Cosmo’s servant.  The trip to the Dead Sea is at the end of their story, after we have already learned about the deaths of Cosmo and (in detail) Ambros.  Why go back to 1913?  Why describe the whole trip through Ambros’s detailed but reticent agenda book (more distance)?

Cosmo, curled up slightly, was sleeping at my side.  Suddenly a quail, perhaps frightened by the storm on the Sea, took refuge in his lap and remained there, calm now, as if it were its rightful place.  But at daybreak, when Cosmo stirred, it ran away quickly across the level ground, as quail do, lifted off into the air, beat its wings tremendously fast for a moment, then extended them rigid and motionless and glided by a little thicket in an utterly beautiful curve, and was gone. (144-5)

Sebald wants to end with another curve, not one of Ruskin’s, although he would be happy to put it in his catalogue of curves if he could only draw it.  Neither Sebald nor Ambros can describe the curve, so they resort to that mysterious word, full of everything they know but cannot say.

* The Flowers of Evil, Oxford UP, 1993, tr. James McGowan, pinched from Donoghue, p. 192.

** Tr. Michael Hulse, 1996.


  1. A thought.

    Because beauty and its cognates don't name a natural kind (i.e., things are neither beautiful nor ugly but thinking makes them so, to invoke shaky Shake), it might be valuable to identify a usage of the term/concept beauty that strikes you as particularly apt, and then make explict the background teleology within which the term/concept functions.

    "That's beautiful, man," means something different in the mouth of a medical resident who's referring to a surgeon's superior technique than it does in the mouth of a weary backpacker who finds a sweet camping spot near the river, etc.

    Have a good weekend.


  2. That's a good idea. Maybe Prof. Donoghue will supply me with some useful examples. I hope he makes the teleology explicit!

    I was looking at the beginning of Nabokov's "Bleak House" lecture, full of "aesthetic bliss" and "shivers up the spine" and his usual stuff, and discovered that there's one word he dances around, just refuses to use, even where it might seem natural. Guess which word?