Sublime sights to behold

Only a Promise of Happiness - Vanities of the Eye

June 22, 2007

A friend attended a meeting in a distinguished institute of education re­cently at which members of staff re­ported what each was writing about with an eye on their various contributions to the research assessment exercise. After a dreary and worthy round of topics, my friend said he was writing about beauty. He was greeted with incredulous hilarity.

Alexander Nehamas, author of the best study of Nietzsche on the shelves, starts out from the expunging of beauty from the liturgy of aesthetics by the giants of modernism. It is almost a century since cubism and the Fauves taught us, in T. J. Clark’s shocking words, “why we all hate the beautiful so much”. During that time the prophets of the new, led by T. S. Eliot, as Nehamas tells us in this marvellous book, followed by Adorno in his battle against kitsch, bade lovers of art to find it in difficulty, darkness, discomfort.

Nehamas, as befits the American democrat he is, sets out to retrieve beauty on behalf of all those who still use the word “beautiful” with everyday pleasure: of a child, a landscape, a vase of flowers, an automobile. He does so in a tone of easy familiarity and enviable gracefulness; this is the philosopher not as blunt pragmatist, like the great Richard Rorty, nor as dour sceptic like W. V. Quine, but as winning and witty guide, and genial companion, taking us by the arm to a few of the greatest paintings in the world, his own favourites — supremely Manet’s Olympia — and a great many lesser and unexpected neighbours of hers, in order to suggest, gently, why, and that, they are beautiful.

His charm and persuasiveness are such as to carry off much that is, at the least, contestable, as well as so much that is wise and true. Pitting Plato against Nietzsche, he will not accept that goodness and beauty go together, forgetting Iris Murdoch’s vivid imagining of oneself in a spirit of resentful huffiness being taken clean out of the mood as one’s attention is caught by the sheer beauty of a hovering hawk, self-pity healed by “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation”.
He underestimates, surely, the easiness of beauty. When a person gazes at the Ghirlandaio frescoes in Santa Maria Novella or is lucky enough (as I once was) to see Sophia Loren in a bookshop, their beauty rushes upon you. There is no space for appraisal. You are open-mouthed, dazed into a wholly unself-regarding act of worship.

One cannot doubt his argument, however, that the more you see the beautiful thing, the more it is indeed a joy for ever. The very excellence of his own book — itself the wonderfully beautiful object Princeton University Press has made it — gives the lie to his doubts about teaching people to see beauty where once they couldn’t. It was Kant who pointed out that promises must be kept if they are to be promises, and the “only” in Nehamas’s title does down his own achievement here as teacher. Stendhal said that art holds out “ la promesse de bonheur ”, and it is Nehamas’s gift to us to show that the promise is kept.

We learn to see. In Rorty’s words, “socialisation goes all the way down”. In another famous dictum, Kant wrote, “No percepts without concepts”. Nehamas emphasises that “seeing as” is a learned accomplishment, and Stuart Clark’s redoubtable book brings home just how local, historical and varied that accomplishment is. It takes up from his much celebrated study of witchcraft, the whole phenomenology of which was an elaborate confection of visions, previsions and divisions. (It is a minor but relevant criticism that in a long book about seeing, the font used is damned hard to see.) As R. G. Collingwood requires of the intellectual historian, Clark uncovers “the absolute presuppositions” — those necessary assumptions about the world antecedent to thinking that there is no getting round the back of — of vision in the 17th century.

This extraordinary tour takes him back to spirits and demons who might not only be seen but might infect and distort the vision of those they possessed, then confronts him with ghosts, apparitions and angelic messengers, until he arrives at the door of the first great materialist, Thomas Hobbes, and modernity begins.

This is nonetheless far from being an emancipatory history. Joseph Glanvill is called rousingly to testify to the radical uncertainty of all things, and Macbeth’s difficulties with daggers, blood-covered spectres, crystal balls revealing his sterile future, let alone his witches (“Filthy hags, Why do you show me this?”) serves to embody the rich peculiarities of Jacobean speculation.

Descartes is Clark’s concluding theorist, rescued by way of his camera obscura from simple-mindedness about the mind as mirror with which the textbooks kit him out. In spite of himself, Clark, in this rich and readable study, ends by commending his great originals for the decidedly recent confidence about uncertainty; if seeing is believing, beliefs are pretty flaky. Veridicality is a meaning construed, not a fact observed.

Fred Inglis is professor emeritus, Sheffield University.

Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art

Author - Alexander Nehamas
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 186
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 9780691095219

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.