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Elaine Scarry is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Her book The Body in Pain was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Image credit: photo by Stephanie Mitchell

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Associated Works

The Best American Essays 2007 (2007) — Avustaja — 471 kappaletta
The Best American Essays 2003 (2003) — Avustaja — 314 kappaletta
The Best American Essays 1995 (1995) — Avustaja — 159 kappaletta

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Wish I could explain it better, and I'll have to piece together exactly why, but I grew increasingly impatient with this one. I'm probably being unfair, and Scarry would most likely call me out for misinterpretation of her project, but part of my dissatisfaction may have been due to what felt like the imposition of an inescapable and/or purposefully adopted system that goes into literary production.
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KatrinkaV | Jun 6, 2022 |
I once overheard two young people (I was associated with them) in a museum suggest that the art should just be burned because it was such a waste of money. This is not an original or modern argument; Mozi said much the same thing thousands of years ago. Mozi at least had the intelligence to say that art should be burned if its production directly leads to suffering by depriving people of food and so on. My associates did not say that. They are the target of this book. I heard that in about 2002, and that is how dated this book has become.

It's jarring to read someone claim that the American declaration of independence is beautiful because the first line scans okay, and that that beauty is somehow identical to the beauty of the ideas it declares and, if you're not already rolling your eyes, that this is somehow connected to the actual United States of America. And it is not jarring in a good way. I'd like to say it isn't Scarry's fault that our understanding of equality has changed since she published this in 1999, but unfortunately, even then, lots of people rolled their eyes at well-meaning NY Times liberalism.

So, this book includes a polemic against people who don't think beauty should be an object of academic study, but never actually explains the arguments involved; never admits that the good versions of that argument are not about 'beauty,' but about kitsch; never deals with the way that 'beauty' has historically been bound up with some distinctly unbeautiful and unjust ideas (like, say, how black people aren't beautiful).

The positive argument, that beauty is bound up with justice, ignores all thinking about modernity (which discusses how beauty, justice and so on have been separated in modern societies); because Scarry's discussions of the concept of beauty are so limited, it's hard to take anything else she says seriously. Is beauty bound up with justice? Is it mere ideology? Those questions can only be answered if we all know what we mean by 'beauty,' and I don't even know what Scarry means by it.

An interesting period piece, but not much more.
… (lisätietoja)
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stillatim | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 23, 2020 |
I woke up thinking about “On Beauty and Being Just”, then finished reading “Seven Short Essays on Physics”, which inspired me with awed appreciation, and I wondered whether that would be a more satisfying way to approach beauty.

Elaine Scarry’s formulation is that justice is invoked by the responses to beauty that she calls the four pillars which are that is “Sacred, unprecedented, lifesaving, inciting deliberation”. I keep returning to the word “anecdotal” to characterize her arguments. You can say that beauty educes those responses, but they don’t seem to comprise a comprehensive list, nor do they seem to distinguish beauty from other kinds of perception that can invoke the same responses.

I want to be cautious. Elaine Scarry is a well-respected scholar, so I’m reluctant to be dismissive. At the same time, I don’t want to kow-tow to concensus, especially an academic one. It seems to me that beauty has more in common with awe and that it would be more fruitful to try to describe the nature of being sacred. The quality of sacredness includes not just the experience of awe, but an involuntary sense of caring that is evoked during or as a consequence of the act of witness. It is the caring, I think, that correlates to Elaine’s quality of being lifesaving. I find the quality of being unprecedented the least convincing, because, for one thing, she allows the definition to include things are deriviative of things that are unprecedented, and also because the moment in which we apprehend beauty is is implicity unprecedented and to name it separately is a tautology.

Perhaps she is starting from the assumption that the apprehension of beauty is an implicity property of humanness, but that is what I was hoping to examine more deeply. We cannot rely on our visceral responses alone to make pronouncements about the nature of the world. We have to use all of the tools available to observe those responses and be careful about generalizing them, being satisfied with the smallest detail on which we can be in confident agreement. We must be satisfied with small hints at an indistinct reality.

To that end, her observations on the errors in perceiving beauty are scintillating. She observes that we make errors about beauty in two ways: finding something beautiful that we later realize is not, and finding something unbeautiful that we later realize is beautiful. Of these, she says, the latter is the more painful. I will have to review the article to see whether there is more than anecdotal evidence to back this up, but the implication is powerful. In the latter case, the consequence is injustice. In fact, it may be implicit in the definition of narcissism that the former error causes more pain than the latter. This seems to be the heart of the matter, and I have to wonder what all the other words are about.

This is the point at which I would have to re-read the essay. That requires an investment in time that I may not be able to muster. But I may.

… (lisätietoja)
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sethwilpan | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Aug 12, 2019 |
This is one of those books that really changed my thinking in graduate school with its attempts to define what beauty is and how it relates to seeing and how not wanting to share the see-ing is unjust. It's been a long time since I've read this, but it is a great work of theory.
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jeninmotion | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Sep 24, 2018 |


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