Elaine Scarry wears many hats in the stratosphere of the humanities: With the idiosyncratic title of Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, the renowned scholar’s work dances among the fields of art history, literary criticism, cultural studies, law and more — and how they all intersect in our lived experience. As Associate Professor of English DeSales Harrison mused in his introduction to her Thursday talk titled “On Beauty and Social Justice,” “Who is this Elaine Scarry? Is she a literary critic? A critic of art? A philosopher, perhaps in the 18th-century sense of the term? … To what other thinker can we credit a renewed and refreshed understanding of collective action, consent, pain, pleasure, truth, democracy, deliberation, sovereignty, security, equality, beauty and justice?”
Scarry, author of the seminal book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World and winner of the 2000 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, challenges her readers and listeners to think beyond departmental divisions and muse on the meanings of and possibilities for words. She began her talk, the 2013 Jesse Floyd Mack Lecture, by linking the concepts of beauty and justice through their com- mon synonym, fairness — referring both to that of complexion and of reciprocity — and their mutual opposite, injury.
When we talk about and attempt to understand beauty, we are referring not only to the beautiful thing itself — a Greek vase, Dante’s Beatrice, Oberlin’s campus at sunrise — but of the temporary “unselving” of the beholder; the melting away of self-absorption that allows us for a moment to be swept to the margins of our own experience. According to Scarry, this is followed by a third, less immediate effect: the impulse of creation following the sensory experience of something one finds to be beautiful. If this beauty belongs to an attractive person, our instinct is to procreate — but spending time in front of a truly remarkable sculpture might inspire us to tackle a formerly lack-luster blob of clay. We are able to reach this blissful state by forgetting ourselves — the respite from self-obsession we experience in the face of beauty allows us to reach new creative heights.
Existing in such a selfless, blissfully marginal position, said Scarry, puts us in touch with the ability to strive for legal justice in the world — to manage and productively manipulate that desire. “Anything that puts us in touch with our own powers of creation is itself a contribution to the power of justice,” she said. “Beauty is tied to the desire to bring more and more into the world, until eventually there is enough.” Beauty is a plentiful, well-distributed resource; it is economic justice; it is a reciprocal relationship between crime and punishment.
As U.S. citizens, Scarry pronounced, “We are the beneficiaries of an enormous asymmetry” in the global distribution of wealth and power. Aesthetic perfection, she believes, “can repair the injustices of the world before they happen. … Each of us can find the asymmetry that is within one’s own reach and begin to repair it.” While Scarry acknowledged the far-fetched nature of her theory, one site in which this massive imbalance plays out is the problem of nuclear weapons: Her elegant presentation took a dramatic turn as she rattled off statistics on the scale of the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal, which contains enough blasting power to outdo Hiroshima 56,000 times over.
Perhaps it is our fear of the earth outliving us that has inspired the projects enabling our destruction of all of mankind, Scarry rationalized. Throughout her elegant presentation, she used visual aids to illustrate her theories on the symmetry and inspired self-erasure that constitute true aesthetic beauty. Such was the case for her peacekeeping recommendation: The author presented several covers of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which for over 70 years has featured a now-famous “doomsday clock” design as its cover art. The periodical haunts us with a perpetual reminder of our mortality, with the minute hand stuck at five minutes to midnight for the better part of the last century. Why is this clock image so powerful?
“Even as the clock ticks down, there is a window — that sliver between the minute hand and the hour — for saving ourselves,” Scarry said. The unreality of a nuclear apocalypse that has not yet happened can be elimi- nated by another unreality: the elimination of its potential fulfillment. For centuries, philosophers have told us that beauty is a life path. Beauty inspires “aliveness”; science and anthropology equate beauty with an abundance of life. Beauty inspires us to protect its manifestation, to preserve its life. Thus is Scarry’s aim for global justice: for beauty to restore our trust, our sense of belonging and our instinct to protect and perpetuate one another.