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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Whatever the Cost May Be

Preparing for the fight of our life

The Eye of One Beholder

What happens to us when we encounter beauty?

Fraser Sutherland

The Experience of Beauty: Seven Essays and a Dialogue

Harry Underwood

McGill-Queen’s University Press

182 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780773548015

By rights, Harry Underwood should not have written this book. He is a long-established Toronto civil litigation lawyer and one of the authors of Defending Class Actions in Canada. He is not a professional philosopher or specialist in aesthetics. Still, there is no reason why a thoughtful, deeply read amateur should not have valuable points to make about beauty. He may even have an at-home advantage in that he is married to the painter Denise Ireland, whose still lifes afford no shortfall of loveliness.

In a book supplied with notes, an index and a suggested reading list, the specific examples of beauty that the author adumbrates are mainly drawn from the visual arts, especially painting, less often from nature and literature, seldom from music and photography, not at all from the performing arts, filmic iconography, high fashion, architecture, interior decoration and industrial design. This may not matter because Underwood might argue that in every instance the mode of aesthetic appreciation is essentially the same.

Back in the mid 18th century, Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime, categories that were to dominate discussion of the Romantic poetry and painting that were soon to come. The beautiful (which some would call classical) was smooth, calming, comprehensible and marmoreal. The sublime was rough, unruly, overwhelming, inspiring terror. Underwood plainly favours the beautiful.

In this regard, everyone will have their own aesthetic touchstones. For what it is worth, two of mine are Byron’s line “She walks in beauty, like the night” or the last paragraph of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” which ends “his soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Two more personal encounters, which I relate only because they are representative of the kind of emotions and physiological changes (a chill running up and down one’s spine, the hair rising on the back of one’s neck) that many feel in the presence of an overpowering work of art. One was with Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep in the Metropolitan Museum. Like countless others, I had been spellbound by Vermeer’s few extant works, nearly all of them masterpieces. But this preconditioning, or the painting’s subject (a young woman is asleep at a table after a guest has left) and its particularities (the texture of the rumpled tablecloth, the startling arrangement of domestic space) could not account for why tears started to my eyes. The other was the first sight of Velásquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado, rightly occupying a room of its own: the feeling that this was at once the greatest group portrait and the greatest self-portrait in the history of art, and that it surely must be the greatest picture ever put on canvas.

Underwood distinguishes between beauty and loveliness. Beauty is not just pretty scenery. “Beauty exists in tension with loveliness, counterposing its depths to the other’s surfaces,” Underwood writes. He notes that “in reverie, we are released into a state of wonder, which is an experience that things are … Reverie is also the state in which loveliness is transfigured into beauty.”

Are the effects of reverie caused by beauty or by some larger force field that attracts us and commands our rapt attention? Underwood says the former, although he often seems to mean the latter. After all, much of art does not represent beauty in the commonly understood sense. This is particularly so in the case of modern art. For many modern artists and art critics, “beautiful” has been a term of abuse. In a footnote, Underwood makes it plain where he thinks 20th-century art has led us and, by implication, what are his own personal, rather conservative tastes: “ours is a culture that demonstrates how the loss of leading values leads to a cult of self-expression and overall aesthetic chaos.”

Lacking Cézanne’s exemplary concreteness, the course of art in the 20th century, for Underwood, “shows that the world is ‘seen’ by the artist as an ever more immaterial essence … In our era, art has opted to treat the idea of beauty as paradoxical because it treats the place of man within the world with doubt and suspicion.” In any case, Underwood takes some comfort in the thought that “in order to disclose how things look and feel to us, the artist must disclose them as alive and therefore in their beauty. And so, rigorously excluded, and to whatever depths art may descend, beauty seeps back in.”

Underwood’s seven essays, including ones on Cézanne, Proust and Iris Murdoch in her guise as a philosopher, are arranged around an imagined dialogue in which an odd couple, Plato and Nietzsche, have a mutually respectful chat. Discussing their ideals elsewhere in the book, he notes that “for Plato it is an ideal of self-cultivation, for Nietzsche one of self-realization.” Although Underwood does not say it, their positions are respectively comparable to Keats’s “beauty is truth, truth beauty” and the all-too-familiar “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” phrased thus by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in the 19th century but antedated long before as a concept.

A good Canadian compromiser, Underwood portrays Plato and Nietzsche as agreeing more than they disagree. In the final essay he notes, “on the idea that an achieved life expresses a meaningful ideal, they converge. Also, each understands that, for any of us, the ideal is personal. Plato would say that it is intimated by our loves and that it is constituted by them. Regardless, one’s ideal is one’s own.”

In the dialogue, Nietzsche maintains that one “is able to see the world as beautiful while knowing it is not. It is simply that he finds to be invigorating what to others might be repugnant. That is simply the effect of love.” Plato asserts that “it is because the world is beautiful that we love it.” Nietzsche rejoins, “No, it is beautiful because we love it.”

Underwood says that, like the ancient Greeks, Nietzsche approves of the artistic “impulse to fix and immortalize the beautiful things that may be ascribed to the world. The impulse is prompted by noble feelings of love and gratitude.” An idea or vision of beauty can transform our lives in the best possible way, he says. He tells us that “the ideal is an idea that one desires to place at the centre of one’s being because one finds it to be beautiful … an idea we seek to embody in our lives.” It is “the self we desire to be.” This abstract ideal is realized by vision, which “comes from a sense of beauty that is particular and personal and that informs the world as we see and encounter it, and also as it might yet be if it can be made to accord with the ideal.”

Underwood’s take on beauty is abstract, as in his discussion of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, although it sometimes has an emotional colouration. He does not consider that, as Benedetto Croce has suggested, the awareness of beauty may be bound up with intimations of mortality. (Perhaps it is the contrast between the sense of great art’s imperishability and our own body’s perishability. Perhaps it is the melancholy reflection that great art, too, may perish.) He takes no account of socioeconomic classes and hence the availability of leisure, or that, conforming to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, aesthetic enjoyment as a means of self-actualization is only possible if such basic needs as food, shelter and safety are satisfied. He does not touch on anthropology, let alone biology, evolutionary or otherwise. If an awareness of beauty is culturally determined, responses to beauty must be highly variable. Or are there some standards of beauty that cut across all cultures, universals in a non-Platonic sense?

Underwood writes well, and usually precisely, but on occasion can be fuzzily ambiguous. Discussing Iris Murdoch’s view that good art “encompasses both aesthetic beauty and moral acuity,” he says that “some art is false because it mocks beauty while aping it (Leni Riefenstahl).” Presumably Underwood means that, in its production or reception, beauty can be contaminated by impure motives. In its emphasis on “the healthy mind,” his book reads at times like a Victorian manual of mental hygiene: “because beauty is in its nature fine, we are called to live in its light, to be stronger and better and more feeling, and even to make a certain sacrifice of ourselves to it, the sacrifice, at least, of our complacency.”

Underwood ends his book by saying, “in any life, beauty and love may fail or be lost, but they leave behind their impressions upon the mind and heart, which, because they are inexpressible, are imperishable.

“Philosophy ends, as it begins, in wonder.”

Can impressions, given their nature, ever be imperishable? It sounds like romantic bosh.

Earlier he points out that “if the beauty of art lies in the wonder that it has been conceived, the beauty of nature lies in the fact that it has not been conceived and, in its abundance and strangeness, could never have been conceived by us.” Fair enough, but he also comments that “what seems true of beauty in every context is that we struggle to know it, we strive to create it. Like the artist, we are effortful visionaries.” A contradiction. Wonder is not effortful, and requires no immediate intellectual struggle to cope with it. The intellectual struggle, if any, comes later.

The experience of beauty is always a collaboration between the perceiver and the perceived. The perceiver’s sense of beauty may seem intuitive but all sorts of preconceptions, often unconscious, can come into play. The fame of Picasso’s Guernica (admittedly a painting that can hardly be called beautiful) is surely due to viewers’ understandings of the Spanish Civil War or the horror of aerial bombardment. Moreover, our experience of beauty is seldom unmixed. Edward Burtynsky’s huge-format photographs of quarries, mine tailings, and dam construction at once have an eerie beauty and acquaint us with the planet-altering damage that we do.

Although a latter-day Hamlet might say “there are more things in heaven and earth, Harry, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Underwood’s views have the virtue of being his own, and adequate for his purposes. Anyway, thanks to technology and the media, the very concept of beauty, let alone his or Burke’s idea of it, may be irrelevant. Beauty may still exist, but we are so besieged by images, hitting us instantaneously from every side, that we do not notice it when it arrives.

Underwood does not cite G.E. Moore, the Cambridge philosopher who so impressed John Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, although he sometimes sounds a bit like him. Keynes observes that in Principia Ethica or elsewhere, Moore regards one of the prime objects of a life well lived as the admiration and enjoyment of beauty. Such admiration and enjoyment “were not associated with action or achievement or with consequence. They consisted in timeless, passionate states of contemplation and communion.”

Underwood would surely agree.

Fraser Sutherland is a writer, editor and lexicographer who recently spent more than three years in China. He lives in Toronto. He has published numerous books of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction.