Roger Scruton, perhaps the finest intellectual mind writing today, has produced a new work on Beauty. It is right to do this, because beauty is the root of aesthetics -- and aesthetics, classically, is a division of ethics. In determining what men find beautiful, you determine what they want, what they are aiming at, and what they will pursue at cost.
The reviewer says that Scruton is 'not the first' philosopher to think about this, and mentions Kant; but Kant was far from the first as well. Aristotle and Plato both wrote extensively about the subject. Yet today I want to tackle one problem that Scruton raises: the importance of distance to beauty.
But the appreciation of beauty also requires – and here we might sniff a contradiction – what Scruton calls "disinterested interest", an ability to maintain a certain distance between the self and the beautiful object. "Beauty comes," he writes, "from setting human life, sex included, at the distance from which it can be viewed without disgust or prurience. When distance is lost, and imagination swallowed up in fantasy, then beauty may remain, but it is a spoiled beauty, one that has been prised from the individuality of the person who possesses it. It has lost its value and gained a price."This is worth comparing to another piece (h/t for both to Arts & Letters Daily) on the subject of a love affair conducted by the Czech composer Leon Janacek. It was a remarkable affair in that it seems to have fired his composition:
This is stern stuff. Why the emphasis on maintaining distance, as if beauty were forever to be framed and set apart? Doesn't beauty often overwhelm us? Can't it be connected to mucking in, to forgetting oneself, to an animal immersion in the world? Scruton's answer is no. Not because he would suppress sexuality, but because he believes beauty is, above all, a function of the rational mind. It has "an irreducibly contemplative component".
Indeed, he is swayed by Plato's idea that beauty is not just an invitation to desire, but a call to renounce it.
The years from 1919 onwards, however, witnessed an outpouring: in addition to the operas and song cycle, Janácek also completed two concertante works for piano, the engaging wind sextet Mladi (Youth), a sinfonietta that combined the sounds of a military band with those of a symphony orchestra, two string quartets, and the magnificent Glagolitic Mass, so named after the proto-Cyrillic script in which the old Slavonic text was originally written. The intensity with which Janácek worked to produce these masterpieces is remarkable given the increased demands made on him as the senior composer of the newly independent Czechoslovakia, his continuing output of critical writings, and the fact that he had recently embarked on the most important and musically productive of his love affairs....There is something here, and readers may wish to discuss just what it is. The woman, beloved and distant -- involate -- produced from the composer works of great beauty in her name. It is likely that no physical affair could have done so.
Her effect on Janácek was clear enough – and yet it is difficult even for a commentator such as Tyrrell (he has translated the correspondence) to pin down how she inspired this character or that melody. Her passivity is perhaps the key to her attraction:
Making no demands and seeming quite uninterested in Janácek’s compositions, Kamila Stosslova turns out to have been his ideal muse: Janácek needed an empty canvas for his fantasies. Both the “Kamila Stosslova” that Janácek imagined and the works this imaginary person inspired were Janácek’s creation.
From the outset of the friendship, Kamila seems to have established boundaries: she would allow Janácek to visit and correspond with her, but she would behave as a respectable married woman ought, and reacted angrily when he ventured to call her “beautiful”.
Such a love affair is often called "Platonic." Perhaps in comparing Scruton's work with this tale, we can obtain a sense as to why. Yet it is also the ideal that fired much of Medieval courtly love, which we have discussed here before. We also discussed it here and here. Courtly love was sometimes (not always) adulterous, but the clear implication of the tradition is that idealiziation of the distant and inviolate: the "mistress" in the sense of "master," rather than in the sense of "lover." Actual consummation leads to disaster, in the tales as in the reality. Idealization at a distance inspires the knights to the best and noblest of deeds, and the poets to their highest work.
None of this is to detract from the beauty of married love, which the medievals also occasionally celebrated (though, due to the necessity of marriages for practical alliance, it was rarer in their society than in our own). Enid and Geraint, which is a story I have often found personally inspiring, is such an example. The ancients, too, were able to do so -- surely Penelope is in the first rank of women in literature, in her character as a loyal and loving wife.
Still, we know that the hearts of both men and women are occasionally pulled aside. Here we see a way in which such love can reinforce and extend the beauty of the world, until it echoes and resounds with it. It may be the only way in which these desires -- natural, frequent, but disasterous -- can reliably do so.