Beauty and Distance

Beauty, Love, and Distance:

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 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.
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:
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....

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”.
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.

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.


A Coup:

An article from The Atlantic Monthly:

From long years of experience, the IMF staff knows its program will succeed—stabilizing the economy and enabling growth—only if at least some of the powerful oligarchs who did so much to create the underlying problems take a hit. This is the problem of all emerging markets.

Becoming a Banana Republic

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.
I think the Congress is the weak point; but that the system is inadequate to its responsibilities is long evident.
High Meadows, Tennessee River Country:


What Will Rogers Was Talking About:

The Will Rogers piece below is really quite remarkably relevant. Bthun points out a PBS piece that states that the Social Security surplus is... quite possibly already gone.

This "end of surplus" isn't even calculated according to the honest accounting methods that we were discussing before. What they mean is that the money is gone even with the bogus accounting methods the government uses.

The British are facing the same situation. (H/t Southern Appeal.)

The British Bank of England, (as Dad29 points out, tried to issues bonds this week and couldn't. There were not adequate buyers nor adequate funds for the issue.

The British Member of Parliament states that every child in England is now born owing 30,000 pounds. Would you like to know the figure for yourself? Those numbers are from a report put out by one of our members of Congress.

"You can't break a man if he don't borrow."

"When's the best time to pay off a debt if it's not when you're doing well?"

" other words, if we didn't owe anything, our taxes would be about one third of what they are today."

"We scrimp and save all of our lives, and for what? To leave something to our children, maybe. We won't die if we can help it 'till we get out of debt for their sake. Now that's what we'll do as individuals. But boy, when it comes to collectively..."

You can break a man who doesn't borrow. You can borrow in his name, and tax him for the bill.

Will Rogers:

A re-enactor does a 1926 piece on debt, government spending, and so forth.

The Pecan Tree

The Pecan Tree:

If you come to the Natchez Trace State Park in Tennessee, you will find a document that reads precisely as this webpage:

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Natchez Trace State Park is that it is the home of the third largest pecan tree in the world. In the 1930's the following plaque was erected at the Pecan Tree by the John McCall Chapter of the D.A.R. "Accepted tradition says that this tree had grown from a pecan given to Sukey Morris by one of Jackson's men as they traveled homeward after the Battle of New Orleans." It is difficult to say whether this legend is true or not. It is known that four companies of General John Coffee's Tennessee Militia used the western branch of the Natchez Trace which passes by the Pecan Tree to return home from the Battle of New Orleans in April of 1815.
I am the sort of man who will travel a long way out of his way to see such a tree. If you do the same, on the road to Shiloh, you will find deep in the heart of the state forest a place set aside for the tree. It has split-rail fences, and a pillar set for a plaque to describe the tree's history.

The pillar is now blank. The plaque is gone. There is a giant stump where once the pecan tree stood.

All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass
No work of Christian men.