So I stumbled upon this little book a few weeks back called On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry. I had seen Scarry’s name before but was unfamiliar with any of her work. I have since found out she is a Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard–a good job, I imagine, if you can get it. Anyway, I have been picking through this book when I have ten or fifteen minutes here or there and I find it pretty remarkable. As an aside, I think I have a thing for small, elegant books; Foucault’s This Is Not a Pipe, Rajchman’s Constructions, Nancy’s The Pleasure in Drawing, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own…all of these are short and just impeccably crafted and I feel like I could slink off to a desert island with these in my backpack to read again and again and be just fine intellectually. Maybe it is the modernist in me?
Sidetracked again, sorry. Scarry is writing at the beginning of her book on the trouble anyone has recalling intellectual errors they have made in the past. This point slowed me down for a moment. What errors have I made intellectually? That is really hard for me to quantify, especially since I have been working really hard to just accept learning as a process in which mistakes, obviously (duh), will be made. I was sitting in the coffee shop thinking about this and not being able to really comprehend it when she moved on to this gem about an error in appreciating beauty:
“Those who recall making an error in beauty inevitably describe two genres of a mistake. The first…is the recognition that something formerly held to be beautiful no longer deserves to be so regarded. The second is the sudden recognition that something from which the attribution of beauty had been withheld deserved all along to be so denominated. Of these two genres of error, the second seems more grave: in the first (the error of overcrediting), the mistake occurs on the side of perceptual generosity, in the second (the error of undercrediting) on the side of failed generosity.”
If you have made it this far, feel free to take a moment and collect your exploded mind from the corners of the room. I will do the same. Let’s first take her statement at face value. I have committed the first error all the time. I think of every record I have ever bought that I fell in love with so fast, only to have that attention dissipate in a month or two. I go to galleries and museums and get floored by technique only to find myself bored after a while. I watch my favorite movies and read my favorite books until the light that was once so bright dims. Of course, I also make the second error all the time too! I could recount story upon story of saying stupid shit like, “I don’t really care about David Bowie” and “Man, the Smith’s are whiny”, and, certainly, for a time, I had denied myself the pleasures of people like Bowie or Morrisey. I can stare out the window–right now–and wonder why I can’t appreciate the sublime beauty of being in the world. Have I just become so used to it that it often fails to register?
What ends up interesting me the most is something fades, only to be reinvigorated again later and, probably, differently. And, please forgive the sentimentality here, the only way I can really think about this today is Shannon and Miles. Miles is easier to mark. The beginning of his life and the first 2-3 weeks were, for me, overcrediting. I bought into everything about how amazing babies are. And then you never sleep and I couldn’t seem to ever console him…It took me until he started to laugh and smile at me that I began to see what I had been missing and what opportunities it presented. Although there are times now when I want to put him up for sale on Craigslist, those are fleeting. Watching him learn letters, or make a drawing, is just incredible, and reminds me how many of my daily activities I completely take for granted. My relationship with Shannon is harder to quantify as I guess most long term relationships are. When I first saw her I wanted to talk to her because I thought she was pretty. That is still there but it is married (puns are the greatest, right?) with something else. Maybe its an appreciation of her character? Or the commitment we have tried to make to communicate and listen? Or our experiences together? I really don’t know…but it’s something.
In meditation, I am working on focusing on my breathing. I have been told it is ok for your mind to wander just as long as when you realize it you come back to your breath. I have also been told that no one can really focus on their breath for that long. Every once in a while, when my thoughts come back to my breath, I realize how amazing it is to breath. It can calm me and invigorate me. It is constant, but I really want to appreciate its beauty and I am sorry when I haven’t really noticed it. There is something in breathing that is like being in a long-term relationship but I can’t see it today. I am sure it’s an intellectual error–I am undercrediting something. Or maybe it is a failure of my abilities with language that will eventually be manifested in a hug? Is failure of ability an intellectual error?
Well, now I am backed into a corner. I am going to blast Low and see what happens next. “Sound and Vision,” lead the way.
Gratuitous picture of the day (January 10th is closer than I think edition):