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On Beauty and Being Just Paperback – November 1, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0691089591 ISBN-10: 9780691089591 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (November 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780691089591
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691089591
  • ASIN: 0691089590
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 4.5 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #106,199 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Best known for her 1985 study of torture and physical pain, The Body in Pain, and for her much-publicized contention, first expressed in the New York Review of Books, that electromagnetic interference caused the crash of TWA Flight 800, Harvard English professor Scarry turns her critical lights on the question of how we transform literature into compelling mental imagery. Given that imagination is, by definition, less vivid than actual perception, she asks, why should a poem by Wordsworth, say, or a novel by Charlotte Bront?, bring the material world to life so palpably? Although Scarry bases her argument largely on close literary readings, her approach often recalls that of such Enlightenment philosophers as Descartes and Hume as she attempts to solve the riddle of how the mind works. Scarry is an original, interdisciplinary thinker. She writes like someone enraptured by both the natural worldAespecially flowersAand by language. Unfortunately, Scarry takes for granted that her reader is as obsessive a gardener as she. Is it really universally the case that "people seem to have long languorous conversations describing to each other the flower they most love that morning?" And is this observation a useful basis for a universal theory of the mind? In the long sections of the book devoted to the habits of a certain sparrow in Scarry's garden, or to charting every reference to vegetation in the works of Homer, Flaubert and Wordsworth, Scarry appears lost in her own lush imaginative world. (Oct.). FYI: In September, Princeton Univ. will publish Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just ($15.95 134p ISBN 0-691-04875-4), a pair of lectures intended to rescue the idea of beauty from academic neglect.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Scarry (English, Harvard Univ.), the author of the powerful and important The Body in Pain, has long been interested in ideas about creativity, imagination, and justice. In her groundbreaking earlier work, those themes were tied to the human experiences of pain and embodiment in strikingly original ways. In these two new works, she continues her explorations, using her formidable analytic talents to understand the function of the imagination in reading literature and to investigate the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, especially in contemporary academic discourse. In Dreaming by the Book, Scarry wonders how the best writing enables us to produce images and scenes in our minds that carry something of the force of reality. She deftly unfolds an answer by identifying and explicating several general principles and five formal practices by which authors invisibly command us to manipulate the objects of our imagination. While not everyone will be convinced by all of her conclusions, her analyses are always original and illuminating. The book is valuable not only for its insights but also for the pleasure of simply following Scarry through her explorations. Part 1 of the shorter On Beauty and Being Just is similarly engaging. Here, Scarry examines the experience of apprehending or misapprehending beauty in art, literature, or the world around us. But in the second half of the book, which builds to a claim about the relationship between beauty and justice, she casts her argument against an ill-defined set of "opponents of beauty" who are so generalized and obscure as to be straw men. Also, because of the reflective nature of her text (some of which was apparently presented in public lectures), she offers no citations or specific references to the individuals or philosophies she means to critique. The result is tiresome, misleading, and unfortunate, since the ideas she is exploring are important and provocative ones.AJulia Burch, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, MA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

This book may change your entire outlook on beauty and justice.
Alex
Such critiques are not leveled against a stable, universal concept of beauty like the kind that Scarry discusses, but rather beauty's role in systems of power.
Stainless Steel Faust
In this book Scarry reveals that the dynamics of beauty draw the observer toward justice.
Craig M. Oettinger

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Vince Leo on April 23, 2006
Format: Paperback
Though it's easy to critique Elaine Scarry's logic and the completeness of her argument, that would miss this book's true importance. As a matter of fact, what's important about On Beauty is that it stood in the face of 20 years of literary and aesthetic criticism, a howling wind into which Scarry makes a simple claim: that the appreciation of beauty presses us toward justice and not away from it. In its simplicity, Scarry's proposition is as brilliant and unprovable now as it was then. But propositions are not the truth; they stake a claim to right action, and Scarry's courageous stand has liberated artists and writers to pursue right action as it resonates with what their eyes and ears hold to be a good and true beyond logic. Scarry uses arguments and descriptions from fellow travellers as various as Homer, Simone Weil. and John Rawls. It's a tour de force ending with a vision of the trireme as the birthplace of athenian democratic values. The logic that connects that vision to the political possibiities immanent in the visual world are as profound and mysterious as any attempt to defend beauty could ever be. Somehow, Scarry manages exactly what she claims for beauty: pressing us toward the good without suspending our desire for all things pleasurable.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Kurt Jensen (ehkkj@gateway.net) on October 9, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Scarry is to philosophy what James Woods is to criticism: a robustly poetic thinker. Her ambition is to talk about ways our experiences of beauty mingle with those of fairness, and when she contemplates her own experiences of these things, she is entirely original and provocative. The larger philosophical ideas within it are easy to argue with--but that is always the way with original claims briefly stated, as are these. Highlight: her discusson of Cezanne's palm trees is an exquisite rendering of an aesthetic inspiration--Cezanne's, hers, those in the paintings and those in the world.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Adam on January 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
... the great pleasure of this book comes from absorbing its overall effect rather than its component points. Scarry's specific arguments can be incomplete at crucial moments, but the author scatters sparkles that do not stop glittering when one puts the book down. Her enchanting enthusiasm for beauty of all kinds is (to use a less than beautiful word) infectious. The central argument of the book -- that beauty spurs the reproduction and perpetuation of itself -- is mirrored in the way "On Beauty and Being Just" helps the reader see the world through Scarry's rose-colored eyes.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Paul Malo on January 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
You know it when you see it--but if you don't see it, you don't get it. Reactions to this book, like attitudes about its subject, tend to polarize according to right- and left-brained modes of perception. Either you like this very much, or you regard it as fluffy nonsense. I share the former view. Many aestheticians and critics are non-artists, who evidence little empathy with the motivation of artists. Elaine Scarry is an artist. It may take one to know one. Other artists will will get it--striking sharply with that visceral shock of recognition.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is certainly an impassioned defence of beauty, and a 'feel-good' book, but it is so lacking in substance is barely counts as a contribution to the debate. It's incoherent at many levels, most notably concerning the switch from the accepted idea in part one that beauty is always particular, to the claims in part two that it is a function of certain qualities, especially symmetry. Asthetic symmetry promotes ethical justice? The idea of beauty as enlivening is also too simple. This is not good enough as a theory of the link between aesthetics and ethics. The account of the so called 'political complaints' against beauty is a set of caricatures. There is also a very weak accounts of Matisse, whose Nice paintings are regarded by Scarry as stand ins for real windows and real palm trees; some sense of what modernist art has done to the concept of beauty and why is needed here. There are many better books on the topic.
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16 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Scarry doesn't quite get the job done. That's disappointing because I couldn't be more receptive or sympathetic to the case she is trying to make: namely that beauty seeks to replicate itself, and as such leads to absolute truth and the quest for justice. Since I already believe those things, she would not have had to do much to win me.
But, for me, that's the problem: she doesn't do much. Although deeply personal and obviously heartfelt, her case for beauty in Part One was not as strong as it could be. One might be better off going back to read the original inspirations behind her argument, Homer, Dante, and Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus.
Part two is no better. Scarry tries to defend the aesthetic movement (and case for beauty) from recent claims in humanities that there are no absolute truth and that the contemplation of beauty may actually be destructive. Again, I could hardly be more sympathetic to her cause, but she doesn't make a strong enough case. I think she argues against a straw man, and thus doesn't really face the true arguments behind such movements as historicism, deconstruction, egalitarianism.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Michael Austin on November 24, 2013
Format: Paperback
Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just is the sort of book that ought to have been very good. Its author is a major cultural critic whose early books--including The Body in Pain and Dreaming by the Book have been exceptional guides to the topics they explore. And she has incontestable academic credentials in the field of aesthetic theory. And then there is the fact that she is writing about beauty and, hey, who doesn't like beauty.

Well, according to Scarry, modern academic don't like beauty--or, at least, they don't like talking about beauty. There are, she insists, two common political arguments that have all but ejected discussions of beauty from scholarship in the humanities. In the first place, most academics are good Marxists who see aesthetic objects as bourgeois distractions from real social problems. In the second place, most academics are also good feminists, who see discussions of physical beauty as a way to objectify something (or someone) and turn them into extensions of our aesthetic needs. Scarry calls both of these arguments "incoherent" (57), and I think she is absolutely correct.

Scarrry's arguments, on the other hand, are extremely coherent. She makes two essential points, which constitute the two major divisions of the (very short) book. First, in "On Beauty and Being Wrong," she opines that an object of beauty creates in us a desire to be in harmony with it. When we see something beautiful, we want to be close to it--and we are willing to acknowledge the errors of our own position in order to do so. Second, in "On Beauty and Being Fair," she notes the fact that "fair" can mean both "attractive" and "just.
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