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On Beauty and Being Just Reprint Edition

3.5 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691089591
ISBN-10: 0691089590
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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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (November 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691089590
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691089591
  • Product Dimensions: 4.5 x 0.5 x 7.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #66,357 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
now holds an endowed chair of philosophy at Harvard University. That sentence alone would be enough to frighten people away from this book on several grounds. First, what do those kind of people know about anything? Second, anyone outside of those kind of people themselves probably can't even read a book she wrote, much less understand it. I was trained and taught in the humanities, and I admit that some of our tribe do write books that are unintelligible to almost everyone else, and don't matter to almost everyone else. Elaine Scarry is not one of those kind of humanities scholar, and this is not one of those kind of books.

*On Beauty and Being Just* is divided into two parts: “On Beauty and Being Wrong,” and “On Beauty and Being Fair.” The first part is mostly about beauty itself, and begins by explaining how beauty inspires us both positively and negatively. Referencing Simone Weil, as she does throughout the book, Scarry explains that beauty inspires education, which is part of her overall argument that beauty inspires us to create, and this is generative. According to Scarry, the key features of beauty are fourfold: sacred, unprecedented, lifesaving, and incites deliberation. These are just some highlights of this part of the book. One part I found very interesting was her discussion of the problem of undercrediting, which leads to the failure of generosity.

The second part of the book does indeed connect beauty with justice. The fact that she starts out with a discussion of how considerations of beauty have been banished from the humanities over the last few decades should not dissuade one from going on; I found this to be the least satisfying part of the book.
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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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