Nostalgia and Beauty

Elaine Scarry opens up her essay “On Beauty and Being Just” by making the claim that beauty is always replication. Scarry writes that beauty is replication in many ways whether it is taking photographs, recapturing it in other forms of art, remaking a work of art or even just prolonged staring beauty is always rooted in this idea of begetting more of the beautiful.

It is an aspect of this replication that Scarry seems to overlook that I would wish to reflect on by deconstructing her own personal example of an error in beauty. Throughout the essay, Scarry references her experience in discovering that a palm tree is beautiful. I use this word, “discovering”, deliberately because Scarry did not make palm trees suddenly beautiful, nor did she change anything about their inherent “balminess”; instead, it was she, or at least her perception that changed. It is not the palms, or anything else in the world that ever “becomes” beautiful.  People have realizations about errors of beauty when something changes in people. Scarry recalls her experience with the realization that palm trees are beautiful when describes “under the moonlight [her] palmtree waves and sprays needles of black, silver, and white; hundreds of shimmering lines circle and play in perfect parallel”. This description is not a story; it is a memory and one whose diction should be payed attention to. The balcony is draped in moonlight, the palm tree is shown to us in a flashback of black and white and most importantly it is described as perfect. The dreamlike or movie like quality of the memory and the apparent “perfectness” of the palms leads me to the aspect of replication overlooked by Scarry: nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a feeling of longing real or imagined for something in the past. It is clear from Scarry’s fantasy-like description of her own memory that the palm tree is a source of nostalgia for her. Our feelings, our experiences, our prejudices and our memories affect our perceptions. These perceptions in turn affect our realization or blindness to the beautiful. Nostalgia is an emotional manipulator, always shining light on the past, but that light does not always reveal truth.

This is where the replication of beauty comes in. It is not for the sake of the thing itself that we replicate beauty but rather for the sake of ourselves: for the feeling we had from being around the beautiful, the pleasurable, and the good. Nostalgia is the reason we go back to memories. We look at old pictures, go to places with good memories and in all ways try to replicate the beautiful experience. Scarry does not consider nostalgia’s role (at least not explicitly) in her exploration of the reasons for replication, and yet, I think it is important to consider.  Nostalgia explains why we replicate the things that we do, why we may proceed to find things beautiful and not see other things as such. If we are always looking back and looking for precedents as Scarry states, then our emotion tainted memories are always making decisions for us. If for example someone has a car accident where the vehicle slammed into a palm tree, they may never see the beauty in such a tree; however, if a person has a nice vacation and one moonlit night glance up and see a palm tree as a canopy draped over their perfect day they may see the beauty in this tree. After this night they may see a palm, always think of that balcony-specifically of that one palm- and always think of palms as beautiful.

A modern example of nostalgia and replication is the increase of Hollywood movie remakes: The Universal monster movie “dark universe” remaking “The Mummy” (2017), with plans for“Frankenstein’s Bride”, “The Invisible Man” and other classic monster films, “Ghostbuster” (2016), “IT” (2017), “Baywatch” (2017), live action versions of Disney animated films like “The Jungle Book” (2016), “Beauty and The Beast” (2017) with plans for “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid” in the future are only some examples. Hollywood is on a nostalgia trip hoping that people will come and see their remakes-replications-because of the feelings they had for the originals. Similarly, things we associate with a memory of the beautiful may be things we continue to seek opportunities for replication from because of this original memory.

Nostalgia explains how our memories and experience affect our perception of beauty, why we continue to replicate the things we find beautiful, and why our opinions on beauty are fluid. Nostalgia is an emotional explanation for Scarry’s theory of replication that adds credit to her ideas and ties them together.

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