In her essay “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry describes two different types of mistakes about beauty. 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” (Scarry 14). The error lies in either overvaluing or undervaluing – not seeing the true worth of an object or experience. Scarry explains that the second type of error is graver because it stems from a lack of generosity. I will further her point by arguing that a person will tend more towards one type of error, and that the errors a person makes reflect their world-view.
If errors about beauty stem from a perceptual generosity or lack thereof, the sort of errors a person makes are very telling. The person who seems constantly disappointed by the realization that the world is not as beautiful as they originally believed can take comfort in the fact that their mistakes come from a sense of optimism and innocence. The person who realizes they often deny the title of beauty where it is rightly deserved must admit a cynicism in the way they view the world. If a person views the world with an openness, a willingness to see beauty even when it may not exist, they are more likely to make the mistake of over crediting. (I wonder if this genre of mistake should even be considered an “error” at all; even a misguided generosity suggests a faith in beauty and goodness that I would consider a positive quality, not a negative one.)
In this way, when a judgement of beauty is made, it is not a comment on the nature of the object of beauty, but on the internal world of the person making the judgement.
A person’s internal world governs their perception of the external world, and influences their judgements about beauty. When errors occur, they can therefore become important moments for self-education. When Scarry realizes she is wrong in her judgement of palm trees, she is able to reflect on the conditions leading up to her judgement and learn about herself. She suggests her premature judgement stems from a lack of contact with palm trees, as they are not native to her region (18) and she is therefore familiar with the idea of palms but not with individual palm trees. From this realization, Scarry could perhaps learn she has an aversion to stereotypes and is unable to find beauty in groups; instead, she needs contact with individuals, a reflection of her belief that “beauty always takes place in the particular” (18). Perhaps she is the type of person to quickly dismiss another as unattractive, and will not reconsider until she gets to know their personality. Perhaps she finds beauty more easily in experiences than in objects.
Whichever the case for Scarry, it is her recognition of her judgment (and error) about beauty that gives her the opportunity for self-reflection and learning.
Our interactions with the world give us insight into the motivations behind them – but often we don’t consciously recognize those motivations. The jarring feeling that Scarry describes as accompanying the recognition of an error in judgement “should set off small alarms and warning lights” (17). This feeling warns us that something is out of balance within and is causing us to misperceive the world; it warns us the perception of a lack of surrounding beauty stems from the presence of an inner cynicism. Alternately, perhaps we are a little too trusting, too willing to find beauty, and we must be more critical in our assessments.
The external world is a vehicle through which we see ourselves – it is through this vehicle that we access our inner thoughts.
Perhaps this is what is meant by the age old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If our world view determines our decisions about beauty, perhaps beauty is not a measurable quality inherent in any object, but a reflection of the beauty within ourselves.
I am interested in how this applies to Scarry’s idea about replication and begetting. If, upon seeing an object, we desire to replicate its beauty, but its beauty is not inherent in the object itself, but rather a reflection of our own inner world, then essentially we seek to replicate and express something within us.
We seek to recreate the pleasant feeling, the optimism, and the happiness that allowed us to recognize beauty. We therefore do not covet individual beautiful objects, but the state of mind that allows us to find beauty, and feel beautiful ourselves.