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On Beauty

Elaine Scarry


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 travelers 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 possibilities 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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