I find Elaine Scarry’s concept of beauty and truth interesting yet ultimately undecided. She acknowledges at one point that beauty without a higher purpose is too heavy for the beautiful thing or person to bear:
“It sometimes seems that a special problem arises for beauty once the realm of the sacred is no longer believed in or aspired to…. If the metaphysical realm has vanished, one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the vase, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty” (47).
She goes on to explain that this would mean that the beauty with no destination beyond itself is too self-centered and too fragile for our immense regard. However, she goes on to say that the metaphysical behind beauty and lack thereof still have the same affect: they allow the perceive to have a more capacious regard for the world. This leads Scarry into error within beauty. She states:
“This liability to error, contestation, and plurality–for which “beauty” over the centuries has so often been belittled–has sometimes been cited as evidence of its falsehood and distance from “truth,” when it is instead the case that our very aspiration for truth is its legacy. It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude” (53).
It appears as though Scarry is proposing that error within beauty demonstrates our desire for truth or enduring certitude. But does this error in beauty negate the beauty of things less than that perfect standard? And does that error stem from an inability to reach that more fully accepted form of beauty or something else? What even constitutes as an error, as the plasticity of beauty here appears evident?
Scarry touches on all of these things but ultimately leaves them unanswered. I personally cannot help thinking of Plato and his Theory of Forms that argues the physical world and its beauty is only a shadow or reflection of the metaphysical world where the ultimate form of Beauty resides. The closer the beauty we experience is to Beauty itself is what makes it more beautiful, therefore affirming some sort of absolute standard. This, however, seems like an oddly spiritual perspective in secular criticism. Scarry also distinguishes beauty as allied with truth and that they are not inherently linked which would be in opposition to Plato’s theories.
I am ultimately left thoughtful albeit thoroughly confused as to where Scarry stands on the relation of truth and beauty. I think this is due in part to her comment on the metaphysical world yet the virtue of error. Does this error point to the truth that lies outside our physical experience and our desire for it? I might be interpreting her argument wrong, but as I already mentioned, this seems oddly objective for a 20th/21st century critic.