What We Look for in Literature: Part I–Beauty

Aesthetics is a very broad and cumbersome word that essentially refers to the study and criticism of art, which is itself a troublesome word due to its overwhelming generality. What constitutes art? Certainly paintings, sculptures, architecture, and the like; novels, poetry, a great deal of nonfiction; plays, movies, TV shows, “street theater“. But what about that stack of old sponges that the “sculptor” says represents the rampant greed on Wall Street? What about Grandma’s vast collection of photographs of you as a baby with your bum hanging out? What about your math teacher’s air-tight mathematical proof? Are these works of art? I’m sure there are many who would argue that these are, though I have my doubts (in part because I am not a postmodern sculptor, grandmother, or math teacher). In general, critics tend to judge works of art — which I guess involves a prior judgment of whether the work is itself “art” or not — based on any beautiful or sublime qualities that the artwork displays.

Beauty

How can we quantify “beauty”? We can look at the face of an actress like Kate Winslet and know she fits our modern conception of “beautiful”; but why? The proportions of her facial features? The shape of her face itself? Perhaps; but perhaps, too, it has something to do with our filmic relationship to her, with the connections we’ve made with her characters in films like Titanic and Revolutionary Road. I think so. Thus, our judgments of whether or not something is “beautiful” relies on both the seeing of the object as well as our emotional connections to it.

Kate Winslet in 'Revolutionary Road' (2008)

Looking at an object and judging if it looks beautiful is immediate. We can, for instance, look at one of Waterhouse’s Ophelia paintings and know instantly that it is beautiful. But the emotional connections are not so readily available; we may have seen Kate Winslet in Beautiful Creatures and thought, “That actress is pretty,” but our emotional connections to her beauty came only after watching her act in the film, perhaps not even until we watched her act in a number of films. The same is true of most great beautiful works of art: our appreciation of their beauty grows with each new viewing.

Waterhouse's 'Ophelia' (1889)

Using a famous passage from Romeo and Juliet, let’s examine how literature can be beautiful:

But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off. [II.ii.2-9]

First and foremost, Shakespeare’s use of imagery strikes us as what we might term beautiful because of the pictures it requires us to imagine in our minds: rather than simply say, “Juliet is beautiful,” or even “Juliet is as beautiful as the sun”, Romeo says, “Juliet is the sun”, which necessitates that we think of Juliet as grandly and shimmeringly beautiful. Her beauty is not merely like the sun’s beauty, as a simple simile would indicate, but it is the sun’s beauty. Immediately, we are moved by this passage in much the same way we are moved by, say, Kate Winslet’s beauty when she first steps on the screen, or by the beauty of Ophelia when first we step before the frame: it is there, and we cannot deny its evocative emotional draw.

Waterhouse's 'Juliet' (1898)

But the metaphor does not end with Romeo’s equation of Juliet with the sun; he in fact extends the metaphor to the point where both the Juliet-sun and its opposite, the moon, are characterized. He asserts that Juliet, a virgin maid to Diana, the virgin goddess of the moon, has caused the Diana-moon to grow jealous of Juliet’s superior beauty. To remedy this, Romeo suggests Juliet cast off the uniform of Diana’s servants and take no part in the goddess’ “foolery” (and also, it is worth noting, Romeo is implying Juliet should shed her clothing in general…). Is this extended metaphor as beautiful as its initial use in line 2? I would argue it is, for the same beautiful imagery is evoked in our minds as we read: we still get in our minds the picture that Juliet is the most beautiful young woman imaginable, a girl with beauty that trumps even that of a goddess. Moreover, our appreciation of this beautiful passage certainly grows the more we read it. I, for instance, have been teaching Romeo and Juliet for a number of years now, and while I can grow tired of the Nurse’s comic ramblings and even Mercutio’s bawdy remarks, I cannot grow tired of Romeo’s passionate acclamations of Juliet’s beauty, despite their ostensible triteness. Like all beautiful art, our appreciation for Romeo’s famous soliloquy grows the more we experience it, hence it’s lasting appeal — even after four hundred years.

This is the remarkable aspect of literature-as-art: it still evokes the same instantaneous appreciation of beauty that visual art does, but it includes in its evocation our individual imaginations. Thus, the appreciation of beautiful literature is a very personal experience, for while certain elements of our appreciations may be universal, certain elements specifically cannot be, for we do not all share the same imagination.

The next time you are reading a book, I urge you to pay attention for these beautiful passages. Most young people and modern readers in general do not like to hear this, but you will more often than not find the most passionate, engrossing depictions of beauty in classic literature; like Romeo’s soliloquy, the evocations of beauty within the works of our Great Writers — dramatists like Shakespeare, poets like Wordsworth, and novelists like Dickens — persist. You may occasionally stumble upon breathtakingly beautiful passages in modern literature, but they are few and far in between. The Great Writers, after all, did not live in times when all writers were Great Writers, and to be sure, neither do we.

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