Sometimes I'll be doing my reading and I'll wonder, "Why again did the Daily Reading Guide tell me this would be good for me?" So today, with Emerson's On Beauty. I couldn't remember what attitude I was supposed to take towards it, so I went back to the Daily Reading Guide and found this: "The Puritan world feared Beauty. Emerson, great American essayist and philosopher, declared that the world was made for beauty, and openly worshiped at beauty's shrine."
Not before declaring war on science first, though. Emerson has this problem with facts, which is that they are factual:
We should go to the ornithologist with a new feeling, if he could teach us what the social birds say, when they sit in the autumn council, talking together in the trees. The want of sympathy makes his record a dull dictionary.But that is to want things to be different from what they are. I mean, we should go to ornithologist with a new feeling, if he would give us a solid-gold Cadillac when we did so. But that's not what ornithologists do. And, of course, they probably do know a lot more about what the social birds are saying these days, which shows you that Emerson was impatient in addition to having his head up his ass.
I mean, read this passage:
Chemistry takes to pieces, but it does not construct. Alchemy which sought to transmute one element into another, to prolong life, to arm with power,—that was in the right direction.One hardly finds enough pro-alchemy arguments these days! (Outside of the National Review, presumably.)
So then, after wishing away science and its stupid dull invention of smallpox vaccinations, etc., we're now ready to tackle something really important -- what is Beauty? Well, I'm confident the Old Alchemist is ready to settle this once and for all:
I am warned by the ill fate of many philosophers not to attempt a definition of Beauty. I will rather enumerate a few of its qualities.Good job, Ralph. Depending on how much he got paid for this by the Atlantic, he really found a way to transmute shit into gold. And, to show you what kind of readership Emerson was expecting in his day, here's a choice passage:
The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its ...height in woman. ...A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope, and eloquence, in all whom she approaches. ...Nature wishes that woman should attract man, yet she [Which "she"? Nature? Woman? Someone Emerson hit on at an ice-cream social?] often cunningly moulds into her face a little sarcasm, which seems to say, “Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of a man than any I yet behold.”Or maybe the expression seems to say, "Do you ever shut up?" But you'll agree this is hardly a passage that could end with, "Am I right, ladies?"
Finally, in getting around to talking about how appeal to the imagination is Beauty's highest quality, Emerson betrays the source of his dislike of Science:
The feat of the imagination is in showing the convertibility of every thing into every other thing. Facts which had never before left their stark common sense, suddenly figure as Eleusinian mysteries. My boots and chair and candlestick are fairies in disguise, meteors and constellations. ...What! has my stove and pepper-pot a false bottom! I cry you mercy, good shoe-box! I did not know you were a jewel-case.The problem with science is that it's not more like the "Be Our Guest" number from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," apparently.
Don't believe me? Ask the dishes!
I guess I wouldn't mind it so much except Emerson has that "we" tick, like towards the end:
Wherever we begin, thither our steps tend: an ascent from the joy of a horse in his trappings, up to the perception of Newton, that the globe on which we ride is only a larger apple falling from a larger tree; up to the perception of Plato...What do you mean "we," white man?