Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

On Beauty, Justice, and the Sublime in C. S. Lewis's till We Have Faces

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

On Beauty, Justice, and the Sublime in C. S. Lewis's till We Have Faces

Article excerpt

In her 1999 book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry argues afresh for the importance of beauty as an ethical, intellectual, and spiritual concern. According to Scarry, over two decades of scholarship in the humanities have left us almost "beauty-blind" by largely ignoring beauty as a significant topic of discourse (57). To some extent, literary criticism about C. S. Lewis's novel Till We Have Faces exemplifies this neglect. Although beauty is a central preoccupation of the novel, rivaled only by its focus on justice, few critics have attended to the work's presentation of beauty as a thing in itself, apart from noting that the main character's ugliness becomes a symbol of her spiritual state in the course of the story. As the book jacket indicates, however, Lewis's story is a "novel," not an allegory (Gibson 241; Glover 198), which should remind readers that things in his fiction are meaningful in themselves just as much as they may mean other things. Beauty is of course a significant symbol in the novel, but beauty and ugliness are also features of the literal world that Lewis's characters inhabit. In this essay, therefore, I shall try to consider beauty in the novel at face value, so to speak, using Scarry's analysis of beauty and justice to engage Lewis's ideas in a contemporary ethical dialogue.

Scarry tries to relate beauty and justice in order to redeem the pursuit of beauty and defend it against its detractors. The first argument she makes is that "beauty assists us in our attention to justice," for beauty demands a"constant perceptual acuity" that sharpens the perceiver's attention to the world and renders the observer of beauty better able to discern problems of injustice (86). This discernment is facilitated, according to Scarry, by an essential structural symmetry between beauty and justice, which is illustrated by the fact that our word "fair" means both "beautiful" and "just" or "equitable" (91-93). Elaborating on this connection, she explains, "beautiful things give rise to the notion of distribution, to a lifesaving reciprocity, to fairness not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect but in the sense of `a symmetry of everyone's relation to one another'" (95). (1) In her view the sight of beauty deeply imprints the ideal of "symmetry" or "fairness" in the imagination, inspiring a desire for fair distribution, whether of beauty or other things in the world. Scarry concludes that, "far from damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice, [beauty] instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries" (57).

The second key argument Scarry makes is that the sight of beauty encourages the perceiver to place himself or herself in a more just relationship with the rest of the world. Partly following the ideas of the French mystic Simone Weil and the British novelist Iris Murdoch, Scarry suggests that beauty "decenters" the self, correcting the narcissistic proclivty to see oneself as thecenter of the world (111-13). This process of "unselfing" occurs when "something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation" (29). Based on these two major arguments, Scarry concludes that beauty need not be seen as frivolous or politically dangerous. Nor need it be seen as inferior to the sublime, an aesthetic that, according to Scarry, has demoted beauty ever since Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke first separated the sublime from the beautiful. In Scarry's words, "The sublime (an aesthetic of power) rejects beauty on the grounds that it is diminutive, dismissible, not powerful enough"; indeed, "the sublime [...] cut beauty off from the metaphysical, permitting it to inhabit only the ground of the real" (85-86). For her, no such distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is necessary; beauty of all kinds refines attention, turns souls toward justice, and cleanses them of egoism. …

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