On Beauty and Doing Justice to Art: Aesthetics and Ethics in Zadie Smith's on Beauty

By Itakura, Gen'ichiro | ARIEL, January 2010 | Go to article overview

On Beauty and Doing Justice to Art: Aesthetics and Ethics in Zadie Smith's on Beauty


Itakura, Gen'ichiro, ARIEL


  The truth is, surely, that every variety of literary style attempts
  to enact in us a way of seeing, of reading, and this is never less
  than an ethical strategy: 'We have to find meters whose scales are
  unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback,
  making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real
  function ... zeroing in on what incalculable plot?' (Smith, "Love
  Actually" 4; ellipsis original) (1)

In her essay entitled "Love, Actually" (2003), a revised version of her Orange World Lecture, Zadie Smith expresses her two major concerns, aesthetics and ethics, and accords priority to literary or artistic "style" over politics. Yet her concerns have been too frequently reframed by critics to comply both with the trend in literary criticism today and with her public image, be it the "Bard of Willesden," a new voice of the vibrant multicultural Britain (see Merritt, "She's Young, Black, British "; Soar), or a "hysterical realist" in the line of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo (Wood 41). The "Bard of Willesden" image has been often preferred in the academic discourse, largely due to the recent institutionalization of "Black British" studies and the topicality of the debate over multiculturalism, cultural hybridity, and/or globalization. White Teeth (2000), for instance, is so heavily politicized by this type of exegesis that one might be forgiven for thinking that these issues were her only preoccupations or the only areas of her contribution to contemporary writing in English. (2) Even such a significant theme as the prosthetic body has eluded most critics, with the exceptions of Head and Itakura. In this climate it is rather hard to see Smith's pursuit of such untrendy subjects as aesthetics or ethics in its own right. Her third novel, On Beauty (2005), despite the obviousness of its title, is being forced into this predetermined framework. Many reviewers treat it as if it were, to borrow expressions from review and monograph titles, a "modern, multicultural makeover for Forster's bourgeois Edwardians" (Kakutani) or a treatise in disguise entitled "On Beauty and Being Postcolonial" (Anjaria). (3) One reviewer even goes further to assert that it is "not really a novel about beauty" (Preston par. 10).

This article, then, seeks to analyze the ways Smith relates her aesthetic concerns--her conceptions of beauty in particular--to her ethical concerns in On Beauty. As in "Love Actually," she explores these two "untrendy" subjects in a "trendy" context and thereby attempts to bring them back into a serious discussion. The novel probes the use and the abuse of beauty at various levels. By this, I am not merely suggesting that Smith borrows ideas from Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just (1999)--the fact unambiguously stated by Smith herself in the acknowledgements (On Beauty n.pag.) (4) and thoroughly discussed in Tolan's essay. Instead of being a fictional application of Scarry's thesis on the ethical dimensions of art, On Beauty appropriates and places rather old-fashioned ideas of art and morality in a rather "trendy" context, to make them over afresh for contemporary readers. In the first section of the article, I will chart in detail the ways in which the abuse of beauty, characterizing the upper as well as lower strata of postmodern, postcolonial, "post-9/11" Anglo-American society (Merritt, "A Thing of Beauty" 15), is associated with moral depravity and intellectual poverty. Interestingly, Smith's indictment of philistinism and moral degradation today is not only suggested in her hilarious portrayal of professors, but it is also intensified by her creative use of intertexts, especially Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955) and E. M. Forster's Howards End (1910). In the second section, I will turn to the very opposite: the appreciation of beauty and moral uplift. Although it is mostly an academic satire, On Beauty is sprinkled with fine moments of discovery of beauty, or of new "meters " with which to appreciate a kind of beauty that would otherwise be left unnoticed. …

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