To Beauty, with Love

Dear Beauty,

Maybe you never answer my letters because the address I have for you is wrong. That story the townspeople told about you riding off with the devil –- could it be they were lying? Since Goodness left, saying she can’t be herself in an armchair with books only, that she’s a doer, I haven’t heard from her either, though I’ve written to the poorhouse once a week. That’s where they said she went. And it’s not like her to ignore a letter –- you, I never know about; you always took strange fancies. But Goodness -– well, if I can’t trust her, where does that leave me?

So now I’m beginning to wonder whether this tower is the right place even for me. I dearly love these books. But they are coming to feel too small to hold me. Where are you?

Yours quizzically,

Theresa’s post on truth, beauty, devils, goodness, cookies, and Dangerous Liaisons raised all sorts of interesting questions for me, especially about beauty. If we are going to grant this classic triad of transcendent values (and for now, let’s, though that is a whole other interesting argument to have), then it seems one of the essential things about them is that each one is inherently valuable. Each is in itself worth pursuing, and needs no source outside itself to prove its value.

Another important thing about these three is that they are conceived of as a unity. In order to be ultimately good, something must be propositionally true, morally good, and perceptively beautiful. They are equal, and special, and unified, precisely because each to some extent requires the others. And so our thought-experiment, in splitting them into three persons with separate wills, is misrepresenting them a little from the get-go. Keats said truth is beauty; I’d say real truth must be beautiful, and real beauty must be true. And I’d extend this reciprocity to goodness.

There are all kinds of problems with the little missive I’ve given Truth above. For one, if she’s Truth, shouldn’t she know where Beauty is? My favorite problem, though, is the question of the trustworthiness of beauty. Can beauty lie to us? Can beauty be evil, or at least, can it be subverted and used to further ends that are evil?

This is a question that I have not heard raised in the same way with goodness and truth. Things can be made to look true, certainly, even though they are false; but this is a subversion, if anything, of reason, not a subversion of truth. No matter how it is presented or perceived, a statement is either true or it is a lie. In the same way, things can be made to look good even though they are evil, but this is hypocrisy or self-righteousness or, again, lying; it is not a subversion of goodness. And yet with beauty we think differently; when something appears attractive, or interesting, or entertaining or awe-inspiring, in spite of being unjust or untrue, we say beauty itself has been subverted to the ends of oppression or falsehood. If someone told us Truth and Goodness had run away with a dashing devil, we’d ask What have you been smoking? But when we’re told Beauty took his hand and hopped on the black stallion behind him and rode down into hell, we shake our heads sadly and say What a shame.

I think we’re wrong; I think we don’t know Beauty very well at all.


Story and Message Update

I just wanted to post a quick update to this post with this link to an interesting post on genre writers and the lack of respect they get. I'm particularly struck by the idea that once a work of science fiction becomes "literature," it is no longer considered science fiction...


Truth, Beauty and the Great Cookie War

But first, a fairy tale :

A long, long time ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a magnificent castle. Each morning Truth, Goodness and Beauty would ascend the stairs of the castle’s highest tower in order to do their work, away from the noisy bustle of the cooks and maids or the clamour of the townsfolk below. Ensconced in their favourite chairs in one corner of the room were Truth and Goodness, who loved nothing better than writing books, reading them or arguing about them. Sometimes Beauty would attempt to contribute a little something to the discussion, but mostly she sat by herself, delicately illuminating capitals or embroidering the book cover for a finished work. After a number of years spent in this way, she came to regard this division of labour as grossly unfair and very tedious indeed.

One morning, as the sisters climbed up the stairs, heavy manuscripts tucked under their arms, Beauty lagged behind the rest. Since, for some time now, their communal work held little interest for her, she had started to allow herself some delay on the steps so as to recoup some of the enjoyment that would be denied her later. She took great pleasure in the clear ring of her well-made shoes on the stonework, or feeling a kiss of sunlight upon her cheek coming in from the tower windows. And even though her heart was starved for admiration, it was generous enough nonetheless to marvel at the sparkle and dance of dust motes in the air.

It happened one day, while Beauty was caught in a reverie such as this, that she heard a great commotion outside. Taking a peek, she saw a splendid devil riding into town. He was dressed in black, which seemed severe, but around his cloak and boots were such exquisite detail as made him seem quite irresistibly mysterious. His noble features and straight carriage broadcast an allure only enhanced by its aloofness. The townspeople, awestruck at this apparition in their midst, cried and shouted, wailed and shrieked to capture his attention. Beauty, too, was quite enchanted. She dashed out into the street without a thought for her sisters. The crowd made way for her, subdued in an instant by her, a rival for their adoration. Young maidens, idlers, nursemaids, rugged young men, olds maids, the spindly widower and the town shrew all fell silent, watching with bated breath to see what would occur between Beauty and the devil. He, who knows how to seize a prize when he sees one, held out his hand for her. And she, feeling curiously as though she were doing him both a great favour and causing tremendous inconvenience – so tender was his concern and so perfect his solicitude- settled in behind him on his steed. Then they took off in great haste. Some say that the devil’s mount and that of his entourage grew wings and flew up to the sun. All that is certain is that Beauty was never seen in that realm again. Nor has she made any very great effort to remain in touch with her sisters. Sometimes her brief notes to them are scribbled on the devil’s private correspondence. At other times, consorting with one of his minions perhaps, she sends a post card instead. A long silence typically follows, but another letter arrives as soon after a reconciliation has been effected . It’s true, she can last for only so long without his wit and charm, qualities he possesses in such measure as she has been unable to find in anyone else. For their part, Truth and Goodness have over the years compiled a three volume response to their sister’s antics, but the tome continues to languish in a post office, unclaimed.


On a Saturday Tau asks me whether we can bake cookies for Sigma, whose feelings were hurt in a game she lost. If this were any other kid but the tender-hearted Tau making this request, I would see it simply as a poor ruse to score some sweet stuff. We bake the cookies, and to the children’s immense delight, it turns out that the recipe on the back of the chocolate chip packet produces an unusually high yield. At some point, against well-established protocol, Sigma sneaks more than her fair share of the first batch to emerge from the oven. Further temptation is swiftly expelled from our house as we give all but twelve of the remaining cookies away to the neighbours. Sigma will get nothing, but her siblings Ro and Tau, innocent of all wrongdoing, will each receive two cookies for dessert in the evening. Two cookies per kid per day says that this whole debacle will be over in thee days. Not so: On day 2 there is only half a cookie left in the cupboard. The investigation that follows produces depressing results: Ro, as is her way, attempts to convince me of her innocence by assuming an arch tone intended which alone is supposed to brook any disagreement. Unfortunately, her plan is flawed, because she practices, out loud, in front of all us, where to place the stress so as to hit open the most superior-sounding rendition : “ I swear I didn’t take any (ad personam ). I swear I didn’t take any (ad juram). No, I swear I didn’t take any (ad minisculam). Tau has nothing to declare, except the holy truth: No, she did not take any cookies. As for Sigma, let the effort to talk a triangle into a square begin: all you have to do is believe ! Her feints may not always adept, but they are delivered swiftly, like a street fighter with his back to the wall. Even as Ro and Sigma continue to irritate me with their fibbing, I find myself admiring, delighting even, in their ingenuity.

I am defending truth, they untruth, yet my stance is less adversarial than competitive. I want to prove to these kids that confessing the truth is better and more pleasing than lying. This takes a great deal of time and craft.

And Tau ? Her “yes” is her “yes” : she has neither stolen the cookies nor lied to me about stealing them. Although she is the only one to have behaved well, Tau is the one who goes to bed without dessert and with only a fraction of the attention that was paid to her sisters.

While it is perfectly possible to love all three kids equally, I am uncertain as to whether I can be equally just in my love for each of them.


Laclos’ Dangerous Liasons is also concerned with the unjust reward of innocent goodness. The brilliant and redoubtable Marquise de Merteuil immediately intrigues. A femme fatale in every sense, she is as dazzling as she is wicked, as wise as she is cruel and simply fascinating to watch. Her letters, and that of her equally depraved and masterful accomplice, the Vicomte de Valmont, are by far the most compelling. And their victim, the pure and virtuous Présidente de Tourvel? Valmont seduces her after an arduous campaign on his part. She loses her mind and dies shortly after in a cloister. Her writing is in no way memorable, except in the most annoying way, that of interrupting our reading about the adventures of Merteuil and Valmont.

However, a recent re-reading has made me reevaluate my stance towards the Présidente. I have been uncharitable: her beauty, that of a pure conscience and a virtuous heart, is subdued and cannot, by nature of its very consistency, appeal in the same way as the restless, spectacular machinations of the Marquise.


The truth of a matter (someone dumped me) might be of great interest (because they found someone else) and might even set me free, as the saying goes (I can pursue a new relationship), but this is not to say that it is interesting (this scenario is common enough), or that this knowledge gives any guarantee of my happiness (unless I find someone better than my ex).

As someone who lives for stories, I am naturally allied with artifice. Parables, metaphors, analogies, grey areas, wiggle room, white lies and tales of every kind are needed to filter the Truth so that we can approach it, be puzzled, think about it some more and learn. My complaint against Truth is only this: that is too great. As an absolute, it cannot temper its harsh light, but shines regardless of whether it shrivels us in its glare.

Virtue has exactly the opposite problem: it is far too dull. All great art as well as the arc of science depends on the tension between what we ought to do and what we want to do, what we can do and what cannot do. Who can resist entering the fray and being crowned with glory? Who prefers to languish by the nearer shore, just to be called “good”?

Beauty of course is not painful to look at, nor is it boring. Instead, we want to feast our eyes on what is beautiful. Too often, Beauty is accused of being empty, pretty on the outside but mindless otherwise. The accusation is unfair : Beauty provides the mind with a necessary rest, burdens the heart with nothing else except to enjoy itself while it renews our senses.


Truth is harsh and Virtue is monotonous. If this is the case, it hardly seems possible for them to be beautiful. Yet, as is the case in affirming the basic goodness of Man (despite much evidence to the contrary), I would rather first concede, because it is better for my soul to do so, that my palate is blunted by the taste for only one kind of beauty, which makes Truth and Virtue, by comparison, seem not nearly as attractive to me.


I ought to value Tau’s honesty far more greatly than the cleverness of her sisters. I had taken it for granted precisely because I can count on it. A comfort and an obedient child who makes life easier, she is overlooked. Her sisters, by contrast, are impossible to ignore: their blithe cunning is forever keeping me on my toes.


Dangerous Liaisons is a good book about bad people. What makes it a work of genius is the fact that evil (the Marquise, Valmont) is portrayed with such dazzling beauty, charm and a great wisdom of its own. The gentle and true-hearted Mme de Tourvel cannot impress us in the same way. She falls victim to Merteuil and the Vicomte’s vicious designs, and Laclos the author sacrifices her as well in service of the plot. A lamb and a dupe, naïve in the best possible way, the Présidente is at the subtle center of an immensely sophisticated work.

A certain brash sort of Beauty is abroad in the world, splashed across magazine covers, movie screens and television sets. She is immediately pleasing, sinking her hooks into me with simple but catchy songs, or the attraction of a witty person at the table and the lure of more pleasures to follow.

Did Beauty thus leave her sisters behind to whore with the devil? Do they still sit in their tower, with no beauty of their own, except one as stern and plain as they are? Or do they think of their sister, but for all their work, cannot discover how to dazzle as she does? Or has Beauty never absconded, but rather, because she likes nothing better than to delight, will sometimes steal out of the castle by night, to grace a good woman, or a plain-spoken man?


The Soul of Empathy

Wallace Stevens makes the claim that poetry restores to us a "supreme fiction," giving us back the meaning we lost when we ceased to believe in God or practice religion. Empathy, to me, is not an activity which parallels the belief Stevens calls us to have in necessary fictions; it's not about convincing myself that I am something or someone else, but rather about being willing and able to imagine myself, temporarily, inside the other's experience (which is tricky for me with rocks, but I'm willing to try). In the moment of empathy, that imagination does precisely take the form of "I am that." But believing that I am that arthropod or that person or that machine, permanently, short-circuits empathy -- in order to function, empathy needs me to feel, as me, for another. And if empathy is going to have any ethical function, saying "I am my brother" is not going to help me navigate between my brother's needs and mine.

Though John Donne would seem agree with Ezra: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Donne's argument is that we are all part of the same thing, that anyone's death diminishes us because we are inseparably linked. (And he begins his meditation with an empathic experiment: hearing the bells tolling, he imagines a man whose friends have caused the bells to be tolled for him because they know he's too ill to recover, while he himself does not yet know it -- and Donne takes this further, saying, Who knows? I may be that man who is sicker than he knows; the bell may be tolling for me, though I think I am well.)

Progressing further into a dissolution of my own point, here is a poem by Mary Oliver -- who, like Ezra, goes all the way to rocks:

Some Questions You Might Ask

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
Who has it, and who doesn't?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

Empathy: A Thought Experiment

I love the idea of there being "no inherent limits to the gulfs of otherness that empathy can bridge" (see previous post). The following is not intended as a reductio ad absurdum of the claim, but as an ethical nudge, a challenge, or a dare – unless it is simply a poem. It relies the following premise: that to empathize is to be able to say, "I am that..." and to mean it.

  • I am that child.
  • I am that man.
  • I am that woman.
  • I am that mother.
  • I am my neighbor.
  • I am my enemy.
  • I am that orangutan.
  • I am that dolphin.
  • I am that dog, that cat.
  • I am that lizard. I am that bird.
  • I am that mollusk.
  • I am that arthropod.
  • I am that sponge.
  • I am that fungus.
  • I am that bacterium.
  • I am that cell.
  • I am that rock.
  • I am that cloud.
  • I am that equation.
  • I am that plate.
  • I am that key.
  • I am that tool.
  • I am that program.
  • I am that machine.
  • I am that model.
  • I am that robot.
  • I am that replica of myself.


More on Empathy

Ezra, in “An Empathy Problem” you ask whether we can reconcile empathy’s expansiveness with making decisions about our own survival. It seems to me that this is the central conflict in which anyone finds himself who attempts to behave morally – that identifying with someone else’s needs means setting one’s own needs aside, at least temporarily. The process of empathy in itself is not itself a process of choice; it is part of the ground for making choices. And when one’s own needs conflict with the needs of others, empathy can put one, at the extreme, in the position of having to choose between one’s own survival and the survival of another. But it seems to me that the ability not to see my own survival as a thing to be pursued at all costs is part of what it means to be human. That doesn’t mean that in every situation, others’ needs should automatically supersede mine, but the ability to feel strongly the tension between my needs and theirs is essential to any functioning communal life, and also essential if there is ever to be peace between different communities.

You also assert that “empathy cannot make a bridge to what is alien or radically different.” While it is certainly easier to identify with what is like me, and while likeness often provides an entry point into empathy toward what is other, I see empathy as being, at its core, precisely about bridging to what is alien. At its most basic, empathy is a feeling-with, a feeling-for, someone who is not me. Even those who are in my community are alien at this basic level; it’s a narrower chasm, but just as deep as the one between me and an even more radical other. And if empathy is not wholly learned, it can nonetheless be expanded or shrunk by the choices we make in living. It is a kind of emotional imagination, an ability to say “what if?” While we fail constantly at building empathic bridges, I see no inherent limits to the gulfs of otherness that empathy can bridge, if we are willing to do the imaginative work required.


Story and message

A long time has passed since this post in response to some of my statements about my bookshelves. And since then, my opinion has changed.

When I wrote the original post, I still thought of myself primarily as a critic - someone who studies books. And the study of books, at least the academic study, is based on secondary characteristics. We ignore the story in order to study what it means and what's going on behind it. So philosophy seems more important than fantasy: fantasy books are based on story, and if there's a message or theme, it's secondary.

And now I will say: this is as it should be in fiction. The story should be most important, and anything else that we see in the book comes through the story.

So what's changed? In the past three months I've started writing stories of my own. I've stopped thinking of myself as a critic and started thinking of myself as a writer. I've tried to learn what makes a good story. And good stories are not driven by theme. Good stories are driven by real, confusing, inconsistent characters, who don't always make the right choices and don't always understand the choices they make. It's not a writer's job to make their characters' choices clear so that they express the 'right' philosophy. Characters take on a life of their own, and express a philosophy as they learn it through their experiences - sort of like we all do, every day.

So: mea culpa, and long live the story!


An Empathy Problem

I just read Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for either the second or third time, and I'm beginning to articulate for myself the challenges it raises to the value of empathy. Empathy makes it possible for humans in the novel to remain hopeful and productive on a post-apocalyptic and decaying Earth. Humans distribute their pain (which lessens it) and also share in each other's happiness (which enlivens everyone). As far as this goes, empathy appears as an unqualified good, a non-zero sum game; and in the novel this empathy consists literally of people sharing their emotions through an "empathy box" – a machine that allows collective participation in a religious allegory.

Furthermore empathy appears to be valuable not just for humans, but for animals, too. In the post-apocalyptic environment, with hundreds or thousands of common species very recently extinct, every animal left alive is the subject of human veneration, and empathy. P.K. Dick doesn't literalize this empathy, but he underscores its importance by making its presence a basic method for distinguishing authentic humans from the advanced artificial humanoid servants – androids – who occasionally kill their masters and try to pass as human. Bounty hunters, like the novel's hero, Rick Deckard, ask subjects to imagine and respond to scenarios that involve obvious or implicit harm to animals, and androids always fail to react with the appropriate horror. But the tests are obviously culturally coded: you and I would probably fail, too.

From here things become more complicated, because Deckard, whose job is to "retire" escaped androids, empathizes with some of them; and Deckard detests another bounty hunter, named Resch, for his lack of empathy towards the androids. In fact Deckard becomes convinced by Resch's callousness that Resch is himself an android, and when Resch tests out as human, Deckard is dismayed.

Parts of this novel simply don't cohere, as is common in P.K. Dick's oeuvre. But a generous reading of the novel has it asking this question: Can one reconcile the glorious expansiveness of empathy with making the distinctions upon which one's survival may rest? It seems to me that without a machine that permits a heterogeneous population literally to pool its emotions, people in fact empathize with other, recognizably similar beings. Empathy cannot make a bridge to what is alien or radically different, and in fact in can exacerbate feelings of alienation. When empathy is widespread, anyone left out of the loop becomes suspect, potentially the object of hatred or intense fear. If empathy is what makes "us" human, dare we embrace that humanity? Do we even have the alternative – to know the android, too?