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Beauty: The Sacred, Profanation, Idolatry And Addiction – Roger Scruton

October 19, 2010

Francesco Guardi, Cappricio with Venetian Motifs, 1760

I’ve stitched together some reading selections from Roger Scruton’s wonderful little book, Beauty. By all means get it, it is a splendid read. 

Reason, freedom and self-consciousness are names for a single condition, which is that of a creature who does not merely think; feel and do, but who also has the questions: what to think, what to feel and what to do? These questions compel a unique perspective on the physical world. We look on the world in which we find ourselves from a point of view at its very edge: the point of view where I am. We are both in the world and not of the world, and we try to make sense of this peculiar fact with images of the soul, the psyche, the self or the ‘transcendental subject’. These images do not result from philosophy only: they arise naturally, in the course of a life in which the capacity to justify and criticize our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and actions is the basis of the social order that makes us what we are.

The point of view of the subject is therefore an essential feature of the human condition. And the tension between this point of view and the world of objects is present in many of the distinctive aspects of human life. it is present in our experience of human beauty. And it is equally present in an experience that anthropologists have puzzled over for two centuries or more, and which appears to be a human universal; the experience of the sacred. In every civilization at every period of history people have devoted time and energy to sacred things.

The sacred, like the beautiful, includes every category of object. There are sacred words, sacred gestures, sacred rites, sacred clothes, sacred places, sacred times. Sacred things are not of this world: they are set apart from ordinary reality and cannot be touched or uttered without rites of initiation or the privilege of religious office. To meddle with them without some purifying preparation is to run the risk of sacrilege. It is to desecrate and pollute what is holy, by dragging it down into the sphere of everyday events.

The experiences which focus on the sacred have their parallels in the sense of beauty, and also in sexual desire. Perhaps no sexual experience differentiates human beings from animals more clearly than the experience of jealousy. Animals compete for partners and fight over them. But when victory is established the conflict is over. The jealous lover may or may not fight: but fighting has no bearing on his experience, which is one of deep existential humiliation and dismay.

The beloved has been polluted or desecrated in his eyes, has become in some way obscene, in the way that Desdemona, her innocence notwithstanding, becomes obscene in the eyes of Othello. This phenomenon parallels the sense of desecration that attaches to the misuse of holy things. Something held apart and untouchable has been defiled. The medieval romance of Troilus and Criseyde describes the ‘fall’ of Criseyde, from the status of irreplaceable divinity to that of exchangeable goods. And the experience of Troilus, as described by the medieval romancers (Chaucer included) is one of desecration. That which was most beautiful to him has been spoiled, and his despair is comparable to that expressed in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, over the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem. (Some might object that this is a specifically male experience, in societies where females are destined for marriage and domesticity. However, it seems to me that some equivalent of Troilus’s dismay will be found wherever lovers of either sex make exclusive sexual claims, since these claims are not contractual but existential.)

Sacred things are removed, held apart and untouchable — or touchable only after purifying rites. They owe these features to the presence, in them, of a supernatural power — a spirit which has claimed them as its own. In seeing places, buildings and artifacts as sacred we project on to the material world the experience that we receive from each other, when embodiment becomes a ‘real presence’, and we perceive the other as forbidden to us and untouchable. Human beauty places the transcendental subject before our eyes and within our grasp. It affects us as sacred things affect us, as something that can be more easily profaned than possessed.

The Flight From Beauty
One of Mozart’s most endearing works is the comic opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio; also known as Il Seraglio), which tells the story of Konstanze, shipwrecked and separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve In the harem, of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha, who respects Konstanze’s chastity, declining to take her by force.

This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II (himself hardly Christian). The faithful love of Belmonte and Konstanze inspires the Pasha’s clemency. And, even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In the 2004 production of Die Entführung at the Comic Opera in Berlin, the producer Calixto Bieito decided to set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp, and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, the stage was littered with couples copulating, and every excuse for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the loudly orchestrated scenes of murder and narcissistic sex that litter the stage.

That is an example of a phenomenon with which we are familiar from every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm, wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration.

For beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world. (Cf. Iago of Cassio: ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life / Which makes me ugly’, and the soliloquy of Claggart in Britten’s Billy Budd, raging against the beauty that shines its light on his own moral worthlessness.)

I have used the word ‘desecration,’ to desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart, in the sphere of consecrated things. We can desecrate a church, a mosque, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book or a holy ceremony. We can also desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being — in so far as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original ‘apartness’. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves.

The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But — and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists — beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters — Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cezanne — and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. Those painters do not turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe, of which we occupy so small a corner. Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the walls of their houses are patched and crumbling like the stucco on the villages of Guardi. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay, and to the eternal that is implied in the transient.

Even in the brutal presentations of thwarted and malicious life that fill the novels of Zola we find, if not the reality of beauty, at least a distant glimpse of it — recorded in the rhythm of the prose, and in the invocations of stillness amid the futile longings which drive the characters to their goals. Realism, in Zola as in Baudelaire and Flaubert, is a kind of disappointed tribute to the ideal. The subject matter is profane; but profane by nature, and not because the writer has chosen to desecrate the few scant beauties that he finds. The art of desecration represents a new departure, and one that we should try to understand, since it lies at the centre of the post-modern experience.

Sacred And Profane
Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things our lives are judged and in order to escape that judgment we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

According to many philosophers and anthropologists, however, the experience of the sacred is a universal feature of the human condition, and therefore not easily avoided. For the most part our lives are organized by transitory purposes. But few of these purposes are memorable or moving to us, Every now and then we are jolted out of our complacency, and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is in some way not of this world.

This happens in the presence of death, and especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person, but the ‘mortal remains’ of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as in some way not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience is a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred. And it demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not lust to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter — for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter — but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form. The body is being reclaimed for this world, by the rituals which acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it in another way, consecrate the body, purify it of its miasma and restore it to its former status as an embodiment. By the same token, the dead body can be desecrated, when it is displayed to the world as a mere heap of discarded flesh — and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles drags the body of Hector in triumph around the walls of Troy.

There are other occasions when we are in a similar way startled out of our day-to-day preoccupations. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This too is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the most intense life. But in one crucial respect they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with an almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

The human form is sacred for us because it bears the stamp of our embodiment. The willful desecration of the human form, either through the pornography of sex or the pornography of death and violence, has become, for many people, a kind of compulsion. And this desecration, which spoils the experience of freedom, is also a denial of love. It is an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is what is the most important characteristic of the post-modern culture, as exemplified in Bieito’s production of Die Entführung: it is a loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love.

Poussin, The Israelites Dancing Around the Golden Calf, in the world and of the world...

Idolatry
The dialectic of the sacred and the profane is a leading theme of the Jewish Bible, in which God is constantly revealing himself in mysteries that emphasize his sacred character, and in which the Jews are constantly tempted to profane him, by worshipping images and idols in his place. Why should God be profaned by idolatry, and why are people tempted by it? Why does God decree the terrible genocidal punishment of the Israelites for what (by modern standards) is the casual peccadillo of dancing before the Golden Calf? Does God have no sense of proportion?

Such questions point us to the peculiarity of sacred things, that they do not admit of substitutes. There are not degrees of profanation, but a single and unified thing that profanation is, which is putting a substitute in place of that for which there are no substitutes — the ‘I am that I am’ that is uniquely itself and which must be worshipped for the thing that it is and not as a means to an end that could be achieved in some other way or through some rival deity.

Idolatry is the paradigm profanation, since it admits into the realm of worship the idea of a currency. You can trade in idols, swap them around, try out new versions, see which one responds best to prayer, and which one strikes the best bargains. And all this is a profanation, since it involves trading that which cannot be traded without ceasing to be, which is the sacred object itself.

The object of worship is to be placed apart, in the world but not of it, to be addressed as the unique thing that it is, in which all the meanings of our lives are somehow summarized and consecrated — ‘robed as destinies’, in Larkin’s words. This is what we mean by calling it sacred. It is a deep question of anthropology why there should be the need for such objects, and a deep question of theology whether that need corresponds to any objectively existing reality. But it is important to see that the posture towards God that is advocated in the Hebrew Bible, although it is to a certain measure an innovation (as is the very idea that he is God, rather than a god), is one that we understand instinctively, even if we cannot give a rationalization of it, or explain why it has such importance in the life of a religious believer.

Profanation
There are other occasions in which we try to focus on something, to appreciate it for its own sake, as the thing that it is, and in which our attitude, while not one of worship, is nevertheless threatened by the pursuit of substitutes. The most evident example is the one that I have been considering on and off throughout this book — sexual interest, in which the object is idealized, held apart, pursued not as a commodity but for the particular person he or she is. That kind of interest, which is what we mean by erotic love, is at risk — and the principal risk is the appearance, in whatever guise, of a substitute. Jealousy is painful not least because it sees the object of love, once sacred, as now desecrated.

One cure for the pain of desecration is the move towards total profanation: in other words, to wipe out all vestiges of sanctity from the once worshipped object, to make it merely a thing of the world, and not just a thing in the world, something that is nothing over and above the substitutes that can at any time replace it. That is what we see in the spreading addiction to pornography — a profanation that removes the sexual bond entirely from the realm of intrinsic values. It involves wiping out one area in which the idea of the beautiful had taken root, so as to protect ourselves from the possibility of loving it and therefore losing it.

The other area in which this profanation regularly occurs is that of aesthetic judgment. Here too we are dealing with an attitude that tries to single out its object, to appreciate it for its own sake, to regard it as irreplaceable, without substitutes, bearing its meaning inseparably within itself. I don’t say that works of art are sacred things — though many of the greatest works of art started life in that way, including the statues and temples of the Greeks and Romans, and the altarpieces of medieval Europe.

But I do say that they are, or have been, part of the continuing human attempt to idealize and sanctify the objects of experience, and to present images and narratives of our humanity as a thing to live up to, and not merely a thing to live. And this is true even of those works of brutal realism, like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Zola’s Nana, whose power and persuasiveness depend upon the ironical contrast between things as they are and things as people wish them to be. As I suggested, the temptation towards profanation, which manifestly exists in the sexual sphere, exists too in the aesthetic. Works of art become objects of desecration, and the more likely to be targeted, the more claims they make for their own sacred status. (Hence the routine profanation of the Wagner operas by producers enraged by, or estranged from, their presumptuous spiritual claims.)

Anthropological Remarks
Culture emerges from our attempt to settle on standards that will command the consent of people generally, while raising their aspirations towards the goals that make people admirable and lovable. Culture therefore represents an investment over many generations, and imposes enormous and by no means clearly articulated obligations — in particular, the obligation to be other and better than we are, in all the ways that others might appreciate. Manners, morals, religious precepts and ordinary decencies train us in this, and they form the central core of any culture. But they are necessarily concerned with what is common and easily taught.

As I have been at pains to point out, aesthetic judgment is an integral part of these elementary forms of social coordination, and aesthetic judgment leads of its own accord to other and potentially ‘higher’ and more stylized applications. It is constantly pointing away from our ordinary imperfections and failings short, to a world of high ideals. It therefore contains within itself two permanent causes of offence. First it is urging upon us distinctions — of taste, of refinement, of understanding — which cannot fail to remind us that people are not equally interesting, equally admirable, or equally able to understand the world in which they live.

Secondly, because the democratic attitude is invariably in conflict with itself — it being impossible to live as though there are no aesthetic values, while living a real life among human beings — aesthetic judgment begins to be experienced as an affliction. It imposes an intolerable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness of our improvised lives. It is perched like an owl on our shoulders, while we try to hide our pet rodents in our clothes. The temptation is to turn on it and shoo it away.

The desire to desecrate is a desire to turn aesthetic judgment against itself, so that it no longer seems like a judgment of us. This you see all the time in children — the delight in disgusting noises, words, allusions, which helps them to distance themselves from the adult world that judges them, and whose authority they wish to deny. (Hence the appeal of Ronald Dahl) That ordinary refuge of children from the burden of adult judgment is the refuge too of adults from the burden of their culture. By using culture as an instrument of desecration they neutralize its claims: it loses all authority, and becomes a fellow conspirator in the plot against value.

Beauty And Pleasure
The desire for desecration leads to its own kind of pleasure, and you might be tempted to think that this too is an aesthetic pleasure, a new phase of that esthétique du mal extolled by Baudelaire: pleasure in must be distinguished from pleasure that. A distinction must be made between two broad kinds of pleasure in: the sensory and the intentional.

The first proceeds directly from a stimulus, has an excitable form, and can be produced automatically. Such are the pleasures of eating and drinking, which are easily obtained and easily over-indulged and which require no particular cognitive capacities. (Even laboratory rats can achieve such pleasures.)

The other kind of pleasure proceeds from an act of understanding: not a sensory gratification of the subject but a pleasing interest in an object. Such intentional pleasures have a cognitive dimension: they reach out from the self to lay hold of the world, and their primary focus is not the feeling of pleasure itself, but the object that gives rise to it. They are, if you like, objective pleasures, that take in the reality of the thing towards which they are directed. Pleasures of the senses are, by contrast, subjective; they are focused on the experience itself, and how it is for the one who feels it. Between the two kinds of pleasure are a host of intermediate cases — such as the pleasures of the wine connoisseur, which involve a distinctive kind of ‘relishing’, but which do not depend upon interpreting their object in terms of its content or meaning.

Aesthetic pleasure is focused on the presented aspect of its object, and this tempts people to assimilate it to the pure sensory pleasures, like those of eating and drinking. And a similar temptation bedevils the analysis of sex. There is a kind of sexual interest in which sensory pleasure eclipses the inter-personal intentionality and becomes attached to scenes of generalized and impersonal excitement — an image or tableau, to which the subject responds compulsively. This kind of sexual interest can easily reshape itself as an addiction. The temptation is to suppose that this depersonalized and sensory pleasure Is the real goal of sexual desire in all its forms, and that sexual pleasure is a form of subjective pleasure analogous to the pleasures of eating and drinking — a claim explicitly made, for example, by Freud.

Pleasure And Addiction
Cognitive states of mind are seldom addictive, since they depend upon exploration of the world, and the individual encounter with the individual object, whose appeal is outside the subject’s control. Addiction arises when the subject has full control over a pleasure and can produce it at will. It is primarily a matter of sensory pleasure, and involves a kind of short-circuiting of the pleasure network. Addiction is characterized by a loss of the emotional dynamic that would otherwise govern an outward-directed, cognitively creative life. Sex addiction is no different in this respect from drug addiction; and it wars against true sexual interest — interest in the other, the individual object of desire. Why go to all the trouble of mutual recognition and shared arousal, when this short cut is available to the same sensory goal?

Just as there is sex addiction, arising from the decoupling of sexual pleasure from the inter-personal intentionality of desire, so too is there stimulus addiction — the hunger to be shocked, gripped, stirred in whatever way might take us straight to the goal of excitement — which arises from the decoupling of sensory interest from rational thought. The pathology here is familiar to us, and was interestingly caricatured by Aldous Huxley, in his account of the ‘feelies’ — the panoramic shows in Brave New World in which every sense-modality is engaged.

Maybe the Roman games were similar: short cuts to awe, horror and fear which reinforced the ensuing sense of safety, by prompting the visceral relief that it is not but another who has been torn to pieces in the ring. And maybe the 5-second cut which is the stock-in-trade of the B movie and the TV advert operates in a similar way — setting up addictive circuits that keep the eyes glued to the screen.

The contrast that I have been implicitly drawing between the love that venerates and the scorn that desecrates is like the contrast between taste and addiction. Lovers of beauty direct their attention outwards, in search of a meaning and order that brings sense to their lives. Their attitude to the thing they love is imbued with judgment and discrimination. And they measure themselves against it, trying to match its order in their own living sympathies.

Addiction, as the psychologists point out, is a function of easy rewards. The addict is someone who presses again and again on the pleasure switch, whose pleasures by-pass thought and judgment to settle in the realm of need. Art is at war with effect addiction, in which the need for stimulation and routinized excitement has blocked the path to beauty by putting acts of desecration centre stage.

Why this addiction should be so virulent now is an interesting question: whatever the explanation, however, my argument implies that the addiction to effect is the enemy not only of art but also of happiness, and that anybody who cares for the future of humanity should study how to revive the ‘aesthetic education’, as Schiller described it, which has the love of beauty as its goal.

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One comment

  1. [...] Earlier essays on Kant and Kantian aesthetics are here and here. [...]



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