An Arguement About Beauty (Excerpted)

Susan Sontag

“Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console. The beauty of face and figure torments, subjugates; that beauty is imperious. The beauty that is human, and the beauty that is made (art) – both raise the fantasy of possession. Our model of the disinterested comes from the beauty of nature  – a nature that is distant, overarching, unpossessable. From a letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942:

The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was  all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear of neither pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.*

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed  by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.

The beauty of art is better, “higher,” according to Hegel, than the beauty of nature because it is made by human beings and is the work of the spirit.  But the discerning of beauty in nature is also the result of traditions of consciousness, and of culture– in Hegel’s language, of spirit.

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent. As Wilde pointed out, art does more than school us on how and what to appreciate in nature. (He was thinking of poetry and painting Today the standards of beauty in nature are largely set by photography.) What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such–of what lies beyond the human and the made — and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.”

*Quoted in Stephen G. Fritz, Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World war II(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 130.

Sontag, Susan. “An Argument About Beauty” At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. (200): 12-13.
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~ by crossmd on July 18, 2010.

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