(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Denis Donoghue posits beauty as one of life’s six indisputable virtues, along with life, love, truth, virtue, and justice. Other, more disputable values are power, belief, communication, and (surprisingly) money. Each of these values, he sighs, tends to seize the world in its favor and jostle its rivals aside. He gives five reasons for appreciating beauty, without necessarily agreeing with all of them: First, because its existence is related to goodness and truth; second, because the search for beauty encourages a “respect for intrinsic value, freedom, independence, selflessness”; third, because it encourages contemplation, appreciation, and patience; fourth, because, quoting novelist Iris Murdoch, “the appreciation of beauty is . . . a completely adequate entry into . . . the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real”; and fifth, because (Donoghue’s preferred reason) “a beautiful thing holds its own and remains unintimidated by the analytic zeal that [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel ascribes to the Understanding.”

Donoghue wishes it were possible to establish an agreed-upon theory of beauty without ideological insistence but recognizes that the world has no common ground of values. He appreciates the ambitious attempt by I. A. Richards, in The Foundations of Aesthetics (1922), to establish sixteen theories of beauty but revises them into four main categories, adding a few notions of his own. The first postulate is beauty as a property of the object in question, which would offer symmetry, proportion, gradation, and harmony. The second is the genius of the artist. The third is beauty as an experience of the observer, producing in him or her an aesthetic impulse which cannot be defined. The last is beauty valued for some further reason, such as that it leads to desirable moral or social effects.

Donoghue is impressed by Friedrich Schiller’s Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (1795; On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1845). In it, Schiller declares that freedom is attained from passions and predilections through beauty, which is indifferent to knowledge and content, while its form is everything. Taking an opposing view are such deconstructionists as Paul de Man, who regards beauty and the aesthetic as distracting enemies of knowledge. Going even further is T. J. Clark, who, in Farewell to an Idea (1999), declares that “we all hate the beautiful so much,” speaking for that small minority who resent the power of beauty as an escape from confronting the materialism that has overtaken the world.

On the other hand, some people have been ready to devote themselves to beauty as a supreme value, even if it entailed their being defeated by vulgar forces. Henry James, for instance, insists on having his favored protagonists worship beauty and the highest demands of the imagination, as when, in The Princess Casamassima (1885-1886), Hyacinth Robinson sends the princess a letter telling her that he has come to appreciate “the splendid accumulations of the happier few, to which doubtless the miserable many have also in their degree contributed.”

Immanuel Kant, in Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; The Critique of Judgment, 1892), was the first to regard the aesthetic as an independent value, subject only to taste, “disinterested, irresponsible, as free as play.” Taste is contemplative, not cognitive. Aesthetic judgment is its own law. Donoghue points out that several cultural forces worked to establish the independent valuation of beauty. Most of them involved the secularization or domestication of religious values, so that William Hogarth could paint a travesty of the Last Supper and Alexander Pope, in The Rape of the Lock (1712), could use a Christian cross as a piece of jewelry on Belinda’s bosom. In John Keats’s famous poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), the urn is pure form, removed from its first use, prophetic rather than descriptive, speaking of a time when beauty and truth will be alike as products of the imagination.

Modern aestheticians subject beauty and the aesthetic sense to more difficult contexts and relations. Theodor Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory (1949), declares that “the beautiful is no more to be defined than its concept can be dispensed with.” Contemporary structuralists reject the notion of “genius” and submit every experience to concepts and codes. Donoghue demurs: “There is always an incalculable factor, whether we call it genius or something else.” His culture hero is the writer Ray Limbert in Henry James’s 1893 story “The Next Time.” Limbert valiantly tries to turn out popular potboilers to support his family, but each of his works instead becomes an artistic success though a financial failure. Ill and dying, he...

(The entire section is 1983 words.)