Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art

Martin Donougho reviews Alexander Nehamas in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

In his new book Alexander Nehamas wishes to rehabilitate talk of beauty as a characteristic of art, in the face, first, of philosophical or modernist attempts to insulate art from ordinary concerns, and second, of resort to aesthetic judgment rather than passionate engagement with art, to a 'juridical' as opposed to a 'Platonic' approach. He contends (35) that beauty “is part of the everyday world of purpose and desire, history and contingency, subjectivity and incompleteness.” His case for passion is made with passion.

A distinctive mark of the book is its self-consciously personal tone. I trust I may be allowed some personal reactions of my own — a sense of puzzlement intended to be productive as much as critical. To begin with, surely I am not the only person to wonder about the implications of Stendhal's words — from which Nehamas borrows his title — “Beauty is only a promise of happiness.” They come from chapter 17 of Stendhal's On Love, a chapter entitled “Beauty usurped (détrônée) by love”: a footnote tells of how imagination may so possess the lover that even ugliness can become an object of his passion, a pockmarked face beloved on that very account. You could hardly say that 'Beauty' is here straightforwardly endorsed. Adorno — a figure not mentioned in this otherwise wide-ranging book — also favors Stendhal's apothegm, yet his dialectical approach can more easily accommodate discordance, unsightliness, or the shudder of the sublime. Nehamas by contrast adopts a quasi-Platonic stance: of wonder, of erotic fixation, a state rendered almost speechless in its act of avowal. Of course he must still argue for this stance. And he does so, over the course of five chapters in this elegantly (indeed, beautifully) turned out volume, which derives from the 2001 Tanner lectures at Yale.