by Chris Horner
Beauty is nothing more than the promise of happiness —Stendhal
How can beauty promise happiness? And what kind of beauty would this be? What sort of happiness? Happiness and Beauty have been central issues for thinkers since antiquity, and the question of what they really are, and whether we should even prize them as we do, have been subjected to sustained critique and discussion for millennia. I don’t intend to join that debate here. Happiness and Beauty: the more we try to get clear about them, the more they seem to recede from us. But, like Stendhal, we cannot do without them.
The origin of the quotation at the top of the page is his On Love, in a footnote in about the possibility of loving that which is ugly. He gives an anecdote about a man who falls in love, not with a woman who is conventionally beautiful but rather one who is not good looking, is too thin and is scarred with smallpox. He falls for her because she reminds him of a past love. Stendhal’s claim here is that beauty isn’t based on physical perfection. The idea of beauty is distinct from the physical form of the thing we desire. This may seem an odd way of conceiving of beauty, but it has a lineage that goes back to Plato. Beauty is kind of message or sign of something else.
Happiness, it seems, is elsewhere. We recall it or anticipate it, and the thing desired is somehow Other to where we are in space and time. The pursuit is not necessarily pleasurable, as the recollection of past happiness can be painful . For Stendhal it is prompted by an erotic encounter, but presumably anything might serves as a trigger: the smell of autumn leaves, the hills in summer, a piece of music. One is reminded of Proust’s Madeleine, and the onrush of unbidden memory in his In Search of Lost Time. We are a long way from conventional ideas of harmony of form, or pleasing combinations of colour or tone. It seems to be less about beauty as it is usually understood, and more about a longed for state of felicity, however it is imagined: for past loves, for home, for childhood. Read more »