Wherein Andrea Gallardo observes a panel discussing “Beauty and Morals.” Plus, a Q&A session that turned adults into grade-grubbing Columbia students.

“Sometimes we want to live the beauty we’ve been talking about,” said Marie Ponsot. “It is the tragic destiny of human beings not to understand and to be misunderstood.”

What else could one say to a quiet, eager, and middle-aged audience sitting with rapt attention, waiting to hear a panel discuss beauty? Was there any way to satisfy these people, waiting to hear a discussion about one of the most ambiguous and subjective ideas out there? Regardless, the seats of Davis Auditorium were filled, and clusters of people listened just outside the open doorways. On stage, the panel reclined in their seats, each waiting their turn to speak.

Ponsot, one panelist in a discussion on “Beauty and Morals” that took place at the Heyman Center on March 23rd, is a poet whose collections include Springing and The Bad Catcher. Her lyrical, rhythmic voice made it seem as if she spoke entirely in verse. Expressing a sober frustration with the human desire to describe or revisit beauty, Posnot chose a few select anecdotes from her life and some wonderful words with which to entertain the audience.

While Ponsot seemed to see something sacred and tragic in the futility of trying to define beauty and talk about it, Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor and author of the recent book On Beauty and Being Just, was confident in the academic discussion of beauty and jumped straight into its implications. “Beautiful things are alarm clocks that remind you that your extended attention isn’t on long enough,” she said encouragingly while brushing back her hair. They’re a reminder that “you’ve been under-perceiving the world.” Very beautiful things have the capability to change lives, she insisted.

“Beauty for beauty’s sake may be enough, but is it true that it stands alone?” Scarry queried. Convinced that it does not, she said that it instead “presses towards justice.” Beauty, she said, causes a “heart-stopping response” in which “one moves to the sidelines of one’s own life,” realizing that “we’re not the center of the world” – even your own world. Beauty may occur in nature, but “justice is never naturally occurring,” said Scarry, implying that it is our duty to try to create a “symmetry of relationships with each other.” “For me,” she said, “the opposite of beauty is injury.” While her connections between beauty and justice seemed somewhat ambiguous, Scarry made sure to mention that she spoke more thoroughly on the topic of Beauty and Morals in her new book.

Alexander Nehamas, a philosopher, advocated the need for a “different set of standards” by presenting the modern dilemma of whether or not to watch TV and give in to “depravity.” Assuming that most of the audience considered television a fountain of corruption and cheap art, Nehamas took a bold step, admitting that TV has in fact made him a better philosopher and that indeed, television is not altogether a deplorable device. “Perhaps you will be satisfied with a degraded life,” he proposed, chuckling to himself.

John Hollander, another panelist, referred to the desire for beauty as something inexhaustible. “It is a good thing that we can find beauty in the world,” he said. There is, he believes, a “moral agenda” in trying to see an object for itself, because, as Wallace Stevens put it, “Beauty is momentary in the mind – / The fitful tracing of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal. / The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.” Beauty is eternal yet fleeting, and, in Hollander’s conception, beyond reproach. “An object of beauty can be employed in ugly ways,” he warned, “but the beauty of the object cannot.” The audience murmured and applauded in response.

The Question and Answer portion saw a change in the audience, who transformed from a quiet herd of sheep (or maybe goats) into a pack of something more predatory, hungry for answers to questions regarding beauty. The peanut gallery offered many a convoluted incoherent inquiry to the panel, who usually responded with, “Do you think you could phrase all of that into just one, simple question?” Most questions pertained to fascist art, as it is perhaps the most obvious example of morally questionable art, and therefore one of the most questionable forms of beauty. The panelists expressed discomfort in response to these questions, making clear their opposition to Hitler and fascism but failing to truly resolve the question. But did the audience members really expect resolution, that the panel would consist of certified “beauty experts” who could answer all their questions? It was a sight to behold: full-grown adults competing to be the smartest kid in the class, asking spiraling, labyrinthine questions while scoffing at the similar questions of others.

Marie Ponsot, the least tense of the people up on stage, sat back in her chair while her fellow panelists jumped hurdles in an attempt to address the questions of the audience. Perhaps it was her sore throat. Perhaps she realized the silliness of such self-conscious critiques. Or perhaps she was thinking about how silly it is to try to be serious and academic about something so indescribable, and so sublime.
– Andrea Gallardo