The nature of beauty is still a complete mystery to me


I’m a working artist, with a graduate education in the arts, and I feel completely at sea regarding all issues of aesthetics. Whenever I read nineteenth century writers, I’m struck by how sure they seemed to be about, you know, concepts! They knew things! And thought about things! And had theories about things!

Their theories usually seem intuitively ridiculous to me, but at least those theories had some sort of explanatory power. They might not have been able to explain all the beauty in the world, but they could at least explain some of it. For instance, Edmund Burke understood beauty as a certain pleasingness of proportion–often characterized by a smallness, a delicacy, etc–that had the effect of calming the nerves. Beauty was a downer; a narcotic. Whereas he defined the sublime as things that excited the passions: stuff that was really vast and titanic.

Science fiction, for instance, is often not very beautiful, because the sentences aren’t so well-written and it’s clunky in various ways. But good SF almost always has some quality of the sublime. For instance, in When Androids Dream of Electric Sheep when Decker is in the police station and he suddenly has the (false) revelation that everyone in the station is a replicant? That’s a pretty sublime moment in a book that’s not terribly well-written.

I don’t know, though. I can’t buy into those notions. Somehow the systematizing instinct is lost to me. I think that’s true of most modern artists. We’ve seen too much fragmentation. Too many different things have been held up as exemplars. There’s no aesthetic theory that can account for David Markson, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Tolstoy, and David Foster Wallace.

I think the problem is that we either see ourselves as craftsmen who’re trying to add incrementally to a long tradition, or as renegades who’re trying to blaze some new trail. And neither way of thinking particularly rewards the systematizing impulse.

If you’re a craftsman, then you don’t need a theory of aesthetics. You just need rules. Show, don’t tell. Have sympathetic main characters. Don’t use adverbs. Write in the active voice. Don’t use two words where one will do. Don’t use too many semicolons or exclamation points. Don’t use any speech tags other than ‘said.’ Don’t have long sections of exposition. Don’t write a magic system that contradicts itself. Don’t have a magic system that doesn’t cost the character anything.

Sure, maybe after you work for long enough, you start to get a sense of some of the beauty that these rules are trying to nudge you towards. But there’s no need to put that sense into words. The rules provide the constraint that you need to stay within your tradition. And your own intuitions provide that little extra thing that makes your work worth reading.

And if you’re trying to do something really new, then, by definition, theories don’t help. Theories only explain what you can already see. They don’t tell you anything about the things that no one has yet seen. If you’re trying to do something really new, then you need to slowly start abandoning constraints and listen, very very carefully, to your intuitions.

But I want a theory. I want something more. I want to feel like I know something about the written word. Because I know that I can’t just do whatever you want. I know that there’s good and that there’s bad. And I know that I am, in some way, trying to do something to other people.

It’s a cop-out, to me, to say that I just want people to be strongly affected by my work. That’s the same as people who say, “Oh, the meaning of life is whatever you want it to be?” Well, yeah, no shit. We know that there are no real norms and real standards; there are only the delusional norms and standards we invent and irrationally cling to.

I want to know the answer to the next question. What do I want them to feel? What am I trying to do? What is worth trying to do? What can art do, and what can’t it do?

I think I am going to start developing some answers to these questions.

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