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Aesthetic Irradiation And Purification

THE storage and transfer of aesthetic emotion explain yet another
fact, with which indeed I began this little book: namely that the
word Beautiful has been extended from whatever is satisfactory in
our contemplation of shapes, to a great number of cases where there
can be no question of shapes at all, as in speaking of a "beautiful
character" and a "fine moral attitude"; or else, as in the case of a
"beautiful bit of machinery," a "fine scientific demonstration" or a
"splendid surgical operation" where the shapes involved are not at
all such as to afford contemplative satisfaction. In such cases the
word Beautiful has been brought over with the emotion of
satisfied contemplation. And could we examine microscopically the
minds of those who are thus applying it, we might perhaps detect,
round the fully-focussed thought of that admirable but nowise
shapely thing or person or proceeding, the shadowy traces of
half-forgotten shapes, visible or audible, forming a halo of real aesthetic
experience, and evoked by that word Beautiful whose application
they partially justify. Nor is this all. Recent psychology teaches that,
odd as it at first appears, our more or less definite images, auditive
as well as visual, and whether actually perceived or merely
remembered, are in reality the intermittent part of the mind's
contents, coming and going and weaving themselves on to a
constant woof of our own activities and feelings. It is precisely such
activities and feelings which are mainly in question when we apply
the words Beautiful and Ugly. Thus everything which has come
in connexion with occasions for satisfactory shape-contemplation,
will meet with somewhat of the same reception as that shape-contemplation
originally elicited. And even the merest items of information which
the painter conveys concerning the visible universe; the merest
detail of human character conveyed by the poet; nay even the
mere nervous intoxication furnished by the musician, will all be
irradiated by the emotion due to the shapes they have been conveyed
in, and will therefore be felt as beautiful.

Moreover, as the "beautiful character" and "splendid operation" have
taught us, rare and desirable qualities are apt to be contemplated in a
"platonic" way. And even objects of bodily desire, so long as that
desire is not acute and pressing, may give rise to merely
contemplative longings. All this, added to what has previously been
said, sufficiently explains the many and heterogeneous items which
are irradiated by the word Beautiful and the emotion originally
arising from the satisfied contemplation of mere shapes.

And that this contemplation of beautiful shapes should be at once so
life-corroborating and so strangely impersonal, and that its special
emotion should be so susceptible of radiation and transfer, is
sufficient explanation of the elevating and purifying influence which,
ever since Plato, philosophers have usually ascribed to the Beautiful.
Other moralists however have not failed to point out that art has,
occasionally and even frequently, effects of the very opposite kind.
The ever-recurrent discussion of this seeming contradiction is,
however, made an end of, once we recognise that art has many aims
besides its distinguishing one of increasing our contemplation of the
beautiful. Indeed some of art's many non-aesthetic aims may
themselves be foreign to elevation and purification, or even, as for
instance the lewd or brutal subjects of some painting and poetry, and
the nervous intoxication of certain music, exert a debasing or
enervating influence. But, as the whole of this book has tried to
establish, the contemplation of beautiful shapes involves perceptive
processes in themselves mentally invigorating and refining, and a
play of empathic feelings which realise the greatest desiderata of
spiritual life, viz. intensity, purposefulness and harmony; and such
perceptive and empathic activities cannot fail to raise the present
level of existence and to leave behind them a higher standard for
future experience. This exclusively elevating effect of beautiful
shape as such, is of course proportioned to the attention it receives
and the exclusion of other, and possibly baser, interests connected
with the work of art. On the other hand the purifying effects of
beautiful shapes depend upon the attention oscillating to and fro
between them and those other interests, e.g. subject in the
representative arts, fitness in the applied ones, and
expression in music; all of which non-aesthetic interests benefit
(enhanced if noble, redeemed if base) by irradiation of the nobler
feelings wherewith they are thus associated. For we must not forget
that where opposed groups of feeling are elicited, whichever
happens to be more active and complex will neutralise its opponent.
Thus, while an even higher intensity and complexity of aesthetic
feelings is obtained when the "subject" of a picture, the use of a
building or a chattel, or the expression of a piece of music, is in
itself noble; and a Degas ballet girl can never have the dignity of a
Phidian goddess, nor a gambling casino that of a cathedral, nor
the music to Wilde's Salome that of Brahms' German Requiem,
yet whatever of beauty there may be in the shapes will divert the
attention from the meanness or vileness of the non-aesthetic
suggestion. We do not remember the mercenary and libertine
allegory embodied in Correggio's Danae, or else we reinterpret
that sorry piece of mythology in terms of cosmic occurrences, of the
Earth's wealth increased by the fecundating sky. Similarly it is a
common observation that while unmusical Bayreuth-goers often
attribute demoralising effects to some of Wagner's music, the
genuinely musical listeners are unaware, and usually incredulous, of
any such evil possibilities.

This question of the purifying power of the Beautiful has brought us
back to our starting-point. It illustrates the distinction between
contemplating an aspect and thinking about things, and this
distinction's corollary that shape as such is yon-side of real and
unreal, taking on the character of reality and unreality only
inasmuch as it is thought of in connexion with a thing. As regards
the possibility of being good or evil, it is evident from all the
foregoing that shape as shape, and without the suggestion of
things, can be evil only in the sense of being ugly, ugliness
diminishing its own drawbacks by being, ipso facto, difficult to
dwell upon, inasmuch as it goes against the grain of our perceptive
and empathic activities. The contemplation of beautiful shape is, on
the other hand, favoured by its pleasurableness, and such
contemplation of beautiful shape lifts our perceptive and empathic
activities, that is to say a large part of our intellectual and emotional
life, on to a level which can only be spiritually, organically, and in
so far, morally beneficial.

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Previous: The Storage And Transfer Of Emotion

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