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 m
chinery," 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.