In Our Modern Academic PC "Victim" Culture, Why Do We Fail to Note the Vulnerability of the Gazer Exposed to Beauty?
Elaine Scarry, an aesthetics professor at Harvard University, wonders why many academic thinkers these days insist on putting so much more emphasis on the possibility that a gaze on beauty might negatively affect the one gazed upon than on the fact that the person doing the gazing might feel even more powerless. As she puts it in her book, "On Beauty and Being Just":
“It is odd that contemporary accounts of ‘staring’ or ‘gazing’ place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at, for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived.”
Scarry goes on to remind us that “In accounts of beauty from earlier centuries, it is precisely the perceiver who is imperiled, overpowered, by crossing paths with someone beautiful.” Indeed, Plato talks about a person “suddenly spinning around in all directions” when he or she encounters a beautiful person, and Dante “undergoes violent trembling” when he comes face-to-face with his beloved Beatrice.
The author doesn’t understand why there remains such a “discrepancy between the aura of radical vulnerability beholders were assigned in the past and the aura of complete immunity they are assigned today.” She calls the current position a “newly acquired, wretched immunity,” and believes that “what should be blamed for those occasions on which the person looked at is put at risk is not ‘seeing beauty’ but ‘FAILING to see beauty.’”
In fact, “Perhaps only if one spins momentarily out of control . . . or begins to write a sonnet can one be said to have seen the beauty of another person.” The same could of course be said for the beauty of a natural landscape.
Photo: Desert Paintbrush and the cliff above Park Avenue, Arches National Park, UT, April 23, 2016
For Spiritual Direction or Workshops, please visit: http://www.resourcesforspiritualgrowth.com/
Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.