We find Professor Elaine Scarry in an office on the eighth floor of the Lauritz Meltzer building. Her title at Havard is “Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value”. She sits in total darkness on the eighth floor of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Bergen.
- Is it okay if we don’t turn on the light?, she asks when På Høyden’s reporter arrives.
She wants to enjoy the view of Ulriken - the rocky crag on which streams suddenly appear when it rains. It’s raining a lot this particular Monday in September.
- I don’t think I saw the streams yesterday. Can that be correct? It’s incredible that they suddenly appear from nowhere.
But she is not in Bergen to study the streams and brooks on Ulriken. She will contribute in the totally new series of “Bergen Lectures in Critical Social and Political Inquiry”, arranged by the Department of Social Anthropology. Her lecture is called “Beauty and the Pact of Aliveness”.
- After having read a little about you, three words come to mind. Beauty, pain and justice. What’s the connection between these words?
- When I first started working with pain, for the book “The Body and Pain”, I believed that pain had nothing to do with creation. To cut a long story short – after studying torture – I began to understand that torture is the opposite of creation. Pain doesn’t only destroy the body, it also destroys people mentally. It blocks the senses. When we create, we try to enhance the senses. And beauty: I strongly believe that beauty forces us to care about the injustices that happen in the world, and to attempt to diminish them. Plato saw beauty as a calling to educate oneself, repair the injuries of the world, and put an end to injustice.
She turns to look out of the window several times, whilst speaking. She continues talking as she glances upwards at Ulriken.
Atomic bombs, legislation and beauty
- You have often spoken about the threat posed by nuclear weapons, and how beauty can be the solution to the threat.
- Yes, I’ve worked on the nuclear problem for quite a while. I have primarily encouraged solutions based on legislation.
Scarry begins on a long explanation of USA’s constitution, other constitutional issues, and says that congress is like an irresponsible child. The sun breaks through the clouds in the middle of this. The room is filled with light as the rain continues to fall.
- Wow! That’s amazing, she says and looks out on the sun-rain for a few seconds.
Then she continues:
- My approach has mainly been based on legislation. But at the same time: If people understood that the beauty surrounding them is an encouragement to oppose injustice, they would realise that this type of weapon now poses the biggest form of injustice. We must get rid of them. They could cause a catastrophe.
Beauty is the solution
- What do you think about the present status of democracy in the USA?
- I think democracy has big problems. Electing President Obama gave us the beautiful hope that democracy would be revitalised, and I still believe aspects of democracy exist. But the USA, like many other countries, has become a kleptocracy, where it’s all about grabbing as much as possible. USA has the potential to become a great and decent country. It has however lost interest in being decent, and is rapidly loosing its status as a great country because of this.
- And the solution is to be more aware of beauty?
- We must revitalize legislation, and we must remember what the constitution says. But I believe that beauty is something that helps us to think about this. If we can revive beauty, and impose its rules on everything, then it will help us to fight the legal battle to reinstate fairness and justice.
Back to the trinity
- Isn’t beauty a superficial value?
She smiles. Perhaps a little frustrated. She begins to talk about the advertising branch, Plato, Summa Theologica, the trinity. Beauty, goodness and justice.
- You could say that beauty has a superficial appearance, because it is often about physical attributes, but it leads to inner types of beauty. Fairness and goodness. These are not superficial, but extremely powerful attributes.
- So we should perhaps rethink our ideas about beauty?
- Yes, I think so. I lecture on beauty and use an entire semester on three things: firstly, we read a number of historical texts to find out what our forefathers thought about beauty. Then we look at four different things: gods, gardens, people and poems. How is beauty represented in them? Finally, we look at how beauty has been criticised in recent times. Then we are armed to tackle the criticism. It’s not stupid criticism but it doesn’t hold water. Its easy to find errors and shortcomings in the thought process. I believe that much of the criticism is well-meant, but in the long run, it hinders education, hinders truth, and hinders justice.