Beauty and the Beholder

In a recent blog post, John C Wright discusses beauty and where it is located. Now, there is nothing wrong with what he says, but I do submit that he is somewhat taking the meaning of a person who says the words to be overly related to the words that they say. You can see a similar thing when people criticize doing evil that good may come of it with the words, “the ends don’t justify the means”. Taken literally, this is nonsense. Of course means are justified by ends, because nothing else can justify means. There is no such thing as a self-justifying means. Pushing a sharpened piece of steel into somebody’s bodies is justified or not entirely on the basis of why you’re doing it. Is it to shiv him in revenge for a minor transgression? Or are you a surgeon cutting out a cancer to save his life? Plunging the metal into him is merely a means, and as such must find its justification in the ends for which it is used. What people really mean, of course is one of  “this end don’t justify those means” or more commonly, “remote ends do not justify proximate, intermediate ends”. But it’s less catchy, so you can see why people don’t say what they literally mean. Plus most people would have to look up what proximate means (in the proximity of; right next to, approximate meaning an estimate by way of analogy to not-right-next-to).

I submit that the same thing applies to the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Taken literally, it is as Mr. Wright says a denial of beauty as a concept. But many if not most people do not mean it literally. (I’m on relatively safe ground here; when discussing anything less practical than passing the salt at dinner, people rarely mean what they say literally.) There is a real thing which is being described, which is that beauty is a direct perception of the goodness of God as reflected by the goodness in creation, and each person is given a different (if largely overlapping) perspective on the goodness of God, and hence what precise goodness each man is able to perceive does vary. Thus when beholding any particular beautiful thing, one man may see the goodness of God revealed clearly in it because it matches what he was made to see, while another may see it only dimly because he was given something else to see clearly. To generalize, there are those who like roller coasters and in them appreciate the power of God in velocity and turning; this is an aspect of God’s goodness I see only dimly, while I appreciate the stillness of a forest and the loudness if leaves falling to the ground in it quite a lot. Now, my inability to perceive God’s goodness in the rush of the roller coaster does not mean that it is not there, any more than a deaf man’s inability to hear the beauty in Mozart’s music does not mean that it is not beautiful.

It is quite wrong to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is quite accurate to say that perceiving beauty depends on the eye of the beholder. But the second phrase is harder on the ear, and when it comes to expressing truths most people are far more traditionalists than they are philosophers, and those of us who are capable of saying what we mean should always look out in charity for those who are not. On the other hand, it is always good to give people who misuse common phrases a (metaphorical) hard slap upside the head to try to bring them to their senses, which I think is what Mr. Wright intends. So please take this post as an elaboration on the subject Mr. Wright is speaking about, and not a contention with Mr. Wright’s post.

God’s Blessings on February 2, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the second day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I found an interesting referrer linking to my interview with the editor of Cirsova magazine. It’s a blog post by Rampant Coyote about how the covers on old pulps were often quite misleading. It’s an interesting post and I recommend reading the whole thing. I found this part especially interesting:

The covers … well… as much as I love them now, they aren’t great representations of the stories themselves. The Weird Tales cover here, for example… if you’ve actually read “Queen of the Black Coast,” the only thing about this image that resembles the story is the monster. Kind of, but it’s supposed to be more ape-like. The dude is not Conan, and the girl isn’t acting (or dressed like) like Bêlit. In the story… well, Conan pretty much meets his match in Bêlit. She is a bloodthirsty, avaricious, fearless pirate. She commands some men and slaughters others, and her name strikes fear in the heart of captain . As I recall, she’s the one who does the rescuing (if posthumously… it’s complicated. They borrowed that idea for the 1982 movie. Read the story, it’s awesome!)

This was in part an effect of the business model of the time, or more properly of the specialization involved in having a publishing house. The people who commissioned the art for the covers were people who had a keen sense of what sells books, which was their job, and not nearly so much of how to accurately represent a story in a picture, which was (in practice) no one’s job. This is one thing that always annoyed me as a reader and something I’ve fixed as a self-published author. Since I commission the cover art, I have the artist depict a scene from the book. Whether that negatively affects sales I don’t know, but I far prefer the honesty of it.

Anyway, I had gotten so used to the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” being used metaphorically, especially about judging a person’s moral character from his looks, that I had all but forgotten that it was also literal advice based on how much book covers might be outright lies.

There is another very interesting section later on in the post, about what the stories were actually like:

This is especially true in some recent efforts I’ve seen to deconstruct / subvert older stories… folks should know what they are trying to build on. If you are writing a “pulp-style” story and you think you are being bold and original because it’s about a female warrior / pirate who totally has to rescue a Conan-analog character… it’s been done. Magazine covers notwithstanding, Howard has already been there. Lots of the pulps have. They may not be what you think they are.

Which brings up an interesting fact about the pulps: there were a lot of them. Writers wrote many stories, and though there undoubtedly were formulaic stories (any industry which needs a lot of writing is going to publish a lot of bad writing, for the simple reason that bad writing is easier to come by than good writing) writers of successful stories needed to come up with new things so as not to become stale. People did not buy the pulps because the previous issue sufficed for the new one, and subverting expectations is a very old trick for surprising the reader and keeping  his interest. It’s done much better by people who want to do it in order to make their stories interesting than by people who want to overthrow morality so that they have license to be bad, since the former will only subvert things which do no harm when subverted while the latter will subvert things which do a lot of harm, but the general concept of subverting expectations is not new at all. In fact, God even used that trick when he took on flesh, being born a helpless baby in an insignificant part of an insignificant country, in a stable for animals. As Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, there is something very strange in picturing the hands that made the universe being too small to reach the enormous heads of the cattle.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 1, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the first day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

John C Wright has a fascinating review of ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan. The story is better known as the introduction of Buck Rogers, who Mr. Wright notes is not known for this story but rather for the comic strip, radio play, movies, and later TV show in which he was the main character.

It’s an interesting review which is very much worth reading, but the thing which particularly caught my attention was when Mr. Wright, after detailing the bad aspects of how the story is written, then talks about why the story had such an impact, or in other words what was good in it. And the main thing was, roughly, the setting. It was an imaginatively great setting, full of possibilities for adventure. To over-simplify, the basic idea of a man frozen in time and emerging into a world of marvels who becomes great because he is able to merge knowledge now-forgotten with new marvels really captures the imagination in a strong way. There are other very interesting aspects, relating to the specifics of the story, which Mr. Wright outlines as important; how people are living a life of low civilization in hiding because a more powerful group of people are hunting them, and how they have grown strong through suffering while the more powerful group has grown decadent and weak through comfort. (Which is an interestingly Christian theme, by the way.)

Now, the curious thing about the power of a good setting, which is essentially the power of a good idea, is that good ideas are not generally regarded as very important by writers. I don’t mean that writers think that bad ideas make for good stories, but rather that usually a good idea is not the hard part. The hard part is writing the story. Furthermore, the same basic story, written by two different writers, can come out very differently, including one coming out well and the other terribly. As I remarked once before, bad as well as good stories can be written with the basic plot and setting of Pride & Prejudice, and indeed many have been. If anyone has ever read fan fiction in high school written by friends,  one will be familiar with how good plots can be made unreadable by poor execution. (Or by intermixing; one chap I knew gave himself the quickening from highlander while he was fighting the emperor from Star Wars. This did not turn out as well as mixing chocolate chips and butterscotch chips in cookies does.)

And there are plenty of examples of great works with completely unoriginal plots; I’ve heard it said that Shakespeare didn’t come up with a single original plot, and certainly at least his histories didn’t claim to be original. Further it is said that mediocrity borrows; genius steals.

And yet. It does seem like there are occasionally ideas which are just so good that they irresistibly capture people’s imaginations even if one can barely stand to read the stories they’re in. Light sabers were not the original energy swords, but aside from the flaming sword given to the angel guarding the garden of Eden, they are at this point the most iconic, and given how successful the prequels and now the whatever-you-want-to-call-them to Star Wars have been successful in spite of not always being very good, I think it reasonable to call the light saber a billion dollar idea. Though to be fair, they probably wouldn’t have been as successful without the Force. Be that as it may, this is an example of an idea which was extraordinarily successful in spite of sometimes bad execution. Like demonstrated in the video, The Totally Phantom Menace:

I don’t have any conclusions about such ideas; in one sense it seems counter-intuitive that they should even exist. And yet they seem to; there were well done lightsaber duels, but even a poorly executed lightsaber duel is fascinating to watch.

Glory to God in the highest.