Elaine Scarry is commenting on the experience of being wrong about beauty. Her example: realizing that palm trees are, after all, beautiful. She writes:
Those who remember making an error about beauty usually . . . recall the exact second when they first realized they had made an error. The revisionary moment comes as a perceptual slap or slam that itself has emphatic sensory properties.“The exact second”: that rings true for me. It reminds me of something I posted in 2000 to rec.music.artists.beach-boys (remember newsgroups?), describing how I came to appreciate Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Before 1999, the Beach Boys for me were trivial, nothing more than striped shirts, “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and a Sunkist commercial. But:
On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
In January 1999 I happened to rent a videotape of I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. I’d remembered reading in the New York Times that the film was well done and told the story of Brian Wilson’s life (that rang a vague bell). There was much in the film that I didn’t take in, but I was struck by — mesmerized by — the Van Dyke Parks song “Orange Crate Art.” (His name rang a vague bell too.) I rewound that section of the tape many times and started figuring out the tune on the piano (nice chord changes). Then I went to the library, where I always go to explore music I don’t know much about, and discovered that there was a CD called Orange Crate Art available through interlibrary loan. I figured I should get Pet Sounds too. Why not?My account jibes with another observation in Scarry’s book: that the experience of beauty “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” ”Beauty,” Scarry says, “brings copies of itself into being.” Which is just what happened when I listened to “Orange Crate Art” again and again and then began playing the song on the piano. The copies need not be perfect.
Listening to both was an incredible reeducation in music. I don’t typically listen to music with a lot of “production” — in old jazz and blues recordings, production amounted to moving the musicians toward or away from the microphone (the only microphone!). So it took me a while to get used to production, and to then appreciate it. And the songs on Pet Sounds seemed so short — they seemed to barely get started before fading out. But I can mark the first moments in the album that really hit me — the huge drum sound that stops the intro to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the slowing down and picking back up at the end, the intro to “You Still Believe in Me,” and the low note on “me.” So I kept listening.
I would like to read accounts of other people’s errors about beauty, recognitions that something once thought not beautiful is indeed beautiful, or that something once thought beautiful is not. Is Scarry right that there is usually an “exact second” in which one recognizes the error?
March 10: The Crow has written an account of being wrong about beauty. It too has an “exact second.”
Also from this book
“When justice has been taken away”