How Do We Keep Desire from Passing with Beauty

Pamela L. CaughieLoyola University Chicago
Vol. 19, No. 2 (Fall 2000), 269-284.

This essay responds to the notion found in the work of Elaine Scarry and Martha C. Nussbaum that beauty produces justice. After interrogating the underlying premises of Scarry’s and Nussbaum’s understanding of aesthetics, language, beauty, and justice, the article concludes that beauty can no longer be the main criterion by which we judge a work of art, as there is no simple relation between art and social justice. The article posits that theory has led less to a new notion of aesthetics and more to a new responsibility in literary studies. It questions how we are to respond to literature in the wake of what George Steiner terms the “break in the classic contract between word and world” and argues that theory urges us to relinquish the classic notion that language expresses ideas or serves as a mirror-like reflection of the world.  The article challenges us to re-think Scarry’s argument in light of the revolutionary change in concepts of language and textuality brought about by poststructuralist theories and asks us to accept responsibility for the connections we make rather than to see the “right” relation between aesthetics and social justice.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]