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- The Psychology of Beauty - 1/36 -

The Psychology of Beauty

by Ethel D. Puffer


THE human being who thrills to the experience of beauty in nature and in art does not forever rest with that experience unquestioned. The day comes when he yearns to pierce the secret of his emotion, to discover what it is, and why, that has so stung him--to defend and to justify his transport to himself and to others. He seeks a reason for the faith that is in him. And so have arisen the speculative theories of the nature of beauty, on the one hand, and the studies of concrete beauty and our feelings about it, on the other. Speculative theory has taken its own way, however, as a part of philosophy, in relating the Beautiful to the other great concepts of the True and the Good; building up an architectonic of abstract ideas, far from the immediate facts and problems of the enjoyment of beauty. There has grown up, on the other hand, in the last years, a great literature of special studies in the facts of aesthetic production and enjoyment. Experiments with the aesthetic elements; investigations into the physiological psychology of aesthetic reactions; studies in the genesis and development of art forms, have multiplied apace. But these are still mere groups of facts for psychology; they have not been taken up into a single authoritative principle. Psychology cannot do justice to the imperative of beauty, by virtue of which, when we say "this is beautiful," we have a right to imply that the universe must agree with us. A synthesis of these tendencies in the study of beauty is needed, in which the results of modern psychology shall help to make intelligible a philosophical theory of beauty. The chief purpose of this book is to seek to effect such a union.

A way of defining Beauty which grounds it in general principles, while allowing it to reach the concrete case, is set forth in the essay on the Nature of Beauty. The following chapters aim to expand, to test, and to confirm this central theory, by showing, partly by the aid of the aforesaid special studies, how it accounts for our pleasure in pictures, music, and literature.

The whole field of beauty is thus brought under discussion; and therefore, though it nowhere seeks to be exhaustive in treatment, the book may fairly claim to be a more or less consistent and complete aesthetic theory, and hence to address itself to the student of aesthetics as well as to the general reader. The chapter on the Nature of Beauty, indeed, will doubtless be found by the latter somewhat technical, and should be omitted by all who definitely object to professional phraseology. The general conclusions of the book are sufficiently stated in the less abstract papers.

Of the essays which compose the following volume, the first, third, and last are reprinted, in more or less revised form, from the "Atlantic Monthly" and the "International Monthly." Although written as independent papers, it is thought that they do not unduly repeat each other, but that they serve to verify, in each of the several realms of beauty, the truth of the central theory of the book.

The various influences which have served to shape a work of this kind become evident in the reading; but I cannot refrain from a word of thanks to the teachers whose inspiration and encouragement first made it possible. I owe much gratitude to Professor Mary A. Jordan and Professor H. Norman Gardiner of Smith College, who in literature and in philosophy first set me in the way of aesthetic interest and inquiry, and to Professor Hugo Munsterberg of Harvard University, whose philosophical theories and scientific guidance have largely influenced my thought.

WELLESLEY COLLEGE, April 24, 1905.

CONTENTS PAGE I. CRITICISM AND AESTHETICS.............................1 II. THE NATURE OF BEAUTY................................27 III. THE AESTHETIC REPOSE................................57 IV. THE BEAUTY OF FINE ART..............................89 A. THE BEAUTY OF VISUAL FORM.....................91 B. SPACE COMPOSITION AMONG THE OLD MASTERS......128 V. THE BEAUTY OF MUSIC................................149 VI. THE BEAUTY OF LITERATURE...........................203 VII. THE NATURE OF THE EMOTIONS OF THE DRAMA............229 VIII. THE BEAUTY OF IDEAS................................263




IT is not so long ago that the field of literary criticism was divided into two opposing camps. France being the only country in the world where criticism is a serious matter, the battle waged most fiercely there, and doubtless greatly served to bring about the present general interest and understanding of the theoretical questions at issue. The combatants were, of course, the impressionistic and scientific schools of criticism, and particularly enlightening were the more or less recent controversies between MM. Anatole France and Jules Lemaitre as representatives of the first, and M. Brunetiere as the chief exponent of the second. They have planted their standards; and we see that they stand for tendencies in the critical activity of every nation. The ideal of the impressionist is to bring a new piece of literature into being in some exquisitely happy characterization,-- to create a lyric of criticism out of the unique pleasure of an aesthetic hour. The stronghold of the scientist, on the other hand, is the doctrine of literary evolution, and his aim is to show the history of literature as the history of a process, and the work of literature as a product; to explain it from its preceding causes, and to detect thereby the general laws of literary metamorphosis.

Such are the two great lines of modern criticism; their purposes and ideals stand diametrically opposed. Of late, however, there have not been wanting signs of a spirit of reconciliation, and of a tendency to concede the value, each in its own sphere, of different but complementary activities. Now and again the lion and the lamb have lain down together; one might almost say, on reading a delightful paper of Mr. Lewis E. Gates on Impressionism and Appreciation,<1> that the lamb had assimilated the lion. For the heir of all literary studies, according to Professor Gates, is the appreciative critic; and he it is who shall fulfill the true function of criticism. He is to consider the work of art in its historical setting and its psychological origin, "as a characteristic moment in the development of human spirit, and as a delicately transparent illustration of aesthetic law." But, "in regarding the work of art under all these aspects, his aim is, primarily, not to explain, and not to judge or dogmatize, but to enjoy; to realize the manifold charms the work of art has gathered unto itself from all sources, and to interpret this charm imaginatively to the men of his own day and generation."

<1> Atlantic Monthly, July, 1900.

Thus it would seem that if the report of his personal reactions to a work of literary art is the intention of the impressionist, and its explanation that of the scientist, the purpose of the appreciative critic is fairly named as the illuminating and interpreting reproduction of that work, from material furnished by those other forms of critical activity. Must, then, the method of appreciation, as combining and reconciling the two opposed views, forthwith claim our adherence? To put to use all the devices of science and all the treasures of scholarship for the single end of imaginative interpretation, for the sake of giving with the original melody all the harmonies of subtle association and profound meaning the ages have added, is, indeed, a great undertaking. But is it as valuable as it is vast? M. Brunetiere has poured out his irony upon the critics who believe that their own reactions upon literature are anything to us in the presence of the works to which they have thrilled. May it not also be asked of the interpreter if its function is a necessary one? Do we require so much enlightenment, only to enjoy? Appreciative criticism is a salt to give the dull palate its full savor; but what literary epicure, what real boo-lover, will acknowledge his own need of it? If the whole aim of appreciative criticism is to reproduce in other arrangement the contents, expressed and implied, and the emotional value, original and derived, of a piece of literature, the value of the end, at least to the intelligent reader, is out of all proportion to the laboriousness of the means. Sing, reading's a joy! For me, I read.

But a feeling of this kind is, after all, not a reason to be urged against the method. The real weakness of appreciative criticism lies elsewhere. It teaches us to enjoy; but are we to enjoy everything? Since its only aim is to reveal the "intricate implications" of a work of art; since it offers, and professes to offer, no literary judgments,--having indeed no explicit standard of literary value,--it must, at least on its own theory, take its objects of appreciation ready-made, so to speak, by popular acclaim. It possesses no criterion; it likes whate'er it looks on; and it can never tell us what we are not to like. That is unsatisfactory; and it is worse,-- it is self-destructive. For, not being able to reject, appreciation cannot, in logic, choose the objects of its attention. But a method which cannot limit on its own principles the field within which it is to work is condemned from the beginning; it bears a fallacy at its core. In order to make criticism theoretically possible at all, the power to choose and reject, and so the pronouncing of judgment, must be an integral part of it.

The Psychology of Beauty - 1/36

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