Friday, April 20, 2012

Pretty Is What Pretty Looks Like

My great niece (grand niece?--I'm never sure which term is correct) has a favorite word--in fact, it's nearly the only word she utters comprehensibly with a discernibly consistent meaning (c'mon, she's only 15 months old):  "pretty."

Red Easter eggs are "pretty."  Cookies of any kind are "pretty."  Ribbons, scarves and stuffed monkeys are "pretty."   Likewise, the edifices that she constructs with colored blocks, the squiggly lines she draws with crayons, the patterns she assembles with scraps of torn paper toweling. Whatever she approves of, wants to play with, or wishes to eat is pronounced,  equally and adamantly, "pretty."

She is thus well on her way to becoming a real human being, equating anything attractive or desirable with beauty--and anything "beautiful" with  goodness.  But is she also, thereby, falling victim to what Tolstoy denounced as a serious "delusion":  the notion that the terms beauty and goodness are somehow synonymous and denotatively congruent?

It is easy to see that the satisfaction of our appetites is the source of this conflation, since that which gives us pleasure appears, at least on the face of it, both attractive (beautiful) and valuable (good).  Only upon reflection (something we often resist) do we realize that our brain could be playing tricks on us, establishing an exact equivalency where only a partial coincidence can be legitimately deduced.

Take, for example, this syllogism--which, if we accept the validity of the initial premise, is sound:   All pleasurable things are good; Beautiful things are pleasurable.  Therefore, beautiful things are good.  

But tinker a bit with the distribution of terms, and we render the syllogism invalid--and silly:  All good things are pleasurable; Beautiful things are pleasurable; Therefore beautiful things are good.  

Or this syllogism, equally invalid because of the "somes" and "alls":    All beautiful things are good.  Some good things are not pleasurable. Therefore some beautiful things are not pleasurable.

We could go on and on, rearranging the premises, distributing, not distributing, or restricting the terms "pleasure," "goodness," "beauty." Ultimately, though, we must conclude that yes, beautiful things are pleasurable and yes, beautiful things are good.  But not ALL good things are pleasurable and, perhaps, not ALL beautiful things are good.  Partial coincidence, not exact equivalency.

Interestingly, despite her obsession with prettiness, my little niece herself must possess a vague awareness of this truth.  Though I have never heard her declare her mashed carrots to be "pretty," she seems nonetheless quite willing to consume them, thereby tacitly acknowledging that they possess some measure of "goodness."

Isn't it fascinating, then, how desperately we cling to our delusion of absolute equivalency and congruence?  I know that people sometimes say, "Pretty is as pretty does" (a dictum which rather too elliptically suggests an awareness that goodness transcends mere beauty).  But in our daily lives, we seldom behave in accordance with that soggy platitude.  Rather the opposite is true.  In fact, we just don't care whether there exists a moral dimension beyond beauty.  As Keats said, for us, "beauty is truth, truth beauty."

I suppose that this is the delusion that Tolstoy was speaking of: yes, we dimly sense that there might be something else, just as Lyla (my niece) dimly senses that her mashed carrots, though not pretty, might still be somehow good.  But how are we to know that good--if it gives us no pleasure--and satisfies no appetite either physical or intellectual? The quest is frustrating and, well, exhausting.  Ergo, most of us (I'm "pretty" sure) will simply read our People Magazines or collect our Grecian Urns, not worrying about what pretty does, but contenting ourselves with what pretty looks like.

So perhaps Keats was right again:  "That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

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