When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Forget the blackbirds for now. The question is: how many ways are there of questioning theory in our age? And if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the earth wobbles under the weight of six billion beholders, what is beauty then? Or is beauty unmentionable in academe, despite the indiscretions of some scholars–Elaine Scarry, Fred Turner, Charles Jencks, among others–who have recently taken the name of beauty in vain?
Again, forget beauty and the blackbirds; think of geography. Thomas Friedman went home one day and said to his wife, “Honey, I think the world is flat.” He was echoing a technocrat in Bangalore who said to him, “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” Leveled or flattened, they both meant the world is very round: interactive, interdependent, instantaneous, contemporaneous–and viciously fractious withal.
The Taliban vandalize priceless Buddhist statues; thieves armed with computers loot Aztec and Assyrian treasures; fatwa establish new guidelines for literary criticism; and the great museums of the world wrangle with governments, with history itself, about the patrimonies of art. This is a nasty condition, both flat and round. What kind of literary theory, what kind of aesthetics generally, can emerge from a world that defies Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries with every diurnal spin?
The answer to these real and mock queries seems lost in partisanship [End Page 1] and prejudice, abrasive ideologies and slick skepticism. Sane critics may look for a way out in ideas of pluralism, eclecticism, hybridity, and cosmopolitanism, recently propounded by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Sooner or later, though, these ideas crash on the realities of our time: “ethnic violence, economic volatility, and empires in decline,” as Niall Ferguson puts it in The War of the World. Above all, they crash on the obdurate self, on self-interest without borders. Is there a way out?
World history tends to abstractions that art can flesh. Last year, the Louvre sponsored an ambitious, multi-disciplinary event called “The Foreigner’s Home.” Toni Morrison served as presiding spirit. She chose Géricault’s painting of 1819, “The Raft of the Medusa,” as an icon for her theme. For her, the distraught sailors struggling to stay afloat provides a haunting–perhaps also melodramatic–image of millions in search of new homes, wandering about, as she put it, “like nomads between despair and hope, breath and death.” More…