Varieties of something or other

Via ThisDarkQualm I see that David Foster Wallace has an written an essay about watching Roger Federer play tennis. In typical DFW style the essay is quite long, so I haven't yet finished it, but this passage caught my eye:
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
|David Foster Wallace: Roger Federer as Religious Experience|

As it happens, I spent some time thinking about beauty while walking to work this morning. The particular problem that had me going had to do with how one could account for the value of beautiful things. This has puzzled me for awhile because, on the one hand, the old idea that value can be innate in the thing itself seems metaphysically irresponsible, while on the other the newer idea that value reduces to a prescription asserted by an observer seems unequipped to explain how we could hold some valuings to be wrong.

Generally I try to resolve these sorts of dilemmas by resorting to my own idiosyncratic bastardization of American Pragmatism. So, roughly, what I want to say is that the deep truths about value (such as they are) are found in the reasons we give one another for valuing the things that we do. The thing that tends to make people (and me!) queasy about that sort of account is that it doesn't explain, in any general way, what it is about the reasons we share which makes some reasons stronger than others. In the case of beauty, moreover, there's clearly something extremely significant about the immediate experience of a thing as beautiful, something which precedes any reasons we might later articulate and which, if we're lucky, feels like a connection to the sublime. On the other hand, DFW has pretty well convinced me that Roger Federer plays beautiful tennis and that I ought to value the experience of watching Roger Federer play tennis, and that's not nothing.

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