For Hickey, beauty is simple and transactional. A thing gives you a feeling of beauty and so that thing is beautiful. A muscle car revs and you tremble with joy and so the car is beautiful. It presumes that the search for beauty is almost hermetically sealed, perhaps a product of complex social forces, but never subservient to them and almost wholly autonomous in its own existence. But as Oppenheimer writes, the most cogent allegation “lobbed against Hickey was that in the end he wanted just as badly as everyone else to justify beauty by principles or values external to it. That in triangulating between leftists … who believed that beauty was too often an agent of injustice, and humanists … who saw beauty as an agent of justice, Hickey had failed to challenge their shared premise that it had to be an agent of something other than itself at all.” In other words, it isn’t the muscle car itself that’s beautiful, but beauty is the word we use to denote the muscle car’s invitation to explore the gratuitous heft of the world. My own suspicion is that Hickey and other strictly secular writers want to place beauty wholly within or wholly outside of the beautiful object because to permit a double vision, that an object is itself while simultaneously suggesting a mysterious vortex of extraneous and ultimately unknowable meaning, is to in some small way recognize the divine.
Ultimately, I think this is the rot buried deep in the center of Hickey’s ideas. In his fantasy of autonomous platoons organized around temporary and transitory desires, he was really advocating for the dissolution of the larger weltanschauung that makes joy possible and truth knowable. In his book on Plato, Eric Voegelin writes that “[When] the experience of participation in a universal order is lost, reality is reduced to the life of passions in the individual human being; hence the universality of order must be reconstructed out of the only elements that are experienced as real. If passion is the only reality, the order—which after a fashion exists even in a corrupt society—must be construed as the result of an agreement between the passionate individuals.” Voegelin categorizes this dénouement as “falling into a dream.” I’m not sure if there’s a better description of our slow collective plunge into isolation and illusion. Beauty wasn’t killed. Our hearts were just made comatose enough that we can no longer value or recognize it.
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