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Some Scarry Topics: From Beauty to TWA 800

By Zachary R. Mider, Crimson Staff Writer

Professor Elaine Scarry points to a print hanging on the wall of her office, an anatomical diagram of a human leg, surrounded by notes in Leonardo Da Vinci's backwards handwriting. Intently, she traces the writing as it merges with the drawing of the leg.

Physicians and artists superimposed inanimate objects on the body during the Renaissance, she explains--books, texts, and compasses appeared under the skin.

This is classic Scarry: insightful, erudite and a little off-the-wall.

In both her research and teaching, she distinguishes herself as one of Harvard's most offbeat and original thinkers.

Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, an endowed position formerly held by Stanley Cavell.

"General Theory of Value?" Scarry says there is no such thing.

Scarry says she interprets her title to simply mean she is "interested in art and beauty, but in a general sense, about how and why we make the judgments about the things that we do."

Her work at Harvard has covered nearly as broad a span as that. Her trains of thought, which often originate in her chosen field of English literature, have ended up in all kinds of places.

In addition to fulfilling the teaching and research responsibilities of a senior English department Faculty member, Scarry works on the Mind, Brain and Behavior interfaculty initiative, writes on war and the social contract and has even studied the effects of electromagnetic pulses on civilian aircraft.

In the Classroom

Unlike many established professors, Scarry prioritizes undergraduate education. In 1997 she won the Levenson award for undergraduate teaching from the Undergraduate Council.

Her course offerings are a mixture of the traditional and the offbeat: a study of the Bronte sisters, a survey of writings on beauty, but also a class examining the problem of subject consent spanning the centuries and a class on literature at the ends of centuries.

Students rave about her courses.

For her Brontes class she got a CUE guide rating of 4.9 out of 5.

"She's one of the most amazing professors at Harvard," says Sara D. Reistad-Long '00, who has been in two of Scarry's seminars. "I always come out of her class thinking she and everybody else [in the class] was brilliant."

Scarry deplores the notion that books must be indecipherable in order to be important. She insists academic life is much more than a flurry of incomprehensible writings exchanged between scholars.

"I don't know how the very aliveness of the universities escapes our attention," she says. "[Universities are] living conversation."

Scarry says that most Harvard faculty members are devoted teachers; the problem is that there aren't enough of them. "Our faculty is too small for the student size." From the perspective of the outside world, she says, "I don't think Harvard is famous for its undergraduate teaching…you don't realize how dedicated these teachers are."

English and Airplanes

Scarry's eclectic interests have sometimes led her in unexpected directions. In 1998, Scarry published an article in the New York Review of Books proposing that electromagnetic interference (EMI) could have caused the TWA 800 crash in 1996.

For Scarry, a highly technical report on an airplane crash was an extension of her work as an English professor.

"They are actually much more connected than you think," she says

While Scarry was working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Palo Alto, she happened to open a folder of notes containing an article that she had filed away in 1989. As she read about electromagnetic interference downing military aircraft, she wondered if civilian aircraft might also be at risk.

Inspired, she researched the issue for several months and concluded that air-disaster investigators were ignoring the risk.

"For about two months I tried to write an op-ed piece," Scarry says. But she feared the article would sound too crazy coming from an English professor.

"I've written other articles about the military before, and I've had no trouble getting them published," she says.

But she knew that in such a high-profile case, an English professor needed carefully documented research to be taken seriously.

"The more I researched it, the more it seemed like a plausible possibility," she says.

The article, published in a special issue of the Review, caused a media buzz. When the major newspapers picked up the story, they often emphasized that she was a "Harvard professor" without mentioning her specialty.

Some critics attacked both her theory and the idea that she was qualified to write an article about such a technical subject.

"I note from the paper itself that Elaine Scarry is professor of 'Aesthetics and General Theory of Value,'" wrote one critic. " I don't know whether her noted authorship includes any titles of relevance to air investigation or EMI."

But Scarry shot back with a long list of experts she had consulted on the subject--engineers, military personnel and prior studies. The New York Review of Books had edited her article three times before publication. It was the longest article the Review had ever agreed to print.

"I think that if you see something wrong, there's no job you could hold that would relieve you of the responsibility of speaking up about it," she says. "Being in the English department doesn't relieve me of that responsibility…I think Locke said, 'The surest way to stop thinking is to only read in one field.'"

The article and the media attention were enough to convince the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which was investigating the crash, to consider the possibility of electromagnetic interference. The board has directed the Joint Spectrum Center and the National Aeronatics and Space Administration (NASA) to look into the matter.

Although the final results of the NASA study have not yet been released, Scarry says she is satisfied that the electromagnetic spectrum is now being considered in that investigation.

But she is not content yet. She says that in the case of two more recent crashes--Swissair 111 and Egypt-Air 990--the electromagnetic spectrum still need to be analyzed.

"The NTSB needs a standing arrangement to examine the external environment immediately after a crash," she says. "I'm not saying that the same thing happened in the two other flights--but that it needs to be investigated."Beautiful People

Beauty is Scarry's major concern for the moment. In 1999, her On Beauty and Being Just argued that there is a correlation between aesthetic pleasure and social responsibility.

Illustrating her points with a smattering of Great Literature, Scarry argues that beauty leads to justice. For Scarry, noticing something that a person knows is beautiful makes them question those things they have overlooked.

"Beauty, sooner or later, brings us into contact with our own capacity for making errors," she writes.

According to her notion, a person contemplating a beautiful object is "decentered" by their awareness of beauty outside of themselves. This helps them act ethically toward others.

The book, which is pitched for a more general audience that her other books, has sold well--it is in its second printing--but has faced mixed reviews.

Some critics claim that Scarry does not face the opposition head-on--feminist criticisms of beauty, for instance, are only mentioned obliquely, critics say, and she does not respond to their best arguments.

Others say that Scarry is just out of touch.

Since Scarry says beauty is a personal experience, tied up with the act of noticing, she relates anecdotes from her own life.

In On Beauty, Scarry provides a list of delicate, pastel pleasures: waving palm trees, vases, gardens, poems. But her critics ask, isn't there more to beauty than that? Isn't there beauty not only in symmetry but in roughness? Perhaps Scarry is mislabeling a particular brand of beauty as the universal type, they say.

New York University professor Suzie Linfield says that Scarry is just sketching a personal ideal. Although pleasant, Scarry's book "has no connection to the real world that we inhabit," Linfield wrote in The L.A. Times.

But some reviewers have praised Scarry's book as a successful defense of beauty. In a New York Review of Books article, philosopher Stuart Hampshire (who gets a mention in her book) praised On Beauty in highest possible terms, calling it an "utterly original blast for beauty" and a revival of a grand tradition of "the arts of attention, of exaggerated noticing."

In response to the critiques of beauty, Scarry says she intends to publish another book to defend beauty in more detail.

"I need to write a follow-up piece, explaining with additional examples the connection of beauty to justice," she says. "I hope that later in the spring to write a piece both about that and about the place of pluralism in the realms of beauty and justice."

But Scarry admits that beauty doesn't have to be delicate.

The yellow crane floating over Widener? Beautiful, she says.

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