«The effect that beauty has on us is not superficial»
Philosopher, novelist and journalist, Charles Pépin has authored ten or so books that have been translated in many languages. Through his work titled “Quand la beauté nous sauve” (When beauty saves us) he invites us to look up to beauty as a way of experiencing a meaningful encounter with ourselves.
We tend to think of beauty as related to superficiality and yet it is the topic of your latest philosophy essay…
One must distinguish beauty from the pleasure procured by contemplation. We are superficial “out of profundity”, as Nietzsche claimed. That means that our relationship with superficiality sometimes incorporates deep and ambiguous issues. Beauty is generally taken as referring to appearance, but the way in which we are stirred by that which appears before us – a painting, a landscape or music – speaks to our inner complexity. “Beauty is always bizarre”, wrote Baudelaire. We are indeed often surprised by that which moves us, providing we are free-spirited in our relationship with beauty. On the other hand, if we succumb to a fragrance because its advertising campaign appealed to us, we are not experiencing an aesthetic emotion, but merely obeying commercial dictates.
At the start of your book, you mention Kant who sees from his window the beauty of nature bursting forth because it is suddenly “released” due to the absence of his gardener who is unwell. Is beauty something that breaks free, transgresses and astonishes?
I think it often emerges in the midst of daily life when we are not expecting it, if we’re prepared to perceive and receive it. But one of the problems of our era is that we find it hard to open our eyes because they are so glued to our schedules, and because we are so ruled by day-to-day constraints. Yet as soon as beauty touches us, it makes us fully present in the world and in touch with ourselves.
You mention that “beauty restores our freedom, our power, our ability to trust ourselves, to listen to ourselves”, and that to appreciate a work of art, it is better to approach it in a spontaneous manner…
If when visiting a museum you listen too closely to the tour guides and hunt for the promised explanations in the works you’re observing, you’ll find it hard to have a genuinely aesthetic experience. That’s why I believe we should distrust scholars! I’m not saying we shouldn’t listen to them… The path of culture and knowledge is legitimate, but we simply must be able to break free of this information and allow ourselves to listen to our inner voice and to trust ourselves.
Can one deliberately multiply occasions for encounters with beauty?
We just have to open our eyes! When I’m in the train for Nantes, a trip I often make, I never tire of admiring the scenery along the Loire River, whereas many of my fellow passengers are immersed in reading the gutter press which appeals to our baser instincts! And when I arrive early for an appointment, I look up at the sky! Beauty is everywhere and we are all able to receive it.
The title of your book Quand la beauté nous sauve (When beauty saves us) is both optimistic and alarming. From what does beauty save us?
We are saved from a tendency to have our identity reduced through being defined by a location, a profession, a level of income or social status. We are saved from the ironic relativism of our era, which makes us sarcastic and detaches us from any conviction. As soon as we stop confining beauty to conventions and dogma, we discover ourselves in a larger format. When I listen to Bach, I am convinced that this beauty is crazy and that the absolute exists. I am saved from mediocrity, and that does me a lot of good!
Must beauty save us in a particular way in these modern times?
Yes, I think it is even more salutary today in that we are caught up in representation networks and multiple connections that prevent us from being truly present in the world. Even though social networks also enable us to share beautiful aesthetic experiences. We are also facing constant challenges to established points of reference, which increases our need to rely on our intuition. Aesthetic experience is beneficial in this respect because it teaches us to listen to ourselves without having to depend on criteria or rules.
“Beauty gives us the power to trust ourselves”, you write. But if I fall in love with a film that is destroyed by critics, my own confidence can be undermined.
Strengthening self-confidence means acquiring a process of learning how to be free that is neither easy nor comfortable. What counts is not what shapes beauty nor what art critics think, but instead the effect beauty has on us, what it transforms in us.
Which experiences of beauty have had an impact on you?
There are so many. I remember powerful experiences as a child amid the scenery of the Burgundy countryside; the light of Corsica, the music of Bowie, Bach, Ray Charles… And I was recently bowled over by the singer Rodriguez, nicknamed “Sugar Man”. Reading Hegel also moves me, when he develops the idea that beauty conveys meaning and that this relationship with meaning can be literally perceptible. In actual fact, spending time with beauty heals me from excessive intellectualization, helps me let go.
Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters
“Quand la beauté nous sauve” Editions Robert Laffont - 2013