WHEN ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN won the Nobel Prize in 1970 he spoke of how he imagined speaking to the world when imprisoned in the gulag. In freezing darkness he composed speeches in his mind. But when he stood before the Nobel Committee in Stockholm and all the world could hear, he quoted his mentor, Dostoyevsky – who’d also survived Siberian prison camps to write these words: “Beauty will save the World.”
In 1998 I gave a series of lectures in Russia shortly after the rouble collapsed. Professors were living on soup and tea and bread. Students faced the prospect of no jobs at all; it was cold, some were hungry. With trepidation on the board in front of them I wrote the words – Beauty Will Save the World. I expected skepticism, even derision. But immediately one girl cried out: “Dostoyevsky!” – as if she were greeting a good friend.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Is it true?”
“Dostoyevsky wouldn’t lie,” the girl proclaimed.
“Could it work?” I asked the class.
They were silent. A boy in a leather jacket shrugged his shoulders and raised his hand. “Why not?” he asked. “Nothing else has worked. Politics doesn’t work.”
“Money doesn’t save the world,” another voice said. “Why not try beauty?”
How can we do that? Is it that simple?
Even the grammar – even you could say, the linguistic authority – of Beauty is tricky, so talking about it in the first instance is complex. Beauty may be called an abstract word – but it does not behave like an abstraction.
If you want to try boating you need to know what a boat is and how it works. If you want to try beauty – well, that’s a whole different thing. The OED, describing beauty as an abstract noun, gives the example from Edmund Burke’s famous treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful: “Beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses”.
Burke is not describing something that is apart from material objects. According to him, beauty is in bodies and works through the sense and affects the mind. When I read Burke’s description I am impressed by the sensuality of beauty. Like other so called abstract nouns – Wisdom, Peace, Goodness, Love – it exists in relation to people, places, thoughts, and things.