She reached her greatest notoriety, posthumously, in the work of her husband John Bayley, who penned a moving memoir of his wife’s slow and emotionally wrenching descent into Alzheimer’s disease. To hear the story of one of the brightest women of her time gradually losing her mind is, to say the least, unnerving. But due to Bayley’s artful telling, the experience becomes, almost despite itself, uplifting as well.
But a great and true work of art does not aim to please. Rather, it presents itself in its integrity on its own terms, remaining fundamentally indifferent to the reaction of the viewer or listener. In a scene from his autobiographical masterpiece, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, James Joyce brilliantly displays the dynamics of confronting the truly beautiful. Stephen Daedalus (Joyce’s fictional alter-ego) is pacing listlessly on the strand outside of Dublin when he spies, standing out in the surf, a woman of surpassing beauty. He is stopped in his tracks–in the state of aesthetic arrest–and takes the woman in. She turns to him at one point and “quietly suffered his gaze,” before turning back to look out at the open sea. Indifferent to his feelings or reactions, she allowed him to watch. Finally, changed utterly by this encounter, Stephen cried out, “Oh, heavenly God” and resolved from that moment on to become an artist, a reporter of such epiphanies of the beautiful. The lovely girl standing just off the strand did not so much please Stephen Daedalus as change him, drawing him effectively out of his morose self-regard and giving him his vocation. Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, in a very similar vein, that the beautiful elects the observer and then sends him on mission to announce what he has seen. Not many years ago, Rolling Stone magazine asked a number of prominent popular musicians to name the song that first “rocked their world.” Some of the responses were relatively banal, but the vast majority of them had a Joycean resonance: the respondents knew instinctively the difference between songs (however great) that had merely pleased them and songs that had shaken them out of their complacency and rearranged their vision things. This kind of aesthetic encounter is the spiritual exercise that Murdoch is speaking of.
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