Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness


Remarks on Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton University Press, 2007)

Alexander Nehamas is one of the most creative and stimulating philosophers working today. Only a Promise of Happiness is truly an exacting and thrilling book. It contains the most carefully argued contemporary case for beauty as value (or the beautiful as valuable) that I can recall reading. Furthermore, the author’s literary elegance enhances the philosophical precision of the text.

One of the reasons I find the book so compelling is that the author bases so many of his claims on specific examples. Just as art historians (even—perhaps especially—those engaged with theory) generally steer clear of philosophical reasoning, so philosophers usually avoid serious discussion of individual instances in all their messy and bewildering peculiarity. Nehamas is different. His pursuit has led him to cross the boundary from philosophy to art history. I wish more philosophers did so (and I write this as one who eschews art history for a cultural history that relies on artworks and other artifacts). Others have done so, of course—Arthur Danto, and David Carrier—but even there I feel that they usually keep the two areas of thought separate, in case the untidiness of actuality should intrude upon the elegance of abstraction.

Even so, while admiring the attempt, I have to admit to some skepticism regarding the author’s interpretation of Eduard Manet’s Olympia. He claims it to be a representation of a moment of photography. I tried to discuss this puzzle in my book Vermeer’s Wager (and even reproduced Olympia), but I feel that Manet did not so much represent a photographic moment, as produce a representation that could only have been conceived subsequent to the experience of photography as both process and product, and the emergence of the “scopic regime” (I hate the phrase, but it serves) proper to the peculiar circumstances of that medium. This may be a finicky distinction, but in some sense all important. Olympia is a post-photographic painting that is, in a sense, about painting in post-photographic circumstances; yet it is a painting, as Manet’s choice of size (inevitably lost in any discussion dependent on reproductions), if nothing else, makes unambiguously and unavoidably clear. I was left wondering (perhaps obtusely, perhaps impertinently) quite what experiences lay behind the author’s statement on p. 106, “For over three years, I have been looking long and hard at this picture.” I would argue (and have argued) that our knowledge of an artwork is a complex nexus derived from acquaintance with the thing itself, with reproductions of it, and with descriptions of it, that is modified with each encounter with any of these things; yet certain aspects of that artwork can only be known by means of each of these modes of encounter alone. Sorting out how we know what—from what mode of encounter each aspect of our knowledge derives—is an important task, but daunting, given the progressive modification of our impressions. I tried to articulate this in a discussion of Rembrandt’s painting, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam):

Memory, therefore, plays a considerable role in what we might call the individual’s cumulative viewing experience of such a painting. Every viewer already familiar with this painting and its image, whether fleetingly or profoundly, whether from the original or its reproductions, or both, brings memories of it to each new encounter with either the painting itself, or a reproduction of it. The effect is Heraclitan: just as we cannot set foot in the same river twice, so we cannot see the same painting twice. And this is so on two counts. First, the painting changes—the very site, the wall upon which it hangs, the works beside it, the quality of light falling upon it, even its state of conservation. Secondly, the viewer changes, owing to what that viewer has seen since the last encounter with the painting, its reproductions, and the viewer’s acquisition of other forms of knowledge or surmise about it from talk or texts. Memory therefore plays a great part in the constitution of our progressive experience of such a thing—once there is a memory to evoke or invoke. (“Recollections of Rembrandt’s Jeremiah,” Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies, ed. Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxey, Williamstown, Mass: Clark Art Institute, and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 175-186.)

And so I wonder in respect of Manet’s Olympia: What was the author looking at over those three years? What is the constitution of his knowledge of this nexus of painting, reproductions, talk, text, and memories? In the context of his argument I think this really matters: not so much in its specificities, as in the realization and acknowledgement that an artwork is not simply a single thing: even a single thing with both material and immaterial constituents.

I cannot possibly do justice to all Nehamas’s philosophical claims. I hesitate to pick out any more particular points for comment or query, but I shall jump in at pp. 62-63, beginning “That forward-looking element and the risks that attend it are essential to beauty, which withers when it can promise nothing it has not given already, and signals the fading of love.” I read this as one of the author’s major claims, and a profound insight. It makes me ask: How can we sustain love? Through what one might term retrospective prolepsis? Do we look back as if to anticipate what we do not possess, even though we do? This is a complex way indeed of trying to understand uncertainty and its poignancy, the need for trust on a hunch, and the promise of happiness he presents beauty as conveying.

My pencil, though, really worked overtime in the margins of Chapter 3. Do we necessarily cease to find something beautiful once we have grasped it? (Or can we never grasp it? Is enjoyment of the beautiful endlessly deferred, hence only ever a promise?) Nonetheless, beauty creates new societies, and is a matter of community, and these are communities of anticipation (I like this a great deal, if only intuitively). And then we come to the section “Uniformity, Style, Distinction,” beside which I noted, “This section important for why aesthetics matters for history,” which is my own preoccupation. Why? Because aesthetic judgment is not self-contained: it is both personal and social; and then he introduces the puzzle of the relation of aesthetic to moral values that he explores with such finesse towards the end of the book. This was truly breath-taking.

This book is a great achievement. (I have some reservations, although they signify little—the range of reference, despite its chronological depth, is relentlessly western, but that’s my current prejudice; and television is intolerable not so much because of the programs, but because of the intrusion of advertisements.) This is a text to which to return again and again: a demonstration that humane thinking is still being produced in one of our seats of learning, at least! Bravo!