What is beauty? The question is a highly subjective one, and as such the debate around the beautiful in art and literature has a history as long as culture itself. The Recovery of Beauty lecture series examined the changing idea of beauty through the ages, and asked whether and how beauty can be reinstated as real and valuable. Selected podcasts on literature are below; the full series can be downloaded from the Institute of Advanced Study.
Mindful Beauty: Ideas and Ideals in Medieval Literature, by Professor Corinne Saunders
This lecture takes as its focus conflicting understandings of female beauty, which on the one hand can be linked to divine perfection and grace and on the other to temptation and fall. In medieval romance, female beauty is an imperative, inspiring chivalric perfection but also dangerous and destructive. The prominent literary motif of the enchantress depends on just this duality. Writers such as Chaucer and Malory engage repeatedly with the fearful fascination of female beauty, the power of affect over the individual mind, and the need for mindful interpretation. [MP3 version]
Bathing for Beauty in the Middle Ages, by Professor Elizabeth Archibald
Was it common for people to have baths in Western Europe in the Middle Ages? How and where did they bathe? What was the main motivation: beauty, health, or pleasure? What sort of evidence is available for historical bathing practices, and does medieval literature give an accurate reflection of them? And what did the Church think about bathing? Elizabeth Archibald’s lecture will offer an overview of this rich topic. [MP3 version]
Bloomsbury, Beauty and After: Idealist Aesthetics in Materialist Times, by Professor Patricia Waugh
The Bloomsbury Group are most often associated with the Cambridge philosopher G.E Moore’s belief that “one’s prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge.” Beauty is at the heart of Bloomsbury aesthetics. This lecture examines how Virginia Woolf, like Moore, set out specifically to rewrite the soul and to rethink thinking, in the terms of the modern, and through the resources of fiction. Woolf saw modern fiction as most able to articulate a new soul for a world in which everything is “part ugliness, part beauty.” She uses the resources of literary art to resist an encroaching metaphysics of materialism, on the one hand, and to renegotiate the legacies of aesthetic idealism, on the other. The idea of beauty that emerges is passed onto and reworked by later philosophically inclined novelists, such as Iris Murdoch. [MP3 version]
Beauty, Pain and Violence: Through Lessing to King Lear, by Professor David Fuller
For Keats (citing King Lear), in art “all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty.” And Yeats found that he could “hear the dance music” in all Shakespearean tragedy. This lecture discusses the relationships of pain and violence to beauty in tragedy through the criticism of G.E. Lessing (Laocoőn, 1776) and Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872), approaching King Lear through tragic works in which beauty more obviously qualifies violence, Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra, and Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Mayerling. [MP3 version]
The lecture series was complemented by another on the Persistence of Beauty, which focused on beauty in British, Irish and American poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.