“What is a WEEKEND?” — The Dowager Countess of Grantham (stylization ours)
On March 25 and 26, 1998 Elaine Scarry delivered a provocative series of lectures at Yale about the ethical and political worth of beauty. Dubbed “On Beauty and Being Just,” Scarry’s comments ranged across disciplines, from Plato to Da Vinci in a way that only a DS student could love. Her thesis — that the apprehension of beauty leads to (and can be the source of) ethical action, that “beauty brings copies of itself into being” — served as a rallying cry for conservative thinkers who saw “politically correct” thinking at odds with normative values.
In 2005, Zadie Smith published “On Beauty,” a novel that took Scarry’s lecture, clipped the end of the title, and left the reader puzzling at the conclusions. What is the worth of beauty, Smith asked, when our judgments differ so strongly by race and class? Her plot circles around a liberal arts college in New England. Her characters bicker about art history, literature and the point of an expensive education.
Though, at WEEKEND, we’re more likely to ask Smith for a selfie than pretend to be on her level of astuteness, we believe that it’s important to ask the same questions — to admire the centralizing goals of Scarry’s lectures while dealing honestly with the exceptions to such theories. Our cover this week takes up the issue of Yale’s purpose. Our features investigate the value of tradition, at the Yale Bowl, and the implications of image, how photography affects our vision of Africa.
This is the last issue that we, Yanan, Elaina and Jackson, will edit. This is the last time we get to frame the questions. We believe we’ve interrogated some of the most important issues on campus — mental health, city politics, student life — but no matter how high we set our ideals, we have to admit the physical legacy of our work is minimal: we’ve made 26 12-page issues, 312 pieces of paper, a week’s worth of reading for a moderately difficult class. We can talk about the beautiful — the perfect image or idea — but whatever we construct is set in time. We, as editors, don’t have more time.
Of course we’re proud of the physical product. We can’t believe how beautiful Mohan and Emma have made our paper, we’re in awe of Brianna’s photography, and by now we’ve run out of positive adjectives for Annelisa’s illustrations. We’re privileged to be part of the subjective arm of the News, where we have the chance to spend more time on individual pieces, where we can use WKND copy stylez, where we can run humor up against serious work.
But were all those pages, all those articles, equal to the effort? We can’t deny that there are better ways to use 26 Thursday nights. Is it worth it to lose that time? To disentangle yourself from the world in order to write?
In her keynote lecture, “Why Write? Creativity and Refusal” at the Windham Campbell Literature Prizes festival last Monday, Zadie Smith quoted and complicated Orwell’s response to that last question. Her, and his, reasons range from the political to the egoistic, but Smith argued, her favorite was the aesthetic — you write to produce beautiful sentences. In the age of the internet, when Smith pointed out, sentences may simply “unhook” themselves from their authors and float freely among message boards and anonymous speculation, those sentences are all you have. The hope, perhaps, is that they catch on something along the way — that they cause a reader to close their other tabs, put down their phone and pay attention.
Beauty is valuable, Scarry said, because it produces more beauty. We want to mimic it. Writing that is valuable, we believe, produces more writing. It approaches something like the truth — or, at least, it refuses to take other people’s truth for granted. But you don’t mimic writing; you challenge it, follow the investigation further, reveal the overlooked issue, try rallying the facts around the opposite argument.
We hope that, under our editorship, WEEKEND has been beautiful in that we hope it has inspired imitation. We want the section to last. We want future editors to aspire to just as high a standard.
But we want more than imitation. We hope that people, inside and outside of our section, challenge our work, question our words and refuse our premises. We hope that, in reading us, they’ll be inspired to create something better.