Elaine Scarry

By: Matthew Battles
June 30, 2010

ELAINE SCARRY (born 1946) is Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. But this title, at once barbed and anesthetized, tells us little about the work of a singular scholar and critic. Scarry’s landmark study The Body in Pain, published in 1985, is a thorough and devastating analysis of torture and what it reveals about the roots — and the limits — of human expression; Dreaming by the Book explores the fondly-recalled worlds into which the books we love immerse us; On Beauty and Being Just advances the idea that Beauty, which is both universally experienced and notoriously hard to define, inculcates fairness by humbling us into silent attention. In the late nineties, Scarry turned her critical attention to aviation safety, gaining notoriety — and attracting criticism — for her dogged insistence that a number of infamous commercial airline crashes were caused by electromagnetic interference from military aircraft. Why would an esteemed scholar of art and sensibility risk her intellectual capital by venturing into a highly-charged debate well outside her expertise? I would argue that it has everything to do with Scarry’s work on art and expression. The events that led to the downing of TWA 800 and EgyptAir 990 were remote, complex, and exceedingly violent; catastrophe not only killed the passengers and crew, but made their silence permanent and irrevocable. To see an airplane crash as a congeries of pain and broken expression may seem abstracted and remote. But for Elaine Scarry, it is the key to spirited and quixotic advocacy of the voiceless dead.



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