Prompted by Henry James' wanders in London's St. James Park, I'm reflecting on the amorality of beauty. A sample:
Gardens...can offer what Santayana called ''holiday reality'': respite from more general workaday cares. ''It is,'' writes Santayana, ''an affectation of the soul, a consciousness of joy … a pang, a dream, a pure pleasure.'' In St James's Park, Henry James was relieved of money worries, aggravating friction with his brother, and his own chronic loneliness. He was preoccupied, not by some grand cosmic ideal, but by aesthetic gratification. It was straightforward and immediate. The subsequent ''swell of consciousness'' he noted wasn't for anything - it was the means to its own end. The whole point was pleasure.
This is liberating, but also a little frightening: it shows how easily the psyche is relieved of its grown-up commitments, and how enjoyable this is. The well-worn patina of mature righteousness is cracked: we indulge ourselves. If anything, this recognition is cause for a certain humility: it wards off self-righteousness, by revealing how aesthetic desire can coexist with altruism, generosity, stalwartness. It shows how readily we seek asylum: but not always high-mindedly.
In St James's Park, Henry James demonstrated one of the garden's signature powers: illuminating the cracks of spirit that divide good souls.(Photo: R.J. McNaughton)