Tuesday, November 22, 2011

David Rothenberg's "Survival of the Beautiful"

David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

He has written and performed on the relationship between humanity and nature for many years. His books include Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds, and Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales. Other books include Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record, Hand’s End, and Always the Mountains.

Rothenberg applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Survival of the Beautiful I am in the middle of an interview with ornithologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Prum, who believes that biology has not been paying enough attention to aesthetics for the last hundred years or so. We’re off on a tangent as to whether sex is an art form. Prum asks: “So do beautiful people have greater sexual pleasure than ugly people? To me the answer is no. Now, one may lust after whomever, but the very fact that a larger audience of people would think that the people involved in the sex act are actually lovely or attractive to a greater number of people does not speak to the quality of the sexual experience of those people. All the broken marriages in Hollywood support the view that a lot of beautiful people have really shitty experiences—it is kind of related to this aesthetic question. We are constrained by our biology, in terms of sex, but also in terms of art. Until the ear actually evolves, we have a certain standard set of potential harmonic capacities to appreciate sound.”

Though perhaps page 100 is more interesting, where there is an illustration from Prum’s remarkable experiment trying to understand the intricacies of the corkscrew-like penis of the Pekin Duck, along with the appropriately convoluted Pekin Duck vagina. Really, there’s nothing like this in the rest of the book, I promise. Or maybe there is… later we have male cuttlefish changing themselves into females temporarily to distract more dominant males so the little males can sneak in and mate with the best females… And we have the purple prose of surrealist animal sex writer Wilhelm Bölsche, a now-forgotten bestselling writer of the 19-oughts... though sorry this is from page 48: “An animal is as if bewitched during loving- time. In all its feelings it belongs to another dimension... for a more or less brief period of intoxication it is a citizen of another world sky-high above the ordinary cares of life. Something in the animal reaches out beyond the individual: that something is the life of the species, which wanders over generations, over millenniums.... The time of love’s feelings becomes ... a time of liberated aesthetic inner life, a time of beauty.”
Learn more about the book and author at the Survival of the Beautiful website.

Writers Read: David Rothenberg.

--Marshal Zeringue