In this elegant new study Galen Johnson retrieves the concept of the beautiful through the framework of Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics. Although Merleau-Ponty seldom spoke directly of beauty, his philosophy is essentially about the beautiful.
In Johnson’s formulation, the ontology of Flesh as element and the ontology of the Beautiful as elemental are folded together, for Desire, Love, and Beauty are part of the fabric of the world’s element, Flesh itself, the term at which Merleau-Ponty arrived to replace Substance, Matter, or Life as the name of Being.
Merleau-Ponty’s Eye and Mind is at the core of the book, so Johnson engages, as Merleau-Ponty did, the writings and visual work of Paul Cézanne, Auguste Rodin, and Paul Klee, as well as Rilke’s commentary on Cézanne and Rodin. From these widely varying aesthetics emerge the fundamental themes of the retrieval of the beautiful: desire, repetition, difference, rhythm, and the sublime. The third part of Johnson’s book takes each of these up in turn, bringing Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic thinking into dialogue with classical philosophy as well as Sartre, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Deleuze. Johnson concludes his final chapter with a direct dialogue with Kant and Merleau-Ponty, and also Lyotard, on the subject of the beautiful and the sublime. As we experience with Rodin’s Balzac, beauty and the sublime blend into one another when the beautiful grows powerful, majestic, mysterious, and transcendent.