My newborn son is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
Like any beauty I suppose, it's hard to say what exactly this beauty consists in. “They look familiar,” our friend Ellie said, when trying to describe what it's like to see your child for the first time — and as far as my son’s concerned, that certainly rings true. His face is a mash-up of the faces of me and my partner: her brow, her eyes, my cheeks, my mouth, her chin. The same nose I had when I was a little baby, according to photographic evidence. My family thinks he looks like me; her family thinks he looks like her dad.
But he’s more than just a simple remix of us. His face is already uniquely, distinctively, his own. The way he furrows his little face up when he’s awake and alert; the little “o” he makes when he’s sucking the air, indicating he wants to feed. The little double chin this once-gaunt baby has already piled on, formed from all the milk he constantly demands to consume. Quizzical, splayed out on the changing table, stretching his arms to their full span like he’s trying to block a shot in basketball, reaching up to my glasses whenever I put my face down and trying to wrench them off.
One day, I’m sure, I'll be able to read his personality back into the face he has now, the same way you can usually tell which child a loved one was in old photographs. But for now, I can only speculate, beaming with pride at the image of a lively, curious child that I have largely constructed for myself based on a few dim clues.
Part of what makes the beauty of my son so thrilling is that it’s so unlike the beauty of anything else I’ve ever seen before. I don’t think I had ever found a baby beautiful. “Cute” would have been the word I used — but cuteness is not exactly beauty. There is nothing transcendent about cuteness. Cuteness does not mark one; one simply coos over it, momentarily. Neither is my son’s beauty at all like any other beauty I’ve previously experienced. My son is beautiful, to me — as is my son’s mother, as is J.M.W. Turner’s painting Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway. But my son’s beauty does something to me entirely unlike what a beautiful woman or painting does to me.
But is my son really all that beautiful? Obviously, on a certain level, I know I’m biased; it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that biology does weird shit to you, when you're holding your own child. Is there anything objective in what I perceive as the beauty of my son? Or have I been entirely deluded by the fact that I'm his father? Where I see the most beautiful thing in the world, does everyone else just see a little wrinkled-up old man?
If Kant were right about all this, then I doubt I could coherently maintain that my son was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
In his treatise on aesthetics, Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant distinguishes between “beauty” and “agreeableness.” For Kant, beauty is disinterested — “merely pleasing” for its own sake. By contrast, “the agreeable is that which pleases the sensation in sensation.” Agreeable things not only “please” but “gratify” — I suppose in the way that one is gratified by sex or food. Likewise, the beautiful is also distinguished from “the good”: beautiful things are not pleasing because they are (for instance) useful. Beauty has no end but beauty alone:
“If the question is whether something is beautiful, one does not want to know whether there is anything that is or could be at stake, for us or someone else, in the existence of the thing, but rather how we judge it in mere contemplation. If someone asks me whether I find the palace that I see before me beautiful, I may well say that I don't like that sort of thing... I might even vilify the vanity of the great who waste the sweat of the people on such superfluous things... but that is not what is at issue here. One only wants to know whether the mere representation of the object is accompanied with satisfaction in me, however indifferent I might be with regard to the existence of the object of this representation.”
Because it is (supposedly) disinterested, beauty is objective. When it comes to the agreeable, Kant tells us, everyone has a right to their own taste. It makes complete sense for someone to say that “sparkling wine from the Canaries” is “agreeable to me” — without that then implying that everyone else ought to enjoy it too (although one might still be inclined to try and share the pleasure with one's friends — which might also involve pointing out what one finds agreeable about it). “With the beautiful,” however, things are “entirely different.” “It would be ridiculous,” Kant tells us, if someone said that a building was simply beautiful “for me”:
“For he must not call it beautiful if it pleases merely him... if he pronounces that something is beautiful, then he expects the very same satisfaction of others: he judges not merely for himself, but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Hence he says that the thing is beautiful, and does not count on the agreement of others with his judgment of satisfaction because he has frequently found them to be agreeable with his own, but rather demands it from them.”
If Kant were right about all this, then I doubt I could coherently maintain that my son was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. If so, I would have to honestly expect that everyone else could see, it too. My son is marvelous, but I cannot see him without seeing what he represents to me — and obviously he doesn’t also represent that to other people, because he is not their child. He has not made a father of anyone else, he does not seem to have set them upon a different future than any to which they might have otherwise have aspired. When I hover over my son as he sleeps softly in his Moses basket, I feel what I suppose could be described as a sort of calm. But there is nothing disinterested about my contemplation.
But then I wonder where Kant even got the idea that beauty might be “disinterested” in the first place. When we talk about beauty — as when we talk pretty much about anything — our discourse is suffused with various forms of material interest. Beauty is not detached from sensory satisfaction; it does not spin frictionless from life as lived. Often, experiences of beauty can be troubling, decentering: they can take us away from ourselves, from our established image of who we are. That certainly felt like the case, for me, when I first saw my son — and though, as I say, I do sometimes look on him calmly, in many ways this experience remains ongoing. He is making a father of me.
When Kant talks about experiences of beauty, he tells us that any critic would “demand” the same judgment from their audience. But it strikes me that what distinguishes experiences of beauty is that beautiful things demand something from us — something which we may well be unable to give them. The demand, such as it is, will be different depending on the object. Often it might genuinely just be aesthetic appreciation — think of that feeling, when one sees a particularly beautiful painting, that one cannot quite appreciate it fully, that one lacks the expertise to do it justice. But the demand could equally be something like sexual satisfaction. Not all beauty is erotic, but it seems bizarre for Kant to have attempted to reduce eroticism away from beauty entirely.
When I hold my son in my arms, he demands many specific things from me: to be warmer or cooler or propped up in a different position; to have his diaper changed; to be handed to his mother so he can be fed. But overall, what his beauty demands of me is simply care. His beauty imprints on me a duty more powerful than any I have ever previously experienced: to ensure his survival, his flourishing, his happiness. That is why, I think, my son is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.