On Beauty

In 1869, American writer Henry James wrote to his father describing his first meeting with the English novelist George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans), who was 49 years old at the time:

“She is magnificently ugly,” James wrote. “She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth…Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

James goes on to counter his judgement of ‘magnificent ugliness’ with praise of Eliot’s ‘delightful expression’, ‘a voice soft and rich as that of a counselling angel’, her inner store of knowledge, and ‘a great feminine dignity and character in these massively plain features’. Eliot herself might be said to be the opposite of her character Hetty Sorrel, from Adam Bede, whose attractive appearance does not correspond to inner beauty. The juxtaposition between internal and external beauty has long preoccupied writers and philosophers, but in an age that is so fixated on surfaces, has the boundary between inner and outer been gradually eroded?

Beauty, a once elusive concept, has been rendered straightforward in modern media, a beauty promising health, prosperity, and success, even love. Yet beauty is meant to be multifaceted, not fixed in the image of the decorated waif. As Umberto Eco’s tome, On Beauty, shows, the idea of the beautiful is transient and fluid, shifting iridescently from one era to the next (in spite of what sociobiologists claim), from one culture to the next, so that at one point what developed cultures in the 21st century might consider to be hideous was upheld as the paragon of beauty.

But is it perhaps the case that we fail to carve out a space for differences? Anxiety surrounding women’s body image indicates the failure to move beyond one totalizing idea of what constitutes beauty. The female body has long been the battle ground of ideologies surrounding beauty. Almost every woman I know has struggled with issues of insecurity, forever shadowed by the rhetoric of ‘not enough’ – not thin enough, not sexy enough, not curvy enough, not tall enough, not pale enough, not sweet enough, not feminine enough. And the list goes on. It is bewildering that in a finite lifetime we should be exposed to such an interminable list of demands to be everything other than we are.

The problem of beauty, like the problem of wealth, is a distributive one, though unlike wealth, it cannot be accumulated – at least not without financial backing, ironically. As the National Geographic article points out, we are continually frustrated and confused by the fact that in an age that strives towards equality all are not created equal. That inequality is heightened by the insistence on homogenization, as exemplified by the culture of cosmetic surgery. Why is it that we can applaud all manner of monstrosity in popular media, praise incongruous planks of concrete as great architecture, sloppily-written pornography as literature, yet we sometimes have difficulty seeing the good in someone (which might be ourselves) who does not conform to media-saturated standards of beauty? If a woman as extraordinary as Eleanor Roosevelt could name the lack of a pretty face as her one regret in life, then we need to ask what value our world places on all the accomplishments and contributions that stem from an entirely non-physical kind of beauty?

In the world of romance, the idea of the beautiful is even more problematic. Every bookish girl has perhaps dreamed of discovering her inner Jane Eyre, and delivering Jane’s impassioned speech to a Mr. Rochester:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you!”

That beauty, like wealth, is a form of capital in the market of love might make it difficult for many to see the value of a particular kind of ‘impoverishment’. And unlike Mr. Rochester, many would leave without hesitation. Beauty exists in the eye of the beholder – yes, but human affection is neither simple nor lasting. When the beholder ceases to behold our optimal selves, what are we left with aside from a husk stripped of its rose-tinted exterior? Endymion, in Keats’s revision of the myth, gives up the hunt for the goddess and embraces the Indian maid, only to discover that the maid was in fact the goddess herself; this is Keats’s attempt to reconcile internal and external beauty. But in the world outside poetry, the dangerous allure of the unattainable does not turn us into an Aeolian shepherd, but rather the dog in Aesop’s Tales, staring dreamily at its own reflection. Beauty remains that which enthralls and enchants us – we are done and undone by beauty. We can continue to tell ourselves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that it is only skin deep, but ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ will continue to fracture families and precipitate conflict.

If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then in our never-ending quest for perfect beauty (exemplified by the cosmetics industry and plastic surgery), we have lost sight of what is true. In the culture of superficial judgments, we are all judges and victims. Improving one’s appearance and polishing one’s self-image on social media at times comes at the cost of neglecting or even corroding one’s internal self, that which truly needs tending to. The entanglements of visual spectacle and desire have created ‘mind-forged manacles’ with which we have shackled our true selves. But to accept that perfection cannot exist in the self in the physical sense is also to see that perfection does not exist in the form of celebrities and models and ideal loves. The cult of the celebrity, a baggage left over from the Romantic era, has done us much harm, nowadays deepened by digital technology that easily disseminates these images of seeming perfection to all corners of the world, creating the illusion that perfection exists, that it is desirable and attainable.

In the world of love, such judgements are perhaps even more evident, as online dating and problematic apps such as Tinder capitalize on the ideal of external beauty, and make it so much easier to ‘walk away’ from that which fails to meet the illusory standard. Any value beneath the surface is no longer mined, but simply left buried. A show like Mad Men has gone some way towards debunking the myth that only a typically beautiful woman, admired by many, is worthy of love, for Don Draper’s marriages to the statuesque Betty and the alluring Megan (dancing provocatively to Bisou Bisou) have hardly presented pictures of enduring love. In interpersonal relationships, we need to stop treating one another as disposable consumerist goods – the invasion of market mentality into the domain of love is, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues, what renders love so rare in our liquid modernity. To find that which endures, we must demand of ourselves patience and sympathy, instead of giving in to the impulse to press ‘delete’. Moreover, the pursuit of the non-existent ideal, while it is a very human pursuit, is a dream from which we ought to awaken. We need to move forward to a post-Romantic world – the intrinsically and tragically Romantic pursuit of the blue flower or the chimeric spirit that forever recedes from us is no longer a sustainable activity for the mind.

Positive media have encouraged the cultivating of self-respect to counter the insidious effects of the fashion and cosmetic industries and the culture of dating. Yes, it is true that everyone could benefit from the kind of self-respect described by Joan Didion, a sense of one’s intrinsic worth that ‘free[s] us from the expectations of others, [and] give[s] us back to ourselves’. But as a society, we need to do more than that. It is all very well to encourage therapeutic or spiritual processes of arriving at a more sustained sense of self-worth. But we cannot leave individuals to pine away, hoping therapy or the occasional positive media would help, while exulting those who just happened to win the genetic lottery. For one, cases of eating disorders, depression and even suicide comport us to act humanely in the face of inequality. We need to redefine the concept of beauty – it is not simply a matter of internal vs. external. We need to accept that perfection does not exist in an imperfect world.

Much of the resistance to accept differences, to move beyond superficiality, is simply a resistance against changing one’s mentality, arguably the hardest thing to do. But just as George Eliot gave Henry James a completely new meaning of the word ‘beauty’, so, too, might our culture encounter an idea, a movement, or a system that spurs us onward to a different world. Philosopher Cora Diamond, when discussing Wittgenstein, cites James’s encounter with Eliot as an example of ‘conceptual reorientation’:

“She, that magnificently ugly woman, gives a totally transformed meaning to ‘beauty’. Beauty itself becomes something entirely new for one, as one comes to see (to one’s own amazement, perhaps) a powerful beauty residing in this woman…In such a case, she is not judged by a norm available through the concept of beauty; she shows the concept up, she moves one to use the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ almost as new words, or as renewed words. She gives one a new vocabulary, a new way of taking the world in one’s words, and speaking about it to others”.

So we need to ‘show the concept up’, the concept constructed by ourselves through generations. Perhaps education – or art, or popular culture – is a good starting point for change, for assessing the damage already done. In any case, it is possible to see the world anew and to speak about beauty in new ways.



Blog at WordPress.com.