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It runs away from you, like any other concept. It makes me ask questions.
1. Is beauty ideal or actual?
2. Is it a quality of objects, or a feeling within me?
3. Why is it so often a human face, not a human body?
4. Why gendered words, handsome, beautiful?
5. Why does it evoke wonder when encountered?
6. Why does it seem familiar, known before?
So much to ask. Let me try and sort out these ideas at least.
Beauty, the beautiful. I think of it in terms of proportion. For me, it is most often a structure. Something that Pythagoras or Plato could have come up with, like the music of the spheres, or the ideal Forms. For me, it is always out of reach. There, almost. Unattainable?
Don’t all concepts exist within the human mind, not out there? I think of beauty as a quality, but is it not a concept? Perhaps it is both quality of object and subjective concept of mind? Perhaps the beauty is when these two match?
Beauty is often a person’s face, and sometimes a view or landscape. Not a human body, despite our aesthetics, inherited from Greek culture. Perhaps the face reveals the mind, and inner and outer beauty may become related? One can sometimes have beautiful eyes, but rarely beautiful elbows.
Beautiful woman, handsome man. Why not the other way around? Is beauty related to love and sex? Do we love the beautiful rather than like it? Can one love the proportions of the Parthenon columns? Is female beauty somehow different to male beauty? More important?
The Aphrodite of Praxiteles (a copy) that men fell in love with. Ancient statues were painted, so imagine the flesh tones, red lips, rosy cheeks, blue eyes and golden hair, the gold and lapis lazuli necklace, the silver bracelets and anklets
Beauty does evoke wonder. I feel a distinct loss of breath, as though punched in the solar plexus. What, beauty, so unexpected! So perfect! And beauty is attractive, it draws one to it. So tragic for those with facial beauty and an ordinary mind.
Beauty evokes not only wonder. It evokes recognition. We both feel surprise and familiarity when we encounter it. Is this because it is an ideal made real? Have we encountered beauty somewhere before? But where?
2 Defining terms
My ODE (Oxford Dictionary of English) defines beauty. The Romans and the French seemed to have used the word as the English do, as a sense of pleasing proportion to the sight. A beautiful face has regular features. But surely a beautiful big toe can have pleasing proportions? Another meaning is of an attractive person, a beautiful woman. ODE has other terms: beautician, beauty contest, beauty queen. So the sexual connotation is also very strong.
WordBook (another dictionary) says “1. qualities that give pleasure to the senses. 2. A seductive looking woman”.
Now we’re getting down to it. Enjoyable. Or sexy. Well, dictionaries just tell us how a word is used, and it’s constantly changing. I think there’s a lot more to beauty than this recorded usage. According to the dictionary, we are looking (as men, and lesbians) at women, and seeing beautiful breasts and a beautiful bottom, but definitely not a beautiful knee or even a beautiful voice.
These definitions equate the beautiful with pleasure too closely, I think. Is beauty like an orgasm? I would add another dimension, like, ‘enormous power under perfect control’, as in a galaxy, Niagara Falls or the JS Bach Concerto I refer to at the end of the essay. That gives the sense of awe we feel at beauty. A truly beautiful woman is never just a nice piece of ass. The Goddess is not far behind her.
3 Six names
Crispin Sartwell wrote a book called Six Names of Beauty (published by Routledge NY in 2004) in which he attempted to go further. He started with six words for beauty from different languages, not to define terms, but to suggest meanings.
Beauty (English) the object of longing
Yapha (Hebrew) a bloom
Sundara (Sanskrit) holiness
To Kalon (Greek) the ideal
Wabi-Sabi (Japanese) imperfection
Hozho (Navajo) harmony
Now I can’t go far with this, as I understand only English, and that imperfectly. “The object of longing” is not in my dictionary. But I can see that some peoples focus outward, on objects perceived by the senses (yapha, sundara wabi-sabi) while others focus on the self and what the subjective feeling for beauty is (beauty, to kalon, hozho).
One feels desire, grasps imperfectly at the perfect, recognises integrity and feels reassured. Out there, something seems healthy and proportioned in function, inspires respect or devotion, or tears the heart with its fragile impermanence.
In the Japanese books I’ve read the sense of “the beautiful has vanished” seems very strong. The cherry blossom festivals, the death of Genji the shining prince, the fate of the Makiokas.
Is it Wordsworth who sees the wildflower trodden underfoot, its beauty unnoticed and destroyed? And Thomas Lodge’s poignant lines during London’s plague years I’ve always remembered: “Brightness falls from the air/queens have died young and fair”.
Just this dimension alone makes me think beauty might have something to do with permanence. There is a spiritual sense, of the ideal, of holiness, just as there is a sexual sense and idea of what that implies, our mortality. So a beautiful woman brings desire, life, death; and before and after her there is something else, something we recognise as beauty, something astonishing.
But if so, how do we recognise beauty? If beauty is perfect and eternal, how can it exist in this world of change? Perhaps we can summon it, by our state of mind.
Beauty is more than that which vanishes inexorably with the years. We know we are part of a disintegrating universe, and all we are and have is slipping away every second. Is beauty part of this vanishing reality? Or a trace of something more permanent? Is it a case of the half empty glass which is also half full, and we to choose either to celebrate or to mourn the beautiful?
Sartwell moves rapidly between contexts. For example, he considers art, which often depicts the beautiful, and reminds us that ‘art’ is not a mere object, nor a viewpoint expressed with mastery of the medium used, nor our appreciation of the work. Somehow it is all three. It is essentially a relationship, a three cornered one, and the power it can evoke can bring beauty into existence and transform our lives. Not that it always does. Like all relationships, it only works part of the time. We have to overcome our prefabricated universe, in which we see what we expect to see.
A second example Sartwell chooses is the craftsman. The master of tools. Watching a craftsman work is to see a flow between tool and materials working faster than the mind can think.The craftsman knows what the tool can do, what the material he works in can do, and is the intermediary between them. In short, another relationship. Here the dominant quality is often speed, as a good mechanic repairs an engine faster than his mind can think, knowing what tool and engine tell him some other way than thought. The archer draws the bow and sends the arrow to the target faster than he can think as well, and arrow, archer and target become one. This too is beauty.
Along the way Saltwell dismisses utilitarianism, the idea that beauty is useful. We’re fond of that one. The butterfly’s wings are beautiful to us but trigger pollen release in the butterfly’s path. Art is not merely decorative, but its beauty itself serves a purpose, arousing those emotions which make us most civilised.
While this might be merely clever, it isn’t wrong. Just another dimension of beauty.
Another dimension still is fantasy. Beautiful people. As though people could be beautiful all the time, not just at certain moments. We know the latter is true but connive at the pitch projectors of pop and movie stars give us of perennial beauty. Somewhere in our head we know it’s done with cosmetics, lighting, framing, that images are edited on computer, that images are closer to art, to drawing, than to photography, that the camera always lies. But we project our fantasies on these images. An ideal movie star helps us to to become ideal, a fantasy lover of someone we wouldn’t love in the flesh.
This is beauty as ideal, but ideal in relation to ourselves, not in the abstract, like a Greek statue seems to be. But both a film or photo of Marilyn Monroe or a bronze of Zeus hurling a thunderbolt are both dimensions of the beautiful.
5 True or false
Can beauty be false? In our world which consists more and more of vendors and consumers we are often presented with facile beauty, beauty that pleases like an extra spoon of sugar. “Oooh, isn’t it lovely” says the lady with no taste cooing over a bit of kitsch. Does this work? Does the magic of beauty transform this person’s life, or has she been given a shoddy deal by a slick operator? The object is tasteless, the emotion she feels is superficial. Yet in her context is this the same as watching the moon rise in the Arctic while the midnight sun is still in the sky and shivers run up and down our spine; is this the same as knowing the awful choice given Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play and feeling the wisdom it evokes in him? Could it all be dimensions of beauty?
The Sex Pistols: they didn’t invent punk, couldn’t sing or play, and were hugely influential. But not beautiful
We know about cultural imperialism, about being herded into schools and universities and told what to admire, and about finding our own junk and liking that until that too gets on the curriculum. So we can’t too easily reject other people’s standards of taste. But there is such a thing as bad taste. For some it’s even a value. Where does beauty lie on the spectrum of taste? Not merely in the eye of the beholder. But not either in the object admired.
Perhaps beauty is the link between ourselves and our environment, the sense that we express with the word natural. This awareness is almost certainly the source of our aesthetic sense, based on the ‘normal’ range of colours, sounds, taste and other sensations we can recognise around us. Change these at our risk!
Could beauty be, not pleasure, but a process that extends the self? No matter how pleasant, that which comforts or dulls the senses or mind can not be beautiful.
6 Other senses
But why is beauty confined to the sight? When talking of other things that may be beautiful we use a different word, pleasure, and most often, lovely. It was a pleasant meal, the music at the concert was lovely, the perfume is lovely too. The sheen of the silk as well is lovely. We refer to the quality of pleasure something gives us, and the love that pleasure inspires, when referring to smell, touch, hearing and taste. Even another human being is referred to that way. We say, he is a lovely person, referring to his personality. True, sometimes he is a beautiful man, but this is always used in a context of something morally admirable in his personality. Note we cannot refer in the same way to a woman. We can’t say, she is a beautiful woman, because we have a whole range of meanings for ‘beautiful woman’ already.
I’m intrigued too at the superstitions we have about beauty. We ourselves are never beautiful. We don’t say, “I’m rather beautiful you know”. Good looking is the best we rate ourself, and even that inspires trepidation. Not bad, we might say. Over here we say “Well, could be worse”.
When someone has beauty, wealth, talent and good fortune, we admire them extravagantly, then stand aside and wait for something bad to happen. A violent death perhaps, an incurable disease. Beautiful women get raped, used and abused, manipulated, till they may well curse their beauty. Beautiful jewels are often said to carry a curse. Why is that? And we have a fascination with idols who die young: James Dean, Marilyn, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Brian Jones, it’s a long list of those who have paid the ultimate price for possessing glamour and beauty.
Are we superstitious about beauty? Do we really think it a curse? Is beauty only something the gods should have, something eternal and not belonging on this disintegrating earth?
Two Greek myths suggest this, that of Pygmalion, and that of the nameless man who fell in love with Praxiteles’ nude statue of Aphrodite. Both loved an ideally beautiful woman, but a statue. Pygmalion was lucky, the nameless young man from Cnidos just made a fool of himself. The more perfect the beauty, the less attainable.
This essay is about (among other things) words and how we use them, and expresses the thought there might be something mysterious going on with the word beauty, something just out of sight and knowledge. Perhaps all words are like that?
Here are some words that might tell us something more.
ugly comes from a Norse word for fear or dread. The monster Grendel was ugly. It suggests something evil, something supernatural. Nowadays just something unpleasant.
handsome originally meant easy to use but now means impressive (in females), good looking (in males), and suggests pleasure to look at or be with. We are usually at ease with a handsome person, flattered by their attention, more so than with a beauty who inspires awe.
pretty was originally used of a deceiver, one who looked better than he was, and now implies attractiveness without having beauty. It brings up another facet of beauty, that it is often admired but not loved, cold not engaging. Pretty has much more personality.
lovely is attractive, that which draws us closer, and of course comes from love, which originally meant desire. It’s a description of our reaction to pleasant things and people rather than a quality they possess.
glamour is often a quality of a beautiful woman, a femme fatale, dangerous woman, suggesting her powers of enchantment. It comes from a word for magic, and was the power of wizards and witches over the natural order, such as Morgana le fay, Morgan the fairy or goddess, who so damaged as well as helped King Arthur.
awe comes from a Norse word for fear and terror. One feels awe when in the path of an erupting volcano. It became reverence, an emotion that still contains the idea of fear, acknowledgment of a power we don’t understand. ‘awful’ is something we don’t like, ‘awesome’ something we do like. Is awe part of beauty?
wonder. Beauty evokes wonder, like Crusoe before Friday’s footprint, “surprised by joy”. I wonder at many things, spiderwebs, ants, waterfalls, clouds, galaxies, wildflowers growing on the edge of freeways: and beauty. It may be an optional extra, though some think not.
Here’s something I can’t show, JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZK6-x9sdEYo. When you look at Bach you can see beauty’s not just skin deep, as Anniq used to sing
Perhaps this will inspire you to seek out what you think are beautiful things or persons and decide what value their beauty holds. Perhaps you have only listed things that give you pleasure. But look again.
Strange that the closer we look at a word the more amorphous its meaning becomes.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.