Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Ugliness

I’d read and enjoyed Umberto Eco’s ‘History of Beauty’ - his thesis that attractiveness, prettiness, loveliness vary from era to era and culture to culture. Fascinating, provocative, argumetative it was a great read. Feminine beauty was once defined as voluptuous. Now, according to our fashion experts such a figure is obese and ugly. Tradition as fashion - it seems a rational argument. So it was with interest over the last month I’ve been dipping into Eco’s ‘On Ugliness’, a history of repulsiveness, a large art book Tom lent me.

Images of gore, viciousness, monstrosity, obscenity, brutality, deformity are a fixture of art as much as beauty. Not as nice but part of the human condition. They can be portrayed with equal passion. Ugliness can become as much an obsession as beauty. Cruelty is far too common. Experiences can be terrifying as well as glorious. So Eco's narrative of ugliness through art is a fascinating study. An example, the devil was visualised as ugly, evil and sadistic until Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’ unwittingly raised his status to the fallen angel, beautifully powerful in disgrace. ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’

Evil as ugliness is relative – what a perfect subject for a debate. First, define ugliness. One strand centres around excrement. To me with a farm background it’s a natural function.. All animals do it – it is part of a cycle. Grass in one end, muck out the other. Sheep pellets fertilised my adults’ gardens and cow pats their paddocks, (in England they’d say fields). Horse manure is great for strawberries. It was no big deal. Nasty but natural. Some Romantics might remove that ‘nasty’. Heathcliff is both thrilling and desirable. So even is Mr Rochester. Byron springs to mind.

To a non-Christian blood-streaked images of Christ on the cross can be repulsive. To some Christians Mel Gibson’s depiction is equally repulsive. (I read somewhere that the amount of blood he apparently shed during the movie was more than the human body possesses). I saw in Mexico men and women flagellating themselves with thorn branches. I found that repulsive.

Misogyny (fear of women) gets prominence in Eco’s account. Before we in the so-called Western world get too smug let us recall that Tertullian wrote in the third century that a pretty face became ugly when looked at in an extramarital fashion. He argued according to Eco ‘don’t worry, O blessed ladies, no woman is ugly to her own husband; she was pleasing enough when she was chosen.’ I wonder what the early Christian apologist would have made of Picasso and Matisse. Hitler wanted to purge galleries of ‘degenerate art’.

One thing I’ve enjoy about Eco is the highways and byways his work opened up. Reading about Tertullian drove me to look at Wiki. The origins of Catholic celibacy and much subsequent misogyny are there in this man's writing as this chilling quote illustrates.
‘Do you not know that you are Eve. The judgement of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you were the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.’

And so Eco hop, step and jumps us to witchcraft. And warlocks. Some artists portray the loss of youth as ugliness. Poverty, illness, abandoned industrial sites, kitsch, being in a minority, the list of Eco’s examples seems endless but the illustrations he’s selected fascinate. Sometimes though I think he draws the long bow unnecessarily. He quotes the opening of Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ with its striking metaphor of fog creeping around London. It’s a brilliant piece of prose – a set piece. I’ve always seen it and continue to as a metaphor for the English legal system.

I’ve finished dipping through Eco. I am now reading Sebastian Faulks novel ‘A Week In December’. Contemporary ugliness – the tale seems to be obviously going to end in an underground suicide bombing. I won’t dip – I’ll follow the novelist’s narrative to his selected ending. His 'Charlotte Gray' is a novel I greatly enjoyed.

I'm pleased to live in an era in which the equality of the sexes is assumed. I know we have considerable ground yet to cover. But reading Eco left me more aware of the injustice of the ages. Maybe the definition of ugliness is the absence of human rights.

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