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Questioning Beauty

Sadi writes a long book review essay about the nature of beauty. Questions to think about:

Can a person contemplate the physical form of a woman without linking it to sexual attraction? Is sexual attraction an appropriate metaphor for discussing beauty as a philosophical concept?

When one collects (jugs for example), one is aiming toward inclusiveness rather than an aesthetic standard. A Platonist seeks the perfect jug (and is overly critical about which jugs meet these standards). A collector finds delight in imperfect variety rather than innate perfection. Collecting is a substitute for creating (or being) beautiful. A collector likes to add things. A Platonist likes to remove things.

Profound thought by Uma Thurman. “I am no more beautiful than your typical waitress.” People contemplate Uma’s beauty because it is in a context where we are supposed to regard her image from a purely aesthetic point of view. If we did the same for a waitress at a restaurant, one might resemble a pervert.

Intimacy and reciprocation. I can admire a beautiful woman in a magazine or at an airport, but I find a girlfriend vastly more appealing. Why? 1)Boyfriend/girlfriend context permits unrestricted ability to see beyond a beautiful surface, 2)boyfriend/girlfriend enjoys your admiration and 3)boyfriend/girlfriend reciprocates the admiration. (Sartre wrote about this somewhere).

The novelty of beauty. If the experience of beauty is heightened upon first glance, what are the implications for romance and marriages? Contrast the joy of reading a novel for the first time and the joy of rereading something. First encounters can be breathtaking; further encounters can provide better insight into the essence of why something was beautiful to begin with.

Photographs and Models. 95% of the photographs taken of people look positively ghastly (that often is a byproduct of a camera’s limitations). The reason is that most of the time (if we divide time into milliseconds), people look ghastly. Beauty flows through time and depends on special effects to highlight the realism.

I once described a 18 year girl I knew as beautiful. My mom said, “Bobby, all 18 year old girls are beautiful.”

Can we really lose beauty? Lovers leave, sculptures crack, video footage is erased. But there are other sculptures, other videos to watch, other people to love. When we lose a beauty-object, we are losing an aid for recalling the original experience of beauty.

Desire for repetition. We need to differentiate between beauty (an immanent quality of a particular thing) and pleasure (the human reaction to beholding beauty). Beauty doesn’t really change over time, but the pleasure we feel from experiencing beauty certainly does.

Unearthing Beauty. Beauty is easily forgotten and misplaced. Great poems from different centuries, different languages, different books. Same for paintings, sonatas and sculptures. The joy of being the first to rediscover a work’s beauty is unparalleled. Many people lack the time or the inclination or to seek out these artefacts. That’s why artists and critics need to make unearthing lost beauty a top priority.

Can one live without beauty? Don’t fool yourself. Just as one doesn’t need sexual satisfaction to survive (ask Holocaust survivors or handicapped people); why then should one need paintings or songs? Beauty is a welcome addition to anyone’s life, but it is only one part of the hierarchy of needs. One can choose a life without beauty; there are social workers, missionaries and caregivers. These people don’t object to beauty or the healthy pursuit of it. They just don’t have time or need for it. Beauty’s only value lies in making it easier to withstand banality.

Beauty mocks. First, it reminds the admirer of imperfections or inadequecies. Honest artists admit that artistic greatness sometimes annoys the living hell out of them (See Amadeus). I have a gorgeous photo of an ex-girlfriend who ultimately rejected me. When I come across the photo, I almost feel revulsion at once being so susceptible to this girl’s charms (I recall the Man from “That Obscure Object of Desire” dumping a bucket of water over a girl he lusted after). Those who deface beauty or despise it are indirectly paying homage to its power and majesty.

Beauty is one of those concepts meaningless to discuss in the abstract. Sadi is talking about poetry, I’m talking about nice butts, and the Marquis de Sade is talking about the beauty of cruel bloodletting. Discussions about beauty are ultimately not about beauty at all. They are about love, entertainment, happiness, individuality, visual symmetries, innocence, youth, morality, sexuality, emotions, eloquence, insight and even commercialism. If you say something is beautiful, you are merely pointing out the kind of things you need to continue making life worthwhile.

If I were blind and deaf and had my tongue cut out and my body were numbed by freezing cold, would I still be able to experience beauty? Would I still be able to contemplate the idea of beauty? Would I still be able to imagine beauty? Beauty cannot be exclusively an intellectual pursuit. It must arouse some feeling or sensation in you based upon direct experience(See Nagel’s, What’s it like to be a bat?”)

Why are babies beautiful? Is it just that biological maternal instincts kick in whenever you see one? The subjective nature of beauty makes it next to impossible to declare objective, meaningful criteria for it. That is actually good. If beauty were simply an intellectual construct, it would grow tedious.

Elderly people are the most hungry for beauty. They are aware of a time in the not-so-distant future when beauty will no longer exist for them.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • srp 1/2/2005, 3:08 pm

    the question, do we need beauty to survive is an interesting one, but the more interesting question to me has always been can there exist a standard of beauty that is agreed upon by all. I look at cover models or the vicki’s secret catalogue and i can say, “these girls are not offensive; they are somewhat pleasing to the eye…” but “beautiful?” no… i wouldn’t go that far. Now, ask me if Meryl Streep is beautiful i would say Yes, absolutely. But what is conventionally pleasing and ordinary, say satisfying and essentially NOT offensive is NOT necessarily beautiful. You see the difference. Jennifer Love Hewitt or even Jennifer Aniston are not, in my opinion, beautiful. They both simply do not offend the most people. They are the least offensive and are in this way, rather milquetoast – rather dull. They are “okay” but neither is particularly memorable. Kind of like vanilla – anything vanilla, it’s rather bland but inoffensive.

    True beauty, in my view, and my view i say is simply my opinion, my ow3n observation, but true beauty is always a little “off” somehow. There is a feature that is not “quite right” and so very often, true beauty will not appeal to the masses the way that conventionally pretty does (read: jennifer aniston).

    Julianne Moore is, in my view, truly beautiful, as is Kate Winslet, but neither is really “big time” in that way, and i think that is because both are slightly different – not mainstream enough. The same is true of most “beautiful” men – ie, brad pitt. he’s fine, i see it, but not my cup of fur, you know what i mean? I’d rather see Chris Cooper or even Philip Seymour HOffman or Anthony Hopkins any day because they have true character and to me, that is part of what defines beauty — character, not these blank and expressionless clones that are slammed on magazine covers month after month offering up the same bland and boring looks and the same flat abs (read: no curves, not womanly or feminine – yuk! i’d rather a woman with some curves, frankly… ).

    Look at these same women ten years ago even; they all weighted at least ten to twenty pounds more than they do today, and that’s pretty sad. since when did emaciated equal attractive? where was i on that day? i mean, i’ve been very thin most of my adult life and FINALLY after YEARS of being really sick and UNDER weight by a lot, i’m finally a normal wieght and have curves, tits and hips, etc, and thank god! i’m so grateful for it, yet when i go into the Gap i feel enormous, like i should be ashamed to be a size six, or god help me, if i want my jheans baggy, and i DO, a size 8 (horrors!). I also have a bosom to match, and that much seems to be widely accepted, yet mine are real, not fake. If i had stayed sick and a size 2, as i was, i’d need implants to look like this — rare is the woman who looks like that and has a thirty-six C that is natural…. you get the point.

    So thank god for Julianne Moore who isn’t afraid to show her beauifula nd womanly body nude in films such as The End oft he Affair – she’s an inspiration. I saw her when i was going through cancer and was a tiny little thing and all i could hope was that “one day” when i “grew up” and became a real woman, i used to joke, when i wasn’t so sick anymorek, i wanted to be her size (she’s about an 8), and have curves and boobs and an ass to match, all toned, yes, but never ever will i want to look like Jennifer Aniston or Paris Hilton, who, imagine when she’s fifty what she’ll look like? LIke a piece of old mercedes benz leather from all the fake tanning.

    Ugh.

    I’ll keep my lilywhite skin, my tits, my hips, my full size 6, my eight, my weight, my saturday date and a man who wants something to hold onto when he makes love and doesn’t want to come away with bruises from some woman’s pelvic bone. Owww!

    sorry to drone on… and this was only human beauty….

    s.r.p.

  • Lady Jane 2/9/2008, 1:02 pm

    interesting views….and maybe i am missing the mark here, that does happen sometimes……but beauty is not only beheld with the eye, but with the heart as well, at least not for me….it’s just not all about looks….in my 30’s i was much more physically appealing, men were very attracted to me, today at 52 (in june) i am less attractive as i am overweight, but i find that people actually ‘see’ me now…men aren’t driven by ‘i want to stick it in you’ now, and they seem to enjoy me more as a ‘person’, my sense of humor, take on things, etc….and the same for the ladies, they see me less as a ‘threat’….so being less physically attractive has offered me some fine things, permitting me to be more fully ‘me’…and a welcome ‘safety zone’,not having to fight off unwanted advances and opening the door to allowing women to see me in a more friendly light….it’s quite nice, this extra fat, except to the eye of most men, and in manys ways has enhanced my true beauty….

    Lady Jane

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