I was teaching in a Catholic men’s college run by brothers for whom it was also a monastery, and my best student in freshman English was an acolyte who said little, wrote well, and kept his gaze lowered in chastity of the eyes. Since each class opened with a prayer and I was not a Catholic, I asked him to serve as prayer-leader and he did so with a voice that was never perfunctory; his vows might not be binding yet, but he was bound by them. I had known student brothers, and even a lay student or two, who were as conscientious and intelligent as he, perhaps even as devout; what was remarkable about Brother Charles was his beauty—not virile handsomeness, not serene spirituality, but an inward, unassertive, sensual delicacy of face and composure of gesture about which not even envy had anything to say beyond the comment of a glance or two.
This was in the early 1950’s, long before the days when good manners became suspect as a form of hypocrisy, long before encounter sessions and letting it all hang out and the like had hit the country. Then, the place for a hang-up was at home in the closet with your pajamas. Then, the standard brands of exhibitionism and voyeurism, those of the flesh, were shameful, not even barber-shop respectable, and the far graver sorts, those of the spirit, were tolerated only in chic, kinky circles—the TV self-exposure shows were just getting started. This was also a few years before there was a fad of party games which had more than a little in common with the deceitful sort of psychological experiments and were really devices to get you to reveal yourself unwittingly. For such reasons, and doubtless for one or two others as well, it was with a clear conscience that I assigned this topic to my freshmen: Look in the mirror and describe what you see. Good. Here was a new topic to replace all those houses, sunsets, grandmothers, and uncles I was so fed up with; each paper would describe something different, and I would be able to check the description against the thing described. What could be better?
My Most Unforgettable Teacher, that’s what.
Every one of those young men liked his face, one of them spectacularly. He was a solid fellow with a round head, butch cut, pug nose, and orthodontured teeth; in the Old World his ancestors had been peasants at least since the Flood, but America was making him into a second-generation Buick salesman with a wall-to-wall wife. The face I saw was Great Plains, but his prose was Hawaiian traveloguese onto which he had sloshed that freshman brand of irony which evaporates in seconds after it is applied. He dwelt for a whole purpures-cent sentence on the dimple in his manly chin; he described firming his jaw, flaring his nostrils, narrowing his eyes, half-turning his back to the mirror in order to observe the ripple of his shoulder muscles and powerful biceps; finally he rhapsodized his lips, and he found them so voluptuously kissable that he wound up the theme with a one-sentence last paragraph in which he pressed his lips to themselves in the mirror exclamation point ha ha period.
Brother Charles was absent the day those papers were due, but two days later I found his on my desk, with a covering note apologizing for the tardiness. He had been so distressed by the assignment that he had eaten and slept badly and had gone to his superior for permission to ask me for another topic; but the superior had said his vow of obedience applied to his lay teachers as well as to his religious advisers, so do the assignment, it would be a good humiliation. The face which that paper described was one nobody else had ever seen; it was not only not beautiful, not even an attractive mask for secret evil, it was positively and beyond shame repulsive; yet he did not apply the word “ugly” to it. You would have thought, if you had never seen him, that a couple of acne pimples on his forehead and the stomach sore he had everted his lower lip to get a good look at were leper spots; he said his ears lay flat to his head like a scared dog’s, Only his eyes even halfway survived this assault, for at least he allowed “pleading” to appear in the same sentence with them, though there was no indication what the eyes were pleading for and though his freshman irony had branded the word with quotation marks.
I resolved never to assign that topic again.
But a few years later I was teaching in a secular college for women, and the temptation to compare was more than I could resist. These girls were far more sophisticated than the boys had been, and of course the reader they were writing for was of the opposite sex; moreover, the self-betrayal party games were in circulation by then. Even so, I do not think the reason their papers were one and all boring was that the girls were unduly wary; they were only 17 or 18, they could and did say absolutely blanching things at other times in other papers. On guard or not, they described their faces in a matter-of-fact way, like unambitious dancers talking about their legs—”I can do thus and so with them, and maybe if I work hard I’ll be able to do that, but they’ll simply never have the strength to do the other.” The pretty girls, who were only pretty, showed no signs of aspiring to be ballerinas of beauty and the plain ones no signs of trying out even for the corps de ballet, and that was that. I picked up from a twitch here and a sniff there that they thought the assignment had verged on bad taste; the place for a woman to study her features was alone in her room or in a beauty parlor.
The Greeks knew a thing or two; Narcissus was a youth, not a maiden,
How could that glass-kisser have been so good to himself, seeing in his mirror what was not there? How could Brother Charles have been so hard on himself, not seeing in his mirror what was there? There are some appropriate psychological labels to slide onto those young men, identity, self-image, projection, and so on—a decalcomania which can be a lot of fun but which is often, as here, not very useful. Beauty is more entangling than that.
For example, look what a tangle beauty has got me into already in this essay. Platonists are jabbing at me from one side, and relativists from the other, and the truth is that I have trouble defending myself against either of them. In the matter of beauty, I seldom know where I am for long, I keep shifting. I wish the jabbers would go away and leave me alone—though they won’t because they are in me too.
Against relativism, I believe that Brother Charles’s beauty was there, not in the eye of the beholder, me, and that he was wrong not to see it, as anyone would be wrong not to see the beauty of Sophia Loren, Mt. Fuji, or Man o’ War in his prime. But, against Platonic absolutism, I do not believe that there is some divorced realm of Idea wherein Beauty dwells and that Brother Charles’s face somehow adumbrated, was connected to, partook of true Beauty. Few things rile me more than to hear a blockhead Platonist produce such a bromide as “This book has greatness”—as though greatness were a detachable essence injected into the book like tallness into a redwood tree or wartiness into a toad or beauty into a face. Against such idiocy, laughter is the best antidote. Mark Twain had a joke that went something like this: the greatest general who ever lived was Jedidiah Mitford, a blacksmith in Storrs, Connecticut, but since there weren’t any wars during his lifetime no one ever knew he was the greatest general who ever lived. . . . And yet, and yet. . . I find it congenial to imagine, and would not be surprised to learn it was true, that a species of fish of dazzling beauty both of shape and of color evolved eons ago and still lives miles down in an ocean trench where no one and nothing has ever seen them, though maybe some day a probe will bring up a colored movie of them. Great, warty, dazzling—by and large, adjectives, even beautiful, I get and give without inspecting them closely; but when I use the noun beauty, I scarcely know what I am talking about, More, I am leery of those who talk as though they do.
The physicists conceive of light sometimes as waves, sometimes as particles, though it is impossible for anything to be simultaneously wave and particle; in other words, they know what light is, but when they talk about what it is, they use and know that they use inconsistent, mutually contradictory metaphors. Friends! Einstein said that, of certain mathematical apprehensions of the ultimate nature of energy and motion, he preferred one because it was the most beautiful, I have not a glimmer what he was talking about but I believe him, and it exalts me to know that there is a realm other than poetry where truth and beauty are interchangeable and that one mind at least has been there.
To be talked about, a thing must be known. To be known, someone must know it. Man is the measure not of all things but of all things which can be talked about.
Man is not even the measure of all he knows. I may know— I do know—that the great Buddha of Nara is more beautiful than any flower, bird, animal, landscape, but I should not say it is unless I preface the statement with “in my opinion.” My humanness is increased by the humanness of that Buddha’s great beauty, and his humanness would not magnify me as it does without that beauty. I can best talk about the part of my experience of this statue which is inextricably human, and though I know that this beauty transcends humanness, I can only chatter about that transcendence. Hence, “in my opinion,” as a way of acknowledging that the intense, incomputable certitude which constitutes knowledge for me constitutes only my opinion for those who do not share that certitude.
A poem is a way of connecting with things which can be known better than they can be talked about. My purpose in writing this poem is only incidentally to talk about what I know of beauty but mostly to connect with it.
For anyone who conceives of knowledge as information to be exchanged between the computer in my head and the computer in his (I derive this metaphor from a freshman), a poem is an imprecise print-out which, as poem, as a playing with words whose purpose is to connect you with a felt knowledge that cannot be verified objectively, has no interest for him beyond a possible amusement value. In this, he is right enough. What positive utility has information which does not retrieve exactly as it was stored? For him, ideas of beauty are best nibbled at cocktail parties. When I tell him that my reason for going on making useless connections like this poem is that I wouldn’t live without them, he nods, munches it a few times, spits out the seeds, and if offered another says, “No, thanks, I’ve had enough.” On an exclusive diet of his kind of communication, I would suffer a malnutrition as debilitating as the ulcers he would suffer on my kind.
If Plato had only talked about how experience is related to idea, his theories would have mattered less than they did and still do. But his great dialogues are also beautiful poems which make possible an ever-engendering connection between his readers and what he knew; he is more than other philosophers. It is a good thing his Socrates had the face of a jolly old satyr. Had Socrates been beautiful on the outside too, the dramatic dialogues of which he is the daimon would have been much too tidy and Plato only a Platonist.
If you go around chanting “Elbows are beautiful,” you may be a put-on artist, you may be a Sherpa of the spirit living in a realm so high that all things are beautiful there, even elbows, you may be a nut, but one thing is likely: back down here in the plains and valleys where nearly everybody lives nearly all the time, you won’t get much of an audience. However, in modern times quite a few prophets have been going around chanting, “Sex is beautiful,” meaning not just the pleasure and love generated by sex but the things and acts of sex too. So I roll up my sleeves and inspect, Elbows: good old functional wrinkled elbows; glad they’re there, hate to do without them; but beautiful they aren’t. Those prophets don’t look like Sherpas to me, yet multitudes listen and sway. “Om. Hare. To the pure all things are pure. Hare. Sex is beautiful. Om,” What is going on?
For one thing, without acknowledging it, many people are superstitious about ugliness. Ugly has force of its own and often has moral overtones: ugly is a word with which people commonly repudiate an impenetrable evil. Hearing of a mother who has beaten her crippled son to death with his crutch, people are likely to go blank, to shudder and say through taut lips “how ugly.” But suppose I am repelled by an ugliness about which there is nothing intrinsically moral. The very intensity of my revulsion is likely to summon a justification, to make me feel and act as though that thing were contaminated with some sort of evil, Somehow, a lot of the time ugly is bad luck, I have heard sophisticated people gaze across the room at a buck-toothed, almost chinless, somewhat hunchbacked woman of 65 and say how beautiful she is.”And those eyes,” they say.”And her smile changes everything.” Because she is charming, subtle, kind, humorous, and wise, they lie from the heart.
The emotional logic of “Sex is beautiful,” no less distorted than the puritan syllogism that concludes “Sex is ugly,” goes something like this.1.The beautiful draws us.2.Genitals draw us by drawing one another; they are an integral part of a beautiful nude statue, painting, or person; they can be, have been, still sometimes are, worshipped; they are the source of much joy.3.Therefore, they are beautiful.
It is therefore that pushes that sequence of statements into nonsense, by trying to wrench things together logically. A relaxed, neighborly, unsyllogizing and would have accommodated the truth with a humorous shrug.”And they are ugly.” Therefore is a copula that needs to be firmly restrained, for it is a great one for cause-and-effecting things for no better reason than that they are in the same vicinity. Moreover, an out-of-place therefore can generate in such people as the beautiful-genitalia cult a kind of benign hysteria: an ugly image is lifted off the retina of the eye and its ugliness converted to beauty before it is admitted to consciousness. To put a logic-crazed, phobic therefore where only and should be takes a right-wrong zeal as fervent as Brother Charles’s.
In the fall of Brother Charles’s senior year, his particular friend, Brother Austin, dropped by my office one afternoon late when nobody else was likely to come around and asked if he might tell me what had happened during his summer vacation. Brother Austin was a rangy, eager young man with a sometimes raucous laugh and a way of ducking his head at you for emphasis, and over the past two years he had, undiscourageably, showed me his doggerel. Some verses the spring before had given me a glimpse of an acolyte’s inner struggle. One was a prayer to his mother by an unspecified speaker begging her to come rescue him from the wilderness he had strayed into: I could not help remembering that St. Augustine’s mother St. Monica had saved him from heresy and that “Austin” is a contraction of “Augustine.” The other, “Riddles,” ended with these lines.
Why does a heretic burn his bridge?
Because that’s all he’s got.
Why do apostates pick their nose?
Because they’re full of snot.
Making a face, I flipped the page back at Brother Austin. “Isn’t it hideous?” he guffawed.”Boy oh boy, what a fellow won’t do for a rhyme. Just think, I’m a nose-picker myself!” “Just think,” I said.
This is the story he came to tell me.
That summer the student brothers had gone for two weeks to a camp in the woods half a mile from a secluded beach. Except for meals and prayers, they were free most of the day to do what they wanted, and he had gone to the beach, every day the weather permitted, to swim and sun-bathe for hours. There was frequently no one else there—with one exception.
Every time he was there, without fail, a hundred yards or so up the beach, there was a girl about Brother Austin’s age. He would swim out beyond the breakers: she swam out as far. She would body-surf on the breakers into shore: he tried it, and in a couple of days he could do it as well as she. They laughed, they raced, they watched each other, her dog came barking down to visit him, they never once spoke.(“She was not a come-on artist,” he assured me. Frowning, he slowed up for a moment.”Not that I ever saw a come-on artist in action.” But then he ducked his head at me and picked up momentum again.”But I know she wasn’t one.”) By the sixth day he hardly knew where he was. He was debating whether to get out of the order; something must have happened to his vocation, That day he missed dinner—he never missed meals—and did not join in the evening volleyball game. If only the girl would go away. If only there was some way to let her know he was going to be a monk, so she would leave him alone. He stayed off by himself in the woods till darkness and a foggy breeze drove him back to camp.
Brother Charles was waiting for him outside the little tent they shared, and asked him what was the matter.”Nothing.” There was a long silence, which Brother Austin broke with a snort.”I’m losing my faith, that’s all.” Brother Charles crossed himself. Then Brother Austin told his friend everything.
Without a word, Brother Charles disappeared among the trees. Brother Austin slept fitfully; every time he woke up, the other sleeping bag was empty.
At dawn, Brother Charles came back, shivering, his face drawn. He had trouble taking off his shoes, getting into his sleeping bag; his legs were stiff; his knees didn’t seem to work right. Brother Austin asked him where he had been.”Down by the creek, praying.” “All night?” Brother Charles did not answer.”For me, Charles?” “Yes, for you, for strength for you.”
“Of course,” said Brother Austin to me, slapping his thighs and shaking his head, “I never went back to the beach again. No sir, I got over that hump all right. The worst is behind me now, I hope. With a friend like that on your side, a fellow just can’t lose.”
A year later he left the order.
I find the ugly hard to think about, partly because, according to its nature, it makes me want to turn away from it but more because it stupefies me, and the purer it is the stupider it makes me. My parents gave me no help in thinking about the ugly, about human ugliness, at least; as close as they ever came to mentioning another person’s ugliness was to call a mean-spirited, rich recluse of a warty miser on the other side of town unfortunate. Perhaps they did this out of embarrassed charity, but I think that rather it was one of the many important things, including sex and death, they not-thought about as best they could and that in respect of not-thinking about ugliness they were more than good, they were superb, they could let it alone as I cannot. I am grateful for the impurities with which ugliness is usually mixed; they give me something to laugh about, think about, forgive, something I don’t have to be stupid about.
The first time I was in London, I was riding in a bus one morning eavesdropping on a couple of working women in the seat in front of me—they were straight out of Dickens—when suddenly off to the left there loomed up the ugliest thing I had ever seen, More accurately, no other ugly thing I had ever seen had been powerful enough, as this thing was, to sink me into blank stupidity. I didn’t even recognize it. To be sure, I had come across pictures of the Albert Memorial, but they had no more embodied the ugliness of that edifice which Victoria had commissioned in honor of her dead husband than pictures had prepared me, in any way that mattered, for what I was to see in Chartres Cathedral a month later. I was as open to the exalting beauty of the one as to the stupefying ugliness of the other. The women in front of me also were gazing at the Memorial in silence. After the bus had lumbered past it, the less pinch-faced of the two said to the other, “Coo, she must have loved him.” Good for her; she had found something nice to think about instead. Good for me too: I began making connections again, pleasantly ironic ones about taste, and that ugly thing ceased to be a black hole in my mind.
A tree may be beautiful and so may a rock; but to say of a tree that it is ugly is to say little more than that it is deformed, and to say a rock is ugly is to say only that you don’t like it— how can a rock be deformed? That is, beauty and ugliness are not complementary; to lack beauty is not necessarily to have ugliness; indeed, there is a French expression, une belle-laide,to describe a woman who is at once beautiful and ugly. Our apprehension of the ugly is even more anthropocentric than of the beautiful. The ugliest natural things I have ever seen are a male orangutan in a zoo and an eel in an aquarium, the orangutan because I saw it as a self-indulgent imbecile abandoning himself to gluttony, lust, and sloth, the eel as a turd with teeth. But, because I knew I was attributing to both of these innocent creatures qualities that were not inherent in them but came from my imagination, I was as amused as repelled. The more purely ugly a thing, the more human. A friend of mine avoids going down a certain block near her home, because of three large diamond-shaped protuberances one above the other on the fagade of a three-story apartment house. She had passed that building many times without much noticing, but one day she was so unfortunate as to see those diamonds, to see the non-relationship of their size, shape, color, placement to anything else on that weak-yellow, stucco fagade, and that sudden seeing plunged her into a blind tunnel. Now, even a glimpse of that purely man-made ugliness sinks her each time anew into the same blank incomprehension. Some ugliness is a mistake, or at least we can think so; some is intended to inflict esthetic pain, so that you can hate the artist. But the ugliness of that diamond-studded facade is pure; no one could say “coo” to it; it isn’t about anything; my friend’s sadness, each time she sees that thing, is to strive to imagine what went on in the mind that made it, but to fail. Ugliness opens a way into but no way out of a lightless snarl of the mind.
In the past couple of decades there has come to be a fashion of esthetic coprophilia, of applauding art which is ugly in itself and which often is about human ugliness. Just how metaphorical the phrase “esthetic coprophilia” is here, I am not sure; perhaps love of the ugly is no more than like the perversion which sexualizes ordure, perhaps it is a sublimated manifestation of that perversion. You wouldn’t have to be very Freudianized to make a plausible case for the sublimating theory. When I read the novel entitled Naked Lunch, I consumed something, all right, but “naked” is not the word I would have chosen to describe that “lunch.” But whether love of the ugly is literally or figuratively a variety of coprophilia, it can always cop the plea of psychopathology: poor fellow, he’s sick.
The moral forms of ugliness are at once fascinating and baffling, and, of these, the one with not a trace of beauty in it is envy. Maybe those who set out to make evil their good, as Genet says he did and as Milton says Satan did, are able to love envy; but I know of no one, including Genet and Satan, who has said he loves envy, and I quite literally cannot imagine how anyone could love it.
To see envy as clearly as it can be seen when it has metastasized throughout a soul, one can do no better than to contemplate lago. And one can contemplate him, for the unrelieved ugliness of his envy is inextricable from the beauty of the play; it is not added onto Othello like a gargoyle on a cathedral but is essential to its structure yet somehow without contaminating it.
The actor playing Richard III must give a strong impression of physical ugliness, for we must see that the deformity of his body is connected with his wickedness. But, though the actor playing lago need not be handsome, he must not be ugly, for we must know lago’s wickedness as purely moral, no more mitigated by malformation of body than by poverty or a stroke of bad luck, by anything whatever outside his own soul—speculating on his childhood is about as useful as speculating on the condition of his pancreas. In the first scene we learn that Iago is full of vengeful hatred because Othello has promoted Cassio over him when he was next in line. This is the seed of his envy, just as Richard’s deformity is the seed of his malice, but in neither case can I believe the seed adequately accounts for the monstrous growths. Finally, lago’s malignity becomes, as Coleridge said, motiveless, that is, beyond comprehension.lago could have said as appropriately of Desdemona or Othello what he says of Cassio: “He has a daily beauty in his life which makes me ugly.” Nothing extenuates lago’s moral ugliness in our mind; its integration into the elegant structure of the play and the rightness of the words Shakespeare gives him do not mitigate that ugliness but permit us to look at it steadily. When its full extent is revealed to the other characters, shock confuses them, and they turn to him—why? We the audience are not shocked at that point because we already know about his moral tumor, we have watched it grow; nevertheless, we too turn to him— why? He responds, “From this time forth I never will speak word,” nor does he. Shakespeare does not let us off the hook by making us shudder with horror or nod with understanding or mutter “Poor fellow, he’s sick.” We too are struck dumb. We come out of the play alive again only because Othello’s death-speech floods us with emotions—emotions which would be fearfully painful in life but which we are glad to feel fully while immersed in the play because of the perfection of the rhetoric and the magnificence of the poetry and the exact placement of that speech, for only by letting emotion flood us can we escape from the blind hole lago traps us in.
The self in relation to beauty has something in common with the observer in relation to a rainbow; whether or not anybody sees the rainbow, everything about it is out there except the word; there is no way to locate any rainbow more than approximately; where this rainbow is depends on where you are; the only place no rainbow can be known by you is where you are, for you must be at a certain distance to see it. Also, the self in relation to beauty has this in common with an agnostic in relation to death: the more intimate the connection between them, the more likely it is to snarl. And nothing snarls the self-lines more than guilt, unworthiness, inadmissible sin.
Their words and glances tell her, “You are beautiful,” and she looks in the mirror and says to herself, “If that were another woman, I would agree that she is beautiful.” Mirrors distance her from herself, but how much of her own beauty can a mirror show her undistorted? Part of it, but not the whole sweep of the arc we others can see, Or they move in closer and tell her, in the cant of this age, “You are a beautiful person, you are a saint.” If she is quick, she side-steps that one with “Thanks, I like you too,” and goes about her business. Otherwise, she might get a permanent crick in the neck from periscoping the beauty of her own goodness.
As for my connections with beauty, they began as snarled as any beautiful woman’s ever gets, and they are still snarled enough—and in a way that seems to me quite American. To begin with, I am Scotch-English by descent, and the British are not one of those people, like the Javanese, among whom beauty is common; on the contrary, run-of-the-mill Britishers are as unbeautiful as run-of-the-mill Russians. A few years ago I went on a tour to Moscow and Leningrad, and one evening we were complaining about the almost total dearth of attractive-looking Russians we had seen.”Hrmph,” said an elderly Scotswoman with a muttony face, “what do you expect? They killed off their aristocrats, didn’t they?” My forebears were yeomen and artisans as far back as I know, unleavened either by the natural beauty of race or by that assured, fastidious beauty which generations of breeding can and sometimes do bring out.
Moreover, my parents were low Protestants: in my family vanity was an horrendous sin. My mother found beauty galore in babies, brides, and serene old people, but the further you were from those exempt conditions—and bridehood lasted about a month on either side of the wedding—the more whiffy the beauty, if any, my mother was likely to sniff out in you; and my father scarcely distinguished between the primping vanity of a pretty girl and the preacher’s vanity of vanity all is vanity.In the Old Testament I read, beautiful was an attribute of holiness, pastures, righteousness, Zion, and, on mountains, of the feet of an angel bringing good tidings. When God looked upon what he had created, he saw not that it was beautiful but that it was very good. Only when Eve was about to yield to the serpent’s temptation and pluck the fruit, was it mentioned that she saw the tree was pleasant to the eyes; and a woman’s beauty, except the bride’s in the Song of Songs, was mentioned only when an occasion for sin—Bathsheba’s, for example. The Lord in Isaiah says he “will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts,” because they “are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks, and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet. . . . And it shall come to pass that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; . . .and instead of well-set hair baldness; . . .and burning instead of beauty.” In the New Testament, Moses is said to have been fair when he was a small infant, but there are no beautiful men or women at all, not even, despite the artists’ later portrayals of her, Mary Magdalen. Nor is it mentioned whether Jesus was beautiful; his attributes are moral or divine; John says of the incarnation: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us . . .full of grace and truth.” I was not at all surprised to learn, somewhat later when my father urged me to read Paradise Lost, that Satan before he rebelled against God had been the most beautiful of all the angels.
However, though I grew up not questioning the sinfulness of vanity, it remained unreal to me, like the pauper’s feast or the millionaire’s socialism: no vanity without beauty, and except in my mother’s three charmed categories, I saw in the people of my life very little beauty, a pair of eyes here, a hairdo there, a smile occasionally. Hollywood stars were notoriously vain and very remote; their beauty was visible all right. But as for real people, and especially real bodies, I was in high school before I saw the beauty of one. He was a Negro in the gym class I’d been put in, and his long-muscled limbs and torso moved and were shaped marvelously; but I am sure now that, if his body had been about the color of mine, and especially if it had been a girl’s, I would have been unable to disentangle my self from that beauty enough to see it at all. The first girl I fell in love with was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, words without flesh. Not till I had left home for the university did I see any beautiful women—that is, did I dare look at women’s beauty carnate.
Perhaps the worst ingredient in this not-untypical snarl I was in about beauty, especially a woman’s beauty, was that I was so damned moral about it. If a girl was beautiful, she was probably vain and so of course I wouldn’t have anything to do with her. Much more serious: because beauty drew me powerfully, I would love a woman only if I were drawn to her by her true self, for loving a beautiful woman for her beauty was as unthinkable as loving a rich woman for her money. I could love a beautiful woman only if she did not allow her soul to be tainted by the slightest contact with her mere physical beauty—though of course I knew she would. In effect, I held her guilty of being beautiful.
Fortunately for me, I was an inconsistent prig.
One day I picked up Fitzgerald’s early novel The Beautiful and Damned, What wisdom must a book with such a title contain! But the story was sleazy and bored me. Not long afterward, Yeats’s poem “For Anne Gregory” outraged me. But I memorized it.
Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there.
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.
I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair,
My priggish chatter could not prevent the beauty of that poem from connecting me with what it was about.
Recently I met a good-looking woman who said that when she had gone to college from her poor country town she had been rushed in her freshman spring by one of the two most popular sororities. Surprised and flattered, she pledged. But the next fall she learned why these false sisters had wanted her: they thought she might enhance the reputation of the sorority house by winning the campus beauty contest.”When I learned that,” she said, “I just made myself ugly.” I asked her how she had done it—hair, make-up, what? “Oh, I don’t know. Mostly I sagged.” “But you were so young. Isn’t it hard to sag at 19?” “Easiest thing in the world.” “But what about boys?” “Right. So I entered the beauty contest so they’d be sure to lose, and the next semester I got out of it and quit sagging.”
The old men on the walls of Homer’s Troy, watching the glorious Helen pass by, wanted to but could not blame her for the war that would destroy their city. When Phryne was charged with profanation, her defense was to remove her robe before the judges that they might know her beauty: they acquitted her, So far from being guilty of their beauty, these Greek women were guiltless because of it. Their bodies had been entrusted for a while with a divine gift which they could accept with the unsnarled pride of the grateful.”That is great poetry,” said blind Milton when his daughter read back some lines of Paradise Lost aloud to him, “but I didn’t write it.” (And if that is an apocryphal story, so much the better for apocryphal stories.) Milton’s angel had given that poetry to him, and it was his. Rilke and Yeats, whom I take to be the supreme poets of this century, were visited by angels too and dared accept and use the gifts they were offered.
But Enlightened man generally, that is to say, scientized and democratic man, has no experience of gods or angels, a lack which is filled by mod religions little better than by psychedelia. On the one hand, when you look through the lenses of science at a beautiful person, divinity of any kind is filtered out and such matters as genes, statistical probability, vitamins, photosensitivity are let through instead; “divine,” as commonly used in the vicinity of “beauty” nowadays, is as secular as a fashion photographer’s camera. On the other hand, there are very few ways in which the democratized self believes it right or safe to excel. Where is the equality in this individual’s beauty, or the justice, or the progress? On any advanced campus in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, you could spot a good many egalitarianized young people by their slovenly hair and shapeless old clothes and pubic blankness, by the women’s uglifying make-up and the men’s languid gestures, by the way they snuffled and scratched with dirty fingernails and sagged.
When the gods bestowed their favors according to their whims, when God moved in a mysterious way, you did not have to justify your good fortune, just as you were less tempted to blame others for your bad fortune. But now that your beauty is a gift of mindless chance, you are likely to say “Why me?” instead of “Thank you,” to substitute corrosive anxiety for gratitude. When most events were divinely willed, I did not have to strain to fit everything together; God knew why this was thus, and I did not expect to. But now the mind’s empyrean is a fragile network of probabilities gleaming against the vast darkness of chance; and, because I don’t know where your beauty comes from or what it means, and you don’t either, suspicious explanation comes snarling in where reverent gaiety sometimes used to be, but now so rarely is, that the very term “reverent gaiety” has a nostalgic, lost, medieval ring to it.
A gift of great value, offered meaninglessly and unfairly, is dangerous to accept; all that inextricable guilt, all that unworthiness. Again and again in modern times, it seems to me, poets do not make as well as they could because they are doing it all by themselves. Even when a poet accepts the proffered gift, he needs help to dare use it fully; fame and the hope of fame are hunchbacked substitutes for the muse, an angel, divine afflatus.
For centuries the Platonists have been tidying Plato and the Aristotelians adulterating him with common sense, but because he wrote so beautifully he has survived them all.
In The Symposium, that all-night banquet celebrating Agathon’s winning the prize with his first tragedy, Socrates tells a fable of the hierarchy of love, from love of one person up to love of Beauty itself. Very exalted, very ethereal. But the form of Plato’s poem humanizes the sublimity of Socrates’s eloquence. After the fable is told, Plato does not leave us beating our wings in the vast inane of Love and Beauty like a Shelley, but brings in Alcibiades roaring drunk. We learn that Socrates has been attracted to him for his physical beauty and that he has loved Socrates, whose appearance is as far from the beautiful as Alcibiades’s behavior is from the good. Alcibiades speaks.
I say that he is exactly like the busts of Silenus which are set up in the statuaries’ shops, holding pipes and flutes in their mouths; and they are made to open in the middle and have images of gods inside them. . ., His outer mask is the carved heaa of the Silenus; but . . . when I opened him, and looked within at his serious purpose, I saw in him divine and golden images of such fascinating beauty that I was ready to do in a moment whatever Socrates commanded—they may have escaped the observation of others, but I saw them. Now I fancied that he was seriously enamored of my beauty, and I thought that I should therefore have a grand opportunity of hearing him tell what he knew, for I had a wonderful opinion of the attractions of my youth.
He tells how he tried to seduce Socrates and loves him all the more for his kind resistance, and also tells how, on a military expedition,
One morning he was thinking about something which he could not resolve; he would not give it up, but continued thinking from early dawn until noon—there he stood fixed in thought . . .until the following morning; and with the return of light he offered up a prayer to the sun and went his way.
When Alcibiades has finished, Socrates responds to him:
This long story is only an ingenious circumlocution, of which the point comes in by the way at the end; you want to get up a quarrel between me and Agathon, and your notion is that I ought to love you and nobody else, and that you and you only ought to love Agathon. But the plot of this Satyric or Silenic drama has been detected, and you must not allow him, Agathon, to set us at variance.
Plato does not make things neat, but neither does he ensnarl us in complication. Socrates is ugly and he has gods in him, Alcibiades is a reprobate and he is beautiful.
And what a blessed liberation for a democratic, half-scientized, dis-Enlightened Judeo-Christian like me to know how beauty can be a power great as goodness and exalted as truth and necessary to love.
Not therefore: and.