Monday, February 18, 2013

Against Beauty

I was having some trouble with my defense against Beauty until I heard the confession of Didier, an ex-model. We usually think of a confession being motivated by guilt or remorse, but Didier's confession was driven by another kind of emotion closely related, I suspect, to fear.

          Perhaps he was compelled by the need to be seen, simultaneously, as beautiful and as something more than merely beautiful, or maybe he was tormented by a secret fear of being ever-so-slightly less than extraordinary himself.

          In his confession, he describes walking hand-in-hand with an exquisitely beautiful woman. Although she is disguised in sweatpants and without make up, her lush, Lady Godiva hair hidden in a cap, she is still that rare diamond: an easily recognized supermodel. 

          Didier feels the awed gaze of people in the street, the double-take, as they can't believe their eyes. He confesses that the faces in the crowd are transparent to him, that his profession is responsible for engendering the kind of skewed vision that acknowledges nothing less than extraordinary beauty.

          It is unclear to whom Didier was confessing, to the supermodels, to the transparent crowd, or to himself. It is also unclear whether he believes the crowd actually sees him and his companion, or just recognizes their glossy image.

          Extraordinary beauty is a kind of rare mutation, a deformity, for which ordinary people are willing to pay or be cut. We know it doesn't last because by nature—and in nature—everything withers, dies, changes; its impermanence only increases its value. Even the simplest among us know this fundamental truth: we cling to beauty the way we cling to our own ephemeral lives, with a kind of blind, biological desperation. At the same time, we distrust its blinding brevity. We adore beauty and abhor the ugly pain of loss in equal proportion.

          What is it like to be dazzlingly beautiful—to be unconditionally desired and loved—and then find oneself growing old and invisible? What must it be like always to view oneself simultaneously as self and as object?

          In her essay Against Nature, Joyce Carol Oates writes of her perplexity at our reverence for the majesty of nature and the sense of proportion we experience as we take our place in nature. She confesses her aversion to nature's indifference—her aversion to the irrelevance of our lives. We are, after all, just fancy cosmic dust, and will return again to dust.

          Our love for nature is in the same family of feelings as our love for beauty. Climbers of Everest who die in an avalanche, or a misplaced footfall, or who freeze to death, or return triumphant, with only fingertips or an earlobe sacrificed to frostbite remind me of the beauty cravers. We insist on regarding these dumb adventurers as heroic when, in fact, they save no one. We applaud any doomed, grand attempt to scale the mountain and outwit nature, while we carry on our own feebler, private attempts to avoid our inevitable demise.

          We avoid admitting there is no final conquest. There will always be other mountains to climb, new odds to beat, but no ultimate triumph. Only small, hard-won, imaginary contests and conquests of Nature, to whose mute neutrality we inevitably return in death. From invisibility, to invisibility.

          What makes humans think they're so entirely different and superior to other species? Other animals use tools, other animals mate for life, care for their young, birds sing, cats kill for sport, bonobos mate for pleasure, we all know death, we all fight for survival, we all grieve. All that is natural.

          What is unnatural is uniquely human. Not only are we the only animals who wear clothes, but we  cook what we kill for food—elaborately pretending we don't feed on death.  We erect slaughterhouses, hide our butchers, package the meat, and then we use language to create even greater distance between death and life. We pretend there is no connection between the clucking chicken and 'poultry,' the lowing cow and boeuf bourguignon, succulent veal and the suckling calf.
          Vegetarians are no better. Just because something fails to whimper, cower, or bleed doesn't mean it, too, doesn't die. When I was a child, I used to bite bright, red cherry tomatoes straight off their vines, and their hot pulp would gush in my mouth. It gave me great pleasure. And I knew enough to feel shame, at a tender age, and hide my activity.
          The grim task of survival and death is transformed by human imagination into an art form; food becomes cuisine; eating becomes dining; starving insinuates marginality and poverty, while slimness suggests the supernatural glamour of restraining our animal appetite.

          Of course, our uniquely human appetite and imagination can almost as easily veer in the opposite direction of beauty; apparently, we are also the only species capable of committing suicide. Human imagination is dangerously double-edged.

          Extraordinary beauty is inhuman, and so has that death-defying quality. I'm never happier to be alive than when I am on my knees to beauty, blinded by beauty, am able to see the fearsome arc of our waning through the magical prism of devotion. Like most of us, I am grateful to love and abase myself in its service. Beauty, and the kind of imagination called upon to appreciate it, is the lie that reveals a greater truth. Only our imagination is immortal.

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