Not a Pretty Sight

Jenny Diski

  • BuyOn Ugliness edited by Umberto Eco
    Harvill Secker, 455 pp, £30.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 1 84655 122 2

It seems perfectly clear at first glance: beautiful and ugly are straightforward opposites. Beautiful Cinders, ugly sisters. Beauty, the Beast. Dorian, his portrait. So it’s not surprising, having commissioned Umberto Eco to write an essay and compile a book of pictures and quotations called On Beauty in 2004, that by 2007 the publishers thought it was time for On Ugliness. (Don’t tell me that publishing isn’t as easy as falling off a log.) Eco made the beauty book look grand, beginning it with a triumphal line-up of comparative tables picturing thumbnails of Western beauty along a historical timeline. Venus Nude (from Venus of Willendorf 13 BC to Monica Belucci in the Pirelli calendar, 1997); Venus Clothed (Auxerre Lady from Crete, seventh century BC, to Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, 1960); Adonis Nude (a sixth-century Greek statue to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, 1985); Adonis Clothed (2000 BC silver statuette from Aleppo to George Clooney, 2002); Portraits of Adonis (bronze head of Sargon from Akkad 2500-2000 BC to Denis Rodman c.1998 – no, I don’t know who he is either). In the pages that followed, Eco found an array of pictures to please, excite and rest the eye, and gave a fairly elementary run through of aesthetic theory, chronicling the changing assumptions about what has constituted the beautiful over time. It was a personal take, but there wasn’t much to argue with. Schwarzenegger may not be your cup of tea, but you see what Eco means – and I suppose Arnie’s better than Steven Seagal if a hunk is a must.

It’s true, and Eco acknowledges it, that there can only be intelligent guesses about the artefacts that have survived from before the invention of writing. The Venus of Willendorf may have been thought of as beautiful – or, just as likely, useful or comical or hideous, or who knows what? Since no one wrote down what they thought when they made or looked at it, we can’t be certain. But the guesses are backed up by whole libraries of texts, beginning almost with writing itself, containing theories which define and discourse on the nature of beauty. Even those of us without a proper grounding in aesthetics still understand that beauty is symmetrical, pleasing, fearful even, but quite unproblematical. You know it when you see it. You say, it/she/he is beautiful and you mean it/she/he pleases or ravishes the eye. Of course, if you spent too much time in la-la land you could find yourself saying ‘that was a really beautiful thing you did’; not nice, but it still connotes fairly simply the positive and uncomplicatedly good. If the goodness of your heart was visible, it would surely look like Audrey Hepburn or Johnny Depp. Even when beauty is ‘only skin deep’ and what you see is not what you get, you can at least be confident that there will be something decent to look at. Sometimes the beautiful is overwhelming – Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’, the Sublime – and it tips over into more than just a pretty face. But it’s not really difficult to grasp the idea of the beautiful.

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