Not a Pretty Sight
- On 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.
Ugliness, then, ought to be just as obvious as the not-beautiful; the opposite, the negation of beautiful; the offal vileness beneath the skin; the degenerated picture-in-the-attic; that which offends the eye. What is not pleasing to look at. But even at its most superficial, if you stop to consider it for longer than an instant, ugliness is a much more problematical category than beauty, and perhaps not a category at all. Summon up the faces of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, movie stars, models, strangers you see on the street; you might consider a few of them beautiful. But how many can you think of that you can call ugly? I don’t mean plain or mean-looking, wrongly-made or aged, I mean downright plug ugly. Ugly, pure and simple, in the way that the beautiful are beautiful purely and simply. Most of those who come to my mind, I’d call interesting, a word that falls between the simple opposites but makes for worthwhile looking. Generally, people are beautiful, pretty, plain, attractive, unattractive, interesting or unmemorable. Possibly, it’s only social convention that prevents me from finding anyone just ugly. But the really ugly is something I want to look at, at least as much as I want to gaze on the beautiful. A view, too, is easily enough defined as beautiful, though you might want to specify wild or landscaped, but even when it’s blighted by industrial neglect, catastrophic housing schemes, the aftermath of bombing or the depredations of logging companies, it’s not just ugly, so much as desolate, discouraging, alien, as well as, sometimes, weirdly beautiful. A lack of beauty makes greater demands on our powers of description. Ugly is not simply what we recoil from. Beauty is easier, or at any rate, you can offer it as an adjective and people will think they know what you mean. And yet, beauty abounds in theory, while of ugliness in written history there is little more than its description or modelling. As Eco says in this new essay, built like its predecessor around a compilation of words and pictures, there isn’t very much in the way of a systematic thought to draw on that specifically deals with ugliness as a subject. Ugliness is something we remark, dismissively, or with pity or disgust, but there’s nothing like the analysis that is available for the nature and history of beauty.
An exception is Karl Rosenkrantz’s The Aesthetics of Ugliness (1853), but he takes the idea far away from opposition to mere beauty: ‘Flatulence is an ugly business in all circumstances. But since it is a sign that the liberty of man is not always entirely under his control . . . it resembles a goblin that . . . puts him in an embarrassing situation . . . we men . . . are all part of this involuntary baseness of nature.’ Ugliness is not just what you get when beauty goes wrong, it seems to underlie it, even to expand the idea of beauty itself.
Wrestling with this lack of simplicities, Eco offers an Apollonian/Dionysian distinction, contending that ugliness is more visceral than beauty. When we find things beautiful we do so with a cool, disinterested appreciation of the object in question, he says. Really? Anita Ekberg in that fountain? He dismisses the immediate and obvious objections to this admittedly neat notion, with a creaky sleight of hand. He doesn’t count the ‘vulgar remarks made when a beautiful woman passes by’ since these are not ‘expressions of aesthetic pleasure so much as something similar to the grunts of satisfaction or even the belches emitted in certain cultures in order to express appreciation of a food’. These are merely ‘ostentatious manifestations of approval’. We have no desire to possess or consume the beautiful. When we consider something ugly, however, we react with ‘disgust, if not . . . violent repulsion, horror or fear’. Ugliness engages us physically and emotionally, while beauty is something we recognise and bend our eyes and mind to with serene approval. We don’t want to possess a flower that we judge aesthetically pleasing, Eco says, though the florist whose floral arrangements sell for £170 a pop (according to ‘The Ten Best Florists’ article in the Independent recently) or those who have Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Irises in their vaults, might disagree.
We have a fairly clear idea of what beauty has looked like over time from great painters, writers and theorists. It has been mapped, even if elements of the beautiful change: a larger mouth now, the smallest ears then, Gothic cathedrals, classical temples. Beauty’s shape shifts in Western eyes, but it is always in some way recognisable to later viewers, as Eco’s quotations show. The relativity of beauty has been recognised, or at least it has been surmised. Socrates: ‘the most beautiful of monkeys is ugly compared to humankind and the most beautiful pot is ugly compared to the female gender . . . If we compare the female gender to that of the gods, will it not be the same as comparing pots to girls? Will not the most beautiful girl seem ugly compared to the gods?’ And Gulliver, confronted by the monstrous Brobdingnagian breast, philosophises: ‘This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen but through a magnifying glass; where we find by experiment that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough, and coarse, and ill-coloured.’
But still the question remains: what does ugliness look like? Well, not necessarily ugly, in many cases. Eco tells us that great art, for example, redeems ugliness: even half-dead sunflowers become beautiful by being skilfully rendered in paint, whereas the fancy bouquet, whatever it costs, is binned when the flowers fade. Eco quotes Marx on the power of money in an aesthetic judgment: ‘I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful of women. Hence I am not ugly, since the effect of ugliness, its discouraging power, is annulled by money.’ And this book on ugliness, elegantly printed on good paper, with copious, varied quotations and fine, intriguing reproductions of great artists is not just a thing of beauty, but desirable with it. Is wanting to look away a definition of ugliness, or at any rate, a way of distinguishing the ugly from the not ugly? If that were the case then why would a coffee-table book of ugliness have been published in the first place? And why do the French celebrate the jolie laide, while the laide jolie does not seem to be an equal and opposite concept?
There are classical descriptions of notable ugliness such as an unsightly Socrates lying chastely next to the beautiful, drunken Alcibiades. And there’s Aesop: ‘repugnant to the sight . . . disgusting, fat belly, bulging head, pug nose, gibbous, swarthy and short, with flat feet, short arms, bandy legs, thick lips’. Is this ground-zero ugliness, or does it just tell us in what ways Aesop falls short of the anonymous writer’s requirements for beautiful? Did Aesop have the misfortune to possess a particularly bad combination of negative features; would only the full array of a neat head, large nose, straight back, pallor, tallness, arched feet, long arms, parallel legs and thin lips allow a man to be considered beautiful? Were the flat feet fatal? Could his opposite have had short arms yet still have been sightly? Where is the tipping point? If people reeled away at the sight of Aesop, were they offended by Socrates only when his looks were set off by being beside a beautiful boy? Or are these descriptions more to do with contrasting the nature of what they produced?
Eco’s chapter headings similarly make the idea of pure ugliness disappear. They include ‘Passion, Death and Martyrdom’; ‘The Apocalypse, Hell and the Devil’; ‘The Devil in the Modern World’; ‘Witchcraft, Satanism, Sadism’. Ugliness isn’t the essence of any of these subjects except by a stretch of language, a use of metaphor, though sometimes ugliness is a way to illustrate the notions of evil they deal with, or a falling away from good that they seem better to belong to. Ugliness, then, is an attempt to depict the horrors awaiting those on the wrong side of Christianity or socially acceptable behaviour. When the Devil is portrayed as ugly or monstrous, it is surely to emphasise his alienation from the good, from the God in whose image we were supposedly made and are always falling short of. The meticulously flesh-torn depiction of Christ’s wounds in Grünewald’s 16th-century altarpiece, or the complex suffering of the martyred apostles in Stefan Lochner’s 15th-century panels are ugly mostly in the service of that special sense in which we talk of ‘an ugly incident’. Christ is deformed by his wounds, but the point is to remind the believer that he has already been deformed by taking on a human form, which is what was required to permit the prophesied wounds in the first place. These uglinesses transform into a terrible beauty in theological terms. Ugliness still does not belong to itself. And the paintings of Bosch which no book on ugliness could avoid, ravish the eye, as ever, with comic-horror torments and frightful beasts painted like jewels. More recently, the awakened creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing, and H.R. Giger’s alien in the films of the same name are offered only in brief glimpses, to tease the audience, which wants to look long and hard on their strange and extraordinary beauty. Aesthetically as well as practically, it is very hard properly to disentangle ugliness and make it a free-standing category.
The breadth of Eco’s search spreads out to include or to gloss disgust, horror, fear, obscenity, misogyny, perversity, bigotry, social exclusiveness, repression, inexplicability, evil, deformation, degradation, heterogeneity. Its exemplars are the varying social anathemas of the West: the diabolical and the exotic; excrement; old age; women; Africans; disease; lesbians; Jews; and for Georges Bataille the big toe and the putrefaction of flowers, which he manages to bind to age and misogyny: ‘flowers don’t age honestly like leaves, which lose none of their beauty even after they are dead; flowers wither like simpering, overly made-up old women.’ Beauty isn’t put to anything like this range of uses as a metaphor: it does the beautiful, the fiercely beautiful and the good, and that’s about it.
The industrial and post-industrial urban landscapes look promisingly unambiguous. Eco quotes Dickens’s denunciation in Hard Times: ‘The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction.’ But it sounds more as if Dickens is objecting to manufactured sameness than ugliness as such. And in a quote from The Death of Light (1964), Hans Sedlmayr seems to agree and to confirm that there is no such thing as the simply ugly when speaking of the urban landscape of the mid-1960s:
scattered here and there in these deserts of ugliness there are oases of ancient nobility, and . . . alongside an ugliness devoid of character there appears, quite often, a characteristically provocative ugliness, which might be preferable to the bland pleasantness of certain buildings today, especially given that ugliness is often allied to a surprising solidity and care in construction . . . monotony is often even more pronounced than it was in certain ‘revamped’ streets in the 19th century.
The interestingly ugly is less discouraging, as Marx has it, than the merely plain, in landscapes as well as people.
In the run-up to the 20th century, ugliness as the inexplicable is rehearsed and moved from the grand abstraction of the sublime, Eco writes, to the centre of the human soul, as Mary Shelley dreams up her pathetic monster. Ugliness was further relativised and humanised; it was searched for and discovered to be everywhere. The uncanny is a kind of ugliness very near to home. Dr Hyde emerges and the formal invention of the unconscious draws ugliness into the idea of repression, so that all the monsters of the past and to come parade the terrors of the inevitable return of the repressed. There is no reason to look at the ugly, or to continue to look, unless it is representing something we need to see.
The closer we get to our own time, the more overtly interesting ugliness becomes. The 20th century is, for Eco, a time when we forced ourselves to look, long and hard, though in fact we had always looked, but in a more sidelong manner. Marinetti announced in the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature (1912): ‘They shout at us: “Your literature will not be beautiful! We will no longer have verbal symphonies, lulling harmonies, soothing cadences!” Let that much be clear! And thank goodness! We, on the other hand, will use all the brutal sounds, all the expressive cries of the violent life that surrounds us . . . After free verse, finally words-in-freedom!’ The avant-garde offers ugliness as a sign of beauty to come. The new forms of art – Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism – were accused of ugliness and then absorbed and accepted, as though ugliness were only the form that beauty took before time had worked on it. All of it, horrifying even to those who admired it at the time, is eventually redeemed and regularised by habit or monetary value.
At last Eco arrives at his beloved kitsch as his modern example of ugliness, where high culture prances about squealing with joy at the bad taste and imitation of art of those beneath it. The Arnolfini Couple in the Californian Palace of Living Art, is a meticulous, life-sized, three-dimensional waxwork reproduction of the 15th-century portrait. The painting isn’t ugly, so neither can its careful copy be so, but the idea of the copy, the populist, concrete imitation that offers itself as art but is actually unwitting parody, is the very definition of kitsch and therefore of ugliness. It’s the thought, apparently, that counts. By the time we get to the here and now, ugliness has definitively disappeared into the eye of the beholder. A Bosch barbarian vies with a punk rocker for king of the fearsomely pierced; Blake’s complaint at the dark satanic mills stands side by side with Stockhausen’s exclamation of the beauty of the attack on the Twin Towers; and Caliban joins the circus of Tod Browning’s Freaks. The one thing the reader of Eco’s book does not want to do is look away. As Frank Zappa doowoped,
What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose
Some say your toes
But I think it’s your mi-i-i-i-nd I think it’s your mind,
I think it’s your mind,
I think it’s your . . .