This started out as an essay, and has morphed into a book-length thesis. I would like to thank an old friend, Mercy for commenting on the original drafted essay, when this was essay size and was an inquiry into whether beauty is active or passive; now as a result of Mercy’s timely assertion that beauty is passive, I have gone deeper into the complexity of what beauty is and may mean, drawing on research from diverse sources.
For many years I have enjoyed – if that is the right word – good looks (were I not writing a story, of sorts, I would have used the word endured here instead of enjoyed, my story would be over, and I might be accused of telling and not showing). You see I am skeptical about whether or not it is possible to enjoy being beautiful since my experience of this has been largely a negative one. I realise this is a provocative statement, and yet often what seems obvious goes unchallenged simply because it seems so obvious, when, in fact, the very opposite may be the experience; to exemplify, the belief that a smile is only the reflection of pleasure; a smile may be sardonic or depressed, condescending, fake, incredulous.
For this reason I feel it is my duty to illuminate the difficulties of being classed or classified beautiful, or ugly; to interrogate received belief patterns about what this status is, does, negates, reinforced through close reading and relating to you my own experiences and life long battle with my own status.
The feeling that I had, when at the age of sixteen I turned from an ugly duckling into a swan, that I didn’t like being the object of the gaze has never left me; I didn’t want to be looked at and absorbed as an image and the psychological battles I fought with myself when people only engaged with me on one level, prompted me to look more closely at beauty and identity as the subject of a novel I was writing, a sequel to Jane Eyre entitled Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn – amzn.to/2jC9CPZ Charlotte Bronte too had made looks – the looks of both Rochester and Jane – the subject of her novel. What did this all mean?
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I was inspired to begin this essay partly when listening to Will Self begin a podcast, for radio 4’s program entitled A Point of View, with a negative suggestion about beauty; I suspect that Will Self would have gone on to oppose this negative view, since with most lectures, as we were taught as undergraduates, the speaker provides the thesis and then the antithesis, which is usually the opposite of his original stance at the beginning of his lecture; this is the point of lectures, or good essays, they are exploratory, and as has been suggested by many academics and writers, the essay as a discipline is a way of working forwards from a point of ignorance to a point of understanding; it is a process which begins with a question and undertakes to interrogate it from all angles in order to arrive at an answer; which is the beauty of the genre. However, I will make no specific reference to Will Self’s lecture (or essay on legs), here because I didn’t listen to it. I switched the radio off immediately and went away to write this because his assertion, or opening remark, had provoked anger in me.
Consider the boredom of becoming the proverbial Ozymandias (a statue), people, come in to gawp and make comments like, “isn’t she beautiful”, as if that were the only thing about you worth commenting on, or “I want high cheek bones”, as though a man was able to concentrate on more than one aspect of a woman at a time. I had endured this superficial response to my presence working in an office and on the shop floor for three years now, and I was sick of it. I was a manager running a shop with several floors and managing a team of people and yet over and over again in my interactions with people either my age or my looks took precedence over my actions. For years this had the effect of making me shun eye contact as a teenager, and worse invent a phrase which got me into trouble with the head teacher when I was reported for saying to some adult that stared at me, “have a good screw”. Now I realise what a beautiful metaphor this was; then I had no idea what it meant; for me, it felt as though people’s eyes were drilling into my soul.
Because of this unwanted attention, I became interested in beauty and Its impact on life and I wanted to read writing on beauty and to know the effect of it. Gradually, as I read more, I stumbled upon various literary works that had made beauty the focus of their plot and had explored it in depth and with insight. Having read and enjoyed Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, which title must be a deliberate satire of the work itself, because of course to limit is to contain and creatives cannot be contained, I humbly offer you a list which, of course, as many academics have observed before me, is not intended to ever be exhaustive. To return to the idea; creativity cannot be contained,you constricted, reduced like a commodity to contain only itself. The very existence of structuralism undermines this idea. Because out of structuralism arises post structuralism, which challenges its birth mother’s authority, splits up and deconstructs, as art arises out of the art or movement that came before it. And as music is born from other music.
I will attempt to interrogate and discuss these select texts, briefly in the next few pages of my denouement. Perhaps through them I can deconstruct the idea of a fixed idea of beauty.