Uncompromising Ideals


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Posted by HSG on April 20, 2005 at 19:50:51:


(The joyous news coming out of Italy yesterday, and the far less encouraging media discussions that have resulted, reminded this author of a little item that he wrote privately, for a good friend, in January 2003. Some of the ideas in this write-up have appeared on this forum in subsequent posts, but the original essay could have its own interest, as well.)

* * *

During our interview with stylist Samantha Weston, we were intrigued by her use of a certain word to describe the appeal of plus-size beauty.

"It's almost taboo to people," she said.

Taboo. The idea seemed congruent with other phrases that have been used to characterize the allure of womanly proportions, such as "dangerous beauty," "dangerous curves," "forbidden femininity," and so forth.

Those are all such captivating words, aren't they? Taboo. Dangerous. Forbidden. They carry with them an exciting notion of . . . transgression.

But are they accurate? Are full, feminine curves really so threatening?

Based on how zealously our culture tries to keep those curves hidden from public view, the answer would have to be, "Yes."

When you stop to think about it, it's amazing the lengths to which we, as a society, will go, to keep full, feminine figures under wraps:

-We camouflage them with floor-length tent-dresses, or with boxy suits.
-We restrict them with minimizing "body gear."
-We diminish them with "slenderizing" photography.
-We erase them with digital trickery.
-We suppress them by banishing voluptuous women from the media.
-We even try to eradicate them altogether, with diet starvation, and with exercise torture.

But why? What makes those generous contours so intimidating?

Before we try to answer that, we must remember that this effort to conceal womanly curves represents a radical break from the practices of any era in Western history.

From the origins of Classical civilization, right down through the nineteenth century, women with the body type that we now find so troubling were considered the ideal of feminine beauty.

So why do we now suppress the opulent contours that once represented the height of human perfection?

Why have curves become so dangerous?

To solve this mystery, we might begin by asking ourselves what else became taboo during the last century--i.e., during the same period of time that imposed a prohibition on the full-size female figure.

What else did we, as a society, try to remove, and hide in basements, and conceal from public view?

The answer is obvious. All you need to do to is tour a modern-art museum, or hear a few bars of contemporary music, or glance at the faceless cityscape of an urban metropolis to find out.

Whereas two hundred years ago, a German philosopher could assert that "the basic characteristic of every work of art is beauty," a mere glance at the cultural artifacts of the last half-century reveals that the basic characteristic of contemporary art is its complete lack of beauty.

Therefore, beauty must be the answer. Beauty is the dangerous element that our culture has hidden away from the public eye. The ideal of Classical feminine beauty has been suppressed because beauty itself has been suppressed. Curves are dangerous, because beauty is dangerous

The attempt to minimize the visibility of feminine curves is merely part of a greater societal effect to restrict all manifestations of ideal beauty.

Therefore, whatever makes feminine curves so dangerous must be the same thing that makes beauty itself so threatening.

And what could that possibly be?

We were pondering that very question the other evening, but, failing to arrive at a answer, we turned away from the problem for a moment, and sought diversion in a book of Romantic verse.

The poem that we lighted on was an old chestnut by John Keats, titled "Ode on a Grecian Urn"--a meditation on the significance of a three-thousand-year-old Greek vase.

Some of you may remember this poem from your high-school days. You may recall studying it, but not really understanding it.

However, one line in particular may have impressed itself on your minds:

"Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty."

It seems like an agreeable concept, doesn't it? It almost sounds like a platitude, like the Golden Rule, or a bit of folk wisdom.

But on this particular evening, as we were reading this poem with the question of beauty's banishment still nagging at us, that statement suddenly stood out, and its greater significance became apparent.

Consider the words: Truth. Beauty. Those are two very big ideas. But they don't really mean very much to us in our modern world, do they?

After all, what is "Truth"? Are we not told, time and again, that there is no such thing as truth--only shifting perspectives, only answers that are "technically accurate"?

And what about beauty? Isn't beauty "in the eye of the beholder"? Isn't it all subjective? All relative? Isn't that what we have been taught to believe?

And it isn't hard to understand why so many individuals accept this modern evaluation. Beauty and truth may sound nice enough on the surface, but on some level, people are intuitively aware that these notions have an intimidating severity about them. They are rigid and unbending, allowing for no possibility of compromise.

Half-truths, partial truths, are not "The Truth." We hate to admit this to ourselves--especially when we are trying to comfort others (or ourselves) with a convenient lie--but the Truth really is black and white--right or wrong--and that is just such a difficult idea for us to deal with.

From youth, we have a hard time "telling the truth." We hate to acknowledge uncomfortable realities. Think about all of the truths that are unpalatable:

You are going to die--truth.
You can fail in any given task--truth.
People will betray you--truth.
Anything you can do, someone else can do better--truth.
You will love people who don't love you in return--truth.

And beauty, well, beauty is just as uncompromising as truth is.

Some of us are born without beauty, and will never possess it--even with all of the plastic surgery that money can buy.

Some of us will never be able to create beauty, no matter how hard we endeavour to do so. We may never be able to write beautifully, or paint a stirring picture, or dance in a rhythmic way--no matter how much we wish that we could. We may try to deceive ourselves that we can. Well-meaning loved ones might encourage us with false flattery. But that nagging voice of artistic conscience at the back of our minds eventually breaks the bad news to us. We can't.

So, far from being flowery, comforting thoughts, beauty and truth are actually rather pitiless. They can make us feel uncomfortable. They are among the few absolutes left to us in a world that increasingly embraces relativism.

We may even hate them for that very reason. We may hate the truth because it is painful. "The truth hurts," as the old saying goes--and it certainly does.

And as for beauty, we may hate it just as much, because it shames us, or it inspires feelings of jealousy in us, or possessiveness, or inadequacy.

No wonder beauty came under assault in our time. No wonder people wanted to do away with it--with curvaceous femininity, or with any other kind of beauty. The negative emotions that beauty and truth can stir up in our flawed natures can lead to resentment and jealously, to disharmony, even to civil unrest and political turmoil.

Isn't it easier, therefore, to live in a world where beauty has been diluted into plainness, and truth compromised into perspectivism? Wouldn't we rather live in a world of non-threatening, inoffensive androgyny, a world of disposable distractions, of perpetual "spin," of empty glitz, of tales "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"?

Isn't it better to do away with higher aspirations altogether, and live an unreflective, lobotomized existence, cushioned by cultural Prozac?

And is that the kind of thinking that led to the prohibition of intoxicating, feminine curves? Have we replaced voluptuous allure with the modest charms of skinniness for our own . . . protection? Have we become aesthetic teetotalers out of a levelling impulse?

And isn't our world better for it? Isn't it easier to live in a world where beauty has been expelled, and where truth and lie are relatively the same thing?

No, it is not. It is not easier to live in such a world at all.

And that's why beauty is coming back.

It's coming back because we need it. Because Beauty and Truth--those granite-like ideals, those windswept pinnacles where the water is scare, but where the air is clear--are capable of saving our lives, when nothing else can.

When the rest of the world goes black for us, and when we lose every other handhold we have, they are there for us to cling to. Tough as they are, unforgiving as they are, the are also indestructible, imperishable. Far from being illusions, they are in fact the Imagination made real, the human Will frozen into form, the invisible ether of human consciousness sublimated into a tangible, visible shape, and communicated in this manner from one individual to another.

The world changes. The things you love fade away. Relationships end. Wars erupt. People die.

But beauty lives on.

Even after plagues and famines, even after acts of the most appalling human barbarism, and the cruellest twists of Fate, even after tragedies both personal and cosmic, Beauty still endures.

And whether you are mourning the death of your father, or an estrangement from your spouse, or the dismemberment of your own country, or the seemingly black will of a malevolent universe, you can still stand before a work of beauty--as countless generations have before you--and be consoled by it.

Your pain dissolves against it like the waves that crash with full force against a mighty coastline, and subside.

And that's why beauty exists--because three millennia ago, a Greek youth may have felt the same way that you do. He may have felt a similar pain. He may have confronted comparable grief. And to alleviate his suffering, he looked deep into his heart, and found shining within himself an undimmed Ideal of beauty, which gave him solace.

And a nameless compulsion prompted him to take a chisel in hand, approach a block of marble--a stone so unyielding, but so lasting, like the Ideal itself--and hew that implacable block into the image of beauty that he found his heart, to make that source of solace real, in the form of an impossibly lovely goddess.

And in the millennia that have passed since that sculptor gave his creation life, countless generations have brought numberless cares with them when they looked upon his work of art--his goddess of beauty--and she, in her unchanging, Ideal perfection, has offered them a kind of solace that no cloying human sympathy ever could.

The same uncompromising qualities that make truth and beauty so troubling, so dangerous, are the very qualities that make them essential to human life. And if we deprive ourselves of these absolutes, then we sentence ourselves to lives absent of meaning, and devoid of hope.

Here is a fragment from the last stanza in Keats's poem. The narrator addresses the beautiful Greek art-work that he sees before him, with the following words:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,"--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The poet who wrote those lines was a sad, destitute, brilliant young man, who died tragically at the age of 24. But in the midst of his troubled life, this gorgeous work of Grecian art inspired him, roused him from his limited existence, stirred his higher faculties, and gave him a moment of lasting joy. And Keats realized that it would perform the same magic for people born two centuries after him, as it had for people born two millennia before him--people with problems very different from his own, but with the same intensity of heartache, and longing.

He knew that "In midst of other woe / Than ours," this work of beauty would remain forever the same--imperishable, undiluted, uncompromised, and pure.

And that's the truth.

Kati Kochanski in the pure white of ideality, from Alfred Angelo:

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