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Mama was the first thing I ever thought was beautiful. Her hair is smooth and black and her milky skin is always somehow glossy. In my childish wonder, her high, round cheekbones and remote expression seemed to give her a regal tranquillity, the aloof aura of a prinsesa. But she is provincial, an insignificant daughter of an Ilocano chicken farmer, and whenever she smiles with her grey teeth, or when she laughs like a duck quacking, you know that this is not a genuine mestiza. Nonetheless, she was beautiful to me. A butterfly was interesting to look at, a poem only had a point if it rhymed, and a sunset was just the curtain falling on my afternoon at Gracefield Park. But these were not beautiful. I knew after Papa had said she was — that was the first way I encountered the word. He has a wide mouth and bulging lower-cheeks, and when he barks things it’s as though he were speaking through a mouthful of food. Through the invisible morsel he hides in his jowls, he would say, “your Mama is bee-uuu-tea-pul.” The way it sounded coming from Papa proved that the signifier can bear little resemblance to the signified. But for me, Mama preceded beauty, she gave the word its definition; no one ever had to explain its meaning to me. I used to pray at night, dear God, please make me as beautiful as Mama (plus the addendum inspired by Westside Story: but more charming and witty).
Eventually I realised that my mother was not the most beautiful woman in the world. The prayers stopped. I abandoned my faith in God’s benevolence and in her beauty. What succeeded her was a greater awareness, subliminally communicated to me by those angelic Others. The little seraphim with their unblemished white skin, haloed by the downy blonde hairs which caught the light against their plump cheeks, their hair streaked by gold because the sun, which deigned to always darken me, made them only brighter; that was where beauty resided. Each year, there was always a new (and yet somehow always the same) dainty lily who was heralded as the prettiest girl in class. I never suffered the rumours that someone might fancy me, and I would never be the source of a rivalry between Brendon Daly and Shaun Lomack who, one year, both aged nine, competed for the affections of the exquisitely Anglo-Saxon Amelia Richardson. I was a swift learner, and very quickly I knew that my mother was not beautiful and neither was I.
Childhood is full of Wittgenstein’s ladders. Beauty is something I have learned and unlearned repeatedly, and now I will try to learn it again.
Beauty is political. The white body is upheld as the apex of human beauty as well as the creator of beautiful things. Men are taught to want to possess it; women are inculcated to want to embody it. It’s extraordinary to think that beauty was once considered benign; the apotheosis of goodness and an end unto itself. Beauty now has no such throne; it has been overthrown and beaten into submission. It survived the ugliness of WWI and WWII and the ensuing existential crises and abjurations of old ideals. It bared its teeth through avant-garde assassination attempts, and it trailed bloody and high through the economic, political and social upheavals of the ’60s through to the ’90s. In the present it lays panting, tenuously leashed to the whims of markets, ethics, and politics. Of course, politics and power were always covert in beauty; movements such as Black is Beautiful in the 1960s merely worked to expose such structures. This awareness now means that beauty can be actively weaponised and, more presciently (more exhaustingly), commercialised.
In 2004, Dove launched its mission to encourage “women” to “Love your Body” (for it is imperative that cisgendered women love, or at least want to love, their bodies), presenting its uplifting mantra in an advertising campaign that featured laughing women of all different shapes, sizes, and colours. Well, they must love their bodies; why else would they be laughing. One woman even bore a glancing resemblance to my mother. The common response to the campaign can be summarised as now those are real women. “Real”, in this instance, equates to beautiful — “real” being yet another nebulous term that calls for unpacking. Exposure and elevation is the modus operandi of such campaigns. Love your Body was Dove venturing to reform our ideas about what constitutes a beautiful body and, while it may have had some unverifiable success in this regard, the clandestine aim was to sell soaps. That which is inane is usually morally permissible.
However beauty is not always so docile: exposure and elevation is constantly in action in media, in art, in life, even in acts of brutality. In 2001, the composer Karl Heinz Stockhausen proclaimed the tragedy of September 9/11 to be “the greatest work of art ever.” He was met with outrage. That something terrible or violent could be raised to the status of beauty or the sublime insults our peaceable sensibilities; it’s not what we trained beauty to be.
Naturally, we insist on the goodness of beautiful things, so attached are we to our guilt-free pleasures. Consensus in some contemporary circles has it that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita expresses an anti-paedophilia message. Perhaps due to its moral weight, this reading is often espoused by its adherents as The Truth of Lolita. Notwithstanding the troubling content, Nabokov’s prose style is still considered beautiful by many. Here is a more disturbing proposition: perhaps the content of Lolita is what entices readers and the “beauty” of the prose is merely a justification for reading it. But the form and content of beauty is not so easily separated. In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison describes Sethe recalling the site of her former enslavement: “There was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty.”
Beauty does not become ugly by virtue of its indifference to human suffering. The desire to control what people find appealing is understandable, and perhaps in the future there exists a utopia where what is beautiful is always harmless. But the potentiality to bring about harm seems somehow indispensable to the concept of beauty. Without this, I think it is sad and pitiful, like those sedate tigers that sit around the temples in Thailand. Or like my mother’s aged body, absent of the envy it once induced.
There are philosophers (Schopenhauer, Weil, Scarry, Murdoch, among others) who, broadly speaking, suggest that beauty encourages us to think of the world beyond ourselves. It “decentres” or “unselfs” us. Beauty, in this view, catalyses a quasi-spiritual unification of the self, the world, and the Other. With a little rhetorical gymnastics, we could easily synthesise this concept with the popularly held interrelationship between beauty, truth, harmony, and symmetry. Something like, “beauty decentres/unselfs us; we cease to place disproportionate focus on ourselves and therefore stand in symmetry/harmony with the Other/world/truth,” will do for now. There are straightforward problems in this. First is the mistaken proviso that we are good people who experience beauty in non-treacherous ways. Next is the conflation of the world and Other with the object of beauty. Against the point of unselfing, when I hear a song I like, I don’t become less solipsistic: I like it because it enhances my solitude. The ethicist now moves to borrow from Habermas. We are the Other; our experience of beauty relies on there being an Other. You should want to safeguard the welfare of Amelia Richardson because she is part of the reason you can experience beauty in the first place, it doesn’t matter that she and every iteration of her is what made Mama deficient.
I tire of the shifting moods of politics and ethics, and I assign little authority to the beholder’s eye. I’m young enough to feel that I’m entitled to a little certainty — what is beautiful? We have canons that set the bar for books, music, film, and art, and though they are fraught with contentions, they give us something, however precarious, to hitch our tastes to. Did Brendon Daly and Shaun Lomack draw from a canon when they decided that Amelia Richardson was beautiful? Freud might say they learned it from their daddies. Harold Bloom would probably tell me that Shakespeare had something to do with it. The Ancient Greeks say that beauty is “being of one’s hour,” but the ontological questioning this provokes is tedious to contemplate. Umberto Eco says that beauty is a high level of order, but I’m a lover of discord. Keats tells me that beauty is truth and a joy forever, but that is decidedly bullshit. I’m more inclined to believe Tolstoy, who tells me that the delusion that beauty is goodness is a complete one. Complete delusion — that is a significant point of progress, for I’m very fond of delusion, it’s a habit of mine. I was deluded, for example, to think that my mother was the most beautiful thing in the world. I was deluded to believe that Amelia Richardson manifested some truth hitherto unbeknownst to me. Beauty can’t be trusted. Surface, Patrick Bateman tells me, is all that offers any meaning. For obvious reasons, I don’t want to take his word for it. Plato, remind me of your ideal, tell me something useful in a way that is not just pontificating, rise from the dead and tell me; is my Mama beautiful?
The answer, like with all philosophical questions, is just another riddle.
I’ll have to fashion my own solution which, as always, is the concealment of my confusion through verbosity. I am indecisive, muddle-headed. Too often I forget what I saw in an object I thought was beautiful, and I will go on to urge a friend to listen to this song, look at this image, read these lines; do they hear it, see it? I try to resurrect beauty, to relive it through them. Is my Mama beautiful? Will you tell me? It is mercurial, unfaithful. To me, beauty is elusive because it is not tame. I recoil at sentimentality, but anything less will sound like despair, so forgive me this: that which has “beauty” bears the seedlings of love, and we love the things we believe might free us. Deliver us from banality. Liberate us from ourselves and our pain, from the incessant and furious state of living in the present. A beautiful thing renews our sense of possibility. I struggle to think of cogent examples to make this meaning concrete, but here are a few. The sea. The summer trees pregnant with fruit and heavy with birds. The tender memory of a mother’s beauty. Return.