It’s late in the evening, she’s wondering what clothes to wear; she’ll put on the make-up, and brushes her long, long hair. And then she’ll ask me, “Do I look all right?”, and I’ll say, “Yes, you look wonderful tonight.”
Last year I read a poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats where he raised a cunning argument regarding what truly makes a person who they are. In the poem, a young lady demands that her would-be lovers love her for who she is, and not her physical charms; but a rejoinder (probably from a wooer) states that no one but God could love her for who she is and not for her beauty.
While discussing this poem with a group of young readers, I expanded the idea of beauty into the idea of any human quality. We talked about whether it is possible at all to love someone for ‘who they are,’ and not for ‘what qualities they have.’ We pursued the line of reasoning that ‘what one is’ is essentially a sum total of what attributes one has, a collective function of one’s qualities.
But there is one more point I had raised, which could not be followed to any satisfactory conclusion, owing to the fact that it is too visceral a subject to be discussed in any orthodox, politically correct, status quo defending school. That was the question of beauty as a quality, and its status on the rank-ladder of human qualities we all have.
When people talk of being attracted to someone, they always maintain a snobbish sort of an attitude about beauty. Physical beauty, I mean, of course, nothing metaphysical. It has been long maintained that physical beauty is something lowbrow, something anti-intellectual, something that would only matter a great deal to a boor or a philistine. Physical beauty was always the quality that’s ‘skin-deep’ shallow, ephemeral like wilting flowers, full of deception like a mirage, or full of doom like a hypnotic phial of poison. It is folly to be ensnared by physical beauty, a sin to be susceptible to bodily passions, and a misjudgement to regard it as anything more than a pretty but brittle trinket.
As opposed to beauty, the inner qualites of a person are what one should truly value. It is the inner beauty of a person that you should fall in love with, and I do not mean the shapeliness of their digestive tract, the robustness of bones, or the efficiency of their liver. Inner beauty refers to the qualities abstract. Intellect, ethics, worldview, artistic taste. The way one thought, the priorities one had, the choices one made in given situations – these were the things you ought to consider when weighing a person, because these are enduring, these are permanent and solid, not fickle and fleeting like beauty. “How long does beauty last?” – spiritual gurus have laughed in every age; “It rots into ugliness like any other ripened fruit.”
My contention is with this point. I submit that physical beauty is, in fact, a much more real and dependable human quality than intellect, ethical position, or taste. At least, it is no less frivolous than any of these so-called higher qualities.
What is physical beauty? It may lie in the eye of the beholder, but there are points which determine the likelihood of someone being perceived as beautiful or ugly. These points are not metaphysical at all, they are biological.
Secondary sexual characteristics manifest themselves on the human body from the onset of puberty. These characteristics directly contribute to what we call a person’s ‘sex appeal.’ In fact that’s the only reason those characteristics exist, their sole evolutionary purpose is to instigate the sexual urge in other individuals. These features are a large part of what we perceive as physical beauty. But they are not all.
Even before the secondary sexual characteristics manifest themselves, the basic physical structure of a body takes shape, right from when it is an embryo. Vital questions like whether the baby is going to be a cripple, whether it is going to have all its limbs and digits, whether it is going to have two heads on one neck, whether it’s going to have an unwanted hole in its heart, – all of these are resolved at that stage. Genes determine it, largely, and doctors help to see that no external accidents happen. If all these things go well, we have a healthy baby.
Healthy, but all babies are a mix-and-match of their parents’ traits; even taking mutations into consideration, chances are incredibly low that very unattractive ancestors will give rise to an attractive descendant (I say ancestors rather than parents, because parents may carry unexpressed, recessive genes). This is basically how animal breeders ‘design’ desirable pets. You want a pup with a snubbed nose, you get snub-nosed parents to have babies together.
So depending on how the parents looked, we have a pretty baby, or a rather plain one. In some cases it will be ugly, but it doesn’t really manifest until the child is a bit older.
By the time the child is older, we can see how things are turning out. All offspring are lovable to their parents; but that’s not what we are talking about. There are traits like physical symmetry and skin texture, muscle tone and skeletal shape – that come into bloom. No one has the heart to say, ‘Yikes, that’s a gross-looking kid,’ but things like ‘My, what a pretty child’ are very common to hear. If you need proof of this in pop culture, take a look at child-models who are used on greetings cards, or in today’s age, advertisements by premier academic institutions, or other products designed for child-consumers. Producers always get handsome children for these things. A child with a distinctly asymmetrical face, or visible lapses in skin pigmentation, might be seen on a #DifferentlyAbled poster, or #IamSpecial campaign. Not on someplace mainstream.
So, to sum it up, beauty is not after all a subjective construct that ‘lies in the eyes of the beholder.’ Physical beauty is not, at any rate. The proof is all around us, from pictures on cereal boxes to pictures on the silver screen.
Now, is this physical beauty any less permanent, or any less unchanging than things like intellect, philosophical values, or artistic taste?
Inconsistency has been the one great cornerstone of the history of art. Pick up any history of any form of art, – it is a succession of ups and downs, crests and troughs one after another, where thesis and antithesis follow each other unceasingly, resulting in a synthesis, which starts the cycle all over again. Elizabethan exuberance fell into disrepair and chaos, to be replaced by the systematical and decorous rigidity of the Neoclassical; Neoclassical grew stiff, only to be brought down by the waves of the Romantic Movement, and once the great flowering was over, the Romantic Age itself grew old. There’s no easier example than William Wordsworth himself, spurned today by fans of the Romantic Age – because in his old age he had become everything he had tried to tear down in his youth. Every age of art changes, and so does every person of art. Stephen King, when he began to work on The Shining, vowed to himself that this time, he would not do the same thing he’d done before, this time he was going to do something new. Rabindranath took up painting at the age of 60, and was hailed as a matchless artistic genius by contemporary voices of Europe. Yeats waxed lyrical in praise of Rabindranath’s Song-Offerings when he read it for the first time; a few years down the line, he had quite a different opinion. What’s constant in art? – Nothing.
Is there permanence in philosophical values? If there had been so, why had Socrates been so insistent that he knew nothing except the fact that he knew nothing? Why did Wittgenstein overturn his own theory and try to redact all he’d said before? Why has it been said by one of our greatest modern thinkers that one who doesn’t undergo major shifts in thinking every few years is essentially an intellectual dead? It was Bhimsen Joshi himself who said, “Music changes every ten years; every musician should keep this thing in mind.” – It can indeed be argued that a person who retains the same exact worldview ten years after you first met them is a terrible choice as a life partner, and maybe even as a friend.
And finally, is there permanence in intellect? The answer to this can be jarringly straightforward. One of the things that beauty falls prey to is time. Time wrinkles the fairest brow and ashens the rosiest cheek, vivacious sex appeal transforms into a vision of decrepit decay in matter of decades. But isn’t the same true of the mind? How many brilliant authors have we seen dwindle into senility and fevers of the brain, how many angelic artists have been touched by palsy and paralysis with the advancement of cruel time? Did all these supernal gifts last? No. Time takes all.
Even youth itself is inconstant and fluid when it comes to intellect. Many of my young acquaintances love intelligence in a person. Not only academic or analytic intellect, but some of the more mature ones hold emotional intelligence in great value, too. If you ask them, they will tell you that intelligence is of greater intrinsic value than beauty, because the former is constant, while the latter is ever-fickle and superficial. It would take them a few more years to understand that intelligence is as superficial a quality as beauty, and some of the most intelligent people are often some of the least worthy. Cleverness is just a blade, there’s a whole lot of other things that go into the hand that wields it. But there are more interesting things here, – findings that have come to light relatively recently.
We often assume that a young person’s handling of themself, their judgement in matters, and their taste in small things – give us a fair impression of what kind of a person they’re going to be as an adult. Morning shows the day, as they say. But research has shown that mornings can be rather poor foretellers of the future, when it comes to human life. According to emerging studies, neuromaturation and maturity of judgment are intrinsically linked, and these developments continue well into the third decade of a person’s life. A rough estimate places the age of attaining mental maturity at 25. Around the mid-teen years, girls have an advantage of about 2 years over boys when it comes to brain development. The prefrontal cortex, turns out, does not care about gender-equality.
So why is intelligence more sacred than beauty? Because it caused more good? Didn’t it cause more harm too? If beauty’s power of doing good is considered null, doesn’t that nullify the value of most of liberal arts? Why is it purer to marvel at Einstein’s brain than to gaze at Bellucci’s eyes? Why should it be holier to worship the genius of the Principia Mathematica than to adore the perfection of David? Did the genes discriminate between the brains and the loins?
The answer I have arrived at is this. People are more at ease to admit their susceptibility to intelligence, virtue or personal philosophies, because these are less magnetic and less visceral than beauty. Man is an intellectual animal socially, but biologically we are still very much physical. Our minds might be very unimpressed at the worldview of an individual, but their body might still give us an erection. Because the body reacts to body, same as the mind reacts to mind. And our bodies are hardwired to respond to the cravings of the body, even though we have loaded modern software on to the machine. – So in a room, if we ask the gathered people to point out the smartest person, they will hesitate, but after a few minutes of deliberation, we are likely to get a name. But if you ask them who the most attractive is, you will end up with none. – This is not just because there will be wide differences of opinion. This is, more fundamentally, because every single person will be embarrassed to point out who they personally find most attractive.
There you are, then. Of course, this study isn’t a comprehensive one, nor can it be called scientific. It is only thoughts of my mind recorded in a poor semblance of tranquillity. But here it stands as of now, this is the conclusion I have come to. Beauty isn’t lesser than intelligence or virtue. It is only warmer to the touch.