P.S. to Anne Gregory

This here is a postscript to the last one.

One of the most unfortunate linguistic – and indeed, social – diseases of our time is the tendency of some ‘liberals’ to tag everything as beautiful.

Haven’t we seen this everywhere? Everyone is beautiful, no matter how you look; everyone sings beautifully, no matter how you sound; everyone makes beautiful art, no matter how it looks or what it expresses or means. There is no more room to call something not-beautiful. Beauty is something everyone has by default, in equal amounts.

The muddle is obvious. Things exist in this world and they have more or less distinct definitions. The definitions help us think of them meaningfully, perceive them clearly, and understand the relationships between them. We cannot simply do away with definitions; everything is not the same as everything else.

As a result of this, we have dichotomies in this world. We have binaries.  We have high and low, bright and dark, soft and hard, happy and sad. We have black, and we have white. – Now, few things are absolute in the world, mostly things are neither black nor white but a shade of grey. But even then, clear differences exist; it is possible to place every single thing on a point in the spectrum.

There’s a spectrum that exists in every person’s mind, hardwired into their instinct and sense of perception. When judges on a panel decide on the list of winners, they are using this inbuilt sense, this spectrum in the mind, to reach a conclusion about their vote. They are trying to make out who comes after whom, who deserves to be a bit higher on the list, and who cannot but be brought down a couple of places. They are grading human beings, and this gradation cannot happen without a standard to compare against. This spectrum provides that standard.

We begin to understand why calling everything beautiful does not make sense. If everything is beautiful, then you cannot possibly differentiate between beautiful and ugly anyway, since there’s nothing that is ugly. And there’s the trap. Without an awareness of darkness, you cannot be aware of the light. Without an awareness of ugliness, you cannot be aware of beauty.

Beauty is a function of a sensation of pleasure and ease. We find those things beautiful which send pleasurable pulses up and down our neural channels. It’s a product of biological evolution. That’s why we find the blue sky beautiful; that’s why we find rolling green fields beautiful; that’s why we find some human bodies beautiful; that’s why we find harmonious music beautiful. These days computers can compose pretty music because it is possible to calculate which combinations of notes would send pleasurable sensations to our brain. Companies use colour theory to market their products all the time, and interior designers make use of this every single day. How do they do this? Because there is a science to it; there are biological triggers that make us micro-react to different colours and different shapes differently. Speaking of shapes, in this age when fitness clubs have proliferated like mushrooms, a beautifully shaped body has become a widely selling product. Physical beauty, they say, is something you build for yourself, not something you are born with. And there’s all the hint you need. If there exists a systematic procedure to build something, then that thing cannot be random. It has a blueprint. It has a plan. It has a Yes, and it has a No.

The spectrum that we have inside our mind, the inner spectrum of beauty, – that has structure, too. On one end of it, we have absolute beauty, and on the other, we have absolute ugliness. Needless to say, both of these extremes are hypothetical in nature, it is not possible to envision something absolutely beautiful or absolutely ugly. Everything has its place somewhere along this intermediate line, somewhere between these two extremes. Beauticians and fitness trainers specialize in pushing you farther from the Ugly end of this spectrum, and closer to the Beautiful end. That’s what the job is. And in order to do it, they need to know very clearly which attributes to nurture in you, and which to clip off. And that brings us to our original question. How do we differentiate beauty from non-beauty?

If you ask a biologist, you will get a short answer; if you ask a cultural historian, you will get a long one. The historian will tell you that standards of beauty have varied across time, across cultures, – that beauty is a construct of civilization. The biologist, however, will tell you that beauty is a function of physical traits that are aesthetically pleasing and/or sexually arousing to other members of the species.

It is a very interesting discussion. But we will sidestep it, for now, and focus on the fact that there are standards in any case, whichever view you subscribe to. It is anything but random. Everything has never been equally beautiful. The dictum ‘Everything is beautiful’ is just another one of the limp, hypocritical grey lies that crawl all over our 21st century.

Well-meaning people use the ‘everyone is beautiful’ line out of a sense of humanity and kindness. They think that if someone is described as beauty-less, then they are being demeaned as a human being.

Why?

Physical beauty is one very small aspect of who we are. An important aspect, just like physical strength, physical flexibility, physical speed and physical immunity – but a very small aspect nonetheless. It defines part of who we are, not all of it. When someone desists from calling you beauty-less, afraid that they’ll insult you as a person, they are effectively equating your entire personality to your physical appearance. They are saying that your physical appearance is an exact projection of who you are overall; they are afraid of calling your physical appearance unattractive because, in their book, that means calling your entire person unattractive.

But that’s not how it is.

Take two names. Ashtavakra, the ancient Vedic sage, was well-known as a particularly ugly person; his name literally meant Crooked-in-eight-places, – a reference to eight physical deformities he was born with. He did not hide his ugliness; nor did he give himself a lofty, redeeming moniker that focused on ‘what made him special.’ He simply carried it like anything else, and he was one of the most revered sages of his day. To take the second example, Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was a very unpleasant-looking man. He did not invent a treatise on ‘alternative beauty’ to justify how he looked. He let the whole matter rest and went about his business as usual. We remember him and adore him for that business of his; we do not need to lie to ourselves about how he looked to retain that adoration.

George Bernard Shaw himself had famously joked about his own appearance when he was approached by a beautiful lady who wanted to marry him. We have all heard that story.

Calling everyone beautiful is a handicap to the social vitality of our age and the expressive power of our literature. It is a linguistic affliction. It makes no sense. It leeches meaning out of our descriptions and insults the personality of a human being by relegating it to physical appearance alone. Identifying someone as un-beautiful is not identifying someone as unworthy. Stop equating physical beauty with worthiness. People come in all kinds of combinations; beauty sometimes goes hand-in-hand with humanity, or intelligence, or character, – and sometimes it doesn’t. ‘In their own way’ is not a license to do away with all objective parameters. If ‘everyone is beautiful in their own way,’ then every dish is sweet and sour and hot and bitter all at the same time. In their own way.

What a jumble, really!

3 thoughts on “P.S. to Anne Gregory

  1. I think that the word ‘beautiful’ has become all-encompassing mainly because of insecurity that most people have during adolescence. If you call someone beautiful for talents that they have, it helps to boost their confidence. Unfortunately, this has led to ‘beauty’ turning into something overrated.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s