Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Guest post: On Beauty


My (real life) friend the poet George Szirtes, has responded to my post on Misogyny:

I wrote three posts at my own place in response to the misogyny blog by Linda, that ended with a comment by a certain Stephanie who suggested men die first because they're stupid. My contribution was: fine, I am quite happy to die first.

I am not altogether stupid. I am a writer and that gives me certain advantages. But I want to discard the advantages here. I'd like to speak, if such a thing is possible, for Mr Normal, Mr Nothing Special. I want leave the gender wars out of this for now, as far as that is possible.

Beauty is something most people seek, and most men seek it, first and foremost, in women. There are many other qualities they seek but beauty is there somewhere at the core of it. And beauty is far from simple: it is not merely the ruddy glow of health or voluptuousness (what Eliot called 'pneumatic bliss'). It is not merely fleshly, though it is that too. Nor is it proportions drawn up according to a secret formula. What I said in my post was that it was "not to be owned by either the beholder or the object. And partly, because it cannot be owned like property, because it remains an elsewhere and, notionally, eternal, it is something that has always to be sought." It is in that way a spiritual yearning. We are not elsewhere and eternal. We are here and fugitive. That sense of life as something fugitive may go a little way to explaining why women's fashions change so frequently, why last year's fashion is ridiculous and no longer beautiful. Clothes are part of the beautiful, as are changes in clothes.

Next to the essential though, the momentary always looks a bit ridiculous, particularly when it is actually a product of labour. It takes considerable time. Humour is incongruity. And while, no doubt, the attitude Linda's blog refers to is part of the package, it is neither entirely a patriarchal plot nor gross stupidity. It is part of the tragic ludicrousness of life. Men and women often appear slightly ludicrous to each other. And women are far from reticent or decorous about what is ludicrous in men. In fact they are furiously critical – which is something I have never experienced among men regarding women. But we can be adult about this, can't we? Shall we, we thoughtful ones, try?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yum! Well expressed. Are you single?

lagatta said...

Lovely comment, but...

I wouldn't have said "stupid", but "silly", or more accurately lacking self-awareness - and this was in response to an article about a certain type of men.

I think all human beings are hard-wired to respond to beauty, though fortunately tastes in beauty vary much more than the glossy magazines would lead us to believe.

And while I certainly don't hate men, nor think patriarchy is a plot, it has a history stretching back thousands of years that cannot be wiped out in a single blow by progress in women's rights achieved over the last century, especially by women in Western Europe, North America and a few other corners of the globe. There is still a double standard, and it is very, very cruel.

Duchesse said...

"In fact they are furiously critical – which is something I have never experienced among men regarding women."

I was astonished to read this assertion, as it is so contradictory to my experience. I would like both sexes to voice their difficulties without blame, to ask for what they need and hope for, to approach disappointment with compassion.

Lindsay said...

I too appreciated reading this post, patronising tone notwithstanding. In response, can we keep context in mind: Sweet Machine's also-gorgeously-expressed comment cropped up in a post entitled 'Acne, doctors and the value of a pretty face' and inasmuch as she discusses beauty at all, it's as a construction that benefits practitioners of cosmetic surgery as much as, or more than, their clients. There's a question here which is probably unanswerable, which is about the extent to which we are (or not) constrained to follow certain 'beautifying' practices. The main focus of her discussion, though, is 'appearance', not beauty. Beauty is an amorphous quality which may very well not exist at all in any universally tangible form. However, while I agree that such a peculiarly unreal condition is very likely 'not to be owned by either the beholder or the object', I'd suggest that much of the labour invested in the pursuit of beauty – and the money and pain, comes primarily from women. Unless we're saying that hetero men's pursuit of women is simply another version of the same. (But life can't be that simple, surely?) The word 'beautiful', I feel, is quite dehumanising when applied to human beings – I'd be more comfortable applying it to a vase.

Lindsay said...

p.s. Having said which, I do love my fashion...

Arabella said...

I've come across many "furiously critical" men in my life unfortunately: leaning over scaffolding, huddling at bars, waiting at bus stops, hanging out of the windows of cars, all with screamingly voiced opinions about my manner of dress.
I have yet to experience this critical assault by a woman

Vicki said...

I think Mr. S's post was thoughtful and rather lovely. I read it as a whole, and wouldn't focus one piece (phrase) for comment.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Ach! All in all, it was a beautiful attempt at the first contact. After reading some of the comments, though, I think I shall remain for the rest of my life a regular MCP. Male Chauvinist Pig, that is.

At least this way I'll know who my friends are, where are my enemies, zones of fire and all that. Sorry.

And Lagatta - self-awareness is a gift that is distributed by the deity or whoever is distributing it regardless of gender. You can take it to the bank.

Elaine said...

I'm not sure how an article about the willingness of some dermatologists to cash in on women's insecurities and the fact that it's a highly lucrative and therefore highly competitive business morphed into an affirmation that all men are stupid and judge women entirely on their appearance. Anyone who accepts such a simplistic view is doing themselves, regardless of their gender, a great disservice. The dynamic between men and women, as individuals and as groups, is far more complicated than that.

I missed the original post when it first appeared so I'll comment on it here since I think it's germane. I thought it was poorly written and incredibly glib. She started out discussing the mixed results she's had treating her acne, made an awkward segue into a discussion about how dermatologists treat their patients using the OED's definition of "cosmetic" and somehow concluded that it's "one of the great rhetorical tricks of patriarchy" used to make women appear shallow and vain. I'm not surprised at the venomous tone of the comments that it generated. I suspect that was the author's intent.

lagatta said...

snoopy, did you read the pieces about "groovy old men"?

By their age, women have gone through the menopause and other reminders that they are no longer young lasses. Many men have also gone through reminders of their own. The article centres on those who, intelligent though they are, seem oblivious to the ravages of time.

It was not an article about all men over 50, but about a particular subset, privileged in many ways. Did you read my comment above? ... "this was in response to an article about a certain type of men". ...

The deity has nothing to do with this, it is a matter of power relations. I most certainly don't think women are better or more valid human beings than men are, and if you read through my posts (or those of most any person on this board) you will find little evidence of that here. I don't think Andrea Dworkonists would be particularly interested in a blog about fashion, literature and culture.

And while I disagree with George Szirtes about a level playing field in terms of beauty, I agree with him about the paramount importance of beauty and the search for it, and think he is a luminous, gifted writer. It is a pleasure to read his contribution to Linda's blog.

Anonymous said...

Link on George is broken.

His post displays shocking naiveté of the power and privilege that comes with being born male.

While seeking out beauty may be a natural inclination of the human race, practically speaking, beauty is intrinsically linked to power. If women and men were on equal footing, I suspect less effort would be put into personal appearance.

lagatta said...

Not necessarily - perhaps men would put in more effort and you wouldn't face the phenom of the beer-bellied gent who walks around shirtless etc.

(Harry had a great post, with pic, about flip-flops)...

As for snoopy, a look into the postings linked to confirm that he is an antagonistic poster who is little interested in what thoughtful dressers have to say, and a lot in setting up "feminist" strawpersons.

I guess he'll have to buy me a loose, ill-fitting denim overall. (Have never owned such a thing, and know few Montréalaises who have)...

I question some of what George Szirtes said on this topic, but that said, you should read his poetry, linked to on this site.

(Confess a favourable prejudice, as someone I love very much - yes a male person - was born the same year and is of the same background)...

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=224 If that doesn't work, try:

http://tinyurl.com/6c9mkl Szirtes poetry archive.

Tee said...

Must agree about the patronising tone and the male privilege oozing through this post.

Also must say that I too have met many "furiously critical" men just about everywhere, including those who won't even deign to be civil to women not decorative enough to meet their standards.

Fortunately many other men are NOT 'like that', but I believe men in general underestimate the extent to which women are judged on their appearance (by society in general) and underestimate the anxiety it creates.

Stephanie said...

Good Grief, and here I thought the violent stomach virus I have been suffering through over the last 24 hours made me feel bad....Look, I singularly respect the intelligence of everyone who reads/ contributes to this blog and I would think it would be clear that, after having read the piece to which I made that comment that of course I don't believe ALL men to be stupid. The attitude of any man (or woman for that matter) that seeks out beauty than holds in contempt the efforts of women to conform to that ideal of beauty is foolish and yes, stupid. I would never look at a well groomed man (an ideal my own eye seeks), than make a snarky comment as to how long his manscaping must have taken or whether he's too metrosexual for his own good.
Is all of this temepest in a teapot part of the ludicrisness of life?...of course. But let me state, for all posterity, that I am not of the opinion that ALL men are stupid; I still believe the attitudes in the original article to be foolish.

rachel said...

I have thoughts on both the original post and comment, and on this one, but in general I just one to make a distinction:

There's a difference between men striving and searching for beauty as a general (and personal) idea, and men who judge women based on a culturally enforced beauty ideal (i.e., what's "hot"). To dismiss a woman because her measurements don't add up to what popular culture says is desirable is, in fact, quite stupid. To gravitate towards what you, as an individual, find beautiful (regardless of sex) is human.