IS BEAUTY THE NEW TABOO?

 

Good literature, good music, beauty of form and good rhythm all depend on goodness of character—not lack of awareness of the world which we politely call ‘goodness,’ but a mind and character well-formed.  Are not these the things which our youth must pursue?  The graphic arts are full of the same qualities and so are the related crafts, weaving and embroidery, architecture, and the manufacture of furniture, and the same for living things, animals and plants.  For in all of them we find beauty and ugliness.  And ugliness of form and bad rhythm and disharmony are akin to poor quality of expression and character, and their opposites, good character and discipline.  –book three, The Republic

What’s the one thing which terrifies the avant-garde? 

Colleges won’t touch it.

Intellectuals are afraid of it.

Artists feel dread at the mere mention of its name.

It’s far more horrifying, divisive and forbidden than violence, sex, politics or religion.

In a discussion with Christopher Woodman on the Louise Gluck thread, I put it honestly on the table:  Gluck’s lost beauty.   Gluck was not insincere when she said she “didn’t want to be a Longfellow,” because Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s fame was, by its very nature, a “flaw;” yet Gluck’s grumble betrays a petulant crankiness, which, on closer examination, reveals a psychological reversal: it isn’t that she doesn’t want Longfellow’s acclaim; Gluck is resigned to the fact that she’ll never have it.  Gluck’s grumble is honest, because she believes that at one time she could have had fame—otherwise her grumbly complaint, which only makes her look like a crank, would never have been made.   It was made, however.  Why?  Louise Gluck is a distinguished (if not a wildly acclaimed) poet, and not known for personal outbursts or gaffes.  Why would she make such a grumble in public?   Regret.  What does she regret?  She would never have made the by now famous “Longfellow- acclaim-grumble” had she lacked confidence in her importance above and beyond acclaim; yet why should the ‘above and beyond’ ever fall to crankiness?  If it’s really ‘above and beyond,’ it shouldn’t.   Gluck had a cranky moment, in our opinion, for a very simple, human reason: she regrets her youthful beauty is gone and that it can no longer participate in any acclaim. 

This is Gluck’s unspoken truth.  Unspoken, for her once ravishing beauty lies at the center of her complaint, and it must lie in silence, for the Modernists knocked beauty and harmony and discipline off the throne, and placed the vanity of intellectual obfuscation and difficulty there, instead.

Some will assume it then follows that there’s no such thing as inner beauty.

Of course there is.  There is inner beauty, or beauty of the mind, which is, at least according to Socrates, what we should chiefly adore.

But we love and respond to a person’s inner loveliness only when that person is honest about their desire for beauty which they do not possess. 

This is what does not get taught in schools; it’s dangerous (and impolite to all the ugly people) to worship beauty as it truly exists.

But all great artists must ‘go through’ this first (honest) step to get to the next one: inner beauty which desires to be beautiful.

Beauty is attractive, and thus, it will always have a certain amount of acclaim.  This is natural, and to reject acclaim is to embrace the ugly.

The Modernist response to this problem is the sour-grapes approach; Modernist aesthetics placates the non-beautiful by renouncing beauty altogether, saying beauty is nothing but a hindrance, an obsolete illusion of an ignorant people.  This is what has become the academic, postmosternist ideal:  The heckling of beauty, the worship of non-beauty.

It’s a classic case of repression: for what is the morose, ugly intellectualism of modernism/post-modernism, if not the vengeful ghost of Platonism entering secretly through the back door? 

Socrates is explicit on this point: art that moves us too well is for that very reason forbidden from his utopian republic.

The reasonable and beautiful search for harmony and good by Socrates has been chopped up and stored under the floorboards by modern intellectualism, which considers itself free of that Socratic quest for harmony and good.  Today we are embarrassed by those dialogues of Plato; and yet, what is this elite, sour, and free-ranging intellectualism which we call modernism/post-modernism, but that which has banned art from the republic, not by banning it, but by making it harsh and ugly, so that a vast majority of the republic’s citizens are unmoved by art, such that outright banning isn’t necessary?  What is modernism and postmodernism but a harsh and hidden Platonism asserting itself in an unconscious and repressed manner in the unconsciously-agreeable, avant-garde mind? 

The ‘found’ poem or ‘found’ art, for instance, produces smirks among the clever avant garde artistes, and only a quizzical shrug in the populace—and the latter reaction gives the clever artistes a certain superior satisfaction; however, the clever artistes don’t realize that they (the clever artistes) are the willing slaves of plato’s ideas—for the good of that art-hating, hard-working populace.

Louise Gluck—belonging, with her colleagues and defenders, to the modernist/post-modernist/university writing program tradition, which self-consciously defines itself, explicitly, in complete opposition to artists like Longfellow, why should the once-young and beautiful Louise Gluck admit that she wants to be admired by the hard-working, art-hating masses of plato’s real and modern republic?  This would be like Gluck saying she wants to be young, again, and pretty, and invited to the ball, where Socrates—look! he’s young and handsome, too! waits, trembling with excitement, to dance with her.

14 Comments

  1. Noochness said,

    November 11, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I read your post,
    Which makes me pensive,
    But as an Uglo-American,
    I find it offensive.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    November 11, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I know I ask
    Lots from a modern:
    Analyze the past…
    Discern a pattern…

  3. T. Erickson said,

    November 15, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Spurious. This post raises an army of strawmen and huffs and puffs. “Modernism!” “found art!” bogeymen. Duchamp caught me when I was young, well before I knew what an “avant garde artiste” (strawman) could possibly be. I was just a citizen of the republic, just a member of the “populace,” open to the new,I guess, thumbing through a book and had my mind blown by possibility and audaciousness and energy.

    And poor poor Pound. I wonder what his retort might be to the accusation that he (by association with the innumerable artists of the past, say, HUNDRED years) replaces beauty with difficulty. …oh. I’ve got it… “beauty is difficult”

    Thing is, I decry our art’s fear of beauty, too. But beauty and ugliness are not opposites. Beauty and vulgarity are.

    • Noochness said,

      December 12, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      “Being Vulgar” by John Mortimer

      Speaking of Byron, George Eliot called him ‘the most vulgar-minded genius that ever produced a great effect on literature’. It’s questionable if Byron’s mind was notably vulgar. His sense of irony never deserted him, and when at his most tender, even sentimental, moments he couldn’t resist laughing at himself:

      And Julia sate with Juan, half embraced
      And half retiring from the glowing arm,
      Which trembled like the bosom where ’twas placed
      Yet still she must have thought there was no harm,
      Or else ’twere easy to withdraw her waist;
      But then the situation has its charm,
      And then — God knows what next — I can’t go on;
      I’m almost sorry that I e’er begun.

      However, to deny all vulgarity to Byron would be grossly unfair. Vulgarity is not, as George Eliot would have it, something to be avoided at all costs. And you should not, in life or in literature, be afraid of sentimentality either. Some of the best things in life, works that are a pleasure to be handed on to the generations to come, have vulgarity and sentimentality in spades. And I don’t mean seaside postcards or old music hall songs, but the greatest works of Dickens, Chaucer, Sterne, James Joyce and Rabelais. Indeed it’s impossible to read through, say, the novels of Virginia Woolf without longing for a touch, a mere hint of vulgarity or sentimentality, a tear-jerking scene perhaps, or even a joke about a fart. Benjamin Britten and his circle of friends used to say that Puccini’s operas ‘are all right, it’s just the music that’s so terrible.’ And yet you can be tearful at the end of La Boheme or be swept away by the shameless melodrama of Tosca more easily than that by Britten’s cold and more tasteful music.

      And if Byron was vulgar-minded, how about Shakespeare? In the purely literary sense it’s hard to criticize his poetry and infallible sense of drama. There are only very occasional over-ornate moments of showing off and sentimentality, as in:

      And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
      Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim hors’d
      Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
      Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
      That tears shall drown the wind…

      The more showy paintings of Rubens, the falling clouds of female flesh, might be described as vulgar, as might Toulouse-Lautrec’s lesbians and prostitutes or the satirical drawings of George Grosz. Picasso could be vulgar but not, strangely enough, Matisse; and there is a tender vulgarity in Kurt Weill. Critics might say that the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, with its easy rhythms and populist appeal, is vulgar but this was the source of his confident mastery of verse. Vulgarity is, at least, energetic.

      The actor Donald Wolfit, playing Shylock, sharpened his knife during the trial scene and then dropped it point downwards until it stood quivering, stabbing the stage. ‘Terribly vulgar effect,’ said Gielgud with a sniff of disapproval. And yet great acting, as practiced by Laurence Olivier, had its elements of vulgar showing-off. He entered as Othello, blacked up and with a rose in his mouth. He died hanging upside down, his ankles grasped by terrified spear-carriers, as Coriolanus. He swooped down from a high ramp as Hamlet, holding the sword that killed Claudius like an avenging angel. He imagined the scream of pain a small animal might emit if it found its tongue frozen to the ice and gave it to the blinded Oedipus. He slid down the length of a stage curtain as Mr Puff in The Critic. Terribly vulgar indeed, but all wonderful moments in the theatre.

      … Nabokov thought Dostoyevsky vulgar and said that reading his books was like enjoying the more lurid crime stories in some sensational newspaper, which is perhaps why Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov exercise their compulsive fascination.

      Oscar Wilde mocked Dickens for his vulgar sentimentality in writing the death of Little Nell. Perhaps Dickens didn’t feel as strongly about Nell, for all her slightly embarrassing sweetness, as he did for Jo, the little crossing sweeper in Bleak House. And when Jo died of poverty and neglect he comes straight out of the book and steps down to the footlights:

      Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

      You could say this is sentimental, which it is. You might find the effect vulgar. I know it to be magnificent.

      In another sense Shakespeare has a healthy sense of vulgarity. Even his most serious texts are dotted with sexual innuendoes, and he didn’t rule out fart jokes. Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona takes personal responsibility for the indiscretion of his dog, Crab: ‘he had not been there—bless the mark!—a pissing while, but all the chamber smelt him’. Shakespeare was also certain of a laugh from the groundlings when Pompey, in Measure for Measure, announces that his surname is Bum. ‘Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you,’ says Escalus, ‘so that in the beastliest sense you are Pompey the Great.’

      ‘Vulgar’ was a term of abuse much used in my youth. It could be applied to furniture (‘what a vulgar little chair’), seaside resorts (Brighton and Blackpool) and even after-dinner drinks (crème de menthe frappe). It was vulgar to say ‘serviettes’ instead of ‘table napkins’ or ‘lounge’ instead of ‘sitting room’. Wearing a ready-made bow tie, or eating asparagus with a fork or peas on a knife, all such things were thought of as unforgivably vulgar. It was horribly vulgar to pour your tea into your saucer to cool it (once a common practice) or wear brown shoes with a blue suit or have a gnome in your front garden. There was a whole world of things which non-vulgar people, including, of course, the Bloomsbury group, would never permit. Harrow, among the English public schools, was thought of as ‘vulgar’, producing unreliable characters wearing scuffed suede shoes who drove battered sports cars and frequented gin palaces on the Great West Road. The alleged vulgarity of old Harrovians attracted John Betjeman so much that, although he had been to Marlborough, he used to put on a Harrovian boater and sit at the piano playing Harrow school songs. Nothing excited him more than carefully observed vulgarity.

      Such definitions of vulgarity belong to an arcane snobbery and a vanished standard of good taste. Now political correctness has tried to enforce an artificial code of polite conduct on our basic instinct to laugh at most things, including, sex, death and going to the lavatory. In life and in literature there may still be opportunities to show off, exaggerate, embellish and startle. The only advice I would give to those who come after me is, ‘If you can find a streak of vulgarity in yourself, nurture it.’

      • thomasbrady said,

        December 12, 2010 at 8:08 pm

        One of the most infamous accusations of “vulgarity” was Aldous Huxley against Poe’s poetry; part of a general ganging-up by the Modernists against Poe; beauty and harmony called vulgar by a poet (Huxley) who once wrote a poem about a monkey’s bum:

        Beauty for some provides escape,
        Who gains a happiness in eyeing
        The gorgeous buttocks of the ape
        Or Autumn sunsets exquisitely dying

        from Ninth Philosopher’s Song —A. Huxley

        Huxley’s poem was published in Richard Aldington’s fat Viking press anthology; Aldington was one of the original imagistes and husband of H.D.

        And the New Critics of the American South, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, extensively reprinted Huxley’s ‘vulgarity’ tirade against Poe in their textbook “Understanding Poetry,” following the decadent Brit’s lead in damning the most beautiful and harmonious poet America ever produced.

        I’m reminded of Hemingway’s chapter in “Moveable Feast,” his 1920s Paris memoir, on Ford Madox Ford (WW I Propaganda Minister who met Pound off the boat and later visited Allen Tate in America):

        “May I sit with you?” he asked, sitting down, and his eyes which were a washed-out blue under colorless lids and eyebrows looked out on the boulevard.
        “I spent good years of my life that those beasts should be slaughtered humanely,” he said. [this no doubt refers to Ford's war propaganda work: slaughtering humanely his noble goal]
        “You told me,” I said.
        “I don’t think so.”
        “I’m quite sure.”
        “Very odd. I’ve never told anyone in my life.”
        “Will you have a drink?”

        ….”A gentleman,” Ford explained, “will always cut a cad.”
        I took a quick drink of brandy.
        “Would he cut a bounder?” I asked.
        “It would be impossible for a gentleman to know a bounder.”
        “Then you can only cut someone you have known on terms of equality?” I pursued.
        “Naturally.”
        “How would you meet a cad?”
        “You might not know it, or the fellow could have become a cad.”
        “What is a cad?” I asked. “Isn’t it someone that one has to thrash within an inch of his life?”
        “Not necessarily,” Ford said.
        “Is Ezra a gentleman?” I asked.
        “Of course not,” Ford said. “He’s an American.”
        “Can’t an American be a gentleman?”
        “Perhaps John Quinn,” Ford explained. “Certain of your ambassadors.” [Quinn was modern art collector & Pound & Eliot's lawyer, also Brit. intelligence agent and associate of Aleister Crowley]
        “Myron T. Herrick?”
        “Possibly.”
        “Was Henry James a gentleman?”
        “Very nearly.”
        “Are you a gentleman?”
        “Naturally. I have held his Majesty’s commission.”

  4. thomasbrady said,

    November 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    T.

    Two interesting formulations:

    The hypothetical response of Pound’s: ‘Beauty is difficult’
    and:

    Beauty v. Vulgarity

    But what of the fact that because beauty is sometimes vulgar (sexual, for instance) this makes beauty as an aesthetic, non-vulgar standard ‘difficult?’

    You seem to be leaving out Nature. In Nature, there is no vulgarity and you wouldn’t really describe beauty as difficult.

    But perhaps you’re leaving out Nature on purpose, which is what the moderns/post-moderns tend to do, couching everything in terms of human rhetoric, contingency, and power.

    But I grant you some good points. Thanks.

    Tom

  5. Noochness said,

    November 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Henry Miller, James Joyce,
    and Bukowski left traces
    Of their having found beauty
    In vulgar places.

  6. T. Erickson said,

    November 15, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Nature is neither beautiful nor vulgar. It is as we ascribe it. It doesn’t care. Unless I’m debating an animist, it seems obvious.

    “beauty is difficult” is from The Cantos. Pound was deeply involved with beauty as such; he tried to write paradise. Stated goal: “do not move / let the wind speak / that is paradise.” how bout that for nature?

    And Noochness: Ah yes! Vulgar PLACES. I’ve written poems in McDonalds. Talk about vulgar. But as you say, having found beauty within vulgar places; one is not the other, agreed? Joyce and Miller, two Modernists having yanked beauty out of vulgarity. I one hundred percent agree.

    It seems spurious indeed that one would lump a century’s worth of art into one point that seems to revolve around being upset about Louise Gluck not being a fan of Longfellow. I just wonder why we’re supposed to be scared of innovation, of the avant garde, of experimentation–much of which is bound by laws of probability to fail. Just wonder why the war? I enjoy G Oppen and PBShelley. Some don’t like either. And I don’t impugn the last century for their lack of vision. Just seems fussy to me. To the point where I can’t tell if you’re being serious.

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 15, 2010 at 8:54 pm

      T.

      Is it really so strange to say there’s been a radical shift in poetry and rhetoric in the last 100 years? Why don’t you think I’m being serious? The shift is real; true, we don’t have to be “serious” about it, but that doesn’t mean the shift hasn’t occured, and every intellectual knows it. But who needs intellectuals, right? Why not enjoy, as you do, Oppen and Shelley? Sure, why not? End of argument.

      And yet…some enjoy Plato’s “old quarrel between poetry and philosophy” and Nietzsche, Rorty, Fish, and their followers have beaten back Plato’s philosophy in a way that’s changed intellectual life in the last 100 years. Fish and his friends might think of ‘the old quarrel’ as that between rhetoric (contingency, power) and philosophy (Truth) but it’s still part of this shift of which I speak, and it has influenced how we read and what we expect of poetry, and how we react to things like ‘beauty’ and ‘truth.’

      I’m just trying to look at this ‘shift’ from a slightly new (and so obvious that we may not notice it) way. Exceptions abound, obviously. One thinks of the non-modernists like Edna Millay, Robert Frost, and WH Auden. It is always an interesting question, of course: How does poetry age? How does poetry become obsolete? In the 1930s, John Crowe Ransom insisted Byron was old-fashioned and we couldn’t write like that anymore. Or the question: When do experiments fail? When and how do they succeed?

      But I think it’s important to realize it’s more than just about liking this or that poetry. It has to do with how we philosophize, how we live, how we experience the world, and how we might, or might not, change the world.

      Tom

      • T. Erickson said,

        November 15, 2010 at 9:41 pm

        Tom,

        In answer to your first question, no. It’s not strange and i don’t recall asserting that it was. Your point escapes me there, since that paragraph seems to be addressed to someone else.

        I do appreciate that you’re concerned. But I am left with the same questions: what’s wrong with innovation and experiment? Is there really no profit to its existing, to our experiencing it? I suppose my criteria for whether an experiment has succeeded is if experiencing it makes me want to make something myself, as would be true of any experience of beauty.

        Guess I’m saying what does not change is the will to change. There is value in what you purport to be doing, tracing these changes, but It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me to bemoan the fact. There’s a lot of junk out there, true. Discard it and proceed with the sublime, which, believe it or not, is still being made.

      • thomasbrady said,

        November 15, 2010 at 10:48 pm

        T.,

        I guess you have to be more specific about ‘innovation and experiment.’ If one goes from an automobile that tops 100 MPH to a cardboard box, is that really ‘innovation and experiment?’ No, and to call it ‘innovation and experiment’ is just a polite way of masking what it is: a downgrade.

        I think we need to be very careful when we speak of “experiment.” What kind of experiment? What is the purpose of the experiment? What are we testing, exactly? What are we proving? Do we experiment scientifically with real objects for the mere sake of experimentation? Experimentation is not new, and didn’t begin with 20th century poetry, by an means. One could look at some 15th century experiment which went nowhere, and smile at it; one wouldn’t earnestly defend it, though. What, then has 20th century experimentation in poetry wrought? Where has it taken us? What has it taught us? What pleasure has it given us beyond the sort of pleasure poetry has always given us, beyond the useless experimenting that causes us to smile, as when we drop different shapes of paper in the wind to see how they twirl to earth?

        If we are both looking for the “sublime” that was produced then, and is being produced now, perhaps we agree with each other. Do you think there is an experimentation that is moving us away form the sublime entirely? How much do you think can be justified by ‘experimentation?’ When we do we say…’uh…now I need some results?’

        Tom

  7. T. Erickson said,

    November 16, 2010 at 12:47 am

    You ask me for specifics and proceed with such vagueness (what does the car represent? And the cardboard box?) that I’m unclear how to proceed. There is much reductiveness here, making it nearly impossible to reply, Tom. Simply, you’re not talking about an economy. Since experimentation harms nothing, takes nothing that needs to be replaced, I would say that any and all experimentation is beneficial. Nothing to lose, progress to be gained.

    When the very foundations of our knowledge of our physical world changes, I would argue that indeed, it requires a response from our artists. I’m talking quantum phisycs, chaos theories, relativity. And that, indeed, has happened, and required response in the past (Newton, Mach, Copernicus). But we only advance through experimentation, someone thinking that she can do it better and forging a new way. What skin is it off my back that certain experimenters that I disagree with are in fashion? Do you really think any given mode, any era, is sufficient, has it figured out?

    But I can see from this post, you seem to assume we had it all figured out in 1878–I disagree. And that’s an impossible argument to have since no statement of fact can be made.

    Seems to me there’s no one road to beauty, no one has the map. What matters is getting there. If you’ve found a new road, brilliant. If you prefer to take the well-trodden path and do it with some skill, brilliant.

    Funny, I keep thinking of something: Pound’s intro to Oppen’s book Discrete Series. Very apropos our division here. Might be why both their names popped up for me.

    • T. Erickson said,

      November 16, 2010 at 12:49 am

      Woops. I meant our discussion here, not division. Actually, it highlights, I think, something that we might both agree with.

      T

  8. thomasbrady said,

    November 16, 2010 at 3:29 am

    T.

    I’m not objecting to experimentation or real scientific advances, or art’s response to scientific advances; I’m merely objecting to a narrow 20th centruy clique’s ‘experimentation’ terminology, basically used to puff themselves and make their cheap productions appear far more significant and scientific than they actually are.

    Thank you, I will check out the Pound and the Oppen.

    And there’s a new post coming, inspired by your contributions here…

    Tom


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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 114 other followers

%d bloggers like this: