|The "Rokeby Venus" of Velasquez, slashed by an angry protester|
I have suggested that there may—contrary to one very entrenched line of social construction—be some meaningful connection between outside and inside, that beauty might well mean something about a person who possesses it—something beyond or outside of reproductive fitness or good genes. I have felt it necessary to try to throw some counter weight against the prevailing prejudice against the surface, without irrationally insisting that external beauty cannot, sometimes, be a mask for internal ugliness. But whether or not there is spiritual beauty under a physically beautiful surface, that surface itself at least ought not to be maligned. It can be appreciated, with all due respect to its loveliness. And likewise, wise old age—beautiful in its own way, possessed of fascinating wrinkles and the loveliness of all fading things—should not stoop to disparage the fresh promise of youthful beauty. We hear much about how our culture fetishizes youth, and certainly, the ethos is different in Europe. On the streets of France or Italy, older women are appreciated and admired, whereas in the United States, everyone knows they are largely ignored—invisible. Again, perhaps this has something to do with our Puritan past—for older women in America, if they are not desperately trying to pretend that they are still young, have, all-too-often, relinquished their sexuality, covered it and hidden it away, thinking it is no longer seemly. Why, if sex is for making babies, would women past the age of reproduction be considered sexual beings? If we keep moving in the same direction, young people –who nowadays seem to not want to be admired for their physical characteristics—will soon be invisible too. Better, some think, to be invisible than to be judged.
There are many ways to be beautiful, and many types of beauty, and to celebrate the beautiful is not to suggest that ugliness should be banished –for that would only be another form of totalitarian dystopia. Beauty is not necessarily the opposite of ugly, at least not precisely. It should not be confused with anodyne falsity or saccharine deceit, which attempts to hide the real nature of the world—twisted and contorted as it sometimes can be; also graceful and harmonious. A vision of beauty often includes pain, dissonance, darkness, strangeness. Only one who believes that the world as it is is ugly would think that the word beauty referred only to detached parts of life. To see beauty simply in what is real (Keats)—be it youth or old age or sickness or health—is to capture and conceptualize what is otherwise difficult to grasp. It is a way of finding meaning, giving form to what is otherwise sometimes hard to bear. Proust’s narrator, when he returns to Paris after being a long time away, thinks that everyone at the party he enters is wearing white wigs—but then he realizes that they have all gone grey. And he is moved intensely, because he knows what this physical reality means. The physical has become a symbol. And though it is a symbol of the approach of death, something difficult and painful, it is not a stretch to suggest that the encapsulation of the ungainly truth within this physical image –for metaphors are mainly physical, images drawn from the physical world to help us understand the abstract—is itself beautiful. Faded in soft colors, autumnal bursts of brightness, deep laugh lines, scars from falls and accidents, the look of experience, sad or joyful eyes—remembering, many winds, kissed by much sun, well-loved, having loved much— all might be admired in the complex beauty of an older face. Again, in seeing the beauty in age, we need not disparage the beauty of youth because some young people are unwise or even shallow, or out of a perverse jealousy or envy. Youth is indeed beautiful, in a way that old age can never more be—filled with promise, perfect, gleaming, alive, like new sap running. Fresh beginning, like spring. Wonder. Its very fleetingness is its fatal charm. For although there is beauty in the complex and painful, particularly in artistic expressions, which help us to bear the unbearable through some comprehensive, all-embracing way of seeing, there is also beauty in those rare moments of consummate natural perfection—beauty as a relief and graceful pause, a heart-stopping, astonished gasp at a momentary exception to the usually much-flawed and imperfectly complex beauty of the world—a momentary escape from death, darkness, and certain suffering through the contemplation of some flash of human or eternal artistic perfection.