All things counter, original, spare, strange
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
— Gerald Manley Hopkins
It’s quiet or it’s mad,
It’s a good thing, or it’s bad
…. But beautiful, …beautiful
— Jimmy Van Heusen
“Yuk,” Noah asserts, his pronouncement aimed at your approval, intended to conform to proper sensibilities. Nevertheless, his gaze is locked on these snots, his breathing shallow, and drool collects on his lower lip.
“Yuk,” he incants after a moment, though with less conviction.
His eyes veer to yours momentarily, his face telegraphing one question, “Is this o.k.?” He’s too impatient to wait for your answer, his stare tugged back to his trove. Enchantment commands him, won’t permit him to toss these nasties. He is now related to them. His fascination, while at first purulent, scatological, is fast approaching love. Noah is starting to look for faces in these aliens. He is exercising his aesthetic muscle, his willingness to suspend prejudice, to question his assumptions about the world.
And just supposing this same eagerness had led him to a scorpion, a wasp, a toadstool?
How necessary are our repulsions; and equally how necessary the inclination to resist them. We are compelled, in spite of what we’ve been cautioned against, to see the world from all — especially precarious — angles.
High on a mountaintop, in say, the Himalayas, naked fakirs are cross-legged in the snow, eyes rolled back, oblivious to the cold.
Meanwhile, 130 feet below the sea off the island of Catalina, a diver has sunk into another kind of rapture. An excess of nitrogen in his blood steeps him in the realm of the gorgeous. The sea is awash with siren’s song. It will be the most beautiful thing he had ever experienced.
Susceptibility to the sublime can be at odds with survival, safety, common sense. Mirage has the power to lull us into ecstatic peril, can cause us to linger in the bull’s eye, loiter in the beams of an oncoming truck.
And what if — cautions the voice of the safely monochromatic — love is such lethal fancy?
Nevertheless, in experiment after experiment the scientist exposes herself to radiation, the vulcanologist stays too long at the lip of the caldera, the virgin’s palms split open and bleed, the lover endures the impossible trials of loving. In every memorable tale, the hero places herself at risk. And for what?
A face, a gaze, the curve of a mouth, the slope of a brow? A Pythagorean proof, perhaps, the diatonic scale, a rhyme, a nude, a myth, a bauble, a sunset, “Venus di Milo,” Miss America, a vintage Burgundy, a bed of roses, prime numbers, the double helix, damask linen, a unified field theory, Sophia Loren? This rapture, this calamity, this divinity is vain, and she walks in it like the night, and truth is it, and it is a joy forever. It is in the eye of the beholder, and it is as it does.
Long, long ago, an old merchant was returning home from a fair in winter. The distance had been far and he was cold and tired. He longed to be back in his house with his three daughters, seated before his hearth, safe and warm. Before leaving them he had asked each what to bring her as a gift from his journey. And so, as requested, he purchased a topaz ring for the oldest daughter, an emerald necklace for the second, but nothing, yet, for his favorite — who, in characteristic modesty, had asked for nothing. She was kind and comely, and never asked anything of him, never even for the smallest of souvenirs.
All night the old man rode his tall white horse through the snow, troubled to be returning to his favorite child empty handed. “What to give her?” the horse hooves whispered, “What to give her…”
By dawn he woke to find his horse had led him to a splendored garden, leafed and lavish, even in the frost. Beyond the perimeter of the garden the trees and bushes were bare; but inside greenery flourished. And then something caught his eye, a rose trailing along the garden wall, bright as a gemstone.
Never had he seen such a splendid flower! A gift for Beauty, he thought. At last, something for Beauty! He dismounted his mare and cut the rose from the briar, but as he did he heard a voice thunder from behind the topiary, “Give me back my rose, or I’ll kill you!”
The old man leapt on his horse and they fled, and they were nearly home when he heard something loping and panting beside him. Turning around, he saw a horrid Beast that cried out, “Give me back my rose, or I’ll kill you!”
The horse was exhausted and in a lather. The man despaired: he begged, “Please let me keep it. I am supposed to bring a gift to my daughter… the most beautiful child in all the world.”
“Fine! Well, since you have plundered my garden, give me your beautiful daughter for a wife!”
And so it happened that Beauty — the most lovely of women, the old man’s dearest child — was taken away by the Beast.
Beauty is an odd name for a girl isn’t it? Beauty. We have Charity, Prudence, Grace, Hope, a slew of almighty virtues to name the baby, but never something as audacious as Beauty. It would be a curse, wouldn’t it? When she was born she was luminous, and even as toddler she dazzled. Too bad she didn’t know it. Oh, you could attribute her lack of self-esteem to the way her jealous sisters treated her, acting like she was their scullery maid, as they adorned their bodies with perfumes and jewels, as they rubbed her nose in the muck of their envy. Such comeliness, as it turns out, has its price.
What would it be like to become Beauty? To be the shiny coin passed from hand to hand, the lucre we live by, the gelt that is, like it or not, the measure of our wealth, our ambition, our poverty. We may scorn and squander it, but where would we be without its dominion? What captures us time after time? What other god, besides fear, do we serve?
Good art, dutiful art, art that redeems the world, appears at first ugly, inappropriate. It is the mutant creature crawling up onto the land, the opposable thumb, the sixth finger, the third eye. By necessity it must focus on the wrong subject matter, champion the worst imaginable faux pas, applaud the vulgarian’s bark. It is Costello to Abbott, Ralph to Alice, Beast to Beauty, a whoopee cushion at a formal dinner party. It will make us either guffaw, snort, gag or weep. It refreshes wonder. It says, “Look,” and “Look again.”
If art can impose upon us the stun of rapture, if it is the antidote for boredom, the dispeller of hubris, the finder of lost articles, the foe of even repulsion, then it is the soul’s daily bread. And it is also, incidentally, love’s identical work. All it takes is a kiss to turn the toad, the gnome, the Beast into a prince.
Recently the Detroit police raided an art exhibit accompanying a conference on censorship. One of the pieces considered obscene and confiscated in the raid was a reproduction of a painting called “The Origin of the World”. There’s no doubt the work intended to rile the status quo, even if that initial establishment was the French art world of 1866. “The Origin of the World” is, as it was then, a beaver shot. The painting’s maker, Gustave Courbet, had made a name for himself by choosing callow, lowbrow subject matter to ennoble in the context of “Art”.
Let’s go back to the dirt where the child, Noah, and you were digging for buried — and now newly realized — treasure. It is Rose’s dirt. Rose’s garden, the garden in which Rose grows roses. It is the same dirt in which Rose and I discovered a common ground in beauty, in which, still strangers, we ate breakfast together at her patio table, and watched as a snail slid on the underbelly of glass, beneath the pastries, the napkins, and the champagne flutes. Our conversation stopped and we watched how the muscle of the snail’s belly rippled as she glided, how her motility was reminiscent of an ancestry in the sea. When she reached the edge she righted herself atop, her brown shell as domed as a walnut’s, and proceeded to coast towards what was left of my croissant. We watched her lift her head to the golden crumb, and we hushed and both swore we could hear the soft sound of something tearing. We named her Carla. “She’s beautiful!” Rose exclaimed. “Yes,” I agreed, one of the loveliest creatures I’d ever seen.
There are times when the gods appear to us in the guises of animals or beautiful mortals. Such trickery could be the first step down the slippery slope, the bait at death’s door. Think of all the dupes of wicked mermaids, sailors lost to a watery grave. Imagine yourself gaily stumbling down the alleys of Hamlin, traipsing after a piper’s ditty. Rapture is heaven’s ruse to engage us in conversation, otherwise we are too oblivious (or too cowed) to engage on our own. We are Beauty’s hostage, and how or where she finds us will either bring about our ruin or our salvation.
There are some tricks with this painting of a woman’s crotch, with “The Origin of the World.” The first is the pairing of the title with the image, a proclamation that the universe owes its genesis in a female body, a female being. We’ve seen Venuses depicted before throughout the course of western Art History, with Neolithic stone carvings blossoming into Classic marbles; and even in Courbet’s time, rouged courtly ladies romped through scenes from Classic mythology. Courbet’s subject however, sprawling lasciviously on a background of tousled bed linens, hardly cuts an Olympian figure. Courbet’s irreverent deification of the Female, while by definition wholly Classical, expands the frame in which Beauty can be beheld. Here, flesh and blood women, freshly fucked women are the proper, indeed the essential, subject matter. “Show me an angel,” declared Courbet, “and I’ll paint one.”
The second trick, also a pun on Classicism, is to lop off parts of the figure: the limbs and the head. Think of the “Venus di Milo” or “The Winged Victory” and there you have our nineteenth century demoiselle, her extremities cropped by the artist’s perspective. Such amputations, while playing with the aesthetics of Classicism, also give his subject two wholly opposing attributes. Without features or identity this very mortal harlot becomes not simply a female, but Female, an archetype. God, Courbet might have said, is plainly secular.
The darkness of the pubis is equal to the infinite dark beyond the bed folds, an unreal blackness, as quixotic as the starry sky. The folds of the drapery mirror the folds of the figure, and into both depths the eye wants to slip, toward mystery, towards intimacy. One has the feeling that it would be easy to slip one’s hand, one’s gaze, into those pockets, to finger the stuff of which we’re all made.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Courbet was a great painter. But he was a champion, perhaps one of the first, of the avant-garde, one of the first transgressives. Someone who, like Warhol with his soup cans, said, “Look.” “Even Here.” And like most artists, he was reputed to be something of an egomaniac — hardly someone who was able to live by his own creed.
Love and Art are bigger than we are, and a great deal more interesting. There is no celebrity in either. Meet your favorite author and you quickly experience the discrepancy between those labyrinthine sentences and their pimply, vain, maker. Likewise, once you know your love, she’s no longer Ava Gardner. Yet, in love — say, in looking together at a snail or a soup can — you are both in Grace.
The poet Robert Pinsky says that the artist’s job is to make poems where none have been before. To make some aspect of living poetic, the way the city was made poetic by Dickens, the way that perhaps the city had never been poetic before Dickens. Why do we crave such poetics? Isn’t life just ducky as is? Apparently not. Apparently our need to salvage our lives through finding beauty in them is as important, as inseparable, as living them. This is why, in William Carlos William’s words concerning poetry, “people die each day for lack of it.”
Hardly purgatory, the Beast’s castle was a step up from her family home. The garden in perpetual bloom, animate statuary proffering candelabras, and musicians vamping round the clock. Food of every description appeared even before Beauty knew she had an appetite. Her wardrobe was brimming with silks and cashmeres, and her bed linens unfurled for her if she even started to yawn.
She enjoyed the luxury, but more than that she had begun to take interest in her fiancé. She liked his kind, submissive gaze, and the way his tail swung slow and low to the ground, whisking up small clouds of dust whenever he stood before her. She was amused by his anxious growl at the voices on the other side of the garden wall. And she was endeared to him especially when he pleaded with her to remove burrs from the inside of his paws of from the back of his ears. She was beginning, in fact, to enjoy that smell.
But one day she said to him, “I worry that my father is sick. Please allow me to return home to see him.”
The beast was afraid to let her go, but he gave in. He was becoming a bit of a slave. As she was leaving, he called out, “Don’t stay long, or I, too will take ill.” Then he growled in the direction of her departure, and slunk back inside the gate, and trotted up to his study.
When she arrived home her father had died. She stayed for the funeral, the dinner, and the funeral reception. She cared for her vain sisters and cleaned the house and even wrote the obit for the local paper. But she was a queen now, or about to be, and something inside her had changed. Her sisters saw it, too. She was more substantial, not to be toyed with. So there was no stopping her when she announced “I must get back to my beau.”
When she returned she found her castle dark and chill. It was as though Persephone herself had been gone. Snow was everywhere; frost starched the drapery, and icicles dangled from the faucets. Not one note of music could be heard in any chamber, just her own voice calling for her mate, and the wind whining through the rafters.
Outside in the garden the roses were wilted and brown. She pushed them aside and found her beast, dying in the cold.
She took his great head in her lap and cried, “Oh, my king, I can’t live without you!” Her tears fell, one by one into his mouth, and slowly he licked his lips, and blinked his eyes, and smiled. The rest is mythic history.
There is another kind of art. Harder, less dramatic.
One can look at “The Origin of the World” and have one’s vision of the Feminine refreshed. One might even assume that one could even paint a comparable painting. It is quite another thing to live with such values. Is your lover a goddess? Can you bring such poetics, such creative effort, to your everyday life? Can you live with the knowledge of your exquisite, and very ordinary, mortality?
It is one thing to rescue the outcast, the forsaken, the downrtight Beastly — that gets the hero’s reception, the ticker tape parade down main street, a throne at Olympus, a role in a fairy tale — or at the very least a child’s awe, a gasp of amazement. To champion the mundane is quite another matter. It is quiet, daily effort, requiring Sisyphian ingenuity. Like the chores of housewifery, one must set the table, light the candles, say the prayers. Love, if it is to be sustained, and if it survives the dissipation of the ideal, requires such endurance, such stubborn genius.
We struggle in life against both familiarity and detachment, and the shadows of contempt that lie everywhere in between. We sweat to keep our gaze fresh, to lasso amazement, even when the sink is filled with dirty dishes, and the sky has been overcast for weeks.
Look at Beauty’s life after marrying the Beast, after he becomes a prince: It is hardly Happily Ever After. She misses his whiskers, his feral breath, his scrappy, jagged nails. What has rescued Beauty, made her real, sanctified her, is her concupiscence with the ugliest cuss in sight. She became soiled, surrendered idealization. But once everything is prettified, where’s the rub? What can rise to the occasion of beauty
Besides, life is long and beauty fades. What kind of castle looms for lovers doomed to the life-long haul?
The saying goes that beauty is as beauty does. Could that mean that to confer beauty unto something or someone, to discover something otherwise forsaken, is to become beautiful? And moreover, not to do it just once — that would be easy, as easy as kissing a frog — but to continually salvage love from the brutal revelations of intimacy, ah, that would take some enchantment!
So by night they have to remember themselves, become grotesques, accept the natures they were given; so by morning they are redeemed in the eyes of the other. They scream and fight sometimes with words not befitting a fairy tale. They have to light their own candelabras, and sing their corny off-key songs, and force themselves to journey away from each other. Their fangs are sharp, their glamour for their eyes alone, and they manage each day to maintain the holy trance.
Put simply, she was beautiful. She was cradling her infant, and she was radiant. She was staring off into the distance, a kind of heroic pose, her black eyes shining, her facial muscles relaxed. I beheld her, by which I mean, I drank in her beauty, this mother gorilla, at the Seattle Zoo. As a reflex I turned to the stranger beside me. “She’s really beautiful!” I gaped. It was a moment like Noah’s, in which I had lost propriety, coordinates, my frame of reference. Could this be real? Was I in the presence of a simian Sophia Loren? The stranger, a zoo official, eyed me. “Yes,” she began cautiously, “she is…Very.” Her resistance to my blurt was not only proprietary, she was defensive. This was the kind of revelation one doesn’t share freely. There are places for people whose tastes veer toward the… unconventional.
This was the same week that a woman schoolteacher in Seattle was arrested for having an affair with her 11-year-old student. He was beautiful to her, more mature, more understanding than most males even her own age. She was convinced, though at times guilt-ridden, that this boy was exceptional. Was she in a trance? Or was she finally awake?
This was same month I realized I was smitten by my ten-year-old neighbor in Ireland. I did not want to have sex with this child, but I admired his beauty, his charm, his spirit, and there was an erotic aspect to it. I loved his boyness, his emerging masculinity and I felt our connection to be deep and mysterious. I called it a crush, and knew it to be mutual.
That was the same year that Rose and I built the addition onto our cottage.
After we rolled the second coat of paint over the plaster, a snail slid onto the windowsill of what was to become our kitchen, our first overnight guest. She was flatter, more elliptical than our Carla, her yellow-banded spiral like a hypnotist’s whirligig. Rose held out her finger to her and waited. She was shyer than our Carla, slower to emerge. First came her clitoral head, then her sprocket eyes. One fixed on Rose, the other aimed at me. Below them, her olfactory sensors, the smaller pair of eye-like sprockets, touched the skin on Rose’s finger tentatively, then retreated, then reached out again.
And then she tasted Rose. Like a spring percolating through muddy water, or a small cloud gathering in a dark sky, her mouth materialized out of her dim flesh, and puckered on Rose’s skin. Rose exclaimed her excitement with an intake of breath, then laughed, said the snail’s mouth was like the mouth on the puppet “Lambchop.”
This made me love Rose all the more, made me want to ravish her there amid the rubble of our new kitchen. This kitchen which would in time feed our neighbors, in which lamb would be broiled and roasted and stewed, in which tables would be set with linens and silver, and flowers placed in vases, and candles lit. This is the kitchen in which fangs would be bared and hair would fly, in which tears would be shed, and vows rescinded, and threats leveled, and love forsaken. The place where rapture would then be recaptured. The dirt where beauty is found.
Bia Lowe is the author of two collections of essays, Wild Ride: Earthquakes, Sneezes, and Other Thrills, and Splendored Thing: Love, Roses, and Other Thorny Treasures, in which this essay appeared. Visit Bia's web page.