On beauty

A less than beautiful name, Samantha Brick, for someone who by any criteria, is not as aesthetically appealing as she feels obliged to claim. A couple of aspects to this somewhat contrived media hype stand out. One is, as has been pointed out, that public self-praise always leads to the anger of the mob. These days that means a “twitterstorm” and the most misogynistic, violent and conceited drivel is cloaked by the twin protections of anonymity and “she started it”. Such instant mindless cruelty is one of the arguments against restoring capital punishment in this country. These folk would turn up for the execution with their thermos and sandwiches outside the prison gates, the other end of the spectrum from the unwelcome  faux public grief of Wooton Bassett.

The other thing that occurs to me is that Ms Brick actually does have a point. It seems unlikely that it really applies to her, from my own aesthetic viewpoint, but beautiful people do sometimes have a harder time than one might expect, and they won’t get much sympathy for it. We’d all choose to be beautiful, on balance, but there is a downside.

The Knife knows a few beautiful people – I know how stupid that sounds – in fact, I married one. It’s not always easy for them, with a peculiar set of disadvantages, including being the focus of unwanted advances, being the centre of gossip and unsubstantiated rumours, envy to the point of spite and so on. All very trivial in some ways, but no less painful for it. Being the object of unrequited love or lust is definitely not a bed of roses. The Knife was reminded of this in reading Don Quixote, possibly the strangest of the “classic” texts, given its freeform absurdities and enormous length, but still undoubtedly great (try this translation).

Marcela is the beautiful shepherdess , who appears at the funeral of her unrequited lover (or stalker, by the sound of his behaviour)  Chrysostom/Grisostomo , where she has been unfairly blamed for his death. Her speech is an eloquent exposition of a complex problem. This is from the excellent SparkNotes site:

Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that which is beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.”

.

But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me? Nay- tell me- had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me? Moreover, you must remember that the beauty I possess was no choice of mine, for, be it what it may, Heaven of its bounty gave it me without my asking or choosing it; and as the viper, though it kills with it, does not deserve to be blamed for the poison it carries, as it is a gift of nature, neither do I deserve reproach for being beautiful; for beauty in a modest woman is like fire at a distance or a sharp sword; the one does not burn, the other does not cut, those who do not come too near.

Honour and virtue are the ornaments of the mind, without which the body, though it be so, has no right to pass for beautiful; but if modesty is one of the virtues that specially lend a grace and charm to mind and body, why should she who is loved for her beauty part with it to gratify one who for his pleasure alone strives with all his might and energy to rob her of it? I was born free, and that I might live in freedom I chose the solitude of the fields; in the trees of the mountains I find society, the clear waters of the brooks are my mirrors, and to the trees and waters I make known my thoughts and charms. I am a fire afar off, a sword laid aside.

Those whom I have inspired with love by letting them see me, I have by words undeceived, and if their longings live on hope- and I have given none to Chrysostom or to any other- it cannot justly be said that the death of any is my doing, for it was rather his own obstinacy than my cruelty that killed him; and if it be made a charge against me that his wishes were honourable, and that therefore I was bound to yield to them, I answer that when on this very spot where now his grave is made he declared to me his purity of purpose, I told him that mine was to live in perpetual solitude, and that the earth alone should enjoy the fruits of my retirement and the spoils of my beauty; and if, after this open avowal, he chose to persist against hope and steer against the wind, what wonder is it that he should sink in the depths of his infatuation?

If I had encouraged him, I should be false; if I had gratified him, I should have acted against my own better resolution and purpose. He was persistent in spite of warning, he despaired without being hated. Bethink you now if it be reasonable that his suffering should be laid to my charge. Let him who has been deceived complain, let him give way to despair whose encouraged hopes have proved vain, let him flatter himself whom I shall entice, let him boast whom I shall receive; but let not him call me cruel or homicide to whom I make no promise, upon whom I practise no deception, whom I neither entice nor receive. It has not been so far the will of Heaven that I should love by fate, and to expect me to love by choice is idle.

Let this general declaration serve for each of my suitors on his own account, and let it be understood from this time forth that if anyone dies for me it is not of jealousy or misery he dies, for she who loves no one can give no cause for jealousy to any, and candour is not to be confounded with scorn. Let him who calls me wild beast and basilisk, leave me alone as something noxious and evil; let him who calls me ungrateful, withhold his service; who calls me wayward, seek not my acquaintance; who calls me cruel, pursue me not; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, cruel, wayward being has no kind of desire to seek, serve, know, or follow them. If Chrysostom’s impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it? I have, as you know, wealth of my own, and I covet not that of others; my taste is for freedom, and I have no relish for constraint; I neither love nor hate anyone; I do not deceive this one or court that, or trifle with one or play with another. The modest converse of the shepherd girls of these hamlets and the care of my goats are my recreations; my desires are bounded by these mountains, and if they ever wander hence it is to contemplate the beauty of the heavens, steps by which the soul travels to its primeval abode.”

A terrific soliloquy, which makes you wonder just what she looks like. Dore’s engraving, uncharacteristically, seems inadequate to the task

Grisostomo is sulking on the left...
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