Friday, 1 August 2008
Essay on the Aesthetic Beauty of People
There is a semantic difficulty in distinguishing between people who are aesthetically beautiful and those who are simply physically beautiful. Prevalently the aesthetic is associated with visual qualities; hence, the association is made that to be aesthetically beautiful is to be pleasing to the eye. In its most common accentuation, this is simply the characteristic of physical beauty: a body possessing certain features of external appearance. While we are biologically predisposed to recognize some of these features as desirable on account of their evolutionary purpose (for instance, wider hips mean being more suitable for natality), this is in most cases subjective, and determined by Oedipal and Elektraen inclinations. Either way, the tenets of our taste must be attributed to the arbitrariness of fate.
The quality of aesthetical beauty is significantly different. The aesthetic is historically understood as the study of the beautiful; to be aesthetically beautiful therefore is not to conform to the arbitrary canons of evolution or origin, but to have those canons conform to oneself. A person who is physically beautiful may reveal something about his / her race, or about the people admiring him / her; in both cases there is a material referent for the beauty in question. People who are aesthetically beautiful do not do this. They are the referent in question: it is they who define our concept of beauty, allowing us to bring together its different manifestations (physical, graphical, phonetical, historical) under a common register. In this sense, it is perhaps incorrect even to say that they 'are' beautiful; rather, they seem to give access to beauty, as if there were an undercurrent of life's own beauty flowing in the world and their eyes were the moons determining its tides, or windows through which its airs flow in on wind.
For my own part, I recognise as aesthetically beautiful those people who seem to love life without having been trained for it, as naturally as if they were drinking from a spring or breathing. This is not to say that they are always happy. Mandatory to aesthetic beauty is not being aware of it, for it is manifest primarily in behaviour, not in appearance. Hence these people may often give the impression of being troubled, and indeed often are; yet even in the way they confront such trouble, they already seem to actuate such a love for life as many can only dream of in their best moments.
They are also, almost always, social magnets. Activity spins around them like winds around the peak of a mountain, and pathos passes on their rails, through them, before being released into a group. They may be loathed or worshipped (even by each other); but they never elicit indifference. When someone is aesthetically attractive and simultaneously a solitary individual, that combination produces a beauty of often extraordinary potency, and potentially of great cruelty, too. Yet people like this are very rare; to be human is to be social, and it is uncommon for someone with such beauty not to reap its fruits (as is the case when one is blessed with beauty of any other kind).
No doubt the dispensation of aesthetical beauty is as arbitrary as it is for the physical. Whether it may be considered a gift, I do not know; as with physical beauty, this is most likely to depend on personal circumstances, and on the way our beauty interacts with the milestones of our fate. Nonetheless, it is most often seen as something to be desired, as can be seen in the semantics chosen to describe their aesthetic characteristics. A similar dialectic was described by Primo Levi in If This is a Man, in terms of the drowned and the saved (so central was it to the author's conception of the book, that it was meant to be its title). Levi was talking about those who are historically drowned or saved; in his case, it is a much more specific, concrete and of course poignant discussion, on account of their consequences also being so concrete. Yet the wisdom of this division is that it applies to other registers too, aside from the historical. And for the social register there is no figure which to me better represents the saved, than that of an aesthetically beautiful person; though they are saved only socially, not historically or morally.
Where does that leave the rest of us? As the drowned? Perhaps, but once again the implications are much less dramatic than they are for the historically drowned. Many of the things that characterize aesthetic beauty can be learnt. Social behaviour has codes which can be learnt to the benefit of ourselves and those around us. Similarly, love for life is not exclusive to the saved, but can be apprehended - through discipline, humility and probably fortune. It may well result in a greater degree of peace than what's experienced by these other people.
Nonetheless the potency of their beauty remains, and it is impossible not to be affected by it. These people give you the impression that it is for them that the world gets up in the morning; that they should have been born not as persons, but as songs. “Among what rushes will they build, by what lake’s edge or pool delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day to find they have flown away?”