Brenda Hillman

Little Philokalia: A Beauty Makeover

       (written for a panel on beauty at Cooper Union, 3-31-01)

       "What shall we do with all this useless beauty?" —Elvis Costello

1. Beauty and the ideal

Beauty has been chosen for a 2500 year beauty makeover, to rescue
        her from the ideal, to rescue the ideal from the ideal.

The search for a satisfactory relationship to beauty has given little
        satisfaction. Pieces of thought on the subject bring occasional
        odd satisfaction. This is from Henri Bergson, as he connects the
        condition of beauty with radical freedom: "The feeling of the
        beautiful is no specific feeling, but...every feeling experienced
        by us will assume an aesthetic character, provided that it has
        been suggested not caused."

For Plato, beauty has a famous friendship with love and eternal
        forms. In the Symposium, Socrates quotes his great lady friend
        Diotima who is slightly wiser than he is; she reminds them that
        people love what is beautiful because they are longing for the
        eternal good which beauty stimulates in the soul. Though
        physical beauty gives access to it, the soul really wants the non-
        physical beauty for itself, which is why Socrates who has a
        beautiful, buoyant soul doesn't want to go to bed with
        Alcibiades, who is a handsome jerk with an ugly, narrow soul.
        The dialogue does not offer any conclusions about either love
        or beauty except that it is an unknown absolute that enables
        the soul to improve itself. Elsewhere, Socrates and Hippias try
        to come up with a satisfactory definition and what they come
        up with is that beauty is "beneficial pleasure."

Bothered about the ideal in general, John Ashbery does many a beauty
        You can't say it that way anymore.
        Bothered about beauty you have to
        Come out into the open, into a clearing,
        And rest.
                        (from "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name")

With his insouciant elegance, our prophet of odd glamour has
        intercepted a great truth about beauty and in this mini-ars poetica
        he lets the ideal slide away. In the constantly revised and cleared
        out beauty of Ashbery's aesthetic we have profound permission
        to be not only ourselves in an isolated way, and to be other in a
        swirl of spontaneous association, through the anti-beauty beauties
        we can put in poems. His method makes of beauty a biproduct of
        experience rather than an object, and it remakes itself in each poem.
        Beauty is what draws you to it right before you have to be yourself.
        It is the extra that keeps creation in motion.

Non-ideal beauty begins to work through surprise. Suppose one is drawn
         to Plato's ideal beauty, expressed in the Phaedrus and elsewhere;
         bound up with harmony and good proportion, this ideal has taken
         a lot from Pythagorean notions of balance and symmetry, of
         mathematical appropriateness. Let's just add a little chaos to those.
         Must there be a conflict between symmetry, grace and harmony
         and the other beauties that don't go with Pythagoras?

What shall we put in our poems after Baudelaire, since the ideal has to
         be re- and remade? What about...oh...stuff? Ashbery: "Now, /
         About what to put in your poem-painting: / Flowers are always
         nice, particularly delphinium." He teases the reader by replacing
         one of the most overworked words in the language, "flowers" with
         the lyrically packed "delphinium." It is enjoyable the way this word
        "delphinium" remakes the flower's beauty's interior making of it a
         little building, a quadrasyllabic parthenon.

Nothing in Diotima's speech at the Symposium suggests that the beautiful
        toward which the soul yearns can't include the raggedly unable: the
        Violent Femmes, The Waste Land, onion grass and banana slugs.
        Idealizing the beautiful doesn't seem impracical as long as you are
        willing to idealize in a very stretchy way which is the trick of the
        poet, and not deidealize in a mechanical way, which is a trick of
        the narcisscist.

Many kinds of ideal beauty are embarrassing and boring not because
         they don't last but because they do. To remake the beauty ideal
         with emotion the intuitive faculties of inventors are engaged in
         ceaseless revolutions of style in the images of an age, now with
         the bustle, now with the empire waistline, now with the nose ring.

The story of someone coming up to Liv Ullman in the London airport
        and saying, Didn't you used to be Liv Ullman? Or this sentence
        from the hotel guest magazine in an article on Michelle Pfeiffer:
        "She is as gorgeous as ever and somehow more human for having
        the odd minor flaw." Minor flaw. How embarrassing for the
        magazine editor. Just as strictly ideal beauty is bad for women—,
        producing the anorexic, the pale face, the bound foot, the idea that
        a wrinkle is a failure of matter, so it is bad for literary activity.

2. Beauty and subjectivity

My girl told me a joke: If you have a bee in your hand, what do you
         have in your eye? Beauty, because beauty is in the eye of the bee

The remaking of beauty seems to have to do with process and with the
        organic nature of surprise, with contrast. Anne Cheng writes: "The
        moment of distinction from beauty determines beauty," and writes
        of the nature of the experience of beauty as being "vertiginous,
        launched by and launching crises of identification in the eyes of the

3. Beauty and subjectivity, detail and paradox

Detail is the cure for and the manifestation of an ideal.I think this is
         what Adorno must mean when he em-phasizes the particular.
         An example of this in art and nature can be found the tattoos
         of Berkeley women at the gym. Is there an innate sense of the
         ideal tattoo that would appeal to all, or are all our judgments
         about the nature of beauty culturally determined. It's clear that
         what is beautiful to one social class may not beautiful to another.
         Tattoos depict the re-creation of natures in private forms of
         beauty; they are among the body's most public revisionary
         aesthetic gestures, yet their symbolic significance remains totally
         unavailable, and in this they embody the heavenly forms
         referred to in the Phaedrus. Snakes, stars, totemic words,
         salamanders, lilies, flames, hearts— nature, art. Enacted on the
         skin, the most beautiful organ of a human body, like language in
         our shared sentence. Consider the navy and yellow 6 inch tattoo
         of a beetle on the back of the woman who does the rowing
         machine. Even if we are proud of our own tattoos, we are scared
         of hers; hers is a large, terrifying, unapproachable picture, a version
         of stretchy, circularity we cannot relate to. So, the subjective is a
         given in any style of any art, especially poetry, and takes some
         of the pressure off beauty not to have to speak for everything.

In recent work, I'm interested in a thump-thump broken lyricism, the
         mind at work on its problem, polyphonic voices, manifest
         through particulars: the otherworldly in the quotidian, perceptions
         of matter and the material that collide in talking rocks, wretched
         glitter, the transcendently banal. The metaphoric function still
         seems the essential feature of the poetic imagination; the image
         that includes its opposing nature. Paradoxes between truths. The
        significant feather, peachy horror, ethereal formica patterns from
         the fifties, motel ashtrays. "Cannonball" by the Breeders, the
         raindrenched woman in jeans holding her atm card in her teeth,
         the tiny himilayas of acoustic tile on the dentist's ceiling, the sickly
         yellow face of Leonardo's Ginevra di Benci against her tree of
         juniper. How does the beauty we hunger for in life inform our
         poetic judgments? It's a mystery. The men I have loved have had
         bad teeth. A girl is reading Kant's Beautiful and the Sublime
         while flying over Colorado. The snowy peaks = the sublime. The
         girl looking at the snowy peaks = the beautiful. Is the beautiful the
         second rate category for Kant or he is just a typical mysogynist
         of his time? I can't keep Kant in my head (vowel sounds from
         Singing in the Rain
.) But insofar as I understand him, Kant seems
         to be trying to associate the beautiful with Plato's sense of the
         harmonious and the sublime with what terrifies. Each generation
         of beauty thinkers in an art remakes the ideal and each age's
         sense of beauty is done through acts of defiance. If death is the
         mother of beauty, beauty is the daughter of death. Her father is
         away on business.

Something of the Kantian sublime may be found in Clarice Lispector's
         The Passion According to G.H.
but it is an inverted sublime, not
         an alp but a valley: "I was afraid of God's face. I was afraid of
         my final nakedness on the wall. The beauty, that new absence
         of beauty that had nothing to do with what I had been in the
         habit of calling beauty, terrified me."

In her poem "Beauty," Mei Mei Berssenbrugge also addresses the
         problem of beauty's ideal, and of how to see elements purely.
         Her poem is a landscape of shifting energies, shapes and
         volumes coming together in memory. She writes: "I can't
         represent the ideal beauty of a view through a break in the hills,
         that is, distant hill, light on yellow trees." For Berssenbrugge,
         things hurry by in color and abstract forms, in an uncaused,
         ceaseless way. In her lines, she creates an intimacy between
         color, time, space and the overlapping images—of a swan,
         the hills, a glass, a child's eyes. Her technique allows the solitude
         and the interrelationship of perceptions, a contract that goes
         three ways, as it does for Stevens in "Idea of Order at Key
         West"—a triangle between maker, receiver and reality. This
         seems the main gift of Coleridgean romanticism: emotion is
         essential when we look at nature, and nature includes everything.

This connects to what Jacques Maritain says of the relationship
         between nature and beauty in art: it is emotion with knowledge
         that we seek; he cautions against residing in the merely subjective
         in any art, but notes that revelation in poetry is dependent upon
         each artist being moved by universal beauty even as the individual
         work manifests itself. Intuition makes the beauty of an individual
         work of art an end in itself, and all true poems are
         "unprecedented." (Maritain, p. 56) Here is one of his clear insights
         on nonrepresentational form: "Modern abstract art...implies in no
         way a repudiation of beauty. On the contrary, if it divorces itself
         from the Things of Nature, it is with a view to being more fully
         true to the creativity of the spirit, that is, to poetry, and therefore
         to tend toward beauty, the end beyond the end of poetry, in a
         manner more faithful to the infinite amplitude of beauty." (Maritain,
         p. 216)

Reading Berssenbrugge whose lingering, strange sentences overlap
        with silences, it seems beauty in such abstract art is about human
        loneliness, about the way we can't use purely human forms as
        solutions but intimate abstract statements can correspond to states
        of being. Her use of this overlapping technique reminds me of
        Rothko. When I visited the Rothko show, my life in was terrible
        disarray. Standing in the room with the soft and bold paintings
        trying so earnestly was like being in the heart of color's
        temperature, much like what Berssenbrugge enacts in "Warm rose
        of the plane flaking upward." Rothko's terrified shapes of symbolic
        curvature seem to make allowance for color as form in training.
        There is a certain blue at the edges of late paintings that meant he
        stopped needing to know things, an orange like taking a nap in
        autumn the moment the infinite has passed and the leaves' arsonist
        has destroyed the contract with his aristocrat. Rothko's beauty, a
        much more tragic form of Ashbery's abstraction, could blend with
        a type of help if only the human would allow it. A friend with cancer
        noted that beauty and suffering are exactly twinned in some
        experiences. Seeing Rothko, I experienced this as when I first read
        "Ode to a Nightingale." In American post-postmodernisms poets
        continue the search for home beyond beauty. "I died for beauty but
        was scarce / adjusted to the tomb / when one who died for Truth /
        Was lain, in an adjoining room," writes Dickinson, maybe talking to

Cindy Sherman writes: "The world is so drawn to beauty I became
        interested in things that are normally considered groteque or ugly,
        seeing them as more fascinating than beautiful." (Morris, p. 79)

4. Paradox, weird gnostic beauty and the unknown

Speaking of Cindys, we like Cindy Crawford's mole better than we like

When Ashbery writes that "the extreme austerity of an almost empty
        mind" collides with "the lush, Rousseau-like folliage" he may be
        referring to the central collision or agitation in English diction itself,
        between Wyatt's plainness and Donne's more latinate, more
        ornamented inventions.

Mixtures of diction allow the inconsistencies that characterize
        contemporary life. I'm reading Longinus in the LAX trying to find
        out what beauty is while listening to an old Led Zeppelin tape in
        my walkman. A guy is checking his email on a net access port.
        Above the port, a little spear of Neptune that represents the god
        helping him along. The little sign is corny and beautiful. A woman
        across from him is writing a note. The tarnish of her thumb ring
        where the cheaper metal—alchemists would call it the base
        metal—shows through and is delicately querulous of existence.
        She rubs the thumb across the window of her cellphone. What is
        the desperate, filmy place right before realism? I associate these
        beauty experiences with a different soul activity and identify them
        with gnostic thought. Someone says into his cellphone, Fax it over
        to the office and I'll have Bruce sign it, Ok Andy Awright amigo. I
        know a painter with a debilitating illness who has lost her capacity
        to hold a brush very steadily but she draws roses when they are
        dead. Longinus says there are 5 factors that make a style sublime:
        the command of full blooded ideas, the "inspiration of vehement
        emotions," the proper construction of figures, nobility of phrase,
        and "the effect of dignity and elevation." (Longinus, p. 45).

It seems important to think of beauty in poetry as tied to the fear of the
        unknown. It is no wonder that much of late 20th century poetry
        sought this mystery in surrealist and symbolist verse, in methods
        that include the double, the twisted, the illdetermined, their way to
        non-closure, informed by polysyntactic structures, so that we may
        not know where syntax means once it has have begun.

André Breton: "Let us speak out: the marvelous is beautiful, there is even
        only the marvellous that is beautiful."

In the coptic Hymn of the Pearl, a prince goes searching for beauty in
        the form of a jewel which is his soul. He understands neither the
        nature of the pearl, its location, nor its significance. He must bring
        it back to kind of darth vader king, whom he knows quite well.
        When the unknown incorporates the vaguely nauseating and the
        surprising it is unsafe and yet consistent with its own beginnings.

If beauty is the rejuvenated daughter of death, it is only one of several.
        The undefined mystery that elides with the grotesque is also one
        of the daughters. I search in each poem I read for the place
        where the poet doesn't know the next move. That is the mystical
        and earthly frame.


John Ashbery, "'And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name," from Double Dream of Spring

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, "Beauty," from A Four-Year-Old Gir, Kelsey St Press, 1999

Henri Bergson, Essai sur les Données Immediate de la Conscience, or Time and Free Will, 1889

Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1965

Plato, Collected Dialogues

Anne Anlin Cheng, "Wounded Beauty: An Exploratory Study on Race, Feminism and The Aesthetic Question," Tulsa Studies, 19:2, (fall 2000)

Catherine Morris, The Essential Cindy Sherman, Harry Abrams, 1999

Hilton Guest Magazine, November, 1998

Longinus (trans. by W. Hamilton Fyfe) On the Sublime VII, IV-VIII, 2

Patrick Wallberg, Surrealism, McGraw Hill


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