Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Defense of Ugly Things by GK Chesterton

A DEFENCE OF UGLY THINGSThere are some people who state that the exterior, sex, or physique ofanother person is indifferent to them, that they care only for thecommunion of mind with mind; but these people need not detain us. Thereare some statements that no one ever thinks of believing, however oftenthey are made.But while nothing in this world would persuade us that a great friend ofMr. Forbes Robertson, let us say, would experience no surprise ordiscomfort at seeing him enter the room in the bodily form of Mr.Chaplin, there is a confusion constantly made between being attracted byexterior, which is natural and universal, and being attracted by what iscalled physical beauty, which is not entirely natural and not in theleast universal. Or rather, to speak more strictly, the conception ofphysical beauty has been narrowed to mean a certain kind of physicalbeauty which no more exhausts the possibilities of externalattractiveness than the respectability of a Clapham builder exhauststhe possibilities of moral attractiveness.The tyrants and deceivers of mankind in this matter have been theGreeks. All their splendid work for civilization ought not to havewholly blinded us to the fact of their great and terrible sin againstthe variety of life. It is a remarkable fact that while the Jews havelong ago been rebelled against and accused of blighting the world with astringent and one-sided ethical standard, nobody has noticed that theGreeks have committed us to an infinitely more horrible asceticism--anasceticism of the fancy, a worship of one aesthetic type alone. Jewishseverity had at least common-sense as its basis; it recognised that menlived in a world of fact, and that if a man married within the degreesof blood certain consequences might follow. But they did not starvetheir instinct for contrasts and combinations; their prophets gave twowings to the ox and any number of eyes to the cherubim with all theriotous ingenuity of Lewis Carroll. But the Greeks carried their policeregulation into elfland; they vetoed not the actual adulteries of theearth but the wild weddings of ideas, and forbade the banns of thought.It is extraordinary to watch the gradual emasculation of the monstersof Greek myth under the pestilent influence of the Apollo Belvedere. Thechimaera was a creature of whom any healthy-minded people would havebeen proud; but when we see it in Greek pictures we feel inclined to tiea ribbon round its neck and give it a saucer of milk. Who ever feelsthat the giants in Greek art and poetry were really big--big as somefolk-lore giants have been? In some Scandinavian story a hero walks formiles along a mountain ridge, which eventually turns out to be thebridge of the giant's nose. That is what we should call, with a calmconscience, a large giant. But this earthquake fancy terrified theGreeks, and their terror has terrified all mankind out of their naturallove of size, vitality, variety, energy, ugliness. Nature intended everyhuman face, so long as it was forcible, individual, and expressive, tobe regarded as distinct from all others, as a poplar is distinct from anoak, and an apple-tree from a willow. But what the Dutch gardeners didfor trees the Greeks did for the human form; they lopped away its livingand sprawling features to give it a certain academic shape; they hackedoff noses and pared down chins with a ghastly horticultural calm. Andthey have really succeeded so far as to make us call some of the mostpowerful and endearing faces ugly, and some of the most silly andrepulsive faces beautiful. This disgraceful _via media_, this pitifulsense of dignity, has bitten far deeper into the soul of moderncivilization than the external and practical Puritanism of Israel. TheJew at the worst told a man to dance in fetters; the Greek put anexquisite vase upon his head and told him not to move.Scripture says that one star differeth from another in glory, and thesame conception applies to noses. To insist that one type of face isugly because it differs from that of the Venus of Milo is to look at itentirely in a misleading light. It is strange that we should resentpeople differing from ourselves; we should resent much more violentlytheir resembling ourselves. This principle has made a sufficient hash ofliterary criticism, in which it is always the custom to complain of thelack of sound logic in a fairy tale, and the entire absence of trueoratorical power in a three-act farce. But to call another man's faceugly because it powerfully expresses another man's soul is likecomplaining that a cabbage has not two legs. If we did so, the onlycourse for the cabbage would be to point out with severity, but withsome show of truth, that we were not a beautiful green all over.But this frigid theory of the beautiful has not succeeded in conqueringthe art of the world, except in name. In some quarters, indeed, it hasnever held sway. A glance at Chinese dragons or Japanese gods will showhow independent are Orientals of the conventional idea of facial andbodily regularity, and how keen and fiery is their enjoyment of realbeauty, of goggle eyes, of sprawling claws, of gaping mouths andwrithing coils. In the Middle Ages men broke away from the Greekstandard of beauty, and lifted up in adoration to heaven great towers,which seemed alive with dancing apes and devils. In the full summer oftechnical artistic perfection the revolt was carried to its realconsummation in the study of the faces of men. Rembrandt declared thesane and manly gospel that a man was dignified, not when he was like aGreek god, but when he had a strong, square nose like a cudgel, aboldly-blocked head like a helmet, and a jaw like a steel trap.This branch of art is commonly dismissed as the grotesque. We have neverbeen able to understand why it should be humiliating to be laughable,since it is giving an elevated artistic pleasure to others. If agentleman who saw us in the street were suddenly to burst into tears atthe mere thought of our existence, it might be considered disquietingand uncomplimentary; but laughter is not uncomplimentary. In truth,however, the phrase 'grotesque' is a misleading description of uglinessin art. It does not follow that either the Chinese dragons or the Gothicgargoyles or the goblinish old women of Rembrandt were in the leastintended to be comic. Their extravagance was not the extravagance ofsatire, but simply the extravagance of vitality; and here lies the wholekey of the place of ugliness in aesthetics. We like to see a crag jutout in shameless decision from the cliff, we like to see the red pinesstand up hardily upon a high cliff, we like to see a chasm cloven fromend to end of a mountain. With equally noble enthusiasm we like to see anose jut out decisively, we like to see the red hair of a friend standup hardily in bristles upon his head, we like to see his mouth broad andclean cut like the mountain crevasse. At least some of us like all this;it is not a question of humour. We do not burst with amusement at thefirst sight of the pines or the chasm; but we like them because they areexpressive of the dramatic stillness of Nature, her bold experiments,her definite departures, her fearlessness and savage pride in herchildren. The moment we have snapped the spell of conventional beauty,there are a million beautiful faces waiting for us everywhere, just asthere are a million beautiful spirits.

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