[Paleopsych] Telegraph: (Eco) Beautiful people good, ugly people bad
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Fri Feb 4 15:06:04 UTC 2005
Beautiful people good, ugly people bad
Martin Gayford reviews On Beauty ed by Umberto Eco.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," John Keats declared. "That is all ye
know on earth, and all ye need to know." Or rather, that is what the
poet claimed the Grecian Urn said to mankind. No doubt he was right to
be cautious. The truth about beauty is a deep and tangled question,
and one the writer and novelist Umberto Eco gets into a right old
muddle about in this lavish but deeply confusing book.
It is described as "a history of a Western idea", but it is also an
anthology. Each chapter consists of a series of rather brief remarks
by Eco, followed by a series of extracts from texts, printed in small
blue letters. Gathered around them are numerous glossy colour
illustrations, mainly of paintings and sculptures - though the book
claims also to take in "architecture, film, photography, the
decorative arts, novels and poems". It is conceived for "a vast and
diverse readership". Already one senses trouble.
The result reads a little like the entries in that Monty Python
competition to summarise Proust in 30 seconds. It is an attempt by a
renowned professor of semiotics from Bologna to précis the whole of
Western culture in 438 pages, most of them taken up by colour
photographs. Not surprisingly, the result is often more of a triumph
of compression than clarity.
Here he is on the same theme as the Grecian Urn: "Beauty was
configured as a synonym for truth, within a deep rethinking of a
traditional hendiadys. For Greek thinkers beauty coincided with truth
because, in a certain sense, it was truth that produced Beauty;
contrariwise, the Romantics held that it was Beauty that produced
truth. Beauty does not participate in truth, but is its artifice. Far
from shunning reality in the name of a pure Beauty, the Romantics
thought in terms of a Beauty that produced greater truth and reality."
It's as simple as that.
Actually, Eco is quite often perfectly sensible; it's just that one
needs to have some prior knowledge of the subject in order to
understand him. The early Greeks were inclined to think that beautiful
people were good and ugly people bad - still a common point of view,
though likely to lead to disillusion. "The most beautiful is the most
just," proclaimed the Delphic Oracle. Plato opined that beauty lay in
harmony and proportion, and was best discerned by the mind, not the
eye. In late antiquity and the Middle Ages, following the philosopher
Plotinus and Abbott Suger of St Denis, many were of the opinion that
light and colour emanated from the divine. Looking, therefore, at
objects such as mosaics flashing in lamp-light, stained-glass windows
and jewelled chalices might bring you closer to God. Peering at
beautiful bodies, on the other hand, would be more likely to betray
you into the clutches of the devil. Eco is at his best on the Middle
Ages, on which he has written before.
Eco's dash through art history becomes ever more breathless. After the
Renaissance, the modern art world began to take shape with its endless
metamorphoses of style and fashion. Eco finds himself dealing with
melancholy beauty, Mannerist beauty, baroque beauty, the beauty of the
ugly, the machine, the magazine, the abstract painting, the sublime -
which was originally conceived as something different from beauty
altogether, something like the universe or the nightmare containing an
element of terror or awe. He includes the horrific beauty of Goya's
painting of Saturn devouring one of his children. He wrestles
unavailingly with the distinction between a beautiful object and a
beautiful picture - which may depict something horrible. By the time
he puffs into the 20th century he sounds distinctly weary.
I doubt anyone will make much use of the anthology component of this
volume (printed in unappetisingly minuscule type). None the less, it
contains some enlightening things. It is interesting to discover that,
in the 12th century, Hugh of Saint Victor thought "the colour green
surpasses all others for Beauty and ravishes the souls of those who
look upon it". It is equally useful to know Hugh of Fouilloy's
opinions, delivered in a sermon, on female breasts: "Beautiful indeed
are breasts that protrude but little and are moderately full...
restrained, but not compressed, gently bound so they are not free to
Title: On Beauty: a History of a Western Idea
Author: ed by Umberto Eco
Publisher: 438pp, Secker & Warburg, £30
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