[Paleopsych] Telegraph: (Eco) Beautiful people good, ugly people bad

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Beautiful people good, ugly people bad 
    (Filed: 24/10/2004)

    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
    jounce about."

Title:  On Beauty: a History of a Western Idea
Author: ed by Umberto Eco
Publisher: 438pp, Secker & Warburg, £30
ISBN 0436205173

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