“The definition of beauty is easy; it’s what leads you to desperation.” Paul Valery
I think we need two words for beauty, as the Greeks have two words for love: eros and agape. Eros is romantic love; agape is spiritual love. I want to divide beauty into two categories as well, because it seems to me as though there are two kinds. In On the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke describes beauty as what pleases and attracts us, as something small, gentle, comfortable. Of course, he defines women as beautiful, as opposed to the more sublime men (and the Alps, men are like the Alps). Or so I remember, from taking a class on aesthetic theory years ago. And it seems to me that we still talk about beauty that way: scientists have shown that we are more attracted to symmetrical faces, for example. To faces that tend toward an average.
But surely that’s only one sense of the beautiful? Nothing about that average, symmetrical face would lead us to desperation. The small, gentle, and comfortable does not launch a thousand ships or burn the topless towers of Ilium. So there has to be something else. I think there is, I think there’s something more to beauty, something that is dangerous, like a dark river winding through a forest. The women I think are beautiful have something about them that is dark in that way, as though there were something underneath the surface. I’ve chosen three women that I think are beautiful in the second sense I mean. They may not be the women you think are beautiful, but that may be because when you think of beauty, you are being a Burkean.
The first of them is Tilda Swinton, here in Orlando.
The second of them is Cate Blanchett, here in Elizabeth.
The third of them is Helena Bonham Carter, here in Merlin.
I’ve chosen photographs of them that are relatively feminine, with long hair. They look gentler in these photographs than they do on the red carpet, for example, and they can each also look uncanny or grotesque, or masculine, depending on the movie and makeup. They have versatile faces. But even when make up as relatively conventionally beautiful women, there is something unusual in their faces, a particular angularity, a strange proportion. (Poe said something about that, about true beauty having a strangeness in the proportion, in “Ligeia.”)
I suppose for me, that is the sort of beauty Valery was talking about. It has a sort of despair at its heart. It speaks of death. And yet at the same time, it transcends both, because you know that having once existed, it will never cease to exist. Didn’t some poet say that?
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
That’s Keats, of course. A funny thing happened as I was copying that stanza, which is only the first of the poem. A pop-up ad appeared for a movie starring Kate Winslet. Who is another one of those beautiful women, here in Titanic.
I just remembered why I was thinking about this today. On the newsstand, I saw the edition of People Magazine that lists the most beautiful people in the world. And I thought, but I don’t agree. Those are not who I would pick as the most beautiful people. They are attractive, yes, but they lack that darkness, that danger. The thing that leads you to desperation. The thing Poe and Valery were talking about.