From labour­ing to­wards beauty to labour it­self

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Us­ing po­etry as a tool, Sam­purna Chat­tarji con­structs a read­ing of ‘beauty’, of­fer­ing not one, but sev­eral glimpses of the trope, as re­vealed through dif­fer­ent win­dows, dif­fer­ent times, and dif­fer­ent cul­tures. The read­ing isn’t in­tended to be lin­ear or chrono­log­i­cal or pro­gram­matic, but at­tempts to be as­so­ci­a­tional, mim­ick­ing the way the mind leaps from ex­am­ple to ex­am­ple, mak­ing nu­mer­ous con­nec­tions as it goes along

When I was asked to present this lec­ture, I found my­self mut­ter­ing a few lines like in­can­ta­tions to my­self, sum­mon­ing up the long-lost spell of my days as an English Lit­er­a­ture stu­dent. The lines were, of course, the ones that floated in my sub­con­scious, unasked for, un­teth­ered to their sources and yes, un­for­get­table; lines that are, no doubt, fa­mil­iar to sev­eral of you:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (from Keats’s ‘Ode on a Gre­cian Urn’)

“She walks in beauty like the night” (from By­ron’s ‘She Walks In Beauty’)

And that eter­nal one: “A thing of beauty is a joy for­ever” (from Keats’s ‘Endymion’)

Why had these re­mained while the po­ems from which they came had dis­ap­peared in en­tirety from my mind? For the pithi­ness of their pro­nounce­ments, for their cer­ti­tudes, or be­cause they had left the en­clo­sures of lit­er­a­ture and free-floated into the group-mind via re­peated quo­ta­tion, in news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, even, oddly, on mugs?

I had to go back to the po­ems, and that’s when I found my­self struck by how beau­ti­ful they were, in a way I hadn’t no­ticed when I was 18 and a half, dis­dain­ful as I was (then) of the Ro­man­tic poets, pre­fer­ring the Me­ta­phys­i­cals or best of all, the Moderns. Years later, as a poet pub­lish­ing my de­but col­lec­tion, I re­alised that the for­bear of my ‘Ob­ject Les­sons’ (in which I looked at a series of cher­ished things, a Chi­nese tea cup, a lit­tle stone lion from Africa, a clay plate from Athens) was none other than Keats’s ‘Ode on a Gre­cian Urn’! What was I do­ing in these mod­ern po­ems of mine if not, like Keats, study­ing minutely the de­tails of an ob­ject and con­tem­plat­ing its ma­te­ri­al­ity, its phys­i­cal­ity, its re­la­tion­ship to the be­holder, its abil­ity to stay frozen in time, while I was acutely aware of the pass­ing of time in and around me, the mor­tal­ity and tem­po­ral­ity of my be­ing? Look­ing back, I ap­pre­ci­ated the lines in their true con­text, I felt the melan­cholic tug over the ages, as I read:

When old age shall this gen­er­a­tion waste, Thou shalt re­main, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The con­so­la­tion to be found in beau­ti­ful things, to speak to and of beau­ti­ful things as a way of cher­ish­ing both the im­per­ish­able and the break­able; the aware­ness of fragility, all of this be­gan a long time ago. Keats’s Gre­cian Urn, that “fos­ter child of si­lence and slow time” made pos­si­ble my med­i­ta­tions on a stone kayak, a mar­ble egg, a ce­ramic ele­phant. It took many years, many de­tours and many po­etic ex­cur­sions of my own be­fore I re­alised the truth of Keats’s words:

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.

Shades of beauty — from ob­ject to per­son. From per­son to gen­der — mostly fe­male. From ob­jec­ti­fied per­son to per­son­i­fied na­ture. These are some of the pat­terns that emerge from early Ro­man­tic po­ems, and re­cent re-read­ings. The woman, the ob­ject of the poet’s love and ado­ra­tion, whose in­no­cence and pu­rity were akin to noth­ing but na­ture at her be­atific best, all of this made me (in those days, and oc­ca­sion­ally even now) shud­der at how sac­cha­rine it seemed, how con­structed by the male gaze. By­ron’s name­less ‘She’ walks in beauty like the night of cloud­less climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her as­pect and her eyes; thus mel­lowed to that ten­der light which heaven to gaudy day de­nies. This ‘She’ is too per­fect to be true, she with her raven tresses, her serene face where thoughts serenely sweet ex­press how pure how dear their dwelling-place, a smil­ing soft an­gel that made me rage, with her cheek and her brow, so soft so calm yet elo­quent, with smiles that win, with tints that glow and tell of days in good­ness spent, a mind at peace with all be­low, a heart whose love is in­no­cent! This is an an­gelic ethe­real She, who re­mains dis­em­bod­ied, in­cor­po­real, and so chaste — a metaphor, un­fleshed, de­spite the face, the brow, the hair and the cheeks. And while ear­lier my im­pa­tience would have tossed the poem aside, now I un­der­stand that in­trin­sic to the Idea of Beauty is the Ide­al­i­sa­tion of Beauty, es­pe­cially Fem­i­nine Beauty, and that es­sen­tial to the com­pre­hen­sion of beauty is the con­struc­tion of it, through words as much as world-views.

The as­so­ci­a­tion of the beau­ti­ful and the sub­lime, the in­ter­change­abil­ity of the words “beau­ti­ful” and “fair”, fe­male beauty as an ethe­real ideal, na­ture as a site for un­sul­lied beauty, phys­i­cal beauty be­ing el­e­vated to moral su­pe­ri­or­ity while “ug­li­ness” is syn­ony­mous with moral turpi­tude—these were some of the early strands that the fu­ture would un­pick. For Plato, Beauty was an eval­u­a­tive con­cept, like jus­tice and courage. Beauty was be­lieved to turn the soul to­wards knowl­edge. Edmund Spenser’s poem ‘Hymn in Hon­our of Beauty’ 1 ac­knowl­edges the in­evitabil­ity of de­cay and as­serts only Love is im­mor­tal. Then he goes on to say:

So ev­ery spirit, as it is most pure, And hath in it the more of heav­enly light, So it the fairer body doth pro­cure To habit in, and it more fairly dight With cheer­ful grace and ami­able sight. For of the soul the body form doth take: For soul is form, and doth the body make.

Just as the purest spirit emits the most heav­enly light, so too the purest spirit chooses the fairest body to in­habit. Deprav­ity, lust, abuse, cor­rup­tion, mis­for­tune: all of these im­pair the “ce­les­tial hue” of the “beau­teous soul”. Spenser urges the fe­male to choose well, wisely, har­mo­niously, and the male to look be­yond her ob­vi­ous charms:

For all that like the beauty which they see, Straight do not love; for love is not so light As straight to burn at first be­holder’s sight.

But they, which love in­deed, look oth­er­wise, With pure re­gard and spot­less true in­tent, Draw­ing out of the ob­ject of their eyes A more re­fined form, which they present Unto their mind, void of all blem­ish­ment; Which it re­duc­ing to her first per­fec­tion, Be­hold­eth free from flesh’s frail in­fec­tion.

And what the su­pe­rior man does is — he “fash­ions her in his higher skill, a heav­enly beauty to his fancy’s will”!

And it em­brac­ing in his mind en­tire, The mir­ror of his own thought doth ad­mire.

The beau­ti­ful beloved fe­male is re­duced to a cre­ation of the noble male mind, re­flected and made ad­mirable in the mir­ror of his own thought. Af­ter com­pletely rob­bing her of agency, the poet in the last stanza sud­denly re­stores to her beauty the won­drous power of restor­ing the dead to life:

And you, fair Venus’ dar­ling, my dear dread, Fresh flower of grace, great god­dess of my life, When your fair eyes these fear­ful lines shall read, Deign to let fall one drop of due re­lief, That may re­cure my heart’s long pin­ing grief, And shew what won­drous power your beauty hath, That can re­store a damned wight from death.

The won­drous power that he has cre­ated, con­structed (and dare I say, in­flicted) on her is now in­voked to bring him back to life. He is the true cen­tre of this poem, not the you to whom it is ad­dressed. The ide­alised con­struct of fe­male beauty, the con­ceit of Beauty (where I use the word ‘con­ceit’ in its meta­phys­i­cal sense of a con­cept) is based on and val­i­dated by an­other kind of con­ceit: male van­ity. The fe­male re­mains a screen for the male fan­tasy to be pro­jected on.

Af­ter sev­eral such in­stances of the fe­male form be­ing both de­i­fied and dis­en­fran­chised in early lit­er­ary ex­pres­sions of Beauty, it is re­fresh­ing to read Shel­ley’s ‘Hymn to In­tel­lec­tual Beauty’, in which he es­chews both form and fe­male, and pur­sues in­stead that ab­strac­tion, “the spirit of beauty”. I scanned the poem care­fully try­ing to dis­cover if that spirit was gen­dered. It seemed not to be. It was clearly an ‘IT’. It was a mes­sen­ger be­tween lovers’ eyes, it was nour­ish­ment to hu­man thought, like “dark­ness to a dy­ing flame”, a means to over­come de­spon­dency and dread. Shel­ley ide­alises the spirit, yes, but he brings in a nu­ance that com­pli­cates and dark­ens the nar­ra­tive, and makes it more akin to the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of later ages—the idea of a ter­ri­ble beauty, a beauty that is not soft and placid, but wild and rag­ing, and more pow­er­ful than the poet’s most elo­quent words.

They know that never joy il­lum’d my brow Un­link’d with hope that thou wouldst free This world from its dark slav­ery, That thou, O aw­ful LOVE­LI­NESS, Wouldst give whate’er these words can­not ex­press.

This aw­ful love­li­ness, namely the love­li­ness that in­spires awe, verg­ing on ter­ror, res­onated with me at many lev­els, and acted as the nec­es­sary bridge be­tween my con­tem­pla­tion of ear­lier rep­re­sen­ta­tions of beauty in lit­er­a­ture and more con­tem­po­rary ones. It led me to think of the Ben­gali poet Joy Goswami, whom I have trans­lated, and about whom I wrote: 2

What Joy-da priv­i­leges above all is the cre­ation of beauty. ‘Here he is, our au­then­tic poet,’ he writes sar­cas­ti­cally, ‘Here it is, the au­then­tic role of art. The role of pro­tes­tor its only role … But … what if among the poets there is one who has lost his own way, who does not know what must be done. Who is con­stantly seek­ing a way for­ward? Who dis­cov­ers the world anew each day and thinks, to­day I learnt some­thing […] What use can Van Gogh’s Sun­flow­ers be put to? […] Yet, the fact that to cre­ate beauty is in a sense a protest against all the in­jus­tices of so­ci­ety, a silent war, can we re­mem­ber this all the time?’ Oth­ers have searched for this beauty, in the midst of which is ‘a deadly poi­son […] to sur­vive hav­ing in­ter­nal­ized that poi­son is an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence, to halt oc­ca­sion­ally while search­ing for that beauty and to look be­hind.’

What kind of beauty is this? A ter­ri­ble beauty. These words re­cur in his es­says and in­ter­views like a haunt­ing re­frain. At one point in his es­say on Jibanananda Das’s poem, ‘All Those Jack­als’, Joy-da writes about the amaze­ment of an ‘in­com­pa­ra­ble, mys­te­ri­ous and ter­ri­fy­ing beauty. Ar­riv­ing at this point one gets a jolt. In this un­cer­tain, inferior life of be­ing beaten, and es­cap­ing, this is the first time they [the jack­als] are stand­ing be­fore a kind of beauty. Beauty? Or is it ter­ror, the ter­ror of an un­known mys­te­ri­ous marvel! Would it be wrong to call this beauty?’ He men­tions the math­e­ma­ti­cian Andrew Wiles break­ing down when asked to de­scribe how it felt to have solved Fer­mat’s Last The­o­rem and then say­ing, it was ‘an un­be­liev­able beauty’.

In an af­ter­word to one of his col­lec­tions, Joy Goswami writes,

The paths of pro­found math­e­mat­ics, mu­sic and paint­ing are some­times, per­haps, im­pen­e­tra­ble. But on the other side of that im­pen­e­tra­bil­ity awaits Beauty her­self. An un­be­liev­able beauty. And we are gaz­ing from this side of a vast win­dow. If only we could get a glimpse of it even once in our life­time.

What I’d like to fo­cus on is to lend not one, but sev­eral glimpses of beauty, as re­vealed through dif­fer­ent win­dows, dif­fer­ent times, and dif­fer­ent cul­tures. The pre­sen­ta­tion will not be lin­ear, chrono­log­i­cal nor pro­gram­matic, but as­so­ci­a­tional, mim­ick­ing the way the mind leaps from ex­am­ple to ex­am­ple, mak­ing con­nec­tions as it goes along, and hope­fully

al­low­ing you to cre­ate as­so­ci­a­tional grids of your own for fu­ture stud­ies. The choice of texts is driven by per­sonal pref­er­ence and my at­tempt to sug­gest that a read­ing of beauty is as much a con­struc­tion as the no­tion of beauty it­self, and just as sub­jec­tive.

In a selec­tion of early love po­ems3 writ­ten around 1910 by the Ir­ish poet WB Yeats, I found my be­gin­ning for to­day. These love po­ems were to the un­re­quited love of his life, Maud Gonne, the beau­ti­ful and fiery Ir­ish na­tion­al­ist. In them I found not just a con­struc­tion of the beau­ti­ful, but a lament of its in­evitable de­cline (and a ro­man­ti­cism I hadn’t as­so­ci­ated with him). So, in ‘The Rose of the World’ he writes:

Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream? [just as]

We and the labour­ing world are pass­ing by

Sev­eral pages later we come upon a poem ti­tled ‘The Lover Tells of the Rose in his Heart’ which steps a sig­nif­i­cant way to­wards ar­tic­u­lat­ing that loss, in more con­crete terms:

All things un­comely and bro­ken, all things worn out and old,

The cry of a child by the road­way, the creak of a lum­ber­ing cart,

The heavy steps of the plough­man, splash­ing the win­try mould,

Are wrong­ing your im­age that blos­soms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of un­shapely things is a wrong too great to be told;

I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,

With the earth and the sky and the wa­ter, re­made, like a cas­ket of gold For my dreams of your im­age that blos­soms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the neg­a­tive pre­fix — the un-comely, the un­shapely — pre­dicts the slide from an ex­al­ta­tion of sub­lime beauty to an ac­knowl­edg­ment of its op­po­site. The labour­ing world is at odds with this ide­alised rose. The beauty that passes like a dream can only be re­vived and re­con­structed in a dream. Beauty is wronged, man­gled, for­got­ten. In the poem ‘He Re­mem­bers For­got­ten Beauty’, every­thing has faded — courtly ladies, crowns, kings, armies — and can re­turn only through a “more dream-heavy land”, a “more dream-heavy hour than this”:

And when you sigh from kiss to kiss I hear white Beauty sigh­ing, too, For hours when all must fade like dew, But flame on flame, and deep on deep, Throne over throne where in half sleep, Their swords upon their iron knees, Brood her high lonely mys­ter­ies.

The cliché of Beauty as white, and wounded, is saved from ig­nominy by the star­tlingly cold im­age with which the poem con­cludes, an im­age of pet­ri­fi­ca­tion, a brood­ing on un­solv­able mys­ter­ies. While in ‘He Tells of the Per­fect Beauty’, Yeats con­tem­plates the dif­fer­ence be­tween the beauty born of hard labour and the beauty that just is:

O cloud-pale eye­lids, dream-dimmed eyes, The poets labour­ing all their days To build a per­fect beauty in rhyme Are over­thrown by a woman’s gaze And by the un­labour­ing brood of the skies: And there­fore my head will bow, when dew Is drop­ping sleep, un­til God burn time, Be­fore the un­labour­ing stars and you.

Here again the neg­a­tive “un”, this time to de­note the un­do­ing of the act, the in­ef­fa­bil­ity of ef­fort­less beauty ver­sus the striv­ing af­ter con­structed beauty.

Hop­skip­ping and leap­ing over a few decades, I was re­minded of Denise Lev­er­tov’s poem ‘Every­thing that Acts is Ac­tual’ (1949) 4:

From the tawny light from the rainy nights from the imag­i­na­tion find­ing it­self and more than it­self alone and more than alone at the bot­tom of the well where the moon lives, can you pull me

into De­cem­ber? a low­land of space, per­cep­tion of space tow­er­ing of shad­ows of clouds blown upon clouds over new ground, new made un­der heavy De­cem­ber foot­steps? the only way to live?

The flawed moon acts on the truth, and makes an au­tumn of ten­ta­tive si­lences. You lived, but some­where else, your pres­ence touched oth­ers, ring upon ring, and changed. Did you think I would not change?

The black moon turns away, its work done. A ten­der­ness, un­spo­ken au­tumn. We are faith­ful only to the imag­i­na­tion. What the imag­i­na­tion seizes as beauty must be truth. What holds you to what you see of me is that grasp alone.

Here is a woman fiercely stat­ing that it isn’t as sim­ple as the equa­tion “truth is beauty, beauty-truth”, rather What the imag­i­na­tion SEIZES as beauty must be truth.

She priv­i­leges the act, the seiz­ing, so that imag­i­na­tion is not merely this pas­sive sanc­tu­ary for all man­ner of idle fan­cies but a breath­ing liv­ing per­cep­tual en­tity ca­pa­ble of a new kind of labour: not con­struc­tional but in­stru­men­tal, not doomed to fail­ure but alert to pos­si­bil­ity. Lev­er­tov seems to say that Beauty is not an ab­so­lute, it is an in­ter­pre­ta­tion. It is not a con­struct, it is a per­cep­tion. A reach­ing out, a dart­ing, a re­tain­ing. This dy­namic de­sire to ap­pre­hend the mys­tery through the power of the mind, can also be found in Yeats, cast in the shape of ‘The Ar­row’:

I thought of your beauty, and this ar­row, Made out of a wild thought, is in my mar­row.

The thought of beauty is not con­fined to the mind any­more, it is now in the bones. And yet de­spite this mo­men­tary surge of in­stinc­tual wild en­ergy, this mar­ry­ing of mind and mat­ter, the dis­course on beauty cul­mi­nates once again in in­tel­lec­tual melan­choly in Yeats’s poem, ‘Adam’s Curse’:

We sat to­gether at one sum­mer’s end, That beau­ti­ful mild woman, your close friend, And you and I, and talked of po­etry. I said: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a mo­ment’s thought, Our stitch­ing and un­stitch­ing has been naught. Bet­ter go down upon your mar­row-bones And scrub a kitchen-pave­ment, or break stones Like an old pau­per, in all kinds of weather; For to ar­tic­u­late sweet sounds to­gether Is to work harder than all these, and yet Be thought an idler by the noisy set Of bankers, school­mas­ters, and cler­gy­men The mar­tyrs call the world.’ And there­upon That beau­ti­ful mild woman for whose sake There’s many a one shall find out all heartache On find­ing that her voice is sweet and low Replied: To be born woman is to know— Although they do not talk of it at school— That we must labour to be beau­ti­ful.’

By poem’s end, nei­ther “prece­dents out of beau­ti­ful old books” nor the “old high ways of love” can hide the fact that both beauty and love (and they, the cou­ple) have grown as “weary-hearted as that hol­low moon”. In­deed no longer can the old tropes be seen as in­ex­haustible.

What in­ter­ests me in this poem is not so much the poet’s lament about po­etry not be­ing con­sid­ered real work, rea­son­able hon­ourable labour, but rather the beau­ti­ful mild woman’s as­ser­tion that beauty is hard work, “we must labour to be beau­ti­ful”— in other words, re­sort to ar­ti­fice, work at it, silently and con­tin­u­ously to keep the myth, the ideal alive. What a re­lief it is to get away from the male’s vi­sion of ce­les­tial hues and fresh flow­ers of grace, and re­turn to the woman her­self as the maker of her hard-won beauty (though not yet the rebel against the very idea of hav­ing to make her­self beau­ti­ful for the man).

Per­haps the fact that my next set of po­ems turns away from the hu­man world of ar­ti­fice and en­deav­our, ab­strac­tion and ide­al­i­sa­tion to­wards the an­i­mal world, says some­thing about my de­sire to widen the gaze. I have for you, two po­ems — Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘The Gazelle’ and ‘The Flamin­gos’ 5.

What Rilke does in these po­ems is that he sim­ply looks. In­tently and pro­foundly. The gazelle is to him an “en­chanted thing” but even as he writes those words he ad­mits how poor they are in com­par­i­son to the “har­mony of pure rhyme that pulses” through its body as it stirs. Its horns are more than horns, they form the lyre (the clas­si­cal mu­si­cal in­stru­ment that the an­cient Greeks used to ac­com­pany singing and recita­tion) and all its fea­tures “pass in sim­ile” through songs of love, whose words, as light as rose petals, rest on the face of a dream­ing reader who closes his eyes to see the beau­ti­ful crea­ture. This is a freeze-frame, where the gazelle in all its beauty, tense and ready to bolt, lis­ten­ing for dan­ger, is like the girl who “hears leaves rus­tle, and turns to look: the for­est pool re­flected in her face.”

In the mo­ment of see­ing Rilke cap­tures the en­tire leap from na­ture to hu­man, from po­etry to mu­sic, from rec­ol­lect­ing to re­flect­ing—a mo­ment of frozen time (not un­like that in Keats’s ‘Gre­cian Urn’) but a mo­ment pos­i­tively rip­pling with move­ment. Beauty here is a sce­nario, where there is a ki­netic force trav­el­ling from the viewer to the thing be­ing viewed, from the seer to the seen. Here the poet presents one mo­ment of beauty at mul­ti­ple lev­els, viewed by three view­ers—the poet writ­ing the poem, the dream­ing boy sit­u­ated in the poem, and the reader of the poem, in whose mind the leap­ing gazelle, the dream­ing boy, the swim­ming girl are all “re­flected” as in a pool. The poem is a stone thrown into a still pool, break­ing it into rip­ples.

In ‘The Flamin­gos’, Rilke as­serts that not even the sub­tlest painter can ex­press the red and white of these birds, it would be as fee­ble as some­one

say­ing how lovely his mis­tress is, “ly­ing there still soft with sleep” in­stead of mak­ing us see it and feel it. The beauty of the flamin­gos can be de­scribed, yes, but can­not be con­veyed; can be en­cap­su­lated, yes, but can­not be con­fined. The green-with-envy par­rots are caged, while the flamin­gos are free, strid­ing “into their imag­i­nary world”. What’s in­ter­est­ing is that it’s not

our imag­i­nary world they stride into, but theirs. Rilke grants the flamin­gos an au­ton­omy of be­ing, a bird-mind im­per­vi­ous to the hu­man, who can only look, ad­mire, and watch them leave. Beauty is not sit­ting there, con­tent with be­ing ob­served, it is not pas­sive, we must move to­wards it, we must leap as we try and com­pre­hend it.

Rilke wrote those po­ems at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, be­tween 1907 and 1908. In 1992-93, i.e. al­most at the end of the 20th cen­tury, the Amer­i­can poet Adri­enne Rich wrote:

You can call on beauty still and it will leap from all di­rec­tions you can write beauty into the cruel file of things done things left un­done but once we were dis­sim­i­lar yet un­sep­a­rated that’s beauty that’s what you catch in the new­born’s mid­night gaze the fog that melts the fall­ing stars the virus from the smashed lianas driven search­ing now for us 6

Af­ter all the ug­li­ness of the in­ter­ven­ing years, the poet as­serts: you can still call on beauty, de­spite every­thing, and it will leap at you from all di­rec­tions. Here it’s not the hu­man viewer leap­ing to­wards nat­u­ral beauty, it’s the leap of nat­u­ral beauty to­wards the watch­ing hu­man, from all di­rec­tions, al­most like an am­bush, tak­ing you by sur­prise. It ex­ists, if you dare sum­mon it. The great sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the viewed and the viewer, the in­sur­mount­able dif­fer­ence that Rilke ac­knowl­edges be­tween man and bird, is here the source of Adri­enne Rich’s epiphany — be­ing dis­sim­i­lar yet one, un­sep­a­rated, that’s beauty, that’s what you catch.

Here again, to catch, to seize, to grasp un­gras­pable things. And, mean­while, what has hap­pened to the land­scape in the poet’s con­tem­pla­tion of beauty? It is no longer syl­van, no long pas­toral, no longer idyl­lic or ideal. Let’s take a look at Adri­enne Rich’s ‘The Ideal Land­scape’ 7 (1955). Mun­dane re­al­ity has re­placed a gilded world, a fairy­tale world. She writes, “We had to take the world as it was given.” The world is a given. All one can do is re-tell the old sto­ries, spin the fairy tales on their heads, as in ‘The Snow Queen’ 8 where a “child with a chip of mir­ror in his eye/ Saw the world ugly, fled to plains of ice/ Where beauty was the Snow Queen’s prom­ises.”

The mod­ern poet’s long­ing for the lost worlds of child­hood, of story, of ideal land­scapes is not nos­tal­gia. It is cri­tique. Just as in my own poem ‘Fairy­tale’ 9, I take is­sue with the tropes of fairy sto­ries, the trans­for­ma­tions of Cin­derel­las into princesses, the ques­tion of “who’s the fairest of them all”, the bi­na­ries of the beauty and the beast:


Ru­bies, spill your blood on my throat. Emer­alds, your envy. Beauty, leave some rags for me that I might pre­sume to be a woman: beau­ti­ful be­decked be­liev­able. Mu­ti­lated, yes, pierced at the navel and the groin, lips puck­ered in dis­dain. A steep price but what the hell. I’m tired of be­ing such a beast,

long-toothed and four-eyed. De­spised and de­nied the pe­cu­liar joys of be­ing whis­tled at and wolfed down by male eyes.

Let me pre­tend, then. Slashed and bound and painted in some arabesque of lip and lash, mark on head, mole on chin, so fright­ened so fright­en­ing.

And when I’m done, let me take this mir­ror and break seven years of bad luck into your kind, ob­ser­vant, fairy god­mother face. There is, in the fairy tales, a rit­ual trans­for­ma­tion from ug­li­ness to beauty that is de­pen­dent on magic wands, fairy god­moth­ers, kisses from hand­some princes. Clothes and ac­ces­sories play a vi­tal role—from rags to riches, from the dis­guise of don­key skins to the reve­la­tion of ball gowns. Glass slip­pers, del­i­cate and small (as be­fits fairy princesses!), mir­rors, com­plex­ions, the arse­nal of beau­ti­fi­ca­tion that Yeats’ beau­ti­ful mild woman refers to with such know­ing weari­ness.

In Anaïs Nin’s story ‘Hedja’ 10 (1948), the pro­tag­o­nist is a veiled Ori­en­tal woman. At the age of 17, she leaves both the veil and the Ori­ent be­hind. But she stays metaphor­i­cally veiled, her “air was veiled… her lan­guage was veiled”. She takes on the wardrobe of the chic Parisi­enne but “no one could feel sure of hav­ing seen her neck, arms or legs”. What one sees is “a mix­ture of ele­gance, cos­met­ics, aes­thetic plumage, with only the eyes send­ing sig­nals and mes­sages”. Nin writes — “No one un­der­stood the sig­nals: look at He­jda, the woman of the Ori­ent who wants to be a woman of to­mor­row. The plumage and the aes­thetic adorn­ment di­verted them like dec­o­ra­tion on a wall. She was al­ways be­ing thrust back into the harem, on a pil­low.”

Here is a stereo­type that Hedja is trapped within, no mat­ter what she does to es­cape it. And when Mol­nar, a young Ro­ma­nian painter makes her his muse and then his wife, he also re­makes her. He pol­ishes her, re­presses, re­duces and lim­its her. “He bound her fem­i­nin­ity,” and made it “ashamed of its ex­pan­sive­ness.” His phi­los­o­phy is—“At ev­ery turn na­ture must be sub­ju­gated.” For him it is “the reign of aes­thetic value, styl­iza­tion, re­fine­ment, art, ar­ti­fice.” This is her sec­ond veil­ing. He “molds her as far as he can into the styl­ized fig­ures in his paint­ings”, trans­par­ent women who “lie in ham­mocks be­tween heaven and earth”. He­jda alas can­not make her­self di­aphanous, but she can, and is made to be, an odal­isque. Her hus­band dis­likes her breasts, they are too heavy. Af­ter their sep­a­ra­tion she re­claims her body, wears sheer blouses, gig­gles, and chat­ters. In free­ing her­self she falls prey to other kinds of stereo­types—the coarse abu­sive gypsy, the com­pet­i­tive woman seek­ing to outdo other women through star­tling dress and be­hav­iour. Be­tween the male ideal of fem­i­nine beauty

and the fe­male de­sire to con­form and es­cape, lies a world of in­escapable con­tra­dic­tions.

When a woman looks at a man look­ing at a woman, es­pe­cially if the woman is a writer as keen and per­cep­tive as Anaïs Nin, ideas of beauty are re­fracted, splin­tered and com­pli­cated.

An in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple of a male au­thor re­vers­ing the gaze and com­pli­cat­ing the main­stream nar­ra­tive is Amit Chaud­huri in his story ‘An In­fat­u­a­tion’ 11, which opens with Soor­panakha look­ing at Ram, Lak­sh­man and Sita in the for­est. She watches Ram with love and envy, he is so much more beau­ti­ful than she is! The “ra­di­antly beau­ti­ful but more or less use­less woman” (i.e. Sita) doesn’t arouse her envy or her fear. It is Ram’s male beauty that stirs both envy and fear, makes her fall in love with him, makes her want to be beau­ti­ful for him, and so she trans­forms her coarse, hir­sute, dark, mus­cu­lar, dis­pleas­ing self into the “ideal” woman, “with large eyes … long hair” and a “pli­ant body”. This is the im­age she must in­habit for the man (or is he a god) to love her. Her de­mon heart beats with trep­i­da­tion as she coyly propo­si­tions him. But her smell gives her away, and Ram, though en­joy­ing the du­bi­ous plea­sure of be­ing the ob­ject of fe­male pur­suit, tells his brother to get rid of this tire­some maiden, teach her a les­son she will never for­get. We know where that story goes. But what is in­ter­est­ing and com­pelling here is the rak­shasi’s acute aware­ness that her form, nat­u­ral and comely though it is to her species, is re­pul­sive to the other. The fe­male de­sire to beau­tify one­self ac­cord­ing to some­one else’s pa­ram­e­ters is a trope that cuts across cul­tures.

We’ve looked at:

fe­male beauty ide­alised through the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of na­ture, fe­male beauty as a prod­uct of ar­ti­fice, beauty as labour, beauty as myth and beauty as fairy tale, male beauty as an ob­ject of lust, site of van­ity and source of cru­elty.

From the syl­van to the sul­lied, from the eter­nal en­shrined beauty of an ob­ject to the im­per­ma­nent beauty of an emo­tion, from the im­pos­si­bil­ity of ex­press­ing nat­u­ral beauty to the leap of imag­i­na­tion that can re­claim and seize beauty from po­ten­tial ug­li­ness, I’d like to turn now to an ex­am­ple of per­son­i­fy­ing a mod­ern in­dus­tri­alised ur­ban lo­ca­tion as a beau­ti­ful woman! The ex­am­ple I have in mind is the Czech writer Bo­hu­mil Hra­bal’s short story ‘Beau­ti­ful Poldi’ 12. From his at­tempts to por­tray what he called “to­tal re­al­ism” (in which traces of his sur­re­al­ist po­et­ics re­main) this story is part of a series that spans the clos­ing years of World War II, through the post­war pre-Com­mu­nist era to 1962 when de-Stal­in­iza­tion was in full-swing. Hra­bal was fas­ci­nated by heavy in­dus­try and he wrote in a let­ter, “If you knew how much I love the Poldi steel mill, you’d be jeal­ous. It was there that I saw every­thing, and from the mo­ment I saw her, I be­came a seer.” The Poldi Steel Works was es­tab­lished in 1889 by Karl Wittgen­stein (none other than the philoso­pher Lud­wig Wittgen­stein’s fa­ther!) and was named af­ter his wife Leopold­ina, fondly known to friends and fam­ily as Poldi. Wittgen­stein reg­is­tered a cameo pro­file of her, with a star over her head as the com­pany trade­mark that would in­spire Hra­bal to per­son­ify the steel­works as a woman in his story. I will leave you to dis­cover and en­joy the story for your­selves, and say just a few things about it. To Hra­bal, Beau­ti­ful Poldi is more than the trade­mark, the pro­file of the lovely lady he fell in love with. It’s the peo­ple who work there, it’s the “tar pits and slag heaps and bar­racks and dor­mi­to­ries”. It’s an en­tire camp “on the alert, wait­ing for some­thing fun­da­men­tal to hap­pen: a knock on the door, the sound of a voice, some­thing that would in­stantly ren­der every­one good and beau­ti­ful.” And yet, how can it be beau­ti­ful when “there is not a sin­gle flower on the labour­ers’ ta­ble, not one lit­tle bou­quet for the world to lean on.” Beau­ti­ful Poldi is the path that leads away from the dor­mi­to­ries, but “beau­ti­ful Poldi is also the mo­ment when a grinder sud­denly tears off his safety glasses, flees his work, and goes out­side as far away as he can; he looks into the sky, then at the moun­tain of rust­ing scrap metal, at the birds who come to drink from the boil­ing pools by mis­take…”

Hra­bal does not posit the typ­i­cal bi­na­ries be­tween beau­ti­ful na­ture and ugly in­dus­try, the ru­ral as sub­lime and the ur­ban as grotesque — he con­flates the two and seeks epipha­nies within their in­ter­min­gling:

At the Poldi steel­works, hope­less peo­ple hold their mud­died hopes aloft. Life, strangely enough, is con­stantly be­ing rein­vented, and loved, even though a tin­foil brain will bring forth crum­pled im­ages, and a tram­pled torso will ooze mis­ery. And yet, it is still a beau­ti­ful thing when a man aban­dons his three square meals a day and his adding ma­chine and his fam­ily and goes off to fol­low a beau­ti­ful star. Life is still mag­nif­i­cent as long as one main­tains the il­lu­sion that an en­tire world can be con­jured from a tiny patch of earth.

It seems to me that we’ve come a long way from the idea of labour­ing to­wards beauty (the poet’s labour for a beau­ti­ful rhyme, the woman’s labour for a beau­ti­ful form and face) to labour it­self — the soul-grind­ing ma­chin­ery of in­dus­trial labour re­deemed only by the hu­man grace to rise above it, to seek in its in­ter­stices some kind of im­pos­si­ble, es­sen­tial, tran­scen­den­tal beauty. Yeats’s “labour­ing world” that was in­dif­fer­ent to the dream of beauty pass­ing it by is now pre­cisely the world that en­folds the dream, if only for a few fleet­ing sec­onds.

I’ll close with a short poem by Shakti Chat­topad­hyay, which I trans­lated specif­i­cally for this sem­i­nar. It’s called ‘Shun­dor Jekhaney’. In Ben­gali the word “shun­dor” has a res­o­nance be­yond the im­pli­ca­tions of be­ing beau­ti­ful. “Shun­dor” is Shel­ley’s “aw­ful love­li­ness”, “shun­dor” is that ab­strac­tion, ter­ri­ble and es­sen­tial, Beauty with a Cap­i­tal B.

WHERE BEAUTY IS Trans­lated from Ben­gali by Sam­purna Chat­tarji

Where beauty is, that’s where it is for­ever Still; only hu­mans, only lovers of beauty Re­turn re­peat­edly, closer, closer to beauty Alone, not as a clan, clan-eyes can­not see beauty All they see is love­li­ness, grass­land solid stone, Next to such beauty, love­li­ness is just an­other syn­tax— Where beauty is, it will be for­ever.

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