From labouring towards beauty to labour itself
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.