A Debilitating Weakness for Beauty

Ingres: Turkish Bath

While writing a recent post, Beauty on the Beach (one of my poorest digressions to date), I was searching for interesting quotes on the nature of beauty as captions to the photos that would adorn the post. In the process, I realized that most commentators defined beauty as something that is relative, eternal, idealistic, and often fleeting. Interestingly, those are not the important things that I find in beauty. What I find as the quality, the attraction or attribute that merits the term “beauty” is something that is simply unattainable or not completely accessible. At least I think that is what I mean . . .

Ten years ago this month, I went for dinner with a beautiful girl. It probably wasn’t an official date, but there was just the two of us, and my knees shook under the table at her beauty. So I wasn’t completely innocent. Then, she said what I had thought was one of the stupidest things I had ever heard. She claimed to have the unique talent of being able to recognize beauty. She could, for example, enter any museum and with no previous knowledge of any of the art works, pick out the most beautiful one.  I suppose that would be like bringing an alien to El Prado and waiting to see if the alien pinpointed Velasquez’ Las Meninas as the most important piece in the museum. If “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, then her point would be moot. For her to be correct, there must be some other innate quality to things that render them beautiful. Yet if beauty is objectively beautiful, wouldn’t everyone have the same ability, thus stripping her of the talent?

I never gave this much thought until about three years ago when I was visiting friends at their country home in Viladrau, Catalunya. This beautiful macia was located atop a hill in the middle of a forest hidden in a valley. One morning I sat having breakfast looking out into the autumn scenery of trees and mountains. The scene was so aesthetically pleasing that it was almost frustrating. Why was it frustrating? There was nothing I could do about it. I had no way of accessing or truly experiencing on a mutual basis that which I was viewing. I suppose when I look at the sea, I can access it by diving in. But there was no way I could submerge myself into the mountain side. With music I can dance or sing along. And even if I were Julie Andrews and could twirl around the hills with the sound of music, the hills would not be alive because of my music.

Then again, there is a frustration with not being able to fully experience nature, even if we are swimming, bird-watching, or mountain climbing. And this frustration, this desire to be closer to that quality that attracts us, that makes us strive to draw closer to nature is what I would denominate “beauty”. I call this frustration my “debilitating weakness for beauty”. I would even say that the beauty of human intimacy bears the same quality. We are attracted to another person and yet, as close as we may get, we never quite get close enough. Even in the most intimate of acts, humans do not truly and mutually experience the beloved. We never feel what the other feels, we never access what the other is experiencing.

Following this logic, the human effort to access beauty is art. In other words, from the frustration of not being able to attain unity with the desired object, we simulate that beauty by getting as close as we can. Thus, a painting is nothing more than one’s attempt at recreating that which cannot be attained. A song is the reproduction of a frustrated desire put to music. It is the expression of what one believes the desired object is like in its essence. The better and more universal the interpretation, the more “beautiful” the art work is considered. Consequently, I would suppose that intimate acts would then also, when performed skillfully, be considered artistic. Personally, I have a debilitating weakness for beauty, but I only consume art for the articles. 

Interesting quotes on the nature of beauty:

  • “Beauty is our weapon against nature; by it we make objects, giving them limit, symmetry, proportion. Beauty halts and freezes the melting flux of nature.” Camille Paglia
  • “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” David Hume
  • “Beauty is as relative as light and dark. Thus, there exists no beautiful woman, none at all, because you are never certain that a still far more beautiful woman will not appear and completely shame the supposed beauty of the first.” Paul Klee
  • “O beauty, are you not enough? / Why am I crying after love?” Sara Teasdale
  • “Beauty is a precious trace that eternity causes to appear to us and that it takes away from us. A manifestation of eternity, and a sign of death as well.” Eugène Ionesco
  • “Beauty makes us dream of both reverence and rape.” Mason Cooley
  • “Beauty always promises, but never gives anything.” Simone Weil
  • “Beauty is all very well at first sight; but who ever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?” George Bernard Shaw
  • “Beauty is the only promise of happiness.” Stendhal
  • “The beauty of the world … has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” Virginia Woolf
  • “Yet beauty, though injurious, hath strange power, / After offense returning, to regain / Love once possessed.” John Milton
  • “Personal beauty is then first charming and itself, when it dissatisfies us with any end; when it becomes a story without an end; when it suggests gleams and visions, and not earthly satisfactions; when it makes the beholder feel his unworthiness; when he cannot feel his right to it, though he were Caesar; he cannot feel more right to it than to the firmament and the splendors of a sunset.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “I died for Beauty—but was scarce / Adjusted in the Tomb / When One who died for Truth, was lain / In an adjoining Room—” Emily Dickinson
  • “for beauty with sorrow / Is a burden hard to be borne: / The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there; / That music, remote, forlorn.” Walter de la Mare
  • “One evening I sat Beauty on my knees—And I found her bitter—And I reviled her.” Arthur Rimbaud
  • “The grand style arises when beauty wins a victory over the monstrous.” Friedrich Nietzsche
  • “The idea which man forms of beauty imprints itself throughout his attire, rumples or stiffens his garments, rounds off or aligns his gestures, and, finally, even subtly penetrates the features of his face.” Charles Baudelaire
  • “Does he who loves someone on account of beauty really love that person? No, for smallpox, which will kill beauty without killing the person, will cause him to love the person no more. And if one loves me for my judgment, for my memory, he does not love me, for I can lose these qualities without losing myself. Where, then, is this myself, if it be neither in the body nor in the soul?” Blaise Pascal
  • “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new!” Saint Augustine
  • “The South is very beautiful but its beauty makes one sad because the lives that people live here, and have lived here, are so ugly.” James Baldwin
  • “It is this admirable and immortal instinct for beauty which causes us to regard the earth and its spectacles as a glimpse, a correspondence of the beyond.” Charles Baudelaire
  • “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.” Toni Morrison
  • “Americans worship creativity the way they worship physical beauty—as a way of enjoying elitism without guilt: God did it.” Florence King
  • “Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness. To define beauty not in the most abstract, but in the most concrete terms possible, not to find a universal formula for it, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.” Walter Pater.


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