I am afraid of beauty. In fact, it terrifies me. Lest you begin to feel sorry for me, this is the way I think it should be. At some raw and primeval level, I believe we are all terrified of beauty. I know some of you will completely disagree with me. You will be tempted to stop reading at this point. But, before you disappear into the safe world of the monochromatic ideas you agree with, hear me out for a moment, because at some level, I think you are deathly afraid of beauty too.
The value of beauty terrifies us all, and simple illustrations are found in everyday life. A Monet, a VanGogh, a Picasso, or a Turner hangs gently on the wall while the security in the museum watches our every move. Inherently, most of us understand not to touch, even before the sign is read. The person who does not understand evokes gasps from other patrons. Your mother or your grandmother has something of value, which sits in a special place: behind the glass of the china cabinet, or on a shelf neatly placed like the Renoir in the museum. There are some things so valuable and beautiful, we are afraid to pick them up, hold them, or be responsible for transporting them from one location to another. Other things are so precious, that we want to hold them, but find ourselves doing so with extreme caution, like the swaddled newborn. The young man looks on the girl he sees as the most beautiful in the school, and becomes tongue-tied.
Art, theology, and philosophy have approached the terror of beauty. Titian’s paintings Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon show the Greek myth of Actaeon’s accidentally coming upon the goddess Diana bathing, and then Diana slaying Actaeon, whose only crime was to accidently gaze upon her naked in her full beauty. He is transformed into a stag. His own hunting hounds, not recognizing him, tear him apart as the goddess chases with her bow – the arrow already loosed. In mythic illustration, beauty destroys the innocent Actaeon as a warning to all who would stumble haphazardly upon its deadly gaze.
In a similar manner, Christian theology reimagines the death sentence of the cross as the great moment of divine beauty. And in an insane inversion, the brutality of the cross is reimagined as beauty. Then from generation to generation it is transferred onto the followers of Christ, who fearfully comprehend that death and life are bound together in ways inseparable. Salvation and judgment are a hair’s breadth apart, and the concepts of love and holiness are tied together in ways that make the love of God an awesome thing – “awesome” in its truest sense.
Beauty demands something from us. Passively, it looks into our eyes, and asks that we treat it with respect, like the Levinasian “other” that calls out and says, “Do not murder me.” But we are takers. We are users. We are the abusers of that which we desire, because at some point our needs – our desires – our lusts want to receive without the hard work of giving back in return. On that long hard day, or that moment of our greedy grasping, we do not heed the gentle call of beauty, which says that if we serve it, it shall reciprocally refresh us. And so, we abuse it, and it will prove our worthlessness and someday slay us dispassionately like Diana did Actaeon.
Beauty reveals our own ugliness in these moments. The most handsome, chiseled exterior is proven to be a dreadful mask hiding a heartless violence. The softest, sweetest sight hides a deceitful manipulation. We have all found ourselves disgusted by someone beautiful, because we discovered something dark lurking beneath the surface of the face of beauty. The plain person becomes attractive in their kindness, and the stunning individual becomes grotesque in their disregard or selfishness. Don’t think that this is not true of us as well. What beauty we have will betray us by allowing the ugliness that resides within us to squeak out between the cracks.
Beauty reveals our inner demons. It proves whether we honor it or simply consume it. In consuming beauty, we betray it. We become the boy who rather than being afraid of girls in the Junior High dance, goes on to be a player leaving a trail of broken women. We are those who break grandma’s china. But do not be deceived, we shall also be betrayed by beauty’s soft power.
The Japanese horror film by Katsuya Matsumura, “The Terror of Beauty” visits this subject through the story of a cosmetic surgeon secretly approached by a woman consumed with the need to be beautiful, and the clandestine midnight surgeries she pays exorbitant amounts of money for. In the end, both the beautiful but nonchalant doctor, who hates ugliness, and the obsessive patient are betrayed by the consuming desire for beauty. Despite the saying, “Beauty is only skin deep”, we know this is not true. The original quote comes from Sir Thomas Overbury’s 1613 poem “The Wife.” In it, he separates true beauty from “carnal beauty.” He reveals the terror of beauty by acknowledging the fact that we are deceived by external beauty that hides a multitude of sins lurking beneath the surface – waiting to consume us. We too can carry beauty as a false mask hiding our true ugliness. Either way, we are deceived, and even if we are the consumers, beauty consumes us in the end.
The sexy becomes a temptation. The polished becomes manipulation. The clean covers a casket of death. Despite the absurdity of the casting, Angelina Jolie’s part as the monster known as Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf portrayed this lesson well.
Salesmanship understands this power. The sales person dresses for the occasion of selling. They are received by the potential buyers based upon how they are perceived at first impression. Yet, that first impression tells us nothing about their honesty. A pretty exterior makes for a perfect con. I have found myself distrusting of the salesperson that is too together. I know that this is my bias, but I somehow assume that there is deceit lurking beneath. And in this way, I prove once more, that I am terrified of beauty and its power.
Beauty has far more to terrify us than we can possibly imagine. There is the deceitful beauty that betrays us with a lie. There is the true beauty that demands that we give our lives for it. There is the consuming beauty that demands our imitation, despite our inabilities to reach its perfection. The anorexic knows this last terror, as does the one obsessed with cosmetic surgery like the villain in Katsuya Matsumura’s movie.
As for me, I do not trust external beauty of a person to be any indicator of true beauty. And the beauty of inanimate objects: forests, seas, and art remind me that I am afraid of beauty, because I stand in awe of them. I am terrified of beauty, because I know it will consume me one way or another, even if I respect it. It demands something more of me, and slays my selfish ambitions. I cannot be the same person after encountering beauty in the same way that I cannot be the same person after encountering God.
Having said this, I realize that there are people who do not respect beauty in the way it ought to be respected. They are not in awe of it’s soft power, and high expectations. The industry of pornography abuses it – literally rapes it of its divine essence. Our culture of youth worship, and celebrity idolization make beauty a commodity attainable by hook or crook. The fashion and cosmetic industries put it up for sale and tempt us with it. For those who show that they are merely consumers of beauty, I know that I will never fully trust such a person, because their nonchalant relationship to beauty betrays who they are beneath the surface. They are foolish. They are easily deceived. They are probably deceivers themselves in some way. And in the end, they will be consumed by beauty. Its soft power is cruel once it is abused. This is one reason, among many, I could not vote for the current President of the US.
I am terrified of beauty even though I desire it and seek to attain it. You are too, and if you pretend you are not, you need to find and embrace that inner terror.
This post represents a small part of a response to the “Porn Papers” which were submitted to Burning Religion.
4 thoughts on “The Terror of Beauty”
As I read your thoughts I am struck by the thought that true beauty and what passes for beauty in our consumerist society are two very different things, that this is connected to the porn papers highlights that. I pause to think of the truly beautiful people I have met and ponder that they would be unlikely to appear in any kind of magazine as a beautiful example of humanity and yet there was something in their eyes, in their souls that was both compelling and repelling at the same time. Perhaps the idea that I too can be truly beautiful, and that somehow I am a reflection of the divine demands so much of me that I shrink from it, maybe that is why we like to build our barriers of defence and hide behind shallow opinions accepting shadows of beauty rather than daring to encounter true beauty.
I am haunted by a mystical encounter of many years ago, when walking out onto the sea wall in a small Essex (UK) fishing village, the air changed and everything took on an intense vibration, the colours were highlighted and muted at the same time, and the world seemed to be singing of its goodness calling me to join in, I am not sure that I did and the vision faded, it remains in my memory as a terrifyingly unexplainable moment ( though I am unsure how long it lasted), beauty calls and repels, I agree, my hope is that I will allow the encounter to change me and not accept the shallower so called beauty that is cheaply peddled for my satisfaction to be enough!
How poetic Sally! Great insight as well. Thank you.
Rather ironically, this is a beautifully written post Phil.