Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Lord Bacon on Beauty and Strangeness

Reading Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic tale "Ligeia," which is a
study of the supernatural and of feminine beauty, I noticed
that Poe quoted Elizabethan politician and scholar Francis
Bacon: "There's no exquisite beauty," says Bacon, Lord
Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of
beauty "without some strangeness in the proportion." Is this
really true? I asked myself.

In James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we
find that Stephen Dedalus' translated Aquinas model of beauty
using the following words: wholeness (integritas), balance
(consonantia), and radiance (claritas). 'Balance' is often
translated as 'proportion' by others. So, if something is
lacking in any of the above three elements, then the beauty
observed will be flawed.

In Ligeia, Poe's neurotic and unreliable narrator is
determined to find out that 'strangeness' that was so
unnerving to him: "I was possessed with a passion to
discover." After examining in great detail Ligeia's hair,
skin, nose, lips, teeth, smile, chin, and eyes, he concludes
that her eyes carry the unmistakable light of strangeness:
"They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary
eyes of our own race. They were fuller than the fullest of
the gazelle eyes ..." And in the end it is the eyes that
convinces him that the revivified corpse is Ligeia and not
Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine.

As part of his study of the glittering Russian aristocracy,
in Ana Karenina, Leon Tolstoy explored Ana's physical
beauty: face, arms, neck, hair, feet, hands, and even her
dress and accessories:

"Some supernatural force drew Kitty's eyes to Anna's face.
She was fascinating in her simple black dress, fascinating
were her round arms with their bracelets, fascinating was
her firm neck with its thread of pearls, fascinating the
straying curls of her loose hair, fascinating the graceful,
light movements of her little feet and hands, fascinating
was that lovely face in its eagerness, but there was
something terrible and cruel in her fascination."

But it is not from any particular part that he finds fault
in Ana. Nothing is flawed. It is the whole --wholeness of
fascination-- that gives off the odor of cruelty and
strangeness, destroying therefore the balance of her beauty.

Not only did Scott Fitzgerald create a wholesome American
beauty in Daisy Buchanan --the belle of The Great Gatsby--
but a flawed American beauty. Understanding doesn't come
easy to Daisy, and when she offers an opinion, it is always
a trivial opinion that often verges on absurdity. Notice how
Daisy deals with one single idea by repeating the very same
idea three times: "In two weeks it'll be the longest day in
the year." She looked at us all radiantly. "Do you always
watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I
always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss
it." If you count the pronoun "it" you will realize that she
has mentioned the longest day of the year five times. And
throughout the novel, Daisy keeps stuttering and repeating
herself; a problem that Nick Carraway --the narrator-- calls
"echolalia."

For the reader of fiction nothing can be more poignant than
the fall of a beautiful, intelligent, and honorable
character; but when the character is a female and from the
upper crust, the situation becomes pathetic. Edith Wharton's
The House of Mirth chronicles the demise of an old New York
society beauty. Of all the beautiful women portrayed in
novels by male and female authors, Lily Bart remains the
epitome of exquisiteness and elegance. Beset by financial
problems left by her bankrupt husband, Lily's mother hopes
for a brighter future through her daughter:

"Only one thought consoled her, and that was the
contemplation of Lily's beauty. She studied it with a kind
of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly
fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their
fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be
rebuilt."

When Lily poses for a tableau vivant, she dazzles the
viewers with her beauty. Yet readers gasp and shudder at the
anticipation of impending doom. Selden, Lily's sedated
paramour, detects the strangeness in Lily's beauty: she is
ogled rather admired; that "she was so evidently the victim
of the civilization which had produced her that the links of
her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate."

Hidden (more often than not) from easy detection are the
strange traits of beautiful female characters. Thanks to
Edgar Allan Poe, armed with Lord Bacon's axiom, "There's no
exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the
proportion," readers perhaps will seek out the strangeness
--lack of balance-- that makes a particular character
beautiful.


About the Author:

Marciano Guerrero is a retired investment banker, Columbia
University-educated, and Vietnam Vet (67-68).
English is my second language; I only use one textbook to
guide my writing. Mary Duffy's e-book "Sentence Openers"
contains all the writing techniques I use in my essays and
fiction: http://sentenceopeners.com