Sunday, May 01, 2005

Beauty and the Beast

So every once in a while I get an idea that I need to write out in order to process. I say once in a while, but I realize that this one is like 3 years old. Whatever...

Much has been written on one of time’s oldest questions, “What is love?” Artists, poets, novelists, songwriters, playwrights, and philosophers have all tackled the subject and continue to return because love avoids exhaustion. The culture constantly offers its response - having set up camp like a circus freak show that profits off scores of interesting definitions for the curious passerby - and still love remains untainted. So why write about the question? Because I’m saddened by what I’ve recently come to realize about the relationship between love and beauty, specifically beauty as it applies to people.

What is it within humanity that causes the revulsion to the ugly and the attraction to the beautiful? These responses are found in humans at the earliest age. In a study conducted on infants, scientists found that babies preferred looking at pictures of people who possessed greater facial symmetry. Many can recall the dagger-like comments of playground children concerning physical irregularities. Internet sites like and devote themselves to judging others’ physical appearance. TV devotes itself to the attaining and maintaining of beauty. Plato wrote of beauty’s “golden proportions”. Fairy tales tell of handsome men and beautiful women. Poems extol physical beauty. The fascination with beauty is ubiquitous.

Why then do so many beautiful people carry so much emotional baggage? Why do so many beautiful people feel isolated and lonely among the crowds of people that seek them? The answer lies in an old definition of love: “[Love] does not seek its own.” Stated positively the definition reads, “Love seeks for others.”

Humans exhibit a freakish Midas’ touch when clinging to anything too tightly. Similar to the mirror of Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen, this touch transforms the good and beautiful into something withered and corrupted. Rather than seeking the best of another in love, another’s beauty is selfishly sought like a magical ladder. Whereas those associated with beauty or the beautiful climb to a higher social status, those branded as ugly or associated with the ugly are relegated to the lowest of social planes. And like a rose severed from its root and displayed in a vase, or the experience of Anodos with the maiden’s crystal globe, that which is beautiful is made ugly or destroyed by the desire to possess. Objectified, beauty is loved “as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold” (Neil Gaiman, Coraline).

What is the solution? To seek the betterment of others. This pursuit often requires the death of some personal desire in order to achieve some other, greater end. Countless others have recognized this paradox throughout time. Master Confucius said, “A high will, or a loving heart, will not seek life at cost of love. To fulfil love they will kill the body.” Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese XII declares, “. . . And thus, I cannot speak/ Of love even, as a good thing of my own . . ./ And that I love (O soul, we must be meek!)/ Is by thee only, whom I love alone”. The story of Rick’s sacrifice for Ilsa and Victor solidifies Casablanca as one of movies greatest love stories. Author George MacDonald quotes, “Who lives, he dies; who dies, he is alive.” Christianity sees Christ’s death on the cross as the ultimate act of love. Love is measured not by what is gained, but by what is given. Selflessness cures the dismal human Midas’ touch. Through selflessness, beauty is protected and preserved and love is proven true.