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Book review: “On Ugliness” by Umberto Eco

No question, the guy on the cover of Umberto Eco’s 2007 book On Ugliness is truly ugly.

And, in this sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Matsys, Ill-Matched Lovers, his ugliness is heightened by his pretty wife or girlfriend. She looks lovingly at him through lidded eyes and caresses his stubbled chin. He fondles her right breast under her bodice and gazes at her with what might be called a leer.

eco --- ugliness

Yet, I think the temptation to call it a leer is due to his ugliness. His look, his smile, could just as well be read as deep affection and delight. We would read it that way if he were a studly courtier, wouldn’t we?

And here’s the thing: Ill-Matched Lovers is a much more interesting painting, more striking, more arresting, because of his ugliness. Even if repulsed by the guy’s ugliness, the viewer is still drawn irresistibly into the picture. You can’t not find it interesting.

ugly combo---1Perplexing

Ugliness sure can be perplexing, as Eco, the well-respected Italian intellectual, makes clear in this wonderfully provocative three-level book.

There is, at the center of the work, Eco’s erudite essay, examining the widely varying concepts of ugliness down through the ages and referencing the insights of poets, philosophers, theologians, novelists and a vast array of other writers. The second level of the book is made up of lengthy quotations from those writers, and the third are works of art and culture that provide a visual perspective to the conversation.

And it is a conversation, with the three strands woven together throughout the work. It’s a complicated text for a complicated subject.

For instance, concerning ugliness in today’s world, Eco writes:

We find ourselves faced with a multitude of contradictions. Monsters that may be ugly but are certainly lovable like ET or the extraterrestrials of Star Wars fascinate not only children (who are also won over by dinosaurs, Pokeman and other deformed creatures) but also adults, who relax in front of splatter movies where brains are reduced to pulp and blood spurts onto the walls, or amuse themselves by reading horror stories

More interesting?

Ugliness, it seems, is just more interesting that beauty. At least, that’s what I’m thinking now that I’ve finished Eco’s book.

Eco may agree although he doesn’t say that in so many words. Yet, in the opening pages of his essay, he runs off a long list of synonyms for beautiful and ugly as used in every-day speech, and then writes:

The sensibility of the common speaker reveals that, whereas all the synonyms for beautiful could be conceived as a reaction of disinterested appreciation, almost all the synonyms for ugly contain a reaction of disgust, if not violent repulsion, horror, or fear.

ugly combo---2In other words, we are able to look at something beautiful in an objective, emotionless way. But something ugly makes our skin crawl.

And, if nothing else, Eco’s book shows that, over the millenniums, human beings, in many ways, like to have our skin crawl.

The fascination

To be sure, there are changes in artistic fashion. What used to be beautiful is now ugly, and what was once ugly is beautiful today. Yet, that doesn’t explain the fascination that we humans have for what turns our stomach.

Why do we rubberneck when driving past the scene of a bloody traffic crash? Why do we find ruins intriguing? Why is it that I can’t look away when, on occasion, I will see a photograph of a body plummeting from one of the World Trade buildings on September 11, 2001? Why do I find Matsys’ Ill-Matched Lovers so attractive?

The same could be asked about great literature.

Except in comedies, why are there no happy endings? And comedies — although they often conclude with a resolution of tensions and conflicts — are based on a series of misfortunes, mishaps and misunderstandings. What does that say about human nature?

In his final pages, Eco gives an answer:

In everyday life we are surrounded by horrifying sights. We see images of children dying of hunger reduced to skeletons with swollen bellies, we see countries where women are raped by invading troops, and others where people are tortured, just as we are continually exposed to images from the not too distant past of other living skeletons doomed to the gas chamber….We all know perfectly well that such things are ugly, not only in the moral but in the physical sense, and we know this because they arouse our disgust, fear and repulsion…

No knowledge of the relativity of aesthetic values can eliminate the fact that in such cases we unhesitatingly recognize ugliness and we cannot transform it into an object of pleasure. So we can understand why art in various centuries insistently portrayed ugliness. Marginal as the voice of art may be, it attempted to remind us that, despite the optimism of certain metaphysicians, there is something implacably and sadly malign about this world.

ugly combo --- 3

A wealth of ugliness

We look at beauty, and we know it is a grace note of life. A moment. A blessing.

When we gaze on ugliness, we see the existence we share. If one woman is beautiful, 99 are less so. If I go four for four in a baseball game today, I could start an 0-for-24 slump the next day.

If I’m happy, I enjoy it. But rarely is happiness total and unalloyed bliss. We live lives that are a mix.

That’s why, Eco writes, William Shakespeare has been called the “absolute acme of modern poetry” — because he was “an artist who blended beauty and ugliness as happens in nature, where individual beauties are never free of impurities, and both his works and his characters possess a wealth of these impurities.”

Not only is there “something implacably and sadly malign about this world” but also about each of us.

We are, each of us, a wealth of impurities. A wealth of ugliness.

Patrick T. Reardon

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