on February 10, 2014
Umberto Eco begins ‘On Ugliness’ with the observation that there is an entire history of beauty but such a history did not happen with ugliness. Why is this? Perhaps, the author reasons, since ugliness was frequently defined throughout the ages as the opposite of beauty. Well, if there ever was a book taking a giant step to rectify a neglect of ugliness, this is the book – 450 pages and nearly 1000 full-color illustrations as well as dozens of primary source excerpts chock full of the ugly. And here’s a sampling of the synonyms Eco lists for the word: repellent, horrible, disgusting, grotesque, abominable, repulsive, odious, indecent, foul, obscene, repugnant, monstrous, horrifying, nightmarish, revolting, sickening, deformed, disfigured.
If anybody wonders why we are so fascinated and drawn to the ugly and monstrous, such wondering has a long history. For example, Umberto Eco quotes Bernard of Clarevaux bemoaning how Christians are fascinated with monsters and monstrosities, “What place is there in the cloisters for that ridiculous monstrosity, that strange kind of deformed shape or shaped deformity? What are foul apes doing there? Or ferocious lions? Or monstrous centaurs? Or half-men? Or dappled tigers? You can see many bodies beneath a single head and vice versa many heads atop a single body. On the one side you can see a quadruped with a serpent’s tail, and on the other a fish with a quadruped’s head. Here, a beast that looks like a horse with the hindquarters of a goat, there a horned animal with the hindquarters of horse. In short there is everywhere such a great and strange variety of heterogeneous forms that there is more pleasure to be had in reading the marbles than the codices and in spending the whole day admiring one by one these images rather than meditating on the law of God.”
Again, why is this? The answer is as complex as human nature is complex. Taking one approach, we can look at a quote Eco includes from a novel by J.-K. Huysmans, “These nightmares attached him repeatedly. He was afraid to fall asleep. For hours he remained stretched on his bed, now a prey to feverish and agitated wakefulness, now in the grip of oppressive dreams in which he tumbled down flights of stairs and felt himself sinking, powerless, into abysmal depths.” In a word, the monsters portrayed in paint, sculpture, photography, film and literature mirror the content of our dreamscape visions. On some level we want to come to grips with our nocturnal experience and the monstrous in art is a prime way to do so.
The author includes Andy Warhol’s ‘Orange Car Crash’ a print using the photograph of an overturned car with three people pinned underneath. This is a nightmare we in the modern world face as a living possibility nearly every day. Again, the ugly is very much part of our day to day experience and a living nightmare is forever looming. For me, reading Eco’s book was a powerful experience, so powerful, I’d like to share a poem of mine on the topic:
Hieronymus Bosch Hell Landscape
I’m driving down the highway in a driving rain.
Off on the shoulder there’s a scene from hell.
I see a car, a new sports car.
The roof smashed. There is manure covering the
Smashed roof and a huge round chunk of metal,
Probably a part for industrial usage
Right in the middle of the manure,
On the smashed roof.
Evidently, something fell from a truck.
In front of the car
An overweight woman is sitting in a ball
On the ground,
Knees pulled up, head buried in her arms.
A two-year old girl stands in front of the woman,
Trying to get her attention.
No umbrellas, no raincoats, no nothing.
Just a stunned woman and a child
On the side of the highway
Unprotected from the cold, driving rain.
A police car pulls up to the accident scene
I wonder what the woman was thinking
Before this happened.
Shopping with her daughter and sister?
Visiting her mother?
Helping to prepare dinner for a friend?
And just like that.
She’s in the middle of a
Hieronymus Bosch hell landscape.
No car. No heat. No comfort. No pleasure.
Nothing but pain, intense pain.
Sitting there in a driving rain, stunned,
Sitting in a ball,
No even able to comfort a child.
How quickly it can happen.
From our normal routine
In one quick stroke.