The Eye of Beauty

Having these past forty years of life a desire to taste of pleasure and delight—and having tasted—I consider myself something of an expert on Beauty, on pleasure and delight.  Alas, with humility I must confess a dilettante’s knowledge, only.  Though, had there been a course of study or even a course of lectures on the topic, I would in earnest have enrolled; where-after this essay would have been inscribed: Michael Curtis, Doctor of Beauty.  As it is, I merely take my place among those billions who credit the subjective eye as Beauty’s measure.  Yet, I have indulged in empirical and experimental occupations; too, I have between experiments reviewed the few aesthetic texts that fell in my way.  So, I can affirm, because of my inclination, my interests, and because I was born under the sign of Venus, that I am both in fact and in deed something of an expert on Beauty.

         Living in a scientific age, and being a scientific man, I have, as you might expect, conducted physical experiments on the object of the subject of “Beauty”.  In one such experiment, described below, I operated upon both the object and the subject, simultaneously.

        Id est: many years ago, upon a dark and stormy evening, following a lecture’s formal reception, I and some of my more dubious acquaintance retired to drinks and cigars, when, in the course of events—mostly forgettable, all regrettable—a member of our party, encouraged by a waitress’ rear elevation, began to hold forth on her loveliness in a manner not here quotable.  Several friends, who admitted to some degree of expertise on the subject, did not agree with his assessment, each claiming the anatomical feature to be either too low, too wide, too soft, or simply not to their taste.

        One fellow could not quite hold that softness was a detriment to beauty, whereupon, he suggested several instances that showed softness to be a prerequisite to beauty and went on to cite, among other things, his pillow, whereat it was commented that the sight of he laying his opinion on her elevation might, in fact, be beautiful.  But then, as to this, most agreed that mere pleasurable association did not constitute an actual beauty.  And, as to the pillow, each in his own way found softness to be rather more pleasing than beautiful or more desirable than beautiful, and a few preferred hard pillows or no pillows at all, then some began to speak of sheets, whereon the conversation quickly disintegrated because the company could not come to terms.

       Returning to the waitress’ rear elevation, as we soon did, the object being always in view, each associated or attempted to make synonymous some word or phrase with this female feature as though by incorporation or with pedigree their hypotheses on the subject might win the point.  As for myself, I continued in the way of Chamberlain, not venturing publicly too much this way or that, though privately admitting that this derriere, though in the realm of Beauty, was not its paragon.

        As drinks flowed rapidly on, the seas of contention rose and were accompanied by a storm of opinions striking lightening at random and throwing echoes of thunder about the room.  At this juncture, the object of contention, with a considerable degree of dignity, removed herself through a swinging door from the contemplation of the company with what could only be described as an, “exclamation point”.  This did, as exclamation points tend to do, finished the argument, and all would have been well with the world if our story were here concluded, but no: men, being creatures who cannot gaze upon the object of a pristine valley without plopping a cabin on it, are not content to rest within the parameters of a void.  And so it was that he who first gazed upon the dubious hills of the waitress’ landscape, and wistfully offered his less than original assessment of her aspect, put in that, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” 

        Well, if ever there was a calm before the storm, this, I can tell you, was it.  What seemed for the moment pure passivity became upon the next moment a most stormy, unnatural chaos.  Arms, legs, shoulders, elbows, knees, and teeth all descended upon this disturber of the peace, he, the beholder of beauty, as if we would tear the object of his eye from its socket, which, as the frenzy grew in intensity and violence, we (spirited scholars) actually accomplished.  Yes, the “eye of the beholder”, when wedged by a particularly eager and crowbar-like finger, actually flew from the socket like a well met punt over several upturned tables and chairs to land upon the bar.  Even the rape of the eye could not satisfy the lust of the company, what, with the inducement of beauty, the waitress’ rear elevation, and other unarticulated imaginings, the torrent of aroused flesh and aroused tempers, alike a tidal-wave spilled out of the bar into the noisy traffic of the street where-from I saw no more of the company, that night.

        So, here I was, struck almost dumb by the intensity of the dialogue on Beauty, alone, except for the eye of the beholder staring lidless up at me, and the tender of the bar, who, being accustomed to the heated philosophical discussions of youth was, with perfect equanimity, picking up the place.

        Now, as I said before, I am a modern, scientific man, so, in the way of modern scientific men I calmly put off the primitive barbarity that had recently had its way with me.  Then, I proceeded in the manner of scientific men to examine the object who claimed to hold Beauty.  I don’t know how many of you have actually seen an eye reclined upon the luxury of a bar without the face that usually accompanies it, yet, those who have will understand what I mean when I say, “Wow. Cool.”  You others, well, you can imagine.

        Back to the eye.  There was nothing in its outward appearance to suggest the rumored Beauty it held inside.  There were no marks of distinction or identification that one will find on a packing crate or a shopping bag.  Yet, here it was, the container of Beauty.  The container of Beauty, rather, this container of Beauty, was, for the most part, an orb milk-white and squishy; green-brown at one pole, while at the other pole, red, black, and green, with tiny, calamari-like tentacles. 

        Examining the eye’s surface, while looking about the bar for some tool that might by force breach an entrance, I from the floor recovered a spoon.  Drawing it high, though within piercing distance, I found myself to be in something of a quandary.  The tentacles were to be avoided as they caused me to go soft, squishy inside; and then, I could not quite bring myself to enter at the lens of beauty who seemed, even in this state, to glare upon me with a regal dignity, so I settled for the side that seemed to be the left, although I could not be certain because it is difficult to know which side is up on an eye unbodied.  The spoon, when touching the eye’s surface, wanted some strength to actually push itself into the flesh, a pushing that, with a gentle degree of force, effected the stab.  Here, I paused, spread the skin aside, and had my first look inside. 

            Disenchantment: there was nothing in the stab that revealed itself as Beauty, just, well, gooey, oozy stuff.  I continued on for some little time with care, but no effect: more oozy stuff.  Then, tossing caution to the wind, or rather, thrusting my spear into the belly of the eye, I described with a ripping stroke a line around its equator, whereon the eye fell open.  Scientific men come to expect disappointment, and for this I might have been prepared. But no: the positive sincerity with which Beauty’s location had been proclaimed sent me into paroxysms of expectation whose only conclusion could be dashed hopes.  Yes, there was no Beauty within the eye.

        Now, this experiment was not proof that Beauty cannot exist in the eye of a beholder.  Beauty might exist in the eye of some other beholder; who can say. In truth, an approximation of knowledge is the most we humans can achieve. On this, scientists agree. And yet, you, in the course of eye-piercing experiments, might find Beauty.  Then, if you do, your name will be forever linked with beauty when Beauty is discussed and celebrated, as is Einstein’s name celebrated in relation to the “whats-it-thing” that no one remembers. Though, from what I know of eyes, and what I learned of this eye, I am left with little hope of “Beauty” being found in the eye of the beholder.

        Where Beauty might eventually be found, I cannot with certainty say.  Perhaps, university scientists with the inducement of government grants will discover the location of Beauty; perhaps philosophers will at last determine that Reality does not exist, but that Beauty does; perhaps historians will conclude that the Spirits of the Times will lead to Beauty; perhaps psychiatrists will in analysis return us to the embryo of Beauty: perhaps, perhaps not.  Clearly, Beauty does not exist in the eye of the beholder.

        I began by proclaiming myself to be something of an expert on Beauty, which, now, I suspect you have come to doubt.  Yet, if you consider that knowing what a thing is not, you are closer to understanding what the thing in-question is, my reputation should be somewhat, restored.  And, there you are, and, so it is.  And yet, the question remains, “Where is Beauty?”

        If Beauty is not within the eye, about the eye or without the eye, and if Beauty is not subjective, where in the facts of a crowded existence can it be?  If I were a degreed doctor I might be able to tell you, yet, being just a lover of pleasure and delight, and one not fond of violent disputations, as you have seen, I will leave, with best wishes, the object to your contemplation.   

THE END

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Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472); Self-Portrait, 1435
Matteo de Pasti (1420 – 1468); Portrait of Alberti, 1450

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“The Eye of Beauty” was composed some twenty-five years ago, kept, along with some hundred other essays, to employ when in need. Now we need. The seven-volume domestic architecture treatise, The Beautiful Home, in preparation these thirty-two years, is nearing completion as a useful, and, God willing, profitable e-commerce site … to launch this April 13, the anniversary of Thos. Jefferson’s birth (1743). Until site launch, you will be treated to sweetly breezy essays. Hope you enjoy.

Too, should mention: today begins a Research Fellowship with The National Civic Art Society. Most likely we can expect a steering in these pages toward civic art, its vicissitudes, vagaries, vain-glories, and victories.

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Modern Art: A Critique in Rhyme, by Michael Curtis

A rather more in depth examination of “Beauty”, its practice and its appreciation, will be found in, Modern Art: A Critique in Rhyme (likely publication date, April Fools’ Day, 2021), whose epigraph reads, “Modern Art? You don’t understand it? / I do, and I can’t stand it.”

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