Beauty and Terror
Lately the question of beauty has occupied my mind frequently. My present preoccupation was inspired by the following exchange between professor and student in Donna Tartt’s psychodramatic novel The Secret History:
“Death is the mother of beauty.”
“And what is beauty?”
“Well said. Beauty is rarely consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”
Whether or not this exchange is meant to be taken seriously, — Tartt is both a participant in and a subtle satirist of decadent aestheticism — it nonetheless presents an intriguing contribution to the philosophy of aesthetics. “Beauty is terror”: to say this, as Tartt does, is not to say that one is a subset of the other, or that they are siblings, but that they are identical and therefore interchangeable. But surely this definition is unsustainable, for however similar beauty and terror may be, they are not identical. This may be proven experientially. Ask yourself if you respond in the same way to the Mona Lisa as to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Surely you do not; they are entirely different aesthetic experiences. Thus we cannot say that beauty and terror are identical and interchangeable.
Yet beauty and terror are not altogether dissimilar. Rilke writes: “Beauty is only the beginning of terror, which we are just able to endure, because it so serenely disdains to annihilate us.” This is a more moderate statement. Beauty is not terror, but the beginning of terror: it is terror which “disdains to annihilate us,” which does not threaten us, which does not put us in immediate or even distal fear for our lives. It may give rise to terror, or it may not. It is in this aspect that the works of Leonardo differ from those of Bacon. (Of course, this is an oversimplification, as the feeling which beauty provokes may very often seem an existential threat, but we may postpone that discussion for later.) Going forward, let us discuss the most basic way in which beauty and terror are similar.
What conjoins beauty and terror? If they are siblings, what is their mother, the common root from which they spring? Consider an example of a man transfixed by beauty — Actaeon, say, wandering through the forest, discovering the goddess Artemis bathing in the nude. In this moment Actaeon is struck by beauty; only seconds later he is struck by terror as, transformed into a stag by the goddess’s magic, he finds himself torn to pieces by his own hounds. What does Actaeon feel in both instances? The common factor, it seems, is weakness. We say that men go “weak at the knees” for beautiful women, and witnessing beauty is often said to cause feelings of illness — nausea, lightheadedness, et cetera. Terror, similarly, arises from a feeling of weakness, a feeling of vulnerability, and it is no coincidence that the physical signs of terror are so similar to the reaction of one facing beauty. So beauty is kin to terror, if not its twin.
More than weakness, however, we might say that beauty and terror alike are born of a sense of inferiority. We say that beauty is “in the eye of the beholder,” and beauty cannot exist without a standard for comparison. In the case of an individual’s conception of beauty, the standard is oneself. One appreciates as beautiful that which one perceives as superior to oneself; in the moment when one is struck by beauty, one thinks: “This is not me, I am less than this.” Even if one appreciates a reflection of oneself in a work of art, that reflection is always made more perfect through the skill of the artist; one sees oneself perfected, and therefore one faces a harsh reminder of one’s imperfection. The most prideful of men do not consider anything beautiful; they might use the word “beauty,” but they use it in a different sense, merely to refer to something that they desire because they feel it accords with their own station and their personal merit.
The myth of Narcissus is often misunderstood: it is seen as the downfall of a vain and prideful man when, in truth, it is a parable of the perils of failing to know oneself. Narcissus never knew himself, beautiful as he was; although others recognized his beauty, he could not. Moreover, his inability to recognize his own beauty meant that he could not recognize the beauty (or the ugliness, for that matter) of anything else, since he had no basis for comparison. When he did come to recognize himself, seeing his reflection for the first time in the waters of a river, he perceived himself as beautiful. He was overwhelmed by his own image and therefore felt himself both superior and inferior to himself. In his reaction we see the intersection of beauty and terror. Beauty which is unsustainable owing to contradictory impulses becomes terror: it becomes a threat to life itself. And so Narcissus drowned in his own image. The truly beautiful man fell victim to the horrendous secret that underlies the reaction we call beauty: that it is beauty by virtue of the fact that it reminds us of our own ugliness.
Beauty is often responsible for desire, but the two must not be confused. Desire is what comes of beauty when beauty loses its kinship with terror; it is fundamentally aspirational, whereas beauty — while containing an implicit sense of yearning — is devotional. When we begin to desire something, we begin to imagine its existence in our own lives; we imagine possessing it. Beauty, on the other hand, is always remote and untouchable. The distinction between beauty and desire may explain the power of jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy: when one learns that one’s lover (or the object of one’s desire) in fact loves or has given themselves to another, we are forced to consider them not as an object to be possessed but as a subject which is, and will always remain, fundamentally distant — as an object of beauty, not of desire.
Must we seek to destroy what is beautiful? Even if we feel it is superior to us, must we then destroy it, indulging in the slave morality of despising what we wish we were? Do not forget: beauty only “disdains” to annihilate us. It might still do so, but it restrains itself. So long as it exists, we must live in fear of the day when beauty becomes aware of itself and is no longer willing to tolerate ugliness. It is in this way that beauty comes to resemble terror even more closely; it does not represent an immediate existential threat, but by the fact of its existence, it challenges us to continue living in its presence. Beauty fills the world and leaves no room for the rest of us. Beauty — in this conception — is a win-lose proposition: we can either supplicate ourselves before it or destroy it utterly. Perhaps it is in this aspect, more than any other, that beauty has the potential to terrify: it reminds us of our own capacity to destroy. Whether or not we are aware of it, beauty is a reminder that we all have within us both the motive and the drive to destroy another entity.
I will close with one more reference to classical myth. There is a grand painting by Gustave Moreau titled Jupiter and Semele, depicting the death of the mother of Dionysius. At the center of the frame is Jupiter (Zeus Pater), shown in all his glory; he looks not at Semele, not even into the eyes of the viewer, but straight ahead. Lying on his arm is Semele; she throws her head back in awe and fear, only seconds from being annihilated. It is from this painting that I derive my understanding of beauty: it is blinding, like the light of the sun; it is destructive, like the light of a nuclear explosion. Beauty is that which we refuse to acknowledge, because in acknowledging it, we risk our own destruction at its hands. Better, then, to take what has been said as idle speculation, and think on beauty no more.