Friday, February 19, 2021

Dust or Beauty

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a cliche but nowadays I think it's more or less held generally to be true. Which makes it a little difficult to describe someone as simply "beautiful" in prose unless you're a really easy going writer, willing to let your reader's imagination do all the work. To-day I read "Eyes of Dust", a short story by Harlan Ellison included in his 1967 collection I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Maybe "easy going" isn't the best way to describe Ellison but, like many of his stories, "Eyes of Dust" begins at a nice brisk pace, rapidly establishing a civilisation of universal beauty with two blemished characters--a woman with a mole on her cheek and a blind man--who get married. Right away I ask, is a mole so ugly? In fact, a mole on the cheek sounds a lot like what people call "a beauty mark". But there is a disturbing insight at work in this story. When a trio of handsome firemen uncover the mysterious being called "Person", who has those titular eyes of dust, the effect is somewhere between the opening of Pandora's box and the discovery of Dorian Gray's portrait--it changes the whole society. Because Person is ugly.

We get a few snatches of description--jowls, pale hair and skin, big hands. Is there an eye that beholds jowls as beautiful? Jowls only a mother could love, as they say. Personally, I don't think beauty is entirely subjective, though I think people can be hypnotised into liking anything. Some appreciation for exceptional beauty has to be cultivated, beauty like that found in the paintings of Rembrandt or in classical architecture. I think beauty operates on an instinctual level but I think people sometimes need discipline to perceive what their instincts are telling them. Sometimes, too, people have to fight past their own preconceptions to recognise beauty--seeing with honesty requires a kind of discipline.

But what is Ellison saying, using that striking image of "Eyes of Dust"? They are "the gray of decaying bodies" Ellison says. The suggestion seems to be that they see the passage of time, the eventual death in everything, like Raistlin Majere's eyes. But is death really ugly? Tennyson might say no, Wilfred Owen might say yes. Again, it seems to be subjective. It's not usually happy, I suppose.

If you ask me, the image of death is more like the lifeless edges of modern architecture compared to the beautiful flourishes in the tiles of a Shinto shrine. Death is the relentless dopamine pump of internet media snacks compared to the contemplation of a slowly unfolding Tarkovsky or Lynch movie.

It's all subjective except it clearly isn't.

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