Smiling faces, and the consent implied therein, are crucial for determining a person’s beauty. But that doesn’t mean body parts can’t still be beautiful in their absence.
Estimated reading time: 14 Minutes. Photo by PixaBay on Unsplash. NSFW art nudes following.
Can body parts, in isolation, be beautiful?
Feminist bugbear Camille Paglia would say so. In a speech at MIT in 1991, she rejected having to apologize for reveling in beauty, as well as the notion that ordinary-looking women only ever lamented their own appearance in reaction to attractive people. In her words, she wanted to bring back to feminism the right to say what they were really thinking: “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!”
My own answer too, is such an immediate, adamant yes, that it seems absurd to ask. Yet to openly revel in, say, beautiful boobs? Newly-woke male feminists quickly learn to restrain such temptations. Not only because it would simply be boring for most women, but also because it feels disingenuous considering women’s daily, pervasive objectification and body-shaming. Complicit even, when so many are suffering from Korea’s spycam epidemic, and when even male artists are abandoning female nudes in the wake of #MeToo.
Yet whatever our sex or sexuality, we’re all casting admiring glances on our commutes nonetheless—even asexuals. Complimenting their owners may always be a bit much, let alone leering and catcalls, but we don’t have to put up with being shamed for our internal monologues too.
So, when I was going through Sir Roger Scruton’s Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2011), and read that body parts are “obscene” when they’re considered in isolation?
Recall the queasy feeling that ensues, when—for whatever reason—you suddenly see a body part where, until that moment, an embodied person had been standing. It is as though the body has, in that instant, become opaque. The free being has disappeared behind his own flesh, which is no longer the person himself but an object, an instrument. When this eclipse of the person by his body is deliberately produced, we talk of obscenity. The obscene gesture is one that puts the body on display as pure body, so destroying the experience of embodiment. We are disgusted by obscenity for the same reason that Plato was disgusted by physical lust: it involves, so to speak, the eclipse of the soul by the body. (pp. 40-41.)
I snapped. Already sick and tired of being belittled and patronized most times I read about my male gaze, Scruton seemed to go one further in implying my liking of boobs was immoral as well.
But outrage and exasperation do not an objective response make. Nor does quoting authors without sufficient context, when it’s not so much their arguments as the assumptions they’re based on that are unsound.
So first: note that only two of the book’s nine chapters are about human beauty. Really, it’s more of an introduction to aesthetics, with beauty only as a framing device, and reads like light philosophy. I’m ill-disposed towards and ill-equipped to deal with books like that, frankly, so that’s why I focus on only those two chapters here instead of giving a full review. Much more important than my unlearned personal tastes though, is that this philosophical approach grounds Scruton’s contrarian approach to beauty too. Because whereas in my experience, most commenters take the approach that beauty can be quantified and measured in terms of how closely one’s body parts, features, lengths, and ratios reach various ideals, Scruton believes such an approach is fundamentally flawed (p. 41):
Those [above] thoughts suggest something important about physical beauty. The distinctive beauty of the human body derives from its nature as an embodiment. Its beauty is not the beauty of a doll, and is something more than a matter of shape and proportion. When we find human beauty represented in a statue, such as the Apollo Belvedere or the Daphne of Bernini, what is represented is the beauty of a person—flesh animated by the individual soul, and expressing individuality in all its parts.
This has enormous significance, as I shall later show, in the discussion of erotic art [in the second chapter on human beauty, “Art and erōs”]. But it already points us towards an important observation. Whether it attracts contemplation or prompts desire, human beauty is seen in personal terms. It resides especially in those features—the face, the eyes, the lips, the hands—which attract our gaze in the course of personal relations, and through which we relate to each other I to I. Although there may be fashions in human beauty, and although different cultures may embellish the body in different ways, the eyes, mouth and hands have a universal appeal. For they are the features from which the soul of another shines on us, and makes itself known.
For all my (over)concern with what he says about people’s other bits in his book however, actually I heartily agree with the relative importance he attaches to faces here. The comparison he makes with his descriptions of the following paintings later, for instance, really brings to life the profundity of the differences the models’ gazes make between them—and the crucial distinction that consent makes.
First, of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (p. 125):
“As pointed out, in [Kenneth Clark’s] celebrated study of the nude, the reclining Venus marks a break with antiquity, when the goddess was never shown in a horizontal position. The reclining nude shows the body not as a statue to be worshipped but as a woman to be loved. Even in the Venus of Urbino—the most provocative of Titian’s female nudes—the lady draws our eyes to her face, which tells us that this body is on offer only in the way that the woman herself is on offer, to the lover who can honestly meet her gaze. To all others the body is out of bounds, being the intimate property of the gaze that looks out from it. The face individualizes the body, possesses it in the name of freedom, and condemns all covetous glances as a violation. The Titian nude neither provokes nor excites, but retains a detached serenity—the serenity of a person, whose thoughts and desires are not ours but hers.”
Next, contrast the issues Scruton raises with the model in François Boucher’s The Blonde Odalisque, all of which ring true for anyone who’s ever been dissatisfied with most pornography (i.e., everyone) because of the unrealistic, wholly impractical, often painful-looking, yet somehow supposedly “sexy” positions women are usually presented in. Indeed, Marie-Louise O’Murphy seems so divorced from proceedings here, and so divorced from her own body, that she looks like she’s much more interested in watching Netflix than in whatever the viewer is about to do with her round the back. Or, rather, to her (pp. 134-135):
Does it make any difference that this painting was (possibly) intended only for Louis XV? Or that Marie-Louise, one of his “lesser mistresses,” was only 13 at the time? Source: Wikipedia.
“Turn now to Boucher’s Odalisque, and you will see how very different is the artistic intention. This woman has adopted a pose that she could never adopt when dressed. It is a pose which has little or no place in ordinary life outside the sexual act, and it draws attention to itself, since the woman is looking vacantly away and seems to have no other interest. But there is another way in which Boucher’s painting touches against the bounds of decency, and this is in the complete absence of any reason for the Odalisque’s pose within the picture. She is alone in the picture, looking at nothing in particular, engaged in no other act than the one we see. The place of the lover is absent and waiting to be filled: and you are invited to fill it.”
Yet for all their eloquence, he’s preaching to the converted with those particular passages. They may even buy the book on their basis alone, having secluded themselves in a quiet corner of the bookstore and skipped ahead to those pictures.
The problem is that well before a genuine reader gets to that stage of the book, Scruton’s mere say-so on numerous issues is less than persuasive. By the time you reach its end, you’re not so much unconvinced as infuriated that he wouldn’t make more effort with its readers.
Examples of his arrogant certainty abound. For starters, his opening descriptions of our supposed differences with animals, the science of human desire, and evolutionary-psychology, are trite and shaky at best, and often just plain wrong. There is absolutely no basis to his argument that “Perhaps no sexual experience differentiates human beings from animals more clearly than the experience of jealously,” for instance (p.44). Nor, to his assertion that “Human beings are alone among the animals in revealing their individuality in their faces” (p. 124), which is easily proven false with just 5 minutes of googling. While to his credit, that he discusses science at all is because he acknowledges “it is surely reasonable to believe that there is some connection between beauty and sex” (pp. 32-33), his blithe, continual assertions presented as facts here soon start collapsing under their own weight.
In particular, take his description of kissing (p. 40):
To kiss [the mouth of another person] is not to place one body part against another, but to touch the other person in his very self. Hence the kiss is compromising—it is a move from one self towards another, and a summoning of the other into the surface of his being.
Or, indeed, of sex itself (p. 38):
In the sexual act, there is no single goal that is being sought and achieved, and no satisfaction that completes the process: all goals are provisional, temporary, and leave things fundamentally unchanged. And lovers are always struck by the mismatch between the desire and its fulfilment, which is not a fulfilment at all, but a brief lull in an ever-renewable process.
Both of which, miffed at his disdain at my daily rejoicing at the existence of boobs, originally I looked forward to presenting as eye-rolling demonstrations of his academic, ivory tower absurdness. Which for sure, is a turn-off with Scruton. His overuse of “he” and “his” throughout too, isn’t merely an out of date convention either, but are characteristic of the chapters on “human” beauty that are so overwhelmingly—almost exclusively—focused on female beauty that they read like they’re exclusively, deliberately aimed at cishet men. (The Beautiful Boy this ain’t.)
On a sober second reading though, I had to concede that both passages are fully consistent in the context of the arguments that preceded it, and that they can sound almost sweet too. However reluctantly, I was loath to misrepresent him.
And yet, they bear sooo little resemblance to any of my own experiences, that the very first thing they reminded me of was of this virginal android’s idealized notion of sex (from 1:30):
Hey, I may be a parent in a small apartment who literally has to schedule these things, but it’s not that I can’t appreciate such sentiments, nor that I haven’t even felt them keenly myself on occasion. Scruton’s descriptions do not represent the totality of my kissing and sexual experiences however, nor—and I’d wager good money on this—would they represent Scruton’s either. For him to pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, and can’t be explained away as a stylistic choice due to space restraints. Rather, he chose to do so because it is his firm belief that beauty is akin to a transcendental, Platonic ideal, and, that if beauty is related to sexual attraction as previously noted, then sex has to be elevated into some transcendental, Platonic ideal too. Hence the absurd descriptions of—lest we forget—fucking, and the setting himself up for the completely unconvincing distinctions between beauty and body parts that got me started on this rant.
Did I mention that he never actually defines “obscenity”?
It was a surprise to learn after finishing the book then, that Scruton’s earlier book on the philosophy of sex, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (1986), is actually well-respected, and considered by many a classic in the field. Because in that too, I read, he maintains his duplicitous insistence on eloquent theory trumping sweaty, sticky, lustful practice. And, because in Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, it’s that wilful dogmatism that ineviably, inexorably leads him to shaming anyone associated with pornography and sex work.
Let me confine myself to just one final example, which follows directly on from the quote about Boucher’s Odalisque, and in my view utterly taints it (p. 135, emphasis mine):
Of course there are differences between the Odalisque and the tits and bums on page three of The Sun….The second difference is connected, namely, that we need know nothing of Boucher’s Odalisque in order to appreciate its intended effect, save what the picture tells us. There was a model who posed for this canvas; but we understand the canvas neither as a portrait of her nor as a painting about her. The bum on page three has a name and address. Very often the accompanying text tells you a lot about the girl herself, helps you forward with the fantasy of sexual contact. For many people, with reason I think, this makes a decisive moral difference between the page three image and a painting like Boucher’s. The woman on page three is being packaged in her sexual attributes, and placed in the fantasies of a thousand strangers. She may not mind this—presumably she doesn’t. But in not minding she shows how much she has already lost. No-one is degraded by Boucher’s painting, since no-one real occurs in it. This woman—even though the model who sat for her has a name and address (she was Louise O’Murphy, kept for the King’s pleasure at the Parc aux Cerfs)—is presented as a figment, in no sense identical with any real human being, despite being painted from life.
I wonder too, to close this post with the question that prompted it, what exactly Scruton thinks you have lost when you admire the body parts of other commuters. Whether your focus happens to rest on breasts, butts, biceps, legs, broad shoulders, luscious long hair, or whatever.
Indeed, if you’re on the same crowded subway line as I am, you know that sometimes they’re literally the only part of the owners you can see.
I refuse to believe that those body parts can’t be simply magnificent though, and that I’m immoral for thinking so, merely because their owners may get off my carriage and transfer to another line before I ever get to see their faces.
Nor does—heaven forbid—deliberately seeking out erotic art and pornography, rather than accidentally stumbling upon objects of your affection on your commute, somehow mean the same standards don’t apply to the people in those too. Because whether seen on a Busan subway, or in a video shot in a moodily-lit San Fernando studio? Somehow, inexplicably, I never seem to lose my respect for the owners of those simply magnificent body parts either, nor does admiring their objects mean I ever think or treat them as objects.
I don’t think it’s just me. In fact, I assume the same of everyone else until proven otherwise.
If you do think lesser of them though, and my assumption is proven naive, then please let let me know. Or, if you think many others negatively objectify people, despite you and I respecting them? Then pray, please tell who those “others” are exactly, and please give myself and other readers some actual evidence that they’re really so different. Especially that which comes from actually talking to them, instead of only from what other people with agendas, like Scruton, have written about that heinous group.
No, I didn’t say those others were most cishet men—you thought it! Something to think deeply about on tomorrow’s commute perhaps, if you don’t want to let your eyes wander? ;)
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