The two kinds of beauty

Why we find delight in the grotesque

  ( words)

The underground man plays a game with Liza, a prostitute who moved to St. Petersburg from a poor provincial town. When they first meet at a brothel, he has just been slighted by his friends and in retaliation, has determined to intercept them here and challenge one of his aggressors to a duel. All the while, as he makes his way to the brothel, the repercussions of his decision send him spiralling down a slope of desperation, so that when he meets the naive and chaste-hearted Liza, he uses her to assuage his own humiliation. For how can I fail to get the better of such a young soul?” he assures himself, with the conviction that [it] was the game that fascinated me most of all”. So he flatters her, tries to get at her innermost thoughts. First he paints pictures of a happier, idealised life; which Liza, abashed and pure, timidly mocks. Angered, he maliciously paints a picture of the brutality of her life to come as a prostitute and sorrowful death, shovelled into the earth in an unmarked grave. As he finally breaks her will, he offers her his address and an invitation to his home. But the offer is just the culmination of the game for him; a triumph and domination over her. When the young girl does visit him, he continues his pathetic manipulation of her feelings and emotions so that she finally succumbs to his moral and physical violation of her. And even though this final act of humiliation was borne of an envious hatred of her”, for he was seeking to deface that very same compassionate ideal which in himself he found so unattainable.1

In his notebooks, Dostoevsky penned cryptically, Beauty will save the world. Two kinds of beauty.”2 The duality of aesthetic beauty epitomised in art and the monstrosity of personal deeds are two sides of the same coin. This dual nature of beauty—and more specifically, how it is encountered by the eye of its beholder—forms the central theme of Dostoevsky’s work. According to him, we quest for beauty because we are incomplete. The patchwork of disparate traits that form our fragile sense of personal identity are seemingly out of our control, as are the impulses, thoughts, reactions, opinions, and sensations they evoke, most of which are outside of our awareness. Unlike animals, which are one with the world and live completely within nature; they do not search for meaning in a world that is objectively meaningless. The anxiety and shame whose centre cannot be located—a consciousness of being unique and the seemingly congenital disingenuity of our character makes us feel ashamed and utterly alone; separate from our fellow man and and an alien in nature.

Existence asserts itself as an absolute which must seek its justification within itself and not suppress itself, even though it may be lost by preserving itself. To attain his truth, man must not attempt to dispel the ambiguity of his being—but, on the contrary, accept the task of realising it. He rejoins himself only to the extent that he agrees to remain at a distance from himself.Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

Yet it is this awareness of our separateness and our status as effete spectators that leads us to seek unity, wholeness, and harmony. To seek a salve for this fragmentary state of being, to seek out our true nature. We may seek the unity of our being by regressing to the state of being that existed before consciousness, before awareness, but there is no way to go back; to unlearn what has been indelibly etched into the psyche. The only way through is to move forward; to embrace more fully the discordant fragmentary nature of our being to such a point that we transcend our egocentric preoccupation with our imagined separateness from the world. Beauty, which is synonymous with truth, is that which completes, that which makes for perfection. But perfection is a universal fact. Nature very rarely makes mistakes; regardless of what the eye perceives from outward appearances, the underlying formulations and transformations that make up both organic and inorganic entities are rarely prone to aberrations. The perfection in the formulation of the basic units of the organism are what has made life possible for a billion years. Perhaps this is why we seek out beauty in the world around us. But the kind of beauty that completes us is that which expresses a livingness. We are drawn to music and art because they capture the essence of movement and of life, as it were. For an animal is a swarm of moving parts that derives its relative stability by constant movement and interactions with systems both within and without. Music delights us because its rhythm pulsates along with our being and its flow parallels our movement and that of the world around us. Great art works because it contains a lack of symmetry and conveys the transitory effervescence of all things—beautiful images only come to life in the act of vanishing3.

Man strives on earth for an ideal which is contrary to his nature.Dostoevsky, PSS, April 16, 1864 notebook4

The quest for beauty is the central driving force of our lives. Beauty as an ideal is the compass that guides us, in the absence of any goal. We yearn for beauty and perfection most when we are in the midst or strife and struggle. We strive for a higher aesthetic beauty: beauty that is pleasing because it offers harmony and is eternal. But beauty at its core is balance. The pleasure of tranquility and harmony must be balanced by discord and struggle. For it is in uncertainty in the questing for a better life that we are most alive. Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin and you cannot have one without the other. Consciousness, the essence of life, is only sustained for as long as there is an ebb and flow of stimulus that evokes an agreeable, disagreeable, or mixed state in us. The French psychologist Théodule-Armand Ribot postulated that pleasure and pain are only the signs that our tendencies are being satisfied or crossed 5. Tendencies for him were that which lie deepest within us and reveal the true personality of our character. All aesthetically beautiful things can evoke pleasure and pain; conversely, the same is true of the monstrous, the barbaric, and the villainous. Consequently, our morality and truth is only that which coincides with our feeling of beauty and with the ideal in which we embody it. It is then not a stretch to imagine how a man could find pleasure in ugliness, violence, bloodshed, and falsely call it beauty. The underground man in the introductory passage seeks to destroy in Liza that lofty ideal of compassion that he finds so vile in himself, for we project and perceive negatively in others that which we reject in ourselves. Hedonism fails because it strives for pleasure to the exclusion of pain. Simone de Beauvoir would categorise the underground man as a Nihilist6. When we shun either pleasure or pain wholly, we destroy the delicate balance

  1. A summary of the final segment from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, New York: Heritage Press, 1967. Beauty and monstrosity

  2. Robert Jackson, Close Encounters: Essays on Russian Literature Jackson, Academic Studies Press, 2013.

  3. From Alan Watts, Wisdom Of Insecurity: a Message for an Age of Anxiety, London: Ebury Digital, 2012. This book, written in 1951, encapsulates Watts’s most enduring ideas on cultivating lasting happiness.

  4. F. M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridstati tomakh, 30 vols. (grad: Nauka, 1976), XIV, 221 (cited as PSS)

  5. From Théodule Ribot, Psychologie de l’attention: 1889, Paris: Harmattan, 2007. In this very early study of the nature of attention, Ribot makes the claim that what spontaneously captures someone’s attention reveals his character or his fundamental tendencies: It tells us, whether a person is frivolous, vulgar, narrow, open, or deep. The janitor’s wife will spontaneously lend her whole attention to the gossip of her neighbours; the painter to a beautiful sunset, in which the peasant only sees the approach of night; the geologist to the stones he chances to find, in which the uninitiated only see worthless pebbles.”

  6. In part two of The Ethics of Ambiguity (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1975), Simone de Beauvoir examines the common causes of the loss of freedom. For Beauvoir, seriousness is first and foremost to unconditionally accept and submit to human customs, words, inventions, and values as immutable truths. The Sub Man has no enthusiasm for life for having glimpsed the post-infantile truth of the world as not ready-made, hides away from it instead of facing up to existence and taking up the risks and tensions it implies. In so doing, he causes a laceration of his passion and drive and sinks into apathy. He is willingly a pawn in any subversive movement, often recruited to do the dirty work” in lynchings, anti-semitic movements, or any other great bloody movements organised by the fanaticism of seriousness and passion”. The Serious Man escapes the stress of existence by subordinating himself to the ready-made values of life. He believes that by ascending to a position of rank or power in this vale system, he is conferred rights” that shield and protect him. The serious man is dangerous because he becomes whatever role he assumes in life—be it a manager in a company, or a member of the church or political party or a military man—and in so doing, he is willing to unconditionally accept the values of his little ethical universe, to the extent of subordinating to and sacrificing everything for it, including his fellow man. The Nihilist is much like the Serious Man, but instead of allowing himself to be driven by the those ready-made ideals, he chooses to annihilate them in himself and in others. He is even more dangerous than the Serious Man Beauvoir cautions us, for If he wills himself to be nothing, all mankind must also be annihilated”. The Passionate Man too, like the Serious Man, pursues things and real-made objects, but unlike the Serious Man, he is not disappointed by the ephemeral nature of reality, nor does he seek to accede to the status of a God over them; rather, he is tragically dependent upon them and pursues them with intensity. The Adventurer, like the Nihilist, sees no meaning in life and repudiates all values. However, he still retains that joy and zest for life he felt in childhood, and so he throws himself into his undertakings, even though he does not believe in them. Traditional values and are mere foil for his indulgence of a hedonistic existence or a pursuit of fortune and glory. The Critic see himself as the custodian of absolute truths. Yet, what he describes as objective truth is really his subject alignment with one side of argument and he he is only the shameful servant of a cause to which he has not chosen to rally”. The Artist tires to surmount existence and escape this world through the eternal work of their art.