Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 436-443
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How Does Love Make the Ugly Beautiful?
IT IS OBVIOUS TO SEE how greatly Gideon loves his wife, who is physically quite an ugly old lady. Nothing about her physical appearance or gait seems beautiful, at least to the extent of what meets your eye. Physically, she seems not to be considered beautiful at all. Still, Gideon is quite sure that his beloved wife is the most beautiful woman in the entire world. He cannot fathom why other people do not realize that obvious truth: Mira is a real, fascinating, unique beauty. "But, dear Gideon," says one of his friends, "you cannot deny a very simple fact, Mira is a most beautiful person, and it is a great fortune to know her, all the more to know her intimately. Still, physically judging, she is not beautiful at all. It is an undeniable, objective fact." Gideon's answer does not fail in its directness: "Well, those who are blind to her physical, actual beauty, should discover it. Like the Michelangeloean sculptors, who must reveal and disclose the sculpture hidden in the marble, those people should expose and realize her physical, actual beauty." For Gideon, beauty, physical or mental, is an objective matter, which should be discovered, not invented. For him, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, but it lies there waiting to be uncovered and revealed to the world. For Gideon, those whose eyes meet Mira's ugliness are not ready or fit to remove the superfluity that covers her beauty, whether mental or physical. Removing all that is superfluous in the marble is necessary to give birth to the sculpture. Like a midwife, the artistic gaze gives birth, and this gaze is not just the property of customary artists, but also of lovers. To love means to reveal, to create or discover beauty. [End Page 436]
I believe that William Butler Yeats put this in the most adequate words: "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." The lover's gaze exposes such a beauty, even as regards the husband of the woman that the poet loved for so many years but in vain: "This other man I had dreamed / A drunken, vainglorious lout. / He had done most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart, / Yet I number him in the song; / He, too, has been changed in his turn, / Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born" ("Easter, 1916"). The artistic, poetic gaze redeems the "direct object" of his love, but also redeems what is so ugly, like the "drunken, vainglorious lout," about her. After all, her decision to maintain her miserable marriage instead of accepting the poet's love, is quite ugly or contemptuous, to say the least, in the eyes of the poet-lover. But this is the strength of his poetic, artistic revelation: to give birth even to the hidden beauty of that vainglorious lout who, unfortunately, happened to be her husband. All the more so, to reveal the real beauty of the loved woman, "the loveliest woman born" ("A Prayer for my Daughter"). Another gaze, by those who do not love her or were indifferent to her, could not realize her beauty at all, physically as well as mentally.
Yet others believe that we can love somebody who is physically ugly, even the "ugliest woman born"—as a person she may be considered "the loveliest woman born." I would like to challenge this commonplace. In the eyes of the artist-lover she is physically beautiful, no matter how ugly or lacking in beauty she may be in the eyes of others looking at her indifferently, as though nothing has happened, there is nothing to stay with, and nothing has left its impression. Indeed, Gideon's love reveals that Mira is physically beautiful no less than mentally. Her gaze, gait, even clumsiness, all her physical "flaws," and other attributes are considered beautiful in his eyes as a lover-artist. To be more precise, all of her traits are so considered. The...