THE BEAUTY PROBLEM
The Beauty Problem
The title chapter introduces the several simple questions about beauty that are the inspiration for all subsequent ideas discussed in the essay. Beauty is acknowledged as a feature of our direct, visual sense with ready metaphoric extension to secondary ethical and moral qualities. This ready extensibility suggests a similarity of the emotional experience underlying both the beholding of physical beauty and the appreciation of higher values.
The significance of the truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is explored. The issue is placed in its proper biological context. The overriding importance of the human body as an object with perceived beauty becomes the focus of the discussion. Beauty is the obvious sexual attractant that drives reproduction. But given this, why is beauty so rare? This is the key question, so baffling and intriguing.
Beauty makes sense as a creation of our deeper powers of perception, and the true phenomenon is the entire scale -- from the very beautiful to the very unbeautiful. Why there must be ugliness is a second provocative question. The ability to detect beauty is seen as a vital talent, necessary for reproductive success. Beauty is a conservative force of nature, favoring the normal and the proven in the dynamics of evolutionary development.
Beauty and ugliness make reproduction inherently competitive; presumably this accelerates evolutionary processes. Enforced competition produces inevitable tragedy within the human condition, namely, the reproductive failure of individuals. The primal force of this predicament is cited as the initial definition of The Beauty Problem.
The Beauty Problem is discussed in terms of its agreements and disagreements with several theories of sociobiology; most significant is the shared relevance to the relationship between biological processes and humanistic concerns.
Beauty is seen as a gateway into a deeper understanding of ourselves. In this it is like a mirror, which reveals to each of us our external visage thus forever compromising the subjective insularity of the self. We gain empathy and moral perspective but at the cost of a crippling self-consciousness -- another mark of the Beauty Problem.
Chapter 2. The Emperor's Old Clothes
This chapter examines the curious human need to conceal our anatomy behind the mask of clothing.
An alternative version of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Emperor's New Clothes" is presented in which the emperor rises above his nakedness and derides his subjects for their abject conformity to clothedness. That this version is of dubious literary worth raises the question of why nakedness is such an exquisitely sensitive condition. Putting the issue in the context of our species's biological and evolutionary situation (a consistent and overarching thematic strategy of the entire essay) only heightens the seeming mystery -- why have we abandoned our heritage as naked apes?
The expository device of the Anthropologist From Mars (AFM) is invoked to provide us with a viewpoint of pure dispassionate reason. The AFM recognizes clothing as a piece of overt human behavior with an obvious connection to our feelings and attitudes towards our sexual nature.
Some examples of accepted nudity -- primitive cultures and avocational nudist colonies -- demonstrate that clothes are an acquired taste, but we are so totally committed to them that the permanence and stability of this "unnatural" taboo become its definitive characteristics. The taboo perseveres due to its great utility as a shield for dangerous sexual pressures, in particular the competitive aspect. Also, clothing serves as a cosmetic facade for the unbeautiful; thus, it is a facet of the Beauty Problem. By hiding our sexual anatomies, we accomplish the "de-sexing" of everyday life; we gain control of our erotic urges and are able to regulate their demands.
The taboo against public nudity is seen to exist as a two-tiered convention. A strict version of the taboo applies to most mundane social situations in which sexuality must be repressed most totally. The second, more lenient version of the taboo applies to those arenas (such as the beach or athletic displays) in which sexual expression is inherent in the activity. In all cases, the taboo is undermined by the ability of clothes -- the original instrument of sexual concealment -- to perform the functions of sexual display and advertisement.
In the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden the question of shame and the awareness of nakedness is central. The parable is interpreted in a biological context; the Fall becomes the tragic embroilment in the dilemmas of the Beauty Problem. Knowledge -- of good and evil, or of beauty and ugliness -- compromises our situation, destroying all hope for easy, innocent pleasure.
Further insight is sought from considering the plaque that was sent into outer space on the Pioneer X spacecraft. It depicts two naked human figures. Our confusion over what is or is not scientific -- naked anatomy or the social artifice of clothing -- reveals the limits of our philosophy.
The chapter closes with a discussion of the unifying thread of the conflict of knowledge versus innocence and the inevitability of sacrificing one to win the other -- more trouble instigated by the Beauty Problem.
Chapter 3. Zero-Sum Games
Some additional aspects of the competition inherent in reproductive behavior are considered. As always, the analysis is framed in terms of a fundamentally Darwinian perspective. Competition makes sexual intrigues inimical to traditional human values. We tend to deny the reality of reproductive competition to protect our psychic sensibilities.
The sexual drive, with its inherent component of competition, is contrasted with other drives which can in theory be satisfied cooperatively. Sexual competition pervades human existence; it is revealed most clearly in the fight for status, the lifelong immersion in a sea of ego confrontations. Our lives are vexed by the need to struggle to win love and with it the emotional serenity offered by escape from the struggle.
Status is the measure of the ego's victories and defeats. It is a zero-sum commodity; it must be plundered from the stores amassed by others and, once gained, defended against reprisals. Sexual status and the ego's strength are most openly vulnerable during escapades of romantic adventure; the penality for love's losers may well be real destruction of the ego. For men, the focus of sexual power is psychic potency, and as the talisman of sexual status it, too, must of need be a zero-sum commodity. The failure of potency, like the aesthetic failure of beauty, is inexplicable if seen as simple biological weakness; both impotence and ugliness, however, make sense as dark visions of the Beauty Problem's nether face.
Status can be considered the currency of the economics of our drives. As such, it is psychologically linked with money, the literal currency of our material economy. That sexual status can be ascribed to material goods and can be derived from monetary assets distorts the workings of our markets. We are driven to pursue wealth beyond all reason since wealth translates into status and status equals sexual power. Within our society, this quest for material superiority explains the intractability of our persistent economic inequality. Indeed, entire ideologies may rise and fall based on their accordance with the individual's need to excel.
Saints and Lovers
The advance of science began with an understanding of the behavior of the external, objective universe. The inner world of the mind has proved scientifically elusive. Psychologists (Freud most notably) have revealed the controlling influence of forces beyond our conscious awareness. The modern discipline of sociobiology extends our insight by scientifically explaining additional aspects of human social behavior. The riddle of altruistic instincts is answered in sociobiological theory by recognizing the gene as the entity of evolutionary primacy and noting that altruism can enhance an organism's genetic survivability even at the expense of its own life.
But altruism has more devious ramifications for humankind. It is fraught with contradictory qualities, not least its element of a self-serving appeal for sexual status. The altruist becomes "beautiful" in the eyes of a grateful society, and, too, in the vision of his own self-image. In every act of charity, there is a hidden transaction -- the buying and selling of status. This explains our innate distaste of the moral poseur and the self-righteous advocate.
Because the charitable impulse is inevitably compromised, society is hobbled in its task of ensuring a minimal universal level of well-being. Most difficult is its task of promulgating a universal sexual ethic -- which must at once accomodate the losers and encourage the winners. The crux of the dilemma is the conflict between sex and morality.
In devising its moral systems, civilization must decide: Does the drama of sexual competition define morality, or can morality exceed and contain sex?
The traditional role of the priest is crucial to this issue. In particular, the Catholic priest's vow of celibacy is seen as a supreme tactic for asserting the supremacy of the moral code over sexual exigencies. That this supremacy is contradicted by virtually all popular culture (in which the hero gets the girl and is portrayed by an actor who is beautiful) serves only to emphasis the need for those few who are willing to validate it by their living testament.
The American private eye of popular fiction is a sort of secular priest. In his self-imposed ethical code he gains the authority to assert a moral standard much as does the celibate priest. Across the genre the examples of fictional private eye range along the entire scale of recognition of the fundamental conflict between sex and morality. The "Hero as Lover" school (e.g., Spenser, created by Robert Parker) runs away from the issue by permitting its protagonist to have it all. The opposing "Hero as Saint" school (e.g., Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe) adheres to the stringencies of the dilemma and embodies the contemporary mythic defender of our civilizing morality.
Why Sex Is Obscene
Humanity is greatly perplexed over just what to make of sex -- whether to celebrate it or disavow it. Amidst such uncertain attitudes, the universal sense of obscenity stands out as a consistent emotional reaction, apparently predetermined by our sexual nature. No absolute standard for obscenity exists -- as witness the confusion of the U.S. Supreme Court. Attempts to deny the intrinsic nature of obscenity (such as the sexual revolution of the sixties) founder on the persistence of our innate emotional response.
Like clothing, obscenity prohibitions serve to de-sex routine existence. Although not as importunate as the naked human body, sexual language constitutes "fighting talk" with deep psychic power to insult and provoke.
Our sense of obscenity is necessitated by the incompatibility of sexuality with many of our social, moral, and political ideals. Central to this is the arbitrary and capricious distribution of sexual advantage, that is, beauty -- again the Beauty Problem. The dominance of biology (as genetic endowment) over cultural refinements renders society powerless to extract general utility from sexual expression.
Sex is The Great Discriminator. Sexuality in its broadest scope serves to amplify subtleties of biological fitness. Every narrative of personal sexual experience is perforce an advertisement for personal sexual status and hence conveys challenge and threat.
Obscenity prohibitions protect the sexually weak. They also protect children, who, given the luxury of untested potential, are sexually the strongest. Children's innocence is protected (innocence vs. knowledge -- another consistently recurring theme), evidence of our tacit faith in the superiority of naive sexual discovery. We hide from our children knowledge of The Great Dark Secret: the possibility of erotic failure (indeed its inevitability for some). Caught in the middle of this muddled situation is the issue of sex education which is assigned the hopeless charter of providing our children with a learned ignorance.
Frequently obscenity operates in a direction precisely opposite to the ostensible. In particular, adults need more relief from "adult" material than do children; the revealed fallibility of adult sexuality is more vulnerable than the unblemished sexuality of youth. Likewise, men shield women from sexual expressiveness not to protect women but to protect men themselves; dirty talk let loose from the mouths of women (and children) lacks the implicit etiquette of male profanity and unknowingly treads upon invisible male sensitivities.
Modern technology is modifying the logistics of erotic expression and thus society's moral equilibrium. The media of mass entertainment -- cinema and TV -- are at the focal point of our contemporary sense of obscenity. The movie theater provides a setting of low-grade group sex; the audience is captivated by the portrayed sex act, becoming temporary voyeurs. TV's sexual message attacks the mind of its viewers more insidiously. More dispersed than the relatively intimate theater, the network of electronically connected living rooms unites the nation in episodes of eroticized group thought -- sexuality without physical immediacy but with supernatural powers of enforced submission to an erotic concept. TV is the super-parent whose bedroom door conceals the secret of secrets.
Obscenity makes sense as society's attempt to manage the predicaments of human biology, to wit the Beauty Problem. Still, some aspects of the experience defy easy comprehension. Homosexuality, and humanity's consternation before it, stand as the epitome of the obscene; they challenge any theory that posits social utility as justification for the taboos against sexual expression. But the stridency of prohibitions against the advertisement of homosexuality can in fact be explained as a necessary measure to preserve homosexuality as a refuge for the casualties of reproductive (i.e., heterosexual) competition. The historic stability of such prohibitions depends on their usefulness in defending the exclusive sanctuary of homosexuality in addition to the comfortable satisfaction they engender in nonhomosexuals.
The Medical Model
Disease and the role of institutionalized medicine serve as useful analogies for various other human situations. The "Medical Model" understands disease as deviation from natural health due to malicious external forces. However, the Medical Model falls short in explaining mental illness in which the mind -- the essence of the self -- is its own enemy. Our knowledge is inadequate to explain the mind's maladies short of a crude ability to distinguish between organic and emotional syndromes (hardware vs. software). The poverty of our comprehension renders our abilities at psychotherapeutic intervention woefully inadequate.
Some mental illness is continuous with lesser degrees of ordinary unhappiness. This empowers the medical establishment to extend its authority into all arenas of human experience. Ultimately, the Medical Model is infinitely expandable given the sanction to pursue perfect happiness (and immortality), but the Beauty Problem must always stand in the way.
The applicability of the Medical Model to the failure of the body's aesthetics -- to ugliness -- is considered. As a function of precise components of anatomy, beauty would seem appropriate for medical attention. The panoply of cosmetic devices we employ are examples of auto-medication in this direction. But current social thought treats behavioral problems as the more medically valid; cosmetic surgery (for example) is considered more frivolous than general psychiatry. The Beauty Problem presents a theoretical barrier to the medical ability to "cure" ugliness. Such nostrums of pop-psychology as the syndrome of "poor body image" are misguided efforts at amateur physicianship, heartfelt but fraudulent.
Official medicine is inconsistent in deciding what to consider as legitimate matter for its treatments. The bias is decidedly in favor of behavioral disorders, even when of uncertain physiological relevance. Other conditions which are undeniably biological are disregarded by medicine if they touch too close to some raw nerve of the ego's sensibilities. The foremost example is intellectual ability.
IQ is too sensitive an element of individual worth to be comfortably included in the Medical Model. The prickly issue of nature vs. nurture intrudes. Intellectual endowment is addressed in the pseudo-medical language of polite tokenism, e.g., "learning disabled".
The expansion of the Medical Model into areas of mental health and performance threatens far more than our mere personal vanities. The concomitant diminishment of individual moral responsibility undermines the practical, ethical foundation of our civilization. We seem constrained to espouse belief in the autonomy of the mind, even as we come increasingly to suspect that the conscious being of our very selves is guilty of a duplicitous subservience to nature's deepest forces.
The Gender Paradigm
This chapter considers the more immediate presence of beauty in our lives.
Beauty is wealth in the economics of sexual transaction, a gift of psychological superiority. Beauty also is weakness; it carries the stigma of unearned good fortune and forces dependency on fleeting virtues. To pursue beauty is to pursue a vanishing, unrealizable vision.
Our ideal of human beauty forms as the twin gender paradigms -- male and female -- that coalesce around the visual experience of a lifetime. They are a synthesis of all human diversity. It is the business of childhood sexuality to construct the paradigms and to make identification with the appropriate gender. The child's intense sensitivity to its felt inferiorities, its anxious need to measure up against the developing paradigm deny the supposed asexual innocence of childhood. For both boys and girls (alike but apart in their parallel gender universes) the imperative for paradigm recognition overpowers even our culture's remarkable efforts to conceal biology behind the mask of clothing. To co-opt the paradigm and occupy its center is the ego's goal.
In our everyday experience, beauty is more a feminine quality than a masculine one (as, too, is ugliness). The bias of language is indicative of fundamental asymmetries between the genders: woman is possessor of presentational beauty, man of an aesthetic of performance. For both -- for teen-age beauty queens and high-school football heroes -- the blessing of the paradigm equates to aggrandizement of the ego.
Feminine beauty is greater but is judged against a more insatiable standard. The connection enjoyed by men between sexual power and professional accomplishment is sought by women but may prove elusive due to men's ready subjugation before the pure physicality of the female beauty paradigm. Beautiful women and powerful men remain the mirroring gender equivalents.
Technology assaults the biological scale of the gender paradigms. Television and the cinema elevate the ideal to superhuman heights. TV projects mythic characters of flesh and blood to entice our appetites and our senses. Such artificial gods and goddesses are real enough to humble us before their electronic perfectibility.
The asymmetry between feminine beauty and male power hints at the primal centrality in our erotic adventures and campaigns of the prostitute's transaction. Idealized monogamous marriage stands at the exalted high end of the continuum whose base rests upon the eternal bond between the harlot and her customers. That society outlaws prostitution stands as an attempt at affirming a moral code that rises above our sexual fallibilities (not unlike the purpose of the priest's vow of celibacy). It also conforms with feminist desires to divorce the prestige and status of women from their erotic nature (compromised as it is by the Beauty Problem). Men in this regard are the decivilizing antagonist; they are forever enthralled by woman's erotic power and cannot survive without its acquiescence.
The Sexual Intellect
The essential quality of human mind is invisible to us because we are trapped inside it. We feel ourselves to be the masters of our innermost thinking selves, of the core of subjective awareness that centers our existence. But in this we are deluded; our minds are creatures of our biology, and they reflect the demands and the constraints of our evolutionary situation. We recognize this clearly at the level of our powers of sensory perception (e.g., sight and hearing), but it is true as well for higher perceptual and conceptual sensibilities. The continuity between sensation and ideation (from primary perception to sensual awareness to intellectual abstraction) is a key revelation of the Beauty Problem.
Beauty is the unifying thematic concern of this essay, but it is only a single prototypical attribute. All other perceived qualities are experienced according to the same schema: a linear, bi-polar scale with distinguishing states emerging at the two extremes. This constancy of underlying mental process reveals something of our mind's nature.
The qualities that emerge at the extremes of a given attribute become invested with humanistic value -- moral, ethical, or spiritual. Thus, our biologically determined modes of perception determine the reality of our life experience. The virtues of our race -- genius or saintliness or heroic nobility -- arise from the same act of creative perception as does beauty.
To accommodate a complex, multi-dimensional universe, our minds perform a simplifying reduction, assessing perceived value-laden qualities along a scale of universal binary evaluation. As a final residue, everything is judged in terms of transcendent good and transcendent evil. We are constrained to react either positively or negatively in matters of humanistic judgment.
Because the mind's powers of discrimination, both perceptual and conceptual, arose from abilities developed to aid in surmounting the evolutionary and reproductive challenges our species faced, they reflect the profound imprint of our sexual nature on our intellect -- hence, the Sexual Intellect.
Our mind must balance the need to satisfy the insatiable ego (through self-serving interpretations of reality) with the formulation of a possibly more threatening world-view that conforms to the largest truths of the objective universe. Critical to this is the evaluation of human performance and the sense of one's own standing. The sexual intellect assigns an aura of superhuman greatness to feats and attributes that lie at the positive extreme of the perceived scale. The human standard is taken as the universal; merely relative human virtues become cosmic absolutes. With dangerous anthropocentric hubris, we consider human excellence of intellect and courage and charity to be worthy of eternal glorification. We feel empowered to define the standards of the universe and to challenge nature itself with our impertinence. Humankind as a race is magnified beyond recognition by the elevation of our modest earthbound talents to a presumed godliness. At the same time, each of us is individually diminished by the inaccessibility of our race's exalted would-be greatness.
The sexual intellect is evident in many practical human matters. Our vulnerability to pressures of fashion, to fads of style and taste, reveals the mind's susceptibility to distortions of aesthetic judgment in obeisance to the ego's demands. The psychological manipulations of marketing and salesmanship depend upon our weakness before the lure of the ostensibly superior and exclusive. Art and artistry -- products always of uncertain intrinsic value -- become desirable possessions to the degree that they are seen to encapsulate the rarefied extreme of the supposed human virtue of artistic sensibility, a quality that is easily promoted to extrahuman magnificence.
The sexual intellect strives to occupy the center of its paradigm, and it is capable of adjusting "reality" to that end. Symptomatic of this are the linguistic ploys we use to make meaning fit our psychic needs. The connotations of the word "normal" expand and contract at the speaker's behest. The ego demands inclusion in the normal which must be extended to include also the positive extreme; all else -- that is, everybody else -- can be summarily relegated to the "abnormal".
While we might hope and expect the nobler, more lofty concerns of our civilization to be above the influence of base biology, such unassailable political ideals as justice, fairness, and equality can be understood as conditions made universally desirable by their accordance with the sexual intellect's sensibilities. Equality is the denial of invidious distinctions of status; it thus stands as a counterforce to the mind's biological imperative to amplify difference and to feed upon the detection of discriminatory subtleties. Our society's inability to achieve it is the triumph of biology over culture. By designating the linguistic expression of inequality as unacceptable speech -- sometimes even outlawing it -- we are creating a new obscenity.
Big-time spectator sports provide the civilized sexual intellect its most direct outlet. Fun and games are fine, but we would do well to appreciate the direct relationship between a sports fan's passions and the uncivilized sexual intellect's favorite pastime, war.
Towards a Theology of Self
The closing chapter examines some possible implications of the Beauty Problem for our role and fate as a species.
The most troublesome aspect of the Beauty Problem is its imposition upon us of unavoidable distress. It curses us inexorably (and arbitrarily) with visitations of failure and despair. As pain alerts the body to attend to injury or illness, so the anguish of a defeated psyche serves as a fire bell to rouse the spirits into rejoining the reproductive struggle. Both are mechanisms of natural design and are biologically necessary, yet they assail us with episodes of incidental cruelty. Our emergent mentality is hostage to the organism; it is adrift alone in an infinitely big and infinitely uncaring universe.
We are endowed by our creator with two great tragic flaws: mortality of the body and isolation of the mind. The first drives our sciences and technologies in quest of the magic elixir of life. The second fires our eloquence of linguistic and literary imagination and makes us social and loving. The imaginative flourishes of our literature grow out of our fascination with the dream experience; as such they deceive us by presenting surreal emotions as true mental substance.
The Beauty Problem represents a third fundamental flaw in our nature, one rendered less obvious by its capricious and uneven distribution throughout the population. Its most tragic effect is the crippling of the common human enterprise.
To find solace from the fates assured as by our mortal limitations, we resort to the reassuring mythologies of religion. Death is destroyed by the promise of eternal afterlife, and psychic loneliness assuaged by the miracle of prayer -- perfect communication with the mind of a personally attentive god. Such convenient refuges are too clearly the handiwork of the sexual intellect, which must see the human predicament as cosmically ordained and humanity as cosmically privileged. Despite their metaphysical doubtfulness, such religious teachings can be defended as pragmatically useful; our humanistic ethics are worth preserving even when seen to be the residue of mechanistic and inhuman processes.
The Beauty Problem's dilemmas show up as the real workaday problems of living people. Poverty, loneliness, failure, despair -- such are the incurable afflictions. Our society can find reason in the terms of this analysis to dedicate itself to their relief. The necessary role of biology's victims in authenticating the status of its winners obligates the latter to pay due attention to the former. Doing so will give still greater credibility to our assertion of the supremacy of human moral authority over the difficult exigencies of our sexual nature.
Many of the ideas presented throughout this essay appear obvious but unnoticed. In this is revealed yet another quirk of our perceptual vision. We have the power to disregard certain aspects of our existence that compromise us or threaten to exile us from some paradise of ignorant contentment. Just so did Adam and Eve not notice they were naked.
Given our flawed and conflicted nature, what lies ahead for the human race? Perhaps we are vulnerable to racial psychic discouragement caused by the appearance of some alien or machine intelligence that humiliates our own. Or possibly we shall simply bleed our racial spirit to death, drop by drop, through self-inflicted wounds of unbearable self-knowledge. Awareness of our frailty before the vast and heartless forces of nature suggests a final interesting question: can mind survive the indifference of the biology that spawned it?