James Blunt's 2005 hit record "You're Beautiful" struck several chords with me, partly because it's almost entirely piano-driven in the manner of some of my favorite John Lennon songs, partly because it was brilliantly parodied by "Weird Al" Yankovic, but mostly because I understood the dynamic at a gut level: the vision, the scheming, the resignation, all are entirely too familiar to the person whose dance card remains forever blank.

In my experience, this sort of brief encounter, while signifying nothing, happens often enough to require corrective action. Even forty years ago I saw it as a problem:

[E]ven then I tried to look away, frustrated that I lacked the nerve to proceed, ashamed that I'd even thought of such a thing, forced to buy the silence of my conscience by arguing that well, it's not like they were paying any attention to me.

Contemporary feminism demands that I here insert some reference to the wicked Male Gaze, an exercise of patriarchal power that perennially victimizes women by making them unsure of themselves and their value. A further demand: that I not point out that their complaint is the equivalent, to within two significant figures, of a four-year-old's screech: "Mom! He's looking at me!" At that point, it doesn't matter if she's being looked at or not: reality means nothing in the face of perception.

The bigger objection to the Gaze, I suspect, is that it's biological in origin, and that sort of thing is not allowed in a world that pretends to be purely intellectual. Even now, Jack Baruth is laughing:

Our appreciation of beauty is an evolved trait, which means that it served some purpose before, say, the arrival of the Jaguar E-Type or Jayne Mansfield. At some point in the distant past, your ancestor survived because he appreciated beauty and his neighbor/fellow tribesman did not.

When we examine humanity before the arrival of farming or cities or Candy Crush Saga, we find that they have a fairly brutal and monotonous life. They needed to find shelter. Most of the time, this was a natural shelter. We might ascribe the beauty impulse to some sort of shelter-judging situation, but given that the most magnificent cave and the least compelling thatched hut all serve the same purposes pretty well, I'm thinking that wasn't it. They needed to find food. While some food animals, like the deer, are quite graceful and beautiful, others, like the wild boar, aren't. And there's no correlation between food value and the beauty of the source animal. Nobody would call a mammoth "beautiful" but if your tribe could bring one of 'em down you'd eat until the meat spoiled. So forget that, too.

That leaves only sex. Women, who are "K-selectors" by nature, might have had more positive outcomes when choosing beautiful men. Stronger kids, higher fetal survival rate, better position within a tribe, that sort of thing. Yet history tells us that's false. Women in prehistoric tribes selected men based on their social status and their ability to provide for them while protecting them from the men of other tribes who would cheerfully rape them.

For this purpose, the period of "prehistory" can be shown to extend at least to a week from Tuesday.

But what happens after that? Women, we are repeatedly told, are indifferent to social status and would just as soon provide for themselves, and it's assumed by default that every male is a rapist anyway. Then again, we are also told that the election of politicians directly affects sea level, and that legislation cannot be read until after it is passed. I believe I am justified in being just a hair skeptical these days.

And Baruth, who races cars for a living and therefore perhaps lives a bit closer to the edge than the rest of us, carries the story of our mental wiring just a little farther:

Since the beauty-evaluation part of the brain has good, solid, fast access to visual information, it stands almost first in line to help us judge what we see. Therefore, it isn't too crazy to say that we initially judge everything from airliners to mobile phones as if they were women.

I can provide all sorts of anecdotes to prove this (911 Carrera 3.2 vs. Turbo, anyone?) but you can do it on your own. And when you do it, you'll see. To be completely mentally healthy, we need to see beauty. Without the presence [of] beauty, our minds will search for it. It's why public housing, with its concrete cadence and chunky squareness, is so repugnant. It's why people buy Alfa Romeos and fountain pens and Chihuly Studio Series glass and certain "designer" personal-computer towers.

Truth be told, it's largely, perhaps completely, irrelevant to the grand scheme of things, whether I am embraced or spurned; in terms of biological destiny and all that, I'm well beyond been-there-done-that-got-the-support-checks-written status. But the idea that I should be struck down like Saul on the way to Damascus for having witnessed 0.09 seconds' worth of sideboob exposure? Not happening, not now, not ever. And if you're so wishing, no amount of divine craftsmanship on your exterior will compensate for the lump of coal that serves you as a soul.

The Vent

  23 June 2013

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