I don’t know about you, but beauty still thrills me.
I was taking my daily constitutional, as they used to call it when I was a kid, in my local park (designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, as I heard it and feel forced to add in my pedantic way almost every time I mention it) and as I passed a small tree with low hanging branches filled with extraordinarily bright, white, blossoms, I had the urge to kiss one, or all, of them, because they filled my heart with so much joy at, and appreciation of, their awesome beauty.
At various times in my life, beauty seemed to be considered passé. Or too booshie for the avant-garde standards of some circles I found myself moving in.
But never for me, except in the usual “eye of the beholder” way that expressed itself in my own peculiar taste at times.
But the classic idea of beauty—the one the ancient Greek and Roman cultures admired and aspired to in art and life, and the Romantics revived in a different way that’s still current for many (including “Gothic” etc.)—that kind of beauty has often been deemed too obvious, too trite, too elitist, too boring, too unrealistic, too rigid, too etc. for a modern sensibility, and even more so for a post-modern one.
And yet. I wanted to kiss those blossoms in gratitude. My day felt more satisfying, my life more vital, my heart more light and light filled than before I spied them.
The robins scurried out of my way as I walked, too busy with their missions to bother to fly away and lose their goal, but not wanting me to keep them from it either. There was a beauty, as well as majesty, to the way they seemed to carry themselves with an air of dignity and self-respect, their breasts that kind of bright rust color sometime in the past deemed “red” so that their full names were always on our lips as kids—“robin red breast”—the appearance of which was always the first true sign of Spring.
As the poet Gerard Malanga once wrote (and may have copped from someone else as he was famous for doing, or rather infamous), which I can quote without looking up because it’s stayed with me since I first read it several decades ago: “Beauty has its responsibilities.”
It does. Which is partly what the fuss is all about over the teen star who plays Hannah Montana being photographed inappropriately for a fifteen-year-old, or so some people feel. What I object to is the make up and what we used to derisively refer to in the 1960s as the “plastic” distortion of whatever natural beauty she may have, and the ways in which Annie Leibowitz manufactures a faux iconic/transgressive beauty in her shots.
(And there are plenty of models that young, or younger as I understand it, starving themselves to satisfy some standard of so-called “beauty” that has nothing to do with the classic idea, nor with mine. And plenty of anti-beauty beauty shots of not just skinny kids, but made up to look sick or alien or distraught in ways we’re meant, it seems to me, to not want to inquire about. But we should.)
I think that’s partly Obama’s appeal. He seems to physically embody a counter argument to all the dismaying “reality” that has plagued our sense of beauty in these times. Because he is beautiful in his way as well, and that makes him “attractive” to many of us in ways we may not articulate but feel nonetheless. And it’s a beauty like the robin’s, that contains majesty, dignity and self-respect, as well as a beauty that promises a more beautiful future, a beauty that evokes a more ideal vision of the “more perfect union” our founders saw the future as being all about.
And it’s a beauty that has its responsibilities (the whole robin connection I may not have made clearly enough), which he seems to intuitively grasp and yet at times lose sight of. There’s the responsibility to avoid the self-indulgent narcissism of the prima donna, as well as the taken-for-granted assumptions of the pampered and adored.
But there’s also the responsibility of understanding that there is great envy and jealousy generated by great beauty. Obama’s beauty isn’t so much physical, though there is that (mostly a matter of his smile), but it is also in its way spiritual. Most of the time he seems to move and even be still with a kind of gracefulness rarely seen in men, or many women either.
His gutter ball on the much recycled bowling bit was emphasized by the talking heads trying to encapsulate his grace in a box of awkward, making it seem like a blown political ploy, rather than the demonstration of athletic grace, if not prowess, that if you watched it, it truly was.
It’s a grace that seems to come from a sense of self that is based on a broader sense of relationship, as though he understands that so many of us, though obviously not all of us, recognize some part of our selves in him, and he in us (despite the phony charges of an elitism that again is more about his grace and beauty than about the reality that he is the poorest of the candidates and comes from the poorest background and most difficult upbringing, at least in terms of physical circumstances, of all of them) and mostly our better selves. His smile is like the white blossoms on that tree I passed this morning.
It doesn’t mean he’s better than us, anymore than that tree is better than the others in the park with plain green leaves and no blossoms to speak of, or less vibrant ones. But it is more beautiful. I can’t deny that. Beauty thrills me. As has Obama, at times.
And when that tree loses its blossoms, which it inevitably will, and probably sooner than later, it will still have the kind of individual natural beauty that makes me love trees above most other things of this world, but it will no longer thrill me in that unique way great beauty does.
Obama has lost some of his bloom as well, under the unending attacks that come in part, I believe, from envy and jealousy, and otherwise from fear of joy and unfamiliar grace, and in part because he doesn’t seem to want to, or even know how to, respond in kind, a great trait in a statesman, but not in a political campaign I’m afraid. (As others have pointed out, he should have reacted to the questions that impugned his patriotism because he doesn’t wear a flag pin etc. in the last debate with emotion, not the intellectually pointed and correct answer he did give. It reminds too many people of the kind of analytical answer Dukakis gave to a question about someone raping his wife, and reminds me of an earilier post about this campaign many months ago when I said Obama had to avoid being cast as the egghead of the race, as Stevenson was against Ike in the 1950s, the aloof, intellectual “elitist,” who isn’t in touch with what “real people” are feeling, as if Hilary and John McCain are. But they seem to be lately, more than Obama, unfortunately.)
But like that tree. Obama’s natural beauty will still be there, even if he loses, if not as glowing and profound.
Several folks have asked me what I think of Charlton Heston after his recent passing got so much attention. Here’s another example of beauty thrilling people. He never thrilled me, though I did dig his stiff style of acting in PLANET OF THE APES, where it seemed somehow appropriate, as it did at times when he played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
But overall, I always found the guy misplaced, like some 19th century idea of performance had taken over his consciousness and he just didn’t know how to act naturally, or realistically, or even at times humanly.
His best work as an actor was probably in Orson Welles’ A TOUCH OF EVIL, a movie I’m not as fond of as many of my friends, though I do like a lot of it. Welles was smart enough to use Heston’s stiffness against him. With his greasy dark hair and moustache, Heston looked as far from the beefcake he usually played as he ever did. For once his “beauty” was no help to him, and it made his character more human, more vulnerable, if also more surreal, since Heston still didn’t seem aware of any of that.
The guy was an icon, of the right in his last decades for sure, but early on, of a kind of male beauty that seemed like a fortress against the more sensuous, more feline at times beauty of the young Brando and Dean. That Heston was even a contemporary of theirs seems surreal.
But that iconic stature served him well, and did give a kind of solace to us mere mortals, obviously, or he wouldn’t have achieved the status he did. And it was obviously natural in its own way, because it was ever present in him, even in the interview where he didn’t seem to have a clue in the Michael Moore documentary on gun violence in the USA, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, as well as in the last cameo I remember, in a favorite contemporary Western of mine, TOMBSTONE, the one with the too often under rated Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and Val Kilmer as the most intense and mesmerizing Doc Holliday ever.
If it hadn’t been for that natural beauty of Heston’s, he would have been dismissed as an outmoded “ham” of an actor, rather than the Hollywood icon he became. I guess even if beauty does have its responsibilities, it also has its rewards, at least in some arenas.