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March 04, 2008

Umberto Eco's On Ugliness offers many points of departure for the reader's own speculations but few conclusions, argues David Womersley: On Ugliness - Umberto Eco

Posted by David Womersley

On Ugliness
by Umberto Eco
London: Harvill Secker, 2007
Hardback, 30

The literature of aesthetics is littered with attempts to define the beautiful, but there is a corresponding silence about ugliness. We might casually assume that ugliness is simply the absence of beauty, or perhaps its opposite (if we wanted to give it a more positive character): ugliness would then be the antagonist of "harmony, proportion, or integrity".

But Karl Rosenkrantz, whose Aesthetic of Ugliness (1856) is still the most thorough attempt to address this subject, and is the book which has supplied much of the intellectual framework and even the ground-plan for Umberto Eco's own recent contribution, suggests that our response to ugliness is different in kind from our response to beauty. If (as Kant maintained in the Critique of Judgement) beauty arouses in us an emotion of disinterested pleasure, free of any trace of a desire for possession or consumption, then the same characteristic of disinterestedness does not seem to apply to the sentiments stimulated by ugliness - sentiments of repulsion, disgust, horror and fear. The implication of this would seem to be that it is not safe to conceive of the ugly as simply the opposite of beauty, and hence as dependent upon it. The interesting thought of an "autonomy of ugliness" comes into view.

Eco surveys the subject of ugliness in a series of chapters which proceed in chronological order from representations of ugliness in the classical world to what he calls the triumph of ugliness in modernity. Inevitably some of these sections are more engaging and exciting than others, and it may be that it would have been better to have sacrificed the goal of historical coverage in favour of a more focused and conceptually-dictated order. In particular it would have been good to have the question of whether or not the artistic depiction of ugliness can convert it into beauty (as Bonaventure of Bagnoregio believed) more deeply explored.

Having said that, the brief essays on the way in which the advent of Christianity bestowed positive value on certain kinds of ugliness, and on the embracing of ugliness by Modernism and Futurism are vivid and engaging.

This is a beautifully-produced anthology of texts (some of them pleasantly recondite) and images. However, it is conceptually parasitic on Rosenkrantz, and the introductory essays to each section contributed by Eco tend on the whole to be slight, even when they are elegant and stylish. This is a work of his left hand and his leisure hours, perhaps an irresistible temptation arising from his earlier On Beauty (2004), rather than a freely-chosen project in its own right. Its weaknesses include a kind of occasional weary philosophical je m'en foutisme - there is no sustained attempt made to distinguish the ugly from, say, the monstrous, the grotesque, the evil and the dangerous, and the obvious fact, that much of the evaluative vocabulary we employ in respect of ugliness can equally be applied to the beautiful, is not touched upon.

The restriction of the focus of the book to Western civilization also weakens it. Africa, the Orient and South America do not, for the purposes of this book, exist. Eco offers a justification for this confinement of focus:

we are restricted to discussing the story of these two values [ugliness and beauty] in Western civilization. For archaic civilisations and for the so-called primitive peoples we have artistic finds but we have no theoretical texts to tell us if these were intended to cause aesthetic delight, holy fear, or hilarity.
But what then about foreign cultures where, on the contrary, we do indeed have a wealth of such theoretical pronouncements, cultures such as those of India, China and Japan? Here Eco shifts his ground, and defends his exclusively Western focus by reference to conceptual relativity:
it is almost always difficult to establish to what extent certain concepts can be identified with our own, although tradition has induced us to translate them into Western terms such as "beautiful" or "ugly". Even if the translations were reliable, it would not be enough to know that in a certain culture something that possesses, for example, proportion and harmony, was seen as beautiful. Proportion and harmony. What do we mean by these terms? Even in the course of Western history their meaning has changed.
At this point, it seems as if Eco has argued too expansively, because doesn't the consideration of an historical (as opposed to a merely geographical) relativism of aesthetic concepts strike at the foundations of what he has himself attempted in On Ugliness, which is to survey that subject in the West from classical antiquity to modernism?

Eco is surely playing fast and loose with relativism here. Geographical relativism is embraced, because it reduces the scope of his project to a manageable scale, in terms both of the amount of material to survey and the linguistic accomplishment needed to assess it. Historical relativism, however, suggests the more radical doubt that this whole subject is really undiscussable: that we can write histories of the opinions men have had about the beautiful and the ugly, and we can catalogue the objects which they tell us aroused in them those reactions, but we cannot identify trans-historical aesthetic categories such as the Beautiful and the Ugly. Eco nowhere claims to have grasped such trans-historical realities, but there is something about the habitus of his way of proceeding in On Ugliness which suggests that he would not be overly disappointed if you went away under the misapprehension that he had.

Questions of beauty and ugliness hold a strong fascination. Those drawn to them will find in this book many points of departure for their speculations, but few conclusions.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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