Today as I set-up shop in a line at the Los Angeles DMV I happened to read an incisive essay published in Vogue forty years ago. The article was written by Susan Sontag, and my profit from it proves that anthologies are not as useless as many suppose (I hesitate to say the same of Vogue). I dislike the conglomerating of whole books, in part because it means fewer book covers, those charming props helpful in marking the way along an author’s corpus. But just as invertebrates are the lowest form of animal life, spineless pamphlets and essay packets are clearly the lowest form of literature, both ugly and easily marooned on a bookshelf. They usually lack real covers anyway, so anthologizing does no harm.
Sontag begins “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” by noting the linguistic difference between the description of an attractive man and an attractive woman:
A beautiful woman, we say in English. But a handsome man. “Handsome” is the masculine equivalent of—and refusal of—a compliment which has accumulated certain demeaning overtones, by being reserved for women only. That one can call a man “beautiful” in French and Italian suggest that Catholic countries—unlike those countries shaped by the Protestant version of Christianity—still retain some vestiges of the pagan admiration of beauty…In every modern country that is Christian or post-Christian, women are the beautiful sex—to the detriment of the notion of beauty as well as of women.
Before acknowledging the insight of this passage, I pause to point out that esteem for beauty is deeply Christian, and that all the countries that Sontag considers became such notable cultivators and curators of beauty in large part because of their Christianity. But despite Sontag’s misplaced criticism, the fact stands. As she later explains, women are forced to preen and yet categorized as superficial for doing so.
To consider beauty superficial is to misunderstand the Christian priority of moral excellence over other kinds of excellence. Instead of recognizing the most basic fact about beauty, that pursuit and gratitude for it is virtuous, some Christians emphasize a secondary characteristic, that pursuit of it is less important than other pursuits. Even to talk this way, however, makes these “pursuits” sound like collected things instead of aspects of one ordered thing. Worth noting is the fact that even Christians who dismiss beauty’s importance cannot simply shrug it off; things can be beautiful (although primarily things in nature, which unlike paintings and buildings can neatly be attributed to God), and people can be beautiful “on the inside.”
Sontag’s description of women’s relationship to beauty as “enslavement” is perceptive. The way women are reduced to one feature, their beauty, and controlled by means of that feature apes the way a slave is reduced to and controlled by labor. This enslavement is more thorough and expansive than the common reductions of men to their money, strength, or, more apropos to our time, “effectiveness”. One clear demonstration of this is the fact that poor men, weak men, and ineffectual men are each relatively unhindered in their quest for a mate. In fact, a man in our culture who is poor, weak, and ineffective does not seem to me as badly off as an ugly woman. This proves that as Christians we need to think about beauty more than we often do now, but also differently than the dominant culture does.
One avenue of thinking differently as Americans is Sontag’s remark about the linguistic possibility of a beautiful French and Italian man. Admittedly, these men are already most likely to take advantage of this linguistic possibility, which leaves us with a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. I suppose another option is learning from the men and women of Lake Wobegon, who are good-looking and strong, respectively. But maybe those men are just good-looking on the inside.