“A Defence of Ugly Things” — G.K. Chesterton

“A Defence of Ugly Things” by G.K. Chesterton

There are some people who state that the exterior, sex, or physique of another person is indifferent to them, that they care only for the communion of mind with mind; but these people need not detain us. There are some statements that no one ever thinks of believing, however often they are made.

But while nothing in this world would persuade us that a great friend of Mr. Forbes Robertson, let us say, would experience no surprise or discomfort at seeing him enter the room in the bodily form of Mr. Chaplin, there is a confusion constantly made between being attracted by exterior, which is natural and universal, and being attracted by what is called physical beauty, which is not entirely natural and not in the least universal. Or rather, to speak more strictly, the conception of physical beauty has been narrowed to mean a certain kind of physical beauty which no more exhausts the possibilities of external attractiveness than the respectability of a Clapham builder exhausts the possibilities of moral attractiveness.

The tyrants and deceivers of mankind in this matter have been the Greeks. All their splendid work for civilization ought not to have wholly blinded us to the fact of their great and terrible sin against the variety of life. It is a remarkable fact that while the Jews have long ago been rebelled against and accused of blighting the world with a stringent and one-sided ethical standard, nobody has noticed that the Greeks have committed us to an infinitely more horrible asceticism—an asceticism of the fancy, a worship of one aesthetic type alone. Jewish severity had at least common-sense as its basis; it recognised that men lived in a world of fact, and that if a man married within the degrees of blood certain consequences might follow. But they did not starve their instinct for contrasts and combinations; their prophets gave two wings to the ox and any number of eyes to the cherubim with all the riotous ingenuity of Lewis Carroll. But the Greeks carried their police regulation into elfland; they vetoed not the actual adulteries of the earth but the wild weddings of ideas, and forbade the banns of thought.

It is extraordinary to watch the gradual emasculation of the monsters of Greek myth under the pestilent influence of the Apollo Belvedere. The chimaera was a creature of whom any healthy-minded people would have been proud; but when we see it in Greek pictures we feel inclined to tie a ribbon round its neck and give it a saucer of milk. Who ever feels that the giants in Greek art and poetry were really big—big as some folk-lore giants have been? In some Scandinavian story a hero walks for miles along a mountain ridge, which eventually turns out to be the bridge of the giant’s nose. That is what we should call, with a calm conscience, a large giant. But this earthquake fancy terrified the Greeks, and their terror has terrified all mankind out of their natural love of size, vitality, variety, energy, ugliness. Nature intended every human face, so long as it was forcible, individual, and expressive, to be regarded as distinct from all others, as a poplar is distinct from an oak, and an apple-tree from a willow. But what the Dutch gardeners did for trees the Greeks did for the human form; they lopped away its living and sprawling features to give it a certain academic shape; they hacked off noses and pared down chins with a ghastly horticultural calm. And they have really succeeded so far as to make us call some of the most powerful and endearing faces ugly, and some of the most silly and repulsive faces beautiful. This disgraceful via media, this pitiful sense of dignity, has bitten far deeper into the soul of modern civilization than the external and practical Puritanism of Israel. The Jew at the worst told a man to dance in fetters; the Greek put an exquisite vase upon his head and told him not to move.

Scripture says that one star differeth from another in glory, and the same conception applies to noses. To insist that one type of face is ugly because it differs from that of the Venus of Milo is to look at it entirely in a misleading light. It is strange that we should resent people differing from ourselves; we should resent much more violently their resembling ourselves. This principle has made a sufficient hash of literary criticism, in which it is always the custom to complain of the lack of sound logic in a fairy tale, and the entire absence of true oratorical power in a three-act farce. But to call another man’s face ugly because it powerfully expresses another man’s soul is like complaining that a cabbage has not two legs. If we did so, the only course for the cabbage would be to point out with severity, but with some show of truth, that we were not a beautiful green all over.

But this frigid theory of the beautiful has not succeeded in conquering the art of the world, except in name. In some quarters, indeed, it has never held sway. A glance at Chinese dragons or Japanese gods will show how independent are Orientals of the conventional idea of facial and bodily regularity, and how keen and fiery is their enjoyment of real beauty, of goggle eyes, of sprawling claws, of gaping mouths and writhing coils. In the Middle Ages men broke away from the Greek standard of beauty, and lifted up in adoration to heaven great towers, which seemed alive with dancing apes and devils. In the full summer of technical artistic perfection the revolt was carried to its real consummation in the study of the faces of men. Rembrandt declared the sane and manly gospel that a man was dignified, not when he was like a Greek god, but when he had a strong, square nose like a cudgel, a boldly-blocked head like a helmet, and a jaw like a steel trap.

This branch of art is commonly dismissed as the grotesque. We have never been able to understand why it should be humiliating to be laughable, since it is giving an elevated artistic pleasure to others. If a gentleman who saw us in the street were suddenly to burst into tears at the mere thought of our existence, it might be considered disquieting and uncomplimentary; but laughter is not uncomplimentary. In truth, however, the phrase ‘grotesque’ is a misleading description of ugliness in art. It does not follow that either the Chinese dragons or the Gothic gargoyles or the goblinish old women of Rembrandt were in the least intended to be comic. Their extravagance was not the extravagance of satire, but simply the extravagance of vitality; and here lies the whole key of the place of ugliness in aesthetics. We like to see a crag jut out in shameless decision from the cliff, we like to see the red pines stand up hardily upon a high cliff, we like to see a chasm cloven from end to end of a mountain. With equally noble enthusiasm we like to see a nose jut out decisively, we like to see the red hair of a friend stand up hardily in bristles upon his head, we like to see his mouth broad and clean cut like the mountain crevasse. At least some of us like all this; it is not a question of humour. We do not burst with amusement at the first sight of the pines or the chasm; but we like them because they are expressive of the dramatic stillness of Nature, her bold experiments, her definite departures, her fearlessness and savage pride in her children. The moment we have snapped the spell of conventional beauty, there are a million beautiful faces waiting for us everywhere, just as there are a million beautiful spirits.

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8 comments

  1. Anna R · March 6, 2013

    “There are some people who state that the exterior, sex, or physique of another person is indifferent to them….”

    What you mean is that there are some people who state that THEY ARE INDIFFERENT TO the exterior, sex, or physique of another person. As written, you’re saying that the exterior, sex, or physique of another person couldn’t care one way or the other about some people. Obviously, that makes no sense.

    IOW, check the meaning and usage of “indifferent.” ;-)

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    • Biblioklept · March 6, 2013

      G.K. Chesterton died in 1936, but if I see his spirit hanging out somewhere I’ll be sure to lecture him on usage.

      Actually, you might want to proof more of his work for errors:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._K._Chesterton_bibliography

      Thank you for your valuable editorial insights.

      Like

      • Anna R · March 6, 2013

        Haha! Great reply! I’m going to hunt down that SOB and give him what-for!

        But seriously, WTF? That is such a gross failure of *logic* (never mind usage) that I can’t believe it made it into print, especially then. (Now, for sure.) Anyway, sorry for assuming the text was yours simply because there were no leading quotation marks. Carry on.

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        • Biblioklept · March 6, 2013

          Perhaps Chesterton’s friend Bertrand Russell commented on logical failures when the two debated.

          Seriously though, I don’t see anything illogical about Chesterton’s usage of “indifferent” here, which jibes with several citations given in the OED, including 10b: ” b. Of no consequence or matter either way; unimportant, immaterial.”

          I didn’t think twice about his use of the word and understood the usage immediately, the same way that I am able to tell, via context, whether the verb “dust” means “to cover with dust, “as in, “The baker dusted the cake with sugar” or if it means the exact opposite, “to remove dust from the surface,” as in, “The maid dusted the room.” In my last sentence too I imagine you can accept that “maid” here means “woman who cleans professionally” and not “young girl” or “virgin.” Words change. There is no anchoring authority for usage other than usage itself.

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          • Anna R · March 6, 2013

            The OED’s (and every other dictionary’s) definition of “indifferent” implicitly requires that the subject who is indifferent be human (or at least sentient). The object(s) of the indifference can be anything, of course, including insentient things, abstract concepts, physical characteristics, sensory input, etc. So although it’s perfectly grammatical to say “some people are indifferent to physique,” it makes no sense (and therefore is ungrammatical) to say “physique is indifferent to some people.”

            Chesterton’s sentence is the equivalent of the latter: In his usage of “indifferent to,” he reversed subject and object. He should have written, “There are some people who state that they’re indifferent to the exterior, sex, or physique of another person.” This is a fairly common error (especially these days), but not one we usually find in writing of Chesterton’s level.

            And the “anchoring authority” for usage is not usage, but semantic logic: usage (and changes in usage) follow logic, not vice versa. For example, no matter how many times 100 million people say “car driving street a down is the Mary,” it will forever be ungrammatical, because it will never make sense to speakers of the English language.

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            • Biblioklept · March 6, 2013

              Hi, Anna,

              1. Chesterton is clearly using the word as a close synonym of “unimportant,” as in “There are some people who state that the exterior, sex, or physique of another person is *unimportant* to them,” which makes sense, communicates, etc.

              Two simple examples via OED of the use of “indifferent” as an adjective applied to nonsentient or unsentient or insentient (if you find this last word to be the pedantically proper term) objects:
              .
              1705 T. Hearne Ductor Historicus (ed. 2) I. i. ii. 20 As the differences we speak of are not essential in points of Faith, the Apostles and Fathers..might fairly enough neglect these indifferent Disputes.
              1788 J. Priestley Lect. Hist. iii. xiv. 118 The real time of Christ’s birth can no more affect the proper use of this system than that of any other indifferent event.

              2. If 100 million people say and understand and use and communicate to each other with a sentence like “car driving street a down is the Mary” then the grammar *has* changed.

              3. What we describe as semantic logic comes from usage, unless you happen to believe that there’s some deep universal structuring grammar embedded in the brain (or soul!) or whatever.

              4. There are plenty of examples of words we might believe are being used “incorrectly” — literally, hopefully, awesome, epic, etc. — but words and how words are used changes, whether our own pedantic proclivities admit for such changes or not.

              5. Again, I appreciate your willingness to randomly police language usage on blogs—I wish Chesterton were here to defend his usage himself, as I’m sure he’d do a finer job than I (or me!)—but we seem to have fundamentally different viewpoints on/about/toward(s) linguistics/usage.

              I am not a prescriptivist, and therefore this indifferent conversation should end.

              Best,
              Ed

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  2. Pingback: “All men are equal” | Koinonia
  3. simplyshyam · March 6, 2013

    Friends: When you beat on froth, all you get is more froth. Why can we not focus on the substance of the essay, rather than on the shadow? Language or grammar is there to serve the thinker; it always must assume a subservient role to the thoughts, images, and ideas expressed. G.K. Chesterson is undoubtedly a brilliant mind. That is what we should be grateful for, don’t you think? No offence to Anna. I’m sure she was trying to help. But, sometimes we have to do without the help, at least for the moment.

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