An Uneasy Relation

I’ve always had problems with beauty. I forget which surrealist said something to the effect that “beauty must be convulsive.” I always hated that Keats line about truth and beauty; I’d always found them to be completely unrelated. I’m drawn to things that bother me though, and when I finally got the irony of that blasted urn, I realized there were conflicting definitions of beauty. Perhaps it has something to do with your position on the sexual food chain. Those near the top prefer a more apollonian, freeze-dried type. For those of us near the bottom, beauty is messy.

Michael Pollan’s take on the tulip is fascinating. He begins with the bees rather than the birds and reduces it eloquently. Bees are flying penises, “avidly nosing their way like pigs through the thick purple brush of a thistle, rolling around helplessly in a single peony’s blond Medusa thatch of stamens.” Flowers promote themselves through their attractiveness. It’s a sex thing. Along the way Pollan undercuts some myths about beauty while tracing the boom and bust of the financial value of tulips in 1637 and noting that the shape of a tulip is nearly penile. The blending of color in tulips is traced to a disease that makes the purity of color get soiled. This wildness was prized, though it was a viral dysfunction that impeded the reproductive capability. Standards of beauty are artificial, hardly essential, and subject to flights of fancy. Perhaps its the romantic in me who wants a more dionysian sort of beauty, savage and wild in its impracticality, rather than the frozen ice-queen beauty of the tulip. The tulip has no scent.

The symmetry of the flower is taken as a sign of health. I always found myself attracted to those asymmetrical blobs of roses, dropping like overripe fruit in the yard growing up. They were even more beautiful as they died. Mother always kept roses, and I was scratched by thorns. My father preferred oleanders, because they required less maintenance. They framed one side of the lot, ragged and prolific, as a substitute for a fence. My brother was drawn to poisons. When all his friends were smoking banana peels, he had to try to smoke some oleander. He had me watch, so I could call the hospital if he started to convulse. I was never quite that adventurous. Beauty, for me, was filled with thorns and poisons— never truth. I loved its smell from the distance, I loved its wildness, and I loved its unreachable mystery. I felt trapped inside my own disfigurement, even if it was only imagined measured against the standards of artificial proportion— locked into a room where beauty was only to be found on the outside. But I never missed a chance to open my window and inhale.

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