There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towrds the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beam, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the road side. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘The king has got a crown again!’
The eyes were hollow and the carven head was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer forever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the stuttering of a lamp, black night fell.
JRR Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings , II, Journey To The Crossroads
“There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”
“You can’t trust reason. We threw it out of the ad profession long ago and have never missed it.”CM Kornbluth
Father Stephen Freeman, on his popular blog, Glory To God For All Things, swings for the fence a lot. He is the kind of blogger who isn’t content to hit singles and doubles consistently and get on base, but he expects to hit a bases-loaded home run each time he steps out of the batting box. With his latest post, A Crisis Of Beauty, he does precisely that.
Father Stephen lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, a community that received in the 1940s the sobriquet of being “the ugliest city in America”, and has recently been anointed as the “most Bible-minded city in America.” Father Stephen meditates on the ugliness of modern American life and wonders why it has to be so, especially in a community that is so ‘Bible minded’. The comments that the good Father’s post engendered discuss a number of possible causes, from the baleful influence of popular Evangelical Protestantism, to the Malthusian argument that there are too many [of the wrong kind of] people, to the corruption of oligarchic market capitalism.
Ugliness was one of the marks of evil in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord Of The Rings. Orcs were ‘ruined elves’, and the cannon fodder of the Dark Lord. It was a mark of their degradation that they hated beauty. The poor deformed creatures could create no beauty of their own, and the mere existence of it reminded them of their lost estate, so they hated beauty and defaced it whenever they encountered it.
I think something orc-like has entered into the soul of Late Imperial America. Ugliness sets up a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Working in an ugly building, living in an ugly, cookie-cutter house, eating tasteless, corn syrup-based foods in an ugly AppleChili’s Red Olive Barrel, worshiping in a gymnasium or a hangar to a cacophony of electronically distorted noises, makes you uglier, and this internal ugliness produces in turn more ugliness, and worse, a contentment with ugliness and eventually, a resentment of beauty. But there us another force at work, something that will not prove easy to undo, because it has lodged in one of our most basic and most primal human passions.
What I have to say here is going to be controversial The pornification of American culture has played a key role in uglifying it. A frequent Orthodox poster on blogs pertaining to modern relationships between the sexes remarks that about the only personal characteristic that 21st century cares about is sex appeal. Everything else is secondary, maybe even superfluous
The problem is that porn is boring. There are just so many ways that you can rub body parts together, and eventually, the itch you are trying to scratch becomes larger than anything you can scratch it with. Additionally, for some reason not immediately apparent to me, use of pornography sears a sector of the human soul that appreciates and evaluates beauty. As the flesh and the sexual passions clamor more insistently, little by little, the other pleasures recede and lose their ability to charm, entice, or motivate.
I don’t think that even 20 years ago, it was apparent that our society would become as highly sexualized as it currently is. The Sexual Revolution is, of course, very old news, and the original impetus for it came from Scandinavia and France, were traditional attitudes towards sexuality dissolved before they did here in the US. The message that you can have sex with whomever you want whenever you want with no adverse effects is one that is always going to find fertile soil, though.
The increasing sexualization of society has a side-effect. We are primates, and whatever your view of human origins and our relationship to monkeys, apes, and lemurs, human females share an observable tendency that they share with other female primates – they are attracted to males who exhibit what is called conspicuous consumption. These days, the most desirable females come with a very, very high price tag. This is, I believe, the motive force, the engine behind the ruthless exploitation of resources and rapid monetarization of anything that provokes even a momentary interest. A market will be found, and usually it will be ignited by the image of an appealing young woman.
Which is a shame. Americans are not an ugly people, more that any other other people who dwell on the face of the earth, and we were, as recently as the early forties, exploring our own way of creating beauty. There are English ways of being beautiful, French ways, Russian ways, Chinese ways, and if you have ever heard the Cherubic hymn sung by a Kenyan choir, African ways as well. Indeed, a lot of what it means to be beautiful is what it means to be beautiful right here, right now. There is an Beauty of This Moment and This Place which is not transferable to There and Then. It is the increasing homogenization, the franchising of America [as Father Stephen calls it] that is a key element to its uglification.
American Beauty, which is essentially a regional beauty, even a local beauty, was strangled in the crib by a rising advertising/promotional industry, an industry whose goal was to decouple the purchasing will from the higher brain functions and make it as reliable as breathing and circulation by attaching it to our most basic passions. Once the link to sex was discovered and ruthlessly exploited, there was no more room for American Beauty.