July 17, 2011

Healthiness and beauty

Gustav von Aschenbach would not have agreed with Cicero that "bodily loveliness and beauty cannot be separated from healthiness".[1] The hero of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, himself a distinguished artist, doesn't fail to immediately notice a delicate and fragile quality, just with a hint of morbidity, in that young boy who is the object of his infatuation: "War er leidend? Denn die Haut seines Gesichtes stach weiß wie Elfenbein gegen das goldige Dunkel der umrahmenden Locken ab".(531)[2]

Aschenbach notes this the very first time he lays eyes on the boy, right after he is struck by his beauty thus: "Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, daß der Knabe vollkommen schön war." And yet already at this point, the immediate next perception is the paleness of his face: "Sein Antlitz, bleich und anmutig verschlossen [...]" (529–530).

This quality, however, emphasizes the boy's beauty; it doesn't diminish it. The attraction that is exerted on Aschenbach seems to owe to it just as much as it owes to the perfection otherwise displayed. Consider this passage:
[Aschenbach] hatte jedoch bemerkt, daß Tadzios Zähne nicht recht erfreulich waren: etwas zackig und blaß, ohne den Schmelz der Gesundheit und von eigentümlich spröder Durchsichtigkeit, wie zuweilen bei Bleichsüchtigen. Er ist sehr zart, er ist kränklich, dachte Aschenbach. Er wird wahrscheinlich nicht alt werden. Und er verzichtete darauf, sich Rechenschaft von einem Gefühl der Genugtuung oder Beruhigung zu geben, das diesen Gedanken begleitete. (541)
Greek and Roman antiquity seemed to think it obvious that beauty (of the body) and health are coordinated. Beauty is lost when youth and fitness have gone. Health is a first condition; how could you be beautiful in physical appearance if that condition isn't even met?

But beauty and health are not necessarily coordinated, and neither are beauty and goodness;[3] there are, as Roger Scruton puts it, "dangerous beauties, corrupting beauties, and immoral beauties".[4] We do welcome both beauty and value into our lives, and we're often actually seeking them out, too. But we come from different places when we're going for health, or goodness, than when we strive for beauty. It has its own particular role to play in our activities, for both good and bad. (And for both the promotion and the destruction of our health, as Aschenbach was to experience on his own person.)

[1] De officiis, I.95.
[2] Thomas Mann, "Der Tod in Venedig", in: Frühe Erzählungen 1893–1912. Große kommentierte Frankfurter Ausgabe, Band 2.1. Ed. Terence J. Reed. Frankfurt a.M: Fischer 2004, 501–592. Quoted with page numbers in the text.
[3] I've already remarked in a previous footnote (scroll down to [2]) that this is where I'd part ways with Plato's account of beauty.
[4] Roger Scruton, Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009, 4.

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