Some thoughts sprung up after reading “The Phonomenology of Ugly,” an opinion piece in the NYT about haircuts and ugliness and philosophy (read: oversimplification):
Martin (the author) writes, “I can’t help wondering if ugliness is not indispensible to philosophy. Sartre seems to be suggesting that thinking – serious, sustained questioning – arises out of, or perhaps with, a consciousness of one’s own ugliness.” He seems to be referring mostly to physical beauty here, but it struck me as a more interesting statement if one assumes that “ugliness” can be internal as well. In this case, I absolutely tend to agree that an acute awareness of one’s ugly side – cowardice, greed, confusion, ignorance – can lead to deeper evaluation and thought than consciousness of one’s better qualifiers. For better or worse, is it not when something goes awry or we glimpse an unexpected fault or darkness in our selves that we are most disturbed and therefore more prone to analyze (and in creative cases, write, film, paint, whatever)? Not that I agree with this – I think we should fight the urge to analyze intently the things that are denied to us or make us sad at the cost of thinking about the things that make us happy, productive, and better to others. As much as we should think of the ‘ugliness’ so as to learn how to leave it behind (or other reasons), we should probably think of the ‘beauty’ so that we can create more of it.
Along those lines, another excerpt from the article (this is very selective quote choosing on my part): “That original self-conscious, slightly despairing glance in the mirror (together with, “Is this it?” or “Is that all there is?”) is a great enabler because it compels us to seek improvement. The transcendent is right here right now. What we transcend is our selves.”
Second point: Martin points out that Sartre typically tried to get away from archetypes, and I agree with I more than just the aesthetic realm of things. I guess I find myself arguing that the kind of phrasing Martin uses in the article – “a Transcendent concept of beauty that continues to haunt – and sometimes cripple – us” – can be applied to any of the things we view as beautiful and the archetypes we associate with them. Our normative view of happiness, for instance, typically has higher doses of money and less doses of purpose than it should and our measure of success far too often relies on how far above other people we can categorize ourselves. We always assume people will be more jealous of how much money we make than how much purpose we have (and what we have accomplished with it) and so we often focus on the former of the two (i.e. on bringing out the envy of others). In other words, we think we’re as beautiful as other people’s ugliness makes us feel.
Archetypes are useful in some ways, very useful indeed. But individuality – and defining individual pinnacles based on ourselves, not others – is far more conducive not only to personal happiness but to progress, creativity, societal betterment. It’s a struggle to keep this mind when we labor to take Frost’s less traveled road.