On Beauty and Being Stone

In another course myself and Sabrina Bramwell are taking this semester, we are reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a novel based in exploring contemporary ideals of beauty, academia and self.  It is, in fact, a novel almost as completely opposite from Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy as possible, taking place not in a future other-world involving people who move mountains and eat stone, but instead in a contemporary other-but-still-quite-similar university and focusing upon the lives of two families riddled by ideological differences, affairs, issues of ethnicity, and art.  And yet, both Sabrina and myself have been finding a myriad of connections, especially to do with ideals of beauty, between the works, despite their seemingly enormous differences in genre and content.  

The novel incorporates Nick Laird’s poem  of the same name (“On Beauty”), the fourth stanza of which is as such:

Speech is beautifully useless./ They are the damned./ The beautiful know this./ They stand around unnatural as statuary.

In this last line the connection lies, that between beauty, stone and dehumanization.  Statues, in their stillness, in their blankness, are unnatural and detached representations of humanity.  No matter how artfully carved a statue may be, no matter how alive it may look, no matter how beautiful it may be, stone is stone.  Statuary, in the sense of classical Greco-Roman statuary is simply representative of the human form, encompassing of a certain narrative, and, of course, reflective of humanity’s accomplishments in creating and carving beauty.

Thus, in modeling the tuners after statues their creators attempted to create a distance between tuners and humanity.  A living statue is not a person but a creation; indeed, not just any creation, but a work of art, an accomplishment, something to be praised, ogled, and analyzed.  Kelenli reflects this in one of her comments to the tuners: “You’re the finished artwork, I’m the model'” (Stone Sky 48).

What Greco-Roman statues really looked like

However, our own idea of Greco-Roman statuary is based upon the flawed assumption that the statuary we have found, centuries and centuries after it was first carved, looked as it always had, when it fact, many Greco-Roman statues looked quite different.  Different in the sense that they were once painted — those statues which we see as pure and blank marble were once covered in bright and bold colors meant to make them aesthetically closer to those whom they were meant to represent.  Note the difference in the photograph between the blank, weathered statue, and what the statue actually looked like — quite a difference, no? Whereas the image on the left is imposingly other in its blankness, the image on the right is closer to a representation of a flesh and blood human.  Interestingly, the idea of painting the tuners to make them look less deviant from the norm arises when the tuners go on their excursion with Kelenli — however, even painting the tuners’ faces with makeup does not make them look passably human — or at least, passably human within the Syl Anagistine conception of humanity.  However, Kelenli is, in all aspects of aesthetics (and seemingly most aspects of biology), human — and thus, far more accepted by the Syl Anagist society, as Hoa notes:

Perhaps all humans think [Kelenli] is one of them, until someone tells them otherwise. What is that like, being treated as human when one is not? And then there’s the fact that they’ve left her alone with us. We they treat like weapons that might misfire at any moment… but they trust her (Stone Sky 48-9).

Thus, the carefully crafted aesthetics of the tuners reflect an attempt by the Syl Anagistine to utilize ideals of beauty to exclude a certain group from the mark of “human.” Indeed, it is not only the tuners’ statuary aesthetics that make them subhuman, but their aesthetic close-ness to the Syl Anagistine idea of the Niess, thus further emphasizing the influence of beauty on exclusion.

The use of beauty, or rather, the conception thereof, as a tool of exclusion permeates our contemporary society as well, though perhaps not in so clear a way as with the tuners.  However, in the acceptance, or perhaps better put, the advertisement of various body types, skin colors, nose shapes, eye shapes, accents we see a narrowly constructed idea of who is beautiful, and thus, who is, in a certain sense, worthy.  Worthy of a sense of self, a sense of affirmation, confirmation, acceptance.

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