Friday, January 3, 2014

Reflections From On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Tonight is the last of the night shift, yay! Over the week, I've managed to finish the Bill Bryson book and this one by Zadie Smith. It was a very enjoyable read.

I wondered why it was called "On Beauty". I thought about "beauty" from several angles.

Most superficially, beauty as in appearance and size. It was interesting how Smith mentioned each woman's size, the women's own view of beauty, as well as making some comments to what society call beauty. I thought it was intriguing how the African/ black women all had different view on size and beauty according to, if you like, how white they are on the inside. That is, the more ethnically connected, the less that woman was inclined to value being skinny, having big breasts and round bottom, as beautiful. Kiki, the main female character was obese yet constantly being described as being beautiful, even by other women. The beauties in the paintings referred to in the book would be judged as obese by today's society. Yet these paintings are the lifetime works of men, yet more men devote a life time to study. They are valued by today's society, in the millions. How conflicting and incongruous. What is the standard of beauty would society have us believe?

There is the idea of "beauty" being innocence. In the story, Levi was taken by the plight of the Haitians and poverty in general. Despite being a middle classed suburbana teenager, he found himself fighting, even, in the end, potentially sacrificing his future, for a people whom, superficially, have nothing in common with. It was purely recognising that those in poverty were made of the same essence as himself. That was sufficient "glue" to stick him to them. He has no other redeeming quality, yet, I thought his naivety beautiful. How many of us can give up so much, for something so distant.

Next I come to the beauty of strength. If I had written this book and called it On Beauty, it would be because of Kiki. Obese. Black. Menopausal. How does a woman, whose belly hangs over the elastics of leggings, that spreads beyond the handles of a seat, be beautiful? By being kind, generous, genuine. She is the mother - to her children, her husband and her friends. In putting the needs of others in front of her own, she is the "looker - after-er". Perhaps it is this reason she forgave her husband's infidelities. Yet a genuine entitlement to being herself led her to both sense and express the betrayal and disappointment she felt. Yes, "entitlement to be yourself". I really liked that expression. One needs to be taught that we are all entitled to be ourselves. It is a God given right. Otherwise He would not have made us the way we are. Because we are allowed to be ourselves, we are allowed to be possessive of the love of our lives, and feel hurt and jealousy. It is something I have yet to learn myself. I live in the shadow of what others deem beautiful. It is the root of my problem. Maybe that is why I know, at least on the intellectual level, that I am not beautiful.

The natural question then, would be, how does one feel beautiful? How does one find the entitlement of being oneself? From the book, I would suggest "belonging" - the sense of belonging that one is not alone, one is validated by others in that group. Perhaps it only reflects my own lack of belonging that I find the book raises this issue. In many ways, I think the characters in the book are all seeking their belonging, their identity. Clearly family is one place where one can feel accepted. After all, blood is thicker than water, so the saying goes. This unspeakable bond sometimes only emerges when the storm of life blows through. But what interested me was Levi's sense of comraderie in suffering in the book. It is perhaps through the lense of youth that the beauty of humanity comes into sharper focus.

It leads onto a less prominent idea of beauty - the beauty of justice. I suppose I shouldn't say exactly what happened because it's a bit of climax of the book. How do you fix poverty? If a poor man steals to feed his family, regardless, it is scorned by society. Voting for Hilary or Obama, would that fix it? One finds that answer through history, I would have thought. Perhaps social justice is as elusive as beauty, alluring yet unattainable. However, I do not, for one minute, advocate complacency. Much like my theory on suffering, I think perhaps the enigma of it, the unattainability of it, drives us to constantly strive for justice, for beauty. For, perhaps, beauty knows no bounds.

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