Book of the week: Analysing ugliness

2007-12-12 00:00

Umberto Eco can always be relied upon to be thought provoking, even outrageous, thoroughly researched and challenging. This book is a follow-up to his 2004 On Beauty and raises a hundred intriguing and often disturbing questions. Like beauty, ugliness is considerably in the eye of the beholder; and one of the book’s fascinating aspects is its demonstration of how much perceptions of ugliness have fluctuated over nearly three millennia and between cultures, from ancient Greece to ET and beyond. It also shows how many types of ugliness (however defined) there are. These include physical ugliness (such as deformities, illnesses and death) and, broadly speaking, moral and psychological ugliness. Within those wide categories are many sub-categories: obscenity, visions of hell, brutality and sadism, industrial ugliness, the “unnatural” in many forms, monsters of every kind from mythology to science-fiction to medical and zoological science, the uncanny, decadence, futurism and cubism in visual art, and several more.

Each section or sub-section starts with an always informative, clear and intriguing historical and critical introduction by Eco himself, followed by numerous quotations from relevant writers and a profusion of full-colour images from painting, sculpture, photography and film. The range of the book is astounding: its 440 pages (before the reference list and indices) brim over with fascinating excerpts from literature of all kinds, periods and cultures, and with superb illustrations from ancient Greek art all the way down to the last few years, including illustrations of punk culture. The book is both a huge anthology of writings and a gallery of artworks on a scale rare in any book. And the range of Eco’s knowledge and critical perspectives is equally vast.

Much of the illustrative material is, predictably, stomach-churning. “Sensitive viewers” should think twice about tackling this book. On the other hand, anyone who can stick with it will probably find themselves beginning to come to terms with the horrors. And most of the material has the strange effect of arousing compassion for human suffering (something made explicit at the book’s end), and of asking the reader to broaden his or her sensibilities to encompass areas of human nature and experience that are often rejected, swept under the carpet or totally denied.

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