Category Archives: Biographies of Sin and Beauty

Findens’ Byron Beauties: Guest Post at the Modern Records Centre

As I am fortunate enough to work in a library, I get to look at all kinds of strange old books. The Modern Records Centre archive blog have kindly hosted my thoughts on this little beauty…

donna-inez

Donna Inez from Byron’s poem ‘Don Juan’, in Findens’ Byron Beauties

We know that archive materials offer a window to the past, giving us the materials of history free of interpretation: this odd little book takes us away from the academic books and seminars analysing Byron’s radical politics or innovations in poetic form, to show us how some of Byron’s contemporaries actually read his work.

The ‘Address’ that prefaces the book, written by the editors W. and E. Finden, explains that the book offers “drawings by the most eminent Artists [which] endeavour to rescue the Muse of Byron from those calumnious delineations which have heretofore deformed her creations.” A charming phrase, but one that might require translation.

What this means is that the Findens are not interested in Byron’s politics or poetic form, but they are interested in the beautiful ladies who populate his work – and they are sure that their audience are interested in them too. They go on to claim that the book’s imagined portraits of Byron’s female characters arise from “extraordinary expense and labour, combined with that discrimination which can alone result from a long and intimate study of the highest principles of art”. Sounds impressive, but what does such intimate study actually give us? It gives us “that which is most difficult of accomplishment – the impersonation of ideal beauty.”

Read the rest here…

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The Queen of Sheba’s Hairy Legs

There is a consensus that the Queen of Sheba did exist, but it is some of the myths surrounding her that have really endured. The tale goes that she was a powerful Queen ruling one of the only lands not yet conquered by the great King Solomon. In some versions she hears of his unsurpassed wisdom and goes with gifts and riddles to test him; in others, he hears of her wisdom and demands that she submit to his rule and religion. Either way, in her visit to the King she demonstrates wit and intellect but is bested by Solomon, who easily answers all her riddles, and she submits to him.

The story of the Queen of Sheba has diverged into three primary strands: the Ethiopian, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition. There is historical evidence to suggest that the Queen of Sheba came from what is now Ethiopia, and her legend has long been a central part of the national identity. The Jewish and Christian tradition arises from the fairly brief account of the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the Bible (1 Kings 10:1-2), and scholars in this tradition hold that the land of Sheba was nation enriched by the incense trade (the Queen gives frankincense and myrrh to Solomon) located in present-day Yemen. However, the Jewish story of the Queen later enriched iteself by adopting parts from the racier Islamic tradition.

It is the Islamic tradition that developed the endlessly intriguing myth of the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs.

1921-betty-blythe-as-the-queen-of-sheba-in-the-retronaut-1363306888_b

Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba, 1921
(http://www.pictify.com)

In 1993 this image was reworked in a short story by Marina Warner (in The Mermaids in the Basement), and it continues to be a provocative metaphor for the deceptive and dangerous nature of beauty (and often by extension women).

In the Qur’an the Queen’s legs do appear, but we only hear that on entering Solomon’s palace she sees that the floor appears to be a a long glistening pool of water. She hitches up her skirts to wade through, finding to her surprise that it is merely polished glass. As Barbara Freyer Stowasser points out, merely having shown her legs is enough for the Queen to exclaim, “I have committed an outrage against myself. Now I submit [in Islam] together with Solomon to God” (64, passage from the Qur’an, Sura 27:43).

In later Islamic versions of the story the glass floor is specifically intended to trick the Queen into showing her legs, so that Solomon can ascertain the truth of the rumours that the beautiful Queen of Sheba hides the hairy legs of a devil under her sumptuous skirts. In the Targum Sheni Solomon exclaims on seeing the Queen’s legs:

“You are a beautiful woman but hairiness is for men”
(in Lassner 16-17).

In Jacob Lassner’s analysis it is the Queen of Sheba’s political power that makes her dangerous enough to Solomon for him to find it necessary to subdue her. However, it is significant that the perversity of this power – wielded by a woman – is symbolised by the Queen’s hairy legs, by a blot on her beauty. Clearly, if she is so powerful than she cannot really be a woman.

Beauty, therefore, is a manifestation of weakness and of femininity, two attributes which are irrevocably connected; in the Jewish Stories of Ben Sira, Solomon is able to sexually possess the Queen once her hairy legs have been made smooth, in an echo of Samson and Delilah – a story which offers a clear example of hair as a signifier for masculine strength, inappropriate for a woman. However, beauty tends to be described as a power, and the Queen’s seductive power is one of the factors that make her so dangerous. But it is perhaps a secondary power, ineffable in contrast to the actual physical strength of men, and once a woman’s beauty is sexually possessed it loses its influence and its threat.

The revealing of the Queen’s hairy legs at the moment when she is fooled by the glass floor also connects her hairiness – the imperfection of her beauty – to the fallibility of her wisdom. Both her vaunted beauty and intellect are undermined in a single motion, suggesting a link between the two which is not often proposed. In this case Lassner’s emphasis on power as the Queen’s central attribute enables the interpretation that:

the Queen’s beauty and wisdom are, in this story, ciphers for her political power, which is really the only thing under discussion.

She presents a threat to the all-powerful Solomon, by ruling the last kingdom not under his dominion – that she is a woman adds to the insult. Her unrivalled beauty and intelligence express the superlative power which is so alarming to Solomon, but the metaphorical conflation of these three, beauty/wisdom/power, means that if one of these is undermined then the whole edifice will collapse. All of the riddles she poses to Solomon, which test his ability to see through disguised appearances, are analogies of the larger deception which she embodies. The sight of her hairy legs destroys the illusion of her perfect beauty, which has been metaphorically bound up with her unsurpassed wisdom – also compromised by her own deception by the glass floor – and her daunting political power which is predicated on these attributes falls in tatters at Solomon’s feet.

The implication of this argument is that beauty is only powerful in a metaphorical sense.

So it has no direct influence of its own but represents, and functions in collusion with, financial, social or political power. This may offer an explanation to the question agonised over by philosophers of aesthetics, as to the ineffability and mystery of beauty – provoking such powerful feeling and yet so impossible to comprehend as an actual thing, so difficult to categorise or explain. If beauty is encountered in connection to various forms of power, as a visual manifestation of them and a way of aestheticising their workings – in the process assimilating the trappings of power to itself – does that mean that our analysis of beauty must always study it in context, taking into account the various factors that give it its power, and in relation to which beauty finds temporary form and significance? I think the idea that beauty is always affixed to other attributes is both enticing (as a way to study beauty beyond the philosophical abstract) and requiring further interrogation, but to always analyse beauty in its specific context seems like a very sensible thing to do. After all, it is clear that the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs are more than just an advertisement for Venus razors.

Sources:
Lassner, Jacob. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.


The Beautiful Author

When talking about the beauty of people, we tend to discuss those people as passive objects to be looked at. Of course, this issue of objectification is at the heart of many feminist critiques of (usually feminine) beauty. That’s why it’s interesting to think about the beauty of people who are actively working in a sphere that has nothing to do with beauty, and how those people are affected by being judged beautiful. And how beauty is affected by its connection with them.

The beautiful author is a good example of this, and Zadie Smith is a good example in particular.

Zadie Smith

(www.inspirational-black-literature.com)

Writing is not a very public activity, except in the Monty Python sketch in which a running commentary is given on Thomas Hardy writing his new novel in front of a West Country crowd – it’s funny because it’s absurd, and also because watching someone write is incredibly boring.

However, watching someone beautiful write seems to be a different matter. Zadie Smith was heralded as the voice of her generation when her first novel, White Teeth, was published in 2000. Her good looks did not go unnoticed: some said her beauty helped publicise her novel, and some said it prevented her being taken seriously as a writer. I guess that both are true. The point is that her beauty mattered.

In this interview with Christopher Bollen at Interview Magazine, Smith is (of course) asked about the huge success and attention garnered by her first novel, though Bollen stops short of asking her directly about her looks (the Daily Mail, however, is more than happy to focus on this, and the comments below the line do not inspire much faith in humanity). Smith has some interesting answers that suggest a need to separate her public, visible self and her self on the page:

“I just can’t get used to the idea of being somebody unreal in people’s minds. I can’t live my life like that. And it’s just anathema to being a writer. But in another way, what it’s about for me is being good on the page.”

The problem for Smith is that being famous and beautiful creates an image that captures people’s attention, but ultimately has nothing behind it (see ‘Kim Kardashian’), and that is a real problem for a writer – or anyone trying to actually do something. Zadie Smith is transformed by her beauty and a horde of photographers and journalists into an exciting picture (that happens to be holding a book that she wrote). It must be difficult when that book sells millions: is it the words or the body that sold it?

Probably the words, I reckon. Because – and I think this is a good thing – the image of Beautiful Zadie is so empty and irrelevant that no one would bother to actually buy and read a book based on that alone. Beauty might get in the way of sensible discussion of a writer and their work, but I’m not sure it gets in the way of the work itself, or not so much. But it remains a problem that human beauty is seen as so superficial and vacuous that those qualities are imposed on the beautiful person. However, if they keep writing, or whatever it is that they are actively doing, then hopefully we will all get bored of looking at them. The moral of this is obvious: models are not, er, role models. There is no reason why beauty can’t have substance, but this still needs proving in the world of Instagram and Britain’s Next Top Model.

Companion piece: a previous post on the Ugly Philosopher.


Biographies of Sin and Beauty

Sin

This new blog project will present a series of ‘biographies’ of beauty, exploring the narratives that are built up around beautiful people – real, mythological and fictional – and particularly the way that these narratives connect their beauty to sin and sinfulness. Not so much biographies of beautiful people as of their beauty itself.

The project will analyse the way that historical interpretations and cultural representations of beautiful people create a narrative of their beauty as something bewitching and dangerous, and depict this power as stemming from the original sinfulness of beauty. I use the Christian phrase deliberately; religion has had a significant part to play in this process and these blogs will examine the ways in which religions both adopt beauty to aestheticise their systems, and also vilify beauty – in case people forget to worship anything else.

This attitude is not exclusive to religion, and I will also look at the way beauty is used in narratives of financial, social and political power. As a whole, then, I hope that this will form a biography of beauty, detailing the conflicting reactions it inspires and the way in which such reactions have evolved – or been manufactured.

We will begin with the Queen of Sheba.