Baudelaire on Beauty and Strangeness
By Maria Popova
“The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1855 as he contemplated what beauty is and how it enchants us. That selfsame year, on the other side of the Atlantic, another poet laureate of art’s intersection with philosophy was puzzling over the same subject from the same angle.
In an essay about Paris’s Exposition Universelle of 1855, found in Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature (public library), the great French poet, essayist, and critic Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821–August 31, 1867) made an elegant case for why the interestingness of irregularity is precisely what lends beauty its allure.
Beauty always has an element of strangeness. I do not mean a deliberate cold form of strangeness, for in that case it would be a monstrous thing that had jumped the rails of life. But I do mean that it always contains a certain degree of strangeness, of simple, unintended, unconscious strangeness, and that this form of strangeness is what gives it the right to be called beauty. It is its hallmark, its special characteristic. Reverse the proposition and try to imagine a commonplace beauty! And how could this necessary, incompressible, infinitely varied strangeness, dependent upon environment, climate, habits, upon race, religion and the temperament of the artist, ever be controlled, amended, corrected by utopian rules, excogitated in some little temple or other of learning somewhere on the planet, without mortal danger to art itself? This element of strangeness which constitutes and defines individuality, without which there is no beauty, plays in art (and may the precision of this comparison excuse its triviality) the role of taste or flavouring in cookery; if the individual usefulness or the degree of nutritious value they contain be excepted, viands differ from each other only by the idea they reveal to the tongue.
In another essay from the same volume, Baudelaire revisits the subject of beauty from the perspective of culinary metaphor:
Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature. I defy anyone to point to a single scrap of beauty which does not contain these two elements.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature with Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on beauty and desire, Ursula K. Le Guin on what beauty really means, and Frida Kahlo on how love amplifies beauty, then revisit Baudelaire’s timeless, acutely timely open letter to the privileged and powerful about the political and humanitarian power of art.
Published August 31, 2016