On Beauty and Objectification

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Here's a thing I found interesting about On Beauty. As it is made clear at various points throughout the text, the novel owes some of its ideas to Elaine Scarry's essay, On Beauty and Being Just (an essay I discussed at length in these two posts). The connection between fiction and a theory that might inform it is interesting and horribly complicated, and I don't really want to go into that here. But what I do want to point out is one way in which Smith departs from this theoretical framework, namely the fact that she engages more seriously with the idea that there is a darker side to beauty than Scarry does. This is especially true when it comes to the way we treat people based on their physical beauty.

You might remember that this was a sensitive point with Scarry, because she felt that Objectification as a buzzword turns academics away from honest discussions of beauty. She pushed instead for the idea that the beholder has long been understood (and should be still) as more vulnerable than the person beheld, because the beholder is in a way bewitched and helpless before beauty. Scarry then argues that this first reaction (this "pleasure-filled tumult") is a catalyst for our bringing more beauty into the world, in the form of art, fair laws etc.

You first get a sense that that might not be the case in Zadie Smith's world from the poem she quotes as belonging to one of her characters, Claire Malcolm, and which functions as a sort of second, intra-textual source for the novel's title. (On Beauty (the poem) was actually written by Nick Laird, and I think its title is also derived from Scarry's essay, which does sort of plunge us into Title Inception.) Here's the first stanza (and here is the rest of the poem):
No, we could not itemize the list
of sins they can’t forgive us.
The beautiful don’t lack the wound.
It is always beginning to snow.
There are two characters in Zadie Smith's novel who are unequivocally described as beautiful. The first is Carl, a poor but talented poet who encounters the Belseys at a Mozart concert, the way Leonard Bast encounters the Schlegels at the Beethoven concert in Howards End. The second is Victoria Kipps. What do these two characters have in common? They're being objectified.

Victoria is the object of Howard Belsey's lust. He stares at her in class, he sleeps with her immediately after her mother's funeral, he then alternates between seeing her as an unwelcome disturbance in his life and as a set of "orifices and apertures that were simply awaiting him – with no conversation and no debate and no conflicting personalities and no sense of future trouble." We don't get to know Victoria at all. We are never invited into her thoughts. We are never given a clear indication of why she comes on to Howard or why she's on what looks like a self-destructive path. We do get this from her in the end, after Howard rejects her, but it rings a little hollow:
‘I know you think,’ she said, each word tear-inflected, making her hard to understand, ‘that you . . . know me. You don’t know me. This,’ she said and touched her face, her breasts, her hips, ‘that’s what you know. But you don’t know me. And you were the one who wanted this – that’s all anybody ever . . .’ She touched the same three places. ‘And so that’s what I . . .’
This is just what you'd expect someone discussing the novel to say in her place, and somehow it doesn't solve anything at all. A comparison with Howards End might also be helpful here. Victoria and Jerome Belsey (Howard's son) had a brief relationship at the beginning of Smith's novel, mirroring the affair between Helen Schlegel and Paul Wilcox in Howards End. I might be wrong, but I don't think we're ever given a clear reason for why Jerome and Victoria break up, and this is in stark contrast with the beautiful way in which Forster has Helen explain how and why her impulsive engagement to Paul Wilcox was broken, an explanation that illuminates both her character and Paul's, while perfectly serving the book's larger conceptual framework. It seems like a missed opportunity for character development on Smith's part, especially considering the overall thinness of Victoria's character relative to her impact in the Belseys' lives.

In Carl's case, it's Howard's daughter, Zora, who's doing the objectification, but the situation is more nuanced. She's initially mistrustful of Carl, though she cannot help being affected by his beauty. ("For a whole twenty-three seconds the last thing on Zora’s mind was herself," the narrator tells us and we hear in the background Iris Murdoch's idea that beauty leads to a radical decentering of the self, taken in via Scarry.) But when Carl gives a remarkable Spoken Word performance and subsequently gets invited to attend Claire Malcolm's poetry class at Wellington even though he's not a student there, Zora becomes his champion. That is partly because she has a crush on him, although he is what one would call "out of her league." She ends up making a terrible public scene when she discovers that Carl's been seeing Victoria Kipps.

Carl's reaction in that confrontation is in some ways similar to Victoria's speech to Howard quoted above, but, considering the gender reversal and what we know of Carl's character overall, I liked it much better:
‘That’s what it was all about,’ said Carl and whistled satirically, but the hurt was clear to read in his face, and this hurt grew deeper as he stumbled over further realizations, one after the other. ‘Man, oh, man. Is that why you helped me? I guess I can’t write at all – is that it? You were just making me look an idiot in that class. Sonnets! You been making a fool of me since the beginning. Is that it? You pick me up off the streets and when I don’t do what you want, you turn on me? Damn! I thought we was friends, man!’
So here we have two beautiful persons who felt they were only being appreciated for their sexual worth and that their selves, their personalities were ignored in the process. The result of Howard or Zora being mesmerized by beauty is not positive. To what degree it is a fault with them, or with the culture as a whole, it's harder to decide. But the objectification seems to be there, to be real. And looking at Victoria's character I feel like she was objectified by the narrative as well. I'm not sure whether this was done on purpose or not, but I incline towards the latter. If you read On Beauty, what do you think?

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