Umberto Eco is 75 and has entered the autumnal stage of intellectual renown when publishers sell his books with his name rather than his actual writing. He is not yet the factory of anthologies that Harold Bloom has become. But like On Beauty, Eco’s previous well-packaged venture into aesthetics, much of
On Ugliness is a collection of quotes from writers— Aristotle, Dante, Milton, Kafka, Sartre—who are even bigger brands than he is.
As a historical survey of our responses to horror, this format is fine so long as you don’t expect the semiotician-cum-novelist to spend much time analyzing these matters. The muddled relationships between ugliness and evil, physical and moral deformity, dread and mockery of ugliness he’s content to leave muddled, pointing out simply their conjoined ancestry.
Eco starts off with a few promising insights. “Whereas all the synonyms for beautiful could be conceived as a reaction of disinterested appreciation,” he points out, “almost all the synonyms for ugly contain a reaction of disgust, if not of violent repulsion, horror, or fear.” Before pausing to wonder why ugliness rebounds in our gut, however, he is rushing us off to pull down another classical author from the library shelf.
The chapter “The Ugly, the Comic, and the Obscene” opens with a citation from Montaigne, who wondered why sex, a “natural, necessary, and legitimate act,” should provoke shame and jokes. Next is Freud’s dubious observation that the sight of genitals is always exciting, even if they are “nonetheless never considered beautiful.” Eco then closes the section with a few paragraphs about Priapus, the minor Hellenistic deity with the major schlong who inspired laughter but was himself “not a happy god,” according to antiquity.
The buried assumptions in these thoughts would be worth unpacking if Eco would spend time to rest before the next stop on his tour of civilization. And a Eurocentric tour it is: He includes virtually nothing here, text or image, that touches on the many examples of grotesque or terrifying figures in Japanese, Chinese, Indian-American, or African art—stunning omissions given that he also harps on the obvious point that ugliness is relative to period and place.
The pleasures of the book—and they are considerable—derive from listening to an aging scholar’s discourse on a lifetime of reading. Eco has always been at heart a Latinist. The numerous medieval texts he unearths help argue his case that figures such as St. Bernard were more fascinated by monsters and other sinister avatars than they knew they should be. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas made room for lots of individual ugliness as part of a more comprehensive divine plan.
The book’s illustrations are less parochial than the text, running the gamut from an astonishing, almost sci-fi painting of the Temptations of Saint Anthony by Salvator Rosa in the 17th century to a snarling photo of Sam, winner of the Ugliest Dog in the World contest. Judith’s beheading of Holophernes by Caravaggio shares a spread with a 2003 photo from the Liberian civil war of a man holding his enemy’s severed skull. Nosferatu, E.T., Divine, and Marilyn Manson also find a home here.
Striking are the centuries of writers and artists who have violated norms, embraced distortion, and deliberately made work they hoped would force their contemporaries to shudder or puke. The Renaissance Mannerists, including Michelangelo, stretched classical ideals to the breaking point. The Romantics reveled in perverse logic (“I love spiders and nettles/Because we hate them,” wrote Victor Hugo in 1856). Other French writers (Marquis de Sade, Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille) have contemplated evil as a kind of spiritual exercise, testing how much their minds—and readers—could tolerate.
Ezra Pound hailed a “cult of ugliness” as part of a modernist program. This echoed the Italian and Russian Futurist manifesto, entitled “Let Us Be Courageously Ugly,” which stated that “our aim is to underline the great importance for art of harshness, dissonance, and pure primordial coarseness.” The gay sensibility of camp is related to other forms of ironic (kitsch) or militant (punk) ugliness, and Eco at least acknowledges them, even if he isn’t able to effectively separate them.
At times, he speculates that absolute ugliness may exist. The smell of excrement and the sight of putrefying flesh, he points out, are offensive across all cultures. If he had included the writings of evolutionary biologists, he might have told us why this could be so. That he shows no awareness of post-Darwinian science can mean only that he isn’t serious about locating the sources of aesthetic feelings. Hegel suggested that ugliness was a “species” of beauty. I suspect Eco’s latest effort was hatched as a sport of his earlier research, and although both books are handsome and kinky fun, in neither case does he appear to have overexerted himself.