Author's note: This essay was written for a college English class. I know some of the words are a bit archaic/obscure but the target audience isn't the layman. Thus, it's meant to be a bit more intense/formal as opposed to casual or light. I've already gotten the grade back but I figure more insight never hurts! Thanks y'all!
P.S. The title refers to "sanguine" as in the color, blood red. That caught a few of my readers up in the past XD It might be changed 'cause it's a bit of an obscure usage but for now, it sticks.
Purity. Beauty. Truth. Concepts so simple—so elementary—that each and every one of us believe we hold an understanding of them. Concepts that come together to create the perfect image: the innocent, flawless vision of beauty that has been present since long lost tales of metallic-maned unicorns and ivory-skinned virgins; an idea that, somehow, this “perfection” is what mankind considers beautiful and attractive, and what they should strive for, because that is beauty. Real beauty. Pure beauty. Though many cultures across the world have a version of this sort of pure, innocent character—from virgin deities to mythical creatures—America has taken its search for perfection to an entirely new level and one that’s exceedingly superficial. The image of perfect purity that represents beauty isn’t one that represents the truth, nor one that reflects the soul: it’s a spray-tan, a thigh-gap, a thin body, blonde hair, and blue eyes; a chiseled chin, muscular physique, impressive height, and a white-toothed smile; an artificial image designed to create the appearance of purity while masking the truth. Americans are enculturated to see this artificial prettiness—a mere mirage of superficial purity—as beauty, but, in focusing on this facade, we lose sight of the authentic beauty of the deepest truths in life, however twisted.
Indeed, the idea of beauty that Americans are uncultured to believe in pursues purity through a perfect, flawless, image of artificial prettiness instead of authentic beauty. This “Hallmark beauty” (Parfitt & Scorzewski 251) is evident in every beauty outlet and fashion magazine and beach bikini. In the photoshopped and airbrushed photographs that remove any blemish; the skinny jeans that are barely functional so they may hug a stick-like figure; and the tan skin, round derrières, large breasts, and long legs of the girls lounging on the southern California coastlines.* It’s an idea of prettiness mistaken for beauty that’s instilled in us at a young age. It’s around every corner, on every billboard, in every movie, in every mall. Just step outside and see the twelve-year-olds wearing makeup and sitting on their iPhones or the teenage girls in their mini shorts and crop tops. The truth is, however, this idea of beauty is fake, and therein not truly beautiful. As Eric Wilson in his essay “Terrible Beauty” puts it, “Prettiness, the manifestation of American happiness, is devoted to predictability and smoothness…[it] has no dangerous edges; the pretty face features no unexpected distortions” but beauty is “something much wilder: the violent ocean rolling under the tepidly peaceful beams or the dark and jagged peaks that bloody the hands…” (Parfitt & Scorczewski 251). In other words, prettiness is the pure, unblemished, artificial beauty that Americans are conditioned to pursue by all those magazines, photos, and outlets, where beauty—true beauty—lies in the savage, the imperfect, and, perhaps, even in death. The American ideal is “perfect.” It’s unblemished, smooth, and predictable, as Wilson so astutely points out. It says that if something is imperfect, it is therefore not beautiful. In essence, American culture conditions us to believe that beauty is artificial perfection when truly beauty really lies in darker, more twisted aspects of the world.
Because of this, America often loses sight of the beauty of pain. Take, for example, the story of Frida Kahlo, a renowned and respected artist whose self-portraits reflected her struggles both emotionally and physically and whose art was largely ignored in her time. She suffered illness and great physical injury from a bus accident (Souter 153) in addition to intense struggles with her husband, Diego Rivera, who admittedly took her for granted and only later realized the disservice he’d done to the both of them after she’d died (Souter 154). She processed this pain through her art. As Frida herself put it, “My painting contains in it the message of pain…[Yet,] few people are interested in it…[It] completed my life…I lost three children and a series of other things that would have fulfilled my horrible life. My painting took the place of all of this” (Souter 154). Her truth—her soul—came through in her work, because it was there that she placed all her grief, pain, and struggle, and that is what made it beautiful. Certainly, there was talent in the brushwork and there were hours upon hours put into each and every painting, but were it only skill and not heart it would be as artificial as the spray-tan of those beach girls. They showed soul, truth, and there’s a purity in that even if it’s shrouded in intense physical and emotional agony and torment. It’s that purity that’s so enchanting and it’s why such art is so authentically beautiful. Even so, few people recognized or respected her work in her lifetime, as her words so plainly state. This is merely one of many examples of artists whose art came from their pain but whose work was largely ignored because their enculturation didn’t allow them to see it. American society conditions its people to avoid or turn their backs on pain instead of seeing the beauty in it.
Pain, however, isn’t the only thing that is often overlooked due to American enculturation—the sanguine beauty of the savage and the cruel aspects of nature is yet another truthful beauty that’s shunned in American culture. Mankind values truth, and it always has, but in America, any truths that are shrouded beneath such bloodshed or damage is turned away and viewed in naught but a negative light. That much is made clear by the reactions of the vast majority of Americans when, for the first time, they see a dying animal or earth-shattering natural disaster. It’s a reaction of fear, and perhaps even abhorrence for the offending circumstance or being. But is there, truly, anything more pure and authentic than the primal, visceral satisfaction—and perhaps even joy—of a predator when its prey is finally grasped its talons or the churning walls of titian flame that raze a great forest without clouded intentions nor conflicts, doing only as it was designed, pure and simple? Nature is a cruel mistress, a fact that has been proven time and time again, but she is a beautiful one, especially in her power. To hail once more to Wilson’s words, “Beauty…is organic…The rough sea appears to manifest some magnificently afflicted organic principle. The intricate face in the same way probably corresponds to a nimble and flexible mind within. This ocean, this face: both are ultimately beautiful because…the turbulent sea threatens destruction as much as creation [and] the pied visage shows decay as well as growth” (252). It’s not beautiful if it’s perfect or solely pretty; it’s beautiful because of the truth, even if that natural and internal truth is savage, dangerous, or terrifying. Savagery, too, can contain authentic beauty despite how our culture has trained us to turn our backs on it.
These things are, perhaps, mere shadows of the final authentic beauty that is relevant to all of us who walk this earth yet is so avoided by American society: death. It’s a horrifying image to many of us, and one that we avoid as much as we possibly can—we tell children that the dog “went to the farm” when, in reality, he was put down, or that the roadkill is merely sleeping because death is so vast and unknown we can’t bring ourselves to tell our own offspring about it. Yet, death is, in essence, the transience that is at the core of life. It’s the commonality that all living things have, be they human or animal, animal or plant, a eukaryote or prokaryote, a single-celled organism or a fully-realized, sentient being. This, too, is something that “Terrible Beauty” refers to: “life grows from death; death gives rise to life…everything, no matter how beautiful, must die…[appreciate] things more because they die” (251). It’s a circle—an endless, beautiful, imperfect circle—of life and death, death and life, again and again and again for every living soul. But it’s this transience, this fleeting, momentary life, that makes it beautiful. It’s pure and simple and wholly genuine in all its light and its darkness. That’s why death isn’t the terror it’s made out to be. It encompasses life—all of life, in its authenticity, truth, imperfections, and savagery—and that is more beautiful and pure than any image or human construction or superficial being. Despite American culture’s inherent avoidance of the subject, it is, in truth, one of the most beautiful things in this world.
Ultimately, it isn’t the ivory-coated unicorn with a resplendent silver mane dancing in the moonlight or the Kardashian-type body that is beautiful, despite what American culture has conditioned us to think. That’s a mere facade, a mirage, a pretend prettiness that seeks to accomplish beauty through purity by creating a perfect image. Beauty lies in the purity that comes with the raw truth, no matter how bizarre or twisted that truth may be: in destruction, in pain, in melancholy, in the raging tempest and the silent serpent and, perhaps most of all, in death.
Wilson, Eric G. “Terrible Beauty.” Pursuing Happiness: a Bedford Spotlight Reader, edited by Matthew Parfitt & Dawn Skorczewski, Bedford St. Martin’s, 2016, 247-257.
Souter, Gerry. Frida Kahlo. Parkstone International, 2011, New York. 14 April 2019.*
*the library is through my local community college. Unfortunately, by disclosing that collection's name, it'd disclose personal information about my location. Rest assured it is reliable, however. Or don't take my word for it, I suppose, up to you ;P