Sunday, 15 March 2015

Beauty in Brokenness

An Ugly Perfection

As I write this, I can see wisps of smoke coming out from the neighbour’s chimney pot. It is a fairly new house – it has only one chimney pot. Older buildings betray their history by the number of chimney pots – look at the roofs of older houses, and you see whole stacks of chimneys, and most rooms have fireplaces, now, of course mostly boarded up.

There is something very primal about a fireplace, blazing logs and coals, that perhaps harks back to our distant past, where human beings mastered the art of making fire. Sometimes that was done by friction of sticks, bound together with twine, rubbed together to create heat, but as we also know from the archaeological record, stone age men used flints to create sparks.

Before that, fires were an outcome of natural forces – lightening setting trees on fire, or the inferno burning up the grown when lava flows. The Greek legend has the titan Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods, and giving it to mankind. Prometheus is sentenced to eternal torment for doing this.

The legend of Prometheus feeds directly into that take which took the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her scientist dabbles in the stuff of life itself, the vita élan, the life force. She was aware of the experiments of Galvani with a frog, making a severed frog’s leg twitch by the application of an electric current, and rather vague notions of electricity come as part of Frankenstein’s experiment to create life.

The Universal cycle of films drew on this, and gave Frankenstein a whole complex madly sparking electric apparatus, powered by the same lightening that brought the original fire to mankind. The creature is not the literate being of the novel, but a child trapped inside a monster’s body, beautifully portrayed by Karloff as we see the expressions on his face.

Later actors simply played the monster as a monster, a mindless killer who destroyed, but Karloff is an uncomprehending innocent, born to a world where he is tortured by Frankenstein’s servant with fire, and shunned and driven to his death by the villagers, who see only the surface, and a fiend.

Hounding someone because of their appearance is something that happened to Lizzie Velasquez'. She was with two rare conditions - Marfan and lipodystrophy – both which contributed to physical deformity in her body and face.

At 17, she came across a YouTube clip of herself entitled “The World's Ugliest Woman” and cried for many nights after that.

"Why would her parents keep her?!" read one of the comments, "kill it with fire" said another. And there were thousands. A mob was out, in cyberspace, hounding her.

But the love which her parents gave her enabled her to come through, and she has produced a Youtube video, "How do you define yourself?". You can view it here.

And read more about her story here

There is a long tradition associating beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil. Think of the fairy tales – Cinderella and her ugly sisters, or the way in which in Disney’s Snow White, the Queen transforms herself into an ugly crone. Think of Shakespear’s three hags in Macbeth, wicked witches seeking to do harm. When the fairy tale praises ugliness despite appearances, it is usually because it is beauty disguised – the Beast turns out to be a handsome prince, the Ugly Duckling transforms to a beautiful swan.

Depictions of Jesus all too often make him out to be handsome, attractive, and definitely not ugly. And yet Christians often see Jesus prefigured in the text of the “suffering servant” written in the Hebrew scriptures by the prophet Isiaah.

“Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”

The early Church often saw this as prefiguring the coming of Jesus, but whether we see it that way or not, what is remarkable is what we do not read in the passage – “he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him”

There is a painting - Madonna and Child, by Andrea Mantegna, dating from around 1460 — in which Jesus appears to have some of the characteristics of Down Syndrome.

As one writer said:

“We try to hide our humanity and allow people to only see a mask of good, but, in the depths of our hearts, we are anything but. Someone with Down Syndrome wears their humanity right on their face, the high forehead, the flattened face, the folds under their slanted eyes. One glance reveals all. Imperfection, and yet perfection.”


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