The Ugly Truth About Not Seeing Beauty

To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence.—Oscar Wilde

One of the most pernicious aspects of postmodern culture is its degradation of beauty in an effort to promote equality. I am not speaking here about physical beauty—although that, too, is under fire from well-intentioned individuals. The real danger is beauty’s absence from our way of seeing the world. The ethic of postmodernism, in general, is to read against the grain, to look for what is marginalized and silent, and has no voice. This privileges the voices and experiences of the oppressed, which is, of course, good.

But one unintended irony of this way of seeing is that goodness itself is frequently, even pathologically, overlooked. The beauty of humanity is not seen at all because we’re too busy looking for its ugliness. As a university instructor, I teach and work alongside individuals who believe that the aim of goodness is to be on the lookout for injustice, so goodness itself becomes the doppelgänger of oppression, dogging its steps. We see this punitive morality at work in all facets of modern society: donations to the rebuilding of Notre Dame, for instance, are condemned by some because the people who gave weren’t giving correctly, or to the correct project. Meanwhile, the beautiful act of charity itself is entirely ignored. The seeking out of oppression occurs perhaps most often when we examine the relationship between women and men, a fundamental, unavoidable aspect of our species and civilization. We find misogyny everywhere. When we search for something, we tend to find what we’re looking for, especially when it’s something obvious, such as the ugliness within humanity—we often can be pretty awful, after all! Although the desire to remedy injustice and repair social imbalances is sympathetic and noble, there is a danger of looking so intently for instances of oppression that we see it to the exclusion of all else, to the exclusion of humanity’s beauty—our generosity, charity and grace. When we understand morality as a way of looking at the world that does not include gratitude, when we are so focused on our disaffections and injustices that we don’t see the possibilities of human beauty within the very structure of the civilization that we critique, then our moral code is not simply problematic, it is a perversion of goodness itself.

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew might seem like a strange text to turn to in the face of these conflicting moral positions, but the play is a touchstone for the way of seeing things beautifully that our culture has not simply forgotten, but is being encouraged to oppose. It deals explicitly with the age-old battle of the sexes, which third-wave feminism unanimously defines as age-old patriarchal oppression. This is a play, contemporary scholars teach, about misogyny (the clue is in its title). It is about patriarchal control and the constraints of the socially constructed Elizabethan gender roles, the oppressive legacy of which we’re still living with today. Its antagonist Petruchio uses brutality to tame the “shrew” Kate—a fiercely independent woman labelled shrewish simply because she challenges the patriarchal status quo and resists the one, narrow option available to her, that of the mild and obedient wife. In the end, recent criticism states, Kate is forced into a position of feminine passivity and abjectness because it is her only choice under patriarchy. She’s either broken in spirit by the process, or submitting to her husband only ironically, or under compulsion, or because if she submits her husband can no longer force her to be obedient—making submission her only pathway towards agency, however limited.

We must save Will Shakespeare himself from affirming the oppressive hierarchy. So we deconstruct the text to show how it reveals the cruelty of the patriarchy, and how Shakespeare is critical of its proscriptions of female behaviour. These readings of the play—which are really all the same reading: patriarchy/misogyny, patriarchy/oppression, patriarchy/control—are so orthodox as to go unquestioned, and most criticism of the text is merely a variation upon the same theme. Scholarly work reads like a summary of these critical assumptions: “dominating,” “social anxieties,” “subjectivity and resistance,” “cultural control” and “gender education” are just some snippets from the titles of recent critical work on Taming. Reading the text has become an exercise in exactly the kind of oppression-seeking that is the most ugly, uncharitable way of seeing. Worse, perhaps, these conclusions have become so anodyne that the play itself has come to seem boring. Why read something that is so obviously predetermined? Shakespeare’s imagination is flattened into critical conformity.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, while preparing to teach the play for the first time last summer, I pulled an old 1974 Riverside Shakespeare volume off the shelf and read Anne Barton’s introduction to the play—one of the most astonishing and eye-opening pieces of scholarship I have ever encountered. Barton’s criticism is centred on the idea that the pathway to happiness does not occur through the expression of one’s will or voice or ego, but that radical self-giving love frees one from the prison of the self and that submission to a relationship is a more beautiful way of being an individual. “What Petruchio wants, and ends up with,” she writes, “is a Katherina of unbroken spirit and gaiety who has suffered only minor physical discomfort and who has learned the value of self-control and of caring about someone other than herself.” “Heartily sick of a single life,” she continues, “she is really more than ready to give herself to a man but, imprisoned within a set of aggressive attitudes which have become habitual, has not the faintest idea how to do so.” Barton concludes, “Petruchio wins in the end not because of superior force but because he succeeds in showing Katherina both the unloveliness of the false personality she has adopted and the emotional truth of the self she has submerged.” The play is, “perhaps the most unequivocally light-hearted of all Shakespeare’s comedies.”

Here was a way of reading and of seeing that did not have resentment as its driving force, but joy and generosity. No wonder I had had little interest in this play for so many years, when the only thing that could be said about it was that women only understand themselves in relation to oppressive male control. But here, in 1974, from the pen of a woman who surely knew something about the patriarchy of academic England—she was, after all, the first female fellow of New College, Oxford, and surely knew a thing or two about the old boys’ club—something beautiful had been said about the play. For perhaps the first time, I approached the play with fresh eyes and an unbiased perspective. Barton’s reading cured me of the belief that I had to hate this play.

More importantly, Barton’s response reminded me that women have not always understood themselves as victims of male oppression, but as co-conspirators with them against an indifferent and oppressive world. The problem of patriarchal oppression as defined by feminists is, of course, not that women are in any way inferior to men, but that they are treated as inferior by men. It is a problem of the relationship between men and women. Viewed in this way, the independence of the sexes might seem to be our goal. Yet, in the supposedly misogynistic Taming of the Shrew—and in many of Shakespeare’s other plays, as well as in all the love poetry ever written—it is not in isolation from each other, but within the romantic female–male relationship that women (and men) experience the most freedom from social constraints and the greatest personal agency and sexual equality. Far from being an instrument of male oppression, erotic friendship—the union of mutual sexual desire with esteem and respect—opens up a space for delight in sex/gender roles. Such roles come into view, not as false consciousness, nor as something prescribed, but as a secret joy discovered together. Of course these roles are often socially constructed! Must that make them any less fun?

We can read Shakespeare’s narrative of Kate’s transformation from shrew to obedient wife not as the defeat of a strong woman or the containment of a subversive female, but as a free and generous act lovingly performed. An act that frees Kate from the restrictions of an anxious and frustrated selfhood. It might be hard for us to entertain this other story of Kate’s transformation—is not her affection for Petruchio simply an instance of Stockholm syndrome, an example of a woman who must make the best of her situation by coming to love her captor? But Shakespeare already anticipates this kind of disbelief and cynicism. We are not the only ones who do not take Kate at her word: all the other men at the end of the play scoff at the idea of her genuine change. When we do not take her happy submission seriously—as a sign of her freedom and joy—we align ourselves with the play’s real misogynists, the men insecure about their positions relative to a strong woman.

Kate and Petruchio leave the stage, after much kissing, to go “to bed.” One does not get the impression that there will be much sleeping going on. Nor does it seem that Kate finds their relationship in any way oppressive. In an unusual move for Shakespeare, with Kate and Petruchio we get not just an engagement at the close of the play, but a glimpse into their married life (they get married in the middle of the play, in Act 3). Shakespeare presents us with more than just a companionate marriage—it is also an erotic one. There is no sense that Kate is leaving the stage to experience her femininity as a trauma, as oppressive, or—to use Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase in The Second Sex—“as a mutilation,” but as a joyful component of her humanity. She is a desiring subject, as well as the object of Petruchio’s desire.

Critics may point out that Kate’s transformation cannot be taken seriously because, as a character in a man’s play, she merely represents the male fantasy of female sexual compliance—especially since the entire story of Kate and Petruchio is a sort of play-within-a-play, performed for a drunken tinker named Sly. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these critics are right—that Kate only seems to desire Petruchio because Shakespeare uses her to perform man’s fantasy of the ideal woman: a wife who is not self-interested, an enthusiastic and agreeable domestic and sexual partner. But is this really such a horrible thing for men to wish for? What is our expectation of desire these days? That we not desire what we’d like to desire? That humans, especially men, desire only what we think is moral or equitable for them to desire? Is there no room for us to understand that humans have competing desires? That a desire for cultural control or gender education might be exceeded by a desire for a free-willed, spirited and loving, giving wife? Even if contemporary criticism is right that Petruchio is a brute and Sly a pig, is it impossible to entertain the idea that their desire for a happy and free female partner might mean that these men in fact value and desire female agency? Why must we see male desire for a willing female companion, one who brings her own agency into her act of love, as a source of oppression? This is the most ungenerous, uncharitable way of looking at the world. It is a form of moral perversion that distorts our perceptions by being blind to the good and the beautiful.

The problem is that—because we’re being taught to look for ugliness, for the Foucauldian structures of power and oppression that apparently colour all aspects of our lives—we are overlooking the beauty of submission, obedience and service to those we love. We understand that often these qualities have been forced upon women as a form of oppression; we understand that sometimes the role of submissive wife has oppressed women and bolstered male power and control. But are we incapable of realizing that this needn’t always be the case? If we cannot also understand that obedience isn’t always a form of oppression, that service to another is often given freely and joyfully, especially within a family unit, and that submission requires a great deal of self-sovereignty and strength of character—after all, only a person with a strong sense of self is able to accomplish true submission, otherwise it’s just defeat and brokenness—if we cannot see these things as beautiful acts carried out in love, then our way of seeing is itself ugly.

If it’s now morally good to look for ugliness, what hope do we have that seeing with goodness can make a comeback? How can we see beauty, if we never look for it? The answer to this is astonishingly—even beautifully—simple. Beauty must seek us out, surprise us, lie in ambush for us and catch us off guard. This happens, paradoxically, when we mourn for beauty’s absence from the world and long for its return. Beauty finds us when we grow weary of not seeing it. Contemporary scholarship’s way of seeing is very good at signalling its own moral progress by looking for structures of power. By looking for structures of power, we are merely moving the location of power from one side of the scale to the other—this is why we increasingly see how powerful it can be to be a victim. Yet I’ve seen what happens—in a university class, for instance—when not power but beauty moves someone—or moves me. A line from a poem, or the deep self-sacrifice of a character in a play, or sometimes even the surprising way a classmate or a professor responds emotionally to a text, can move us, displace us from our discourse of power: provide its own idea, a new way of seeing. When this happens, our other ideas are somehow ordered properly because we have been moved. To move means literally to change position, to shift our ground, to see differently because our angle of vision has shifted. And it is the shift, this moving of oneself, that allows for clarity. Beauty draws our gaze towards it so that we can see clearly.

What I’m describing may sound hopelessly romantic, even silly. But it is the only way of seeing that isn’t hopeless or silly because it requires real courage, because it demands humility, generosity and charity rather than self-confirmatory punitive moral censoriousness. Seeing beautifully requires fortitude precisely because humanity is often so readily and naturally ugly—it means raising a glass to the good, because there is so much bad. To see things through generous eyes doesn’t mean we don’t see things that are ugly, it means we don’t only see power imbalance in an effort to strip it away and leave—what? What is the truth we’re trying to reveal? That human flourishing will only happen when we’re all free to become self-willed, self-actualized individuals? Sounds pretty lonely. Kate’s act of submission is beautiful because she understands that her own will can be a prison. Petruchio’s act is beautiful because he esteems her for her free and joyful giving, which makes him worthy of the gift. He’s a ruler, because she makes him one. She has the power to bestow this prestige on him, so she’s a ruler too. The alternative to this kind of relationship is one in which everything is equal, so there is no submission, no gift of the self, just mutually self-interested exchange, which will lead to the dead end of our own egos. Like masturbating with another person. Seeing beautifully isn’t naïve. It’s the antidote to nihilism.

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10 comments

  1. Another scattershot article which goes here and there going off on tangents which do not relate to the interesting title.

    Regarding Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in which the author gives her and some other person’s perspective she avidly agrees but which also doesn’t relate to the titled subject: the play was more about the meeting of two very, stubborn, proud, lustfully attracted strong-willed people and the comedic way it unfolds in which they both meet up as respectful equals.

    The only take away from reading the essay was finding a comment posted by Anonymous which added realistic humor, a much needed levity.

  2. “The alternative to this kind of relationship is one in which everything is equal, so there is no submission, no gift of the self, just mutually self-interested exchange, which will lead to the dead end of our own egos. Like masturbating with another person. ”

    It doesn’t seem like the author put any effort to see the beauty in “equal” relationships. I agree that there is a lot of beauty in the type of submission described here, but describing the alternative in this way is a huge logical leap and unnecessarily insulting and confrontational.

  3. humanity IS ugly. we’re covered in goopy, slimy orifices, bot macroscopic AND microscopic. we expel an ammonia-based compound several times a day, and decomposing organic matter about once a day. and not only do we emit blasts of methane gas out of the latter orifice throughout the day, but we usually practice deception regarding it. we have hair, but not enough to be cute, and too much to not notice. and have you ever smelled a cat’s armpit? doesn’t smell any different from the rest of the cat, right? now try that with a human.

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  4. I must credit Ms. Simon. It is truly incredible, the gusto with which she advocates for finding beauty in her own sex’s subjugation. I hope it is not lost on her that she would not be free to teach her courses or publish this article if it weren’t for all of the terrible “self-willed, self-actualized individuals” who refused to be subsumed by their husbands.

    There may be a danger in looking too critically, but there is also danger in letting a gram of good ameliorate a ton of bad.

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    1. Imagine my shock when I found out, as an adult, that most women prefer being in a relationship with a dominant man. Wow, that was an eye-opener. The unpleasant, shrewish women are a tiny, overly vocal minority who are unhappy, and don’t see why other women should be allowed to be happy. This has been known for a long time, but somehow I got well into adulthood before I found it out.

      “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children…because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”
      — French feminist Simone de Beauvoir

  5. Addendum to my post, for Marilyn, the English lit instructor. Please apply my words about how to engage the “people we meet” to how we engage literature. Literature too becomes what we visualize it as. Nothing wrong with finding structures of oppression there, but don’t overlook the beauty and let it become a self-righteous exercise in finding (or constructing) everything terrible about each work.

  6. Fine essay on an overlooked angle of what’s going on. We become what we visualize. We need to visualize not guilt, not self-loathing in ourselves or others. We need to visualize a way out, visualize harmony with our friends, neighbors, and across demographic lines. Maybe if we scrap the political presets and rely on only heart and imagination to see the good in everyone we meet, regardless of race, class, or whatever, we’d be at least one step closer that elusive ideal union.

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