Whenever I have the grace and good fortune to call a woman beautiful, she derails the whole thing by calling me biased: “You think I’m beautiful,” she’ll say. This means, of course, “Thanks, you’re nice, and I’m tickled by your attention, but don’t forget, there’s a whole world out there, one that ain’t so familiar with my flat nose and vacant expression. While you might find my giraffe-shaped mole endearing (riddled with affection as you are) they might find it (and me) quite otherwise.”
“Well, they’re bastards, then.” I used to say, but I’ve since Gone To College. Now I’ll say a bit more.
In every other field of knowing, familiarity and affection are seen as Rather Good Things. The marine biologist with an undying passion for plankton, the physicist who spends twenty years investigating a single theoretical particle — these are the people we trust to say true things about the objects given to their attention. Why is it, then, that when the object is one’s neighbor, and the proposition is “you are beautiful,” familiarity and affection are suddenly considered detriments to true insight? If a man spends several years gazing with fascination at a particular combination of pores and creases and comes to the conclusion that they make up a beautiful face, why is he checked by the possible-opinion of plebeians without the wherewithal to enter into such a study?
The assumption that love distorts our view of the truth of things assumes that the loveless begin with 20/20 vision. Au contraire, I say there is no gaze as susceptible to the cataracts of bias, prejudice, idiocy and bigotry as the general gaze of a public unfamiliar and loveless towards their object. This gaze made the sexless, air-brushed, photo-shopped, unsmiling, pre-pubescent super-model into a profitable standard of beauty. This general gaze has elevated the sneer of disgust into the supreme symbol of sexual attractiveness. This gaze sails the waves of fashion — first praising the plump, now boosting the bony; now powdering the skin, now the toasting it tan — all of it driven by the winds of novelty and corporate suggestion. Why do we trust this “real world” with greater accuracy than those who actually see our faces — our mothers, fathers, friends and lovers?
That a mother thinks her child’s squishy face is beautiful may not be a bias, but the destruction of a cultural bias for thin faces. That a man thinks his wife’s small breasts are beautiful does not make him small-minded — he may well be of larger mind than a culture prejudiced in favor of large breasts. It is not a prejudice of affection that has a wife think her husband handsome through weight gain, weight loss, wrinkling and all the rest. Rather, affection frees her from the idiotic prejudice that beauty is an attribute plastered to a single, youthful stage of life — her familiarity with her object lifts her from a cultural crust of unthought preferences and unchecked beliefs. Love pierces through store-bought ideals and reveals us in all our particular, unrepeatable value. Only a blind generation could call it blind.
We do, of course, for it is commonly thought that the “objective” man is the man most detached from the object that he studies. This cannot be true. If it were, the most objective man in the universe would be the man so detached from the object of his study that he had never even heard of it. The ideal qualification for a position at a research department would be “neither knowing nor giving a damn” about the objects researched. Against this view, I assert a truism no longer considered true: To be objective is to be concerned with an object. There is no absurdity waiting at the end of this line of thought. If it is true, then the most objective man in the universe would be the man so fascinated, so in love with the object of his study, that he pursues the truth of its being with devotion, refusing to allow any prejudice or bias to hide its true nature from sight. It is not a peak of detachment that makes a man objective, but a peak of interest.
There is a kind of love that hampers objective knowledge, but it is not a love for the thing known. It is a perverse self-love on the part of the knower. A familiarity and affection for asteroid belts does not disqualify an astronomer from predicting their whereabouts — an affection for glamorous publications may. So too, it is not love for another human being that should cast suspicion on our compliments, but self-love. When “you are beautiful” really means “I feel tingly when I look at you,” then the complimented woman has every right to check my report against the larger body politic: “Sure, you say I’m beautiful, and you’re getting a lot out of the fact. But what about those who don’t feel quite so warm in the chest when they note the rise and fall of my eyebrows?”
But love cannot bear to be a mere subjective status update. Love is oriented towards the object that it loves. If it did otherwise — tending towards my own feelings, some other object or some falsified shadow of the real thing — then, whatever it is, it ain’t love. Love demands that we strip ourselves of false-notions and self-interests and allow the object of our love to “be itself.” Love is the primordial science, the original ecstatic motion (from ex-stasis, “outside oneself”), the “letting-be” of the other that allows us to speak the truth about her.
All of which is to say that to shuffle off the compliment of “beauty” from a familiar and affectionate friend by calling it “one man’s opinion” seems silly. By what criteria could you ever know that you are beautiful, if not by the testimony of an outward observer with an affection and familiarity for his object, freed by the power of love from his cultural biases, and overflowing with the inner conviction of the truth of the proposition? A sociological study? An online survey? No, only love can see, for love is sight — clearheaded sight in a muddle-headed world.