Beauty Matters in a Plague

The definition of beauty is easy. It's what leads to desperation.

Hi! This is a special edition of the newsletter based on the notes for the stuff I’m writing for my book, which feels relevant right now. Normally book related newsletters are paid subscribers only content, but today is an exception. Please feel free to share this with your network - I’ll be donating 50% of the paid subscriptions for signups for the next two weeks, ending on May 1st, to Beauty2theStreetz (an organization linked below), and the subscriptions are discounted for this period of time. I will be using the rest of it on buying spray paint to cover up some of the anti-Asian graffiti in my neighborhood, because it is depressing as hell.

Get 20% off for 1 year

I don’t plan on offering this discount again, so if you haven’t subscribed already I encourage you to do so within this time period. Freelance budgets for publications across the board are being frozen or halved, so this is a way to directly support me as a writer while we endure. And with that - let’s get to it!


I haven’t written my favorite thoughts on beauty. Paul Valery got to it first - he wrote that, “the definition of beauty is easy - it’s what leads to desperation.”

When I first read that, in his collected works, I screamed. It’s as good an expansion of my mantra that beauty is terror that I’ve ever seen. And lately, that premise is painfully true. We’ve got idiots out on the streets protesting quarantine. On that bend, we’ve also got people advocating for salons to soft re-open, and stylists and technicians and tattoo artists offering at-home appointments, disregarding the fines they can get and the fact that does not really prevent community spread. It’s dangerous, our compulsion for beauty. Our aesthetic demands can be a death cult, actually!

My friend Ashley said the other day that right now we’re all watching people go through withdrawal from the emotional addiction of certainty, and I think that’s really true. Beauty isn’t certainty, but our habitual pursuit of it certainly is. Even if we aren’t high maintenance about our self-care routines, in one way or another we do things to make beauty ours in little and every day ways. Not just ours but we do things to share and spread beauty. I was rereading Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, thinking about the Paul Valery quote the other morning, and reading it during a pandemic is a trip. The book opens with an extended comparison to how beauty acts as a contagion. Here are some excerpts:

Beauty is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, as when a legion of people begin to style themselves after a particular movie starlet, but this is just an imperfect version of a deeply beneficent momentum toward repetition.

Later on in that chapter she also writes beautifully about Odysseus’s journey:

“You are about to be in the presence of something life-giving, lifesaving, something that deserves from you a posture of reverence or petition. It is not clear whether you should throw yourself on your knees before it or keep your distance from it, but you had better figure out the right answer because this is not an occasion for carelessness or for leaving your own postures wholly to chance. It is not that beauty is life-threatening (though this attribute has sometimes been assigned it), but instead that it is life-affirming, life-giving; and therefore if, through your careless approach, you become cut off from it, you will feel its removal as a retraction of life. You will fall back into the sea, which even now, as you stand there gazing, is only a few feet behind you.” The framework of strategy and deliberation literalizes, rather than undermines, the claim that beauty is lifesaving.

I think it’s funny and appropriate that the chapter is called On Beauty and Being Wrong. When I read it now, it becomes really obvious that we do stupid shit in the pursuit of beauty, in the pursuit of a semblance of normalcy, and that we do have an emotional addiction to capturing the sublime. Which I think is fine, actually, if it doesn’t endanger yourself and others. Which is what we are actually dealing with - the risk to community health. For a fucking haircut. Like Valery said! Beauty leads to desperation.


Of course, Scarry also pointed out that it is also life-saving. This is also true. Take, for example, the situation in prisons right now.

Prisoners across the country are being denied soap and other hygiene goods. This has been extensively reported on, and is also not a new problem. However, given Rikers has the highest rate of infection in the country and also THE WORLD, it is essential that we both get them access to hygiene products and also free as many people as possible. There are plenty of ways to help out.

Soap/Commissary and Letters:

Beauty Specific

  • Read this piece on Shirley Raines and her organization, Beauty2thestreetz. I’ve been wanting to write about Shirley for years but it just never happened, so I’m glad she’s getting shine now. However, donations of supplies etc are drying up right now just as they’re needed the most. Please donate to her and help get resources to the people in need on Skid Row.

  • You can also donate to ReFresh Spot which has joined forces with the LA Dept of Health to up their shower/hygiene services to be 24 hrs a day.

  • Obviously I’m really impressed and happy of the work that Donate Beauty is doing right now. So far several beauty editors have banned together and managed to foster over 100,000+ beauty products to doctors/nurses/front line medical staff around the country and they’re still going. Cheryl and I worked together on donation based fundraising a little white ago (Beauty Fire Sale 4ever) and I’m glad to see more organizing done from within the beauty editorial community.

  • There is also the new 501(c)(3) organization, Support Creatives, which you can read about here. Its aim is to provide artists in need with financial assistance, mentorship programs and educational resources during times of uncertainty. This can be in the form of grants, products/supplies for their job, etc.

  • My pal Collier also wrote this very relevant-to-o-me piece on flowers during COVID-19. Where have all the flowers gone?

  • Revisiting Swole Without a Goal today: “A theory: We crave beauty because, like the unalterable spectra of light itself, it finds us, and not the other way around. We’re helpless to its whims. Beauty could seek us, or not. Beauty couldn’t care less. Power has the same allure—we only understand what it can do, and to whom, after a demonstration. Exactly how much of beauty or power is that elusiveness, I don’t know.”

  • I revisited Maggie Nelson’s poem, Thanksgiving, the other day. I have the following stanza memorized, no surprise:

    Can beauty save us? Yesterday
    I looked at the river and a sliver
    of moon and knew the answer;

    today I fell asleep in a spot of sun
    behind a Vermont barn, woke to
    darkness, a thin whistle of wind

    and the answer changed. 

    In conclusion, I leave you with this to close my loop for today.

    Stay safe, be ugly, know beauty, and remember: it’s gonna be OK one day. Much love,

    Arabelle

    Get 20% off for 1 year