Deeper Than Skin
Beauty has a powerful effect on the human nervous system. For something that neither shelters nor nourishes us in any literal sense, the primitive desire to seek out, possess and even to create beauty is among the most deeply ingrained of psychological drives. I'm not strictly talking about attraction to a sexually alluring individual, but rather that thing that compels us to fall silent in the presence of a colorful sunset or a lightning storm, or to build a massive tourist industry around a rocky, inhospitable trench in the desert.
In popular culture, beauty reigns uncontested. It rules entire fields of the performing arts, film, dance, popular music, fashion and advertising. Far more interesting is the interjection of beauty where it's least expected—in science or politics, for example—and the results can defy all logic. (Is there any other explanation for Sarah Palin?)
According to NPR, more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other human being in history besides Jesus. But which President's pretty face gets printed on more t-shirts and referenced in more pop songs? JFK, by a landslide.
I know what you're thinking. Beautiful people get a free pass in life? Stop the presses! No no no, this is about something more subtle. Take Che Guevara, the martyred Marxist and free-floating revolutionary whose bromance with Fidel Castro and violent, untimely demise made him a pop culture icon in the public imagination—a public that is largely uninterested in revolution, militarism or Communism of any stripe. Would his face be printed on t-shirts and bedroom walls the world over if he'd looked more like, say... Raul Castro? I suspect not.
But it's about his ideas, I can hear you say... He was an intellectual, a feminist and a poet as well as a man of action. He was driven by idealism to fight for equality and justice. True—and yet the same could be said for Patrice Lumumba, whose face you very rarely see on t-shirts... Not even Gandhi has a t-shirt industry to rival that of El Che...
I mean just look at him! Damn, that boy was fine. Better yet, go check out this interview he did in Ireland on YouTube. I'll wait... (Two things to keep in mind as you watch the video: the lady is not a translator, but an Air Hostess who was pulled off the plane at the last minute to translate. Also, he understood every word they were saying in English. You can see it in his eyes.)
When beauty inserts itself where it's not expected, the effect can be jarring and unsettling, making everyone doubt the motives and meanings behind everyday occurrences. There was this Frontline episode that ran in 2009 during the Iranian uprising when young people were taking to the streets and calling for revolution, only to be tear-gassed and shot at. All of this was captured on video and streamed out to the world, and the world was largely unwilling, if not unable, to help. One of the unlucky protesters was an arrestingly lovely young woman named Neda, about whom Frontline constructed an incredibly hard-to-watch hour of reporting. A Death in Tehran might as well have been called "Death of an Unbelievably Beautiful Woman in Tehran." The fetishistic repetition of her image, and that of her tragic demise, feel like the lowest kind of pandering, a cheap shot (right where they know it'll hurt) to make us care about the atrocities being carried out in a part of the world we've been conditioned not to give a shit about. She's like an improbably alluring version of the little Vietnamese girl fleeing her Napalmed village.
Beauty has started more wars than it's ended, if the history books are to be believed, and it's not the kind of capital you can build empires on. It doesn't feed the hungry or care for the dying, and we might even speculate that had a certain sister in Calcutta been born a stunning beauty, she might never have gone on to become Mother Teresa. But then, there are some things beauty can do—places it can go, messages it can deliver—that nothing else in the world can.
I guess it begs the question, what is beauty's rightful place in a society that seeks gender equality, the elevation of wisdom and morality over brute force, and negotiation over enticements and inducements? It's a good question to which I don't have an answer. All I know is that for all its fragility and fickleness, and its fleeting nature above all, beauty will always be a powerful force in our world. And all this is merely preamble... to a list. My own highly subjective who's who of history's hottest—oh yes, we're doing this. Let's start with...
Guy Fawkes (April 13, 1570–January 31, 1606, age 76)
If the mask is anything to go by, the most famous member of the English Catholic group that planned to blow up the British parliament building on November 5, 1606, was quite the handsome devil. 400 years later, Guy Fawkes has been distilled down to a face—devoid of color or contrasting features—almost entirely symbolic, representing a timeless abstraction, the idea of resistance against tyranny.
Reina Maria of Romania (October 29, 1875—July 18, 1938, age 63)
Born Princess Marie of Edinburgh, she married the heir to the throne of Romania in 1892 and immediately became a beloved representative of the people of her adopted country. She and her daughters served as nurses in military hospitals during the First World War, which only increased her popularity. After the war, she travelled extensively and published a bestselling autobiography.
Lord Byron (January, 22 1788–April 19, 1824, age 36)
Lord Byron was the original Romantic poet, an object of desire for men and women alike. One lover described him as, "mad, bad and dangerous to know," (although someday he may be better remembered as the estranged father of Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer). During his brief 36 years, his lifestyle made him a larger-than-life figure whose personal notoriety surpassed even his considerable literary accolades. One might wonder if Byron would have achieved a fraction of his popularity if he hadn't looked like a young Dionysus. But his appearance contributed to his experience of the world, which in turn fed his writing, and the cultivation of his considerable mystique—one that has since for better or worse, become a familiar model for the masculine artistic temperament—inarguably led to his untimely death... which in turn fired the public imagination, turning him into an even more exaggerated archetype than before.
Lewis Powell (April 22, 1844 – July 7, 1865, age 21)
One of the coconspirators along with John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln. He was an awful person and a miserable failure at his own mission to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward. No more needs to be said about Powell, but just look at him—what the hell, history??
Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi (November, 19 1828 –June 18, 1858, age 29)
Rani was a leading figure in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 who became a symbol of resistance for Indian nationalists. Statues showing her on horseback with her son tied to her back can be seen all over India.
Sir Walter Raleigh (January 22, 1552 or 1554–October 29, 1618, age 65)
"English gentleman, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer. He was responsible for popularizing the use of tobacco in England" and for founding the first ("lost") colony in North America on expeditions sponsored by Queen Elizabeth I. After her death, Raleigh was sentenced and imprisoned for conspiracy by her successor, King James I, who then suspended the sentence and sent him on another expedition. Upon Raleigh's eventual return, however, the King carried out his execution. Raleigh is remembered to this day for many accomplishments, some more dubious than others, but—and quite rightly, I might add—his masculine beauty isn't chief among them. And yet, as this portrait so eloquently attests that beauty was undeniable. Would his beauty be overlooked as a causal factor if he had been a charming young woman at the court of King Elizabeth? We'll never know for sure... but I suspect that Wikipedia entry would at least give it a passing mention.
Kaʻiulani, Crown Princess of the Hawaiian Islands (October 16, 1875-March 6, 1899, age 23)
The daughter of a Hawaiian princess and a Scottish financier, Kaʻiulani was second in line to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Her studies in England were cut short by the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. She pled her case before President Grover Cleveland and made speeches and public appearances campaigning for her nation's independence. Although she gained worldwide fame for her intelligence and determination, she could not save Hawaii and died at the very young age of 23, most likely due to an undiagnosed thyroid disease.
Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931, age 68)
She was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, and early leader in the Civil Rights Movement as well as a cofounder of the NAACP in 1909.
Hermann Rorschach (November 8, 1884 – April 1, 1922, age 37)
The Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who developed the controversial Rorschach inkblot test, and died of peritonitis aged 37, probably resulting from a ruptured appendix. It's funny that such an unlikely pseudoscientific, borderline whimsical (okay—full-on, batshit whimsical) theory as diagnosing mental illness based on how a patient interprets a series of symmetrical blobs of ink on paper ever gained any kind of traction. I mean, sure... we're talking about the same field of medicine that embraced primal scream therapy, lobotomies and polypharmacy for children who won't sit still, so... grain of salt taken. But you have to wonder if at some point Rorschach's mad boyish good looks didn't open a door or two... y'know?
Mihai Eminescu (January 15, 1850- June 15, 1889, age39)
"Unanimously celebrated as the greatest and most representative Romanian poet, his poems span a large range of themes, from nature and love to hate and social commentary. The 1880s were a time of crisis and deterioration in the poet's life," culminating in his institutionalization and death in 1889, probably due to mercury poisoning. His early demise was one befitting a "Romantic genius," shrouded in mystery, and about which speculation continues to this day.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth (February 12, 1884 – February 20, 1980, age 96) President Theodore Roosevelt's only child by his first wife, who died shortly after giving birth. Alice was raised by her grandparents while her father recovered from the grief of losing both his wife and his mother on the same day. He remarried and had five more children and Alice rejoined the household, but grew up feeling abandoned and isolated. She eventually rebelled as a teenager—and well into adulthood—gaining notoriety and celebrity status as the beautiful and unruly First Daughter. She went on to be a prominent and influential socialite and writer, marrying one US Senator and having an affair with another, remaining active in politics and Washington social circles until her death at 96. Her most famous witticism: "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
Bernini's model for the statue of David (c. 1624)
The statue of David depicts a familiar scene from the Bible, the young shepherd about to slay the giant Goliath with his slingshot. Bernini's life size masterpiece captures the kinetic energy and passion of the mythic warrior at the peak moment of concentration and consequence. According to legend, Bernini had a friend hold up a mirror so he could model the face of his marble creation on his own. (If it's true, Bernini's portraits do not do him any justice.)
[Bernini's David is so dynamic and hyper-masculine, it makes Michelangelo's David look like Donatello's.]
David represents the masculine heroic ideal, infusing all that raw physicality and passion into an impassive slab of marble, a medium so cold and colorless it makes the artist's achievement all the more sublime. It freezes the very instant when our soon-to-be-victorious warrior is elevated beyond human weakness, political machinations, the fallibility of the body and its tools, its intentions, judgements and misjudgments. In reality, this moment is at best fleeting; at worst, it is bloody, battle-fogged and destined to be relived in the soldier's mind for the rest of his life. Just like his female counterpart, the pure maiden on the verge of womanhood, the perfect warrior is a figure of fantasy, constructed far from the battlefield by politicians and storytellers. He is devoid of doubt, delusion, pain, anger and fear—but in Bernini's hands, David is distilled down to a single, perfect moment when the world recedes to a point in the distance —his target—and he becomes one with his destiny.
Queen Nefertiti (~ 1370 – ~ 1330 BC)
Nefertiti, whose name means "the beautiful one has come," was queen of Egypt from 1353 to 1336 B.C. beside Akhenaten, the rebel Pharaoh who relocated the nation's capital and sought to replace its pantheistic tradition with the worship of the sun god Aten. She may have even briefly ruled the kingdom after his death and before the accession of his son, Tutankhamun. The famous bust of her likeness was sculpted in 1345 B.C. and rediscovered by German archaeologists in 1912. Since first going on display in Berlin in 1924, it has made Queen Nefertiti one of history's most recognizable faces. Her beauty was legendary during her lifetime; captured in limestone, stucco and paint, it has survived 3,400 years to achieve a kind of immortality the ancients could scarcely have imagined.
Today, her face has been mass-produced and sold everywhere from the whitest peaks of the German Alps to the darkest valleys of the African continent. She is such a timeless icon of female beauty, transcending culture, race and nation, that the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery uses her likeness as their logo. Of course, even in limestone and stucco, beauty commands more than just attention and devotion; it can wield a disproportionate influence all its own. Since 1912, Egypt has periodically requested it be returned and Germany has repeatedly refused. Hitler himself, history's most notorious white supremacist, even described the bust of the African queen as, "a unique masterpiece, an ornament; a true treasure." After the war he planned to construct an entirely new museum around her, "in the middle, this wonder, Nefertiti, will be enthroned… I will never relinquish the head of the Queen." Sixty years after the fall of the Nazis, with a sensible, capable woman at the nation's helm, Germany has continued to refuse to return its looted treasure to Egypt.
[Unless otherwise linked, you can assume all quotes and research are attributed to Wikipedia.]