WHEN WE ARE CONFRONTED with what is regarded as ‘ugliness’, our first instinct is to recoil or flee. I realise that the concept of ugliness — the judgement about what is ugly and what is not — can vary from one culture to another. An African Mursi tribeswoman with a huge ceramic or wooden lip-plate would be seen as utterly gorgeous within her own tribe but regarded with some horror if she were a consort in a gentlemen’s club in Knightsbridge, London. But as my years have gone by, I’ve discovered that if I look at something which is commonly regarded as ‘ugly’ for long enough, or look into its full credentials, it somehow begins to take on a unique kind of beauty even in the midst of the ugliness.
Yesterday, a locust flew right past my face and settled on a nearby wall (see my attached photo). Well, to be precise, it was an Egyptian Grasshopper (or Locust). A locust is a grasshopper (coming from the Latin word for grasshopper, locusta). But generally, they are only called locusts when they swarm. Egyptian Grasshoppers (or Locusts) do not generally swarm and tend to live solitary lives. Many consider these creatures to be discomfiting — not least because of the way they are so large and fly about at a low level. That freaks people out. Many would say that it is ugly. The one I saw yesterday let me get right in its face at a macro level with my camera. What I saw close up was not ugly but a thing of great beauty. From its latted eyes to its cleverly constructed body and rich patterning (see my attached photo), it brought tears to my eyes. Yes, indeed, there is beauty amidst the ugliness.
Similarly, the Cockroach strikes dread in people’s minds, and it is generally regarded with some considerable repugnance. I remember observing the havoc caused by a flying cockroach in a café in Spain. So freaked-out were the patrons that tables were overturned and screams of horror were emitted as they tried to flee the scene. After an infestation of the creatures in an apartment I lived in, I did some research into how best to eradicate them from my environment. After much reading, what I discovered was that while I would not want an infestation in my house, the 99% of other types of cockroach (of which there are 4,600 species!) have a vital role in recycling and nitrogen distribution in soil, thus aiding the growth of trees and plants. I developed a new respect for cockroaches as facets of creation. There is beauty amidst the ugliness.
Some humans have been, and will be, regarded as ‘ugly’ by those whose judgements are always made superficially. But even that is a gift! For one is then forced to look beyond the outer to the inner. Many who are not endowed with outward beauty through genetic heritage or accidental misfortune have much of it within. Though it has to be said that many humans who are ugly and twisted inwardly — no matter how ‘beautiful’ they may appear to be outwardly, will somehow exude that inner ugliness. Dogs are very good barometers of inner ugliness and have no regard for the superficial appearance of a human. Dogs will always find the beauty of a person within the ugliness. And so should we.
In the world of art, there is much which one could dismiss as ugly on a superficial viewing, but which, on closer examination reveals a kind of wild beauty. Francis Bacon and Hieronymus Bosch are two examples of such artists who come to mind. Often, the ugliness is presented deliberately while the beauty in it will be revealed only to those who persevere. And perseverance is the name of the game if one wants to crack the code of ugliness. Such work operates like a paradox, which G.K. Chesterton described as, “Truth standing on its head to gain attention”. There is beauty amidst the ugliness.
Recently, while on one of my cycle jaunts, I came across a broken-down wall. My first instinct was, “Why do these folks always leave such ugly messes without clearing them up or rebuilding them?” Then, after laughing at such a petit bourgeois reaction escaping my mind, I took a closer look and began to see it as more of an artistic installation than an environmental disaster. The way that the stones had, as it seemed with enough imagination, assembled themselves into a network of relationships which went beyond normal hackneyed thinking. This was an edifice in an alternate reality. The longer I looked at it, the more I marvelled. And that perseverance in “the longer you look at it” is the key to making the alchemical leap from ugliness to beauty. As I said at the beginning of these reflections: “If I look at something which is ugly for long enough, or look into its full credentials, it somehow begins to take on a unique kind of beauty”. There is beauty amidst the ugliness, if one will summon up the will and imagination to see it.
Finally, someone might say, with some understanding, “Isn’t it better for some things just to remain regarded as ugly so that we will not somehow excuse it?” I understand where that question comes from. A battlefield is fiendishly ugly, and one would never want to diminish that ugliness lest it normalises warfare. Yet, the war poet, Wilfred Owen, in his early 20s (for he died at twenty-five) wrote in words that take on a haunting beauty in his recordings of what he witnessed in the trenches of the First World War. In one of his poems, “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” he even wrote:
“I have perceived much beauty
in the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.”
Such is the duty of the poet: To find beauty in the midst of ugliness. It does not condone or justify the ugliness, but it enhances it — overrides it, transforms it. For a poet is an alchemist whose business is transformation. There is always some strange beauty somewhere amidst the ugliness.
© Alan Morrison, 2021
[The copyright on my works is only to protect them from any wanton plagiarism which could result in undesirable changes (as has actually happened!). Readers are free to reproduce my work, so long as it is in the same format and with the exact same content and its origin is acknowledged]