Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Auden on the Uglies

'Idle curiosity is an ineradicable vice of the human mind. All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbours, particularly the ugly ones.' This is W.H.Auden in a typically brilliant introduction to - strangely - Shakespeare's Sonnets. Of course, he anticipates celebrity culture, but, with those last four words, he also includes contemporary political journalism. But why are the ugly ones so interesting?


  1. Are we talking about ugly neighbours or ugly secrets ?

  2. Hiim nice point, David. I took him to mean neighbours.

  3. From "Epistle to a Godson":

    . . . You don’t need me to tell you what’s
    going on: the ochlocratic media,
    joint with under-the-dryer gossip,
    process and vent without intermission

    all to-day’s ugly secrets. Imageable
    no longer, a featureless anonymous
    threat from behind, tomorrow has us
    gallowed shitless: if what is to happen

    occurs according to what Thucydides
    defined as ‘human’, we’ve had it, are in for
    a disaster that no four-letter
    words will tardy.

    [The formatting of these lines properly (the last two lines in each stanza should be indented four spaces) in html is beyond me. My apologies.]

  4. I think he probably meant ugly secrets, but I much prefer Bryan's interpretation.

    There are as many types of ugliness as there are types of beauty - from revolting to lovable.

    Auden himself was endearingly ugly.

  5. Is it because they have to be? Is it because they can be? There is something intrinsically dulling about mere beauty.

  6. I wonder if Auden meant ugly secrets held by ugly people? Probably not. I suspect it was ugly secrets.
    I wonder how many ugly secrets were held by the beautiful Monroe, especially those relating to the Kennedys? Wouldn't we wish to know those secrets - far more interesting than details of JFK's secret virtues. I guess that, to some extent, ugly secrets scare and unnerve, but ultimately intrique us?

  7. I think he meant ugly people. The ugly have to work so much harder for love, friendship, acclaim, success. Particularly ugly women and ugly gay men.

    Yet the dreams and hopes of the ill-favored are doubtless the same as those of beautiful people.

    Last night Allan and I went to a very chic resto for dinner (Amada, a swank tapas place in Center City, Phila.); it was our 20-year wedding anniversary.

    A young couple was seated next to us. Allan observed later that the woman was ill-favored (big nose, no chin, small eyes) but had done absolutely the most one could do with make-up, hairstyle, and well-chosen clothes. Her date was an extremely handsome young man. Allan said, "She'll get him to marry her and in a few years, her plainness will be irreversible [for the magic she'd wrought was dependent on her youth; all young folk are somewhat beautiful] and he'll think, 'Jeez, what did I do?' He'll stay with her, but never again be able to see why he once thought she was beautiful."

    Okay, harsh maybe, we were kind of drunk, but beauty v. ugliness is a very real facet of our culture. I believe it influences all kinds of things and Auden knew it. After all, in (male) gay culture, beauty is even more important.

    Too bad personality doesn't trump looks, but it rarely does. On the other hand, it was misshapen & ugly little Voltaire who said of his sexual conquests, "I can talk away my face in five minutes."

  8. Congratulations on your anniversary, Susan. I am now convinced that you (and Bryan) are right, it is about ugly people. If I'd been his neighbour, I wonder if Auden would have been particularly interested in my secrets? I hope not.

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