"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Face-Lifts And The Restoration Of Beauty–Who Says That Inner Qualities Are Worth More?

The old families of the West End of New Brighton were never ones for show.  Their houses were simply decorated, their cars practical, old, and serviceable, and their clothes English, proper, and comfortable.  It wasn’t a matter of money – the West Enders, sons and daughters of the city’s captains of industry, had marshaled their inheritance well, had homes in Nantucket, St. Bart’s and Gstaad, gave generously to the Red Cross, and sent their children to the best schools.  It wasn’t even a matter of parsimony, a sense of the dollar and what it was worth; or worse, the Great Depression.  It was something more fundamental – image.

The slightly worn Persian carpets had been in the Bingham family family for generations, a gift of the Shah for meritorious service of an ancient relative.  The Townsend chests had been purchased directly from the cabinetmaker, shipped from his Newport workshop to their homes on Beacon Hill and Benefit Street before making their way to New Brighton.  Paul Revere pre-Revolutionary silver had been in family hands since 1776, never moved from Boston until just prior to the Civil War when its owner and its well-known industrialist moved to New Brighton to manage the factories that provisioned the Union Army.

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All the pieces in the homes along Monroe Street were simple, tasteful, and historically significant.  They were never displayed, but used.  One of the few silver fish knives made by Revere, one with a surprisingly intricate filigree, was always used for the fish course at Sunday dinner.  ‘The Church’ knife it had always been called, recollecting Revere’s famous ride but also ‘The Card Knife’, recalling stories of his mother, a neighbor of the Boston branch of the New Brighton Harts, who in her later years had used it to flip cards for baccarat.

In short, there was nothing more patrician, more English, more quietly tasteful and quiet than the families of Monroe Street.   In an increasingly showy society the Monroe Streeters stood out.  They were museum pieces, at best the last relics of New England colonial history, at worst off, odd, and peculiar. 

Yet this was the whole point.  The West Enders would no sooner buy a new car than throw their Chippendale into the Farmington River.  A Monroe Street matron would rather be cloistered in a nunnery than be seen with anything more than a string of cultured pearls.  Armani, St. Laurent, and Dior were foreign, European, and American arriviste, bought by other people.

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The West Enders were a breed apart and wanted to keep it so.  No display of money meant lots of money.  Hospital shoes meant millions in the bank, earning interest.  Colonial silver used for meals meant bullion in the bank vault.  Eschewing display, embracing simple practicality, and old, worn clothes was as much of a statement as the bling of Las Vegas pimps.  It said who they were and distinguished themselves.  Image was a signifier.  One had to look no further to understand what was underneath.

To burnish the image and keep it fully intact, the West Enders went to what seemed illogical extremes.  The Lodges’ classic Ford ‘woody’ wagon was in the shop so often they could have bought two new cars with the money spent on repairs.  There was no sensible reason for the Parsons boys to patch and re-patch their tweeds; nor for the Hillyard men to resole, re-stitch, and cobble old brogans.  Yet these extremes were not illogical at all.  Within the context of image, significance, and standing, they made infinite sense.

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Of course the West Enders were at the far edge of the spectrum, claiming a unique, unsought-after, but recognizable niche which set them apart.  The rest of New Brighton wanted all it could get.  Wealth was the obvious way to trump up plainness and simplicity.  What was the purpose of money if not to spend it, and to spend it visibly.  The American middle class however were not examples of Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption so much as the product of Hollywood.  While purchase can certainly confer status, it can also define identity.  While clothes may make a man and give him social weight and respect; they more importantly make the man, personalized versions of who he would like to be not necessarily who he is.

There are margins of truth beyond which image cannot reach.  A face-lift can enhance the way a woman looks to others.  It is a restoration of the image she has always presented, and one which reflects who she feels she is.  A woman who had always been classically beautiful and whose classic beauty had helped her gain social access into the well-heeled and well-watered society she had always sought, despite her modest upbringing, felt it only right and reasonable to restore that beauty once it began to fade.

There was no point, she felt, in being like the West Enders who were as proud of their sags and lines as they were of their patched tweeds and beat-up old Fords.  She had always thought of herself as a beautiful woman – her most telling and important characteristic – and if that beauty disappeared, so would she.

Facial reconstructive surgery – becoming a woman you never were – was another thing altogether.  Why should a woman, fated with the genes of unattractive parents, suffer that fate if she had the means to neuter them?  There was no pride in being thought of as ‘the smart one’, ‘the talented one’ when her desire was to be ‘the beautiful one’.  Women since Nefertiti have been prized for their beauty, a beauty the standards of which have not changed for 5000 years; so why not choose that universal virtue over others which had more than their share of rough edges. Besides, she wasn’t all that smart.

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The West Enders called the beautiful woman vain and impressionable.  How long would her ‘beauty’ last?  Giving in to faltering good looks expressed an existential purity which the vain could never understand. Yet for her there was no vanity involved.  It was only a matter of consistency; and who was to say whether faithfulness to an image, a desire, a creation was any less valid that a spiritless acceptance of the ways the cards are dealt?

Joseph Conrad understood this well.  Lord Jim had an image of himself which did not correspond to who he was; and yet he pursued this image – that of a man of courage, principle, and honor – throughout his life.  He could no sooner accept that his failure as an officer aboard a sinking ship, his dereliction of duty, and abandonment of ship, was him than to accept that he was evil.  His life, his search for atonement and redemption was because of the conflict between who he was and who he thought he was. Stein, a character in the book, appreciates Jim for his idealism, albeit based on false premises.  His final courage was defending the image of himself, not who he really was.  It was Jim’s theatricality which defined him, not his courage.

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Vanity is considered a sin not because of its meaninglessness, but because of its exaggeration.  A woman who has a face lift to restore what was legitimately a classic beauty and the defining feature of her life should never be considered vain.  A woman who was never attractive but who has repeated face lifts, make-overs, and style upgrades to try to approximate a false, artificially-determined beauty is most certainly vain.

We are all vain in that none of us like the stacked deck in front of us.  We will all enhance the qualities we have, gloss over the ones we would like to forget, and do our best to create ones we never had. 

There is nothing shameful about image, fantasy, and fanciful ideas.  Reality for most of us is not all that it is cracked up to be.

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