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

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Bella Figura–How Style, Grace, And Elegance Have Disappeared When We Most Need Them

Miranda Bliss had been taught proper manners.  She sat up straight, wore white gloves, kept her hands in her lap, smiled politely, said ‘excuse me’ and ‘pardon me’, and could have been the poster girl for the American suburb, ca. 1950.  She made her First Communion in a white organza dress, French veil, and Italian paten leather shoes.  She took the host gently into her mouth, reflected on the miraculous resurrection of Jesus, bowed her head, and walked down the aisle to sit with her proud, happy parents. She carefully smoothed the folds of her dress, eased herself gracefully beside them, smiled, and said a prayer.

Easter Sunday came soon after her First Communion, and this time she walked up to the altar railing in a new, yellow pinafore  and bonnet banded in blue ribbons, with a large brim that gave just the slightest intriguing shadow to her face.  As she gently and softly parted her lips to receive the wafer, she shut her eyes and felt beautiful, a flowery, peaceful, and quietly beautiful young woman. 

This fundamental sense of beauty only matured as Miranda grew older.  She wore ermine, sable, mink and chinchilla as naturally and comfortably as a cloth coat.  She arranged and distributed her diamonds, emeralds, and pearls so that they were perfect complements to her long fingers, red nails, Dior suit, and black, luminescent hair.  She wore a touch of perfume, just enough to scent and linger but never to trail.  Her make-up was balanced with a dramatic darkening of eyelashes, and she added only a subtle coloring of her already naturally high-colored cheeks.

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On anyone other than Miranda Bliss this ensemble of fur, couture, jewels, and perfume would never have been right, for few women had her complete sense of style.  One stroke too many of the eyeliner, one inch shorter on the hemline, too many jewels on one hand and not enough on the other, a perfume too floral or cloying – slight but oh-so-obvious diversions from Miranda’s perfectly balanced style – would have been enough to reveal the natively unsophisticated, hopelessly aspiring, overdressed and under-glamorous pretender.

Miranda not only dressed stylishly but was stylish.   Her taste and elegance were expressed in every movement, every gesture, and every word. She was demonstrative and graceful, and when she talked her hands were like birds in flight, especially her left, for she felt that her diamonds gave her fingers poetry and special beauty.

Other women by comparison were pedestrian and ordinary no matter what they wore or how oversized their diamonds. Miranda did not choose just any diamonds, but those  which had been cut by a South African Jew from a diamond-cutting family which had cut gems in Kiev for a hundred years.  His diamonds seemed to have hundreds of facets, for when she turned her hand in the light, the reflections and sparkles seemed to come from all directions at once.

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She was dramatic without being theatrical.  She had a balletic presence without pirouettes and pliĆ©s.  She spoke like an actress but with not a hint of irony, condescension, or disapproval.  She was first, foremost, and always the prima donna of every social event.  No one, however, ever accused her of operatic fol-de-rol or pretension.  She was everyone’s friend, invited to every dinner, soiree, and luncheon.  She was always respectful, temperate, and generous.

More than anything, her style had a flow.  Her perfectly-cut, variable length, deep black hair flowed into the long mahogany brown shawl she wore over her shoulders which in turn flowed down to her mid-calf dress, to  her narrow, polished boots.  Her earrings caught the eye and led them down her long arms to the simple gold bracelet on her wrist and Victorian ring on her finger.  The eyes of the admirer went up and down this magnificent woman, and couldn’t turn away.  She was confident but never dismissive; warm but never effusive.  She had all the elements of style. She embodied the essence of the Italian bella figura.

At its core bella figura is presentation…how to look good, to carry oneself,  to make the best possible impression in all things at all times. Bella figura means attention to image, visual beauty and presentation…but it is also all about knowing how to properly and graciously interact with others. Bella figura is all about good manners, tact and gentility.

Alas, this is a story about the disappearance of the likes of Miranda Bliss and bella figura itself – a tale of dumbing down and cheap clothes.  In an era of diversity, and the championing of personal identity, there are no absolutes, nothing ex cathedra or even vaguely suggestive of universal values.

In a ‘diverse’ society any suggestion of higher values or universal standards of behavior, beauty, or artistic design is considered anathema.  Yet common sense let alone an even cursory look at history give lie to those assumptions.  The moral, ethical, and spiritual values of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Jewish and Christian Palestine remain.  They are foundational principles of all religions and societies.  They like beauty are not in the eye of the beholder, but universal and common to all cultures since the first human settlements.

In fact there is little difference between the women painted by Leonardo and the beauties of Hollywood and Bollywood all of whom are reflective of those characteristics which have always made women attractive. Symmetrical features, luminescent eyes, full lips, and luxuriant hair all express health, wealth, and well-being as well as being pleasing to a natural sense of geometrical order (the golden mean is universally appealing), and sexual appeal. 

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Miranda Bliss knew this instinctively.  Without and before the admirations of family, classmates, and adults, she knew by looking in the mirror that the reflection was not just hers but that of every beautiful woman.  There were no debatable issues, no relative clauses, no codicils or caveats to her beauty.

It is no surprise that the women portrayed in art – the women of Botticelli, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Ingres, and the sculptors of ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome – have been beautiful.  The wives and courtesans of royalty, the aristocracy, and the socially prominent have been beautiful, and while kings like Henry VIII, desperate for an offspring, chose as much for fertility as for beauty as he continued to remain childless, most demanded only the most attractive.

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It is also not surprising that the standards of female beauty in non-Western cultures which have in recent years emerged from poverty – India, China, and Korea – have become more universal, remarkably similar to those in the developed world.  

This is in part due to competition – It is understandable and normal for women in formerly poor countries, now rich, to emulate women in the West. The factors of economic privilege, health, and well-being also come into play; but it is the undeniable quest for the perfect female beauty which has endured for millennia that is perhaps the most important factor in this evolution.  

This is not to say that the ancient Asian standards of beauty were not admired, but that exposure to the more universal characteristics of beauty derived from classical civilization and continued, assured physical homogeneity.

Feminist Women criticized Miranda for what they said was her ‘extraneous, unnecessary’ beauty; but her attention to complementarity, contrast, and blend, all of which created an appealing, attractive image, was the essence of bella figura.  She was not wasting her time, her intelligence, her wit and intellect but cultivating something equally important.

Physical beauty has always been a positive reproductive trait, a competitive edge, and a guarantee of security and prosperity. Beauty has always assured success.  All things considered, beautiful women have always been hired first, promoted first, married first, and sought after always. 

Yet Miranda’s sense of beauty went beyond such Darwinian considerations.  It was all about illumination, lifting the fog of Hobbesian drudgery, a Christmas tree ornament, an unexpected shower of desirability and allure.

Beauty, a la bella figura was never static.  It was displayed in feminine grace, subtlety, and graciousness.  Women’s fashion was always part of a context, an illustration of a particular cultural ethos or zeitgeist, always changing.  A woman’s dress was either demure, assertive, sumptuous, or sexually alluring; and her behavior mirrored and vice versa.

In the days of universal bella figura, everything was intended to be beautiful, and nothing was insignificant .  Table settings, flowers and flower vases, furniture, and the presentation of food were all part of it; and the way the woman moved among these complementary things was itself additive to the whole.

Today’s insistent focus on procedure, contract, and order is the antithesis of bella figura.  It places no value on physical beauty and only on some notion of interior moral value.  A good person is ipso facto a beautiful person.  Beauty is as beauty does is the meme.  Beauty is suspect, a betrayal of the emptiness beneath.  Fashion is irrelevant, and only the color of one’s skin and gender-based appearance mattered.  A transgender transformation in and of itself was beautiful, and in mattered little whether what emerged from the chrysalis was a thing of beauty or a drone; only if the sexual reformulation was complete.

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Identity politics and its disdain for physical beauty and appearance have contributed to the overall indifference to it.  Sweatpants, doublets, sandals, and tattoos inked for their relevance not their appearance; rummage sale shirtwaists and discarded trousers; mix-and-match for convenience not statement are the rule.  Demeanor and posture as suggestions of a bella figura completeness have become irrelevant.  Only bad, street attitude – macho gangsta roll pimp walk and tarted up, bangled and sequined women - or slouchy white boy cracker chic seem to matter.  Everyone in America seems angry at something with no time for attention to detail. ‘This is who I am, so go fuck yourself’.  Bella figura, pride in looking good, delight in sophistication and good taste, is a thing of the past.

It is only the Miranda Blisses of the world who stand out in this grab bag of incidentals – beautiful, graceful, sublime antidotes to ugly righteousness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Toxic Femininity–The Vixens And Harridans Of History And The Persistence Of Misogyny Today

Betsy Braithwaite never considered herself a succubus, an infernally castrating woman, a harridan without limits, an ambitious, irreconcilably demanding soul out to remove the blight of masculinity from the face of the earth. But she was a biliously deconstructing woman whose sexuality was used only as an unaccommodating, vexing tool to tempt men into the stocks, onto the stakes, and  burned to a crisp.

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She never looked back, nor had an ounce of reflection in her.  She never questioned the origins of her willfully misandrous nature, one which made even the slightest reference to virility laughable.  Imagine, she said, cock and balls skewered, basted, roasted, and hung from every streetlamp in America, macho maleness sliced and hung out to dry publicly, then fed to the wolves. 

Her more socially engaged, dependent sisters urged  temperance and counsel – wait till the time is ripe, they said.  The process of justice and gender rights may be too deliberate and slow to our taste, but currency takes time; but Betsy wanted nothing do do with this prevaricating, temporizing female nonsense.  The time is now!

‘And what might that be?’, asked Father Coogan in the confessional as Betsy confessed pre-crime, forgiveness for sins not yet committed but forgiveness nonetheless.  Jesus never stipulated the condition of his forgiveness and redemption, so Betsy took it as blanket sovereignty.  As long as she was honest about her intent and fully and impartially committed to its execution, she could be pre-forgiven, as good as forgiven ex post facto.

She intended to confiscate the wealth of the family treasury, send the patriarch of her husband’s family into senile isolation, assure her responsibility for all wills, the adjudication of all codicils, and the dunning, final expulsion of those found unworthy and traitorous to family interests.   Who was going to stop her?  The weak-kneed Cousin Albert?  The fey, kimonoed Bertram? The Peckham old maid sisters living in penury and on the state in West Haven?

Betsy’s problem was not lack of initiative or will, but one of intelligence.  She simply didn’t have the wits to match even ordinary husbands and lovers.  Her plots were transparent, her deviousness obvious, and her intent exposed.  As much as she wanted to be like the most toxic women in literary history  - vixens, harridans, and murderously ambitious women who served in the finality of their bloody territorial claims; and as much as she wanted to see blood spilled by her hands like the hands of Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Regan, Tamora, and Dionyza, she was but a puny inconsequential player in gender games.

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Lady Macbeth was the standard-bearer for all Shakespeare’s harridans – she was manipulative, calculating, and destructive; and derided her husband’s vacillation and weakness.  He was less than a man, she said, useless and afraid.  ‘Unsex me here’, she cried to the spirits, relieve me of my female inhibitions and docile, obedient nature, and let me be as bloody as men. It is I who will kill the king, empty the throne for my husband and rule Denmark. 

Every man fears a Lady Macbeth – an amoral, supremely confident, selfish, and intellectually powerful woman; a woman without bounds or perimeters; a woman of mad brilliance and fearful strength.

Goneril and Regan have no use for their father, King Lear, and less for their weak, unambitious, cowardly husbands.  They are even more evil than Lady Macbeth whose murderous ambition twists her mind.  Lear’s daughters see no imaginary blood, only the real blood shed on their way to the throne. They are without principle, sentiment, or remorse.  They are killers who have abandoned any sense of propriety and decency. 

Dionyza, like Lady Macbeth is married to a man of fragile sensibilities, passivity, and reluctance.  She is the one who must promote the interests of their daughter and who plots to kill the daughter of Pericles, a girl of particular beauty, charm, and grace who casts Dionyza's daughter in a homely, dim light. She, like Lady Macbeth, has no hesitation, no second thoughts.  Her husband is without consequence or influence, marginalized, unmanned, and hopeless; a man of tepid morality and lack of resolve.

The feminist heroine of heroines was Laura, wife of the patriarchal, insufferable, weak Captain of Strindberg’s The Father. She led the pompous fool to believe that the child they were raising was not his.  It was of no consequence whether Laura had bedded and won a lover’s heart or not – it was the intimation of the thing, a corrosive, infectious, viral idea that was more destructive than the truth.  Just as Othello was destroyed by the semblance or appearance of Desdemona’s infidelity; and just as Posthumus plots the murder of his wife  because of the insidious, baseless, mentally addling rumors of her unfaithfulness, the Captain goes mad, the victim of uncertain paternity and the imagined sexual encounters of his wife.

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Yet Betsy like all women tried to undo and unsex her man, bring him to heel, subject him to the doubts of an uncertain parentage, and drive him mad.  Women’s power over men is their control of sexual certainty.  No man will ever be privy to the truth of fatherhood.  It will always be hearsay, her word against hisk feminine prerogative and male presumption.    

Yet she felt sorry for Harry, her first husband and Declan, her second – sexual dummies but good providers.  She had all the Victorian impulses for practical, monetary gain, but none of the classicist's existential interests in genocide – the elimination of men.  

Shakespeare credited Rosalind, Viola, and Portia for outwitting the second-rate intellects of their suitors, but held their misandry in check.  They, despite their victories over their incompetent suitors, must put up with them. He gave the power of goodness to Perdita, Marina, Calpurnia, and Juliet; but his real sympathies are with Cleopatra, empress and  goddess of Egypt, seducer of Roman emperors, the most desirous but manipulative woman in the Empire.  

Antony was aware of her sexual allure and its political convenience; and knew that both Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great had been her lovers.  Yet Cleopatra’s allure and power of seduction were such that he could not refuse and he was brought to disgrace and ruin because of her.  

Poor Betsy Braithwaite had intimations of power and glory but only the flimsiest of weapons in her sexual arsenal to achieve them.

Othello warns his accusers of the treachery of women.  He did men a service by eliminating yet another untrustworthy, faithless woman.  Posthumus (Cymbeline) is virulent and absolute in his declamation of women – congenitally untrustworthy, adulterous, manipulative, and castrating.  They are procreative necessities, but scurrilous in their ambition.

Which is why women in the Muslim world are bagged, cloaked, veiled, and locked in their chambers.  If a man can never know the paternity of his children, then better take any and all steps to increase its certainty.  It is no surprise that patriarchy has been defined by female oppression. What poor peasant laborer wants to bring up a bastard and reward his cheating wife with the fruits of work? What courtier wants to claim the royalty or aristocracy of an unknown, a wayward seed planted by a carouser?

Which is also why the women of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Strindberg are so ruthless and unforgiving in their treatment of men.  Men are the enemy, the eternal opponent.  Their desire for dominance, patriarchal autocracy, and complete authority is quite understandable.  There will always be a sexual Waterloo, Agincourt, and Borodino.  The odds are equal and all bets are off.

Women, no matter how much they will profess love and affection for their husbands, are still in the business of corralling them, fencing them in, and limiting their opportunities to prowl.  It is normal for women to express their frustration at men’s seeming intractability and inability to reform.  Women have finally concluded that men are irremediable, ignorant pricks.

Men, no matter how much they ascribe to the feminist line, defer to the superior destiny of women, and while publicly abdicate patriarchy and male autocracy, endorse nothing of the sort. Sexuality and gender are hardwired and the emotional frills, petticoats, fans, and allure of women will return.  While there will always be an irrepressible Cleopatra or the devilish Goneril, Regan, and Hedda Gabler, most women will retreat into an accommodation with men, put armor aside; and live under a Pax Romana where traditional roles are restored.

Betsy Braithwaite was not quick enough to appreciate the distinction and had no idea what a world of sexual accommodation would look like. The theories of Machiavelli, brilliant exponent of realpolitik, could easily be applied to gender quarrels.  Let Lawrentian rules apply – let men and women fight it out for sexual supremacy in an existential war of wills; but let both be happy with the outcome.  Sexual epiphany is the result of sexual balance – no one cares who ends up on top as long as the positions are agreed upon and endorsed by both parties.

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An idealistic notion to be sure.  Women are more than ever hungry for the sexual, political, social, and personal power from which they were deprived for millennia, and a bloody, castrated, disemboweled masculinity must be the interim, the intermediates phase between female oppression and sexual parity.

Betsy loved the idea and saw herself as a latter day Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and mayhem, a destroyer necessary for the rebirth of the world.  She, more practically, saw herself as a common street warrior, defender of the faith of womanhood, enemy of men, and Wonder Woman.

So, the age of radical feminism, the age of vixens, harridans, and succubae is far from over; and the New Age of sexual peace and equality is but a pinpoint in telescopic  vision. We are doomed to fight each other in perpetuity.  The war between the sexes is only the most obvious expression of human nature.  No need to hate Goneril and Regan; they are simply doing what comes naturally.