Shame, Beauty, and the
Ambivalence of the Flesh,

after Schopenhauer, C.G. Jung, Frederick Turner & Camille Paglia

This Morning a Man and two young women with some others came to the Fort whome we had not seen before: and as their manner of introducing themselves was a little uncommon I shall insert it.... he took several peices [sic] of Cloth and spread them on the ground, one of the Young Women then step'd upon the Cloth and with as much Innocency as one could possibly conceve, expose'd herself intirely naked from the waist downwards, in this manner she turn'd her Self once or twice round, I am not certain which, then step'd of the Cloth and dropt'd down her clothes, more Cloth was then spread upon the Former and she again perform'd the same ceremony; the Cloth was then rowled up and given to Mr Banks and the two young women went and embraced him which ended the Ceremony.

Captain James Cook, in Tahiti, 12 May 1769, The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific as Told by Selections of His Own Journals, 1768-1779 [edited by A. Grenfell Price, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1971], p. 30-31

Life without guilt or shame would be found only in sociopaths and the lobotomized.

Camille Paglia, "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex," Sex, Art, and American Cutlure, Essays [Vintage Books, 1992], p.32

Nature is merciless. Schopenhauer eloquently says:

If we were to conduct the most hardened and callous optimist through hospitals, infirmaries, operating theatres, through prisons, torture-chambers, and slave hovels, over battlefields and to places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it shuns the gaze of cold curiosity, and finally were to allow him to glance into the dungeon of Ugolino where prisoners starved to death, he too would certainly see in the end what kind of a world is this meilleur des mondes possible.[1]

Where "Ugolino" is just a name to us, we can only imagine how today Schopenhauer might replace it with Verdun, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, or any of the many other stupefying horrors of the 20th century. Of course, most of the list sounds like the usual "man's inhumanity to man" kind of thing; but Schopenhauer is getting at something much deeper than that, as related by C.G. Jung in his own evaluation of him:

Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe. He spoke neither of the all-good and all-wise providence of a Creator, nor of the harmony of the cosmos, but stated bluntly that a fundamental flaw underlay the sorrowful course of human history and the cruelty of nature: the blindness of the world-creating Will. This was confirmed not only by the early observations I had made of diseased and dying fishes, of mangy foxes, frozen or starved birds, of the pitiless tragedies concealed in a flowery meadow: earthworms tormented to death by ants, insects that tore each other apart piece by piece, and so on.[2]

Mother Nature does not cherish her own, and this is ultimately perplexing whether we conceive of a benevolent and fatherly God or a benevolent and nurturing Mother Earth. The scene of the world is one where life feeds on itself, and where the only priority anywhere in the food chain, beyond feeding, is reproduction. The most remarkable and appalling forms of life, perhaps, are the insects that spend their juvenile lives eating leaves and then metamorphose into adult forms that do not eat at all but spent the rest of their brief lives, often no more than a day, desperately trying to mate.

Here our concern is not so much the presence of evil in the world -- the Problem of Evil -- or the way that religion may address it. That will be considered elsewhere. Here the issue is no more than a certain characteristic of life, what Camille Paglia calls the "sado-masochism" of nature, the "primeval squalor" of our physical existence in the world [3]. Paglia's thesis is that art and beauty distance us from the horror of this, giving us a Nature of hard, shining objects rather than of the engulfing and devouring darkness that it is. Beauty gives us a marvelous world, a joy to behold and experience. At the same time the world truly is that primeval squalor. The beauty is, as Schopenhauer says, a "cheap glitter" that conceals the horror. But, of course, the beauty and the horror are the same thing, and we do carry with us a certain sense of that: the sense of shame. That is Frederick Turner's thesis [4], that we cannot really appreciate the beauty without accepting the ambivalence that we feel about nature and the flesh--something whose value is not only axiomatically independent of morality in some cold logical sense but which actually feeds on a level of reality that is quite amoral and which expresses itself in both pleasure and pain. Plato honors beauty as the only value we can see; but in being beautiful, in being valuable as objects, this reminds us of our status as objects in the world, vulnerable and subject to all the random, or not so random, humiliations of objects. With beauty goes the blush of self-consciousness. We want to be valued as more than objects, even as we don't mind being valued as objects as well, if someone recognizes some beauty in us. We are unhappy if we are valued merely as objects, as though we had no self or interior existence; and we are unhappy if we are valued merely as subjects, as though our bodies were worthless and ugly. We cannot escape the ambivalence that this duality creates.

The chart at right, a version of Nelson's axiomatic diagrams, lays out the different responses that we find to our existence as both subjects and objects. If the meaning and value of life are immanent in physical objects, then beauty and pleasure are all that is of significance. From this we get philosophical Hedonism, the theory that pleasure is the good, and ethical systems like Epicureanism and Utilitarianism. On the other hand. if the meaning and value of life are not in physical objects, but in some kind of transcendent reality or "sprituality" accessible through the mind (the soul or spirit), then the body tempts us away from the truth. The denial of the flesh, of the value of beauty and pleasure, is then religious Asceticism. Historically, we find a strong sense that meaning and value are going to be immanent or transcendent, one or the other. If, however, one has the sense that it cannot be just one or the other, a couple of responses are possible. One response is to reject the real existence of meaning and value altogether, which is the kind of Nihilism that we find in Nietzsche and Existentialism. On this view, the ugly and the painful can have the same status as beauty and pleasure, which is what we seem to find in much of modern art, not to mention the sado-masochistic "lifestyles" that overlap it. Nietzsche would be less happy with this development, since he seemed to think that the hypocrisy of religion is what produces the distortion of beauty and pleasure into ugliness and pain. Oddly, the result we find is that asceticism apparently inspires more beauty in art than nihilism does, though this poses a dilemma for the ascetics.
What would St. Teresa (1515-1582) have thought of Bernini's (1598-1680) portrayal of her mystical ecstasy? Especially when, as has been often noted, it looks like an orgasm?

This ironic image, of course, suggests a different resolution for the dilemma. Meaning and value can be both immanent and transcendent. This has tended to be ordinary human practice, regardless of the religious or intellectual refinements that imply hedonism, asceticism, or nihilism. It is also a position that has proved difficult to maintain in the face of such refinements. Plato's own tribute to beauty seems strong enough:

Now beauty, as we said, shone bright among those visions, and in this world below we apprehend it through the clearest of our senses, clear and resplendent. For sight is the keenest of the physical senses, though wisdom is not seen by it -- how passionate would be our desire for it, if such a clear image of wisdom were granted as would come through sight -- and the same is true of the other beloved objects; but beauty alone has this privilege, to be most clearly seen and most lovely of them all. [Plato, Phaedrus, 250D, after R. Hackford, Plato's Phaedrus, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1952, p. 93, and the Loeb Classical Library, Euthryphro Apology Crito Phaedo Phaedrus, Harvard University Press, 1914-1966, p. 485]

But Plato then expects that the perception of beauty will draw one away from mere physical beauty, "in this world below." The physical consummation of lovers is then a "lower" form of love. "True" lovers love only Truth and Beauty in themselves and begin to shun physical love, like the late Roman philosopher Hypatia. To say that physical beauty and intellectual or religious beauty are just different modalities implies a pluralistic system of value which has rarely been accepted in religion or philosophy. It is, however, the Friesian polynomic theory of value. But since actual pleasures can be judged good or bad, pleasure is a category of value by itself over and against the categories of value terms like "right and wrong" or "good and bad," as explained in the "Caused Value" chapter of the Origin of Value in a Transcendent Function. Pleasure, then, is necessarily in the paradoxical position of being valuable in itself but also preempted by other forms of value. Bad pleasures or pleasures that result from moral wrongs are thus to be discouraged or prohibited. Asceticism itself may be dictated by religious value, but then, as we see with St. Teresa, pleasure may be displaced rather than eliminated.

Shame does not imply the abolition of pleasure and value but the ambivalence that they create in life. Other forms of value set limits to pleasure and also give us the sense that they could exist without beauty and pleasure, and will exist after the body is dead and we will not be in a position to experience pleasure or the senses. Thus, like Plato, we may be left with the idea that physical beauty and pleasure are relatively unvaluable or unimportant. But at the same time they are, in life, the form of value proper to the body, which is, after all, the way in which we exist here.

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1999 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Shame, Beauty, and the Ambivalence of the Flesh, Note 1


"The best of possible worlds." From The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, p. 325, E.F. Payne translation, Dover Books, 1969.

...und wenn man den verstocktesten Optimisten durch die Krankenhospitäler, Lazarethe und chirurgische Marterkammern, durch die Gefängnisse, Folterkammern und Sklavenställe, über Schlachtfelder und Gerichtsstätten führen, dann alle die finstern Behausungen des Elends, wo es sich vor den Blicken kalter Neugier verkriecht, ihm öffnen und zum Schluß ihn in den Hungerthurm des Ugolino blicken lassen wollte; so würde sicherlich auch er zuletzt einsehn, welcher Art dieser meilleur des mondes possibles ist.

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Shame, Beauty, and the Ambivalence of the Flesh, Note 2


From Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 69, Vintage Books, 1965.

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Shame, Beauty, and the Ambivalence of the Flesh, Note 3


Sexual Personae, p. 28, Vintage Books, 1991.

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Shame, Beauty, and the Ambivalence of the Flesh, Note 4


Beauty, The Value of Values, University Press of Virginia, 1991.

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