The Beatific Vision

τῷ ἔνι τέρπονται μάκαρες θεοὶ ἤματα πάντα

Here [on Olympus] the blessed gods [μάκαρες θεοί] are happy
[τέρπονται] all [their] days [ἤματα πάντα].

Homer, The Odyssey, I, Book 6, Line 46; Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp.222-223 -- τέρπονται, the 3rd person plural present indicative middle/passive of τέρπω -- ἤματα, plural of ἦμαρ.

ὡς τρισόλβιοι
κεῖνοι βροτῶν, οἳ ταῦτα δερχθέντες τέλη
μολωσ᾽ ἐς Ἅιδου· τοῖσδε γὰρ μόνοις ἐκεῖ
ζῆν ἔστι, τοῖς ἄλλοισι πάντ᾽ ἔχειν κακά

Thrice blessed
are those among men who, having seen these rites,
go down to Hades; for only to them is there life,
to the others there will be all evils [κακά]

Sophocles, Fragment 837, "Fragments Not Assignable to Any Play," Sophocles III, Fragments, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1996, 2003, pp.368-369; regarding the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Πάλιν οὖν αὐτοῖς ἐλάλησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων· ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου· ὁ ἀκολουθῶν ἐμοὶ οὐ μὴ περιπατήσῃ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ, ἀλλ᾽ ἕξει τὸ φῶς τῆς ζωῆς.

Iterum ergo locutus est eis Iesus dicens: Ego sum lux mundi; qui sequitur me non ambulabit in tenebris, sed habebit lucem vitae.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

John 8:12

καὶ ἐξαλείψει ὁ Θεὸς πᾶν δάκρυον ἀπὸ τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτῶν, καὶ ὁ θάνατος οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι, οὔτε πένθος οὔτε κραυγὴ οὔτε πόνος οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι·
ὅτι τὰ πρῶτα ἀπῆλθον.

Et absterget Deus omnem lacrimam ab oculis eorum, et mors ultra non erit, neque luctus neque clamor neque dolor erit ultra, quae prima abierunt.

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall be mourning nor crying nor pain any more,
for the former things have passed away.

Revelation, 21:4 [Textus Receptus]

San Francesco in estasi, "Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy," 1594, by Caravaggio (15711610), Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

I have previously considered the paradoxes of purpose. When we ask what something, like life, is good for, we want to know its purpose. If we are given some kind of answer, however, we might then ask what that is good for, apparently asking for another purpose. This can continue, as any five-year-old knows, and become an infinite regress. The problem is that these goods with purposes are particular kinds of goods, namely "instrumental" goods. Their goodness consists, entirely, in relation to their purpose. A good piano does what we want a piano to do, namely to produce the kind of music we expect from its design (i.e. the kind of instrument it is -- it is never going to sound like a flute). What the music is then for is something else. To stop the regress, we require some kind of good that is not instrumental, that is not good simply in relation to its purpose. The regress of purposes can only end at an intrinsic good, something that is good in itself, that is an end in itself.

Various things have been proposed as intrinsic goods, such as pleasure, knowledge, love, etc. The difficulty with all of these is that the urge is almost irresistable to ask the same question:  What are they good for? Pleasures may be all fine, and practical hedonism can make for a diverting life for a long time; but it seems like inevitably, not only do we get the "what for" question, but there is also a kind of disappointment. Even the aesthete, whose pleasures may be more refined, begins to suffer ennui, a term that seems to have entered English usage for just such a person. This consideration occurs before we even begin to worry about the moral toll that hedonism or moral aestheticism may begin to take, as explored in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book about morality, even as Wilde denies, properly, that the value of art depends on its morality. For the intrinsic goods of pleasure or beauty, we might ask, "Is this all there is?" There must be some sort of deeper meaning, or higher purpose.

For example, in Advaita Vedânta, there is the ultimate reality, the supreme Being of Brahman, which is , saccidânanda, "existence, consciousness, & bliss." This is ultimately also our own Self, the Âtman, . But while I do seem to have the existence, and most times the consciousness, I otherwise seem to be lacking the last part, , ânanda, the "bliss." Where's the bliss? Well, the doctrine is that mâya, , the world, stands in the way of bliss. By religious practice, the hold of mâya can be broken, liberation and salvation achieved, and bliss realized. With salvation, rebirth is avoided, the world falls away completely, and all that is left is the existence, consciousness, and bliss.

This bliss is thus a state, and a supremely satisfying one, the consciousness of God -- perhaps the state of Aristotle's God of "thought thinking itself." "What is it good for?" is question that, presumably, one would not be asking about it. Indeed, the whole mental mechanism of asking questions, or needing to, would no longer be there.

In Buddhism, we also find bliss. The Buddha Amitâbha promises the , the "Pure Land of Utmost Bliss." The Chinese translation here is of interest. "Utmost" or "ultimate," , here is originally "the ridgepole of a house," which is culmen in Latin. So "ultimate" is the "culmination." In turn, , "bliss" is basically just "happy, pleased" and even "to laugh." This general meaning of the Chinese character is noteworthy in that the Bliss of the Pure Land () thus does not seem discontinuous with more earthy happiness; and the religious anhedonia common in the West, in which even laughter is condemned, seems (blissfully) foreign to Chinese civilization. The bliss of the Pure Land, however, is not the bliss of salvation or Nirvâṇa, , in Buddhism. That remains to be worked out. So the bliss of the Pure Land is not really the "utmost" bliss, in strict doctrinal terms.

With the Greeks, the gods are happy. Theirs is a particular kind of happiness. They are μάκαρ or μακαρίος, "blessed," and so they experience μακαρία, "bliss." This is ambiguous, since the gods are happy because they are fortunate or "blest" in their circumstances, namely immortality and supernatural powers. Their happiness follows from their good fortune in being gods. Humans are not immortal and so can never be fortunate in the same ways. Our happiness is a little different. It is εὐδαίμων, which is literally "good spirited," an expression that we can still use to mean "happy," but in this case also could mean favored by the spirits, without whom human happiness, εὐδαιμονία, would be impossible. Nietzsche thought that the mythological account of the life of the gods was the only "truly satisfying theodicy."
joy, "wide heart"
It was their very immorality, not just immortality, that facilitated their happiness, which was the lesson that Nietzsche took away from the whole business. The life of the "beautiful people" in popular culture tends to reproduce this, with a glamorous surface and a nasty, hidden reality underneath, occasionally exposed to public view, sometimes with murders.

Later religion in the West, in the form of the Mystery Religions and then (as one of them) Christianity, offered something rather different for us. Through salvation and immortality, we can experience the bliss of the gods, or God. Thus, the "Beatitudes" of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:3-11] all use μακαρίος, even though Jesus is not talking about Heaven, unless he is making a promise of Heaven. But Greek even had a separate word for this state, ὄλβιος, "blessed," which can mean earthly good fortune but is used in the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter" to mean the blessed state of those initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries -- whose fortune is thus intermediate between the blessedness of the gods and the Earthly happiness of those lucky enough not to experience evils in this life. This kind of bliss certainly means a kind of fortunate circumstances, namely Heaven; but there is also an element of the experience and the feeling that Heaven makes possible, namely the inner bliss of happiness, like , ânanda.

I have added the Greek word for "joy," χαρά, in the table (along with one of the several equivalent Egyptian words),
Gustav Doré -- Dante and St. Bernard see God,
the "infinite good," valore infinito;
Paradiso, Canto XXXIII:79-145
which does not seem as specific to circumstances or spiritual level as the other words. All happiness involves joy; and all who are happy are χαίροντες, khaírontes, or τερπόμενοι, terpómenoi, "enjoyers," of their life and its benefits (compare).

Eventually the specific source of Christian bliss became the visio beatifica, the "beatific vision" that is actually the experience and perception of God -- as we see in the illustration of Gustav Doré at left. This is Dante's final vision of God, with angels and the Host of Heaven, indeed the entire universe, revolving around him -- see the "Spheres & Orders of Angels" below. This is what Dante's "virtuous pagans" are denied in Hell, which is not for them a place of punishment, since they have done no moral wrongs (and includes even the Sultan of Egypt and Conqueror of Jerusalem, Saladin), but does leave them cut off from God. Of course, Dante himself here is not experiencing the full and real visio beatifica, for he is not one of the Blessed in Heaven, only a visitor and a spectator. The actual Saved are flying through the ether among the Host in the rotation. Indeed, the Earthy sensation of being carried in the tide is one of the signs or clues of ecstasy, as I will consider shortly.

For what it is about what we see in God that occasions the beatific vision, we might consult someone who canonically has seen God. Like Job. I have discussed the elements of Job's experience in more detail elsewhere. Here I am interested in a feature of his testimony. Job says, "Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful [, niphlāʾôth] for me, which I did not know" [Job 42:3]. Nothing quieted Job's complaints about his treatment until he sees God in the whirlwind. The difference that makes may come down to one word, , "[things] being wonderful" -- in the Septuagint, μεγάλα καὶ θαυμαστά, "great and wonderful [things]."

With the Hebrew verb, the adjective is , pilʾî, "wonderful." This is not much, but it may be enough. The wonder, , peleʾ, of it can be more than the force, power, fear, or threat that God is otherwise displaying in the whirlwind. Wonder can be the fascinans numinosity of Rudolf Otto; and I am reminded of Howard Carter's reaction when first looking into the tomb of Tutankhamon. In answer to the question from Lord Carnarvon about what he saw, Carter said, "Wonderful things" [which would be θαυμαστά]. The Book of Job remains morally incomplete, which the text itself seems to acknowledge, as Job's family and friends, "comforted him for all the evil [, rāʿāh, 'evil, misery, distress, injury'] that the LORD had brought upon him" [42:11]. But is it incomplete for Job? Does what he has seen, the [τὸ θαῦμα, "the wonder"], overwhelm and compensate for what is otherwise the cruel injustice of it all? Otto thinks so; and if the "wonder" occasions the visio beatifica, that perhaps would do it.

We get beatifica from Latin translations of the Greek terms, beatus as "blessed" and beatum as "bliss, happiness." As in Greek, different words can be used for what is happy or fortunate in more mundane circumstances, namely felix, "happy," and felicitas, "happiness." More concretely, felix can actually mean "fruitful, fertile" -- such that we get Arabia Felix, "Happy Arabia," which meant Yemen, where mountains, rainfall, dams, and irrigation made for the only area of real agricultural prosperity in the Arabian penninsula, and whose name in Arabic, , ʾal-Yaman, itself means "happy" (from the root , yamana, meaning, not just "to be happy," but "right [handed]," and "south"). This happiness obviously began with favorable circumstances and then produced the enjoyment of internal feelings.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680),
"L'Estasi di Santa Teresa," 1647-1652, Cornaro Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome; artificial light

The intensity of the beatific vision or of what must be comparable, namely mystical transport, raises questions about analogies in ordinary experience. The great sculpture by Gian Lorenzo (Giovanni) Bernini (1598-1680) of St. Teresa of Ávila being pierced by arrows from the hands of an angel makes it look like she is having an orgasm. Her eyes are partly closed, her mouth is open, and she slumps down, unable to hold herself up. This is what people look like at sexual climax, which is liable to be the most instense sensation of pleasure that most of us are going to have. Such a representation stands in contrast to the idea of salvation, transport, or the beatific vision as a state of peace or tranquility, what the Hellenistic moralists called ἀταραξία. Schopenhauer has a nice description:

...we see that peace [Friede] that is higher than all reason [Vernunft], that ocean-like calmness of the spirit [Meeresstille des Gemüths], that deep tranquility [Ruhe], that unshakable confidence [Zuversicht] and serenity [Heiterkeit], whose mere reflection in the countenance, as depicted by Raphael and Correggio, is a complete and certain gospel. [The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, Dover Publications, 1966, E.F.J. Payne translation, p.411; German text, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Band 1, §71, Reclam, 1987, p.574]

But Schopenhauer himself has just cited some terms whose sense is a little different from this:

...and which is denoted by the names ecstasy [Ekstase], rapture [Entrückung], illumination [Erleuchtung], union with God [Vereinigung mit Gott], and so on. [ibid., p.410; German, p.572]

Here we get ecstasy, ἔκστασις, which goes back to the New Testament, originally meaning "displacement," literally "put-out," from which we get "astonishment" or "entracement." Ecstasy does not sound like "peace," but more like the transport (transportatio, "removal") of St. Teresa,
Spheres & Orders of Angels;
cf. Colossians 1:16, & Dante
Empyrean, Elohim,
God, Deus,
Primum Mobile, Seraphim,
[Isaiah 6:2]
Stars, Cherubim,
[Genesis 3:24]
SaturnThrones, Throni
JupiterDominations, Dominationes,
MarsVirtues, Virtutes,
SunPowers, Potestates,
VenusPrincipalities, Principatûs,
MercuryArchangels, Archangeli
MoonAngels, Angeli,
who actually described her own experience as "pain," although of an exquisite sort (herida sabrosisimente, "most delightfully wounded"), which she did not wish to end [
The Cornaro Family (voyeuristically?) watch St. Teresa; 2019.

Even more intriguing is the term rapture (St. Teresa's arrobamiento). This is from Latin raptus, which is "carrying off, abduction," or even "rape," although the original term even in English could still be used to mean abduction alone (like the "rape of the Sabine women," which meant their capture) rather than the subsequent sexual assault -- even as "Rapture" has a special Christian meaning that the Saved are carried off from the Earth before the End of Days. This ambiguity now adheres to raptor, which these days is used to mean a carnivorous "predator" but in Latin simply means "thief" or "robber." Both "ecstasy" and "rapture" thus imply movement, even violence, which, with terms like "transport" (Teresa's arrebatamiento) or "exaltation" (Latin exsultatio, "leaping up"), give us a state that is not peaceful or tranquil but convulsive or, indeed, orgasmic. And the angel stabbing St. Teresa with the arrows may come closer to rape than we may be comfortable with -- even as St. Teresa's passive reception of the arrows contrasts with the spectator's observation of God by Dante and his guide, the aptly named Beatrice. It is really not clear that , ânanda, or , "Utmost Bliss," involves the convulsive kind of state. These tend to imply the peace and tranquility, with Buddhist monks addressed as "Placid Sir," which perhaps is why Schopenhauer gives that side of the experience pride of place. But Western mystics, and not just St. Teresa, and including the mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), often have the much more dynamic and ecstatic experiences, which is reflected in our vocabulary.

So which is it going to be, ἀταραξία or ἔκστασις? In terms of human life, of course, we could say both. Mystics, even Socrates, become lost in their trances and may report ecstatic experiences. Afterwards, however, they have achieved the peace that is otherwise evident to others, even as Herman Hesse describes Ananda's ability to discern that something has changed in Siddhartha (in the eponymous book popular in the '60's), something that we may see in the wry smile that becomes the preferred depiction of the Buddha's countenance. Or, the dignity and tranquility of the death of Socrates moved Erasmus to say, "Pray for us, Saint Socrates!"

Outside of human life, in, perhaps, the hereafter, we can imagine that the peace and the ecstasy would occur together, especially in a system like Vedânta where we may shed individual existence and have a consciousness of no more than our Self, the Âtman, .
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680),
"L'Estasi di Santa Teresa," 1647-1652, Cornaro Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome; natural light through concealed window, 2019 [note]
Otherwise, it may be in terms of the constant visio of God, or union with God (Vereinigung mit Gott). These two features, as it happens, serve different functions. Peace and tranquility imply contentment and lack of desire, meaning a disinclination to ask the "good for" question. But this is merely negative and does not provide a positive reason not to ask the question. We might just be anesthetized, "blissed out," or uninterested. The other side of this, the ecstasy, the rapture, is the positive reason. When a person is having an orgasm, we are not going to ask them, "What is this good for?" They might not even notice us, and are likely to be annoyed if they do. Thus, ecstasy occupies our attention and blocks out everything else. If we are looking for an intrinsic good, a good-in-itself that is the culmination () of all other goods, and all instrumental goods, this may do. If the Good is Being, as I have
supposed, then the visio beatifica absolutely fills us with the fullness of unhidden, unvarnished Being. Such experience may not be available in this life for most of us; but we can always read about it the works of someone like St. Teresa, who describes it in some detail, or we can see it in the art of someone like Raphael or Correggio, which, as Schopenhauer vividly puts in, "is a complete and certain gospel [ein ganzes und sicheres Evangelium ist]" in itself.

Bernini's depiction of St. Teresa, although faithful to her own account, raises a different question. Kenneth Clark remarks:

When one remembers the historical Santa Teresa, with her plain, dauntless, sensible face, the contrast with the swooning, sensuous beauty of the Cornaro Chapel [where the "L'Estasi de Santa Teresa" is held] is almost shocking. [Civilisation, 7, "Grandeur and Obedience," 1966]

What has Bernini done? He has, of course, glamorized St. Teresa. The "plain, dauntless, sensible face" does not convey the glamour of religious ecstasy as does the "swooning, sensuous beauty," who could almost have stepped out of a glossy, high end Hollywood movie. This is may not be faithful to the historical, practical author, administrator, and nun, but then again, artistically, it is -- even as Teresa does use a word about her experience, amortecimiento, that gets translated "swoon" -- and it carries us to the next issue.

Freilich ist am Menschenleben, wie an jeder schlechten Waare, die Außenseite mit falschem Schimmer überzogen: immer verbirgt sich was leidet.

Certainly human life, like all inferior goods, is covered on the outside with a false glitter; what suffers always conceals itself.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Band 1, §59 [Reclam, 1987, p.457], The World as Will and Representation, Volume I [Dover Publications, 1966, E.F.J. Payne translation, p.325], color added

For about him the goddess had shed a mist [ἠέρα χεῦε], Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, that she might make him unrecognizable.

Homer, The Odyssey, II, Book 13, lines 189-191, translated by A.T. Murray & George E. Dimock [Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1919, 1995, p.16-17], color added

Demeter, Ephesos Museum, Vienna, 2019
ὣς εἰποῦσα θεὰ μέγεθος καὶ εἶδος ἄμειψεν γῆρας ἀπωσαμένη, περί τ᾽ ἀμφί τε κάλλος ἄητο· ὀδμὴ δ᾽ ἱμερόεσσα θυηέντων ἀπὸ πέπλων σκίδνατο, τῆλε δὲ φέγγος ἀπὸ χροὸς ἀθανάτοιο λάμπε θεῆς, ξανθαὶ δὲ κόμαι κατενήνοθεν ὤμους, αὐγῆς δ᾽ ἐπλήσθη πυκινὸς δόμος ἀστεροπῆς ὥς. βῆ δὲ διὲκ μεγάρων,

With these words the goddess [Demeter] changed her form and stature, thrusting old age away; beauty wafted all about her, a lovely fragrance spread from her scented dress, and a radiance shone afar from her immortal body; flaxen locks bestrewed her shoulders, and the sturdy house was filled with a brilliance as of lightning as she went out through the hall.

"To Demeter," Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocryptha, Lives of Homer, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2003, p.54-55.

Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.

Heddy Lamarr (1914-2000)

The Power of Glamour, Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion,
by Virginia Postrel [Simon & Schuster, 2013]

Glamour is an illusion, originally a magical spell of concealment, such as we see Athena casting on Odysseus in the Odyssey, above. Athena also conceals herself, appearing to Odysseus in the same passage as a young man, a shepherd [line 222]. Both of these instances are the opposite of the cases mainly considered by Virginia Postrel, where glamour, in most of its modern applications, conceals the ordinariness of someone and makes them appear, in turn, godlike -- the mirror image of the cases in the Odyssey. This is the clue here. We probably have never met any gods. So we can't really say, from direct experience, what they are like and can only rely on indirect testimony from someone like Homer. However, actors and other personalities, now called "celebrities" (although it is not always clear, in popular culture, what they are celebrated for), appear with a glamour that makes them appear like gods. We cannot, of course, get too close, or the illusion will break; but the glamour itself bespeaks some kind of knowledge, which we may not know we had, of what the gods would be like. There is an echo or a recognition of what the glamour means that is produced in us.

Since we know that the gods are μακαρίος, glamour presents us with a sort of visio beatifica of their life. As Postrel quotes "essayist" Jim Lewis:

[Glamour] offers us a glimpse into another world, more perfect than this one, and for that moment, enchantment swirls around us. And then it is gone again. [p.18]

This experience does not carry us out of the world, like mystical transport, but it involves its own kind of ecstasy and exaltation nevertheless -- the "leaping up" origin of the latter term even fits, precisely, the behavior that was evident, for instance, during the first tour of the Beatles in the United States, when fans, mainly female, bounced up and down in their excitement, eager for the darshan, , the numinous appearance and magical charisma (χάρισμα, "grace" as both divine "gift" and graceful form or appearance), of the gods [note]. Postrel says:

Glamour may be an illusion, but it reveals the truth about what we desire and, sometimes, what we can become. [p.23]

Thus, Postrel's whole thesis is that the ideal of this glamour, of this godlike existence, may not be possible, and may be a deception in the public persona of "beautiful people," but it nevertheless represents a goal of beauty and perfection, like Plato's Forms, towards which human life attains meaning just by striving, and just by attaining any feature of the ideal. This therefore sets for us an imitatio dei, which, oddly enough, is a Christian project, whose fulfillment is impossible, rather than a pagan one, whose very undertaking would be ὕβρις, húbris, insolence against the gods. The modern celebrities, of course, do achieve a pagan ideal -- φήμη, fame -- but thereby, in Christian terms, endanger their souls. Euripides explored how hollow and vulnerable this could be for those who perforce remain mortal.

Postrel quotes a character from the movie Queen Christina [1933], the Spanish ambassador, Antonio, speaking to Greta Garbo, "Why, that's civilization -- to disguise the elemental with the glamorous" [ibid.]:

By using the word disguise, Antonio acknowledges that glamour is a falsehood, an illusion. But, he declares, civilization iself is defined by such illusions -- by art and artifice, customs and manners. [ibid.]

Today, we tend to think of glamour in terms of what Postrel calls the "glamour industries," of "film, music, fashion." In former days, of course, actors were generally social outcasts, not media celebrities, musicians were little better thought of, and no one achieved any fame by designing clothes. Thus, historically, glamour was more to be seen among rulers and warriors, or even among religious "celebrities," as even now in the story relayed by Postrel of Mary Gordon, who saw nuns as glamorous, especially Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story [1959] and said:

To feel "exalted and apart," to be saturated in pure light, to believe in perfection, and above all, to matter. [p.39]

Here we have the intersection of Hollywood, glamour, and the genuine religious visio beatifica. If a feature of the beatific vision is to be "saturated in pure light," a consequence of the vision is to radiate light oneself. Thus, at Exodus 34:29:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that the skin [] of his face [] was radiant [] because he had spoken with him [i.e. God]. [note]

Aaron and the Israelites were afraid of this, but Moses reassured them and subsequently began to wear a veil so as not to alarm anyone. We hear less about this later, but we see it always in the iconography, where the halo, ἅλως, shows the radiance of the faces of Jesus, saints, and even Christian Emperors of Romania in Constantinople:  The Emperor was the "Equal of the Apostles," ἰσαπόστολος, and he and the whole Imperial Family were always shown with halos (as with Theodora below). But the iconography may actually derive from Buddhism, where Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, and saints also radiate light and are shown with halos.

In modern terms, part of the illusion of modern glamour can be generated with something as simple as a spotlight. Actors and showfolk can seem to glow on stage, even with light that is actually borrowed. Lighting with a soft focus in movies can also make actors seem to glow. And many people, just from being happy or good looking, can be said to be "radiant."

Rulers and warriors, engaged in activities that now might be regarded as sordid, nevertheless were often seen with semi-divine glamour. The heroes of the Iliad were to Socrates demigods, ἡμίθεοι; but the divinity of rulers, at least after Ancient Egypt or Modern Japan, was never so conspicuous as with the Emperors of Romania. Liutprand of Cremona describes the Imperial Throne floating into the air -- although this iconography and presentation was more than a little defensive, since it was not unusual for Emperors to be overthrown.

Even now, few images bespeak such glamour as the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in Ravenna. Unfortunately, the understanding of the glamour of political leaders, combined with the movies, served the cults of tyrants like Hitler and Stalin in the 20th century. While in democracies, citizens generally have little but contempt for politicians, some politicians, like Roosevelt or Obama, are able to take on an aura that is actually unsuited to their abilities or accomplishments and that is damaging to the welfare of the state and the citizens -- the 2008 "Hope and Change" posters of Obama enter the history of quasi-religious iconography, not to mention the class of merely symbolic, indeterminate, and mysterious political promises. Other Presidents, like Coolidge, have been both loved and actually accomplished without being glamorous (or particularly charismatic).

The look of the glamorous is a large part of their appeal. Stalin, an ugly man, got a better looking actor to play him in propaganda films. But it is extraordinary in the 20th century how whole industries were created to make people look better. Fashion is only the beginning. To just get to the fashion runway (introduced in 1900), or onto the movie screen, we need the clothing, the shoes, the hair, the makeup, the "accessories," the coaches (walk, speech, etc.), the plastic surgeons (sometimes) and, in the act, the photographers and cinematographers, who can clean up imperfections, even before the digital age, with soft focus, air brushes, lighting, etc. One scarcely need be reminded about the size of the businesses involved just in hair and makeup.

This is all raw meat to anyone, political or religious, with an anaesthetic bent. Thus, Postrel references the "Marxist critic" John Berger:

...glamour elicits social envy in order to sell commercial goods. Berger defines glamour as "the state of being envied." He argues that advertising images generate glamour by "showing us people who have apparently been transformed" by whatever is being adverised "and are, as a result, enviable." Glamour is, in his view, a byproduct of capitalism's vicious game, in which only a few winners enjoy privileged status. The many losers are jealous and, thus, susceptible to glamour. "Glamour," Berger declares, "cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion." [p.31]

John Berger displays the contradictory animus of the modern Marxist, who simultaneously condemns the advertising that facilitates the distribution of the economic abundance of capitialism, while, at the same time, denying that such abundance exists. Of course, if only "a few winners" were able to buy the products advertised in the mass market, then the advertisers and manufacturers would go out of business. This circumstance is often overlooked by socialists, although it was hard for visitors from the Soviet Union to miss it. Thus:

Three decades later [after Allen Ginsberg], a pre-presidential Boris Yeltsin marveled at pudding pops in a Houston-area grocery store and later wrote in his memoirs that "when I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods... I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people." ["The American Bazar," The Wall Street Journal, by Rien Fertel, May 20-21, 2017, p.C9, review of Grocery, by Michael Ruhlman, Abrams Press]

At the same time, with their uncomfortable awareness of the actual abundance of capitalism, and of pudding pops, and of the miserable economic failure of attempts to apply Marxism (where Marx had predicted greater productivity than capitalism), Berger must find a way to condemn, indeed morally condemn, what is conveyed by advertising. This revives the anhedonia and the theory of "unnecessary desires" in Plato's Republic. You don't need those pudding pops, just as in 2016 Bernie Sanders said that all those different brands of deodorants in the drug stores are unnecessary. His ideal is probably the Stalinist perfection of having only one brand of each product, if its existence is even allowed. Boris Yeltsin must not have understood that just liking pudding pops isn't enough. The Party (i.e. Comrade Sanders) must judge its worth.

In turn, John Berger, who as a Marxist must disparage the meaning and value of merely "bourgeois" morality, has confused recourse to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Envy, to condemn capitalism. Leftists, blinded by their own indignant self-righteousness, are rarely sensible of the irony of things like this. And it doesn't even make any sense. You don't need envy if it is something you can buy at Walmart, and even the glamorous gowns of Hollywood stars at the Oscars can be had as cheap knock-offs. Berger shares the notion of the whole "unnecessary desires" narrative that people only desire what they are told to desire:

Critics like Berger often assume that glamour creates those desires. They imagine that if glamour disappeared, so would dissatisfaction -- that, for example, women would not long to be young and beautiful if there were no cosmetic ads or movie stars. But glamour only works when it can tap preexisting discontent, giving otherwise inchoate longings an object of focus. [p.36]

In this, the problem is human nature, which the moralistic Left, as in feminism, detests and wishes to break and remold into something more worthy, whatever the cost (which generally would be a totalitarian police state). But this program is contradicted by history, when we examine the hair, makeup, and fashion of ancient people like the Egyptians, and by decency, when we realize the tyrannical and dictatorial agenda that is involved (although this would not stop a lot of self-righteous do-gooders). Many modern social and political absurdities can be exploded with just a brief examination of the images in one of the XIX and XX Dynasty workers' family tombs at Deir el-Medina. At the same time, the petty and vicious Stalinism at American universities, with fundamentals like free speech openly attacked, is making it all too obvious what the Left has in mind for all of society.

At the same time, it is obvious that the full "lifestyles of the rich and famous" is not available for all. If envy exists in that respect, it may be in the more positive form of motivating ambition, although it is hard to imagine how the ridiculous lives of people like the Kardashians represent an ideal of happiness or even comfort for most people. Advertising itself seems to be a better job in that respect, where even the shampoo commercials present a luminous, even numinous ideal that may provoke suspicion about its authenticity. Envious or not, everybody buys shampoo.

The thesis here, then, is that glamour represents in outward form the blessedness that the gods experience in their own being. Both glamour and charisma are thus forms of numinosity, which is the ultimate category of value, of the Good as Being. As such, they will seem magical, supernatural, and even uncanny. In the absence of actual gods, they represent two things:  (1) they are visible clues to what is actually transcendent Bliss, the μακαρία (makaría), (ânanda), ("Utmost Bliss"), or the visio beatifica, however this may be realized, whether through what passes as mystical transport, union with God, absorption in Brahman, or Nirvâṇa. And (2) in secular and practical terms, they represent ideals and aspirations, which is how Postrel deals with them. Clues, of course, can be deceptive, and ideals may be attached to things or persons for whom close examination would preclude any idealization. Thus, like Beauty, which Plato regarded as a clue to the transcendent, Glamour as such is a thing of the surface and of appearances.

Οὐ Νέμεσις

In popular culture, nowhere is this more obvious than with fashion models, especially the "supermodels" of the 1990's. These were stunning beauties, like Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, and Karen Mulder. Few were deceived that these women had anything going for them other than their looks. Some attempted to make a transition to acting or music, but this worked out only rarely. Of those three, Naomi Campbell maintains the most noticeable public presence (including a 2018 movie), and not always for the better, since the rumors of her temper and misconduct have sometimes been realized in legal trouble. Nevertheless, a model is less damaged by revelations of bad behavior than others, since it is understood that her appearance is really all that counts.

But this is nothing new. Postrel considers the case of Helen (Ἑλένη) of Troy, about whose character or even personality it is exceeding difficult to obtain a sense from the Iliad. Postrel details the variety of guises in which Helen can and has been viewed, from extremes like "devoted wife" to "whore" [p.147]. She quotes a key passage that has already come in for comment in these pages:

Ah, no wonder the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered years of agony
    for her, for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty! A deathless goddess -- so she strikes our eyes [ὦπα]!
[ibid., Robert Fagles translation] [note]

This is actually not a very good translation, inserting an entire phrase, although preserving the literal use of "eyes." The Loeb edition has it thus:

Small blame [οὐ νέμοσις, actually "no blame"] that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long time [χρόνος] suffer woes; wondrously [αἰνῶς, or "terribly," "strangely," "exceedingly"] like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon. [The Iliad, I, 3:156-158, Loeb Classical Library, A.T. Murray translation, Harvard, 1924, 1988, p.129]

Judgments about Hellen are often based on little more than this. But in one way, it may be enough. In appearance she is like to the immortal goddesses, which is all we need to know. And it is not just a glamour, since, unlike our previous cases of Odysseus and Athena, this is what she really looks like. At the same time, it conceals her true self, about which we may be ignorant (part of the dynamic of the feminine in general, with a characteristic tension between inner and outer realites). Similarly, it is hard for us to gauge the character of the supermodels, and we often hear little personal about them. It is hard for reporters even to know what to ask them in interviews, which are not common. There seems to be a vacancy there, which, all things considered, is not surprising [note].

This is where Nietzsche went wrong. To the extent that the Greeks perceived immorality in the behavior of the gods, this discredited them, as it does modern celebrities whose glamour is punctured by revelations of bad behavior or bad attitudes. Socrates joined those who refused to believe stories that implied immorality in the gods. Even Euthyphro, who relies on Greek mythology in all its messy and morally ambivalent glory, nevertheless says that, "Zeus is the best and most just of the gods." The intuition upon which Euthyphro and Socrates both rely is that the outward glamour and charisma of the gods is matched by their inner being, of which the attributes are only the outward, but faithful, expression.

In all of this, the bliss of the gods corresponds both to their beauty and to their goodness. In human life, these vary independently. The lesson on this page is that the visio beatifica is not just the experience of the mystics or of the saved and blessed, it corresponds to visible and tangible manifestations in the world. That these can vary independently from their counterparts, and sometimes can seem to exalt rather sordid realities, does not lessen their reality or their meaning. That foolish actors should display a godlike glamour is part of the aesthetic delight of life, and also that clue about the transcendent -- not, to be sure, a clue to the existence of the Olympian gods, much less any virtue of the actors, but a clue, just like Bernini's St. Teresa, to transcendent bliss [note].

The Future and Its Enemies, The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Virginia Postrel, Free Press, 1998

On the Sublime and the Numinous

Philosophy of Religion


Home Page

Copyright (c) 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2022, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Beatific Vision, Note 1

A counterpoint to what mystics may experience is what we find in the 1980 movie, Altered States. In the end, William Hurt (in his first movie), who has been experimenting with sensory deprivation and drugs, dissolves into the conditions of the origin of life, which he has been told (by Mexican Indian shamans, who seem to be playing Tibetan music) is the primera alma, the "first soul." Blair Brown, as his wife, who manages to draw him back into human form, then tells others that he "got it on with God." She assumes that this was the revelation and ecstasy he was looking for, in comparison to which his marriage cannot count for much. He then contradicts her, saying that his experience was of emptiness and terror. Since the author of the source book and the screenplay, Paddy Chayefsky, seems to have been an atheist, he did not allow that the source of life was going to be divine in any way, let alone a personal God. So Hurt rejects the value of the experience, and settles for human love instead. St. Teresa might give him a talking to.

Return to Text

The Beatific Vision, Note 2

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680),
"L'Estasi di Santa Teresa," 1647-1652, Cornaro Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
Until visiting the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in 2019, which is an obscure enough location that even the Roman taxi driver had apparently not heard of it, I had never seen images of "L'Estasi di Santa Teresa" that were not done in artificial light. Even the extensive viewing and discussion of the sculpture by Kenneth Clark [Civilisation, 7, "Grandeur and Obedience," 1966] is in artificial light, which makes the marble of the piece look yellowish -- as we see in the first image of it above.

However, then walking into the church, in daylight, and seeing Santa Teresa, is a revelation. Bernini concealed a window above it, and sunlight pours down into the recess in the otherwise dimly lit church. The marble is brilliant white; and the golden rays of the sun behind the group are brightly lit by, indeed, the golden rays of the sun. It is dazzling.

I find it hard to express well what a difference this makes, and how extraordinary is the impression one gets. Santa Teresa is not in some dark corner of a museum, or even in a dark corner of some church. And it goes beyond an installation that is simply well lit (like the Pietà in St. Peter's). Santa Teresa swoons in a burst of light, just as one might expect from a divine visitation or a mystical vision.

Also, although there were a fair number of people there who clearly knew what this was and why they were there, the church was free of the mob and stampede of visitors that one gets at the Vatican or the Pantheon. Donations were collected at the door, like at a lot of other churches of marginal interest.

While seeing a lot of sights in person repays the effort for many reasons, the payoff with Santa Teresa is all but unique of its kind.

Return to Text

The Beatific Vision, Note 3

In an interesting way, Postrel distinguishes between glamour and charisma:

Mystery plays a central role in distinguishing glamour from another alluring quality:  charisma. Though writers sometimes use the word glamour and charismatic interchangeably, these concepts are quite different. In its precise sense, charisma (originally a religious term) is a quality of leadership that inspires followers to join the charismatic leader in the disciplined pursuit of a greater cause. More colloquially, charisma is a kind of personal magnetism that inspires loyalty.

Charisma in either sense is a personal characteristic like intelligence. A place, an idea, even an object can be glamorous, but only a person can be charismatic. [p.116]

Since χάρισμα as "grace" can mean graceful form or appearance, this can actually be glamorous. And with χάρισμα as the divine "gift" of "grace," by which, in Augustinian terms, God grants salvation, there are ways in which this term intersects our themes of bliss, which results from salvation, and glamour, which is its outward appearance. But the outward appearance alone is the glamour, and Postrel accurately characterizes the aesthetic qualities of this, which are "cool" and "distant," while charisma is "warm" and "personal."

Schopenhauer's falschem Schimmer is on the aesthetic surface. Charisma goes a little deeper, although, of course, it can be as deceptive as glamour. Postrel's examples of Obama as glamorous and Bill Clinton as charismatic seem apt enough, but then Clinton hardly seems more worthy (ἄξιος) of his alluring power as Obama (ἀνάξιος) is of his, which rather spoils the effect. It may be a better example to realize that the "plain, dauntless, sensible" St. Teresa of Ávila is undoubtedly charismatic, in the fullest and most varied religious senses, without the slightest assist from Giovanni Bernini. Postrel also distinguishes glamour by "desire" and "sales," with desire nakedly evident in Bernini's St. Teresa, in a kind of theatrical setting commensurate with any advertising, as opposed to charisma with "commitment" and "leadership." Bernini's St. Teresa clearly goes with the former, while in the historical St. Teresa we find the latter.

The "cool" and "warm" contrast is something we see elsewhere. Here, I have already noted the cool nature of tranquil bliss (ἀταραξία), and the warmth of ecstatic bliss (ἔκστασις). Elsewhere, we see the coolness of envy and the heat of jealousy. Postrel even notes the charisma of Joan of Arc alive, but the glamour of John of Arc dead, as, in general, death can often glamorize, which is certainly no actual benefit to the person whose body has meanwhile gone from warm to cold. The dead are inevitably distant, and devoid of an actual personal existence; but seeing Marilyn Monroe and James Dean in the tourist materials on Hollywood Blvd., their glamorous presence is unmistakable. But death does not always glamorize. Postrel lists Janice Joplin, as she might Mother Theresa, as still charismatic rather than glamorous. Unlike St. Teresa, Mother Theresa, who was no mystic and has no Bernini, is unlikely to ever appear glamorous.

Return to Text

The Beatific Vision, Note 4

The Greek text of Exodus 34:29 has a curious anomaly, or mistranslation.

The meaning of is a little peculiar, since the root means "having horns" or "horn" []. But then it also gets used metaphorically, as in the projections on an altar or, in this case, to "send out rays." Hence we get the meaning here "to radiate" or "glow" for the face of Moses.
Moses, 1513-1515, by Michaelangelo (1475-1564), Tomb of Julius II, Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, 2019
In his statue of Moses, Michaelangelo, although perhaps intending to represent the rays of light, fashioned what look like actual horns on the head of Moses. This may have led to the confusion sometimes found in the naive, ignorant, or hostile that Jews actually grow horns. That Exodus 34:29 could not possibly mean this is evident in the attribution of the glow to the skin [] of the face [] of Moses, while the rays or horns of Michaelangelo are placed above the hairline.

The Septuagint keeps the skin of the face but otherwise avoids the issue with a word unrelated to words for glowing or horns. The passage with the key phase in Greek is, "Even Moses did not know" ὅτι [that] δεδόξασται [verb] ἡ ὄψις [the appearance] τοῦ χρώματος [of the skin] τοῦ προσώπου [of the face] αὐτοῦ [his]. So we want to know what was happening to the appearance of the skin of the face of Moses.

The verb there is δοξάζω, "to think, imagine, suppose, fancy, conjecure." This derives from the philosophically important word δόξα, "opinion, belief," with a causative suffix -ζω. This does not seem to mean much in the context, In the passive, however, δοξάζω has another meaning, "to magnify, extole."

The form δεδόξασται that we find here is the third person perfect middle or passive, "it has been magnified." The first person form of this, which is the usual citation form, would be δεδόξασμαι. It is not unusual for verbs ending in -ζω to have the letter zeta reduced to a sigma in derived forms. Thus the verb νομίζω, "believe," which we see figure importantly in the defense of Socrates in the Apology, has the form νενόμισμαι in the perfect indicative middle and passive ("I have been believed"). Because of frequent irregularities, this perfect indicative middle form is given as the fifth principle part of Greek verbs (out of six parts -- where verbs in English only have three principles parts, e.g. "sing, sang, sung" -- even Latin verbs only have four, e.g. laudô, laudâre, laudâvî, laudâtum, "praise").

Apart from that interesting morphology, we have the problem of the meaning. The sense from Hebrew that the skin of the face of Moses is glowing or sending out rays seems completely lost. The basic meaning of the passive from Liddell and Scott, "to magnified, extole," gets extended in various translations to "glorify, honor, bestow glory on." This may derive from one of the meanings of δόξα itself, as "glory, splendor," with the causative addition. As it happens, the unabridged Liddell and Scott lexicon has a specific entry as "glorified" in reference to the usage in the Septuagint [p.444]. However, in the context, even "glorify" could meaning anything or, as a description of actual appearance, ὄψις, of Moses, almost nothing. Whatever the "glorified" would mean, it certainly isn't clear why this would frighten the Israelites or occasion Moses to cover his face with a veil.

As I said, however δεδόξασται gets magnified by the translators, in comparison to the Hebrew, semantically it seems to be barking up the wrong tree. Does St. Jerome do any better? In the Vulgate we get, quod cornuta esset facies sua. Here we get "face" or "countenance," facies, but we've lost the skin. Instead we are back to horns, as cornutus, "horned." My Cassell's Latin Dictionary glosses cornu, "horn," with "as in Hebrew, poet[ic] for strength, courage." This element seems missing from the Oxford Latin Dictionary entry for the same word; and, of course, it is not clear how the skin of the face of Moses displays strength or courage. By eliminating the word for "skin," however, Jerome may have made it easier to misread the phrase as meaning that Moses literally grew horns after seeing God. Nothing remotely of the sort could be derived from the Greek version. But if Michaelangelo's Moses has horns because people had been reading the Vulgate and thinking that is what it literally meant, there is the problem of the context. Perhaps it would frighten the Israelites if Moses had grown horns, but a veil would not help much in that case. He would have needed something more like a hat.

Return to Text

The Beatific Vision, Note 5;
Οὐ Νέμεσις

This passage from the Iliad is recalled at a striking moment in the Middle Ages, when
Maria Scleraena, the mistress of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, first appeared at the theater in Constantinople. This probably would have been in the year 1042. One of the courtiers present wispered οὐ νέμοσις, apparently struck by her beauty. The historian Michael Psellus then gives us a detail that may illuminate her personality more than that of a great many supermodels. She heard the comment and, not being educated herself, wondered what it was about. So later she asked. She thus seems to have been an attentive and acute person, and so more than a pretty face. But the glamour, indeed, was also there.

The image is of the Empress Maria, the Alan, who died around the year 1090, just a few years after Maria Scleraena. She was not an Alan but the daughter of King Bagrat IV (1027-1072) of Georgia, who married two Emperors, Michael VII (1071-1078) and Nicephorus III (1078-1081).

Return to Text

The Beatific Vision, Note 6;
Helen and Aphrodite

At one point in the Iliad we learn more about Helen's character and inner thoughts. Paris (called "Alexander," Ἀλέξανδρος), for whom Aphrodite (Ἀφροδίτη) took Helen from her husband Menelaus (Μενέλαος), is fighting Menelaus and losing. Menelaus begins to drag him away by his helmet, but Aphrodite breaks the strap that holds the helmet, and Paris is loose. As Menelaus turns to stab and kill Paris, Aphrodite covers him with a ἠέρι πολλῇ, "thick mist," and snatches him away [Iliad Book III, Lines 369-382]. The word here for "mist" is the same one quoted from the Odyssey above, and is famliar in the nominative, ἀήρ, which is the same in Attic Greek and commonly comes to mean "air" -- νεφέλη, "cloud," is less ambiguous and is also used for the protection than a god may cast over a mortal.

Aphrodite takes Paris to his bedchamber and then goes to fetch Helen for him. Helen is on the walls with Trojan women, where her arrival occasioned the remark addressed above, and Aphrodite, in disguise, says to her:

Come hither; Alexander calleth thee to go to thy home. There is he in his chamber and on his inlaid couch, gleaming with beauty and fair rainment. Thou wouldest not deem that he had come thither from warring with a foe, but rather that he was going to the dance, or sat there as one that had but newly ceased from the dance. [III:390-394, Homer, The Iliad, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, translated by A.T. Murray, 1924, 1988, pp.144-147]

Helen, as a daughter of Zeus herself, recognizes the goddess, from her "beauteous neck," περικαλλὴς δειρή, her "lovely breasts," στήθεα ἱμερόεντα, and her "flashing eyes," ὄμματα μαρμαίροντα [III:396-397].

The language here is of some interest in its own right and warrants some attention for our topic of glamour. The "throat" or "neck," δειρή, is modified by an interesting adjective, περικαλλής ("very beautiful"), based on "beauty," κάλλος (whose semantics have been discussed elsewhere), with the addition of περί, "around."

Next we get an addition to the Greek words for "breast" (otherwise μαστός or οὖθαρ), which in the singular, as a neuter noun, is (τὸ) στῆθος. This is declined like the familiar (neuter) word τέλος, "end" (genitive τέλεος, Attic genitive τέλους), and is used in the text in the plural, στήθεα (Attic στήθη). Since the word can also mean "chest" for males or females, the plural, as with English "breast," disambiguates the reference.

Also, we get the (neuter) plural adjective, ἱμερόεντα -- ἱμερόεις in the masculine singular, ἱμερόεσσα in the feminine singular, and ἱμερόεν in the neuter singular -- meaning, "exciting love or desire, lovely, delightsome, charming," which usually go with something a bit more than a bare, bony chest.

This reference, as well as the references to the appeal of breasts in Egyptian love poetry, in the Song of Solomon, and in the Thousand and One Nights, alerts us that the sexual appeal of female breasts is ancient and general, and not something invented by Hugh Hefner in Playboy magazine. This may disappoint some feminists, who, in their anhedonia, might like it erased from modern culture.

"Breasts" as στήθεα is a word we will see again in the Iliad. Late in the epic, Athena actually attacks Aphrodite in battle, and she πρὸς στήθεα χειρὶ παχείῃ ἤλασε, "struck [her] breasts with [her] stout [παχεῖα] hand [χείρ]" [XXI:424-425]. The verb ἤλασε is the aorist of ἐλάω or ἐλαύνω, "drive" or, as in this case, "strike."

So did Athena punch Aphrodite's breasts, or slap them? Was this a "boob-slap"? If so, it may bespeak a particular "gendered" hostility of Athena, a virgin goddess, towards Aphrodite, the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas. We also may note that translators seem a little uncomfortable with the literal text. In the Loeb translation we get, "she smote Aphrodite on the breast with her stout hand" [Homer, The Iliad, Volume II, translated by A.T. Murray, Harvard University Press, 1925, 1985, p.439]. The only problem with this is that "breast," στῆθος, here is in the plural, στήθεα. Putting it in the singular can reduce the sense to the bony chest above, and not the soft breasts below. Thus, Mary Lefkowtitz has the more honest rendering of "Athena strikes Aphrodite on her breasts" [Greek Gods, Human Lives, What We Can Learn from Myths, Yale University Press, 2003, p.77, although it is not quoted as a translation]. W.H.D. Rouse does a more thorough clean-up job than the Loeb edition, where Athena "gave her a push on the breast with her open hand..." [Homer, The Iliad, The Story of Achillês, translated by W.H.D. Rouse, 1938, A Mentor Book, The New American Library, 1950, 1962, p.252]. I don't think that ἐλαύνω means "push," although it has a lot of meanings -- "to drive, to ride, to row; to drive away, expel; to attack, harass; to push on, go on; to strike, drive, thrust; to beat; etc." [Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford, 1889, 1964, p.248]. Although it is close, I don't quite see "push" in there, which softens the nature of Athena's attack, whatever it is that she is touching.

Now, "open hand" could go with pushing or slapping, but we don't really get "open." The adjective is masculine παχύς, feminine παχεῖα, and neuter παχύ, and its meaning is "thick, stout," or, for liquids, "thick, curdled, clotted," and not much else that is semantically relevant [Liddell & Scott, p.614]. So I think that the picture Rouse has of Athena pushing down Aphrodite is not going to work. Aphrodite is struck, and she collapses. There is a bit of ambiguity, but it is made clear that Athena uses her hand rather than a spear or other weapon. Although Aphrodite herself has previously been wounded with a weapon (Diomedes stabs her at V:334-340), and other gods, the specified hand of Athena makes this clearly a certain kind of attack; and since "breasts" is indeed in the plural, it sounds like an attack on Aphrodite's womanhood, as though Athena has a particular animus against her. And Aphrodite was simply coming to the aid of Ares, whom Athena had decked with a rock, and not to her child or favorite.

"Flashing," μαρμαίροντα, and "eyes," ὄμματα, involve no puzzles. The singular "eye" here is ὄμμα (otherwise ὀφθαλμός, as in "Ophthalmology," or ὤψ, which can also mean "face," as in Καλλιόπη, the Muse with the "Beautiful Face"), again a neuter noun. "Flashing" is the neuter plural participle of μαρμαίρω, "to flash, sparkle," with Liddell & Scott using this very phrase from the Iliad as an example [p.487].

It is worth lingering over these expressions since they are signs, perceived by Helen, of the glamour and power of Aphrodite, as the goddess of love and beauty. Other gods have flashing eyes, but there usually is less reason to dwell on the appeal of their necks or breasts. Unmentioned here, there is also the epithet of Aphrodite as καλλίπυγος, the "beautiful bottom." In this expression we see the use of a compound with κάλλος, "beauty," and the consequence that the compound, although in the feminine gender, possesses the inflections of the second declension -- a grammatical peculiarity noted here in various contexts.

The reaction of Helen to the summons of Aphrodite is:

...then amazement seized her, and she spake, and addressed her, saying: "Strange goddess [δαιμονίη], why art thou minded to beguile me thus? Verily thou wilt lead me yet further on to one of the well-peopled cities of Phrygia or lovely Maeonia, if there too there be some one of mortal men who is dear [φίλος] to thee, seeing that now Menelaus hath conquered goodly Alexander, and is minded to lead hateful [στυγερή] me to his home. It is for this cause that thou art now come hither with guileful thought. Go thou, and sit by his side, and depart from the way of the gods, neither let thy feet any more bear thee back to Olympus; but ever be thou troubled for him, and guard him, until he make thee his wife, or haply his slave [δούλη]. But thither will I not go [κεῖσε δ᾽ἐγὼν οὐκ εἶμι] -- it were a shameful [νεμεσσητόν] thing -- to array that man's couch; all the women of Troy will blame me thereafter; and I have measureless griefs [ἄχεα, singular τὸ ἄχος, "pain, distress"] at heart [dative θυμῷ, nominative ὁ θυμός, "soul, spirit, mind"]." [III:698-412, boldface added]

After some threats, Helen does go to Paris, but here we learn that she doesn't care for him, resents being given to Aphrodite's favorites, is living with grief (or pain, distress), and sarcastically suggests that Aphrodite comfort him herself. The goddess might be happier as his wife or slave. So Helen is not whoring after the beauty (κάλλος) of Paris, although this is the way that Aphrodite presents his appeal, and we can set aside interpretations that Helen has run off with him willingly. Helen regards the whole business as "shameful," νεμεσσητόν, an adjective drived from the noun νέμεσις, "shame," which we have see denied by the Trojan elders for the spectacle of the Greeks and Trojans fighting over her. In other words, it's worth it, but Helen herself doesn't see any particular value in it for her, and regards Paris as no prize. She also recognizes that she is "hateful," στυγερή, to many people for what they think that she has done, but has not. Later traditions make some effort to preserve her honor, which we see in the tragedians, that only a phantom Helen actually went to Troy, while later she is taken up to Olympus and deified. So the woman whose beauty was perceived by the elders as godlike in fact becomes a god, united with her father Zeus.

Return to Text

The Beatific Vision, Note 7;
Charm and Camp

Miranda  There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple.
      If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
      Good things will strive to dwell with't.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 2:459-462

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Preface

'It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.'
-- Lady's Windermere's Fan

28. Again, Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous.

Susan Sontag, Notes on 'Camp' [1966, Penguin Books, 2018, pp.16,18]

The (second two) quotes above from Notes on 'Camp' by Susan Sontag (including an Oscar Wilde) suggest connections between the aesthetics of glamour, charm, and Camp. We also have a recent book, Charm, The Elusive Enchantment by Joseph Epstein [Guilford, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018]. The aesthetics of Camp is also in the spotlight because of a 2019 exhibit on Camp from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (with the catalogue, Camp: Notes on Fashion, by Andrew Bolton, with Karen van Godtsenhoven and Amanda Garfinkel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2019). There is an axiological structure here that warrants exploration.

Oscar Wilde figures prominently in both the MET exhibit and Sontag's "Notes"; but Sontag herself expresses some reservations about Wilde:

47. Wilde himself is a transitional figure. The man who, when he first came to London, sported a velvet beret, lace shirts, velveteen knee-breeches and black silk stockings, could never depart too far in his life from the pleasures of the old-style dandy; this conservatism is reflected in The Picture of Dorian Gray. But many of his attitudes suggest something more modern. [p.28]

"Conservatism" seems like an unusual word to be applying to Oscar Wilde, and Sontag does not give us much detail. However, the evident irony of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which begins with a classic assertion of aestheticism, i.e. the independence of art from morality and utility ("All art is quite useless"), is that it nevertheless presents us with a story of a man whose youth is magically prolonged, with the consequence that he becomes increasingly wicked and criminal, protected by the appearance of youth, beauty, and innocence, only to be overtaken in the end by a suitable retribution. It seems little short of the workings of divine justice, or karmic recompense.

Nihilism is, of course, more modern than the workings of justice in Dorian Gray, and this is far from the aesthetic sensibility of glamour and Camp. However, when we consider the matter of charm, it is inescapable how often charm can conceal, without the aid of a magical painting, vicious motives and intentions. Charm can easily be dishonest manipulation. Wilde himself is quoted above saying that "It's absurd to divide people into good and bad"; but Dorian Gray makes no sense unless we do that, and realize that Dorian's charm is of the most deceptive and vicious sort. These are all intriguing and worthy issues, as extensions of the examination of glamour and charisma above.

While there are ironies or contradictions in Oscar Wilde's thought, which adds to its interest, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a very serious study for anyone concerned about the relationship of morality to art and beauty. I suspect that Sontag's use of "conservatism" conceals some uneasiness, apart from her analysis of Camp, with the depth of moral reflection required by the book. That is off her topic, and she would not want to get into it in any case. It is totally alien to the Camp sensibility.

But Sontag is a good companion to the Preface of Dorian Gray:

1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artiface, or stylization. [p.4]

"Aestheticism" here seems well defined as the reality and independence of aesthetic value, although in this case narrowed from beauty in general, as Wilde would have had it, down to "artiface, or stylization." While Camille Paglia would realize that the key term there is "independence," and not the exclusion of moral value, this issue doesn't come up in the main anlysis in Sontag; and we can proceed as though morality is merely set aside, not denied (as Nietzsche did).

Here I am concerned about boundaries. What is the difference between glamour, to which Sontag says Camp can aspire, and charm? Well, glamour, as it happens can be very passive. Just stand there and look stupid, is what Heddy Lamarr said. There is a form of charm that can be passive, as when we have a charming landscape, home, room, painting, etc. Curiously, Joseph Epstein explicitly excludes these from his analysis. He only looks at charming persons. OK, what is the difference between charm and glamour in a person? Well, again the feature of glamour can be very passive, because glamour is intrinsic to appearance, whose character can easily be revealed at a distance. Charm, however, is an activity. Charming persons do not reveal themselves until they interact with someone else. Then they light up, and the objects of their charm light up. This is why Wilde contrasts charm with being "tedious." The glamorous person, or the glamorous place or situation (e.g. the Cannes Film Festival), engages our attention just by being visible, even at a distance and a remove; but the charming person must interact with us, or with someone (we can recognize them charming someone else, as in the movies -- Cary Grant was never available to charm us individually), to engage our attention. If they don't interact, or do so poorly, then the experience is tedious. With glamour, we may not need to worry about that. We can be fascinated by looks alone.

This gives us a handle to deal with charming things that are not persons. The charming person is charming because of their effect on us. Similarly, whatever charming objects are like in themselves, they become charming by their effect. We are drawn in to a charming landscape, house, or room. We enjoy being there, just as we enjoy being in the company of charming persons. Ideally, we meet the charming person in the charming environment. If they are glamorous as well, it is an aesthetic triple play. Each of these three contributes to our enjoyment and to the aesthetic experience.

Something else that depends on activity is charisma. The charismatic person cannot obtain that status just by standing there. They must do something to draw us in. Yet the means and aims of charisma are likely to be very different from those of charm. A charming person may delight, but a charismatic person doesn't need to. We are draw to them for other reasons.
Louis XIV, 1702, by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), detail
St. Teresa represents a promise of salvation, and her charisma is in a register of holiness, without which it is not obvious what she would represent at all. Having established her charisma, however, it becomes intrinsic to them and, after a fashion, radiates from them:  their , darśana, something with numinous power from which we can benefit merely by our presence or, especially, by touch.

The Metropolitan Museum exhibit curiously begins with a portrait of Louis XIV of France, as we see at left. This seems a long way form Oscar Wilde. However, it is noted that the pose exhibited by Louis is a ballet position. The King was vain about his legs, and the pose, with the legs exposed, presumably was thought to display them to best effect.

This certainly fits Sontag's "artiface, or stylization" feature of Camp. It also may go back to the etymology of "Camp" itself, which is uncertain, but may be from French se camper. The basic definition of this is "to encamp; to plant oneself, to clap oneself down" [Cassell's New French-English English-French Dictionary, Denis Girard, Cassell, 1962, 1968, p.124 -- not unlike the English sense of "camping" in "camping out"]. In relation to "Camp," however, we see citations of se camper as meaning "to pose" or "to pose in an exaggerated fashion." Wikipedia links a citation from the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française [1992], which includes, "En parlant d'un acteur, d'un artiste: Figurer avec force et relief. Camper son personnage sur la scène. Camper une figure dans un tableau, des caractères dans un roman" -- "Speaking of an actor, an artist. To figure with force and relief. To camper his character on the stage. Camper a figure in a painting, characters in a novel."

While Camp can be said to involve irony or the ironic use of bad taste, nothing of the sort would have been intended in the portrait of Louis. However, in time something can come to appear ridiculous that was not thought so at the time, and so, after a fashion, the pose that Louis has can become "campy." This may be the idea in the MET exhibit. Anyone dressed like this now could not appear in serious contexts, but only on stage or in deliberately "campy" circumstances. The costume of Louis can only be called extravagant, flamboyant, and extreme. Sontag notes that this could be seen in the "Dandy" of the 18th or 19th century -- Wilde is rather in this tradition -- but in the 19th and 20th centuries the Dandy, who always valued good taste, transitions into Camp, which might lampoon good taste and seems to gravitate to manifestations of homosexual life. Again, Wilde has at least one foot in that, and is remembered for it. Flamboyance might be seen in a Mardis Gras parade, but otherwise in a "gay pride" parade, or female impersonator acts. Indeed, crossdressing allows men, whose own business aesthetic since the French Revolution has been plain and somber, to take advantage of the greater freedom and variety of female costume -- which with the impersonators gravitates towards extremes that we actually rarely see with women themelves.

Sontag identifies three "great creative sensibilities":

37. The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary 'avant-guarde' art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic.

38. Camp is the consistently, aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of 'style' over 'content,' 'aesthetics' over 'morality', of irony over tragedy. [pp.24-25]

However, high culture, although often with moral or religious themes, is not necessarily "moralistic," which properly would mean the exclusion of aesthetic value, such as with Nietzsche's accusation against Christianity
The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, detail,
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the Louvre
(where he seems to confuse Protestant anaesthesia with Catholic/Orthodox flamboyance). But, certainly, high culture is free to roam over many sensibilities, and at its best produces immortal religious and political images. David's Oath of the Horatii [1784], a masterpiece of entirely political meaning, shows what can be done -- although it frightened, even horrified, Kenneth Clark, who regarded those displaying its political rigor as "monsters" (in anticipation of the Terrorists of the French Revolution). At the same time, the artistic "avant-guarde" these days can hardly avoid political moralism, where "aesthetic passion," and aesthetic value itself, may actually be lost. We see Robert Hughes calling the "art" of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes "deeply anaesthetic." Thus, Sontag's notion that the second sensibility "gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion" is about something that has largely collapsed into political anaesthesia, whose principle is that only politics matters, and that the ugly or stupid character of much modern art is excusable or irrelevant.

With Camp, Sontag leaves out all political and moral meaning:

39. Camp and tragedy are antitheses. There is seriousness in Camp (seriousness in the degree of the artist's involvement) and, often, pathos. The excruciating is also one of the tonalities of Camp; it is the quality of excruciation in much of Henry James (for instance, The Europeans, The Awkward Age, The Wings of the Dove) that is responsible for the large element of Camp in his writings. But there is never, never tragedy.

40. Style is everything. [Jean] Genet's ideas, for instance are very Camp. Genet's statement that 'the only criterion of an act is its elegance'* is virtually interchangeable, as a statement, with Wilde's 'in matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style.' But what counts, finally, is the style in which ideas are held...

41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. [pp.25-26]

Sontag's footnote on page 25 is:

*Sartre's gloss on this in Saint Genet is: 'Elegance is the quality of conduct which transforms the greatest amount of being into appearing.'

This is a particuarly revealing comment. The aesthetic is appearance, on the surface and phenomenal -- in which the hidden, the abstract, and transcendent all disappear. With them go abstract principles, like morality or politics. Some religion, if it is sufficiently corporeal, like Jesus on the Cross, dripping blood, might survive, but in essay and exhibit, no such examples occur. Appearance or no, it is far too serious.

42. One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that 'sincerity' is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.

43. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness -- irony, satire -- seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.

44. Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or political comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

We might say that a comic vision of the world, which is neither bitter nor political, would be something like the French play and movie La Cage aux Folles [play, 1973; French movie, 1978; American movie, The Birdcage, 1996]. The humor of this, and its flashes of campy flamboyance, were presented full blast, despite the plot involving prospective politically and religiously conservative in-laws. This was a far cry from the point reached now, where "gay rights" means the legal prosecution, grim and humorless and hostile, of Christian bakers who simply abstain from baking a cake for a "gay wedding." It is hard to imagine the characters of La Cage aux Folles signing on for such actions. Indeed, traditional Christianity might be accused of murdering homosexuals, killing as well any humor to be associated with conservative religion; but then it is in Iran that homosexuals are now being hanged, not in France.

Thus, we can see the development of a "sexual preference" political movement into something that contradicts at every point Sontag's analysis of the Camp aesthetic. And its political commitments trip over themselves. Iran is rarely criticized, and activists don't seem to ever target Muslim bakers, even though they are found to be about as adverse to "gay weddings" as Christian ones. There are no "gay rights," no "gay marriage," and no "gender dysphoria" in Islamic Law, which, when protested in the United States or Britain, is defended, incredibly, by leftist activists -- who see its criticism as "Islamophobia," a serious political crime. And the reinstitution of slavery, allowed by Islamic Law, by Boko Haram or ISIS comes in for little comment or criticism, even while efforts are made to purge anyone from American history who ever owned a slave. The hypocrisy of this is blatant; and we can only understand that its source has nothing to do with "gay rights," which are used as a smoke screen for a general totalitarian political program, that, if successful, would almost certainly turn against homosexuals.

The "detachment" of Sontag's Camp aesthetic is totally the opposite of our contemporary political and "social justice" activism.

45. Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century's surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.

46. The dandy was overbred. His posture was disdain, or else ennui. He sought rare sensations, undefiled by mass appreciation... He was dedicated to 'good taste'.

The connoisseur of Camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jakcets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses. Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to posses them in a rare way. Camp -- Dandyism in the age of mass culture -- makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

It is impossible not to read that without imagining the Campbell Soup can paintings of Andy Warhol (1928-1987). This is not the "art of the masses" in any sense that "the masses" actually produce it. "Mass culture" means the images of mass production and advertising, ubiquitous in the media, which are consumed by the masses -- having been produced by advertising agencies and graphic artists. Warhol himself then becomes the Avatar of the modern aristocratic elitist, producing unique objects nevertheless based on mass production and consumption, and thriving among a New York elite of aesthetes, fashionistas, and artists -- artists whose identity may be that of starvation in a Greenwhich Village loft, but who then get drawn in to a restricted group of great wealth, whose money is actually generated by mass media and the art market of people who themselves may be wealthy off of industry and mass production.

Acutely aware of the gossip and entertainment market focused on himself, Warhol famously said that eventually everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. That would be possible if there were mass production of fame; but then that is not actually what we see in the modern media. Despite the expansion of media onto the Internet, fame still requires that a mass audience be focused on a small number of "celebrities." Otherwise, the focus is dispersed, or broken by the 15 minute rotation, and the "celebrities" do not have enough of a following to be genuinely conspicuous, which is required by fame. The Public Eye can only hold so many images together at once; and people like the Kardashians, whose appeal is mysterious to all, nevertheless can crowd out others, durably, whom political activists would consider more worthy. Even if Warhol were right, nobody is going to remember who was famous half an hour ago, while the Greek idea of fame was that memory endures, not just into the indefinite future, but even after death. Real fame is immortality. Andy Warhol qualifies for that more than anyone in his circle.

48. The old style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted....

49. It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relationship between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence....

50. Aristocracy is a position vis-à-vis culture (as well as vis-à-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste. But since no authentic aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-elected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.

Andy Warhol certainly belonged to a kind of aristocracy, a group we may tend to imagine as frequenting parties and clubs in New York City, as "celebrities" do now (like the "Four Bimbos of the Apocalypse"), although Los Angeles is part of the circuit, especially for people in entertainment. The ennui of these people seems palpable, but noisy clubs, where actual conversation may be impossible, is no problem if one is deadened or dissociated by drug use. Stumbling out into the night, and into the flashes of the paparazzi, their moral and physical decay is revealed.

But there may be a Balm in Gilead. The amusement of Camp can fill the void of ennui, loud music, and drugs. Andy Warhol made movies, and he made his unknown actors into "Superstars," who joined his (ironically anti-)celebrity circuit; but these movies, seen by few, were no contribution to mass culture. On the other hand, we get campy, fun movies with much more (if limited) commercial appeal from John Waters (b.1946). The particular movies with which I am familiar, and which I think are representative, are Hairspray [1988, 2007], Cecil B. Demented [2000], and A Dirty Shame [2004]. While there is plenty of (serious) satire in these, they are outrageous, vulgar, funny, and flamboyant in ways that can only be placed in a Camp aesthetic category. Selma Blair, memorable from Hellboy [2004], comes in for Camp fame in A Dirty Shame.

John Waters certainly fits into Sontag's "improvised self-elected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste," even when the taste is Camp and vulgar. The use of drag queens by Waters (e.g. "Divine," Harris Glenn Milstead, 1945-1988), and a full exploration of the varieties of gay sexuality in A Dirty Shame, take us deep into Sontag's observation.

51. The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homsexuality has to be explained.

Sontag admits that "...not all homsexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard -- and the most articulate audience -- of Camp." Her explanation is, "Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness."

This seems false on more than one point. I think that few believe that Lesbians exhibit the same kind of flamboyance and aesthetic sense as gay men. Indeed, apart from "lipstick Lesbians," who stand out as anomalies, the Lesbian sensibility often seems grim and anaesthetic, if not angry and hostile. After all, a sexual rejection of men may involve a rejection of what men find attractive in women, i.e. beauty. Lesbians may be feminists in revolt against the whole "feminine mystique," whose aesthetic gay men may embrace wholeheartedly, from hair dressers, to fashion designers, to drag queens. Thus, Sontag cannot generalize that "homosexuals" as a whole have "pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense." Lesbians may not be part of that program.

The other problem is the idea that "Camp is a solvent of morality." This presupposes that homosexuality (or other "abnormal" sexual practice) violates morality. It would in terms of most traditional religious morality; but it does not, say, in terms of Mill's Principle of Liberty, or Jefferson's maxim that, "It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Indeed, the "gay rights" movement, in signing on with the general program of Leftist politics (which does pick my pocket), has thoroughly absorbed the intense moral indignation and self-righteousness of that politics. This development probably was not yet obvious at the time Sontag was writing her "Notes." Camp definitely "sponsors playfulness" -- as we see in A Dirty Shame -- but modern Leftist politics is about as playful as a split lip -- the sort of thing that may be inflicted by the "anti-fascist" black shirted, masked Fascisti rioters in the streets of Portland (potentially breaking my leg). And most activists would probably regard the Stonewall Riots in 1969 as more effective for gay rights than many years of the Camp aesthetic. More than his wit was needed to save Oscar Wilde from a demoralizing prison sentence.

But Sontag does say, "Yet one feels that if homosexuals hadn't more or less invented Camp, someone else would. For the aristocratic posture with relation to culture cannot die..." even if Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, and Truman Capote (1924-1984) all seem rather more aristocratic than John Waters.

54. The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste: that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste... The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation -- not judgment. Camp is generous.

These characteristics, again, exclude most political commitments. Politics is rarely "a mode of enjoyment"; it is too taken up with anger and, indeed, indignant judgment and moral condemnation. Which perhaps brings me back again to charm. Charm is also "a mode of enjoyment." Wilde did not enjoy tedious people. He wanted charm and wit, just as Sontag frames Camp as "a daring and witty hedonism." Charm is smiling, cheerful, and never frustrated. In those terms, it should not be difficult for charm to encompass Camp, which adds, as Sontag might say, to the logical universe of taste.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather the judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of 'character'.... Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as 'camp', they're enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

This fits in with charm better than with anything else. But we might also reflect that, where charm is vulnerable to deception, that does not enter into the equation with Camp. Presumably, you can pretend to have a Camp sensibility, but it is not at all obvious why anyone would do that, except to fit in with a preferred social group. In general one might want to be accepted, and if darker motives are involved, charm would be necessary to effect them. If one simply wants to be liked, then it is Camp as "a kind of love" that appeals. The subtitle of Epstein's book is "the elusive enchantment," and it is not difficult to see the aesthetics of Camp as itself part of "enchantment." Oscar Wilde would want the charm, the enchantment, and the enjoyment. This explains a certain Wilde quote:

The trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.

We must understand that socialism would "take too many evenings" because of political meetings, the kind of things that give a whole new meaning to the word "tedious" and which in general are without humor or, indeed, charm. The actual Maoist "struggle session" (批鬥大會, pīdòu dàhuì), with abusive humiliations, is back in vogue at American universities. It is impossible to imagine Wilde participating in anything of the sort; and any kind of acidic wit, especially if it was satyrical, would be very unwelcome. Most political activists take themselves seriously at a level where making any kind of fun of them, or anything about them, constitutes actual crime -- perhaps enforced by a mob of violent anarchists.

The Girl in a Dress

Return to Text