Monday, 11 January 2010

Put this in your pipe and produce an exothermic chemical reaction with it.

"I may here speak of some attempts by myself, made hitherto in too desultory a way, to obtain materials for a 'Beauty-Map' of the British Isles. Whenever I have occasion to classify the persons I meet into three classes, 'good, medium, bad,' I use a needle mounted as a pricker, wherewith to prick holes, unseen, in a piece of paper, torn rudely into a cross With a long leg. I use its upper end for 'good,' the cross-arm for 'medium,' the lower end for 'bad.' The prick-holes keep distinct, and are easily read off at leisure. The object, place, and date are written On the paper. I used this plan for my beauty data, classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent. Of course this was a purely individual estimate, but it was consistent, judging from the conformity of different attempts in the same population. I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest."

- Francis Galton, Memories of My Life, 1908.

Ah, Francis, Francis, Francis. And there was I thinking that you eugenicists were just nice chaps who'd fallen in with the wrong crowd. I've got a whole quiverful of envenomed projectiles aimed in the general direction of this paragraph, but let's leave the one labeled "Prick-Holes - Freudian Much?" and instead fire off "There Is No Such Thing As Attractiveness".

Where to begin? Well, firstly, there is no such thing as a beautiful thing. But what about alps?, you might well interject. And indeed, when I behold an alp, my heart pronks, my knees tremble within my veganware Lederhosen, and I yearn to gambol with the goatlings between the jagged death-dealing outcrops of granite as I clutch at my heaving bosom on account of the high altitude pulmonary edema. But alp worship - I have it on good authority - is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before circa 1750, put an alp before your average Jo and she'd aim her pricker at the "repellent" end of the page. "Alps?" she'd burl, in her exaggerated Wessex yokel accent. "How you going to grow a nice cabbage on an alp, eh? Answer me that." Which is to say, one man's fish is another man's poisson. Notions of what's beautiful, like notions of what's good to eat (tomatoes, fungus, dogs), what sounds nice (Chinese opera, heavy metal, nightingales), and how best to cut a length of demin (poo-catcher, high-waisted, flares) owe - as the entire world knows, or, erm, "knows" - quite a bit to culture.

This much has been orthodoxy for the last half a century. Beauty is not truth; it's just truthy. And as my year 8 personal development instructress observed, "While the current fashion, ladies, might be for bosoms that look like badgers' snouts, only a hundred years ago it was all in the bustle. So don't you worry if it's your behind that looks like a badger's snout. Posterior whiskers will be on the What's Hot list before you can say 'Claudia Schiffer in a boiler suit'."

So it's wrong to say that luxuriantly dimpled thighs are beautiful. What you should say, if you must, is "I have a penchant for luxuriantly dimpled thighs". But there's something about the word "attractive" that makes that nuance nigh on grammatically impossible. Even if you try to install yourself - the observer with the penchant - as an agent in the operations of attractiveness, i.e., I am attracted, the real agent emerges in the by his moustaches, or by her badgers' snouts, or by the way her boiler suit glimmers in the moonlight. The observer is absolved of his (her) response. Q.* is attractive; Q. attracts; of course I am attracted by Q.. Of course. How could I not be? And so whatever actions my attractedness manifests in, they aren't my responsibility, because I was attracted by Q.

And here I conclude, by saying this: Francis, old pal, "purely individual estimate", my Aberdeenian granny.

* Like you wouldn't believe.


MC Etcher said...

Well said! Interesting reading.

Dan the VespaMan said...


In fact the issue of attractiveness can further be relegated to obsolescence through the application of one's favourite alcoholic beverage. Medicinal, ofcourse.

Anonymous said...

Before circa 1750, put an alp before your average Jo...

Eager minds want to know the authority.

Francis Galton is, well, Francis Galton. Check out his account of the Hottentot Venus for even more in this vein.


Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Thanks, MC!

That would be Pimms' Number One Cup, Dan.

Erm, the authority is, erm, me, KD. Sorry. That's kind of unsatisfactory, and I guess I lose my scholarly credentials from here on in.

Galton on the "Hottentot Venus" is fantaaaasssstic. All he can think about is taking her measurements. The inches are his fetish.

Mitzi G Burger said...

My my, I have heard of foot worship and (insert unseemly body part here) worship through my travels in the demi-monde, but alp worship? I long to don some strong rope, spiky shoes and an oxygen mask and try out this lungly-expansive new fetish.

A wonderful dissection of a clearly bizarre eugenicist.

KD said...

Ta, Alexis. I thought you might have been talking about something I haven't read but should have because the sublime is one of my things. Perhaps it will be something I should read in the future!

Jayne said...


Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Mitz, I think the word "crampon" sums the matter up nicely.

KD, proud/embarrassed to say you read it here first, complete with my apocryphal sources.

Jayne, hello!