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On Beauty and Horror

Martin Jankowski (2020)

An essay for the International Writers Reunion Lathi/Finland


Everybody yearns for beauty; everybody is afraid of horror. Okay, not everybody… Talking about beauty and horror means to talk about emotions and aesthetics. For some reason, our theme is not beauty OR horror, but the two are connected by an AND. Both beauty and horror, have multifaceted meanings: biological, cultural and moral ones. We all remember: The perfect beauty of Helena caused The Trojan War. Beauty signifies something blooming in its ideal state. Still, horror is not the opposite of beauty. In the same way that evil forms when something good is impeded from flourishing, horror is a later state of beauty. Horror is beauty thwarted, lost or destroyed. “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of horror” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke[1] wrote. Horror is beauty in its state of decadence.

I will never forget one of the biggest moments of horror I experienced as a young man. It occurred when watching a movie, but it was a sudden and deep understanding of the shocking truth of real-life that was symbolised in this movie scene. Maybe you know the film The Shining made by Stanley Kubrick (a real expert of horror and beauty). In one scene at the closed Overlook Hotel, the lonely writer Jack Torrance enters the empty room 237 because he hears a noise inside. To his surprise, an unknown beautiful young woman is having a shower in the bathroom. She stares at him with no fear (although she is naked). Jack, the crazy young writer, does not take long to think, carefully takes her into his arms without a word and tries to kiss her. But when he catches a glance of her in the tall mirror behind them, she breaks out in loud laughter. He sees himself holding an old and ugly virago disfigured by skin diseases.

When I saw this scene for the first time I was at least as shocked as the main character of the film (played by Jack Nicholson). It was not the surprising effect of the scene or the sudden change in the woman. I was also not confused by the missing connection of the scene to the main plot of the film. I was shocked because in this second I understood the truth in this symbolic scene: That beauty and horror are no opposites but different states of the same power; that the young beauty and the sick, ugly virago are only different aspects of it.


2. What is Beauty?
In our times, “…the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence…”[2] Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The title already tells us how art gets its power today: By mass-reproduction. The question “What is beauty?” has been democratised by the possibilities of the industry. Today, the charts of the consumers decide on the real effects of art on society. The media are ruled by the taste of the masses. Neither artists nor critics decide what beauty is but the market. Independent of the intentions of the artist or a cohesive theory of aesthetics, the decision is made by the senses, not by sense. The merging-together of arts and technology is turning the question of beauty and horror into something that every person must think about in daily life. The personal decision for one of the aesthetic norms and concepts on the market has become part of our individual existence. Now the question is: Do we have a choice in what we think is beautiful?

Beauty as an Objective Fact?
Some interesting aspects of what beauty means to us can be drawn from scientific research: By systematically showing specially altered photographs of different faces to a hundred thousand people all over the world, with the question “Which face is more attractive to you?”, the researcher found, that people all over the world think the same: The most average and symmetrical faces are the most attractive! The rule of human beauty, no matter in which place and for what kind of person, seems to be: The more average and the more symmetrical something seems to us, the more we call it beautiful. What we can learn from this is: Beauty is not always a question of individual taste and education. Beauty to us seems to lie in the right measure. Some aspects of what we call beautiful are obviously biological. There is a human instinct for beauty.

The question of beauty is of course more than a visual one it touches our basic thoughts about the world and our existence. In the ancient philosophies, in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic and other old and new religions, the beauty of the world and our astonishment watching the greatness and diversity of the universe is taken as a proof for the existence of (a) loving creator/s: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” (New Testament, Rom 1,20)[3]. Also, Islamic theology teaches: “God shows himself to us through the beauty of the universe. His beauty, his qualities and his laws are everlasting, no man can ever change it.” – Allah as the invisible, but eternal god of beauty. The elegant verses in the Holy Quran and the astonishingly symmetrical mathematical structure of its text count as a clear proof for every Muslim that the origin of this book must be divine (and could not have been created by any human). Every human religion is connected to the aspect of beauty, and so is our whole culture today (as a follower of religious rites = cultus). There is something in the world that impresses us and makes us adore it. Everybody is looking for it. It is not about wellbeing, because even when we are cold, hungry or tired, we are able to appreciate the beauty of a sudden flashlight, a surprising colour or a well-made poem. Maybe beauty is no outside-fact but an inside-aspect of our cognition, something planted into our brains. Maybe beauty is a state of mind.

Beauty is the point at which the two meanings of the word “sense” come together, the body-sense of cognition and the mind-skill of understanding the meaning of signs. When we leave the sensual aspect to beauty and start to think about it in the abstract terms of logic, we arrive at the science of aesthetics as the modern science of cognition. This science tries to find out what we mean when we say “beautiful” or “ugly” and why. The main question is: Are there any universal and timeless criteria for beauty? If we watch an old Greek sculpture or an Indian mandala, a Japanese garden or a Russian icon, we begin to suspect that there could be. But as we all know, every time has its own taste. And after a while, every aesthetic fashion returns as a retro-revival. (No matter, whether this means columns at the house entry or gothic tales.) But this magic power of our universal beauty instinct leads us directly to…

The Ugly Question of Kitsch
The human ability to recognise natural beauty spontaneously demonstrates to us the problem of KITSCH (a non-translatable German term that means simple aesthetic stereotypes, trashy art-clichés that do not exist in reality). When we, me and my younger sister, were children (at the age of 8 or 10 years), my father, a teacher for arts and history, had a simple but wise system to teach his students to distinguish “real beauty” and “Kitsch”. He gave us a wild mixture of art-postcards with reproductions of famous paintings and kitschy pictures that we had to arrange into two piles: art and kitsch. We always managed our work very well without saying a word: The pile with the postcards that we children liked was Kitsch, what we did not like was “real art”. Our beauty instinct was infallible. We never made any mistakes! Kitsch is simple, easy to understand, it shows a simple, symmetrical order, something we love in an ideal state – how beautiful! It is completely international because it is the answer to the lowest level of our beauty-instinct. In his famous essay On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, the German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) gave a warning not to mistake the pleasant for the beautiful and not to mix up a “cute mind” with the beauty of the soul. He explained that “cute minds” become banal when they have to work on or write about a complex and huge object, the easy-going paragons of virtue turn to the materialistic, but only the truly beautiful soul becomes “sublime”.[4]

We must consider: There are two kinds of beauty – the natural beauty of our senses and the aesthetic beauty as a construction of our mind. (The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, father of Critical Philosophy, distinguished between beauty and the sublime: A landscape, a flower or a body can be beautiful; a poem, a painting or a cathedral are sublime.) In modern and post-modern art (including literature), the low-level art of Kitsch, fortunately, is no longer discriminated against as worthless. It is, on the contrary, integrated (as trash or pop) in the collage of our aesthetic concept! Nevertheless, it is useful for every professional artist to know the difference between “real art” and Kitsch (If you are in doubt in which category your own work belongs, ask some children whether they like it…). Here we have, surprisingly, found a path to the bridge between the aesthetic category of beauty and our fascination for horror…


3. Beautiful Horror
The word “horror”, coming from the Latin language, means nothing else than “fear.” Where beauty is something specific, something with ideal measures, horror is beyond measure, without any clear shape. In the bible Satan says “my name is legion”, meaning that he does not exist as one but in countless numbers. Alfred Hitchcock’s birds, which make us double-check whether the windows are closed, are also of an indeterminate number. The armies of evil are without measure. Different from the beginning of the 19th century, it is the state of the arts today that horror is usually not spread by old ugly men, but by a nice young girl. Our time prefers a complex relation between horror and beauty. Yin and yang instead of black and white: Horror is more terrifying when the shock comes on a sunny day from an innocent child than on a cold rainy night from an old sinner. Our beauty is symbolised by a view into a hot volcano and our symbol of hell is a broken doll. But the truth behind this is the same: The relation of beauty and horror is not dialectic, it is evolutionary. Beauty creates horror, every beauty turns into horror after a while. (Can horror also create beauty? Ask the Adams family!)

Why does the post-modern era distrust beauty and why are we fascinated by horror – in life and in the arts? Why does beauty bore us after a while, and why does horror always sustain our interest? Is horror the truth behind the cheap mask of beauty? (Yes, that is a typical way of thinking in the times of investigative journalism… But sometimes beauty is the horror remember what we said about Kitsch.) In post-modern art and literature, beauty is generally under suspicion. In stark contrast to our ancestors, clear and ideal beauty is something we despise, something that children and simple minds believe in. We, the very intelligent know-it-alls of today, prefer the apocalyptic style of a “world out of order” as the sad truth about our reality. That is why we call, for instance, something like American Psycho (a novel by Bret Easton Ellis about a yuppie serial murderer) a masterpiece and something like the Arcadian idyll (on the painting above the sofa of our grand-auntie) – ugly! For us, beauty seems to deal with truth – the real treasures behind the masks of reality… and we are sure it can not be unbroken, simple, purely friendly and symmetrical! (Question aside: What if reality wears no mask?) Our beauties must have a fault (or taint) to be perfect. Our heroes must commit a sin to save the world.

US philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906-1989) wrote about the “paradox of ugliness”: Also ugly objects possess an aesthetic attraction. Especially the unfinished, the broken, the imperfect thing can tell us more about beauty than the perfect one. (Japanese artists and philosophers call this concept of beauty wabisabi – unique and with the patina of imperfection.) And of course the disturbed beauty, the handicapped perfection is fascinating, is interesting for us, because it poses questions, because it obviously has an individual hidden story to tell. This is the point at which beauty and horror, art and senses shake hands: The asymmetrical, the broken – no matter if in architecture, jazz, poetry, prose, painting or Ikebana – is a fixed aspect of “aesthetic beauty” today.

Horror as Purification (Culture as a Ritual Substitute for Real Sins)
For the arts, since the times of the Greek philosopher Plato, the idea of horror has been connected to the idea of purification. The audience was supposed to learn via catharsis of the shocking evil – by simply watching it: art as a symbolic rite. But like the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote (nearly 250 years ago) in his famous essay on the antique Laocoon statue: The biggest horror is not what we see, but what we can not see. For the artist that means: Create a terrifying situation, but do not let us see the climax of horror! Hide it, let the audience use their own fantasy! Nobody can ever create a bigger shock, a darker picture, a crueller imagination for you than our own mind. The question is: Does the shock of horror (in the arts) really purify the minds of the audience?

Do I believe in catharsis? Yes and no. Literature, of course, can change your mind. But every book is like a knife: You can use it for collecting flowers or to kill somebody. (It depends on the one who uses it.) Is it nevertheless necessary to write about horror? Of course! (What would life be without ghost stories and daily news?) Sigmund Freud explained the fascination of horror with the attraction of the unknown. In his opinion, beauty is what we know and understand well, horror comes from what we do not know and do not understand. That is why we can be interested in it and fear it at the same time. (Freud mentions the etymology of the German Word “unheimlich” for horrible, which originally means “not from home”.)[5] The unknown makes us humans curious. That is why we are looking for horror: to get to know the unknown and to change it into something we know. We humans are challenging magicians: By cultivating our fears we transform horror into beauty. But the difference between curiosity and oddity is very slight. There is a secret connection between comedy and horror. It happens in the second when the clown turns into a killer. And there are countless possibilities how something we completely trust in (like our favourite toy or favourite person) can change into something deadly strange and dangerous in less than a second. That is the most effective horror: When something we love (and know very well) all of a sudden changes into something strange and alien. (Maybe beauty is also connected to something like security?)


4. Signs of Beauty and Horror (Semiotics)
When I was a student, linguistic studies were a real horror for me, dry and boring, not very poetic. But at home, at the wall over my desk, I had a beautiful linguistic poster which I liked a lot: It showed the letters of the Latin alphabet and the Arabic numbers from zero to nine. Each letter or number was not written but a photograph, taken from the pattern of a butterfly-wing. Those signs really existed somewhere out there, not created on paper by a human mind, but found, read and photographed in nature. In the linguistics seminar at university I learned that semiotics is the science “of signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.” The interesting news for me was that semiotics does not only study language but also nonverbal communication. There is even a science called zoo-semiotics for the study of animal-communication! (Not only for us the world is full of signs and attractions.) Non-verbal semiotics has found out that we have several channels of communication: Our eyes recognize around 10 million bits of information per second, our skin one million, ears and nose 100.000 each, and our taste 1000. Bits per second! That are a lot of attractions sent to us by the world… The world speaks with the grammar of shape, colour, sound, smell or tactility. And we are inherently able to read all these signs. We permanently arrange them into three piles: beauty, horror and of no importance. My suspicion is that beauty is a special semiotic phenomenon (as horror is). The world is sending us signs and we understand, consciously or unconsciously, because we have inborn antennas for their reception. Plato once said that the beauty of the body, when we study it well enough, leads us to the beauty of the soul.[6] Maybe the beauty of nature leads us to the beauty of existence? (But, if beauty is “only” a state of human mind, why do the paradise birds in New Guinea have such wonderful long and colourful feathers with no other function other than to be beautiful?)

Needs & Products
Beauty and horror are results of signs in the constant communication process between us and the world – parallel to language between writer and reader in literature. (Under such conditions, the aesthetics of literary semiotics seems to be “only” a special case of universal semiotics.) There exists a consensus in the various schools of semiotics: Aesthetic objects are systems of signs and they use other systems of signs as forms (in the case of literature, it is the complex sign-system of language). A beautiful language means the same as a beautiful flower or a precious and well-fitting dress: Form follows function and gives some additional information, too. A good novel is complex and fascinating like a beautiful landscape. And a good poem can, for instance, be just like a long and colourful tail of paradise-feathers. (By the way: If we, the human beings, are part of the nature, then literature is a natural product.)

No, I do not think that bad experiences and deep suffering form the better artist and create the better art. (If that was true, we would have billions of great artists living in this world!) The experience of horror makes me silent. But beauty makes my soul sing. An artist must create his work, no matter whether his experiences are good or bad. But please, beloved users of human languages: Do not to take the pleasant already for the beautiful. And not to mix up a “cute mind” with the beauty of the sublime soul! My thesis: It is no big deal to write successfully (about) horror – the shocking ugly is always of instant interest. It is so easy to touch somebody with horror. Not as cheap as this, is it to write about true beauty. That is why I am so bored with all those detectives, agents and monsters! That is why I am yearning for some heroes of beauty. That is why I am always reading poems, listening to songs, watching paintings and permanently keep looking for good stories! Please, give me the sublime beauty of a book full of intelligent and elegant thoughts… it makes my soul sublime for a few valuable moments. Please, touch me with the attraction of complex beauty. (I need it like I need air, water, and bread.)

If beauty is a high-level-question of intellect and education, horror seems to be a lower question of instincts and emotion. But, as I tried to show, horror as a later state of beauty is a central question of aesthetics too: Not only poets and writers, also the news-editors around the world have to make their daily decision on how to present to us the most terrifying horror – the truth of the daily news. So, if mass-media journalists already report on the later state of life (the beautiful horror) all around the clock, then we, the artists, are obliged to do the other part of work that is still left to be done: To describe the horrible beauty of life.



[1] „…das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang…” – Duineser Elegien, Erste Elegie (Manesse Verlag Zurich, 1951, p. 7)

[2]  Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; chapter III (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, edition suhrkamp 28, Frankfurt a.M. 1966, p.14)

[3] „Seit Erschaffung der Welt wird Gottes unsichtbare Wirklichkeit an den Werken der Schöpfung mit der Vernunft wahrgenommen, seine ewige Macht und Gottheit.”(NT, Röm 1,20)

[4] „Wie in dem handelnden Leben, so begegnet es auch oft bei dichterischen Darstellungen, den bloß leichten Sinn, das angenehme Talent, die fröhliche Gutmüthigkeit mit Schönheit der Seele zu verwechseln, und da sich der gemeine Geschmack überhaupt nie über das Angenehme erhebt, so ist es solchen niedlichen Geistern ein Leichtes, jenen Ruhm zu usurpieren, der so schwer zu verdienen ist. Aber es gibt eine untrügliche Probe, vermittelst deren man die Leichtigkeit des Naturells von der Leichtigkeit des Ideals, so wie die Tugend des Temperaments von der wahrhaften Sittlichkeit des Charakters unterscheiden kann, und diese ist, wenn beide sich an einem schwierigen und großen Objekte versuchen. In einem solchen Fall geht das niedliche Genie unfehlbar in das Platte, so wie die Temperamentstugend in das Materielle; die wahrhaft schöne Seele hingegen geht eben so gewiß in die erhabene über.“ – Friedrich von Schiller: Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung.

[5] Sigmund Freud: Das Unheimliche (1919), in: Gesammelte Werke Bd. XII, Frankfurt am Main 1999, S.227-278.

[6] In the monologue of Diotima from Mantineia in his famous The guest meal or about love

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