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On Beauty by Zadie Smith: Theme Analysis

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper will be to reflect upon the thematic elements that are presented within Zadie Smith’s (2007) “On Beauty” such as the relationship between critique and personal reflection itself. The narrative focuses on Howard Belsey, a prominent art critic, and this paper will analyze how Belsey’s approach to critique is used as a greater reflection on humanity’s attempt to understand the world around it, and how previous attempts have crafted the approach that is used. As such, some of the history of relevant ideas such as humanism and posthumanism will be introduced and these theories will be discussed as elements of Belsey’s character, and by extension, of critique in itself and the compulsive human need to find some inherent truth within each situation. Lastly, inferences will be made regarding the meaning behind the conclusion of the story and Smith’s (2007) meaning in the transformation of Belsey’s character in the story’s concluding section.

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Reflection of “On Beauty”

What distinguished humans from the remainder of the creatures on Earth was our supreme ability to recognize our own humanity, and to question it, critique or embrace it. This choice defines one of the many attributes of our ability to logically perceive ourselves, a characteristic of sentience that to our knowledge, only we possess. We are attuned to our world in a way that only we can dictate and became aware of, and it extends far beyond simply ourselves. The reason that humans were able to evolve and become the collective entity that we are as a species was due to our ability to perceive patterns and instances of repetition and to decipher some sort of meaning in these events. A ripple in the sand could become the beginning of a spiritual path, the stars in the sky taking the shape of some celestial entity guiding us forward. This awareness has allowed us to grow and to question the fabric of our own beings and reality, but it has also allowed us to create reflections of our existence and ponder upon those as well. While humans are logical, analytical creatures, we are also very emotional and passionate beings as well. As such, for as long as there has been some sort of semantics to share our thoughts and feelings, there have been stories of the struggle of humanity. Recorded history has seen the development, rise and fall of countless types of thought and ideas from individuals who have sought to capture the human essence and mystify it. Because of this though, and the influx of representations of beauty, humans have become somewhat desensitized to these notions and in turn, have chosen to become more critical of them as a result. “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith (2007) reflects upon this conundrum, drawing upon ideas brought forth by both humanist and post-humanist motifs to question the difference between critique and subconscious desensitization to the humanities.

To better understand the statement posited above, it is important to distinguish the differences between humanism and post-humanism, and the effects that these have had on understanding the humanities themselves as reflected in the novel “On Beauty.” As Robert Proctor (1998) discusses, humanism affirms that humans have the ability to use reason and intellect to cultivate their own understanding of the world around them, as opposed to simply accepting tradition or reality as it is presented. In this regard, the tendency of humanists historically was to differentiate between types of thought in an effort to discern for themselves which were the most prominent, controversial or innovative. Humanists were among many of the most well-known people to question the validity of the divine, and in turn, placed an emphasis on the importance of the real and tangible. They were naturally skeptics and critics of thoughts that had been brought before them as they attempted to seek out the true nature of the world. This in itself defines much of what is being analyzed in “On Beauty.” The protagonist of the story, Howard Belsey, has dedicated his entire career to critiquing the works of others and to analyzing the importance of art itself. His approach to doing so is so founded in theoretical frameworks and understanding the nature of the work itself that he often neglects to find the intrinsic beauty of the work or the artist.

In this sense, Belsey represents an example of Proctor’s (1998) view of humanism taken to its’ extreme, an embodiment of the human desire to understand and analyze attributes of the world. Belsey takes this characteristic to new heights though, focusing exclusively on deciphering the importance of the work of artists such as Rembrandt by postulating on how his work relates to theories and ideas defined by others. Belsey has taken the nature of logical interpretation and created a sort of framework for how he interprets not only the art that he views, but the world around him as well. Belsey extrapolates this mentality to such a degree that it permeates every bit of his being, and as a result, affects his personal life. It’s reflected heavily in the argument with his wife Kiki. Kiki exemplifies a real sense of human emotion, angered by the infidelity of her husband and attempting to have some emotional response from Howard to find a grounds on which they can relate, she makes several exclamations towards him, even going so far as to challenge and acknowledge how analytical and almost cold he is by saying “We’re not in your class now. Are you able to talk to me in a way that means anything?”

It’s evident by her response to Howard that his entire being is purely analytical, logical and calculative. Howard’s character is interesting in the sense that he is presently aware of the nature of humanity and how thought occurs, and how it grows from itself. He reflects upon this to Claire during the party for his anniversary, in which he states “It’s all interconnected… We produce new ways of thinking, then other people think it.” (120) This reflection on human thought and the origin of reflection itself brings into focus the relationship with experience, emotion and art. Once an idea is reflected upon and analyzed so much, one could argue that it loses some of the inherent qualities that made it so mystifying to begin with. The nature of humanity’s ability to ponder our own reality often grounds us within the reality itself, as we step forward and remove the ethereal elements about our existence. “On Beauty” can be seen as a reflection of this idea, and how humanism itself removed some of the wonder about the world, firmly planting those who lived by its structure to the confines of what the present world could be defined as capable of doing or becoming. (Proctor, 1998)

It’s quite a paradoxical conclusion, that the expansion of understanding within the human mind placed constraints on our existence but this in itself can be seen as an explanation as to why characters such as Howard have become demystified by the works of art and wonder around them, focusing exclusively on attempting to understand it rather than appreciate it for the inexplicable. The relationship between humanity and beauty extends far beyond just Howard, as Smith (2007) makes several points to ponder upon exactly what it means to appreciate beauty, or to accept it. As the narrator states, “Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything?” The ability to attach to things is a reflection of their acceptance and our ability to focus on promoting the attributes that we accept. Given Howard’s critical nature, there are many different characteristics of Kiki that are open to this sort of skeptical critique and it reflects in the relationship that they have.

During their argument, there’s a moment where Kiki essentially hides part of her stomach by tucking it into her waistband, almost as a way of confirming to herself her own confidence and ability to defy whatever inherent critiques that Howard poses of her. This highlights the dichotomy of their exchanges and the way that she believes Howard views her, after she discovers that he has had an affair with another individual. In many ways, Howard’s fights are due to the dismissal of the emotional effects and consequences of the situation and his inability to see past the deficiencies that are present in his wife, as he views her. The manifestation of this critical type of mentality comes in the form of the dialogue between Kiki and Howard during these points in their relationship. There’s always some sort of critique that lingers in the back of Howard’s mind, and he has this inability to accept something or rationalize a positive remnant of love or adoration, and Kiki knows this best. In this scene, she stands her physical and philosophical ground to Howard, asserting the notion that she has some value, despite what Howard may attempt to rationalize.

Howard’s class reflects his own rationalizations and the nature of his consistent ability to critique and question. This in itself shows in his conversation with Victoria about the tomato, which she asserts that he chooses not to find “love or truth” in the tomato, which symbolically represents all that we observe, both as humans and critics. Howard’s understanding of academia is that it is meant to constantly challenge and find some sort of deeper understanding in the instances around us, never simply settling for the mystification of the object by quantifying it in terms of “fallacies” such as love or truth. There’s some hidden characteristic to each and every being and entity in the world, and true beauty appears to be almost inescapable, in terms of the way that it is depicted traditionally. Later in the novel, Howard and Victoria are discussing Kiki’s wife, and Victoria refers to her as a queen. “’She’s very beautiful,’ said Victoria impatiently, as if Howard were being particularly dense about an obvious truth. ‘Like an African queen.’”

Howard immediately dissects this assertion of beauty, claiming that Kiki would find it patronizing and inaccurate. To Howard, even in this instance, there is some innate truth behind the admission that Kiki is beautiful. He dissects Victoria’s attempt to reference her, almost in an admission of guilt, to debase the argument against what is about to happen. In this regard, Howard brings the moment to a point of humanity by taking away from Victoria the notion of any sort of guilt or human emotion for what they are about to do. The fact that the people surrounding Howard are somehow mystified by this mentality itself is a reflection on humanity’s wish to understand the deeper notions of logic and reason. Victoria tells Howard of all of the classes that she has, and how they themselves don’t ask the correct questions about life and how they make assumptions about existence, using the tomato as the symbolic reference point. The reason that she feels intellectually drawn to Howard’s class is that he denies these assumptions and devalues the tomato itself, asking what makes it so important or what makes it something worth analyzing? This is the main, perplexing characteristic regarding Howard that many people, including Kiki, find. He proposes questions and analyses but never truly seeks to answer these questions in himself.

This is also a central attribute of the argument between Kiki and Howard. She feels as if he is constantly attempting to find some different interpretation of the events that are unfolding, rather than simply viewing them for what they are and emotionally adjusting to them accordingly. In many ways, it can be said that Howard also signifies the thoughts of post-humanism, as Langdon Winner (2004) defines it. Howard interprets the world around him much like a humanist would, but he has an inability to elevate the importance of artists or thinkers to a much higher standard, choosing instead to attempt to critique what it is about their work that implies humanity’s existence as no greater or worse than the remainder of the world, and of artists as no greater or lesser than the other humans around them. To Howard, there is some element to everything that is worth critiquing or understanding more but adversely, there is some element to all that is beautiful that is simply human.

This in itself is the definition of post-humanism, much like the one that is brought forth by Winner (2004). There is a rejection of universal concepts and constructs that are anthropologically defined and Howard believes in many ways that there is a stark limitation and essential fallibility of the human mind and our levels of intelligence. It’s as if he attaches emotional involvement to these constructs as well, which further propels his need for finding some sort of critique or base to debunk or question the reality of that which is around him. His analysis of Rembrandt and constant need to question the nature of Rembrandt’s work is a metaphor for this search. Rembrandt’s work historically came after the rise of the Renaissance and humanism and his pieces were notoriously realistic. The one in question throughout the work is that of a nude woman, who rather than having features which are noticeably surreal, are more human and normal. Seated Nude is the name of the piece and Katie attempts to analyze it before class, drawing conclusions about the reasoning behind Rembrandt’s willingness to craft a nude in such a way. She associates a story that is based around the shape and contours of the body, how the “loose belly” has “known many babies,” and how the “muscles in her arms” were suggestive of manual labor.

Katie finds herself confident in some sort of innate reflection on the human condition itself and she attempts to answer Howard’s question, but before she can, Victoria intervenes with a response of her own. She states that this painting is a symbolic reflection on painting itself and what constitutes ideal characteristics to the human eye. She surmises that it’s a “painting about painting.” This response brings forth a sense of acceptance from Belsey, as he raps on his desk and tells her to expand upon the concept. Before she can expand upon it, another argument is brought forth and this expands upon the question further, much to the apparent delight of Howard. As such, it is evident that Howard is more impressed with the constant attempt to find some exterior criticism of the painting or question its own genius, rather than reflect upon it as an extension of humanity’s brilliance and Rembrandt as an individual who came to define some of this.

Earlier in the same section, Howard poses questions about this supposed genius. He states “What we’re trying to .. interrogate here… “is the mytheme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human. What is it about these texts – these images as narration – that is implicitly applying for the quasi-mystical notion of genius?” Howard’s driving force is attempting to analyze and categorize the attributes of humanity which essentially have no solid foundation to be categorized. Art and emotion are innately human, but they aren’t the logical attributes of humanity that Howard is attempting to find. He seeks constant stimulation and a furthering of this mentality, and the utter inability of humanity to settle with one idea or notion, and this leads him to sleep with Victoria.

After Kiki discovers this affair, she leaves Howard. The story begins to materialize in drastic ways, as Howard eventually finds himself struggling to give a presentation that he had planned on Rembrandt’s work. This is an important presentation for Howard, as it determines his tenure status, but he is perplexed when he finds Kiki in attendance as well. Before he is able to start his lecture, Howard’s PowerPoint stops on an image of Rembrandt’s lover. He sees in that moment, a sort of beauty, given the context of the moment that he experienced it and finds a whole new meaning associated with the nature of the painting itself. He’s at a loss for words, looking out to the audience to find Kiki staring back at him. There is a powerful moment in the last bit of prose, in which it states an image of “the ever present human hint of yellow, intimation of what is to come.”

The color yellow represents many different elements of the story and of the human condition itself. (Winner, 2004) Throughout the story, it is used to relate to some sort of acquisition of knowledge, of the perpetuation of gaining insight into the world. As Langdon Winner (2004) discusses, it’s synonymous with a sort of analytical collection of data or confirming the existence of a scene within the memory of those that are partaking in the events. This is used in the scene in which the Belsey family attends the performance of Mozart’s Requieum in the Boston Common. The narrator recounts the “yellow lanterns, the colour of rape seeds, hung in the branches of the trees.” It’s as if the color yellow is used to signify a reflection of input, designed to inscribe a sort of significance of the actual attributes of the scene. Yet, in this point, the color yellow isn’t associated with a deeper context or reflection on inquisitiveness in itself. This is accomplished in the final statement of the novel.

In this moment, the color yellow is associated with some human condition, an “intimation of what is to come.” Yellow embodies a different type of inquisitiveness, almost an awakening of the mind and the approach that Howard has to dissecting both his life and the importance of the implements of reflection around him. He sees all at once, a different approach to simply critiquing the piece by Rembrandt. This section alludes to a sort of “post-critical” thought on beauty that exceeds both humanist and post-humanist ideas while drawing on references from both, and forces Howard into a newfound amalgamation of understanding as a result. This type of understanding is quite comparable to that which is introduced in”The Limits of Critique” by Rita Felski. Felski (2015) believes that critique allows for some sort of question to be brought forth, without any introduction of radical thought or guarantee of a more complex comprehension of the human elements that surround the installation being critiqued. Rather, she argues for what she refers to as “post-critical reading.” Rather than simply trying to find a deeper meaning or motive behind a text itself, she argues that scholars should thrust themselves into the text or artwork and place it before themselves and what relates to them, and in turn reflect on the prominence of this piece in terms of what it suggests to them.

In this moment, Felski’s (2015) hypothesis is asserted, as Howard reflects upon the prominence of Rembrandt’s lover, and her humanity and existence not as a metaphysical identity of the limitations of humans’ appearance or reality or any other thematic element that may be inferred. Rather, she is presented as simply Rembrandt’s lover, reflecting her qualities as his lover with all of her human conditions, but to Howard, she embodies his lover as well. He is able to relate a more complex understanding of what this lover means, not just as a reflection of something deeper in terms of humanity in general, but in terms of his own personal, emotional attachment to someone that he too has. Kiki is innately human, and has flaws much like all other humans but Howard is now able to accept that there need not be any deeper understanding or critique between them to enjoy both her existence and understand her as his partner.

The remainder of the narrative is summarized eloquently and simply, as “an intimation of what is to come.” In this moment, Howard’s perspective has been symbolically altered and it’s as if he has been introduced to the idea of resonating emotionally and personally with the entities around him, rather than simply critiquing their supposed importance. Smith (2007) uses this transformation to detail her understanding of the world as it currently is, and the nature of our appreciation and reflection upon the humanities. Humanism introduced a particularly prevalent notion of denying the supposed importance or mystification of the world, based simply on its existence or tradition’s dictation of doing so. While it was meant to further glorify the presence of humanity as real entities, it also created a paradoxical need for constant contemplation and critique which trickled into post-humanism. (Winner, 2004) In “On Beauty,” Smith (2007) argues for the importance of personal reflection and the superficial tendencies of critique to simply ask metaphysical questions for the sake of asking them, without delving into the importance of personal reflection. Much like in Felski’s (2015) “The Limits of Critique,” Smith (2007) concludes about the importance of finding meaning within one’s own understanding, placing that which we critique before us and simply basking in what it means to us, not only as humans but as individuals with the capacity to seek deeper, more resonant and human conclusions that what simple critique can afford.

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