Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Ugliness ed. by Umberto Eco

At first I thought I'd read this book like a collage, just looking at the (not so) pretty pictures, but actually Eco's text was pretty fascinating. The book is quite beautifully produced and full of visual ugliness, some of which is pretty astonishing and some of which is familiar, but the thing I responded to most was the idea that formal ugliness (which is differentiated from the beautiful, artistic portrayal of ugly things) tends to be defined by a lack of symmetry, of equilibrium. And in fiction writing, especially the short story, we talk a lot about balance and structure and things that don't fit the story...but sometimes too much, I think. The question is, is some ugliness necessary to prevent a story that's too smooth and ultimately bland. There are those who argue that the cracks in the whole make for beauty...that beauty doesn't exist without cracks... and perhaps the whole problem of the workshop story, something perfectly constructed which leaves you cold, is a lack of ugliness. Russell Banks, the man who changed my life by providing such a happy model of the writer-professor way back when I was a freshman, once told me I needed to take my hands off the wheel more often, and I confess this is something that I still struggle with. After all, if you take your hands off the wheel, you go off the road! Now intellectually I understand he was telling me I needed to go off the road. But I'm still not sure I've ever done it...though I don't white-knuckle my "driving" quite as much as I used to.


Susan Allspaw Pomeroy said...

So how does this compare to "gotta get a wide tire"?

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

Well, as Sue knows, the other man who helped set the course of my life, Ron Carlson, once advised me "to get a wide tire." Advice directed at buying a bicycle in Tempe (which had a lot of railroad tracks to cross between my house and campus). But also advice, I think, for lasting the distance. More about being a writer, than about the writing itself.

Emily said...

I read the book a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed it. The discussion of the ugly -- particularly in terms of the Rabelasian grotesque -- was interesting in terms of thinking about the materiality of art and aesthetics.


I thought I had something more profound to say about the text. I don't. I just enjoyed it -- it was a thought provoking look at a whole series of paintings and texts that tend not to get nearly enough attention as important works of art.

Your recognition of the importance of asymmetry is far more thoughtful than my own response (I liked the book! Whee!).

(Or maybe that's just my brain talking after reading for the last five hours.)