Is there a right way to be ugly?

Watch the archived lecture by Umberto Eco of October 8, 2008 here. Scroll right to the bottom of the page and click the icon under “Watch” in the last column of the table.

Why would thousands of people in the US and Canada want to participate in a lecture entitled “An Illustrated Presentation on the History of Beauty and Ugliness”? Well, when it is Umberto Eco who is the speaker, any topic is worthy of our participation.

Eco (even without the beard) has always been avant-garde in his writing, from scholarly publications to literature. Which academic could ever forget his monumental text: Trattato di semiotica general / A Theory of Semiotics (1976)? And which mystery reader did not find Il nome della rosa / The Name of Rose (1986) completely enthralling? Even the movie was quite enjoyable.

So when he talks about ugliness, why not? Let’s face it, there is so much available in the public eye that dictates what it means to be beautiful in our current society (and he already wrote about it some years ago (On Beauty, 2004)). His follow up book, On Ugliness, seems like an absolute necessity. Why? How do we know what is ugly? Is it just whatever is not beautiful? Or is there more to it?

I could never synthesize Eco’s talk, which was webcast to the community of Montclair State University thanks to the University of Toronto at Mississauga (UTM)—my thesis director still rocks! Since there were so many interesting and engaging things he presented in his talk, many of which resonate to this day, I will only highlight some things he said. Hopefully, very soon, I will be able to provide you readers with a link to an archive of his talk, once UTM makes it available to the public.

Eco comments on ugliness:

  • The Aesthetics of Ugliness, written by German philosopher Karl Rosenkrantz, in 1853, is one of the first works to draw an analogy between ugliness and moral evil
  • Beauty, in every era, follows certain rules. Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite amount of possibilities
  • Beauty / ugliness is also defined socio-politically (how else can we explain Hugh Heffner)
  • The unicorn, a mystical creature, was considered a monster historically
  • Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, offers a romantic eulogy of ugliness when describing Quasimodo
  • Do we still consider Frankenstein, Rigoletto and Cyrano de Bergerac ugly?
  • Currently, do we define ugliness via a cyborg philosophy – the symbosis between man and machine?
  • Disgust and repulsion help us understand what is ugly … beauty is in the eye of the beholder?
  • This is an appeal for compassion – ugliness presented for our amusement, and just perhaps to make us learn to love what is ugly

Amusing, entertaining, engaging…sitting at the edge of my seat one moment and heartily laughing the next. Only one man can do this when talking about ugliness … Umberto Eco!