On Women, Beauty and Love -- again; part 4


[Botticelli -- detail from The Birth of Venus]


Of a decorative value ...

Lucrezia Marinella's polemic, The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men has a particular place and function in the history of feminist literature -- one which I will largely be ignoring. A few comments before the ignoring begins -- Marinella was responding to the publication of Giuseppe Passi's 1599 polemic, The Defects of Women. Both were part of the centuries long debate now known as the 'Querelle des Femmes' -- a debate which attempted to 'decide' what a woman was, what she was for, whether she was even of the same species as men. Marinella begins by systematically addressing and overturning Passi's attack, using the same authors (poets, philosophers, and church fathers) to prove opposing points. Taken in its historical context, Marinella's work is of the utmost importance and interest. Marinella provides an important opposing voice.

But her argument has dangerous implications -- and that is what I will be focusing on.

Marinella appropriates a Platonic notion of Love -- Love is a motivating force that works upon the Lover who becomes inflamed by his Beloved. Marinella makes significant additions to this basic analogy. In her model, women are always the Beloved and men always the Lover, because women are already noble, by nature, and thus need no purification or elevation (which is what the force of love provides). Men must love women because men are lowly, rustic creatures that will never learn to stretch themselves toward the heavenly if not motivated by the love of a beautiful woman.

And that is the second important addition in Marinella's model -- Love loves only the beautiful, and all women are beautiful in her argument. Furthermore, all outward beauty is evidence of inward beauty, which is itself testimony to some divine grace.

Her argument runs as follows:

P1. Beauty is the mark of virtue
P2. Virtue indicates a greater degree of excellence and proximity to divinity
P3. If women are more beautiful than men, then they are more virtuous
P4. If women are more virtuous than men, then they are more excellent/divine
P5. Women are more beautiful than men
C1. Therefore, women are more excellent/divine than men


Marinella argues from a Platonic tradition that sees the Forms as the Ideas located in the mind of God. As such, anything that seems to express greater perfection ('beauty' being the obvious mark of perfection and excellence and divinity, etc), must necessarily express a greater degree of virtue and excellence. Marinella argues that it is obvious that,


the Idea of women is nobler than that of men. This can be seen by their beauty and goodness, which is known to everybody [...] Women's souls can, therefore, be nobler and more prized in their creation than men's [...] because the nobility of the soul can be judged from the excellence of the body -- which is ornamented with the same character and beauty as the soul, 'which such a body manifests in itself.' The greater nobility and worthiness of a woman's soul is shown by its delicacy, its complexion, and its temperate nature, as well as by its beauty, which is a grace or splendor proceeding from the soul as well as from the body.

So women are more beautiful. In fact, it is their beauty which gives them the claim to greater excellence -- are the problems yet obvious? Is an unbeautiful woman a contradiction? If not, what is the unbeautiful woman? If outward beauty is the necessary mark of inward beauty, anyone who does not exhibit outward beauty can be immediately dismissed as having no inward beauty. And what about this connection between beauty and the divine? How much trouble (and misery and hunger and pain and confusion, etc) has this identification of Beauty with Perfection caused? How much trouble has been caused by this reduction of a woman's value to her beauty?

But there are even more problems -- Marinella refigures the ladder of loving and knowing that Diotima had given to Socrates. A version of her model:

  1. ‘Woman’ is beautiful, and as beautiful, she is the only object for the loving/admiring gaze which is so pleasing to the gazer
  2. Gaze on the beauty of body leads to the internal awareness of the beauty of the soul which has given form to the beautiful body
  3. ‘Inflamed by love’ and ‘avid’ for ‘more vivid beauty,’ the mind of the lover ascends to the love of celestial beauty and heavenly beauty. At this stage, the lover is comparing the celestial beauty to the earthly beauty
  4. The lover contemplates angelic beauty
  5. The lover finds rest in the contemplation of God, He who anchors the chain and is its ultimate end, the ultimate end of Love
And so woman is the catalyst for the ascension of the lowly, rustic, imperfect man from his depths in the swamp to the heights of devotional thought. But if Marinella wants to show that women are already more excellent, because they are already more beautiful (which is the mark of virtue and the divine), then what do women do? They don’t need elevation through learning, they don’t need to love, so do they just remain passive, turned quietly inward upon their thoughts of the divine? She says,

I wish to go further and show that men are obliged and forced to love women, and that women are not obliged to love them back, except merely from courtesy. I wish also to demonstrate that the beauty of women is the way by which men, who are moderate creatures, are able to raise themselves to the knowledge and contemplation of the divine essence.

And so women are beautiful -- they are in possession of some excellence already -- it is so evident! And as beautiful, detached and noble, women stand outside the activities of learning and self-improvement -- why would they engage in unnecessary toil? What to do with women then? Craft pedestals perhaps. The muse tradition tells us that we should use women -- use their closeness to the divine. Except that once God leaves the picture, woman is refigured as close not to the divine, but to madness -- close to the limits of reason. Hysterical, nymphomaniacal, inspiring and maddening. The muse tradition -- woman is now to be used for her beauty, for her dreams, for her sexuality, for her wild, untamed power -- used and transformed in fetishized objects, dismembered images. And the very notion of what it is to be a woman becomes so void, so contentless, so abstract that no person could possible inhabit that gender. How could an individual be that sort of woman? What on earth would that be like?

I wrote years ago in favor of the muse ideal -- I wanted to be that woman, though I had no way of knowing what that meant. I had (still have) internalized the value system which tells me that I am valuable insofar as I am beautiful. Everything else is an extra adornment and is worth more in light of the fact of my appearance. In Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, Osmond speaks of the intelligent and beautiful Isabel Archer --

His egotism, if egotism it was, had never taken the crude form of wishing for a dull wife; this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that conversation might become a sort of perpetual dessert. He found the silvery quality in perfection in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckle and make it ring.

Marinella's argument for the recognition of the virtues of women can be used to support the argument that women are, at best, for visual consumption. They are nothing for themselves. They have no right to demand activity, no reason to engage in any process of learning, no reason to seek out love or challenge. They have no reason to seek out an identity -- no reason to try and understand what it means to be an individual. What does young Jakob say in Walser's Jakob von Gunten?

But one thing I do know for certain: in later life I shall be a charming, utterly spherical zero.


And that's the notion of 'woman' that we get from this tradition. Look at it closely -- look at the notion of beauty, the notion of love -- what are they but dusty, sclerotic leftover myths that do nothing but perpetuate ridiculous ideals?


And so -- onward to The Beauty Myth!