“I’ve been working on a schematic of beauty, the dimensions of it,” said Jack.
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
“Just to have a better understanding of the way beauty works,” said Jack.
“And for you it’s not enough merely to enjoy it? Well, what have you got so far?” I asked.
“I collected a whole lot of adjectives. Then I tried to categorize them. That’s where I ran into difficulty,” said Jack. He took a ballpoint from his pocket and straightened out the slightly stained napkin next to his plate. He wrote down some words: ‘attractive’, ‘statuesque’, ‘lovely’, ‘pretty’, ‘elegant’, ‘cute’, ‘beautiful’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘voluptuous’, ’handsome’, ‘striking’, ‘comely’, ‘adorable’, and so on. I tried, but I don’t think there is one dimension that starts at one end of the scale and goes straight on to the other end. I mean, which of these words describes the least beautiful, and which one the most beautiful?”
I said “I wouldn’t know where to begin. And frankly, why bother?”
“Don’t you care about beauty?” asked Jack.
“Certainly,” I said, “at least as much as the next man. But I don’t feel the need to describe or define it.”
“Well, someone has to do it,” said Jack, “and it may as well be me.”
I said “So what have you come up with?”
‘I’m stuck,” confessed Jack. “I didn’t get any farther than making this list. Oh, and maybe put ‘striking’ and ‘handsome’ in one category. I think people use those terms when a woman isn’t really beautiful, but want to keep looking at her anyway. ‘Cute’ can go in another box – it’s not ‘beautiful’, not ‘striking’ and not ‘handsome’.
Jack picked up my as yet unused napkin, and drew some boxes.
“So here we have ‘cute’, there we have ‘striking’ and ‘handsome’, and in this third box we’ve left
‘beautiful’, ‘pretty’, ‘lovely’, ‘elegant’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘voluptuous’, and ‘attractive’.
I said “I think ‘voluptuous’ can go in a box by itself, if you’re only assessing a face, rather than the entire body. And so can ‘gorgeous’ And ‘adorable’ can go in another box; I think it only tangentially relates to beauty. Maybe we should just forget about it”.
“Why limit our discussion?”
“If we don’t, we can add another litany of adjectives and adverbs – ‘svelte’, ‘shapely’, ‘statuesque’, ‘buxom’, and ‘curvaceous’, for instance. That would only make your task more difficult.”
“Alright, let’s confine our discussion to the face then,” said Jack, with some reluctance. “What do we have so far?”
I said “’Striking’ and ‘handsome’ in one basket, ‘cute’ in another. The rest is still waiting for you to sort them: ‘beautiful’, ‘pretty’, ‘lovely’, ‘elegant’, and ‘attractive’.”
How about ‘attractive’ at the lower end and ‘beautiful’ at the other. With ‘pretty’ and ’lovely’ in between. I think ‘elegant’ has something to do with the overall body, its posture rather than the face alone.”
“How about in an ascending scale: ‘attractive’, ‘lovely’, ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’?”
I said “I could live with that.”
Jack said “I’ve lived with a lot worse!”
I said “Jack, you made me think of all the lovely, beautiful, attractive, pretty, and cute faces I’ve fancied over the years.”
“I remember my first crush on a movie star when I was in my very early teens. I saw a movie, my first one in colour, just after the war. It was an Arabian Nights tale, with Cornel Wilde and Evelyn Keyes. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. A few years ago I googled her and found out that the image in my mind and the picture on my little monitor had little in common. I think my next flame was Virginia Mayo. Shortly after than I met a real girl-woman, and from that point on my crushes were directed away from the silver screen.”
“Nobody after Virginia Mayo?”
“There were, but not with any romantic involvement, however unfulfillable. Merely as reflections of my taste, my changing taste.”
“I’m not sure I can put them in chronological order, but there was Arlene Dahl, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Debbie Reynolds, ...”
“Debbie Reynolds? She doesn’t quite fit the pattern. She may be cute, but not beautiful.”
“She was the last one, I guess. And perhaps the reason for including her was that she was popular just about the time that I got acquainted with the lady who became wife number one.”
“That would explain it,” said Jack. “And there hasn’t been anyone since?”
“Not that I can think of, off hand.”
“Is there no one in any recent movie, whose face you find especially attractive?”
“Well, if I have to choose one, I guess it would be Rosamund Pike.”
“Yes,” said Jack, “she’d fit the pattern – they all have sharp features. You don’t go in much for round, full faces, do you?”
“I never thought of it that way, but perhaps you’re right.
“Tell me,” said Jack, “have you ever been struck by lightning?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, almost knocked off your feet because you saw or met someone with a face that left you dumbfounded?”
I thought about it for a minute, and had to admit that in all my life I’d maybe been “struck” in that sense about half a dozen times.
“The first time was at my first dance. We were living on a tropical island. The moon was out. Someone had strung Christmas lights in the trees. And suddenly there was this lovely girl with blond hair tied in a ponytail and a stunning smile. I fell in love on the spot. I carried that romance in my heart till the following year, when at a dance, we became an item. Alas, our romance lasted only one day.
The next time was at the home of a friend, whose girlfriend came by. Again, a lovely face, a blond ponytail, a body that would make a centerfold ache for her presence on it, and ‘bam’ I tumbled into the pit of jealousy. As luck would have it, she and my friend broke up, and she eventually became the aforementioned wife number one. She shows up in several of my songs.”
“And that was it?”
“Not by a long shot! The next strike by love’s lightning bolt was almost as short-lived as the real thing. I was walking along the main shopping street in Oranjestad in Aruba – this was in 1970, before the island became popular as a tourist attraction – when I happened to look in the window of the major jewelry story. And there, on the other side of the window was one of the most stunning faces I’ve ever seen. She was European, but with a tan that could easily match some of the lighter shades of the Negro population. Maybe her face wasn’t beautiful, but, my God, it was something I could hardly tear my eyes from. That brief moment became a poem.
“Again, a tropical night. Neil Young and his friends were singing their hearts out on the tape recorder. Still Aruba, a few weeks after the previous episode. A coolish breeze was stirring the hot evening air, palm trees rustling, a group of us there for an evening barbecue. Suddenly the young hostess appeared in a long flowing dress, and within seconds had captured my attention and heart with her stunning looks. She became wife number two, and the subject of some poems and songs.
“A similar bolt out of the blue happened I don’t know how many years ago, while I was shopping at Loblaw’s. I saw a woman, very good-looking, perhaps not beautiful, but she had a face that would have launched at least 500 ships.”
“If I may interrupt for a moment. That reminds me of someone’s definition of ‘a troy’.”
“Alright, what’s the definition of a troy?”
“It’s the unit of beauty necessary to launch one ship. Clever or what?”
“I suppose. Where was I?”
“That woman at Loblaw’s.”
“I had never seen her before, and I never saw her after. And again, my love affair with her lasted maybe 5 seconds. It reminds me of a song by Amanda Bon, I think it’s called “Isn’t it Nice”, in which the opening lines are ‘I fell in love yesterday. For a minute or two, and then I went on my way.’
“As for wife number three,…”
“Alright, already,” said Jack. “I get the picture. And you call me a love-junkie? It seems to me you’re one yourself.”
“There’s a huge difference, my friend: I wasn’t looking for these lightning strikes. It seems to me that you’ve always been standing under tall trees on big hills in hope some spark will crank up your libido. How many women have you gone through in the course of your amatory career? No, don’t answer. I don’t want to know.
“I’ve talked about me, what about you? I continued. “What were your favourite movie stars?”
“You seem to have concentrated on faces flicking your switch; for me it’s been the area below the face more than anything else.”
“There was Marilyn Monroe, of course.”
“Why ‘of course’? She never did anything for me.”
“And there was Sophia Loren,” continued Jack unperturbed, “and Jayne Mansfield. I had some fine woolly dreams about those ladies, I can tell you.”
And he did. I couldn’t have stopped him.
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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