An extract from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: Like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.
The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.
Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.
In his work, John Baldessari continually challenges notions of beauty and disregards conventional rules of what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to art –his piece Wrong comes to mind, a photograph in which he purposefully defies the rules of photography and composition. His artwork urges the viewer to question these rules, for example in his series Choosing (A Game for Two Players), where he plays with personal perceptions of beauty (David Salle calls it a “faux exercise of taste”)
The game is simple: one player arranges three samples of the same vegetable in a line (eg. three green beans), the second player is asked to choose the “best” of the three, based on his/her own aesthetic criteria. That lucky bean moves on to the next round where it is placed next to two new beans, and again player two is asked to pick a favourite, and so on. Meanwhile, the exercise is recorded in a series of photographs where we can see the player’s fingertip pointing at the chosen vegetable. The absurd game just goes to show that taste is subjective and there are no universal rules for beauty, be it a turnip, a person, or a work of art, we should not conform to conventional standards.
In this passage from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the beautiful shepherdess, Marcela, gives a captivating speech defending a woman’s right to choose her own lifestyle after she is blamed for the suffering and death of Grisóstomo, who killed himself when she rejected him:
You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her. What’s more, it could happen that the lover of beauty is ugly, and since that which is ugly is loathsome, it isn’t very fitting for him to say: “I love you because you’re beautiful; you must love me even though I’m ugly.” And even if they are well-matched as far as beauty goes, that doesn’t mean that the attraction’s going to be mutual, because not all beauty inspires love. Some beauties delight the eye but don’t captivate the heart; just as well, because if all beauty did inspire love and conquer hearts, people’s affections would be forever wandering this way and that without knowing where to come to rest – there’s an infinite number of beautiful people, so the affections would be infinite, too. And, according to what I’ve heard, true love can’t be divided, and must be voluntary, not forced on you. If this is so, as I believe it is, why do you think I should be obliged to give in to you, just because you say you love me dearly? Or else tell me this: if heaven had made me ugly instead of beautiful, would I have been right to complain about you for not loving me?
What’s more, you must remember that I didn’t choose this beauty of mine – heaven gave it to me, exactly as you see it, quite freely, without my asking for it or picking it. And just as the viper doesn’t deserve to be blamed for her poison, even though she kills with it, because nature gave it to her, so I don’t deserve to be blamed for being beautiful; because beauty in a virtuous woman is like a distant fire or sharp sword, which doesn’t burn or cut anyone who doesn’t come too close. Honor and virtue are ornaments of the soul, and without them the body, even if it is beautiful, shouldn’t seem beautiful. Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?
I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside….I am the distant fire and the far-off sword….If I’d encouraged him, I should have been false; if I’d gratified him, I should have been acting against my own intentions, better than his…Because a woman who doesn’t love any man can’t make any man jealous, and disabuse must not be confused with disdain. He who calls me fierce and a basilisk can leave me alone, as something evil and dangerous; he who calls me an ingrate can stop courting me; he who calls me distant can keep his distance; he who calls me cruel can stop following me: because this fierce basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and distant woman is most certainly not going to seek, court, approach or follow any of them.
Images below are from the Women are Beautiful series by Garry Winogrand, taken in the 1960s and 70s.
By Sharon Olds
Like other identical twins, they can be
better told apart in adulthood.
One is fast to wrinkle her brow,
her brain, her quick intelligence. The other
dreams inside a constellation,
freckles of Orion. They were born when I was thirteen,
they rose up, half out of my chest,
now they’re forty, wise, generous.
I am inside them — in a way, under them,
or I carry them, I’d been alive so many years without them.
I can’t say I am them, though their feelings are almost
my feelings, as with someone one loves. They seem,
to me, like a gift that I have to give.
That boys were said to worship their category of
being, almost starve for it,
did not escape me, and some young men
loved them the way one would want, oneself, to be loved.
All year they have been calling to my departed husband,
singing to him, like a pair of soaking
sirens on a scaled rock.
They can’t believe he’s left them, it’s not in their
vocabulary, they being made
of promise — they’re like literally kept vows.
Sometimes, now, I hold them a moment,
one in each hand, twin widows,
heavy with grief. They were a gift to me,
and then they were ours, like thirsty nurslings
of excitement and plenty. And now it’s the same
season again, the very week
he moved out. Didn’t he whisper to them,
Wait here for me one year? no.
He said, God be with you, God
be with you, God-bye, for the rest
of this life and for the long nothing. And they do not
know language, they are waiting for him, my
Christ they are dumb, they do not even
know they are mortal — sweet, I guess,
refreshing to live with, beings without
the knowledge of death, creatures of ignorant suffering.
By Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.
By Carlos Drummond de Andrade
From everything a little remained.
From my fear. From your disgust.
From stifled cries. From the rose
a little remained.
A little remained of light
caught inside the h￼at.
In the eyes of the pimp
a little remained of tenderness,
A little remained of the dust
that covered your white shoes.
Of your clothes a little remained,
a few velvet rags, very
From everything a little remained.
From the bombed-out bridge,
from the two blades of grass,
from the empty pack
of cigarettes a little remained.
So from everything a little remains.
A little remains of your chin
in the chin of your daughter.
A little remained of your
blunt silence, a little
in the angry wall,
in the mute rising leaves.
A little remained from everything
in porcelain saucers,
in the broken dragon, in the white flowers,
in the creases of your brow,
in the portrait.
Since from everything a little remains,
why won’t a little
of me remain? In the train
travelling north, in the ship,
in newspaper ads,
why not a little of me in London,
a little of me somewhere?
In a consonant?
In a well?
A little remains dangling
in the mouths of rivers,
just a little, and the fish
don’t avoid it, which is very unusual.
From everything a little remains.
Not much: this absurd drop
dripping from the faucet,
half salt and half alcohol,
this frog leg jumping,
this watch crystal
broken into a thousand wishes,
this swan’s neck,
this childhood secret…
From everything a little remained:
from me; from you; from Abelard.
Hair on my sleeve,
from everything a little remained;
wind in my ears,
from an upset stomach,
and small artifacts:
bell jar, honeycomb, revolver
cartridge, aspirin tablet.
From everything a little remained.
And from everything a little remains.
Oh, open the bottles of lotion
the cruel, unbearable odor of memory.
Still, horribly, from everything a little remains,
under the rhythmic waves
under the clouds and the wind
under the bridges and under the tunnels
under the flames and under the sarcasm
under the phlegm and under the vomit
under the cry from the dungeon, the guy they forgot
under the spectacle and under the scarlet death
under the libraries, asylums, victorious churches
under yourself and under your feet already hard
under the ties of family, the ties of class,
from everything a little always remains.
Sometimes a button. Sometimes a rat.