Ugliness: A Cultural History by Gretchen E Henderson - review by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel

Simply Hideous

Ugliness: A Cultural History


Reaktion Books 240pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Sometime in the 1930s, a wealthy Argentinian matron was strolling in the park of Palermo, in downtown Buenos Aires, when she suddenly noticed an old beggar woman. A notable feature of the park is its rose garden, and the lady delighted in walking there every morning, admiring the colours and the scent of the flowers. The sight of the beggar, with her warty face, yellow teeth and bulbous nose, offended her; therefore, in order not to be forced to see the ugly beggar ever again, she offered her a weekly fee to keep out of the elegant garden. Proud of her action, the curious philanthropist said in the press that she had done it ‘in defence of beauty’. This should not surprise us: in the late 19th century, so-called ‘ugly laws’ in the United States prohibited individuals with physical deformities from visiting public spaces; in a number of American cities, these laws remained in force until the 1970s. However enlightened we might think ourselves, privately or publicly we have deemed ugliness a crime.

Ugliness, like beauty in the old phrase, is in the eye of the beholder. This variation on the esse est percipi proposition is no doubt true, but ugliness is also a concept born of our sense of necessary opposites. Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, noted that the principal characteristics of beauty

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