Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

That Is All Ye Know On Earth, And All Ye Need To Know -or- Old Age and Treachery

On his late-night TV talk show, Craig Ferguson delivered a monologue about how American society has turned away from reverence of age and life experience, and toward the slavish glorification of youth. He delivered the monologue in July 2009; again this week, at least in my tiny corner of the online world, it went moderately viral.

Ferguson ended it with something of a throwaway line about a pop-culture phenomenon of that moment which has since faded, relatively speaking; if he were to make this speech again, he’d change the reference, and it would be fine, probably accurate, and just as much a relatively trivial punchline-ish way to end an otherwise pretty philosophical piece.

(I know something about that phenomenon, I admit.)

The video is here; it’s fun to listen Ferguson deliver it in his mostly-penetrable Scottish accent. But I include the text here, too, because there’s one bit in it that wasn’t Ferguson’s main point … but it got my attention.

 

“I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured it out.

“’What?’ I’ll tell you.

“Everything. Why everything sucks.

“Here’s why. In the 1950s, late ’50s, early ’60s, a bunch of advertising guys got together on Madison Avenue and decided that what they were trying to do was sell products to younger people. They thought, ‘We should try to sell to younger people because then they will buy things their whole lives. So we’ll try to sell them soft drinks, or bread, or cigars’ or whatever the hell they were selling them. And they thought, ‘we’ll try and appeal to young people.’ It was just an advertising thing, they didn’t mean any harm by it, just a little bit of market research.

“And so they did that, and they told the television companies, and the movie companies, and the record companies — and everybody started targeting the youth. Because the youth was the place where you were going to be able to sell things.

“And what happened was that in a strange kind of quirk of fate, youth began to be celebrated by society – in a way that it had never been, at any time in human history. Because what used to be celebrated was experience, and cleverness. But what happened was, what became valuable was youth — and the quality of youth, which made you a consumer.

“So what happened was, they started concentrating on these people.

“I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying ‘but wait a minute, Craig, in ancient Greece they deified youth.’ No they didn’t. They deified beauty. Ah! Different. Right?

“What happened is that youth became more important and became more important and became more important. Society started to turn on its head. Because with the deification of youth – youth has a byproduct. The byproduct of youth is inexperience. By the nature of having youth you don’t have any experience. You’re too young to have it. It’s not your fault. You’re just kind of stupid.

“So they sell you stuff. Right?

“So therefore, the deification of youth began, but the deification of youth didn’t stop there. The deification of youth kind of evolved, and turned into the deification of imbecility. It became fashionable and desirable to be young and to be stupid. And that started to become a fashion. And that grew, and that grew, and that grew, and now that’s what all the kids want to be. ‘I just want to be young and stupid!’ But you know what? That’s not what you want to be. You don’t want to be young and stupid.

“And then what happened is that people were frightened to not be young. They didn’t want to not be young; they didn’t want get older, so they started dyeing their hair, they started mutilating their faces and their bodies in order to look young. But you can’t be young forever, that’s against the laws of the universe!

“All of these horrible [trends], all of these terrible movement[s]. Nobody meant it. Nobody meant any harm. But now we’re in this terrible place where we have the f#@%ing Jonas Brothers!”

 

It really is even better with the accent.

But the line that got me was this one <*cassette-tape rewinding sound*>:

what used to be celebrated was experience, and cleverness. But … what became valuable was youth … ‘but wait a minute, Craig, in Ancient Greece they deified youth.’ No they didn’t. They deified beauty. Ah! Different. Right?

Again, not the main thrust; but it raises a question, the answer to which has been different in different cultures on Earth – and has changed within some of those cultures from century to century, decade to decade, even week to week, seemingly. The question: what did the ancient Greeks consider beautiful? What is beautiful to us? What is attractive?

I’ll admit: I chuckled at a few moments in the movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary”. Now, it’s a chick flick; and I am not a chick. But I’ve occasionally been exposed to them. (Ask me sometime about “Notting Hill”.) It’s my wish to avoid being seen as entertainable by anything other than highbrow, relentlessly intelligent artistic creations – must not glorify mediocrity! (I refer you straight back Craig Ferguson’s phrase, “the deification of imbecility”.) Still, some of those movies that aren’t exactly “Lawrence of Arabia” do have their moments. Like this one: one of Bridget Jones’s diary entries, as narrated by the wonderful Renee Zellweger:

Feel need to do something to stop aging process, but what? Cannot afford face-lift … Why do I look old? Why? … Decided needed to spend more time on appearance like Hollywood stars and have therefore spent ages putting concealer under eyes, blusher on cheeks and defining fading features.

“Good God,” said Tom when I arrived.

“What?” I said. “What?’

“Your face. You look like Barbara Cartland.”

As a culture, we’re pretty seriously hung-up on this.

 

There’s an article by Eddy Elmer and James Houran, published by a company called 20/20 Skills™, entitled “Physical Attractiveness in the Workplace: Customers Do Judge Books by Their Covers”; its purpose is to “review and summarize classic and contemporary research on the psychology of attractiveness and propose ideas and guidelines to help the service-hospitality industry seize opportunities to use ‘beauty in business.’”

This could be seen as an industry’s attempt to pull an ethical end-run on the government regulations that address discrimination on the basis of factors that people can’t control – their genes, hello! But never mind that, for now…

The authors first deal with “universally preferred physical features” that they suggest have been associated (across all cultures) with physical and psychological traits that can be indicators of good physical (reproductive!) health. Clear skin, vibrant hair … symmetrical face and body … some gender-specific characteristics that indicate good health, good ability to be a protector, good ability to bear healthy children. Humans seem to prefer “cuteness”, i.e. baby-like features that signal nurturance … and to prefer facial features that imply maturity and strength. The authors emphasize that “average faces and bodies are composites that wash out extreme ends on the continuum of various features (i.e., they indicate the absence of potentially maladaptive genes).”

On the other hand, the authors propose this: “In both sexes unattractive facial features [according to somebody! -Ed.] are often offset by attractive physiques. … [C]ertain physical, but non-anatomical features … can either counteract anatomical flaws or … can by themselves be more physically attractive than the kinds of anatomical features mentioned above.” They cite examples: a person’s physical style (posture, stature, gait, eye contact, smile) … a person’s body image (level of comfort with their own body), e.g. someone whose comfort with their own looks can counteract their physical flaws and make them appear more physically attractive than someone with already above-average looks [All of which is in the eye of the hypothetical “average” beholder out there somewhere. -Ed.] … a person’s level of physicality with others … and personal hygiene, grooming and dress (“in some cases, exceptional presentation can make average or not-so-attractive faces and bodies look quite physically attractive.)

Then they suggest “situational factors” that might go some way toward convincing us that someone is physically attractive, including: people who are familiar to us (you’re safer if you know who they are, screams our evolutionary sense – although, heaven knows, that is not always the case) … people who are in our general vicinity for longer periods of time than those who aren’t (Hmm. Bang goes “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. -Ed.] … people with positive personal qualities, whose physical imperfections we may overlook, and even notice less over time. They quote an article from BBC History Magazine, whose writer suggests that “[t]he overriding characteristic of female beauty is … charisma. This goes a long way towards explaining the appeal of women such as Mary, Queen of Scots, whose attraction is hard to understand from her portraits alone.”

One really interesting example of a situational factor that the article’s authors cite: “People with whom we have experienced something emotional or physically arousing are often perceived as more attractive than they were before such an experience” [i.e. after sharing a “heart-to-heart” talk, or enduring a traumatic situation, with someone – that person may seem more physically attractive than they did before the event] … due not only to the familiarity that results from being next to that person, but also the emotional energy that is created by the situation.”

 

As I was reading all that, and was starting to write this, unconsciously I started to assemble a roster of people I’ve known personally or at least have observed closely, who might defy current American conventions of beauty and attractiveness, or might not even really address them … but that I think qualify as perfectly attractive for some of the aforementioned reasons. Amongst them …

[] My seven-year-old nephew, specifically his face when he tells me a joke he *knows* is funny. Could be that there’s a lot of my Dad’s face looking back at me; but the glint in his eye is a world-beater.

[] People in the church choir I conduct, when we’ve just nailed the anthem of the morning and we know it. We are the very picture of facial and physical diversity, but everyone has that look of “…yeah.”

[] My two favorite performers from the original British version of the theater-improvisation TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, Sandi Toksvig and Mike McShane. Never appeared on any fashion-and-beauty magazine cover. Ever. But they could be among the very funniest, most inventive humans on the planet.

[] A couple I know, who will be married soon. Pictures of them surface on my Facebook news feed from time to time. It would be your call, whether you think either of them will make the cover of Vogue magazine, as an example of perfect American physical beauty. But when they’re pictured together, the way they obviously feel about each other makes them more beautiful than anything Vogue puts on its cover lately.

[] On any re-run of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” when the great comedian JoAnn Worley pops out of the Joke Wall and ad-libs a retort to a fellow actor’s punchline, she makes you want to go in and take part in that silliness, too, doesn’t she?

[] I’m thinking of a particular college friend who, as soon as she stepped out on the ballroom-dance floor, possessed such grace that people could not look away. It’s arguable whether “Dancing With the Stars”, had it existed, would have felt the need to cast her, on looks alone. Their loss. In the moments when I had the good fortune to attempt to be a Good Lead for her, her dancing skills – and significantly, her face and smile – made me like myself as a dancer.

[] From a drum corps video recording that I get to see at least once a summer: a member of a senior drum corps who is very much a senior citizen, whose wealth of grey hair easily sets him apart from most of the other pit percussionists in the corps that year. He looks more like the current version of Jack Nicholson than he looks like Tom Cruise, by a lot … but the utter concentration on his face and in his stance always gets a smiling reaction from the Drum Major Academy video audience. “This bell-tree passage is the most important thing in my life right now,” his face says, and we want to hear him talk more about how much he likes his gig.

[] A friend and colleague of mine, whose smile alone carries the day when it flashes in my direction. Regardless of what the rest of assemblage looks like, pop-culture-attractive or not, that smile goes with me afterward.

[] The DMA staff members, of whom I have recently written in glowing terms. Some absolutely do fit the classic American standard of magazine-cover attractiveness; some fit to a lesser degree. But they are smart, funny, friendly, loyal, competent (as previously chronicled) … and when we re-assemble at whatever DMA location is next on the summer schedule, they’re the best-looking group of people I know, in that moment.

[] My late uncle. He had a number of non-average physical attributes, to say the least. When he walked or sat, he stooped over this way; he inherited the same limited-head-of-hair genes that I’ve got!; and he needed a cushion on his driver’s seat, in order to be able to be up high enough to drive the slick little VW Beetle that he did. He was not, by any stretch, a model for the next Greek statue to be chiseled. But when my five-year-old self brought out an armful of my newest toys to show him, Uncle Carl looked as interested as could be, and I was inspired to bring out yet more of them.

 

Every example on this list reflects, to some degree, the suggestions of a different article, which I’d read some time ago, and happily was able to find again recently. Which were:

Imperfections make people special. Be it a mole, a [front-tooth] gap or even a scar, beauty can always be found in these so-called ‘flaws’. Embrace the features that make you unique – it’s what makes you irreplaceable.

I suppose one could look at Craig Ferguson and suppose that he’s maybe not the most absolutely handsome fellow on the planet, and list various facial features or other attributes to prove one’s case. But there are a lot of people who watch his program regularly, and think he’s a better late-night talk show host than almost any of his competitors and colleagues, for reasons which have nothing to do with his not being a male-supermodel type. And I’m sure there are many people who hold both those views.

I think there must be a good reason why Keats didn’t write, in his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, “beauty is youth, youth beauty”.

It’s not always.

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August 14, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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