Thursday, May 30, 2013

Having Some Work Done


May 30, 2013

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.”

Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with these words as they related to wealthy eligible bachelors among the English gentry during the first decades of the 19th century.  In the context of the story she is about to tell, it is both true and untrue, real and imagined, and most importantly, written from a viewpoint not universal at all, but rather from the perspective of comparatively few people, and most especially, not from that of either of the initial persons in question.  The single man referred to in the opening lines and the wife chosen for him by the world--Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett--do not marry as planned, and only later are reunited in a rather roundabout way.  Another pair who immediately fit the bill—Mr. Darcy and the heroine Elizabeth Bennett—also marry, though no one expects them to except the reader.  Thus is the initial promise of the novel accomplished, just not in the way the writer would have you expect at first.   

When best wrought in literature, irony accomplishes exactly what Jane Austen’s opening sentences do.  It views the inevitability and essential uncontrolability of the voyage of life from the perspective of those who think they can somehow steer its outcome into a different port, as it were.  It cloaks the varied vagaries of human experience in the blandness of what is generally accepted, so that no matter what happens afterwards, the readers will be both satisfied and left scratching their heads in wonderment when the story unfolds pretty much exactly as it was foretold to do.  Oedipus, in attempting to escape his foretold fate—that he will kill his father and marry his mother—runs right into its arms, but not without a great deal of contrary effort on his part and unwitting cooperation from his parents.  Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, in trying to find a little happiness and respite from the tedious fate he has fallen into by staying in his little village in mediocrity and marrying his hypochondriac cousin, simply achieves a new more wretched version of the same, only with a different cousin.

These examples, and many more that could be recounted here, are literary tales designed to encourage us readers not only to accept our own fates, whatever they may be, but to understand that trying to alter the course of life is essentially an exercise in futility, and furthermore, that attempting to divine what that course might be is equally useless, and usually wrong, apart from the universal understanding that we will all die some day, and if we're fortunate, grow old first.  As such, from both the literary and theological perspectives, irony reinforces the certainty of predestination over the illusion of free will.

Some examples are more elaborate than others, but that’s pretty much the sum of it.  In the Book of Job, it plays out at a cosmic level, as God and Satan engage in a petty contest, the outcome of which we all know in advance.  God knows Job is obedient to his fate, but agrees to let poor Job be tormented in various ways in order to teach Satan who’s boss, as if there’s any doubt about that.  It’s a prime example of the fact that free will is not only an illusion, but an evil one at that.  Only the Devil would try to convince himself or anyone else that the Almighty doesn’t have it all figured out in advance, and that the outcome is anything but inevitable, and that, in effect, God isn't going to bet against himself.  Predestination trumps free will, because if we believe that God is omniscient, even what appears to be free will has been preordained.  Satan and his human victims are the all-time losers because they keep trying to change the outcome. Here, at least, Calvinism got it right over Roman Catholicism.   

Well, I could go on in this wise for pages, and would enjoy doing so.  But by now you might well be wondering what any of this has to do with the hideous examples of plastic surgery depicted above.  It’s the subject of irony that ties it in.  Increasingly throughout the country, and out here in southern California especially, people are prone to trying to alter their appearances for the better by various forms of facial reconstruction, often with disastrous results.  I’m not talking about fixing a cleft lip or grafting skin onto horrible disfigurements caused by burn injuries.  I’m talking about what we like to refer to as “having some work done.”  A generation or two ago this mostly meant the facelift, whereby the sagging folds of skin wrought by age and gravity are stretched and tucked and snipped, usually under or behind the ears where the scars won’t show, and sometimes rhinoplasty, where the nose is trimmed and sculpted to make it smaller, straighter, and more often than not, less interesting.  In the old days this was done with an eye toward conforming to an ideal of beauty in line with that of the northern European Gentile look, as opposed to the conspicuously Levantine look.  It was done to actors and actresses, especially, at the behest of the moguls of the movie industry, who, ironically, were almost all Jewish themselves, from Goldwyn, Mayer, and the Warner brothers of old to Eisner, Katzenberg, and Spielberg of today.

Today elective plastic surgery takes many more forms that it did in its infancy.  Botox injections in the lines of the face, cheek implants, collagen in the lips, breast enhancements, you name it.  But the one thing it all has in common is that it’s usually instantly recognizable, much as even good toupees are.  And though it is meant to enhance the beauty of its subjects it almost always makes them look ridiculous or pathetic and ruins what natural beauty their faces or bodies originally possessed.  Who can look at Cher, for example, without thinking that she’s become a version of the deformed child she mothered in the movie Mask?  Who can behold the mouths of actresses like Goldie Hawn or Nicole Kidman and think that anything other than a cruel joke has been played by whoever convinced them that making their lips look like a cartoon version of a fish has improved their looks?  Who can gaze at the frighteningly smooth and stretched faces of octogenarians like Barbara Walters and Joan Rivers and believe that placing an artificial doll's head upon a superannuated body does anything but mock the wisdom and self-possession that ought to have accompanied their fame as they have aged?

The list of the stretched and puffed and smoothed faces of the aging famous, living and dead, goes on and on.  Michael Jackson, Priscilla Presley, Wayne Newton, Tony Curtis, Mickey Rourke, Dolly Parton, Meg Ryan, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Jenner.  The blubbering lips, the tight slanted eyes, the absurdly round cheeks.  I’m not talking about the discreet tuck here and there, but rather the faces that, to paraphrase Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, make nature stand up and say to all the world, “This is a freak.”

Then there are the regular folks, just walking around at the supermarket, with conspicuously swollen lips and distorted faces.  The lips, especially, are a source of eternal puzzlement to me.  Who in the world ever came up with idea that making someone's lips look fat would enhance their beauty? Well, for those poor folks (not poor in money, just in perspective), it’s more often than not simply a desperate attempt to turn back the hands of time and also to effect at least a partial change in ethnicity in much the same way those with straight hair want to curl it and those with curly hair wish it to be straight.

For the famous, I’m convinced that the urge--the need--for facial plastic surgery stems from a combination of factors.  One, of course, is the complete loss of rational self-image that besets them, actresses especially.  Since their careers often have been founded on their original youthful good looks, when they see the natural effects of age upon their faces they begin to panic, and what follows more often than not is a trip to the plastic surgeon.  Somewhere along the way their images of themselves have merged with what they see of themselves on the screen, covered in beautifying cosmetics and illuminated by flattering lighting, and they become convinced they’ve always looked better than they really have, or that if only one little thing were tweaked, so to speak, they would be damned near perfect.  So plastic surgery, they reason, is like a more permanent version of makeup.  And since they spend most of their time looking at their peers, when they see so many others with blubber lips and Barbie doll noses and cheeks the size of apples, they begin to perceive, however wrongly, that such is the standard of beauty in their profession.  Only imagine, if the modern version of plastic surgery had been around fifty years ago, what a person as insecure as Marilyn Monroe might have wound up looking like. 

Another factor is the surgeons themselves who, as intelligent people, of course know that they’re not really doing anyone but themselves any favors with all this cutting and pasting and filling.  They are like Satan in the Garden of Eden, convincing humans that they can attain more for themselves than comfort followed by peaceful oblivion, and thus leading them to ruin their lives.  There is, after all, absolutely no medical necessity or justification for cosmetic surgery of this kind, and only an evil physician would or could engage in such a practice.

Third is the fact that plastic surgery has become a fad, and moreover, an addictive one.  Get big lips on a small face, and you need bigger cheeks to balance them out.  Get bigger cheeks and you need fewer wrinkles.  Change all that and you need a different nose.  Actors are not, by and large, highly intelligent people, although if they are good actors they can play intelligent people and sometimes fool us into thinking they are smarter than they really are.   But just watch them on talk shows and you can see that they’re usually pretty average in the IQ department.  The brightest and the wittiest of them usually don’t succumb to the blandishments of excessively conspicuous plastic surgery.  They are imitators, and imitating others is what they do best, which I think explains a great deal.  But also, actors tend to do what others tell them to do (which, after all, is what directors are for), and to envy what others have, and so if a competitor is getting work done, they reason, it must be something worth having, more or less for its own sake, like having a fancy home or car.

And finally, I am convinced, is what I call the sabotage factor.  Some actresses (being, as I said, not overly bright as a rule) let themselves be talked into having their faces distorted and ruined by others in their profession who stand to gain from their removal from their positions at the front and center of the spotlight of celebrity once they become bizarre caricatures of their former selves.  Or they’re encouraged by fellow actresses who have made the mistake themselves, and whose misery desires company.  In Hollywood, after all, there is comparatively little room at the top of the pyramid of beauty and fame.  And still less room for intelligence and independence.

“Vanity…” says Al Pacino with a chuckle at the end of The Devil's Advocate, “...definitely my favorite sin.” 


Billie Bob said...

OK, you've talked me out of it.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

It is tempting though, isn't it, when you could look as handsome as The Wayner up there. Google "bad plastic surgery" images for some very interesting stuff.