Tamed Beauty: domesticated beauty; wild beauty that has been sanitised, sanctioned; censoring and distancing us from our true nature. Controlling and reframing our perception of beauty. Desublimation through controlling the view.
Essence of Beauty
The last few days we have been walking through Switzerland. It is dramatically beauty and yet at the same time very familiar. As we walk my mind is trying to get a hold, trying to understand what I am looking at. I am trying to make sense of what Switzerland is, trying to understand its essence.
Walking along Lake Geneva and up the Rhone River as we make our way to Great St Bernard’s Pass in a few days we pass views of impressive mountain peaks and as we climb the valley walls cascading with terraced vineyards and forests, we look down at the towns and villages along the flat areas of the valley.
Switzerland is very beautiful yet at the same time it has taken me a few days to understand why I haven’t as yet felt that ‘awe-inspired-take-your-breath away’ sense of appreciation of this beauty.
Along the path my question has been synchroniciously answered. I have been given clues, little pictures that have come together to show me the bigger picture.
Yesterday morning we began our walk from Lake Geneva from Chatueau de Chillon. A castle set along the lake with its stone towers reflected in the waters and framed with gliding white swans and dramatic mountains in the background. A scene straight out of a Disney animation.
Making our way along the lakefront we passed women walking their carefully coiffured dogs. The kept creatures occasionally stopping to sniff before continuing on. We passed a woman who looked in her 60’s. I couldn’t help but look at her as it was obvious she had a lot of plastic surgery done to her face.
Her face was frozen, tight and distorted. She was walking a pug and it occurred to me just how we create perceptions of beauty. Just like the pug breed of dogs has been bred over many generations leaving them with many health issues to create a creature far removed from their wild ancestors the wolves, so too this woman was buying into what is to many a now accepted perception of beauty.
I felt a a sense of sadness as I passed this woman trying to empathise to why she didn’t want to allow herself to age gracefully. There is a stigma about growing old in our society – an almost cult like obsession with looking young, a maddening neurosis to watch our weight, to ‘look good’, less we be judged not by our character but our bodies.
Cult of Beauty
This cult of beauty is reinforced daily wherever we turn. Walking past towns I see tabacs with magazines of pretty people photoshopped to look thin, young and flawless.
Our idealism is causing body image issues, anorexia, mental illness.
This isn’t reserved to women. Men these days need to ‘look after themselves’ too. Men need to look like they live in the gym, be ‘well-built’, buffed, wear singlets and show off their abs and biceps, even shave their legs.
Like anywhere in the Western world, yesterday walking into a town I passed a beauty salon. A place where the culturally accepted ideal of beauty is propped up – where skin is pricked, injected, masked, exfoliated, lasered, bleached, tanned and made to look young, photoshopped, flawless, rejuvenated.
Fickleness of Beauty
The ideal of beauty has changed through the ages and through different cultures like fashion.
This isn’t something invented by modern society. Each culture has created its ideal of beauty.
The Greeks portrayed the ideal human body in their sculptures. Even portraits were adjusted to make those less endowed with beauty to look beautiful in keeping with the culture.
The Greeks took aesthetics to another level with the Golden Mean, finding certain proportions more pleasing to the eye than others. They studied nature and found a certain pattern that emerged in nature.
The ancient Greeks applied these proportions to their art and architecture. They wanted to depict ideal beauty – their version of perfection.
This is part of the picture that I have been struggling with as I venture through Switzerland. Everything seems so damned perfect! It is unsettling!
The newer villages and towns in their modern minimalist lines of architecture feel sterile after the old, ramshackled characterfilled villages that we walked through in France.
I miss the imperfect, the broken, the well-worn.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
The mountain vistas of Switzerland are something that we associate with this land-bound country. As are cuckoo clocks and cows in lush green fields filled with wild flowers.
Popular culture has created the ideal image of Switzerland to the point that I haven’t felt that I have been able to access the real. I feel I am walking through a carefully staged set. A simulacrum of reality.
As a tourist, seeing the familiar may breed contentedness. The ideal image matches what they see in front of them. To me I feel like I can’t quite work out if I am dreaming or awake.
Walking through picture perfect scenery I am reminded with each step of framed paintings and prints of alpine scenes featuring background mountains, forests reflecting in lakes or rivers.
These framed pictures adorned most people’s living rooms together with the three flying ducks back in the 70’s.
These tranquil scenes became the hallmark for peace, tranquility and what natural beauty should ‘look’ like.
I also think about how we humanise landscapes by our presence and perception. I am reminded of painters who depicted Australia in the early years of colonisation. A gum tree or eucalypt was difficult for them to get their head around and instead they depicted trees as they had known back in England. Also, the land had a hard light was often dry and uncompromising. Instead, they ‘beautified’ it through painting more lush, green rolling soft scenes that were familiar to them and their sensibilities of beauty.
From A Distance
Going back to the retro landscape depictions I mentioned earlier, they ‘look’ like nature, but one that is carefully contrived. A picture that is a simulacrum of nature. Albeit, a not very good one. These pictures from the 70’s created an idealistic idea of natural beauty. A staged and tamed view of nature.
By framing an image it is like looking out through a window. We are always ‘outside of the picture’. We are always at arms length from reality. We are a step away from really experiencing the wildness of nature.
This safety through distance is what I think I have been experiencing walking through Switzerland to date. We have had some steep inclines but in general the walking has been quite gentle. Yesterday, walking through the valley we are surrounded by lofty mountains. There precipitous peaks looming ominously. Their verticality when I allow myself to think about them from my safe distance on the ‘flats’ of the valley, or the well worn paths amongst the terraced vineyards, do start to fill me with a slight sense of fear.
I long to let go of any traces of human presence. To move in the zone beyond roads, houses, hotels, fields and experience the untamed wild beauty of nature.
Falling in Fear
As I look at the distant mountains I imagine what it is like to walk along a precipitous track with a sheer drop below. Freefalling for hundreds of metres before being dashed to death upon jagged rocks. I begin to empathise with those who experience fear of heights or vertigo. Being gripped with fear that stops you from moving forward.
As I look at the distant mountains I also begin to think about the Romanticists. Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in Europe towards the late 18th century.
It was characterised by great emotion, and was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the scientific rationalisation of nature, and the social and political culture of the Age of Enlightenment. 
The movement emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature. 
Proponents such as Turner, Wordsworth and Coleridge connected our emotions through experiencing the wildness of nature – the natural environment.
Ziggurats of Switzerland
Walking through the safety of the valley floor, skirting the lake and peering up at the lofty mountains I am reminded of the civilisations of Mesopotamia.
The ancestors of these peoples lived in mountainous areas. When they migrated to the flatlands and flood plains between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers they began to build high temples.
The Mesopotamian believed that the gods lived in the mountains, in high heavenly places in the clouds. With no highlands, they built great monolithic mountainous ziggurats.
I think I will meet the gods of apprehension, terror, awe and the sublime as we climb the mountains soon…
Walking In The Clouds
In the coming days we will be walking up to St Bernard’s Pass.
Great St. Bernard Pass is the third highest road pass in Switzerland. It connects Martigny in the canton of Valais in Switzerland with Aosta in the region Aosta Valley in Italy. At 2469 metres above sea level we will be walking in the clouds. 
I look forward to the experience. To experience apprehension, horror and terror, and awe. To walk along steep mountain tracks. To feel challenged. To feel fear. To be washed over by clouds of emotion. To experience from up on high the sense of awe.
To be awe inspired is to be inspired by fear. The fear of slipping along a slippery precipitous mountain track. The fear of standing too close to the edge of a vista that stretches and disappearing in the distant blue haze. To feel my body tensing with each slippery step, to imagine falling to my death! To feel the mist on my body and numbing cold and the cool sweat forming as we climb.
This is the missing piece to the puzzlement I have been feeling as we have walked through Switzerland. Everything has just been so picture perfect. Everything is clean, controlled, clinical, safe. The wild has been carefully sanitised walking on safe paved paths.
I look forward to stepping outside the square and into the picture. To not be a walking spectator but to be fully immersed in the distant swirling clouds. To be fully lost in a swirling cloud of fear and emotion. This isn’t the carefully contrived beauty.
It is a romantic, wild and experienced beauty. It is the difference between watching a raging and stormy sea behind the safety of a framed piece of glass we call a window and throwing oneself into the tempest, tumbling, drowning.
There is also a lived beauty one can experience looking into the lines of the face of someone of great age. The lines of experience are etched deep instead of being wiped away by surgery. The history like a landscape beautifully carved in the fault lines of happiness and tragedy, the blotches of time.
A lived beauty takes one from spectator to participant. By being fully immersed in the essence of what it is to be in Switzerland – to be climbing mountains lost in the mysterious clouds is where I believe I will come to terms with the beauty of this place.
Find Your Own Beauty
It is about removing one from what others see as beauty and finding one’s own meaning. To rediscovering the wild. To reconnecting with it. To fully engaging and immersing oneself with it. To letting go of what others see as beautiful or ugly for that matter.
On our way through the valley I saw a dead frog on the road, even in death it was beautiful to me. I studied it beautiful green and spotted skin. Even in death it was beautiful like a flower.
We need to begin to not be caught in other people’s perception of beauty. Be a Romantic. Find beauty in what moves you. Don’t be caught in what others sanction as ideal beauty. Instead find sacredness in everything and anything around you.
Even bales of compressed plastic bottles can be beautiful if we decide them to be. They remind me of hay bales that I have seen on my journey.
Ugliness is only so if we perceive it to be. Plastic surgery may to some be the epitome of beauty. Of moulding one’s body to the accepted ideal.
I remember a time when sloths were seen as ugly. You only need to go online to see how sloths (especially baby sloths) to see how popular they have become when in the past most people wouldn’t have called a sloth ‘beautiful’ when describing them.
Just as censors limit what films we may watch or who may watch them, society can have a censoring role if we allow it to on our perception of beauty. Beauty definitely is in the eye as well as the heart of the beholder. Let go of thoughts and lose yourself in your senses.
Lose Yourself In Beauty-fullness
Allow yourself to be lost in the moment. Discover beauty through living it. Hold your judgement. Suspend your thoughts of what you call ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. Instead immerse yourself in its presence whether it be a flower, a dead animal, a sculpture, nature or a landscape.
Often when we suspend our thoughts and just ‘be’ we discover that what others see as ugly contains great beauty. It is just another way of seeing, one that doesn’t just use your eyes, but engages your senses, emotions, your heart.
When we experienced ‘lived’ beauty, there is no ‘ugly’, maybe only shades of beauty.
When we escape the controlled and contrived perceptions of beauty we discover that in the clouds beyond thought there is God. That when we step forward into the picture, when we allow ourselves to drown, to fall, we fall in love with real beauty, with the sublime.