In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Julia — the main female character — publicly espouses the political views of the all-powerful “Party.” This, of course, is necessary for survival. But wanting to disguise herself as especially zealous and loyal to the Party (which means less suspicion falls on her, and, as such, that it is easier to break the rules), Julia wears the scarlet sash of the Junior Anti-Sex League, a puritanical and nihilistic organization that is, for ideological reasons, opposed to sex.
Of all details of Orwell’s novel, this has seemed the most out of place in a society that, regardless of the date on the cover of the book, we generally imagine as existing, or threatening to exist, somewhere in the future. As a civilization, we had gotten over the prudish moralizing of the past. And, yet, the politicization of “the body” — in, for example, gender studies — and the continual discovery of new socio-political categories for gender and sexuality — has inevitably led to a renewed moralizing about the body and sex.
One of the more recent hypotheses tells us that, for example, attraction to beauty is potentially very ugly, potentially politically dangerous, and probably degrading to anyone that we might be attracted to. Hence, author and philosopher Raja Halwani suggested recently that, “We objectify each other in sex and let ourselves be objectified,” and that, “what’s objectifying about sexual desire is its ability to numb a person to reason, both in themselves and in others.” “Sex,” Halwani concludes, “is like any good dessert: delicious but with a price.”
But the metaphor doesn’t really hold up, does it? It assumes that “good dessert” is unhealthy dessert. (And, as such, implies that good sex must be unhealthy (i.e., objectifying) sex.)
But what if we have a different relationship to food, and regard “good dessert” as one that is both tasty and nutritious? What price do I pay if my dessert is healthy (e.g., fruit, plain yogurt, and perhaps a small amount of organic honey), and if I have included it in my diet for its nutritional value as much as its taste? Don’t I actually benefit from my dessert in such a case?
Likewise with attraction. The Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff claimed that there are different categories of “food” — one that enters through the mouth, one that enters through the nose (as scent), and one that enters through the head. This last “food” is “impressions,” or what we see.
Attraction to others, we should realize, is linked to such things as health, vitality, posture, symmetry, confidence, intelligence, and facial expression. As the current Dali Lama notes, “When anger flares up within us we immediately look ugly. Our faces become wrinkled and red.” We are not naturally attracted to anger, or to ill health, bad posture, lack of confidence, or expressions that suggest a lack of intelligence, etc.
Expressions that are welcoming, confident, kind, or calm tend to attract us, not just sexually, but also spiritually (completely devoid of sexual arousal or thoughts). Notably, icons of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Buddhist deity Tara, the Buddha, Krishna, etc., tend to show us faces that are kind, benevolent, and apparently free of the worries that we experience in our lives. Where we do see angry or ferocious expressions in iconography they tend to be either the faces of demons (which the faithful are to avoid or combat) or those deities or knights, etc., that are said to fight and destroy demons.
Unsurprisingly, then, in Hinduism and early Indian Buddhism we find that a beautiful body and face is considered to be a hallmark of the enlightened.
We are attracted to the possibility of inner-peace that we see in the faces of Buddhas, saints, and so on, and they can be meditated upon in order for us to cultivate tranquility in ourselves.
As the use of “sensory deprivation” techniques of “interrogation” suggests, Gurdjieff was correct to believe that impressions are a kind of food. If we are deprived of the sense of sight and other senses we suffer psychologically. Likewise, we will also become mentally, and perhaps eventually physically, sick if we only see ugliness — such as has often come to be embodied in the brutalist architecture of industrial-scale, government-funded, housing developments — or if we only listen to ugly, monotonous, music that robs life of its nuances (presenting it as one continual high or one continuous low).
As Roger Scruton has said, beauty matters. And it matters because beauty nourishes us — our spirits and mental wellbeing. This is not a new concept, of course. A well-known Chinese fortune teller once told me to stop wearing black and to wear earth tones (brown, taupe, beige, gray, etc.) instead. He based this on his reading of my astrological chart. I took his advice, and found that wearing the colors he suggested had a positive psychological affect. I still mostly wear these colors.
Just as we want a healthy diet, to nourish our bodies, and just as we want to think positively — to mold our lives and to create a better future for us — so we should make beauty, or aesthetics, a part of daily life, to nourish our spirit.
Meditate on the face of a Buddha, goddess, saint, or angel. Or meditate on the face of your loved one, seeing her as the embodiment of the Divine. Or visualize being in a mountainside temple surrounded by forests, light, and air.
Go for walks or hike through nature. Go to places that uplift you, purely because of the architecture or decor — a temple, a Lodge, the ruins of a castle, a national monument, a cafe with old masterly paintings on the wall, etc.
Cut out attraction to the ugly and freakish, and cultivate attractions to the noble, uplifting, and beautiful — both aesthetically and sexually.
Rather than seeking to make a statement with brash and dramatic clothing that stands out but that overpowers you, make a statement by wearing what suits you. Adjust your posture, calm your body and your facial expression, and embody your awakening to the world.
In being drawn toward the noble and the beautiful, we purify the ignoble and the ugly in ourselves.
In contrast to what politics tells us, attraction, I would suggest, is something to be cultivated, not ashamed of.