The Naked Woman by Desmond Morris

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 January, 2005, 12:00am

The Naked Woman by Desmond Morris

Jonathan Cape $279

On Beauty by Umberto Eco

Secker & Warburg $465

The Good Body by Eve Ensler William

Heinemann $156

In the past century, the shift in our under- standing of beauty has accelerated. With capitalism overtaking Christianity in the bullish philosophical market, beauty is no longer fused with the sacred. (Sanctity is a concept that makes serious corporate players stick two fingers down their throats.) Capitalists value aesthetic beauty's blue-chip stock, but also inwardly sneer at its ornamental role.

To be decorative is to be lesser. True capitalist status rests in the power to acquire, which is why women's increasing economic parity has changed the chronological boundaries of love. Because women no longer need men to provide, their criteria for the selection of a mate has expanded. This shift has resulted in the beautification of males (see Queer Eye, metrosexuality) and increasing acceptance of older female/younger male pairings.

Circus academics such as Desmond 'Naked Ape' Morris (baggy, balding) are a little behind the times. In The Naked Woman, an entertaining melange of particularism, fetishism, and anthropology, Morris pushes antiquated sexism as fact.

Despite outbursts of PC lyricism ('Every woman has a beautiful body - beautiful because it is the brilliant end-point of millions of years of evolution'), he appears obsessed by female submission and concomitant infantilisation. He insists, for example, that the waxing of the female sex is unrelated to paedophilia or to the normalising of paedophilia. His argument? That clean-shaven male faces, therefore, also contribute to paedophilia.

Now, other than the fact that the face is not a sexual organ - not in Morris' case, anyway - and that he later acknowledges pubic hair as the primary signifier of sexual maturity, how is the waxing of a female sex not conditioning males to respond to immature females? And why has this vogue spawned an infinity of paedophiliac pornographic tableaux (women in pigtails, school uniforms, etc)?

Morris is at his best when he sticks to physiological semantics - the role of armpits in love-making, the subtext of shoulder pads, and the climate-determined evolution of epicanthic eye-folds. He cites the eyes as the dominant sense organs of the human body, estimating that 80 per cent of our information about the outside world is analysed by these remarkable structures. Transhistorically prisoners of vision, we cannot but overvalue the aesthetic. What Morris doesn't address is our economically determined point of view. His smelly old man assumption is that sexual evaluation is an exclusively male birthright: men are programmed to look, women are programmed to be looked at.

Umberto Eco's latest book is the product of a far more elegant mind. On Beauty is a smorgasbord of aesthetic theory. The beauty of art versus the beauty of nature. Is the ideal of beauty dictated or reflected by art? (Both.)

Eco says La Donna Angelicata ('the angelic woman') was, by Dante, never the object of desire 'repressed or endlessly deferred, but a path to salvation, a means of ascending to God; no longer an opportunity to err, sin or betray, but a path to higher spirituality'.

Of his beloved Beatrice, Dante wrote: 'Ecce dues fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi' ('Behold a god stronger than I, and he shall come to rule over me'). Such tender idealism is foreign to the modern mind. The suprasensible beauty extolled by Plotinus in the third century ('there is no beauty more authentic than the wisdom we find and love in some individual') is far too whacky a concept. Such delicate definitions of beauty are also dependent on contemplation, a state discouraged in this intellectually and emotionally homogenised period in human history.

Thomas Aquinas believed that beauty was dependant on proportion, integrity and claritas (clarity and luminosity), qualities that are also lost in the consumerist shuffle. Where the beauty of fire - 'which shines in a way similar to an idea' - was once seen as the natural outflow of divine light, it's now little more than a component of Ikea's Christmas catalogue.

Eve 'Vagina Monologues' Ensler's contribution to this eternal philosophical dialogue, The Good Body, is a dumb, sloppy, confessional, semi-conscious glop of narcissism. She muses: 'In the midst of a war in Iraq, in a time of escalating global terrorism, when civil liberties are disappearing as fast as the ozone layer, when one out of three women in the world will be beaten or raped in her lifetime, why write a play about my stomach?'

You may well find yourself asking the same question. 'In order to be good, I've got to be a smiling psychopath, deprived of pretzels, deeply involved with a Nazi trainer, fortunately numb from the botulinum, white vanilla fat sucked out with rods, and my pussy tightened.' You have to wonder how did Paris Hilton get in here?

Compared with Ensler, Eco is a bulb-headed extraterrestrial. His insights into the relationship between the increasing complexity of beauty in relation to intellectual sophistication make her ('I want to be Barbie', 'Mrs Santa lives in Iceland and she's wearing a thong,') seem like a cow with the power of speech.

'I am stepping off the capitalist treadmill,' she says with the gravity of one about to step off a cliff. 'I am going to take a deep breath and find a way to survive not being flat or perfect.' And it only gets worse.

Reluctant to abandon her flabby age, flabby prose or the cosy context of triangulation, Esler insists on playing Victim (Society is cast as Persecutor, and Renown plays Saviour). Whining, blaming. She quickly assumes the dimensions of a prat deluxe.

Morris has the grace to interrupt his surreptitious little masturbatory interludes with scholarship, and Eco - that master of lucidity - really sees the ecstasy within all things. But Ensler stupefies. Beauty, schmeauty. Who cares if she's fat? Get a life, princess.