On Beauty, and On Impostors

As I mentioned in my last post, I read On Beauty, edited by Umberto Eco, a while ago. It’s a heavily illustrated, glossy, ordinary-sized book that wants to be a coffee-table-sized one; a brief history of the concept of beauty in Western civilisation, accompanied by well chosen pictures and sections of quotes by various thinkers. Although it is a very interesting and beautiful book to have, it’s on the slight side. It gallops through the history of this idea at such a clip it sometimes makes it difficult to stitch the ideas together, a problem not helped by the bitty format – a quote here, a paragraph there, the whole so fragmentary it is difficult to concentrate properly whilst reading it. I would have enjoyed more cross-referencing between different concepts of beauty, and a deeper insight into these concepts themselves. It seems weird to be accusing Eco of a lack of depth, but there you go. It’s still a brilliant introduction to the changing nature of this idea.

In his section on the sublime, Eco starts with Longinus, who wrote On the Sublime. Well,that is to say, he might have done, except he probably didn’t. I’d vaguely heard the name Longinus before somewhere and got all excited because Eco refers to him as Pseudo-Longinus, and I thought that meant there were two of them: Longinus and Pseudo-Longinus, an imitator. It turns out that it’s one person who is sometimes called Pseudo-Longinus and at other times simply Longinus, both referring to the author of On the Sublime. The author’s actual identity is unknown. A medieval copyist attributed On the Sublime to “Dionysius or Longinus” and since then people have been trying to work out quite what, if anything, he meant by that; basically, nobody knows.

This disappointed me, because I like the idea of impostors and imitators and such. I like the story of Thomas Chatterton, and of the two Sonny Boy Williamsons. After Sonny Boy Williamson rose to fame as a blues harpist, Aleck “Rice” Miller began to use the same name. The first Sonny Boy objected to this, quite understandably, but Sonny Boy Williamson II (as he is now best known) never made any money during Sonny Boy Williamson I’s career, so the damage caused by this impersonation was limited. The funny thing about it is that SBW II’s music is just as good as SBW I’s. He didn’t need the leg-up provided by the Sonny Boy brand name.

(The above is the first one, and

this is the impostor.)

I’m not sure how I ended up talking about blues harpists when I started out trying to review On Beauty but that’s the nature of my brain, I’m afraid. To return to the point: it’s a good book, and although it could have been a better one, it’s still very much worth a look.


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