Craving Beauty, but at What Cost?

THE UGLY HISTORY OF BEAUTIFUL THINGS: Essays on Desire and Consumption, by Katy Kelleher

Activities that we tend to think of as distinctly human often have nothing to do with immediate survival. We brush paint on canvases, we play tunes on instruments, we imagine a world that doesn’t exist and read about the fictitious people who live there. But sometimes the human pursuit of joy and pleasure can create destruction. We have a hard time abiding by the concept of enough. We recklessly and relentlessly chase things we want but do not need.

In “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things,” Katy Kelleher writes about the extreme and sometimes hideous lengths that people have gone to in order to obtain coveted objects of beauty: ruining their health, wrecking the planet, inflicting suffering on others. As someone with a history of depression that has entailed self-harm and suicidal thoughts, she says that beauty has helped provide the purpose to keep her going: “The hope for beauty makes me leave my bed each morning rather than moldering in the sheets until I develop bedsores.”

Yet the beauty she seeks is also tied up with feelings of guilt. “I’ve never found an object that was untouched by the depravity of human greed or unblemished by the chemical undoings of time,” Kelleher writes. She buys trinkets and generates garbage. A journalist who writes about home and design, she realizes that it has been her job to encourage others to do the same.

Thankfully, this book isn’t her penance — it’s more surprising and ambivalent than that, and there isn’t any scolding here, even if some of what she recounts is disturbing and truly horrific. Kelleher points out that an element of ugliness can be part of an object’s appeal, distinguishing between the intriguingly beautiful and the boringly pretty. There is, of course, the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, which holds that imperfection can be a reminder of life’s impermanence and contingency; a decaying flower might convey another layer of experience that a fresh bloom won’t. She doesn’t explicitly mention Japanese aesthetics, but a chapter on the Nazi fetish for gleaming white porcelain had me rereading Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” in which he writes about wanting a toilet made of black lacquered wood.

But an ugly history is different. Knowledge of it can detract from an object’s allure even as it signals the object’s desirability — making it glaringly clear how rare something is, and therefore how scarcity has helped to determine its value. In the 19th century, an orchid hunter might have been eaten by a tiger or disappeared forever somewhere in the jungle thicket. During the Renaissance, Venetian glassmakers often worked with toxic materials like lead and mercury; those who didn’t go mad from the vapors or die from mysterious stomach ailments would still have to worry about being assassinated by glassmaking rivals or, should they try to emigrate, by their autocratic rulers.

Katy Kelleher, the author of “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things.” Credit…Molly Haley

The mirrors that these glassmakers so painstakingly created have since achieved the status of mass-produced goods, part of a system that has eliminated some hazards while generating others. Mirrors used to be rare and prized enough to be associated with scrying and magic; now, Kelleher laments, they’re so common that they’re taken for granted, or else derided as mere objects of vanity instead of marvelous contraptions that allowed for the “sense of awe” that comes with seeing oneself.

Kelleher organizes her book by object, with chapters on gemstones (shadowed by violence), on makeup (shadowed by toxicity), on perfume (shadowed by animal excretions), among others. She has a knack for nimbly threading together her own memories and tastes with the histories of the objects themselves. She doesn’t want cruelty in her goods, and so she fills vases with foraged greenery and buys a silk dress secondhand. “I wanted to feel a fabric that skims over my skin like breeze,” she explains. “Have you ever slipped a silk robe around your body and felt it brush against your nipples?”

Most people in the world would undoubtedly answer no; silk is still a luxury good, even if it’s been made more accessible by exploitative labor practices. Kelleher wrestles with some of these knotty issues, though her enthusiasm is most palpable when she is writing about the goods themselves. We yearn for beautiful things that give us sensual pleasure — that seems obvious enough. But a luxury good “was never intended to be available to everyone,” she writes — that also seems obvious. So what are the implications of this? Not everyone who wants to feel the caress of a silk robe can afford it, especially if it’s ethically made. Should you rein in your desires? Or does that amount to letting the elite off the hook: They do what they wish, while the rest of us make do with what we can get?

It’s a lot of pressure to put on a flimsy robe, but as Kelleher knows, you can’t write about this stuff without at least gesturing at the bigger stuff: existence and mortality, capitalism and consumption. By the end of the book, she comes to a détente with her own yearning. She recognizes that she can appreciate beauty without possessing it — she can take her daughter to the beach and make mandalas out of shell fragments; she can go for a walk and spot a monarch butterfly in a field or a pink orchid in a bog. But she admits that she still longs for a fantasy home with marble countertops and slate tiles, even if her conscience and her bank account make it an impossibility.

“Each beauty I find will fade, degrade, break and tarnish,” Kelleher writes, “and there’s no point in asking for what I can’t have.”

THE UGLY HISTORY OF BEAUTIFUL THINGS: Essays on Desire and Consumption | By Katy Kelleher | 262 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $27.98

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