The Importance of The Ugly | Dinah Kolka
The other day I had to go to my GP for a minor appointment. As I’ve constantly been postponing changing my address, I had to travel for an hour to get to the other side of town. I enjoyed the opportunity to have some time for myself, nonetheless.
During the lockdown, I didn’t get a chance to commute much. Sitting at the front of the bus and looking at the people, buildings, and the landscape has always been one of my favourite past times.
Therefore I was quite delighted at the ability to do it again, especially considering that the city is slowly regenerating with people strolling down the streets of Edinburgh. Some choose to venture into an outdoor seating area of a pub; others are happy to sit near the river with a thermos full of hot tea (or more likely, whisky).
The bus was spiralling through the city centre, then the tiny streets, to resurface again in another area with almost identical shops, people, and things. I’ve always liked the buses – you got to see the city at its best and its worst.
A drunk was sitting near a war memorial, drinking Buckfast and smoking rollies, looking attentively at the passers-by. A group of middle-class youth with brightly coloured hair (almost resembling a toxic frog) and a distinctive smell of marijuana walked past him, screaming something inaudible.
I missed the city buzz simply because a bus trip tells you more about the people and the city than you can ever tell from reading about it. The bus turned into a beautiful Georgian street with bushy trees and tall hedges. The sports cars dotted the parking spaces, and a lady with a Waitrose bag just got out of her Porsche with keys in her hand. However, before I even managed to blink, the bus was already on the way again. There transpired tight rows of shops in a terrible condition, a Poundland and a Specsavers, Lidls and the Card Factory. A man in a tracksuit was holding hands with a woman dressed in a skimpy leopard print dress. A man with no teeth was fighting another man who almost looked like a dried-out corpse. But this only lasted a moment, and I was already on a lovely suburban street with neat rows of houses and an elderly lady walking her dog.
As it’s been so long since I travelled, I was excited to see the familiar gothic architecture, and I was repulsed at the city’s poorer sections. It’s almost as if the ugly made the pretty better.
My free-roaming thoughts then took me to think about naturalism, a particular movement within French literature, popularised by Zola and others. Naturalism was a movement similar to literary realism. It embraced the social commentary of subjects that are ugly and difficult. It is Zola’s Germinal that paints a genuinely harrowing vision of working in the mines. And, despite the book being revered over by the socialists – I believe it also serves as something more substantial. Similarly, Zola’s Nana portrays the terrors of a prostitute’s life, equally harrowing with their unapologetic descriptions of the horrors and the terrible quality of life.
We need the ugly to appreciate the beautiful. One walk or one bus trip through Edinburgh presents you with everything the city has to offer – whether it’s the beautiful Gothic architecture or ugly tenement buildings, withered from time and harsh weather. And can we ever appreciate the good things in life if we’ve never experienced calamity?
We need to see the ugly to have the reference point of what we don’t want to become. We need to see the beautiful to have something to work towards.
Even Nietzche touched on that subject in The Will to Power: ‘What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?’
In order to truly enjoy life, we also need to suffer. The said suffering is also relevant in regards to beauty. We need to understand and encounter the ugly to be able to appreciate what’s beautiful. This is the case when dealing with life events, however harrowing they can be. But this also applies to many other spheres of our life. What motivates you to go to the gym? When you look closely and see a monster in your mirror. What motivates you to work hard for your family? It’s the memory of your father drinking and watching TV instead of caring. What motivates you to surround yourself with beautiful things? You get it now; it’s being exposed to the ugliness.
So if you ever walk down your city streets and you feel disgusted – by the cigarette stubs and rubbish overflowing the bin, by the unpleasant looking broken neon lights, the cables hanging off the walls and the toothless woman punching a drunkard, remember that these experiences are valuable. They’re the dirty heart of the city that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
For to understand the beautiful, you also need to understand the rotten.