On Beauty by Zadie Smith

“Beauty is one of the ways in which you might understand justice. Beauty allows you to see fairness. Beauty brings your attention close to a subject that is not you.” Zadie Smith on Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just

This critically acclaimed novel deals with racism, classism, the patriarchy and elitism in academia. Loosely based on Howards EndOn Beauty pays homage to one of her favorite authors, E. M. Forster. Although there are parallels between the two novels, Smith’s aim was more so to emulate Forster’s style of writing. In an interview with Thalia Book Club, Smith said that what she admired most about Forster was how he did not pick sides in an argument. In On Beauty the opposite sides of the coin are represented by the Kipps and Belsey families.

Monty Kipps and Howard Belsey arch nemeses. Revered in their field, their rivalry is protracted and well known. The Kipps are an affluent West Indian family living in Britain. They are deeply religious. Their political viewpoints are ultra-conservative and right wing. The Belseys are an interracial couple who are left leaning and decidedly atheist. Howard comes from a fairly modest background. He knows what it means to go without. A “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” type of guy, he is the first in his family to get a college degree.

Smith is very descriptive in painting well developed pictures of this dichotomy. And yes, she manages to remain impartial, exposing both sides as morally flawed.

Although Smith incorporates the aesthetic as a measure of beauty with cultural references to music, art and the physical form, her emphasis is on character. The world that she paints is not black and white but a kaleidoscope of colors.

Maitresse Erzulie by Hector Hyppolite circa 1945-48

One painting mentioned in the novel that spoke to me was that of the Maitresse Erzulie. The Haitian spirit of beauty, Erzulie may take the form of a woman or a man. Their character is a two-edged sword. On one hand they are representative of love, goodwill and fortune. On the other they bring about jealousy, vengeance and discord. The warning here is clear: we cannot be so binary in our thinking. The world is not a collection of opposites but is populated by people who are both good and evil. Our focus therefore should not be on harboring grudges based off of our differences, but be on cultivating that goodness that is within each of us.

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