Posted by: cochinblogger | June 6, 2011

From Chrysalis to Imago: The Quest for Real Beauty

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, they say (H. G. Wells said beauty is in the heart of the beholder), and most of us accept this without thinking. It seems obvious: Beauty is subjective. However, in this piece, I propose, as a starting point for our investigation, that real beauty (in other words, true beauty) is not subjective but is instead subject to fixed rules, or principles. After all, that is what the word real implies. We may differ on what beauty is, but most of us agree on what is real and what is imaginary. The chair on which I am now seated is manifestly real; chairs that fly in the sky, on the other hand, are equally clearly unreal. It should be possible to codify real beauty, and I will here attempt to do just that.

I’m no Linnaeus or Mendeleev, however; I will not try and prepare an all-embracing Tree of Beauty or Table of Beauty that will cover all existing examples of real beauty; no, I will leave that to my disciples. Here, I will state the rules to which real beauty is subject and illustrate each rule with a concrete example. And where will I find my examples? Well, dear reader, put on your thinking cap: what is your exemplar of real beauty? What is the first thing that strikes you when you think of true beauty? For me, it is the butterfly.

Follow me as I take you through the rules of real beauty and show how each is exemplified by the butterfly. Along the way, I will also show how most conventional and popular choices for real beauty do not conform to the rules. And if my words fail to convince, I can hope that my photos (yes, I took them myself) will seduce. (Be warned, dear reader, that after presenting the rules, I will turn around and stand my own argument on its head. After all, didn’t I say “starting point”?)

1. Beauty should speak for itself; but it should not talk back. This rule automatically excludes most humans, including the most beautiful women, for example. There is nothing more annoying than to be spoken to — or worse, contradicted — by the object of your adoration when you are lost in admiration. It breaks the spell. However, please note: butterflies do not talk back.

2. Beauty should pulsate with life. Landscapes and beautiful pictures, I’m afraid, are out; they lack the animating spark of life. The butterfly, needless to say, lives.

3. Beauty should be blissfully unaware of its beauty. Aldous Huxley wrote that beauty is worse than wine, because it intoxicates both the holder and the beholder. The beauty of the butterfly, unlike the beauty of humans, intoxicates only the beholder.

4. Beauty should be indifferent to its admirers. Real beauty is not influenced by its admirers. Real beauty, like the laws of physics, is supremely indifferent to the objects it acts upon. This criterion disqualifies most humans, who are suckers for flattery; but not the butterfly.

5. Beauty should not be cruel. Because cruelty to others invariably implies cruelty to ourselves. Butterflies, unlike dragonflies, are not predators.

6. Enjoyment of beauty should not be forbidden, illicit, or proscribed, or arouse guilt. This excludes most beautiful married humans, for example. Butterflies, of course, are above conventional morality.

7. Beauty should not be cloistered, sheltered, protected; it should wander free. Real beauty cannot be chained. And this takes care of the museum pieces, as well as animals in zoos. Butterflies are free to soar where they please.

8. Conversely, beauty should not tie you down; you should be free to seek and wander. Real beauty should liberate, not possess. This rule, I’m afraid, excludes your spouse.

9. Beauty should not be predictable; it should surprise if not stun. So, you think butterflies subsist on the nectar of flowers? Isn’t it stunning to learn that there are butterflies that love sweat, fecal fluid, blood, mud, animal tears, animal droppings, and bird droppings?

And now, as a further celebration of the dark side of the butterfly, I’m going to shock you to the core with the most original butterfly simile ever thought up. Steel yourself. Here it is: The writer Thomas Wolfe once described a lover as being “like a butterfly hovering around my penis.”

10. Beauty should be exotic, and yet allow one to connect with it in familiar ways. The feeding tube of the butterfly usually lies fashionably coiled against the side of its body, discreetly tucked away. When the tube is about to be used, a fluid is pumped into it, and it stands erect, unfurled, ready for use. Does this sound familiar?:-)

11. Beauty should not be static. Everybody is familiar with metamorphosis, the life cycle of the butterfly. What a stunning reminder that we need not remain the same, that we can reinvent ourselves if we choose. The only constant is change, they say; the butterfly’s life cycle exemplifies this.

12. Beauty could spring from the tawdry. The precursor of the butterfly is the caterpillar, the antithesis of the butterfly in its ugliness. And while some caterpillars are beautiful, most are downright ugly. Even the beautiful caterpillars behave abominably, often wiping out entire colonies of plants with their voracious, ceaseless chomping. Some pupae look like bird droppings, for camouflage. And yet, what emerges is a beautiful imago.

13. Beauty should have been tested by adversity. Otherwise, beauty will not be resilient. Life is full of strife, and for beauty to be long-lived, it has to meet challenges head on and overcome them. Sometimes, something even more beautiful will be forged in the crucibles of adversity. Every single butterfly has emerged successful from a trial by fire, namely, the dangers attending the vulnerable egg, larval, and pupal stages.

14. Beauty should mystify. Here is an aspect of butterfly behavior that I challenge anyone to explain. The butterfly is very choosy about where it deposits its eggs; it will deposit them only on trees and plants whose leaves will serve as food for the caterpillar that will emerge from the eggs. Now here is the nub. The food that a caterpillar eats is very different from the food of the butterfly it becomes. In fact, a caterpillar uses razor sharp teeth to slice through leaves, whereas a butterfly can only suck in liquids with its feeding tube. So how does the butterfly know what food the caterpillar emerging from its eggs will need?

15. Beauty should travel the short distance from the eye to the head. Eye candy is all very well, but real beauty should be more than skin deep; it should lead us to a more exalted conception of beauty. Because beauty alone is not enough; there should be something more. If beauty does not make us think about its significance, it isn’t real beauty. The butterfly to me symbolizes the pristine beauty of our natural surroundings. Is the natural world worth preserving for our children and their grandchildren? The butterfly tells me it is.

The presence or absence of butterflies is also a barometer of the health of the environment; only a healthy ecosystem can nurture butterflies (and, arguably, only a healthy society can sustain butterflies, as the following line from Pavel Friedman’s famous Holocaust poem states: “Butterflies don’t live in here, in the ghetto”). I was therefore happy to see the following graphic on the wall of the waiting room of a doctor’s chambers.

16. Beauty is a personal thing. Make a personal connection with beauty. In my case, I’ve often thought myself to be like a butterfly, flitting from flower to flower. I’m the archetypal dilettante, having a wide variety of interests but not developing any in depth. But a little bit of reading about butterflies taught me that even butterflies specialize: the Lime Butterfly loves citrus plants, the Tailed Jay adores the mast tree, the Baron is a mango lover, etc. There’s a lesson here for me: the imperative to specialize. And of what use is beauty if one does not learn from it?

17. Beauty needs no ornaments; softness cannot bear their weight. So wrote Munshi Premchand. This is a lesson our heavily bedecked human beauties could learn from the butterfly: if you want to fly, travel light.

Now that you have digested the rules of real beauty, what do you think, dear reader? Have I succeeded in codifying real beauty as Hammurabi succeeded in codifying the law? As a lifelong breaker of rules, the list I’ve just drawn up makes me uncomfortable. Lists are inherently authoritarian and arbitrary. My heart prefers the following opposite point of view instead: Forget rules, and rely on your instinct to recognize real beauty. Who needs a flowchart to recognize real beauty?

Perhaps trying to define real beauty is an impossible task. And perhaps all I’ve succeeded in doing above is tying myself in knots. A resolution of this dilemma defied me for days on end, until I found this gem from George Bernard Shaw: “Beauty is all very well at first sight; but who ever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?” As soon as I read this, illumination dawned. We may be unable to define real beauty, but it is not necessary to do so. Even if we do not know what real beauty is, we can still train ourselves to recognize it.

And I propose the following simple empirical test to recognize real beauty. After you have found what you think is real beauty, rethink after three days. Is it still beautiful? If so, you may be on the right track. Next rethink after a year. And then after five years. And then after ten years. If you feel further testing is unnecessary at any point, stop. You have found real beauty.

The passage of time is the only yardstick we can use to recognize real beauty and distinguish it from an illusion, a masquerade. Remember, it takes a few weeks, and sometimes a couple of years, for the butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis (a really beautiful word, meaning the butterfly’s pupa).

In the fullness of time, one could learn to see real beauty in something that seemed mundane all along — like the wrinkled face of an old man.

And the logical next step would be to see that everything around us is beautiful, if we can only train our vision to see it.

That would be wonderful, I hear you say, but what beauty can there possibly be in the ugliness, cruelty, injustice, and suffering we see around us — and experience ourselves — daily?

Here is the answer: Once you know a “bird dropping” can in the fullness of time ripen into an imago, then ugliness, cruelty, injustice, and suffering can look like chrysalises, pulsating with dynamism and potential for change.

And isn’t that the essence of the mystical view of life, that our earthly life is a preparation in a chrysalis, the prize being real beauty through rebirth as an imago in the afterlife?

Also see Real Beauty

Dove Real Beauty on Yahoo! India



  1. Excellent. A delicious exploration in both word and image!
    As to whether it was beautiful? It seems I must re-examine your theses in the days, weeks and years to come…
    Well done, Cochin Blogger!

  2. Mind-blowing! indeed, beautiful!

  3. nicely taken and even better written!..v nice post!

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