This is Part I of a two-part blog post; the second part will come after I get a chance to read Easy Beauty: A Memoir by Chloé Cooper Jones. I came across this book because Tressie McMillan Cottom, one of the most perceptive and compelling thinkers I know, interviewed Cooper Jones in Cottom’s capacity as a guest host on the Ezra Klein Show. The interview is stunning, and it makes reading the book inevitable, though it may take me a few weeks to get to it.
Cooper Jones is severely disabled, from birth, with a visible disability and significant chronic pain. The interview (and by extension the book) is not about disability, but Cooper Jones takes her own body, and her lived experience, as the starting point for thinking about beauty–in general and in specific. She credits the concept of “easy beauty” to philosopher Bernard Bosanquet. “Easy beauty” describes the things that most people immediately perceive as beautiful: a sunset, a rose, a laughing child. “Difficult beauty” describes things that take longer to learn to appreciate, perhaps requiring some knowledge, or some exposure or experience. Cooper-Jones gives the example of some abstract art, or some music in a vernacular we don’t understand as a kind of difficult beauty: once we know enough about what the work is and what its intention is, we can learn to find it beautiful.
Closer to the realm of this blog’s main focus, she talks about beauty and the disabled body: physical (conventional) beauty is an attribute that some people have, and most people aspire to in some way. Beauty products are sold primarily to the aspirational: lose weight this way, use this cream or serum, buy this shampoo and you will get closer to beauty. However, the visibly disabled are simply excised from this entire world of chasing beauty: since nothing they can buy, or use, or try will ever let them into the world defined as “beauty,” they simply go unmentioned and unnoticed. Cooper Jones attributes her intellectual achievements, which are very substantial, to the early awareness that if she couldn’t be “beautiful,” she could be smart.
Even the interview has a great deal more to chew on: Cooper Jones is a parent, and raising her son has been a major factor in her conscious effort to re-imagine the world around her. Having grown up with the very natural assumption that people are either cruel or indifferent and independence is the only goal, having a small person to parent made her decide that she didn’t want to pass those preconceptions on, and since children learn from what they see, she would have to reformulate her own expectations and behavior into something she wanted her son to learn: neither an easy nor a quick process, and one with many false starts and failure modes.
Under Cottom’s incisive questioning, Cooper-Jones goes lots of places in this interview: to the Beyoncé concert that provided her with an epiphany about being your whole self, and the party for Peter Dinklage where she got a front seat at the performance of other people’s expectations about her commonalities with Dinklage … and her own. Both of these are mentioned in most reviews of the book, but no one mentions her throwaway comment about Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (paraphrased): “Beth has no personality, and no flaws. She’s just there to be sick and die, and for her death to have an effect on her sisters.” For me, that exemplifies Cooper Jones’ ability to turn your brain around in a couple of sentences … and since the whole book is about her turning her own brain around, it’s no surprise that her skill in that is extraordinary.
Whether or not you plan to read the book, listen to the interview, because first, Cottom is clearly entranced with the book and the author, and her enthusiasm lights up the entire conversation and, second, Cottom is no stranger to thinking about easy and difficult beauty, and is completely willing to engage with Cooper Jones at the level this work needs and deserves.
I’ll be back in the next four to six weeks to finish this up with my reactions to the book, and I’d love to hear yours.
Thanks to waywardcats for the pointer to the interview.
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