At Face Value

I noticed a very pretty girl sitting not far from me on a bus ride of about 45 minutes last week. Soon after the bus departed, she took out her makeup and spent about thirty minutes making herself up. No great artist could have taken more trouble over his canvas than did she over her face. Her palette was wide, her mixing of colors of alchemical complexity.

I wish I could say that her efforts were attended by more success than attended medieval alchemists in their efforts to transmute base metal into gold, but alas they were not. On the contrary, by the time she had finished, she had transformed herself from natural prettiness to painted sluttishness, that cheap and vulgar pseudo-glamour that so many young British females mistake for attractiveness. (You would think that our local school was a training center for prostitutes of the cheaper variety.)

Naturally, I was upset, even angered, by a culture that so transformed a pretty girl in this way, all the more with her own willing cooperation. How could she spend half an hour painting herself! What vanity! What shallowness!

“We cannot shy away from judgment any more than we can shy away from the atmosphere around us.”

Then, before the end of my journey, she got out of the bus. Suddenly I felt deeply ashamed of my uncharitable thoughts. I saw that she had some kind of congenital deformity, or perhaps a dystrophy, that affected her walking severely. She did not need a stick, but walking was very difficult for her. Every step was a considerable labor, an expense; not for her the miracle of being able to walk without thought or attention to the process. Worse still (perhaps), she was of an age—about 24 or 25, I should think—when one is acutely aware of the gaze of others, when one imagines that everyone is sizing one up. Who would not notice her difficulties?

For the rest of the journey, I reflected on the sorrow of her situation. (Actually, she was dressed more tastefully than most young British people of her age.) There are worse tragedies in the world than hers, of course, and there are stories of people with far worse disabilities or deformations than hers who have overcome them triumphantly. But we do not live in the whole world or in the whole of history; we live in our little corner of the world and history, and our miseries are great or little by the standards of that little corner. Who would dare, or be so callous, as to tell this girl to go to the story of Stephen Hawking and be wise, as the Bible tells the sluggard to go to the ant and be wise? Her face was to her what Hawking’s intellectual brilliance was to him.

It surely takes very little effort of the imagination to surmise the psychological effect of her disability in the modern world, in which imperfect health, particularly among the young, is first much less common than ever before and second mostly hidden away. In addition, personal appearance has rarely been so important to people, and the prettiness of her face would not have canceled out the impression made by the awkwardness of her locomotion. In her search for a mate, would it not mean that she would have to find the best of young men while also being vulnerable to the wiles of the worst? And until she reached middle age, would she be able to go a single moment in public without a self-consciousness that gnawed at her entrails?

I therefore revised completely my attitude toward her care over her makeup. Far from being symptomatic of shallowness, as I had assumed it to be, it represented a triumph of the human spirit. She was making the best of herself when it would have been all too easy to sink into despair and indifference.

I was also ashamed of the haste of my judgment. If I had left the bus before she left it, I should not have known of her disability and would have retained my very poor, and as it turned out unjust, opinion of her. That I might have done so caused me an unease.

After all, I have experience of the dangers of the rush to judgment. I have been an expert witness in numerous trials, and I know that the devil is always in the detail. What appears to be open-and-shut is often nothing of the kind (though it sometimes is). I read part of the evidence and came to a premature conclusion; I read the rest of the evidence, and came to an opposite, or at least different and more nuanced, conclusion. This happened so many times that I should by now be immune from the rush to judgment.

And yet I am not, and I don’t believe that I ever shall be. This is because judgment is inseparable from human thought. Even the decision, almost always insincere and taken with a certain pride and self-satisfaction, not to judge is itself dependent upon a judgment, and is therefore self-contradictory. I do not believe that anybody—or perhaps I should say, just to be on the safe side, many people, since humanity is so infinitely variable—can go longer than a few minutes without making a judgment, either moral or aesthetic. Man, said Aristotle, is a political animal; I should like to add that he is a judgmental animal, too.

Therefore, we cannot shy away from judgment any more than we can shy away from the atmosphere around us. What is not possible cannot be desirable, except in the minds of self-indulgent utopians; but though we cannot avoid judgment, we can avoid sticking to our judgments through thick and thin, irrespective of evidence against them. Therefore, we must hold them with a certain lightness, though not frivolity. We must be prepared to relinquish them.

Nothing much depended on my judgment of the girl on the bus, of course. My judgment of her mattered no more to her than to me, but one can easily imagine circumstances in which a similar hasty judgment might be important and might have bad consequences. Moreover, it was only by accident or chance that my attitude to the girl changed from irritation with to sympathy for her.

But the fact that first judgments may be wrong cannot disguise the inevitability of making them. What is needed is flexibility of judgment, not the pretense that we do not make it in the name of a bogus, self-congratulatory tolerance.

Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Ramses: A Memoir, published by New English Review.



Columnists

Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!

SIGN UP

Daily updates with TM’s latest