Mary Gaitskill on Beauty and Permanence

What is [death]? It’s a fact that human beings—no matter who they are, no matter how healthy or strong or beautiful they are—are going to age and become weak and ugly by a certain standard, and die. And I think that’s a terrifying idea for people to get their minds around. It’s a very strange thing the way we exist: that we appear in the world out of another person’s body in this discrete, small form, and that we have all of this life force pouring through us—as does everything alive, animals, insects—yet it must take this very specific form of a personality, a body that looks a certain way and that functions a certain way. Our eyes and our mouths and our noses are so particularly formed. Human beings look so different from each other, voices are so different, everything about us is so individual, and that’s so exciting and juicy and appealing, and we’re attached to these things and they’re so fascinating and beautiful—I don’t just mean model-beautiful, but all the individual forms that people can take.

And yet in another way, we’re going to fall apart, kind of dissolve back into this vast soup from whence we came, whatever that is. It’s almost like these beings pop out of this massive sludge and then they get sucked back into it, and that’s a really hard thing to comprehend.

I think people try to make the most of their time on earth and also to fix their time on earth. They try to fix external verities, things that are true for all time, ideas that are true for all time: Rome will last forever! America will last forever! Beauty, as defined by the fashion industry, is one of those things—this is beautiful. This will always be beautiful—and hold it in a way that has some sense of permanence about it, and absoluteness. And yet it’s not.

-Mary Gaitskill, in The Believer (2009).

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Photo: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons