On Ugliness

Written by Umberto Eco
Review by Sarah Bower

A companion piece to Eco’s On Beauty, this book explores the culture, politics and aesthetics of ugliness through a history of art and writing. Ugliness, Eco observes in his introduction, differs from beauty in that it evokes an immediate emotional response. We can observe beauty dispassionately, but ugliness makes us feel sick, repelled and fearful. It is, therefore, very much more than beauty’s counterpart, and a useful and intriguing glass through which to refract a culture.

With chapters ranging over subjects as various as martyrdom, monsters and portents, the ugliness of women and the devil in the modern world, this is an eclectic entertainment, stuffed with high quality colour plates and extracts from the writings of thinkers as various as Angela Carter and St Augustine, Emily Brontë and H.P. Lovecraft. It can be read from cover to cover or dipped into at random; either way, it is guaranteed to deliver all kinds of provocative and arcane delights.

Like most of Eco’s work, it defies ready classification, but is surely the better for that. Highly recommended.