Monday, May 20, 2013

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL


What is it that makes smallness lovable? That bigness should be impressive is understandable. We all respect Mount Everest as the world’s highest, and Mont Blanc as Europe’s highest mountain. The Nile impresses us as the world’s longest river. The tallest building (in Dubai, as I recall) takes the breath away. The longest novels, by Tolstoy, and even more so, Proust, hold us in awe.

Yet even weirder forms of bigness command our respect. When Georges Perec contrives a whole novel without the letter E in it, we wonder at so big an achievement, even though it serves no valid purpose. Big too is the number of frankfurters devoured in competition in limited time (hot diggedy dog!), an essentially gross achievement, but eliciting a left-handed admiration.

Someone has the largest number of Impressionist paintings in private possession; someone else the largest number of matchbook covers from the world’s restaurants, amazing even if not worthy of museum exhibition. Currently, a production of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival features the largest number of pinball machines simultaneously onstage, garnering inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records, awesome even if a greatness of questionable worth.

Still, a greatness predicating wealth or resourcefulness is enviable and therefore also admirable. The size of those presidential heads on Mount Rushmore commands respect, perhaps as great as the achievements of those heads of state. But awe is not tantamount to affection, such as we have for small things. Why?

Why do we all love puppies and kittens, often much more so than full-grown dogs and cats? Ditto babies, so winning that even mighty politicians will stoop to kiss them? And indeed most babies are cute as all getout, yet once grown up, rare is the politician who would kiss any one of them.

So what is it about smallness that we find so fetching? Why do even some boys like dolls? But not all small ones, e.g., dwarfs and midgets, are lovable, even if they’re not as nasty as Swift’s Lilliputians. Toy poodles and bichon frises, yes; Yorkies, conceivably; but definitely not Chihuahuas and some other portable breeds, whose very owners I reprehend.

Smallness scores, I think, in several ways. One is through aesthetics, as in the case of certain small dogs. Sometimes it is through cleverness, as when a sizable text is engraved on the head of a pin. Often it is the miniaturization of something big: a tiny piano, say, whether it works or not. A tiny snail, not being a reduction, does not impress, but a tiny hippo or rhino, whether live or a mere stuffed toy, does. It is an implicit cleverness, whether artisanal, or on the part of nature. Or an explicit cleverness, such as a flea circus, but who would be impressed by a non-artiste flea?

Or it may my be a sense of our superior power that endears a tiny, fragile thing, as long as it isn’t repulsive or vicious. A wild rat, certainly not, but a tame, white, laboratory one, why not? The fondness may be a form of patronization, of perhaps unconscious condescension.

But aesthetics are important. A ladybug or dragonfly appeals; a cockroach repels. A sparrow leaves us cold; a hummingbird does not. A toucan or booby, yes; a common starling or pigeon, no. Rarity also figures in this.

Of course, we like miniatures; something large reduced to toy size. A tiny car or train or whole railroad; a doll house with teensy furniture; in short, something we can play with. The teddy bear rather than the grizzly.

Littleness translates as daintiness. We admire small teeth not just for their whiteness, but also for their delicacy, their pearliness. The epithet “little” readily suggests lovableness. Thus a wife, regardless of her size, becomes “the little woman” at least in regions as yet unconquered by feminism. So a beloved New York mayor became known as the Little Flower. So we say “Good things come in small packages,” however much Fedex and UPS may disagree.

Thus, altogether, little children have become idealized., and Lewis Carroll, that platonic pedophile, becomes enamored of little Alice Liddell. Thus child actors become adored by adults—the Michael Jackson syndrome. The characters in children’s books be are beloved even by grown-ups, and are often not merely kiddies but actual dwarfs.  Never in children’s books are giants or giantesses fair and fine; of course, there is also the occasional nasty dwarf in the fairy tales, but outnumbered by the Tom Thumbs or Petits Poucets, not to mention Puss in Boots and Snow White’s merry companions.

Small is lovable even in miniature paintings; why else would they have been invented—surely not to economize in canvas or paints? Whereas giant frescoes may prompt admiration, charming miniatures elicit affection. As do small characters in paintings. I don’t know how much the Infantas loved their dwarfs, but we just love a Velazquez Infanta. Is there a warmer. more loving term than “cute,” except when pejoratively applied to an affectation? Surely not. Small is beautiful.




8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Wikipedia, that paragon of accuracy, informs me that Georges Perec published his e-less lipogram, La disparition, in 1969.

    But it was back in 1939 that Ernest Vincent Wright published his e-free novel, Gadsby. I remember Charles Osgood of CBS Radio News making a big to-do about it years ago. (Osgood even did one of his "rhymers" - of course, without any e's in it.)

    I found a copy of Gadsby online and glanced at a few pages. It's unreadable, IMHO.

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  3. All cats are beautiful, from tabby to tiger.

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  4. Charlie Stavros on women in Updike's 'Rabbit at Rest':

    "Tall isn't bad. The tall ones don't get the play the cute little short ones do, and do more for you...."

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  5. "Littleness translates as daintiness. We admire small teeth not just for their whiteness, but also for their delicacy, their pearliness."

    Elephant tusks are huge but beautiful.

    Same with Walruses and Saber tooth cats.

    Big or small isn't the issue but proportionality.

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  6. I say, I think Mr. Simon is getting the hang of this blogging thing! It's a treat to see Mr. Simon off the beaten swath of the Information Superhighway, indulging his muse in such an amusing and musical way.

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    1. You're right.He doesn't supply information,it's self-indulgent bullshit!

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  7. Beauty is a kind of chemistry of various elements. What may be beautiful on one creature/person wouldn't be on another creature/person. Some women look great with long hair while others look better with shorter hair. The same hat can have different effects on different women. It can enhance the looks of one woman while making another look ridiculous.

    Some men look good with curly hair, others do not. Elephant look great with tusks, but bison wouldn't.

    Some women look great with big round eyes. Others look better with smaller eyes.

    So, like words in a sentence, every visual element has meaning and worth in relation to other visual elements.
    A moon might do wonders for one painting while ruining another one.

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