Before my appointment to a visiting scholarship at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace was confirmed I had to submit a synopsis of my proposed research. At that time my working title was 'Physical Appearance and Life Chances in Modern Society'. Already before my departure in late October I had changed the latter phrase to 'Life Experiences', having worked out that while the good-looking arouse different responses from those encountered by the less well-favoured and thus have different opportunities and experiences, one cannot say that they are inevitably more successful. The matter was academic, in that my hosts clearly did not trouble to read my synopsis and simply appointed me on my record as a - let us put this as neutrally as possible - much-published social historian. While my immediate sponsors, anxious to foster research of the widest kind, have been most supportive, some embarrassment has been engendered by the open secret that the higher powers (the Hoover is, of course, best-known as President Reagan's Think Tank) feel that serious studies of, say, the vices of Soviet foreign policy, or the virtues of monetarism, are to be preferred to such frivolities as human beauty. In the annual report just published my topic is officially designated as (oh magic word!) 'Úlites'; my major public performance in ten days' time will be on 'The Upper Class in Britain, France and the USA since World War One' (the argument, as it happens, will be that class is a far more useful category than Úlite). My paper on 'Beauty and Ugliness in Western Society: The Social and Political Implications of Personal Appearance' will be presented a little later within the confines of the (largely anti-Republican) History Department, where for the Winter Quarter, I am a visiting professor teaching a colloquium on 20th-century Britain.
LRB 21 February 1985 | PDF Download