Questions on Beauty : Undina from Undina’s Looking Glass

I came to know Undina from Undina’s Looking Glass because of her desire to share what she finds beautiful, specifically, Annick Goutal’s Heure Exquise. I’ve heard her say before that when she loves a perfume, she doesn’t like to analyze why she loves it, and so I approached her for this project just a bit apprehensively. Yet since Undina is one who loves to tell it like it is, without mincing words, I was also very curious to hear what her thoughts on beauty were.

And here are her thoughts breaking out of the mould of the seven questions:

Many years ago, on a honeymoon, my vSO and I bought a book that we both wanted to read. So when we couldn’t just sit next to each other and share the book, my vSO would be reading it aloud.

The name of the book was “Prekrasnost’ zhizni: roman s gazetoi.” The official translation is The Splendor of Life: Novel [or Love Affair] with a Newspaper but I think that the word “splendor” while giving the right meaning of the Russian word used in the title doesn’t convey the adequate feeling because the original word used (“prekrasnost’ “) sounds a little weird for the native speaker – and that was the author’s intent since it’s a book of a political and social satire. I would offer another version: The Beautifulness of Life; “beautifulness”, not “beauty”, in its irregularity and strangeness, I think, is closer to the word used in the original name. The book started with a preface (I tried to translate close to the spirit and form of the original; strangeness is intentional):

The main message of this opus is: the beauty of life lies in the fact of its existence and in absence of life there is no beauty of it.

Back then it was a cute phrase, an intuitively understandable author’s challenge to the reality we all used to live in and from which we were trying to liberate ourselves. In years that passed since then, through all the changes in my life and taking into the account my atheism, I came to the realization that for me today the meaning of that phrase is much deeper and it applies to how I feel about life. Beauty in my life comes, mostly, from me and all my loved ones being alive and around.

I’ve spent many days thinking about the questions Lavanya sent to me and in the end I realize that I wasn’t a good candidate for this questionnaire: I’m not young enough (in my heart) and too practical to seriously discuss these things. 20 years ago – maybe, but now?

The question “What do you mean when you call something beautiful?” seems a little strange to me: when I call something beautiful I’m not trying to re-define the meaning of the word itself, I describe the qualities of the object – be that a face, art or a landscape – and hope that others would understand what I mean because I use the right word and do it in an expected meaning and context. The only “similarity” that might qualify the object further is that it’s I who find them all beautiful. But that’s kind of given.

I do not think I’m too special or different from the fellow humans of the similar social and cultural background to try and define my personal generic criteria for how I determine if something warrants to be call beautiful or not. I don’t think most of my judgments are too original or unexpected. And since there is no rule I can’t name an exception to it. What I can do is to give specific examples of what I find beautiful:

Landscapes are the easiest for me to think as of beautiful with sunsets being on the top of the list.


Music is also an easy pick. There are many pieces I consider beautiful but for this post I have a perfect “two-in-one example”: years after I heard Carol of the Bells for the first time and loved it I learned that it was written by the Ukrainian composer.

A woman I think of as beautiful – Catherine Zeta-Jones


Perfumes… There are several that fall into this category but I’ll name just one Ormonde Jayne Ta’if. Every time I wear it I can’t believe how beautiful I think it is.

Something that never fails to wow and wake a child in me is fireworks.


As to the physical reaction to beauty (and other positive things) – I have an uncontrollable desire to share: “Look! Look!!! Isn’t it beautiful?! It is beautiful, right? You’re not looking!”

That last sentence really hit the nail on the head for me. As I have mentioned before, one of the reasons I blog is because sharing what I find beautiful makes beautifulness easier to bear. And yes, I am adopting the word beautifulness because it is more evocative than beauty 🙂


Picture Credits

Pictures of Undina, sunset and fireworks via Undina
Picture of Catherine Zeta Jones via Deborah Davis on Photobucket


  1. Well, usually I’m so verbose in my comments, but here I’ll just be brief because I can only say that Undina is the truth … of all the people I know, she is the most remarkably truthful, yet within speaking her mind, it seems to me that she is not “stuck” in her own opinions. She is willing to consider multiple viewpoints and to keep growing and adapting and redefining her own truths. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I have always found that beautiful about her. Her answers here don’t surprise me, they only make me love her more.

  2. Hahaha, trust Undina to completely reject the format and go her own way. I loved that. Absolutely loved that, and it’s so her (which I mean in a really positive way). I have to say, I’ve read all of the series and Undina’s was the one I could relate to the most. Prior to her comment, I’ve thought and thought about how I would respond to similar such questions, and I completely struggled. The questions seemed impossible for me to really answer (but that’s just me. I admire those who managed to do so, and in such an eloquent fashion).

    For me, Undina summed it up perfectly up above when she said:
    “when I call something beautiful I’m not trying to re-define the meaning of the word itself, I describe the qualities of the object – be that a face, art or a landscape – and hope that others would understand what I mean because I use the right word and do it in an expected meaning and context.”

    Yes! I couldn’t agree more. When I find something beautiful, it’s for personal, subjective and emotional reasons — totally devoid of any larger philosophical abstraction or definitional content. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can there be a definition or meaning? It’s like Plato’s cave where shadows are dancing on the walls, and you project your own inner views onto your interpretation of those shapes.

    • I loved those sentences as well..:)
      The questions were not so much to ‘get a definition of beauty’ as to see if there are any patterns in the kind of things one might find beautiful..Either one is aware of the patterns or one is not, or one may not want to be aware (As a character in Brothers Karamazov says it may be better to “love life more than the meaning of it.. “. That quote can probably be projected onto beauty). That first question was a sort of stab in the dark that could serve as a starting point for such a conversation. If I had a go again at phrasing the question, I’d ask “In retrospect, is there a pattern in the kinds of things you find beautiful’..:) . Also some people (in the beginning, it was ‘I’ but I realized others do that too) seem to use the word beauty a little differently when it comes to people and I wanted to explore that as well.
      The examples are often interesting because they reveal the implicit patterns.

      “it’s for personal, subjective and emotional reasons — totally devoid of any larger philosophical abstraction or definitional content. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can there be a definition or meaning? It’s like Plato’s cave where shadows are dancing on the walls, and you project your own inner views onto your interpretation of those shapes.”

      It is precisely because beauty is in the eye of the beholder that I was interested in the answers to the questions. I wanted to know whether and how ‘your inner views’ affect the interpretation of the shapes. Yet I needed to phrase questions in a way that didn’t put words into people’s mouths or try to force certain answers. I was interested in what the personal, subjective, emotional reasons might be that make you call something beautiful.
      Oh wait- I did want to know about personal definitions of beauty because I wasn’t sure if every body uses the word the same way.
      Undina said that when she calls something beautiful, she is describing the quality of an object. However, what I wanted to know was if everybody does that, or if they, like you said, superimpose their ‘inner views’ onto the sensory qualities of an object, which acts to transform that object..Ok- now I don’t know if I am even making any

      • First, my deepest apologies to you and those you previously answered if I seemed in any way critical. Please believe me that I did not mean to be, and feel terrible that it may have sounded as such. You strove to do something that took a stab at one of the largest, most abstract, metaphysical constructs that drives us and/or that provides meaning to our lives. Naturally, you had to try to provide some sort of framework for such an amorphous, very conceptual and deeply personal field. And you had to try to pinpoint both personal definitions and an overall mental approach, if any. Please know how much I admire both your project, and your questions. And I’m in great awe of all those who could answer it coherently and with deep thought.

        I’m not sure I could do that. I honestly don’t. Each time I read the answers and tried to think of how I would respond, my mind just shut down. I don’t know why. Do I just have too much on my plate right now, and my mind is utterly exhausted? Do I not think in these terms or approaches? Am I merely too shallow? Or do I not pick apart Beauty, with a capital B? One of the people whom you featured a while back talked about visceral responses, and, in truth, almost all your answerers (yes, I’m making that a term now. lol) all talked about how things depended on perceptions, contexts, emotions, or the types of things involved (for example, aesthetics of cheekbones, in one case, if I recall correctly).

        They all made sense, I agreed with most of their general approaches, and yet, I felt as if I couldn’t do what they managed to do. Does it all depend for me? Is beauty something my mind doesn’t want to breakdown? Or, is it a field that is so abstract that me, with my love for specifics, feels that theory is separate from reality? Who knows. But something in your questions seems so impossibly difficult for me to answer that my mind seems to stop trying to formulate concrete answers. (And, now, I’M the one not making any sense at all. lol)

        In fairness to your questions and the subject, I have to confess yet again that I really am mentally wiped out these days, so it’s not you, and it is absolutely ALL me. Maybe I should revisit this next week when my goal is to have at least 4 hours of sleep each and every a night! 🙂 *hugs*

      • Oh no need to apologize..This is totally part of the conversation – you know, whether these questions are even the right questions to ask. For example, in your interview with M. Lutens- we got glimpses of what he thought of beauty/what appealed to him even though it were not explicitly asked of him [I again reference his answer about perfection..:)]. So in your case, it might just be that these questions may not be the right trigger and your thoughts on beauty might reveal themselves in a different framework or a different kind of conversation where you are not explicitly asked to ‘breakdown beauty’ 🙂
        Not everybody answered all the questions as they were posed, yet one got a sense of what they found beautiful and perhaps why.

        Of course , you might just be tired. I am feeling like that right now (exhausted), and suddenly this exercise seems futile. But I know I will think differently tomorrow if I manage to get some sleep tonight..haha.
        Bottom line is that it is not necessary to answer these questions to experience beauty. But I find these kind of conversations help me understand myself better, or atleast help me articulate my thoughts in a manner that make them seem more coherent than they did in my head (when it was just between the two people in This statement is not going to sound funny if I become schizophrenic later in life. Ok. that statement convinced me that I really need to go sleep, the quality of my thoughts are rapidly deteriorating.)

        *Hugs* and don’t worry about the typos. Why don’t you sleep more?

      • URRRGGGHHH, so many typos in that prior answer. Urgh! First and foremost, I meant to say “those *who previously answered.” But there were many other mistakes. Please forgive me. I think I need to step away from the computer for at least an hour until my brain and fingers can work together in a proper tandem!

    • Thank you, dear Kafka. I’m trying to follow the instructions where it’s really important for the purpose of the excercise but in all other cases it seems almost impossible for me to stay within certain boundaries: I feel an immediate protest and try to run free 🙂

  3. Pingback: A Postcard from Undina: My Take on Beauty | Undina's Looking Glass

  4. Tara

    i agree that it is much easier to come up with specific examples but I actually enjoyed wrestling with your questions and coming to my own answers (as imperfect as they might have been). I can see how that wonderful phrase from the book says it all for Undina. I completely respect that if she feels she can’t faithfully present how she views something, she needs to do it in her way.

    I also loved that Undina included sunsets and fireworks. I totally agree. Sunrises are pretty awesome too, if you’re awake early enough:)

    • I think I caught with those two pictures of the sunset and fireworks a glimps of how it was but in real life it was just magical and … impossibly beautiful.

      I tried to think of a man who I would call handsome (still can’t do beautiful for men) – and I couldn’t. The same as you, Tara, I do not find Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp that attractive. Or, actually, any other actors – even though I like and respect some. But for whatever reason for those of whom I have a high oppinion are “above that” in my head, I would feel wrong putting them in that category….

      • I have to agree with Tara and you on those too men. And I totally understand what you mean by “above that”. To me handsome is a very external quality while beautiful (though not conventionally applicable to men) seems less external, somehow..So I rarely use the word handsome unless I only am talking about looks. And after the first few seconds of looking at somebody, whether or not they are handsome seems of not too much consequence as other factors start to determine whether or not I find them attractive.

    • Oh- there’s no imperfect answer, Tara :)..And I loved yours. Thanks for saying you enjoyed the process as I had started to feel guilty that these questions seemed like so much work- haha.

      I love sunsets and sunrises too- they are indeed magical!

  5. I loved Undina’s take on this topic, with its modesty and direct, no-nonsense approach, just as I love these qualities in Undina generally! Her examples of beauty were also great – fireworks in particular – they have to be amongst the most visually exciting things ever.

    • Yes, I love how her answer was so totally her!
      As for fireworks- even though Undina’s picture is gorgeous, somehow watching fireworks (without actually participating in ‘setting off’ said fireworks) never does it for me..I think it is probably because my memories of the beauty of fireworks involve bursting them. When I was around 14/15 I stopped bursting them (in India) because their manufacture in India involves child labor and I didn’t want to support that. From then on, the watching of fireworks didn’t actually give me too much joy, probably because I missed being part of the hustle and bustle of setting them off/lighting them.[Sorry about the long saga- haha.]

  6. Natalie

    I admire you, Undina, for going your own way with this. It’s one of the qualities that makes you you, and that makes *you* beautiful – you don’t take things for granted for at face value. You’re always thinking critically. It’s something I’d like to do more myself.

    And fireworks: yes! ❤

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