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What to say when people tell you you’re ugly

A response to Alain de Botton

Last night at a party in Los Angeles a nurse told me how beautiful Australia was. Her benchmark? Brisbane. She had visited over the Aussie summer of 2012 and is now planning her return next year.


She was telling all this to a girl born and bred in Sydney who has recently moved to Melbourne, so my initial reaction was, ‘If you liked Brisbane, then you’ll love Sydney and Melbourne’. But considering Brisbane has had a rough time of it lately, I put aside my (now dual) state pride and simply smiled and admitted I hadn’t been to Brisbane in over a decade, and yes, I remember it being a pretty place.


What do I mean by ‘rough time’? Last week Alain de Botton who has been dubbed a ‘philosopher’ (possibly by himself considering the source of all the following brouhaha came from a post on his site, Philosopher’s Mail) wrote of Brisbane’s, and admittedly a lot of other modern cities’, “chaotic ugliness”. And the media went nuts (which perhaps was the point considering he was in Brisbane to spruike his book which is about the way today’s media has a tendency towards sensationalism).


This is what he wrote:

“No one looks at the waterfront of Brisbane, the capital of the Australian state of Queensland, and feels deeply moved by the grace and sweetness of the scene. While most people find the centre of Paris wonderful and others will delight in the winding streets of Siena, no one on the planet responds deeply to the brutal cross city expressway and chunky stained brown office blocks of the city…


“So even though almost everyone on the planet thinks that either Siena or Paris is delightful and everyone thinks that Brisbane is a bit of a mess, we don't dare to speak; we are left cowering. We feel paralysed - unable to state the obvious. And that's because we have talked ourselves into the belief that taste is always relative.”


His point was that perhaps we should consider that while we may claim that taste is relative, it’s a polite excuse that has created cities that look like Brisbane.


I don’t know much about philosophy bar Sophie’s World which I read as a wannabe angsty teenager and a quarter of a completed philosophy course at Sydney Uni, but I don’t quite grasp his point on universal appeal for things as hard to define as cities.


I do know that travel has taught me one thing: that it is not up to the destination to be likeable, it’s up to the traveller to be open-minded. I’m sure a philosopher or poet has said the same thing better, but I had to learn it, not read it.


For instance, I loved, then liked, then tolerated, then avoided, and then kind of understood Vegas. I went there as a child and thought it magical, as a backpacker and thought it amusing. Then as a business traveller it was all too much. But last year, coming back from stunning Red Rock Canyon or flying over the buildings which suddenly didn’t look so big, I didn’t dare think it ugly.


Sometimes finding beauty in a place isn't easy. And sometimes ugly things need to be looked at froma different angle. 


So Brisbane, give Mr de Botton another chance, and maybe next time round, you’ll find him beautiful.


Image taken from Adam Smith

Written by: Gaya Avery
Published: 31 March 2014

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