Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2010

On Beauty (2010), by Susan Johnson (Little Books on Big Ideas)

On Beauty is a tiny little book from the Little Books on Big Themes and it’s by one of my favourite writers, Susan Johnson.  It’s only 85 little pages long and it took no time to read, but this meditation on beauty gave me plenty to think about.

Johnson writes about the desire for beauty: to see beauty; to be beautiful or to own it.  It’s usually the rich and powerful who get to do this, and there’s nothing beautiful about that.

Beauty is life too, and Johnson gives a disconcerting example when she tells the story of British Lieutenant-Colonel Willet Gonin who led his men into the Bergen-Belsen extermination camp in 1945.  When the Red Cross sent parcels, incongruously, they included some lipstick, but the cosmetic turned out to symbolise the beautiful way in which these women felt ‘the unquenchable hope of resurrection’ (p20).

There is, as you’d expect, a meditation on women’s distorted ideas about their own beauty.  So many of us, she says, do not know whether we are or are not, because concepts about women’s beauty are constantly manipulated for commerce, for power and for bullying by others.  In this chapter Johnson is overt about her ambivalence: in Australia she says, it is not ok to be interested in one’s own beauty.  A woman’s beauty is often a curse that evokes jealousy and loneliness…

I liked Johnson’s defence of beauty in art; and her belief that art is the house we build in which to fit beauty, our flawed, human attempt to honour it (p72).  The destruction of beauty, whether with a developer’s bulldozer or as a cyncial defacement of artworks, is a  transgression not to be forgiven.

Johnson doesn’t mention the cliché that beauty is all around us, but this little book made me realise that I wanted to look for it in my own environment.  In the room I am in as I write this, there is a beautiful watercolour of the Perth skyline; there are two dear little dogs sleeping the beautiful sleep of the innocent; there is a beautiful ornament from my recent trip to Spain that evokes memories of that beautiful country and its people.  Outside my window there is a beautiful fernery, a lush green screen between me and the world beyond.  On my bedside table there is a glass of Melbourne’s beautiful tap water –  water so precious and clear and clean that I never take it for granted, not when I know that a safe water supply is not available in so many places around the world.  These simple things are not Susan Johnson’s examples of beauty, they are mine, but I think she would like them too.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Susan Johnson
Title: On Beauty
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press) 2009
ISBN: 9780522856026
Source: Gift (thank you, Jenny!)


  1. Question. When you say that the lipstick “turned out to symbolise the beautiful way in which these women felt ‘the unquenchable hope of resurrection’”, where is that interpretation coming from? Is this Johnson’s take on the gift, or did Willet-Gonin feel that he was watching the women resurrect themselves with lipstick, or did the women themselves say that they were uplifted? (Sudden vision of lipstick manufacturer using concentration camp survivor testimony in advertising campaign.)


    • *Gasp*, Deane, they wouldn’t, would they??
      It was Gonin who said that the lipstick was ‘an action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance’. His testimony is in the British Library and in it he said that they were aghast at its inclusion in the Red Cross parcels when they were ‘screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things’….but ‘I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick’. His interpretation (which IMO may have been from an earnest desire to believe that it could be so) was that ‘at last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattoo on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.’ (p18-19)


      • Betcha they would. It could be framed with uplift. Benetton ran a photograph of a dying man on a billboard.

        Your IMO is my IMO. Unless one of the survivors came up to him and actually said, “I feel so much better now that I can wear lipstick again, and my friends tell me that they all feel better too,” I’d take his opinion with a massive pinch of salt. If all he had was the sight of women colouring their lips then it’s not hard to imagine a different person looking at the same scene and writing, “It was fearful, demented, melancholy, the spectacle of those wasted skeletons going through the motions of their old habits. Horrible mechanical compulsion!”


        • We really need Susan Johnson to tell us what she thinks about this because she’s read the source document….
          But I think the beauty in this example she gives is more about Gonin. When we think of the suffering in Bergen-Belsen it is impossible to imagine what it was like, and one of its effects of that enormity is that it diminishes or negates the suffering of anyone else involved. But this Gonin – one of many who saw the horrors of war – was confronted by the human face of the greatest crime of the 20th century, and that makes him a victim too. His trauma matters too. When he gets back home, he has to write a report, and tries to make sense of something that does not make sense. And, poor man, he needs desperately to believe that the survivors in the camp can recover somehow. So did the people who sent that lipstick. They too were desperate to think of some way to communicate to the survivors that they were cared about, more than just meeting immediate medical care and shelter and food. However inappropriate the gesture may or may not have been these responses are beautiful. They show that these survivors *mattered* when for years and years they had not.
          Similarly I think today’s aid workers who work in disaster situations are beautiful. They leave homes like yours and mine and go into the most awful situations, to try to help. Whatever they do is not enough, and have to put up first with an intrusive media getting in the way and distorting events and then as the news cycle moves on with media and public indifference and not enough money. And still they go.
          When we were at Gatwick airport en route to Bordeaux we met a girl of 21 who was on her way to Pakistan as a volunteer. She had never been out of the country, she had no idea which part of Pakistan she was being sent to nor what she might have to do when she got there, but she wanted to make a difference. (This was not naivete; she was off to a briefing first en route). She was a very lovely girl, and I will always remember the beauty of her eyes shining with the joy that she was going to do something that would help. I would have felt ashamed about my self-indulgent holiday if I had not taken up Peter Singer’s Life You Can Save Pleadge to donate a regular percentage of my income to humanitarian aid. It helps me look beggars in the eye as well, knowing that I am doing my bit. (My review of The Life You Can Save will come one day, but you can get the idea from this and )


  2. This sounds like a lovely book. Have you read Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just? It seems like it might be similar to this but longer and so more in depth.


    • Hello Stephanie, nice to hear from you:)
      I haven’t read the one you suggest but I have read Zadie Smith’s book of the same name which (Wikipedia has just told me) was apparently based on the Scarry’s essay. Johnson used it as background reading – her bibliography for this tiny book runs to 4 pages so she must have done an extraordinary amount of reading for it – the unseen work behind the work of writers, eh?


  3. Lisa, I love your evocative description of the Beautiful things around you. Made me look at the Beautiful things in my writing studio, the newest being a Christmas present from my Beautiful son and his wife (my fabulously Beautiful ‘pretend’ daughter): a leather-bound journal. It has Beautiful carvings in the leather, is made more Beautiful by the extraordinary engineering of its silver clasp, has thick rustic clumps of Beautiful parchment inside and smells Beautiful. More than anything, it is Beautiful because when they spied it, nestled amongst scarves and belts on a little market stall, they both instantly recognised it as the perfect gift for me, making it a representation of love and love is indeed a Beautiful thing.


    • Karen, it sounds gorgeous, especially the paper. I love beautiful paper. I like browsing around those specialty paper shops that tend to pop up in shopping strips…


  4. Sounds interesting, Lisa. I didn’t know about this book and I enjoyed Susan’s last novel so must hunt this one out if I ever get to Melbourne to go book shopping!


    • There are others in the series too: On Doubt by Leigh Sales sounds interesting, so does Julian Burnside’s On Privilege. I think I’ll pass on Blanche D’Alpuget’s On Longing…


  5. Lisa, Isnt there a saying along the lines of beauty is in the eye of the beholder-my memory is not great!! I am soooooo very lucky that every day I wake up, I see beauty around me, my room, my clothes, the view from every window in my house, the pictures of my beautiful children,brother and sisters, nieces, nephews, (even some no longer with us). Every day I see the beauty of life and thank how lucky I am to see such wonders. It is not about money-it is beauty in happiness, in very simple things-the fact that I can read, get that water without trekking to a well, feed myself any matter of “stuff”!!
    I love your description of the things around you and wish that I could describe like that!!!
    I really enjoy reading your writing and one day when I grow up I will be a writer!!
    and happy writing (and reading)
    off to enjoy more of the beautiful weather in the back yard, with my book of the moment!


    • Spot on, Deb, and I wish more people had the same attitude:)
      Enjoy the summer sunshine, it’s been too long coming!


  6. Hi Lisa,
    Scouring the net in an idle hour on my birthday, the first sunny day in ages and ages…and I saw this.

    Well, in answer to DSK (think that’s right? Apologies if not) — the actual document is written in pencil (no ink to be had) and is in the Imperial War Museum in London (which was once the notorious Bedlam). Somehow seems fitting…

    It’s hard to discuss when taken out of context but Lisa has done a pretty good job. It was the British ambulanceman who made the point about lipstick — you know, of all the things that were needed (food; medical supplies; clothes first and foremost) lipstick would have to be the very last thing on the list.

    BUT, it turned out that lipstick was in fact the very thing. It linked the women back to ordinary life, back to the everyday, and thus back to their humanity. That was Gonin’s take on it (and I didn’t record the full version of what he found but it was life at its most foul, which is to say humanity at its most foul).

    So what the lipstick represented was life as goodness, as beauty amongst ugliness. I do accept that advertising in the Western world is shameless in taking anything at all to use to its own callous advantage but I think this event happened before the advent of modern publicity, and it is hard for us to disassociate images of concentration camps now from what was a real, lived truth.

    It’s also hard for us to think of a pre-advertising world — I think this was just a single event, a weird, one-off mistake (I think it was a mistake that the lipstick got delivered) but it did, and it was what Gonin made of it that struck me as so arresting.

    I think, too, that what happened in the camps is so evil that the human mind can’t help but try and turn it into something else. That’s why LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL got up so many people’s noses — but just as evil is part of humanity, I think the desire for good, for hope, is also part of us.

    Long-winded, sorry, but it’s a very good point your readers are making. And I loved your personal moments of beauty, Lisa. A very happy 2011 to you! Warmest wishes to you in this difficult, engaging, awful and beautiful world, Susan


    • How lovely to hear from you Susan, and thank you so much for taking the trouble to clarify things for this discussion.
      Happy 2011 to you too, and keep writing, there is an army of your fans out there waiting for your next book!


  7. Lisa
    How wonderful that this ‘little’ book could generate such insightful and interesting discussion. I loved reading all of the responses and you must be tickled pink to have Susan Johnson drop by!


    • I’ve never actually met Susan though I’ve been one of her rapt audience members at a writers’ festival, but we’ve chatted on and off privately since I reviewed Life in Seven Mistakes. So I feel as if I know her, and have promised to shout her a coffee if she ever comes to Melbourne!


  8. Which I certainly plan to do Lisa!

    Jenny, I’m a fan of this blog. I’m working full-time now (I mean, as in a ‘job’ where I go out of the house, five days a week, as opposed to the ‘job’ of writing, which some people still don’t regard as a ‘job’!).

    But when I was at home working full-time, in London, I had more time to spend an idle moment hunting down literary weblogs, and I came across this one. I had a couple of favourites — Matilda, Reading Matters, Damon Young’s site and a few others — and it was terrific to be able to plug into Ozlit.

    Now of course I have hardly any time to surf the net (when I am not ‘working’ I am ‘working’ on the will-it-ever-be-finished MY HUNDRED LOVERS manuscript — or maybe occasionally even looking after my children! That’s a joke by the way…)

    But today is New Year’s day, and the air is cool, the boys’ are playing — respectively — a skateboarding game and a game where there are monsters to be slayed and I am idly surfing the net.

    We will all disconnect and meet for a meal and a walk of the dog within half an hour — in the meantime, Happy New Year to all — and I look forward to reading Susan Musart’s (spelling?) book on her year of disconnecting from TV, the net, mobiles etc.

    And God Bless the connection of ANZ Litlovers!


    • A thunderstorm is rolling in here in Melbourne, Susan, so I must turn off the computer to protect its innards…
      Just quickly wanted to say that with your gift for writing about the real lives of women, I expect that all these themes will surface in the new book…


  9. […] Germaine Greer’s contribution to the Melbourne University Press Little Books on Big Ideas series is called On Rape; the series is complementary to their Little Books on Big Themes (of which I have reviewed two: David Malouf’s On Experience and Susan Johnson’s On Beauty. […]


  10. […] On Beauty, by Susan Johnson […]


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