Ugly Eels and Stealing Babies for the Devil

When we are born, we are very ugly. We're matted, clotted flesh lumps, gaping for a few soundless seconds, then we yowl to life.

Ugly Eels and Stealing Babies for the Devil

You're such a beautiful freak
I wish there were more just like you
You're not like
All of the others
But that is why I love you

-- From 'Beautiful Freak' by Eels

HECATE
(Giving her a dead child's body) Here, take this unbaptised brat.
Boil it well, preserve the fat:
You know 'tis precious to transfer
Our 'nointed flesh into the air.

-- From The Witch by Thomas Middleton_


When we are born, we are very ugly. We're matted, clotted flesh lumps, gaping for a few soundless seconds, then we yowl to life. Our broken cries rend the air. We ruin our mothers at the point of exit; we trail gore. We are nature red in tooth and claw. Then we are placed on the softness of a mother, and the world folds in on itself, and we are briefly beautiful.

Maybe it's because of the recent furore surrounding Original Sin, but I caught myself thinking about unbaptised babies. I grew up Catholic, learning that unbaptised babies, thanks to the stain of Adam's sin, couldn't access heaven, having to settle for Limbo instead. They've since performed somewhat of a doctrinal volte-face, but it's still not clear where these babies go. I've been thinking about Macbeth and its attendant occult trappings, too, because I'm currently teaching it, and the two melded. During a Black Sabbath, witches would smear themselves in 'flying ointment' to give them the power of flight. This was, presumably, performed after the Osculum Infame – the kissing of the Devil's anus. In any case, this ointment was putatively made using fat rendered from dead unbaptised babies.
There was a deep-rooted societal fear of the stealing of such children for use by witches:

"Then he teacheth them to make ointments of the bowels and members of children, whereby they ride in air, and accomplish all their desires. So as, if there be any children unbaptised, or not guarded with the sign of the cross or orisons, then the witches may and do catch them from their mothers' sides in the night, or...after burial steal them out of their graves, and seethe them in a cauldron until their flesh be made potable." (Reginald Scot's The Discovery of Witchcraft [1584])

This might account for the pariah status of midwives during the Early Modern Period. Thomas R Forbes notes in 'Midwifery and Witchcraft' that midwives were looked down on even by 'the barber, the knacker, and the executioner, and a midwife's son might be excluded from a trade guild because of his mother's occupation. Forbes goes on to state that midwives because rather susceptible to witchcraft – which, it must be remembered, was really practiced, inasmuch as some women called themselves witches and practiced what they believed to be real witchcraft. This susceptibility was likely catalysed by their pariah status, and made more likely by their proximity to dead babies and the sheer superstition surrounding the act of birth. The act of birth is often dubbed a 'miracle', and is and was a cause of great joy, but it is also disgusting and dangerous. Only hyenas have more dangerous births than humans; it's only modern medical science that gives us our artificially-high success rate. Moreover, such superstition surrounded the placenta, umbilicus and caul; the latter appears to have been especially coveted by witches as it was believed to be able to prevent drowning. My point is this: the beauty of a child entering the world is, and has been, ugly, on multiple levels.

Why do I labour this point? It's because I think that beauty and ugliness are, when it comes to human nature, inextricable. We have a tendency to turn things ugly. It's not surprising; we leave dirt and mess wherever we go. We are a conspicuous and mucky species. Our behaviour is frequently ugly out of choice. And if we know anyone well, it means that we've seen enough of their ugliness to know that it's worth putting up with it to occasionally access the beautiful. But what if it's a mistake to separate beauty and ugliness so? What if the binary is useless, trite, or false?

I've been reading the autobiography of Mark Oliver Everett, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, and it is an ugly thing. His prose is like a brutalist block stretching skyward. His life is pitted and pocked with the craters of tragedy. And yet, good grows, like a rose in cement. I first got into Eels' music by way of their best of, Meet The Eels. Back then, when I bought a CD, I'd tease off the cellophane and listen to the album all the way through while reading the liner notes. In the notes, Eels' music was described as jolie-laid: ugly-beautiful. That phrase has stayed with me since then, because I think it's a truer reflection of the human experience. You see, there's a certain type of sadness I actually covet. It's as fine as a blade, and you've got to get it right, or you slide off into self-pity or despair. But the sweet spot is that special, creative sadness, the one where you become introspective, and your thoughts elide in that graceful, doomed aching. That's the place art comes from, that nascent tugging sadness. It's where artists find their muse. The problem is, you can't ride that wave for too long: it's why so many creatives because bloated, miserable suicides. But art – so often, thanks to the Romantics, held as synonymous with beauty and truth – is actually ugly. Without ugliness and trial and terror it cannot come forth. But, when it does come forth, it's not just ugly: that act of making is an act of hybridity: ugly-beautiful.

Eels play in this place. The titular juxtaposition of 'Beautiful Freak' is simple but true. I believe that love isn't attached to the beautiful parts of a person. Anyone can enjoy the beautiful parts of a person. Love is the total adoration of another person's uglinesses, all of them, actively. It's not about just accepting someone's ugliness; it's about kissing the Devil's anus. It's about a willingness to plumb the darkest depths of that person with joy, knowing that what's there will be ugly, and loving it anyway. And we, too, can and should remember our ugliness. It's where our art comes from, and it's the reason the people who matter love us.