The Virtues of Disillusionment. Athabasca University Press
Made-Up: A True Story of Beauty Culture under Late Capitalism. Coach House Books and
Daphné B’s Made-Up: A True Story of Beauty Culture under Late Capitalism and Steven Heighton’s The Virtues of Disillusionment are proof that books do not have to be long to be profound. In fact, Daphné B’s is a quick 170 pages, and Heighton’s essay-turned-book is just 36 pages long. Yet both offer strong insight, commentary, and critiques that will have readers contemplating the contents long after turning the final page.
Heighton’s essay starts by examining the paradox of the word disillusion, which combines two negative words (dis and illusion) to create yet another negative word—a rarity in the world of linguistics. He describes “illusion” as “a false conception . . . a lie, a delusion” (4), a pure minus one (5). However, illusions are often necessary and productive for writers, who need these foundational beliefs or truths to produce believable and investment-worthy characters. But, Heighton cautions, long-term reliance on illusions (to the point of structuring one’s life around them) is dangerous and, ultimately, self-defeating. The more a person clings to illusions, the harder the fall when they finally are disillusioned. Heighton describes disillusionment as “a kind of jilting/rejection,” like being “Dear Johned by a spectre” (6-7). Nevertheless, he insists that disillusionment is necessary, and in fact beneficial, because it is only through being disillusioned that we gain freedom from the illusions that structure (and thus control) our lives. He uses the example of his own first novel, which fell woefully short of expectations, to emphasize that it is often better (even necessary) to fail justly rather than to be unjustly rewarded. It is on this note that Heighton concludes his essay, leaving readers with a sense of hope and determination, perhaps in spite of themselves.
Throughout his essay Heighton strikes a fine balance between lighthearted observations, deep philosophical probing, and personal anecdotes. He seamlessly entwines his own experiences as an author with words of wisdom from Zeno, Leonard Cohen, and Tolstoy. One of the most interesting aspects of Heighton’s discussion is his figuration of “the Museum of Illusions,” which contains two exhibits: a skull with “[b]lindly staring eyeholes” surrounded by “layers of stained mummy wraps” (14), and an elaborate yet completely empty “coffer with its plaque, spotlighting, and internal ventilation system” (17). The first exhibit is “Ego,” the part of us that dominates our waking lives, craves attention and control, and pushes away unconscious thoughts and dreams. Heighton warns that allowing Ego to rule results in a life that is shallow, self-centred, and ultimately devoid of deeper meaning. The second exhibit, “the Pursuit of Happiness,” reveals how the equating of success or material wealth with happiness is an illusion doomed to fail and to leave us in despair until we are able to overcome it.
Daphné B’s book in many ways exemplifies Heighton’s discussion of illusions and disillusionment, bringing the conversation into stronger focus around the makeup and beauty industry. At first, readers might be tempted to identify with the widely held perspective that makeup is frivolous and foolish, that the author’s recounting of expensive Sephora purchases and YouTube binge-watching exposes her as a typical, shallow-minded millennial. However, as the book progresses, Daphné B explores increasingly complex and uncomfortable topics, from the beauty industry’s commodification of Audre Lorde’s radical conception of self-care, to the inner workings of “influencer culture,” to the mica mines in Jharkhand, India. She eloquently weaves in discussions of vulnerability, invisible labour, bodily autonomy, and the desire to love and be loved. By the end, readers must confront a number of difficult truths. One is that the beauty industry is complicit in many unethical goings-on, including environmental damage and unsafe labour practices. Another unpleasant but undeniable truth is that the beauty industry operates under the dictates of capitalism, and like capitalism it always adapts to create new needs and exploit our desires; it is pervasive, impossible to escape: “To live under capitalism is to participate in it” (131). Lastly, the equating of makeup with women, and the concomitant equating of ornament with artifice, is a patriarchal construction designed to disempower and disparage women who choose to make themselves up. Daphné B supports these claims with examples from all eras and areas of the globe, from Plato’s distrust of kosmētikḗ, to a twentieth-century Milanese women’s prison, Gloria Gaynor’s anthem “I Will Survive.”
In addition to offering commentary on different aspects of the makeup industry and beauty culture, Daphné B also brings in autobiographical details, reflecting on the origins of her love of makeup and the roles it has played in her past relationships. She offers, as Heighton does, a deconstruction of her own illusions, writing through the process of disillusionment before the eyes of her readers. This sloughing off of illusions, which mirrors the sloughing off of her makeup each night, also mimics the reader’s experience as they, too, are forced to abandon (or at least reconsider) the prejudices they may hold against those who have bought in, literally and figuratively, to beauty culture.
Although working from very different perspectives, both Heighton and Daphné B offer thought-provoking explorations of the illusions that structure our lives—and the necessity of stripping them away. Both works are more widely applicable than they might at first seem. Heighton’s book is not just for authors looking to energize or revamp their writing; it is for people from all walks and stages of life, although it will certainly resonate with younger readers setting out on careers and life courses who have yet to become (as many older readers already are) disillusioned. Daphné B’s book will mainly appeal to users of makeup in their thirties or younger, since references to YouTube gurus and musicians like Grimes might fall flat to an older audience. However, the incisive arguments she makes in her book address much broader social issues, so that the relevance of her work extends far beyond the beauty world she uses as her case study.
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