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Word or phrase for the beauty in pain, tragedy, damage, etc?

English Language & Usage Asked by Naomi on November 30, 2020

I’m looking for either a single word or a very short (really, as short as possible) phrase that could be defined (literally or metaphorically) as:

“beauty that is possessed due to or despite the pain, suffering, darkness, brokenness, disturbing qualities, malformation, etc. belonging to the entity in question.”

It does not necessarily need to reference any of those (traditionally) negative qualities explicitly; you can replace them with a blanket statement such as “a quality that is traditionally viewed as negative or in opposition to wellness.”

The word/phrase could be in English or any other language. If it is in a language other than English, it will still be used in the context of English as a loan-word.

The word/phrase does not need to literally mean this; even if it refers to this concept only in metaphor I will accept it.

This word or phrase does not need to be in formal usage or be in a traditional dictionary. What I mean by this is that the word may be one that is found only in a particular literary or scholarly work(s), or is in common parlance. Therefore, slang is acceptable, as is a word that is only seen in a specialized academic community, or even a word made up by a well known and reputable writer. I don’t want nonsense words you make up.

An example sentence illustrating the intended usage is “She [a horribly scarred young woman] possessed a profound and unsettling _____.”

An adjectival form of this idea would also be acceptable, in which case an example sentence could be “The ______ scene filled the explorers with unexpected awe.”

Note that the word or phrase need not obey the specific structure of those sentences, as they were supplied simply to illustrate the general direction of usage.

2 Answers

"Tortured beauty" comes to mind, although you mention in your comment that you find it "constrained to cases of the subject being in pain or appearing as if they are." So onward,

"There was no guile there, no artifice or coquetry, just that terrible aching beauty. -Paul Adam, A Nasty Dose of Death from http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/coquetry

or

"Such aching beauty, at the cost of solitude." from https://www.foboko.com/sentence-dictionary/english/solitude

or

"The mind passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage; The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; The heart-breaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it. -Robinson Jeffers, Tor House, Carmel, October 1, 1927" from "Credo" in The Women at Point Sur, page 239 at http://tinyurl.com/zklw6ko

or

"All changed, changed utterly; A terrible beauty is born. W.B. Yeats – Easter 1916, from http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-thesaurus/beauty

If I can think of others, I will edit them into my answer.

Correct answer by Mark Hubbard on November 30, 2020

I think the word you're looking for is pathos:

the quality or power in an actual life experience or in literature, music, speech, or other forms of expression, of evoking a feeling of pity, or of sympathetic and kindly sorrow or compassion. (from Dictionary.com)

The adjectival form of pathos is pathetic, which has less power in this context, since it is used far more commonly as a descriptor of a wholly negative quality, so perhaps poignant would be a more appropriate adjective.

Answered by Charl E on November 30, 2020

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