Originally published in the 3 May 2019 issue of the Wall Street Journal.
The Power of Cute
Princeton, 256 pages, $18.00
Most Americans now have in their pockets a computer that can call up the greatest riches of human civilization at the tap of a forefinger, and we use them to look at cat videos. Is there something wrong with us? Simon May thinks so. The Power of Cute is a pint-size book with an ambitious aim: to explain the zeitgeist of the Instagram age.
The first challenge facing Mr. May, who teaches philosophy at King’s College London, is to define what he means by “cute.” Clearly size has something to do with it; people are drawn to babylike things, for reasons evolutionary psychologists have elaborated. But to be cute is not merely to be diminutive. The wedding staged by P.T. Barnum between Tom Thumb and 32-inch-tall Lavinia Bump was cute. The dwarves painted by Velázquez in “Las Meninas” are not. The best definition of cuteness unearthed by Mr. May is from the 11th-century “Pillow Book” of Sei Shonagon, the courtier poetess of Heian Japan. “All small things are most adorable,” she writes, offering as her exemplum “the face of a child drawn on a melon.”