Thursday, August 21, 2008

On beauty

Nabokov, the author of Lolita, on being asked about how American he was, had replied, “I’m as American as April in Arizona.” I read it in an article in the Economist and thought that it was beautiful. But like many things beautiful, the writer of the article stated and I agree with him, it meant nothing.

From my recent trip along the Konkan coast, I brought some coasters that featured picturesque vistas: sunsets, sunrises, beaches, sand, shells. Decidedly appealing. But what did they mean? Did they appeal because they were photographs—moments when time was caught static and developed on print. Isn’t that merely a manner of speaking, with little underlying substance?

And why did I like what Nabokov had said?

Human understanding, as Phaedrus saw, can be divided into classical and romantic understanding. Function and form is how I have come to understand it. Classical understanding deals with the underlying basis, the meaning of things, while the romantic mode is concerned with appearance. What things mean versus how things appear. Art can be said to belong to the domain of the romantic. You can’t write an algorithm to produce a good painting. Art is a product of intuition, imagination, inspiration. Science is primarily classical: it looks for reason and logic. In the romantic mode, the distinction between “good” and “bad,” “ugly” and “beautiful,” is made mainly on the basis of esthetics and outward form. In the classical mode, such divisions run deeper. They cut to the bone, expose the underlying form, in search of a compact structure. To the proverbial artist, the scientist is boring. And the scientist generally has no time for the artist.

There appears to be a wedge driven straight between the romantic and classical edifices. However, there has to be something that lends meaning to them in conjunction—that sheds light on their separateness in a manner that builds a bridge between. That is very fundamental—the crux. This is what Phaedrus set out to discover.


The reason I enjoyed myself so much on the trip was because I was myself throughout. Every day, people enter rooms—not merely physically enclosed spaces but sealed containers in their heads too—and start talking and behaving in a certain way. It’s like something’s in the air: the whole milieu changes. The you starts to watch out and has his hands full watching out. It’s exhausting, not to mention debilitating.

Travelling alone, or with a close friend, is like getting back into your own skin. To use the words of J K Rowling (although in an entirely different context), the inessentials are stripped off. You can wander aimlessly; you don’t have to show purpose; you don’t have to care. You become a tent by the beach, not a fully furnished house. No keeping track of bills, no closing doors and windows before going to sleep, no checking of taps and switches. Just listen to the waves and lie in the sound.