Monday, June 29, 2009

On Beauty : A History of a Western Idea - Umberto Eco

Concept of beauty and aesthetics was the subject of discussion from the early ages of civilisation. Reproduction of beauty ( of human, animals and objects) were part of the initial form of art. Innumerable examples of arts and artefacts are available in various civilisations. Umberto Eco, renowned novelist, philosopher, and professor of Semiotics looks at the concept of beauty and its representation in the form of arts ( most common apart from literature) through Western ( European) study and analysis.
"Beauty is all that pleases" says Eco in his introduction. "Art and poetry (and consequently beauty) may gladden the eye or the mind, but they are not directly connected to the truth".

"A beautiful object is an object that by virtue of its form delights the senses, especially sight and hearing. ...important role is also played by the qualities of the soul and the personality, which are perceived by the minds eyes more than the eye of the body."

One of the initial classification of beauty was at least into three aesthetic categories: Ideal Beauty : which represent nature by means of a montage of the parts; Spiritual Beauty : Which expresses the should through the eye and Useful or Functional Beauty.

"But this early point of view can not be fully understood if we look at beauty through modern eyes, as was often the case in the various epochs that assumed as authentic and original a 'Classical' representation of beauty that was in reality engendered by projecting a modern point of view onto the past."

From the initial era , where the representation of beauty was raw and not guided and subjected to any conceptual theories and methods, there were people who were trying to bring a structure to the image.
One of them were to try and connect them to mathematical formula and structure. "Pythagoras was the first to maintain that the origin on all things lay in numbers."
"According to common sense we judge a well - proportioned things beautiful. Since ancient times, beauty has been identified with proportion. Proportion must always be accompanied by the pleasantness of colour and of light. " Symmetry was the next to guide the evolution, especially on the buildings and structures.
"Beauty is not only symmetry and proportion, but harmony too. Harmony is not the absence of but the equilibrium between opposites".
"Beauty does not correspond to what we see...the sight of the senses must be overcome by intellectual sight, which requires a knowledge of dialectical art, in other words philosophy. And so, not every one is able to grasp true beauty..... A Japanese sculpture is made to be touched, while a Tibetan sand mandala requires interaction. For the Greeks, however, beauty was expressed by those senses that permit a distance to be maintained between the object and the observer; sight and hearing rather than touch , taste and smell."
The early ages of representation of aesthetics through paintings and sculpture were largely guided by the religious and spiritual bodies, followed by the patrons of the art, usually the Feudal Landlords and the rich. Towards, renaissance and the period after that, the practitioners themselves have become rich and independent, thus with the ability to experiment and improve their art.

"In the twilight of Renaissance civilisation, a significant idea began to gain ground; Beauty did not so much spring from balanced proportion, but from a sort of torsion, a restless reaching out for something lying beyond the mathematical rules that govern the physical world."

One of the aspect of beauty was the understanding and use of light. "Light is the substantial form of bodies. In this sense light is the principle of all Beauty".
Eco also discusses the "Beautiful representation of Ugliness". Ugliness as the antithesis of Beauty , was there since the initial stages. The monsters and the other deformed and shapeless creatures were abundant in the early years as well.

Medieval times were guided by the thought that "Beauty and deformity are not the qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. ..... The idea that Beauty is something that appears as such to the perceiver, that it is bound up with senses, the recognition of pleasure, was dominant in diverse philosophical circles."

Romantisism , dandyism ( From the physical beauty to the class & Style.. more importance to the dress and attire.. "Life was not to be dedicated to art. Art was to be applied to life. Life as art.") were also influenced the art in the early 19th century. Towards the second half of 19th century, with the effects of industrialisation, a large anonymous populace belongs to the working class were available in large metropolis and the art had to cater to their tastes. There were new interpretation of art under the influence of socialistic umbrella. Leo Tolstoy wrote "What is art?" and there were other study of aesthetics from a this angle. The 'Art for the people" and the "Art for Art's Sake" discussions were hot at this period, and reflections of which was also heard in literature and other forms of art.

20th century had seen major changes and concepts in the understanding and reproduction of beauty. From Symbolism ( how to recreate more intense possibilities of experience, how to make them more deeper and more impalpable) , impressionism of Van Gogh , Monet etc ( "One does not paint a landscape , a harbour or a figure: one paints the impression of an hour of the day of a landscape) , expressionism, surrealism , cubism and other ways of representation.

With the introduction of photography and movies, the references of beauty was in for a drastic change. Images of glorious movie stars and the still photography have changed the regular understanding of aesthetics available to the common man from the connoisseurs. Eco calls this " The beauty of provocatoin or the Beauty of consumption" . People follow the ideals of Beauty as suggested by the world of commercial consumption ( the mass media).

Over 400 illustrations, its commentary with insights , quotes from selected texts and writings of that period makes this book a rare collection. While my understanding of this subject is next to nothing, reading through this did give me substantial idea on the evolution of the theory of aesthetics and its representation at various period. While this might not be the most comprehensive ( in way of a proper study of aesthetics and beauty), and was more of a coffee table book in style, it is indeed a worthy collection for those interested in art and aesthetics. The pages contain some of the gorgeous and famous paintings you have heard. The discussion is guided by the chronological evolution, but the chapters are segregated under common topics irrespective of their time and period.
I have read elsewhere that only nine of the 17 chapters were written by Eco; the rest are by the Italian novelist Girolamo de Michele. However, I haven't seen any mention of his name in the credits. As the title suggests, this was the study under the 'western/ European' history of aesthetics. Each stage I was trying to make parallels to the eastern ( Indian to be precise) way of aesthetics. While there are striking similarities, I am not sure if we have done a study at this depth.

On Beauty - A History of a Western Idea
Edited By : Umberto Eco ( Translated by Alastair McEwen )
Secker & Warburg
438 Pages
More Read : Guardian , Independent

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Story Teller's Tale - Omair Ahmad

The setting is perfect. 18th century, attack of Delhi by Ahmad Shah Abdali and his men. His house has been ransacked and he had to flee as the case of others with the minimum essentials that he could gather. Avadh, is the destination. His life as a poet and story teller hasn't given him monitory freedom in his life, only a few well wishers. Thakir is a days ride from the city on the way to Avadh. On a stolen horse, as insipid as him, he reaches the gates of this small town. Distraught and tired, all he needed was rest and some food.
When the Begum of the casbah ( mansion / citadel ) invite him to tell a tale ( on hearing about is credentials), little did he realise that he is getting into a maze from which there is no escape. When he narrates the tale of two brothers ( one a boy and the other a wolf) , of loyalty , fear, love and distrust, he was confronted by a return story by the Begum of Aresh and Barab , reinstating the power of love and trust beyond death. Now this was the first time, the story teller was challenged with a counter tale. He has to respond with a story establishing the facts he believe in countering that of the Begum. Thus , he return to the Casbah to tell his version of the Begum's story , emphasizing on the duality of life and the hidden dark animalistic desire of human kind. Begum has the final act of narration, and taking cue from where the story teller left, getting back to unfulfilled love and the suppressed desire leaving him perplexed for ever.
It is the book on story telling. Exploring possibilities within the frame work of the given story, finding new interpretations and new meanings. It is also about conveying hidden messages of the human kind. It is also confronting the enemy by your means. The story is also the place to set their personal attributes. The story teller had never been in love , all his life. He had never succumbed to the temptation, until now. It is only now, that he was faced with a challenge which had disarmed him. It is now, he has seen his own vulnerability.
While the focus and centre point of the short novel is on the story telling, what I liked is the subtle and simple way of getting the human nature into the same. The peripheral characters and the places has no significance in the whole. And the initial setting of the plot ( the Ahmad Shah Abdali , the destruction of Delhi etc) also play no role in the novel.
A well constructed novel, with god simple writing makes it a good read. It may not be a literary sensation or one book that will be in discussion after ten years. Nonetheless, it is a good short novel, well executed.
The Storyteller's Tale
Omair Ahmad
Penguin Books India
122 Pages
Rs 225
More read : The Hindu , Interview with the author in Bangalore Mirror and

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard" , starts one of the classic novels of 20th Century. This line is considered to be one of the best first lines from novels by many ( see the list ).
Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, is considered to be one of the modern English Classic. Though I have read this in my college days, I had another opportunity to read this book again, recently.
At the outset, it is another story of love and infidelity around two otherwise perfect noble families. An English couple, of Edward and Leonara Ashburnham and their friends, American family of John and Florence Dowell indulge in a 9 year old story of friendship, adultery, power, deceit and love. The story is retold by John Dowell, as he recollects the events in their life ,since their acquaintance with the Ashburnhams. The plot is fairly simple. It is about Edward, the good soldier, and his various flirtations with the ladies of different class and type, including the wife of the narrator , which he knew only after the death of the adulterers. While the families maintain their social respectability in their conducts and daily routine, the effects of the mistresses in the life of Edward bring forward the various power politics into the life.

As we see, both the marriages are not something to cherish. Edward, deprived of his pleasures (for no obvious reasons), seek out to other lovers as his mistresses. Over the period he had been with various mistresses often loosing valuable money, until his wife takes over his financial affairs, giving him yearly allocation for himself. John on the other hand, is made to the belief that his wife has a deteriorating heart condition, which worsened after their journey across Atlantic, and any advances will loose her forever. Unlike Edward, he is not ( at least in his narrative) getting into the dangerous zone of seeking pleasure from outside. "If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did" , he says. Though, after the death of his wife, he was keen to marry Nancy, the new love of Edward, on the advice of Leonara. The narration takes us through the lives of the two families through fragmented recollections, and various lovers of Edward, until the eventual death of Florence and Edward.

While none of the characters win your sympathy and admiration, one of the most interesting character in this story is Leonara. The writer, I guess has formed the character very vague and secretive, who controls the entire events as they unfold. There is an invisible presence of her through out and none could ever win over her with their charm.

At the end, it is death for both the adulterers of the story. Florence, dies of her hear decease when she in an anger of the moment ( when she found Edward with the young Girl Nancy at the garden), does not take the medicine that prevent her heart failure. Edward ends up committing suicide. While John was unaware of the flowering love between his wife and Edward, Leonara was aware of every affairs of her husband. Most of the story was revealed to John by Leonara, post the death of their respective partners.

The narration is not smooth, as the recollections are not in chronological order. As he himself explains..
"I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I can not help it.... And when one discusses an affair - a long, sad affair - one goes back, one goes forward."

It is a story of jealousy, adultery, love, despair, power, revenge and manipulation fitted with a glorious writing, with acute observation of characters, the subtle non-verbal changes of attitudes of individuals. One of the beauty of this book is that one can approach this (in your after read moments), with perspective from each character. This book is one which demands further read and each read will bring out some new angle to the subject , thus revealing itself much clearer to the reader.

I've read elsewhere , that the original title given by the author was "The Saddest Story", which was later changed by the publisher at the onset of the World War I, which remained there after. It is also said to be loosely based on two incidents of adultery and on Ford's messy personal life.

Outstanding book, no wonder, it is considered as one of the classic literature of 20th century.
The Good Soldier

151 Pages
Further Read : Biography of Ford Madox Ford at Books&Writers, Guardian Review

Friday, June 12, 2009

Death at Intervals - Jose Saramago

"The Following Day, No one died".
Death abandons a unnamed country, from the first day of the new year. No one died ever since. The queen Mother, who was returned from the hospital and awaiting her final moments, miraculously survived. After few minutes wait, the King and the other royal family members resumed their routine task.
The word spread, as no death has been reported in the country since the break of new year. The people are excited with the new status of immortality. There had been celebrations, hosting national flags and other acts of joy. News papers covered headlines, editorials, articles and interviews about the new phenomenon.

But, everyone are not happy as it seems to be. The funeral undertaking business, is now in trouble, as their 'raw material' is now not available. The sale of Coffin is dropped to Zero. The church is also perplexed with the new development. When there is no death, there is no promise of paradise after the life on earth, there is no fear and there is no redemption. For the survival of the church, it is essential that the death is restored. Philosophers are in a new dilemma, in analysing and de-constructing the absence of death. Government is also in a fix as they are forced to make a statement and not sure how to react. Insurance companies are also found the situation challenging as their offices were flooded with requests to discontinue the policies, as there is no more death. They have immediately had their high level meeting and come out with a quick plan, which makes every one declared dead in their books, irrespective of the physical and spiritual life, at the age of 80. They can , however, opt for another policy from that day and can continue till the age of 160 ( the multiple of 80 there of). Hospitals are also in trouble, as they are filled with sick people, whose life refuses to leave them, but are unable to perform any humanly functions. They are overflowing and unable to manage the chaos and crowd. Economics have warned the government of the potential calamities to the nations economic condition if this status prevailed. In short, the excitement was short-lived.

One day, an ailing old man unable to stand the torture of being alive, had a bright idea. He requested his daughter and son-in-law to take him across the border, where the death is still active. One night, without being caught by any spying eyes of the neighbourhood, the family manages to cross the border, and needless to say, the old man dies as soon as the border is crossed. Though they returned unnoticed, the news has spread. They were accused of murdering their father, but another group argued that the old man himself wanted to die, and it should then be considered as suicide. While the moral and ethical questions continued, more and more families started smuggling the old across the border. Soon Government was on alert and forces were deployed at the borders to prevent the exodus of people. No later, an underground group, calling themselves maphia ( with 'ph', they insist) organising the clandestine operation of taking people into the neighbouring countries and organising the last rituals for a fee, started sending threatening letters to the soldiers and their commanders on duty. Considering various pros and cons, the Government issues a secret order to the soldiers on border duty to turn a blind eye towards these incidents, allowing the death to continue, trying to get back the equilibrium on population.

On the seventh month of this fiasco, the director of the state television and news agency was greeted by a violet coloured letter in his office ( which was double-locked for sure), when he arrived in office. The letter, written in small letters and with no punctuation and commas and was signed by death (in small letters), announcing that she ( note: she) was experimenting over the months , but will be back in action from tonight. She in her letter claimed, "death took death away to show humans what eternity was like; the experiment failed". Panic stricken Director rushed to the Prime Minister's Office , seeking an appointment. He was advised to stay low on this until the prime time evening news, where a Government Communique advising people to remain calm and assuring necessary steps from the Government on the wake of the new development, would be read. Following which the Director himself, is asked to read out the letter from 'death' to the viewers. As the statistics claim, when the clock struck 12 at midnight, more than 62000 people have died. While the people thought the normalcy has returned at last, there was a new twist to the story. People started getting violet envelope addressed to their name, informing them of their imminent death, giving them their last week to live, causing further chaos to the already troubled country. Following day, the news papers carried headlines and columns and boxed reports in detail, where one of the over smart sub-editor made the necessary corrections to the letter adding appropriate comma etc. in accordance with his learning and profession, even correcting the signature 'death' replacing 'd' with a capital 'D'.
"the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter."

However, he had to retrace his actions and make a public apology after being threatened by 'death' with a potential violet letter on his name.
While 'death' was having fun at the expense of poor countrymen, one of the letter returned as undelivered, with no apparent reason. She tried to send this again, citing some technical error, but was returned undelivered. Curious, she found out that the to-be recipient of this letter was a 49 year old Cellist, living alone with his dog. After following him for a couple of days at his home, the park and the theatre during his rehearsal, she could not figure out the reason for this being rejected and returned. She pulled out the dusty record of this person from the cupboard, and realised that according to that, he was to die at the age of 49 and the previous day he had celebrated (as a matter of saying) his 50th birthday which he is not entitled to live.

Now it is the question of prestige as death is not known for failure. It was unprecedented. She has to hand over the letter to him some how, thus ensuring the law of death is prevailed. Disguised as a beautiful lady, she visits him at his performance and congratulate him post the event, even offering him a ride back to his apartment. She continue her effort to seduce him by calling him over phone, meeting him at the park , reminding him that there is something she wanted to give him, after his performance on Saturday. Though she did not attend the concert on Saturday, she was waiting for him at his apartment with the letter in question.... and the rest is for you to read the book and find out.
There aren't many novels where death is taken a human form. One which I see comparison was the works of Terry Pratchet. Some of the last scenes ( the communication between death and the cellist) reminded me of 'Devil and Miss Prym' of Paulo Coelho.

Many interesting aspect of humanising death. First of all, death for him is a female of 165-168cm height. It is also one with many human characteristics. With jealousy, with greed, with pleasure in its action, and also one which falls in love. It is also go through the similar emotions of human and struggles with the dilemma of duty and feelings of love.

Jose Saramago is at his best in taking up an experimental subject ( the double, blindness etc) and turning it into a philosophical and intellectual masterpiece. The book is very funny and often silly, but an interesting work of fiction.

A social and political satire, with his customary style of writing. Long sentences, strings of conversation between individuals separated only by a comma, and the long paragraphs make it hard for the readers. But a very funny, joyous, intellectual first half and a curious and sweet love story in the latter half. A very interesting read and a fascinating book by the Nobel Laureate.
Death at Intervals

Jose Saramago ( translated by Margeret Jull Costa )

Vintage Books

196 Pages

Rs 381.5
Further Read : The Humanist, Guardian , Times

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Paolo Giordano

"Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They stand in their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed in between two others, like all other numbers, but a step further on than the rest. They are suspicious and solitary, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they’d been trapped like pearls strung on a necklace. At other times he suspected that they too would rather have been like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason they weren’t capable of it. The second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself liesIn his first-year Mattia had studied the fact that among the prime numbers there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: they are pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of numbers and you become aware of the distressing sense that the pairs encountered up until that point were an accidental fact, that their true fate is to remain alone. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have any desire to go on counting, you come across another two twins, clutching one another tightly. Among mathematicians it is a common conviction that however far you go, there will always be more pairs, even if no one can say where, until they are discovered. Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another. He had never told her that. When he imagined confessing these things to her, the thin layer of sweat on his hands evaporated completely and for a good ten minutes he was no longer capable of touching anything.."

This book published in Italy last year, has already caused a storm selling over 1 Million copies and winning the prestigious Premio Strega ( top literary award in Italy). The book was officially released on June 4, 2009, its first English translation by Transworld Publishers.

Life of Mattia and Alice, are like those prime numbers. Mattia is one who rejected the world , while Alice was rejected by the world. Two lives, devastated and with disfigured mind trying to find solace in each other, at the same time, unable to join together.

Alice's life is guided by the early age skiing accident, which leaves her crippled for life. The wish of her imposing father, resulting in the early rejection by the daughter was one which never to be re-connected. Mattia on the other hand suffers from the loss of his twin-sister, retarded, whom he leave in a park for attending a friends birthday, never to see her again. He grew up as an exceptional student and a person, never been able to get connected to the general society.

The novel takes us through the life of Alice and Mattia, both spending their young, adulthood and grown up ages, linked but isolated. Alice marry Fabio, the doctor, who treated her ailing mother, in an attempt to join the mainstream. Mattia on the other hand remained an individual with no companion, among mathematical formulae and works accepting an invitation from a UK University to be their faculty member, while pursuing his studies.

This novel is about people on the 'borderline'. Despite the effort by themselves and by others, they find it hard to mingle and join the mainstream community. They are often viewed as different and treated with 'protection' or with contempt. Soon, they take solace in rejecting the world and build a world of their own, focussing and excelling in their profession.

The book is written in chronological sequence , citing main events from their lives which shapes the character and the future, leaving the gap to be filled by the reader. It is an easy and quick read, engaging till the end. What was interesting as a reader is that, you too are not connected with them personally, but a witness to the events as they unfold in front of you. Pretty decent read, though depressing.

Needless to say, the first book written by this 26 year old writer is already a making waves.


The solitude of Prime Numbers

Paolo Giordano

Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Transworld Books

347 Pages

More Read: Financial Times