Friday, March 03, 2006

A Brahmin, a German and a Dame are in a room, right...

Upon reading UR Anantha Murthy’s first novel, Samskara, one cannot help but think lovingly of Kant and Hume. And Murdoch. Okay, so, one can’t help but think of an 18th century German philosopher, a portly Scottish philosopher, an Irish-born British dame, and a revolutionary South-East Indian Brahmin, together in a closed room discussing social class, beauty, morality, and sex. Right.

In the novel, Praneshacharya, a Brahmin of the highest Indian caste and most holy Hindu ceremonial rite, goes on a hero’s quest. When a plague breaks out, Praneshacharya wanders away from the sheltered village where he has passed all of his holy life, and stumbles into the forest wondering where his life will go from here. He encounters on the path, a young woman of a different cast. She bends to touch his feet in devotion after realizing that he is a Brahmin, and instead her breast bumps his knee. They have sex, blah blah blah, and it is the most meaningful thing the old chaste Brahmin has ever experienced. After he awakes, Praneshacharya begins a long and aimless journey of the mind. His worldview, that is to say his moral view, has suddenly been turned on its head and he cannot tell why or by what means. Aye, there’s the rub.

In the Hindu psyche, good and holy are not equal. Brahmins are born into a holy caste, but they are by no means guaranteed to be good. Thought, when they wander from town to town, people are expected to feed them, clothe and shelter them. Prostitutes are supposed to lower their prices for a Brahmin because they bear the mark of holiness. (Note that this is also outside the realm of Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought in which God is inarguably holy and good. Some Hindu gods are chaste, and some are practitioners of sensuality: so are their messangers.) The food freebies, cheap sex and consistent lodging are inarguably “agreeable,” they are “what gratify” the otherwise boring life of Brahminism (Kant, 102). And while this lifestyle, which is agreeable, may have the potential to be “good...and esteemed,” in a contemporary world it has come to be abused (Kant 102). That is to say the Brahmins don’t feed the poor or touch the lepers, they read texts and offer “the sacred balsam plants” to lifeless statues (Murthy, 14). Theirs is a life that consists mostly of the agreeable, and contains few moments of “objective worth” in which the participants have “some interest” invested in the “end” of their actions (Kant 102, 100).

As a Brahmin chaste to the core, Praneshacharya knows no act that is good, that “pleases on its own account” (Kant 99). Rather, all his acts are gratifying only because he knows that they commend him to the gods. He orbits the agreeable. His morality is outwardly chaste but inwardly selfish and absolutely contextualized, and when he is asked to answer a moral riddle without referencing the holy texts, he cannot do it. He has no “spiritual…instinct” or personal ethical values (Murdoch 83). Assuming, as we are, that beauty leads to morality, Murdoch might assert that Praneshacharya has no morals yet because he has not yet experienced the “‘unselfing’” so “popularly called beauty” (Murdoch 82). Hume might suggest that our hero has not experience beauty because he cannot “preserve his mind free from all prejudice,” including his selfishness (Hume 239). But Kant might argue that Praneshacharya is in the perfect position to be suddenly and radically transformed by beauty: he is in a state of “complete indifference” (Kant 98).

Using a conglomeration of our knowledge of aesthetics, beauty and morality gained thus far, we can form a hypothesis regarding the Brahmin’s sexual rebirth. First, the sexual experience is judged to be beautiful as it involves a “free play” between “the imagination and the intellect” (Kant 116). During the sexual experience, our hero is “bewildered” and imagines “a pair of doves” flying over his legs which “ebb like the ocean” (Murthy 63). His imagination suddenly conjures new images and potentialities. The act occurring is, in fact, beautiful. It is beautiful, too as a work of art, in the setting, tone, and form; and, if you’re into 60 year old Brahmins, content. Indeed, although our Praneshacharya once regarded himself as having been “born with a ‘Good’ nature” and having lived life as “a ‘Man of Goodness,’” he does not start to question his “beliefs” and “cultivate his salvation” until after his sexual experience (Murthy, 76). And the experience was able to receive him at such large consequence because he had no intention of having said experience. His actions were without expectation, anticipation or self. In short (and in fact) they were virginal.

In his meanderings that follow, Praneshacharya begins to wander into the world of non-holy life and is thus faced with a range of new experience that forces him to form his own ethical opinions. And, Kant tells us, because of the effort involved as he is moves toward his own constellation of ethics, he is moving toward his own good. His inner state is pure, Murdoch would note, and although his actions were estimable before, now his intent is estimable, just like our hypothetical mother-in-law, “M.” This rich inner ethic and the hitherto unknown sense of self is the “implication of [his] experience with beauty” (Murdoch 82).

40 oz. to Freedom

It's that magical time of the year again when young college students turn their minds to the thoughts of far off and exotic destinations, shortlived romances, and consuming copious quantities of alcohol. That's right, spring break. And as much as I would like to consider myself a member of the aesthetic elite who need not engage in such hedonistic pleasure, I will admit that I too have my own plans that involve traveling from Tacoma to a distant place where a few drinks will most likely be consumed. However, I'm hoping to connect with the aesthetic experience while doing so due to the nature of my plans. The Canyonlands of Utah are my destination and, having never been there, I am hoping to view nature that is not only beautiful but sublime. And you were all wondering how the title of this post was relevant. Unfortunately since I haven't as of yet been there, it means that I will have to forgoe the pleasure of describing the landscape and refer to The Unicorn instead.
A point that struck me was when Marian commented to Effingham, "I hadn't expected such an extreme landscape. It takes getting used to. Sublime rather than beautiful, isn't it?" (Murdoch 84) What exactly is that distinction and where does it come from? The lands that surround Gaze Castle certainly seem to verge on the extreme with a treacherous bog, towering cliffs, an angry sea, and desolate plains all drawn out in garish colors. So is the sublime landscape one which is not precisely attractive, but rather shocking? Shocking not in the sense that it is replusive or startling, but more that it arrests the attention and captures the mind of the viewer. Sublime is an act that seems to require participation whereas beautiful invites observation and, at least according to our friend Kant, disinterest. Here is a question for anyone who reads this: the sublime is most often referred to in the context of landscapes (sweeping vistas, desolate glaciers, towering mountains, infinitely large deserts that remind us of our own humble size) but are there other experiences that could be called sublime? And if so, what qualifies them as such rather than as members of Scott's now well-read list of that which is aesthetically pleasing?
Examine Effingham's moment of lucid clarity that comes as a result of nearly dying in the bog: he first comments "How beautiful the bog looks in the sun. So many colours, reds and blues and yellows. I never knew it had so many colours." (Murdoch 170) Having experienced the bog first as an object of the sublime, he has transgressed it and in his survival is now able to see it differently. Perhaps it is the fear of the land that moves people to call it sublime. Either way, I hope to experience it first hand in a little over a week. But that right there makes me question my pending analysis of what I will see. Can it really be either sublime or beautiful if I have the expectations that it will garner such praise? In prematurely elevating it to such a pedestal all the while confining it to a pigeonhole of a definition, am I not destroying the possibilities? Only time will tell.