Ambivalent aesthetics

Enlightened Mind

I have a conviction that the poetry we appreciate and take aesthetic pleasure in is deeply rooted in our cultural traditions (aesthetics). We do not and cannot take any aesthetic interest in postmodern poetry. The reason may well be that we honor our cultural values, though, at the level of language, we speak a lot about postmodernism and postmodernist aesthetics. In our part of the world, if someone does take pleasure in English poetry, it is English romantic poetry, especially the late 18th century and early 19th century poetry which has a lot of commonality with the poetry written in our society.

However, a challenge arises when we have an aesthetic appeal for an idea/value/feeling in poetry that would otherwise be unacceptable to our acquired understanding of liberalism, feminism and certain other isms. For example, the following couplet from Jaun Elia is aesthetically appealing to everyone, but it raises a lot of questions:

Don't argue, you may lose it

Beauty is not that effective/big argument

The concept of beauty in our culture is associated with fragility, softness, innocence/ignorance and delicacy. Jaun, in the above couplet, refers to the triumph of beauty over intellect by encoding in it a value/meaning that he shares with the rest of us (The couplet can be interpreted differently; Jaun may be spoken of as the one who rebels against the tradition by prioritizing intellect over beauty. But the question is the aesthetic appeal the couplet carries, and that appeal is rooted in tradition).

A feminist shall argue that Jaun is suffering from the disease of patriarchy by confining women to the instruments of pleasing men's minds, dispossessing them of the ability and power to think, argue and speak on equal basis with men, as if only Jaun/men has/have the ability to speak, think and argue well.

Interestingly, even after being convinced that the feminist is right, the couplet still carries its aesthetic appeal. The independent human agency can disentangle itself from the whole mess intellectually, but can it stop being pleased by it? The problem leads us to the debate of the inevitability of being a prisoner of culture which is very lengthy and problematic. Take another example of a beautiful couplet by Gulzar Mausam:

Look at those two eyes, in which a pool of green water stands

Isn't it strange that I have been carried away by standing waters?

Here, the problem is of a different nature. Worshiping green eyes could be a sign of carrying colonial baggage. Though the aesthetic appeal in the couplet lies more in the witty metaphor than in the image of green waters itself, but the charge is hard to reject. A postcolonial scholar shall argue that Gulzar Mausam is a child of colonialism and that by surrendering to green eyes he has surrendered himself to cultural imperialism.

It is a complex argument, different from the one in Jaun's case, because here the aesthetics lies in something that has intruded into the native culture. This leads us to the debate about the purity and impurity of culture which is problematic. However, the basic problem is the same. The postcolonial scholar is right, but the couplet does not lose its charm.

The problem for me is how to reconcile this contradiction. The acquired knowledge demands that we do not appreciate such kind of poetry. If you accept this demand, you lose all that you have. Nonetheless, there is a need of delving deep into our conscious and unconscious. This may not solve all problems, but it gives us a lot.

The writer is an academic, poet and critic and has deep interest in literature, philosophy and history.

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