Superface (Kiss My Hairy Face, a Hipster Rap)

Here’s my second stab at a music video. Special thanks to my friends Joanna Zheng and Gary Gao for helping me to film this on location in Bushwick, and to Chris Tokita for helping me edit the sound. I shot it on my camera and edited it using Lightworks. The lyrics are below.

***

You might think that you know me,
But at last I’ve turned the tables!
This gold ring in my nostril proves
That I defy your labels.
I’m rocking this wool cap
And a beard that looks like crap
And in case you missed the news
I look fierce in canvass shoes.
Take a look, but not too close,
I don’t wear socks, so they smell gross.

The rims of my glasses are thick and absurd.
I basically look like I’m one giant nerd.
My pea-coat is vintage, my pants super tight,
The shape of my testicles lies in plain sight.
These Civil War mutton chops both look like hell,
This sweater is right out of Saved By the Bell.
Sipping a fro-yo, I play with my yo-yo,
Passing chain restaurants, I tell my friends “hell, no.”
That meal once had feet, be it fish, fowl, or meat.
And gluten free wheat germ is all that I’ll eat.

Unwashed and contentious,
I’m very annoying and pretentious.
But all of you can kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

I love to use phrases like badass and dude,
I’m grungy and lazy and stuck up and rude.
I live in a basement. I have no emotion.
My love life involves a computer and lotion.
Get off of my case.
We artists need our space.

Listen to pop and I’ll call you a fool.
I only like music before it is cool.
Your shade bounces off me just like an elastic.
Bombastic, sarcastic, and unenthusiastic,
I’m not too gymnastic or very scholastic,
MTV’s classic. I’m being sarcastic.
If you are rich and your parents tote plastic,
Life here in Bushwick is fucking fantastic.
I party and drink and I vomit all night,
Then sipping my latte at Starbucks I write
Pompous haikus about guilt being white.
My mind’s a chariot for the proletariat.
So my scarf is sewn from fur of yak,
Weaved by orphans from Iraq.
And doing my part to promote social war,
I only buy weed from my brothers, the poor.

Clever and sardonic,
My tattoo of Pikachu is ironic.
But all of you can all kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

When I make my daily calls
To the thrift store at the malls
I read Mao’s Little Red Book in the stalls,
So capitalism can suck on my balls!
Get off of my case.
We artists need our space.

And if you dare to mock me as you pass,
Then I’ll occupy your bourgeois ass.
Down with the man! You better get off me
Before I scald your face with fair trade coffee.

You are just a cliché.
So who really cares what you have to say?
You are just a cliché.
So who really cares what you have to say?

I’m a spoiled brat with artistic pretensions,
I deserve to be the world’s center of attention.
But haters can all kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

I’ll never conform.
I refuse to reform.
Each day of the week
I’m completely unique.
You’ll never define me.
So give me no lip, sir,
Oh shit. Now I realize
I’m just a hipster.

Better hitch my saddle,
Head off to Seattle…or Portland.

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Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VI (The World Turned Upside Down)

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I turned Thomas onto his head, swinging him around in circles by his feet for a while.

“The world’s turned upside down!” he shrieked to the rhythm if not the tune of the popular song.

I set him down and ruffled his hair. Then I continued speaking with him about the family. Perhaps I could steal further truths from the mouths of these babes.

“So why did your parents appoint you two wee sentinels to wait for me?”

“Well, we weren’t exactly waiting for you,” said Thomas, obliviously contradicting what he’d said a moment ago. “Orchid said that we could recite our lessons outside today. We make too much noise indoors. Mama is going to have her baby any day now and has to stay in bed all the time… Besides, the parlor has been even hotter than the garden since Fuad left us.”

“Fuad?”

“The boy who swings the ceiling fan. He’s my friend, even though he is just a punkah wallah. Nanna Molly says that he’s run off. But the truth is that his parents forced him to stop coming to the Highlands. Everyone’s afraid of what will happen if the mutiny comes here… Anyway, I like being outside! Julia and me are lucky.”

“Julia and I, dummy!” she said, unable to resist the urge to correct someone.

“Who cares? It’s a holiday in the garden today instead of boring history lessons!”

“So you weren’t waiting for me?”

“Not exactly. But Christopher has been driving back and forth between here and Cawnpore ever since we heard you’d come back to India. The Grand Trunk Road is dangerous, Uncle Maxim. No one travels overland anymore—not even by bullock cart.”

This answer pleased me. At least it provided a justification for the lack of a proper reception. After all, my family couldn’t have known precisely when I’d be back. And there was a crisis afoot. For a moment, I’d almost forgotten about that. No one would take the trouble to pretend to be caught off-guard by my arrival. No one but Christopher, anyway, who would never admit that he was out looking for me every day.

Just then, I heard him humming Loch Lomond. He’d evidently settled his accounts with the bullock and was ready to join us.

“Hey baldy, where’s these children’s ayah?” I said as soon as he arrived. His nostrils flared in response to my taunt.

“You aren’t bald,” cried Julia, running to embrace him. “It’s only that you have a high forehead. You’re the most handsome man in the District. Yulan told me that everybody thinks so!”

“It’s outrageous for these children to be left alone like this,” I said. “The heat alone could kill them. I thought I saw their ayah on the verandah when I was getting out of the hackery, but she seems to have vanished.”

“Orchid says that she has a headache,” said Thomas, responding before Christopher had a chance to do so (he was still fuming, by the way; my insult had been a simple but effective one). “She always pretends to have headaches. I hate her.”

“How can you speak that way in front of a stranger?” said Julia. “And her name isn’t Orchid. It’s Yulan.”

“You’re the only one who calls her by that name. And besides, I’m just telling the truth. That’s what General Washington always did. Isn’t that right, Christopher?”

“Christopher!” said Julia, “explain to Thomas that he shouldn’t speak so rudely about Yulan. She’s wonderful. Besides, tell him that it doesn’t matter what he thinks about her. He should never let anybody know. Explain to him that he has to learn to be a better liar if he wants to be a proper English gentleman.”

“Bloody hell!” cried Christopher, sending the children into peals of laughter. “Don’t tell your mothers I said that.”

Julia was pleased that her words had managed to provoke such a scandalous reaction. She proceeded to speak with decreasing reluctance. Christopher’s being there gave her an excuse to be talkative. But she had yet to address even a single sentence to me directly.

“Yulan taught me all about English manners. She said that if there’s one thing she’s realized since leaving China, it’s that the art of being an English gentleman is the same as the art of being a good liar.”

“What jaded nonsense!” I said. “Your parents should send you both off to school in Scotland.”

“Oh never!” gasped Thomas as if I’d just wished a tumor on him.

“You need better teachers than what you can find here.” Then, I addressed Christopher with a wink. “Auntie Francis and Auntie Marie could take them in, as they did Vivian and me. Why, I wager that Thomas can’t even read.”

“I can so read!”

“And I can read too!” said Julia to Christopher, childishly eager to reclaim the interest of the group but still pointedly ignoring me. “Yulan taught me two years ago. I was so smart that I didn’t even need to be sent to Mr. Shiels’ school in Fatehgurh. And I can even read some Chinese too. Can’t I, Christopher?”

“Who cares about Chinese?” laughed Thomas. “Orchid is a Celestial, but even she speaks English.”

“Her name is Yulan!”

“I don’t care! Chinese is useless. And by the way, Julia,  by the time that we grow up everybody in the world will speak English because Britannia rules the waves! Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Britons, never never never never never…” his boyish satisfaction intoning the song in a mechanical monotone overcame his desire to complete the verse.

“This is all horribly irresponsible,” I took the opportunity to say to Christopher, scratching Thomas playfully on his head as he continued to intone never never never. “It is scalding out here, and the baba logue are completely unsupervised.”

“Don’t repeat yourself when you have nothing interesting to say, Maxim. And anyway, what does the heat have to do with the importance of supervision?”

“Well, suppose that the little girl should faint.”

“She seems wakeful enough to me,” said Christopher as Julia tugged energetically on Thomas’ hair. Instinctively aware that she was a subject of interest again, she released her victim and threw her arms about Christopher, catching sneaking glances at me as she did so. I knew that her flirtatious playfulness with him was a way of torturing me. She resembled her mother closely.

“Oh, Christopher!”

“Yes?”

“I wish that Uncle Peter would throw a burra khana for you.”

“A burra khana for me? Aren’t there other people around here a little more deserving of the honor of a party, Julia? Someone who’s been away a long time?”

“I don’t care who he throws it for…”

“You mean, you don’t care whom he throws it for, bitch,” chimed Thomas. Then he immediately turned to me and pleaded, “Please don’t tell Nana Molly that I called her a bitch, but she’s being a great big one!”

“I want us to have a burra khana very badly,” continued Julia angrily. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had any fun in the District. I went to a burra khana thrown by Mr. Hillersdon last February in Cawnpore and wore a real taffeta gown. Mother sewed it for me, and I still have it in my wardrobe.”

“How boring!” cried Thomas. “Uncle Maxim doesn’t give a shit about taffeta gowns, do you Uncle Maxim?”

“Thomas, your language!” screamed Julia. “That’s enough.”

“He curses like a third mate on shore leave these days,” said Christopher. “Of course, Molly is livid, but Peter finds it all too amusing to really discipline him.”

“But gentlemen shouldn’t swear in the presence of ladies, should they, Thomas?” I asked in imitation of my father at his most patronizing.

“Julia’s no lady,” he laughed. “And didn’t Christopher say bloody hell? Besides, I wouldn’t ever talk like this in front of Nanna Molly or Mama or Ayah Rupee. Im not stupid. They’d box my ears.”

“Would you dance with me at a burra khana if we threw one?” continued Julia sweetly to Christopher. “I’ve been practicing the quadrille with mother, you know.”

“After the dance, maybe Uncle Christopher could do magic tricks,” said Thomas. “What he did with the cards just now is better than anything I saw at Rob’s birthday party, when we had that scary snake charmer who made me want to cry.”

“I’m afraid that you’re describing me like a professional clown.”

“You are sort of a clown with your magic tricks and red hair and tan face and blue eyes!”

I grabbed the boy and mercilessly tickled him. He squealed before squirming out of my grip.

“I was only telling you the truth, Uncle Maxim, just like General Washington always did. Uncle Maxim?

“Yes?

“What did you get me from China?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Who told you that I was in China?”

“Papa. He said that you were probably a moonshee there.”

“I was in Nicaragua,” I yelped. “I was a freebooter.”

“What did you get me?”

“The deck of trick cards.”

“Is that all?”

“I’d be too afraid of catching fleas to touch any of his gifts,” said Julia.

“Who asked you?” bellowed the little boy. “Most women go mad once a month, but you’re daft every day!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll push you over!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll pull out all your hair!”

Suddenly, Julia whispered something into Thomas’ ear. She was wearing a calico dress I recalled as having once belonged to Vivian. I struggled to resurrect my memory of her mother as a child. I searched for Vivian in her daughter’s eyes and recognized the shadow of my beloved. But her mother’s complexion, I thought to myself, was even more achingly white.

“Listen, Christopher!” chirped Julia, tugging at his sleeve.  “I want to show you what a good teacher Yulan is… better than any professor in Scotland. Thomas, recite the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“I hate my history lessons!”

“Recite the story… or I’ll pinch you.”

“The blind are leading the blind,” I sighed. “Honestly, it’s like a crime to leave two kids to their own devices like this with a mutiny festering in the District. The ayah needs to learn her place.”

“I quite agree with you, Mr. Maxwell,” suddenly rang a pure English voice. “If I saw that damned Johnny, I’d slap her face.”

A young Chinese woman presently approached us, little Rob in her arms. When we first drove up to the garden, I thought that I’d seen her in the distance cooling herself on the verandah with a bone fan, but she’d disappeared by the time that I met the children. In the meantime she’d crept up on us with such suddenness that she quite startled me. I recall that she smelled of vetiver, even then. Her race blinded me to her beauty.

On Beauty and Taste: A Refutation of Kant’s Aesthetics

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Is there a fundamental relationship between art and beauty, and is there a universal standard of good critical taste in art? After some reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to both questions must be yes. But neither Winckelmann nor Fry have satisfactorily supplied the standard to which I’m referring, and while my position speciously seems to evoke Kant’s concepts of “pure taste” and “free beauty,” my model in fact necessitates the very abrogation of these categories. I realize that I am tussling with giants here—the greatest art critics of all time, and one of the greatest philosophers. I also understand that attempts to do what I’m doing here have historically been associated with the application of rigidly judgmental regulations meant to limit what constituted “good art.” These stipulations were more often than not associated with hegemonic discourse that neglected and underrated the profundity of non-traditional arts, to say nothing of masterpieces from diverse cultural traditions. I am interested in accomplishing nothing of the sort here.

Instead, I want to examine the way that autonomous subjects experience beauty, exploring why they seem to derive pleasure from the mere contemplation of proportions, which is not obvious by any means. With so much done, in a future essay I’ll go on to investigate what the implications of my model suggest about whether or not the ability to recognize beauty is the fundamental feature of effective art criticism, and whether this suggests that there are certain universally applicable standards of good taste in art as I understand it. But the first thing to do is to define “beauty” and “taste” in terms that are useful to the discussion at hand, and this task will form an appropriate preamble to my forthcoming diatribe on the contemporary state of popular criticism.

We’ve heard that “beauty is that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to an object’s proportions[1] in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover.” This definition provides us with an interesting starting point. But perhaps we can be more precise. Beauty is a good in itself because the sensual experience of the proportions associated with beauty necessarily results in strong positive sentiment. But how can this pleasure derived from the sensual experience of proportions in themselves be described? And why should an object’s mere form inspire such stirrings in the first place? What constitutes “beauty” in the simplest terms? Is it some magnificent objective property that miraculously graces certain objects but not others? Or is it an imaginary phenomenon in the mind of a subject that only exists when it is perceived?

As I understand it, a subject experiences beauty as a kind of deeply satisfying imaginary symmetry between their unconscious preexisting idea of the good (shaped partly by biology, partly by past memories, and partly by internalized cultural discourse) and their conscious perception of the immediate object in question; the more closely that the object’s features conform to preconceptions[2] of the good, the more congruous the association between unconscious exemplary expectations and conscious perception becomes, and the more beautiful the object consequently appears to the viewer. It strikes me that if this schematization is useful, beauty can be philosophically understood as a kind of pleasing tripartite association between an object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious preconceptions about the standards that make it “good.”

It’s worth dwelling on this model for a moment. It suggests that the pleasure associated with beauty is essentially a sense of deep satisfaction connected to the recognition and contemplation of associations related to the good; in other words, a beautiful object reminds us of our preexisting standards of the good, and we derive pleasure from the recognition of their actualization in nature. In fact, our pleasure subsequently seems to validate and confirm the original standards. After all, the contemplation of their flourishing embodiment in the form of the object under observation has just made us happy as if by magic, and the ability to inspire such spontaneous pleasure is the sole criterion of beauty. The true source of our pleasure, however, is hidden in our unconscious reasons for our personal taste. In our blindness to them, we ascribe the “beauty” to the object itself, and do not realize that it exists only as a relationship in our own minds between the object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious associations involving what it reminds us of.

The derivation of continued pleasure in an object’s fulfillment of unconscious aesthetic standards thus becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—we consider certain features to be beautiful because they meet our preconceptions about what should make us happy, and their very congruity with our preconceptions when actualized in nature is enough to actually make us so. This is why beauty is an inexhaustible and endless source of pleasure in itself. The sense of free play in the mind as we dwell upon the pleasing relationship between the sum and its parts and all of the positive associations that it calls to mind produces a sense of fun and excitement. The object appears uncannily familiar to us because its constituent building blocks and the relationship between them call to mind the fulfillment of what we already yearned to see.[3]

Now, since every subject has access to a divergent store of memories and interprets and reacts to cultural discourse in radically different ways, a truly impartial or disinterested critical appraisal of beauty seems impossible to me, and here I must begin my quarrel with Kant. To make a Kantian judgment of “pure taste” is to be completely indifferent to all preconception, bias, and cultural discourse. Kant believed that such a judgment would be universally valid for all subjects. Yet if what I have said so far is correct, preconception, bias, and cultural discourse are in fact the very determinants of that which we find to be “good” in the first place, and consequently, what we consider to be beautiful. I could uncharitably compare Kantian “pure taste” to the experience of beauty from the perspective of a child, with access to few memories and little understanding of culture or history. The Kantian youth was never taught to be a sensitive judge of beauty. Their opinion is based on whims and first impressions, and they often render that which is gratifying to the sensual desires of the moment synonymous with that which is transcendentally beautiful. Indeed, as an adult, the child’s ultimate judgment of beauty will be partly informed by these infantile whims and first impressions along with a nexus of memories associated with individualized pleasures and pains engrained deep in the unconscious, structuring aesthetic taste. But the adult’s opinions will be moderated by the wisdom born of the old Confucian triad of experience, reflection, and imitation. Unfortunately for the Kantian model of a universalizing judgment of pure taste, however, this wisdom necessarily makes the child less disinterested and impartial, because prejudices and expectations are the attendant consequences of its acquisition.

To be fair, Kant distinguishes between free beauty and contingent beauty; the former can supposedly be understood through “pure taste,” and the latter is dependent upon cultural discourse and preconceptions that stand apart from the mere pleasure that the sensual experience of an object brings us in itself. It seems to me, however, that any subjective claim of beauty is necessarily contingent, insofar as the delight that we experience when we perceive an object is, as I have said before, derived from the recognition of an imaginary symmetry between our perception of an object and individualized standards of goodness grounded in highly personal memories and reactions to biological factors and/or cultural discourse brewing in our unconscious.

To explore whether or not this is the case, let’s look to some examples of objects that might be categorized as Kantian “free beauties” accessible to judgments of pure taste alone, examining how they might problematize or challenge the formula that I’ve just suggested. There are three potential categories of “free beauties” which might be thought to be universally appealing to all subjects capable of taste according to widely held human intuitions about beauty: geometric beauty, certain elegances associated with biological fertility, and the experience of the infinite, or sublime.[4] We will find that even in these special cases, drawn mostly from the world of nature, my descriptive model of beauty and taste will hold water.

I am indebted to Elizabeth Prettejohn’s book Art and Beauty for the idea that “free beauty” accessible to “pure taste” can perhaps most usefully be understood as the loveliness of geometric form in itself. There is a particular kind of beauty associated with simple shapes that might seem to be universally compelling to any subject capable of forming an aesthetic judgment. Human intuition seems to tell us that there is something transcendentally awesome about the grandeur of a perfect snowflake. Indeed, humans find the loveliness of fractals in general to be so intuitive that an aesthetic judgment of a snowflake as a beautiful object is completely uncontroversial in any earthly society. And the human imagination is stretched to the absolute limit by the idea of someone being able to find a pristine snowflake ugly; perhaps a terrible curmudgeon could call it banal, but never ugly. By its very nature, it exhibits a sense of delicate balance between rhetorical categories that are polar opposites to each other, paradoxically reconciling them in a single elegant unbroken shape. Fractals in general can be understood as visual representations of pattern on the brink of chaos. They exhibit impossibly delicate symmetries reinterpreted in infinite creative swirls. The mere contemplation of the complexity and evanescence of something like a snowflake inspires effervescence. We delight in its crystalline delicacy. Its very existence inspires wonder. The object is also completely uncontroversial; an appreciation for the elegance of its shapes threatens no discourse on power, and so discourse in general spares the snowflake from charges of ugliness. Even if the symbol of the Nazis were a snowflake, the shape itself wouldn’t be inherently offensive. It would still be beautiful in itself, though context could of course render it hideous by association.

Yet the matter is not so simple. It immediately strikes me that if an intelligent robot incapable of aesthetic judgment but eager to understand the concept of “ free beauty” were to read my last paragraph, they might charge that I did nothing but describe an object like a snowflake in language that was itself “beautiful,” asserting its relationship to “the good” but trying to prove my point only by using elaborate words and analogies to describe the object in question, adding no new information about it. Regardless of how strong a writer I am, I employed sophisticated vocabulary, rhetorical devices like parallel structure and alliteration, and anthropomorphic terminology: verbs like “exhibit,” “reinterpret” and “create” and nouns like “delicacy” and “elegance.” If my readers were convinced by my description that the snowflake is transcendentally beautiful, it was only because they found my prose to be “beautiful.”

What about the snowflake wouldn’t the robots understand that seems so intuitive to humans? I would suggest that the fractal pattern reminds humans of the very structure of their unconscious associations between concepts and memories by way of visual analogy. To use a simpler shape than a fractal as an example, a subject might find an abstract painting of triangle without a base to be beautiful because the three points of the figure can stand by symbolic analogy for three ideas, with the lack of the base representing the lack of a connection between two of the concepts—perhaps someone might think of her husband and her best friend from grammar school, two people who both loved her, but have no relationship to each other. The shape might also remind the observer of a sharp surface like the tip of a dagger, which might call to mind stories of romance or adventure, depending on one’s mood. You see the point. The geometric object’s beauty comes from the way that we humanize it by investing its qualities with symbolic overtones that are interesting to humans because they speak to our memories and experiences. But if this is true, then only subjects capable of reasoning by symbolic analogy are capable of finding a snowflake to be beautiful. Other animals care nothing for its symbolic overtones. For them, it is at best striking, or visually arresting. However, though the ant finds no snowflake to be beautiful, it does in fact experience beauty in other contexts in the form of the elegances of its mating games. In the same way, the ant lives in a society governed by rules, but would never be able to understand the concept of abstract justice. Humans are different from other animals because we were able to transfer our delight in the byzantine intricacies of our own mating games (the original biological locus of our idea of “beauty,” as we will see, below) to a delight in abstract representations of geometrical complexity in general by means of analogy. The word “elegant” can be used to describe a snowflake, but the terminology tellingly evokes concepts associated with sex and reproduction.

Thus, the contemplation of the snowflake only reveals beauty because the sight of the object leads to a free play in the mind as we personify its features and play about with psychosexual analogies inspired by its constituent parts. Our preexisting standards are nevertheless still structured by biology, our memories, and cultural discourse. Biology provides a tendency to associate the qualities of being intricate and symmetrical with healthfulness in the mating game. Memories associated with the close observation of shimmering, delicate, and harmless objects are likely to be positive or innocuous. And cultural discourse proverbially enshrines the idea that a snowflake is something beautiful; to be insensitive to its intricacies is to declare oneself barbarous and close-minded. But in fact, the pristine snowflake is no more inherently beautiful to all subjects than a filthy hailstone is. Consider that when it comes to mere form, any object can inspire a wealth of potential symbolic analogies, from a crack in the sidewalk to the Mona Lisa. What makes an object “beautiful” is our anchoring of those series of analogies in a sense that the object we are looking at is making us spontaneously happy, drawing us to continue looking at it. Something about it inspires us to linger and imagine. Beauty can be found in some measure in all things by a sensitive viewer, particularly when an object is viewed in close detail. Under a microscope, divorced of contaminating context, all things are beautiful. But only to a viewer capable of reasoning by sophisticated symbolic analogy, and one preprogrammed with standards of the good whose fulfillment results in a feeling of pleasure.[5]

So much for geometric beauty. Now, let’s consider the elegances associated with biological fertility more closely. Human intuition suggests that there is something inherently beautiful about a thriving rose in full bloom. Its vivid scent and colors were shaped by evolution to attract animals to spread its seed. So too the magnificent plumage of a peacock, or the intricate courtship songs of several different species of insects. Could Kantian “free beauty” be associated with an identity as a thriving member of a class exhibiting healthfulness rather than sickliness? To put it another way, that which is “flourishing” can be defined as the most likely of its class to reproduce in beauty. So if we recognize a flourishing state, do we inherently recognize the transcendentally beautiful? The strongest affirmative argument might be presented in the following way: All flourishing members of a class are necessarily beautiful, because the concept of “flourishing” necessarily involves the concept of the “good,” and if something is comprehended to be flourishing on the basis of its proportions alone, then the “good” must be evoked in the subject’s mind automatically, and the object is thus necessarily beautiful according to the Kimelian definition.

But the argument does not hold water. In the first place, we should remember that truth and beauty are distinct categories: they can both be conceptualized as inherently “good” in themselves, but the truth is not necessarily universally beautiful. We must not mistake the comprehension of the truth (such as the recognition of the fact that something is flourishing and exhibiting traits associated with being healthy) with a universalizing aesthetic judgment of beauty. We can take intellectual pleasure in our awareness of the truth, which is a good in itself, without reveling in the proportions of the object that we are scrutinizing. An appreciation of beauty is something deeper than mere understanding—we not only recognize the truth about an object, but associate that truth with pre-programmed ideas about what is good for us individually on the basis of taste. The elegances of a flourishing cockroach might be beautiful to other cockroaches but are not inherently so to human subjects, even if they recognize that the beast is flourishing according to the aesthetic standards of other monsters. Moreover, that which constitutes a flourishing state is very much shaped by context. A white coat might make it difficult for a certain species of rabbit to stand out in the mating game, but when climate change brings about colder winters, their brightly colored rivals will appear no different, but no longer be flourishing.

However, even if the elegances of the mating game do not redeem “free beauty” and “pure taste,” they are still of great importance to my conceptual model of aesthetic judgment. The first and murkiest experience of beauty must have come into existence among animals who preferred sensory displays in their mates that were associated with healthfulness (symmetrical features, a powerful voice, etc.) to sensory displays that were associated with sickliness and weakness (the original form of “ugliness”). Tellingly, we did not evolve in such a way that we automatically associate all sources of pain with the ugly. Fire is inherently harmful, and so is looking at the sun, but neither the sun nor a flame are at all ugly to human perception, though they are both dangerous. At the same time, the most lethal plants can be vividly colored; the wing of the butterfly, one of the great masterpieces of nature, evolved to advertise toxicity. The brilliant colors did not delight other animals; they only startled them. The upshot of all of this is clear. Animals did not evolve to find the dangerous to be ugly, or the striking to be beautiful. We evolved to find the sickly and that which leads to contamination through direct contact to be ugly. And we evolved to find those proportions and characteristics associated with the attributes of flourishing and healthy members of our own kind to be beautiful.

Thus, it seems to me that only the evolution of mating rituals distinguishing between the healthy and the weak provided animals with the possibility of experiencing beauty, though preferences for different kinds of foods might have been an earlier antecedent of aesthetic taste. Before these rituals came into existence and were abstracted by intelligent analogy to other dramatic and elaborate displays in nature, no animal could possibly find the wing of a butterfly to be beautiful, except for another butterfly. At best, it was visually striking. That which is striking often constitutes beauty, but is not necessarily synonymous with it. To the fly, a corpse dies in beauty—the aroma is intoxicating, and the greens and blues and purples of the rotting flesh teem with new life in the form of maggots. But to us, the condition of a corpse essentially delineates ugliness.

There is a final category to consider: the sublime. The lone wolf howls at the moon and feels the wind against its snout as it peers over a valley, hungering for something indescribable. Objects or images called sublime are diverse, but often have this unifying element in common: they involve the juxtaposition of grand opposing categories, such as the very large with the very small. The sublime is the feeling of a man staring out over the ocean on a snowy cliff as he contemplates his microscopic place in a mysterious universe. Perhaps the vista ennobles him because it reminds him that he is a part of something grander than himself. But lovely as the image might be to human intuitions, the idea that the grandeur of such scenes should necessarily be synonymous with Kant’s “free beauty” is not at all compelling. There exists inherent conceptual tension when the finite meets the infinite, it is true. But to put it more bluntly and less romantically, small animals feel a sense of awe and intimidation in the presence of things that are larger than they are. That which we call the sublime seems to me to be nothing more than this same feeling masquerading under a more highfalutin moniker. The vista overlooking the misty ocean is associated with the concepts of the infinite and the large, but not necessarily with the good. The lone wolf might well have looked over the valley and felt a sense of deep repugnance rooted in its loneliness being trapped alone and without his pack in a terrifying dark void; dens and closed spaces are more comforting than punishing dramatic mountaintops.

I imagine that humans only found the visual experience of the sublime to be beautiful around the same time that we first found fire to be beautiful. Rather than cowering from the flame, we looked into its shimmering movements and took delight in them because our ability to reason by analogy had grown to be so powerful that we could read the best things about our own world into the moving inferno—in the flame’s flickering, we could perceive the elegant movements of a writhing, flamboyant dance that we could not join, but could at least control so that we could gaze at it at our leisure. It brought us warmth and light. And when it washed over our food, it made it more delicious. It added beauty to our lives thanks to its proportions in themselves. It became worthwhile to care for it and nurture it at the hearth, like a child. The bestial values of physical attractiveness and the pleasurable satiation of hungers had been transferred onto nature by means of analogy. For the first time, fire, that embodiment of danger, was in fact perceived as a beautiful object to be tamed and nurtured. And human nature would never be the same again. The will to conquer the sublime in the same way that we capture mates and control our children (and for the same psychosexual reasons) became foundational to the progress of the species. Fire was the first pet, the first slave, and the first tool of civilization. The ability to find it beautiful by analogy to the human experience transformed the human experience.

***

[1] By “proportions,” I mean relationships between wholes and their constituent parts—whether spatial, thematic, etc.

[2] The constellation of these preconceptions brewing in the unconscious constitute individual taste.

[3] It is a fascinating philosophical question, whether the most dramatic alien landscape in outer space can be described as beautiful even if it is never beheld. Regardless of whether the vista would contain features that humans would unanimously find beautiful, it seems to me that beauty only exists when it is perceived, and that all things are potentially beautiful depending on the viewer’s perspective and proximity. The fact remains, though, that a beautiful object provides pleasure principally because it reminds us of what brought us pleasure in the past, or because cultural discourse tells us that certain standards should be held valuable, or because our genes have programmed us to find certain features automatically attractive.

[4] Kant himself does not mention these examples, but they are the closest things that I can imagine to objects that might speciously seem to be universally beautiful to all subjects.

[5] An intelligent robot might find the snowflake interesting because it inspires visual and conceptual analogies. But it only finds it beautiful when it is preprogrammed with aesthetic standards whose fulfillment is synonymous with the “good,” leading it to preference the object over others. Otherwise any abstract shape could have served just as well to inspire analogies. There is nothing special about the snowflake, except the intuition that delicate ordered existence in the face of the enormous indifference of the universe is something precious and inherently beautiful. This is an important intuition, and the origin of much good in history. But according to this standard, all things that exist are beautiful, and the snow flake is no better. A robot would find a diamond no more inherently beautiful than a pebble.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter V (Children Can Be Cruel)

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The sight of the children left to their own devices just outside the house made me shudder. The irresponsibility of their ayah was beyond belief. The District was in an uproar since rumor began spreading that the East India Company had deliberately smeared the cartridges of the sepoys’ Enfield muskets with the fat of pigs and cows. This would have had the effect of forcing Moslem and Hindoo soldiers alike to compromise their faiths whenever they bit down on the cartridges – a scheme altogether too subtle and insane for the insipid minds of the East India Company to have concocted, I can assure you. But perhaps carelessness was to blame rather than design and just such ingredients were in fact assembled at some factory or another. I really couldn’t say, and don’t imagine that it makes much difference. All of this was only the pretext for the expression of deeper passions. Since its earliest days, the East India Company had relied on battalions of sepoys to guarantee the security of the country. The prospective mutiny of the native soldiers could only be cataclysmic.

Symptoms of outright mutiny first broke out at Berhampore, not far from Calcutta. In February, the 19th Native Infantry was threatened with cannon fire and then disbanded for daring to reject the Enfields. Then in late March, a sepoy by the name of Mungal Pandy did a capital job of stirring up a commotion in the nearby city of Barrackpore. He attacked his Sergeant Major with a sword before being restrained, just barely, by a quick-thinking Brigadier-General. After his hanging, his regiment, the 34th Native Infantry, was similarly disbanded.  It did little good that a handful of diplomatic Company commanders reacted to news from Barrackpore by allowing their troops to bend the rules with regard to the muskets, for example, by letting them grease the cartridges themselves with the lubricants of their choice. This only reinforced the rumor that something was wrong with the Enfields in the first place.

By May 10, hoards of native Indian soldiers in the East India Company’s employ had rebelled against their European officers in Meerut. The sepoys then rampaged on the ancient Mogul capital of Delhi, eviscerating every European they met along the way, or so rumor had it. The parlors of Anglo-India were promptly resounding with what we all prayed were exaggerations about children burned alive in their nurseries and pregnant women disemboweled by mutinous sowars. The doddering Mogul emperor Bahadur Shah, hitherto considered little more than an amateur poet and professional debauchee, was proclaimed the puppet ruler. Masses of discontented mercenaries were soon vying for prominence in the newly resurrected court of the Peacock Throne. Gossip suggested that an all-out revolution against British rule was about to break out in Bengal. The sepoys of Fatehgurh and Cawnpore remained loyal, however temporarily. The pathetically kept secret was that mutiny was expected among them any day, and the local landholding zamindars and their ryots would probably rise alongside them. The best that we could hope for was that the sepoys would march on Delhi and spare the century-old European community of Cawnpore and its environs.

I knew that it would be a chore, a ludicrous effort to pantomime optimism when I reunited with my family. The motives for my homecoming were tortured enough as it was. Now I would be distracted from my purpose by the machinations of unscrupulous strangers who hoped to profit from bloodshed. They whispered that the sepoys’ European commanders were plotting to call them all out on parade and slaughter them with cannon fire. Then, baptisms would be forced across the subcontinent on Musselmen and Hindoos alike. The entire length of the sacred Ganges would be mutilated with irrigation ditches. Women would be forced to break purdah, paraded about in public, and, worst of all, formally educated. Rumor went so far as to claim that the Company would begin paying its employees in tanned strips of cowhide rather than rupees, though that claim always seemed particularly ridiculous to me. But preposterous suggestions mated with half-truths to conceive murderous sentiments in the hearts of the oppressed and the self-righteous. At any rate, truth itself has never been an impediment to the spread of rumors in any time or place. And as I’d soon learn, even the most heinous crimes can be readily sanctified by persecuted imaginations.

Thomas presently  scrambled across the garden to greet me. Because I hadn’t seen him since his infancy, I supposed that his older cousin must have whispered my identity to him. Or rather, I suppose it now—at the time, I was intoxicated by the ganja and somewhat befuddled.

“Uncle Maxim!” he screamed, leaping into my arms with such force that I nearly toppled over.

“Oh, what a fat little boy! Climb down and let me take a look at you before you give me a hernia.”

He was a stout child with lively eyes, the type of boy to be hiding a slingshot or some sort of dead varmint in his back pocket.

“Look at this!” I cried with perhaps greater eagerness than was becoming. I was eager to impress someone again, I suppose. I produced a deck of cards and shuffled it with professional dexterity.

“Pick any card. I won’t look.”

Thomas obliged.

“Was it the Queen of Hearts?”

“No.”

“Rubbish. I’m not wrong.”

“It was the Queen of Clubs.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t!”

“Yes, it was. What sort of a magician are you?”

“Look kid, the entire bloody deck is nothing but Queens of Hearts!”

“Got you to admit your trick, didn’t I, Uncle Maxim? And got you to swear!”

I had to chuckle at that.

“Perhaps he uses the deck to trick travelers out of their money at caravanserais,” offered Julia suddenly. “He looks like a dacoit.

I was too shocked to reply to her directly, so I turned to the boy and said,

“The deck’s a gift for you, Thomas. That’s why I brought it. Do you think that I randomly tramp about with trick sets of cards? Now enjoy your little present, and don’t be so cynical. Believe in magic a bit. I’d also brought a kitten for a certain little girl, but I got hungry along the way and decided to eat it.”

“Thomas, let’s go inside,” ordered Julia with chilling authority for a child of eight. Her surliness reminded me of her father. I hoped for her sake that his broad forehead was the only other feature that she inherited from him. There it was, unmistakable, persistently wrinkled in forethought whenever she was speaking or preparing to speak. This was a girl who would never enjoy the pleasures of polite conversation, I thought to myself. She would always be too busy planning her next move to ever really listen to anybody else.

“Aren’t you going to say hello to Uncle Maxim?” shrieked Thomas.

Julia obliged by glaring at me. Perhaps the child was simply afraid. But at the time, I was quite taken aback. What had her mother and grandmother been telling her about me to inspire this sort of contempt? Thomas improvised as best he could.

“Don’t mind Julia. Papa says that women go mad once a month. It’s our lot as gentlemen to forbear them with patience.”

I roared with laughter, and not only because Julia was prepubescent. Thomas was a perfect parrot of his father Peter, who was always groaning on about “forbearing things with patience.” It was a stock phrase of his since his adolescence.

“Thomas, let’s go inside!” Julia ordered. “We have to feed Ms. Google.”

“I won’t go inside, I won’t!” Then, in a suddenly sweet voice: “I missed you Uncle Maxim! It’s not true the sepoys are going to attack us, is it?”

“God forbid.”

“Of course not. Nothing exciting ever happens around here. Well, anyway, I’m glad that you’re back! It seems like everybody but Christopher is worried and serious these days. But I knew that you’d be different. Ayah Rupee tells us stories about when you were a little boy, so I feel like I know you. And… we’ve been waiting for you to arrive all morning.”

“Have you?”

“The ryots said you reached Cawnpore last week, overland from Calcutta. Gossip travels fast around here. Uncle Maxim?”

“Yes?”

“What’s overland?”

“What does it sound like it means, Thomas? Now come inside!”

“No, Julia! You’re not my bloody mother, and Papa says that only parents have the right to order anyone about. Why are you being so mean to Uncle Maxim?”

“He is no uncle of mine.”

I actually smiled at this. I remembered that I’d worn rags with specific ends in mind. If my appearance so disgusted the girl, it could only mean that my costume was effective. And instinctually, I knew that I couldn’t blame Julia for her haughtiness. I imagined that her fervency that I was no blood relation stemmed from Vivian’s similar insistence, because her mother was in love with me, undoubtedly, and close-minded people would think that since she was my stepmother’s daughter, her affection was unnatural. I told myself that she distanced herself from me as much as possible in conversations with her daughter to justify her love and remove it from the unspeakable taboo of incest in her heart of hearts. I knew that Vivian was being dishonest when she insisted that she felt nothing but a sister’s ardor for me on a certain horrible night. She arched her eyebrows in odd ways when she lied. And as for the anger in her daughter’s voice, well, I’d left the Highlands after I was disinherited, hadn’t I? Perhaps Vivian resented me for leaving her, as I knew that Christopher did.

But something was odd. Thomas had said that I was expected at the Highlands, which meant that Vikram and Ayah Rupee’s acquaintances must have spread the word. Why no entourage, then, to greet me? I suddenly realized that everything was stagecraft. Even Christopher was a liar, divulging nothing about his knowledge that I’d returned. Here was yet another reason to fantasize about punching him in the face. Would everyone else similarly pretend to be taken by surprise, or would they be honest that they knew I was coming but didn’t even care enough to come outside and greet me? Whatever was about to happen, I was prepared for just this sort of theatre.  I was costumed for the part.