Beyond the Mountains of the Moon: Reflections on Two Months in Egypt, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo

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In the summer of 2017, I embarked on a trip to every source and outlet of the Nile from Egypt to Rwanda. The following are the updates I posted to Facebook along the way and a sampling of my photographs. See more on Instagram, where I’m spqrkimel.

Part 1: Egypt

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“What does a white man go looking for in Africa?” asked my grandmother when I finally told her the truth about my summer plans. “The answer is trouble.”

“No. The answer is adventure, and myself.”

Reluctant to inform Safta of my prospective itinerary along the outlets of the Nile, I delayed conveying the news to her as long as possible. Some scruple prevented me from withholding the truth indefinitely, though. I wasn’t surprised by her dubiety, as I myself wondered if I would have the wits and stamina to complete the adventure. Maybe that’s why I decided to embark on this journey in the first place. If I possessed half the energy I did in high school, its marriage to knowledge and experience would be a potent combination.

Instead, my identity had long since eroded—having delayed ending graduate school as long as possible, I was no longer the President of my own publishing company, no longer the coach of the debate team, no longer anything, really. Facing the prospect of embarking for God knows where in 2018, I tried to enliven 2017 by doing so on my own terms. I told myself that following in the footsteps of Speke and Livingstone would rejuvenate me.

But I didn’t find what I was looking for in Egypt. The country had tragically declined since my visit last summer. I was the only man in the Great Pyramid. The vendors surrounding the site pleaded with me to buy their wares, with more than one whispering as if confidentially, “I want to kill myself.” The economy had evidently imploded—inflation had driven the value of the pound into the ground, and salaries had not adjusted to the plummet. Vendors distributing free snacks and water along the road aside, the spirit of Ramadan was ruined by the ubiquitous sense of tension. Along the Suez Canal and all along the road toward the Delta, military checkpoints dotted the landscape.

Sleeping in a houseboat by the Kitkat mosque, I found a guide to bring me to the Faiyoum and the mouth of the Nile at Rashid. Tarek spoke to me at length about how the tourism industry had waned since the twilight of the Arab Spring. The collapse would have been worth it had true democracy come, he said. Then there was a long silence.

I saw the bones of prehistoric monsters in the Sahara, whales so ancient they still boasted rudimentary arms and legs. I saw boats glide along the Suez Canal. I breathed in the spray of the Nile where it mingled with the Mediterranean, saw the river’s waves crash northward at war with the southward currents of the sea. I met strangers and invited them back to the boat. We profaned the holiday in sundry ways. I woke up alone and stared at the river. Encountering children and animals beaten on the street and ubiquitous misogyny, I reflected on the limits of cultural relativism. A man by the side of the road held a dozen exhausted birds by the feet, shaking them violently until they were half dead, peddling them to passersby before snapping their necks. I bought the liveliest looking pair and told him to release them for the sake of Ramadan. He told me that they were too enervated to fly now, but that he would release them before he went home. I wondered if he was telling the truth. Tarek said the vendor had honest eyes.

Then I left Egypt for Zanzibar, where adventurers embarked into the unknown when there were still places left to discover in this world.

Part 2: Tanzania

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Between its moldering stone fortresses and steaming markets of elbow-to-elbow traffic, Zanzibar seemed to me like the kind of town that Tintin would have visited. But having purchased a T-shirt illustrating his presence in Stonetown, I was subsequently informed by some well meaning chefs in the Forodhani Gardens that he in fact never made an appearance there in any of the original comics —the T shirt which I bought was meant to swindle muzungu tourists, they explained. I assured them that the fact the picture was original only made the shirt more valuable to me. They laughed in response. I echoed them, and this proved to be prelude to a smoke in the ruins of the old fort. It was one of the first times I’d interacted with locals in Tanzania without the specter of capitalism haunting us. The friendliness of my guides was always tempered by desire for tips; that of shopkeepers by hopes of exorbitant prices; that of local children by hunger for charity. But it was only by night during my last evening on the island, bewildered into a sense of intimacy by billows of fumes, that the locals and I spoke as humans rather than actors in a commercial transaction.

They asked me how I felt to be a member of a racial minority for a change. I thought of a Facebook post I wrote a couple of years ago when I expressed the idea that all the brouhaha over color on the Yale campus was misguided. I recall I’d wondered then whether anyone had read Foucault and realized that racial identity was only one social construct among myriad others. I will never forget that one of my students explained that, realistically, race made a formative difference when it came to how people were treated on a day to day basis, and so had an inescapable quality that rendered attempts to look beyond it evidence of privilege rather than insight. I spoke to the chefs about my time in Korea, the only other extended period of my life in which the majority of the people looked differently than I did. I spouted some clichés about the tragic power of superficial differences, and the fact that one only realizes its extent when he is in the minority. An old man opined that my education was limited, since whites were welcomed on the island and there was no negative stigma associated with them; the sting of prejudice, he said, was the only way to truly understand the experience of being a minority. But a younger man shook his head; muzungus were cheated on Zanzibar because they were uniformly considered wealthy; this, he said, was an education in itself. I found his insight to be revelatory. Somehow I’d not made the connection between my race and the fact that I was charged 300 dollars for a repair to my camera I was subsequently assured would have cost a native 20. Still, I understood that poverty is often a more compelling force than hospitality when it came to determining the texture of one’s interactions in a developing country.

The entire first portion of my journey to Africa was cursed by nausea. I’d thrown up in Egypt when our car got stuck in the Sahara and we were forced to push it down the road for kilometers in the midday sun. Then I’d thrown up again with equal violence while searching for dolphins on the Red Sea; by the time we reached them I was too exhausted by retching to jump in the water with them. I fully expected to puke on Kilimanjaro too, but was delivered from this fate by the kindness of my guides, who constantly reminded me to go slowly and helped me to bear my physical and emotional loads along they way. I spoke with them about their families and probed some of their hopes and dreams; I was more reticent about my own. The mountain taught me its lessons—to focus on each individual step and not be daunted by the distance to the destination; to realize that the tortoise beats the hare when others fitter than I became ill from exhaustion who were once faster than me on my first days on the mountain; to step in the footprints of those who knew the path better than I. A woman at the peak asked me if climbing Kilimanjaro was on my bucket list, a lifelong dream. I told her honestly that I’d never even thought of climbing it until I realized I’d be passing in its vicinity, and since it was there, I might as well test my limits. I regretted parting from the guides; I also regretted not being able to tip them more, as did they.

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I headed to the wilderness next. The parks of Northern Tanzania are justifiably famous: Tarangire and its swarms of elephants; the Serengeti and its countless miles of hideous wildebeests, Ngornongoro crater and its menagerie of creatures trapped in the largest pothole on the planet; Lake Manyara (Hemingway’s favorite) choked with birdlife. Since Tanzania was my first experience on a game drive, I didn’t realize just how rare the sheer density of wild animals was. The effect was not equally impressive on all visitors, though. I saw a jaded kid yawn when he saw a lion. “We could have gone to the zoo,” he said, going on to lament the unstable Wifi at his lodge.

But it was different for me, caught up in a days-long version of Where’s Waldo seeking out animals against the silhouettes of baobab and acacia trees. More than one lion turned out to be a tree stub, but the skill of my driver amply compensated for my well-meaning incompetence. (Perhaps I’m too caught up in my own imagination to be a very good spotter.) This driver pitied me when I invented the story that my long-term girlfriend had broken up with me to avoid explaining why I was traveling alone—it was too complicated to explain that most of the kids my age had kids of their own and couldn’t afford two months in the bush, to say nothing of untangling the tortuous vagaries of my private life. But my story was grounded enough in truth to prove poignant, and he felt so badly for me that he drove me to the north Serengeti to see the Great Migration even though technically it was off our itinerary.

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Somewhere along the way, we saw an eagle snatch up a mongoose. A troop of monkeys subsequently chased after the pair screaming bloody murder. The raptor plunged from the sky like a bolt of lightning; the violence was too instantaneous to film. This would prove to be the most action I’d see in the Serengeti. Spoiled by National Geographic documentaries, we are, I suppose, conditioned to believe that the wilderness is one great adventure, with mating, murder, and life-or-death chases visible at every angle. Only in the wild do you realize that nature is a state of war—and like all wars, the majority of time is spent sitting, waiting, and watching. I thought to myself that the trip was teaching me discipline and patience again after the dizzying hedonism of grad school. I wondered if I had anything more to learn.

Then I left Tanzania and headed for Uganda by way of three stopovers, arriving in the middle of the night and heading to bed for just three hours before visiting an orphanage on the outskirts of Kampala.

Part 3: Uganda

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Two weeks into my trip to Uganda, I found myself hanging onto a 70 degree incline on a glacier on the Mountain of the Moon, clinging to its grimy surface by nothing but my ice axe and a single crampon. The one on my left foot, improperly adjusted, had plummeted down the sheer face of Mt. Stanley. As I sensed the energy draining from every tendon, my guide began the long clamber below me to retrieve and reattach the other shoe. I had no choice but to cling to the frozen surface of the mountain for over half an hour listening to the crackling of the melting ice, a casualty of climate change. I was secured by nothing but a carabineer and a flimsy rope attached to the man dozens of meters beneath me, with little but his strength to save me if I plunged below his unsecured position (after al, fixed stakes are impossible given the rapidly shifting and increasingly steep surface of the glacier, which will soon become impassable). I found it odd that I felt no rush of adrenaline. I was reminded of a debate trip where a car almost careened into my side of the van and I did nothing but sigh, “Well, that was unpleasant.” One of the students said he could imagine me as a Roman general nonchalantly surveying the carnage of an ancient battlefield, an observation I found a great compliment at the time. Now, I wondered whether growing up with cats had addled my mind (they evidently secrete a parasite that makes men more daring and women more nurturing, or so I had read online.) Gradually succumbing to enervation, I stared at the pale band of the Milky Way in a strange combination of exhaustion, anxiety, and wonder. No country had ever tested my physical and spiritual limits as Uganda did. Even Kilimanjaro was a cakewalk by comparison.

On my first day in the country, I’d felt the most acute sense of culture shock I’d ever experienced when I saw more than one van plastered with Osama Bin Laden bumper stickers. Having only slept three hours, my frayed nerves drove me to a greater sense of intolerance than that to which I’m accustomed either when abroad or otherwise, and I found myself truly insulted by the tasteless display. I dwelled internally on what kind of a combination of ignorance and malevolence would lead to such a choice of decoration until I reached an orphanage. Then anger gave way to self-consciousness when I met a dozen children ranging from three to 14 who had lost their parents to AIDS, many of whom were suffering from HIV themselves. When I arrived, they spontaneously surrounded the car and began to embrace me. I reciprocated the gesture after half a moment of hesitation, reminded of when Princess Diana startled the paparazzi and the world by hugging ill children, confounding the rumors that this was enough to spread the virus. I was later informed that not every tourist was so accommodating, and could only imagine the psychic wounds the young might have incurred in the wake of people physically recoiling from them.

I had expected to meet older children and lecture about debate, but many of these kids were toddlers with limited English skills. I served them soft drinks and told them each “Shikamoo,” an honorific Swahili greeting usually reserved for one’s elders and superiors. Eager to connect on at least some level, I sang Rogers and Hammerstein songs to them. This proved to have an almost magical effect, and soon, they were singing for me as well, even breaking into indigenous dances far surpassing my rudimentary abilities at rhythmic movement. When our time was up, a little girl who was initially afraid to embrace me scampered in my direction and threw her arms around my neck. My own self-consciousness had given way to a very different feeling, though not, as might be expected, a sense of appreciation for how lucky I was relative to certain people; after all, pity implies condescension, which I did not feel toward my equals, and true sympathy was beyond my power because I could never understand and access anything like their worldview and body of experience. Rather, I felt a sense of non-judgmental comradeship bound to our common love of music, which transcended age and culture. I promised to send them holy water from Israel and was silent on the car ride home.

Over the course of the subsequent days, I ventured to the source of the Nile and white-water rafted on Grade 5 rapids there, figuring that the risk of bilharzia was worth the adventure and ultimately benefiting from the ballast on the boat supplied by the hulking English rugby players who constituted the remainder of its crew; I stumbled on an endangered Shoebill Stork on a canoe in the bogs of Lake Victoria; I clambered over the Murchison Falls and saw the Nile squeezed into a gorge barely wider than my body, resulting in a magnificent display of power shooting spray and rainbows into the air; I tracked elusive leopards and tree climbing lions in the savannas of Queen Elizabeth Park; I spent an entire day working with researchers to habituate a troop of wild chimpanzees until the animals trusted me enough to descend from the canopy and join me by a puddle for a drink of water. The experiences and strangers I met along the way are too numerous to fully remember, let along capture in a Facebook post. I can only hope that some of the pictures do them justice.

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But the Mountains of the Moon tested me as no other destination did. My crampon re-secured to my leg, I eventually reached Margarita Peak straddling the border with the Congo at about 5200 meters above Sea Level. After my photo opportunity, I succumbed to a combination of weariness and altitude sickness and made the decision to descend back to the base camp as quickly as possible, facing two days worth of 15 hour hikes. I braced myself for my next destination, which had inspired my entire journey in the first place: the Congo, a world teetering on the brink of the unthinkable. I planned to climb the Nyiragongo Volcano and track gorillas in the Virunga Park, the oldest natural preserve in Africa and its most imperiled by a harrowing combination of climactic and political turmoil.

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Part 4: The Congo

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Check the timeworn myth that the Congo is the heart of darkness. I’ve never been to a country more luminous—the russet glow of lava in the Nyiragongo Volcano, the rainbow colored squawkers of the tropical forest, the teal and vermillion gowns of village-women, the canopies of dense jungles so green they might as well be blue, the glimmer of stars so numerous one can’t tell at times if the sky is black or white at night. It was the DRC which had inspired this trip in the first place. I reread Conrad and for some reason was inexorably drawn to the hellish landscape he described—I wondered if there was more to the country than the misery he immortalized. On the cusp of my journey, the news filled me with dread. All I found were warnings about Ebola and cholera, butchered do-gooders in Kasai, ambushed rangers, guerillas encroaching on the territory of gorillas; in short, a country on the brink of collapse. Remember, warned a friend, that everything and everyone there wants to kill you. What I discovered defied such prophecies. I can’t deny the Congo is cursed by political fragmentation, disease, poverty, and corruption. But it’s also the soul of Africa, a sprawling landscape the size of Western Europe, home to millions of peace-loving dreamers, the breeding ground for the continent’s most magnificent art and music (forbearers of abstract art and rock and roll), and a testing-ground for heroes who defy the darkness and stand all the brighter for the shadows surrounding them.

It was only in the Congo that I had the time to breathe deeply for a moment and consider the full scope of this impractical odyssey I can in no way afford, promising to imprison me in credit card debt for the foreseeable future. Did I really climb Kilimanjaro and the Mountains of the Moon, raft the foaming rapids at the mouth of the Nile, traverse the scorched plains of the Serengeti, and all on my own too? Did I actually track tribes of gorillas in the Virunga mountains and stare at the bubbling molten rock inside the calderas of volcanoes until mists obscured the lava and all that remained were bursting ribbons of color of the kind you see when you squeeze your eyes closed with all your might? Did I dance with pygmies before carving through the waves of the poisonous Lake Kivu? Had I galloped on a horse through the dusty villages and undulating emerald hills of Masisi (the locals had improbably promised me a ride on “sheep,” but apparently mistranslated the word)? It all seemed like some kind of feverish reverie, but it was a dream which I had made my reality for a fleeting moment, living for the present rather than the past and future where my thoughts are accustomed to linger as an ancient historian and transhumanist.

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When I left the DRC for Rwanda, I met a couple from Canada who told me about some associates they’d met who’d just returned from Goma. These friends had regaled them about an unusual traveller they’d encountered who’d climbed Mt. Stanley despite the danger of the melting glaciers and made the trek up Nyriagongo without a sleeping bag, and who, back in the real world, went to Yale, writing his dissertation on Roman orgies; they wondered whether he hadn’t brought the sleeping bag deliberately so that he could engage in research for his thesis. My heart skipped a beat when I heard myself described by strangers as if I were a stranger. I sounded like a cool guy, and when I examined myself in the mirror, dressed in filthy khaki, face bronzed by mud and sunshine, for the first time in a long time, I actually felt like one. I’d begun the trip considering that I was about to graduate with no idea of what to do next, that I was no longer the debate coach, or the president of a publishing company, or any other specific social-role. But now I discovered that I was more than an actor going through the motions defining his public persona. It was sufficient for me to be myself—a lone adventurer and the author of his own novel. I’d originally considered the trip a kind of escape from a world I’d outgrown, but it unexpectedly braced me to face the uncertainties of the future as an adventure in their own right. For this, above all other places I have traveled, I will forever be grateful to the Congo.

I crossed the border overland at Cyangugu and headed to Rwanda and Ethiopia next, the final destinations on a journey of a natural-born storyteller with an enraptured audience of one.

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Part 5: Rwanda and Ethiopia

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When I was a little boy, I recall reading a book called Uncle Wiggily’s Fortune in which the eponymous rabbit discovers at the end of his adventures, Ulysses-like, that the greatest treasure is a long awaited homecoming. As a child, I remember considering that this was hokey, so I fixated on the crop of oversized carrots that had grown up in his absence as his real fortune. Yet my thoughts turned to the novel when I finally returned to Israel after one last week in Africa exploring the sources of the White Nile in Rwanda and the Blue in Ethiopia. My father and sister met me at the airport and drove me to my grandmother’s house. There, I found a framed photograph of me at the summit of Kilimanjaro hanging over my bed. After my safe return, Safta’s doubts about my trip melted away, I suppose, in the face of admiration for its successful completion and happiness that I’d lived to tell the tale. Of all my relatives, it was only she who expressed any interest in seeing my full album.

I could assure her now that she was quite right when she suggested several months ago that many whites had historically gone to Africa looking for trouble—“scratch the surface of any catastrophe here,” one Congolese man had told me, “and you’ll find a white man profiting.” I now knew more than ever about the Machiavellian dealings of Portuguese slave traders, the depredations of Stanley’s entourage across central Africa, and the horrors of Leopold’s rubber-hungry minions in the Belgian Congo. But I also learned of Dr. Livingstone’s crusade to end the East African slave trade, Mark Twain’s sponsorship of humanitarian organizations to check the excesses of the imperialists, Dian Fossey’s ultimate sacrifice to habituate mountain gorillas, and Emmanuel Merode’s decision to relinquish his wealth and status as a prince in Belgium to lead the rangers of the Virunga Park. I was neither so villainous nor heroic—just a mundane tourist peeking over the edge of the cradle of humanity in search of Experience with a capital E, which I was privileged to discover before the trip receded into the indistinct annals of my memory, memorialized only on Facebook.

I wasn’t in Rwanda and Ethiopia for long, but was moved by the experience of traveling among some of the most resilient people of modern history, survivors of famine and genocide. Ethiopia defied my expectations. Conditioned by the Western media, I expected a parched wasteland and instead discovered a nation so lush and green you might have told me I was in Ireland. The country was a sensory overload, from the unmistakable taste of injira pregnant with yeast, the magnificent glare of the ivory garb of Orthodox priests, and the pungent scent of frankincense and myrrh wafting through rainbow colored churches. I was particularly struck and, to be honest, somewhat flattered by the appropriation of Israeli history on a national scale, with the royal family said to have descended from Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant to be hidden in a northern monastery. “We are cousins,” I was told more than once, though this enthusiasm usually waned when they pressed me about Jewish opinions about Jesus in modern Israel.

As for Rwanda, Kigali was at least superficially the most developed city I’d visited on my travels, boasting modern infrastructure and spick-and-span streets, plastic bags even banned by law. But I came to consider that these shows of modernity were just that—glossy scar tissue over deep and persistent psychic wounds incurred by the unimaginable slaughter of the 1990s. The country is exemplary for the proven capacity of its population to forgive each other and cooperate toward a better future, at least superficially shunning the former alliances exacerbated by European colonial overlords that led to catastrophe. But Kagame’s rule, however welcomed by the majority, seems founded as much on fear as love in many circles, and Tutsis (whether members of a “tribe” or a “social class,” as opinions seem to vary passionately and widely on this most politically incorrect question) seem to monopolize positions of power. Many, fearing the harassment that the visibly impoverished face from police officers, limit their daily wardrobe to a single unsullied suit. I appreciated, though, the urge to push beyond “tribal” identity politics in favor of embracing a nationalist ideology, particularly given the xenophobic arrogance with which the word “tribe” was often misused in academic and political circles alike.

I learned a great deal from Africa: to be disciplined, to be patient, to be observant, to be tolerant, to live for the moment, to be daring, to be resilient, to be silent, to be alone, to be proud. Sometimes late at night, though, as I struggle to replay the adventure in my mind, I wonder, what did Africa learn from me? I don’t mean that I poetically ponder, as Karen Blixen did, whether the lion casts a shadow that resembles my head, or the wind rushes through the branches of the acacia tree with a whisper like mine. Rather, I wonder, was my halting eloquence enough to disprove theories about reptilians and the Illuminati, the detritus of Youtube mashed together with traditional animist beliefs and taken for the flower of truth? Was I at all convincing when I defended the equality of women and men, told more than once that the former’s proper role was to look after the home, that short skirts were invitations for assault, and that rape was a surefire cure for lesbianism? Did my words have any impact when I opined that God was wherever love and peace were, and that literal belief in ancient testaments caused more suffering than joy? And were my thoughts at all memorable when I tried to counter the adage “If you want to hide something from an African, put it in writing” with references to Achebe and Emecheta and Marechera? For all that inspired me, there was also a great deal that shocked and angered me, beginning in Egypt where I recoiled at physical violence against children and animals. I realized the truth in Tennessee Williams’ suggestion that deliberate cruelty meant solely to uphold the power of the strong at the expense of the weak was unforgivable in any time or place, and considered that battles won in my own neck of the woods by the Susan B Anthony’s and Martin Luther King’s and Audre Lorde’s of the world would have to be refought from scratch by the heroes of an as-yet anonymous generation raging against the dying of the light.

I will surely forget a great deal of my odyssey, and will have no one with shared experiences to resurrect the fading memories either. But above all, I will try to remember the Nile in all its glory, where the tide of the Mediterranean was at war with its northern current, where it clung as snow to the Mountains of the Moon, where it poured out of Lake Victoria and tripped and fell over rapids which I challenged on a raft, where it dripped one droplet at a time from its most remote source in Rwanda and I swallowed the totality of the river, and where if flowed gently from Lake Tana in a great muddy puddle before spilling over the cliffs of the Blue Nile Falls and carving through the highlands with all the insistence of fate. As a boy, I swam here when I sailed on a felucca through Upper Egypt. Now I returned and found inspiration: the realization that writing was my calling and that the sense of malaise haunting me at the beginning of the trip was largely grounded in having no audience. But every river, even the greatest, I learned, begins with a single drop.

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So That It Burns

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Upon the cusp of evening shade suffused

with rays of twilight sleek and luminous

my love lingers beyond the ashen span

which glistens on the bed of Tithonus.

As summers wane and dusk invidious

imbues the wilting arch of firmament,

so equally my nimble ardor swells

to drench the stars, gleaming and permanent.

When autumn showers form a breathless mist

which clings upon the face of cobblestones,

the lovestruck poet should not hope to list

what nature and imagination loan.

He drafts within his heart unspoken songs

of boundless pitch which no page could abide,

when transient moments grow a bit more long

and deathless beauty walks along his side.

These subtle metamorphoses run deep

inside our souls before we get too old,

when kindred hearts both skip a single beat

and friendly glances grow a bit more bold.

But little else is crueler to discern

than gusty changes once their course has run,

that fan a feeble heart so that it burns,

but blow out fire in the other one.

Lauterbrunnen (On Love and Sunburn)

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How could I help but mine the shapeless hours

above pied valleys cloaked in pine and flowers,

dwarfed by wrinkled amaranthine mountains,

morphed by nourishment on milk of fountains?

Cascades of vapor splashed with such a sound

you would have thought it thundered underground.

I yearned to see the russet dusk begin.

But soon the sunlight burned my face’s skin.

Then I was forced to quit the lonely height

and banish nature’s temple from my sight.

Whenever too at dinner we should meet,

so ravenous however much I eat

and drunken on the wine of every view,

I find I cannot stop glancing at you.

If I am caught, is this game lost or won?

The mystery, God knows, is half the fun.

Each time I steal a look, I know I’ve won.

But take care staring too long at the sun.

Experience has made it understood

that Nature is more beautiful than good.

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.

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[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.