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Quizzing the Anonymous
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Unfeathered biped 
4th-Aug-2005 06:19 pm
Let us be honest about it, the humans are ugly. We do not notice our ugliness because we are used to ourselves. It took Gulliver several years of living with Houyhnhnms to see himself from the right perspective. There are easier ways to arrive at the same point. I still remember the first Negro man I saw back in Moscow (when I was four) and the impression that encounter made on me. Just the other day I read a blood-curdling Chinese account of their first rendezvous with the Europeans. Their revulsion was all too recognizable. Only a century ago "savages" were shown in "ethnographic exhibits" a cage or two away from the beasts. I bet that the "savages" were relieved to watch the visitors from behind the bars. This unease might be the deepest source of racism: a man of a different race is instinctively viewed as a caricature of a human being. Still worse is the realization that this feeling is mutual. Our kids might never experience this feeling in this melting pot of a nation. But there remains the speech.

The human speech is a cacophony of mingled sounds. The first time I heard English I thought: how can people bark like that? Why can't they talk in a melodious, cadenced way the Russians do? It took many years of practicing English to appreciate its harmony and beauty. It is not that Germanic languages are different. Other Slavic languages are equally unpleasant on my ears. No amount of persuasion will convince me that, say, the Swedish, Serbian, Zulu, Turkish, or Hungarian are great languages. All human languages equally stink. We are used to those few that we speak or hear regularly. We can no longer recognize how awful they sound. The universal appeal of music is our unconscious acceptance of this brutal truth.

However, it seems to me that people of all races, tongues, and traditions have the instinctive appreciation of the beauty in animals and plants. A horse, a cow, a bird, a rose -- they all look right to us. There are dozens of cow and horse breeds, hundreds of dog breeds, thousands species of birds, millions species of shells and flowers - and they all look nice, despite the great variation in form and function. Interestingly, not all animals are beautiful: few of us like bats, spiders, maggots, or leeches. There are, of course, some animals whose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My wife, for example, does not find invertebrates attractive, but I do. I do not see any general pattern in what animals are beautiful and what are not. Someone told me once that we generally find an animal beautiful if it is (potential) food. I do not think so (we do not eat butterflies). It is something else, but I am too stupid to put my finger on it. What is it?

PS: See a discussion of this post on http://www.languagehat.com/archives/002029.php
25th-Jan-2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
Could this be a facet of sublime? I.e. once we think we understand, we are no longer threatened?
26th-Jan-2009 06:18 am (UTC)
I do not know the answer. We do not find parasites beautiful, and we find most of nonprimate mammals beautiful, but the rest varies. Perhaps our aesthetic feeling is not based on H sapience as the etalon of beauty, as the humanists believed. It might have been formed really long time ago.
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