With Nietzsche’s proclamation that world and existence can be justified only on aesthetic grounds, the sphere of aesthetics has often been seen as different or even antithetical to the sphere of ethics. Framing of syllabi in universities being only the most innocuous manifestation. Being careless readers of Nietzsche and his specific critique of a Christian ethics of shame and guilt, his less than rigorous followers have dropped (separated) the ethical question itself, rather than a specific ethics. This often blinds one to the complex alleys and pathways that intertwine the grounds (in a double sense) of ethics and aesthetics. But first a lesson in etymology. (it’s all Greek to some)

The word ethic(s) is rooted in the Greek ‘Ethike’, a synonym of ‘techne’ – art, technique. How art as skill became/ is related to Art, would make another interesting exercise. Aesthetics, etymologically means pertaining to the senses, to feeling. With Kant, it takes on a new meaning now pertaining to Beauty, Art and Truth. Art as method and art as work (fruit and process) criss-crossed on the history of meaning through a process of exchange (in a triple sense). Etymologies are (but) an attempt to analyse (take apart) and then step back and watch synthesis (addition) take over. The attempt of either (ethics or aesthetics) to push the other art only results in the other knocking at the window, or entering through the back door (or even the roof). ‘Old Kant’ opines, in this as in every other matter, in the well known Paragraph 59 of the third critique titled ‘Of Beauty as the symbol of Morality.’

College, St.Stephen’s College, even here (though it may surprise some) has much to teach us. The alliances, complicities and exchanges between ethics and aesthetics. Architecture.Lines, austere lines; bricks, sturdy bricks. Looking at the church, the geographic and spiritual centre of college. Being an inheritor of the ideals of the Reformation it stands in striking contrast to the medieval Catholic cathedral. Discipline, austerity and starkness stood in contrast to those stairways to heaven – exuberance and luxury. College buildings too are spartan, stern, simple almost monastic with no sign of ostentation. With the overall architecture, the important spaces – the hall, the seminar room (but of that later).

The courts and corridors, designed to allow a clean sweep of vision. As large, ancient trees look on.But things must change, as the girls must have a warden. And we dare not agree with the Princess des Launes who laughingly told Swann in one of those decadent parties, “I have an absolute horror for picturesque spots.”Pots have increased, multiplied, proliferated. Pretty pots decorated the dull well (until some deluded people stole them). The well has since been cut down. They’ve even reached the corridors (or just outside) arranged in designer circles. A clear, straight line of vision is disrupted, bent, twisted. Now all thats required is to put them on the first floor and the terrace between measured distances – symmetry is important. Perhaps, even put some around the cross.

Lovely cactii grow on the courts surrounded by tiny, pretty white flowers. There are two, placed carefully – symmetry is very important. The Wildlife Society does its bit by placing three bonsais atop the founding stone, while pots over them hide the same. The lawns are dug in places and circular plant beds are created. They are sown in concentric circles near the tennis courts too. As some pots adorn the grave. Mustn’t forget the tubelights put up everywhere, allowing further appreciation of changing aesthetics (where does ethics come in anyway?)

Large branches are cut, hacked. A routine cleaning operation for some. Violence to some. Less shade to others.Coming to college at the beginning of the year, it was hot. Concrete absorbs heat. Chirpy red rhombus shaped spots smile in welcome. One man asked, rudely – “Jain temple or what?”. Others were ruder. Some were utilitarian (self-confessed philistines) – “Couldn’t we get the roofs repaired instead. Isn’t money being wasted”. But college is rich and its people richer.The hall has changed. Earlier there was no carpeting. Now not only is there carpeting, carpets are neatly planned and placed on the walls. A jovial festive and happy look. Even the fans have concentric circles of blue and red. They look so nice – august and inspiring – as they go round, round and round.
The seminar room has also changed. Old photographs, proud beards and kind eyes – all gone. Enter the New Space Age. We have eyes, we have vision – that doesn’t itch, twitch or falter. Sudhir Kumar Bose too has gone, to be replaced by Malayalam Manorama. And though the teak panelling has gone – college is rich and its people richer.One must save money still and raise money. Shelter? Hike the term bill – all uniformly charged rupees 340 for special games. To celebrate the millennium for weeks powerful bulbs placed all over the building (pimples) emitting (green) light and radiance to all four quarters. “I am the light of the world”. The millennium bash – a huge party. College knows style (I wasn’t invited, though). Walking in despair one managed to see the ‘malas’ flowing on the bars of the gates and marriage bouqets stumped on the emblem. Pink, ornate vessels. The generator roars. Yet some unrefined people say over a lakh was spent just on food. But college is rich and its people richer.

Harmony and Graduation dinner. Makers of the Stephanian calendar. Important rites of passage. Initiation and departure, dispersal (some stay on though). Posters, banners decorate the buildings (Sandak chappals, Revlon lipstick, mouthwash), as plastic and muck lie all over. Over five lakhs spent – less than a lakh, four years back. The Rock show only rocks the lawns. As kind seniors watch young ones at play. Here no pot allowed, through three days manufactured fun. One must have en-jaay, yaar. Graduation dinner. A memory is played (while Eliot stutters or shudders). Sculpted SSC in ice, with the same pink vessels. When men (and women) made up and made up women (and men) made much of nothing. Only a lakh or so spent. Yes, yes one knows millions starve to death in Africa, even in Bangladesh. But college is rich and its people are richer.

Things change. Phones increase. Phone calls too. A line is cut. Magic is practised. MA types are dropped even from the yearbook. We have a yellow phone booth (with blue lettering). Even the science dhaba has changed. Changes as such (or such changes) terrorize. In the sublime sense, of course.

‘For Beauty is nothing
but beginning of terror, we’re just able to bear
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us.’ Destroyed indeed.

‘ A self-confessed friend of Walter George’

Rahul Govind is presently doing a Masters in History