Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Seawall

"My work always tried to unite the truth with the beautiful, but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful."

Hermann Weyl, one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, whose research has had major significance for theoretical physics and number theory.

          At the far end of Melbourne Avenue, past the Ottery Inn and behind a yellow, crumbling wall is the Indian Ocean. No one swims there because the waves are too fierce. Charlotte sees the ocean through a gap in the wall. It must be high tide because the waves are nearer than she expects. They almost touch the train tracks and the tracks themselves are close to the wall. On either side of the tracks is a rocky margin of sand pitted with footprints and lost sandals.

          The spectacle of so many different sandals without mates is puzzling. She wants to ask someone about it, but isn't sure who to ask or how to phrase the question. Also, she's afraid the answer is obvious or is not a question worth asking and she doesn't want to feel foolish.

          Charlotte remembers the true story of a man who fell off a shipor did he jump?and the only evidence of his plunge was one slipper that remained on deck. Did he lean against the rail, suddenly feeling faint, and tip over the edge? Was he sleepwalking? Did he perch on the railing or was he pushed? She wonders where the slipper is now. It must be a cherished memento; either that, or one that evokes blinding terror.

          The other American students are still out somewhere and the houseboys can't unroll their sleeping mats by the front door until all the guests have returned to the inn. The boys gather out back behind the kitchen under a coconut tree and whisper to each other in Tamil to pass the time.

          Rajah appears on the balcony upstairs with two bottles of Lion Brand soda. No one must see him here. He is barefoot, still in uniform. The white shirt is too big for him, with the sleeves rolled up, and his black pants are held together with a safety pin. In the moonlight his shirt looks very white and his skin very dark.

          Charlotte and Rajah don't speak. They look over the balcony together, at the fronds waving over the rippling roof tiles, and listen to the wind. They hear the ocean, too; it can only be heard at night, and from this height they can see the ocean's moony glimmer to their left, beyond the rooftops and trees.

          At breakfast this morning Rajah had told Charlotte how to choose a sapphire. Don't let them cheat you. Too dark is no good, cornflower blue is best. Now he points at the most beautiful of all the stars and says, Shappeer. Sapphire. She is afraid to look at him, but she looks.

          I wish I could tell you more, but they go no further than that. They will always be 20 years old on that balcony, always poised at the edge, neither falling forward nor stepping back to safety.

          When she reconstructs this scene, Charlotte recalls that the wind lashing their faces is both harsh and soft, and that she surrenders to it. She remembers feelingnot thinkingfeeling this wind coming at them blindly across time itself. It has come such a long way to reach them, across the wild, ancient sea. They are two specks in an inhuman, elemental rush of tenderness and fury, and they are also a boy and girl standing on a red-tiled balcony in Bambalapitiya.

          Can we always write a balanced equation for truth and beauty? The Beautiful Truth that mathematicians and poets strive to discern, is it always this symmetrical balance of disparate things? Before Hermann Weyl, John Keats confounded readers with the last words of his Ode on a Grecian Urn,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

In our ignorance, we naturally seek this perfect this union, but in a pinch, we choose beauty over truth.

          Charlotte and Rajah don't think about it.

          Charlotte comes home. Ten, twenty, thirty years pass like a single moment while the American students continue to come and go. Every year they study, they eat rice and curry with their hands, they grow fond of their peers and their Sinhalese host families, and they bring home mementos and proceed with their lives.

          Charlotte comes home with a small brass bowl with a tight-fitting lid. In the bowl are petals from a bouquet of soft, dark, red roses Rajah gave her. She checks on them over the years, cautiously, when she's alone. The dried petals are swirled with black, which seems exactly right to her. Their fragile existence suggests the paradox of spoiled but enduring beauty.

         Rajah doesn't come home. He disappears because he is Tamil. The students keep coming, but he is gone. The truth is ugly. They have learned about the the widespread kidnappings, torture, rape, and killing of the Tamil people by the Sinhalese government and of the insurgency; they have studied it back in the States, before boarding the plane to Sri Lanka. The American students are honored to be uncritical U.S. ambassadors of good will. It is a sensitive topic and they wish to show utmost respect to their host country and reflect well on the United States.

          This is the little seawall we build to protect ourselves from a dangerous truth, an unbearable one. Scientific objectivity is a feeble defense against suffering, grief, horror, injusticeand it's no defense against death. To be objective is to be inhuman so let's admit we all want a happy ending, even if it means inventing one for ourselves.

          Rajah's glass of sweet, milky tea has gone cold while he plays outside with his little grandson. The little boy is getting over a cold, so they stay on the balcony overlooking the hills rather than going for their usual walk into the village. The evening breeze feels charged because the monsoons are coming. For a few moments, Rajah is 20, feeling the wind blowing on the balcony of the Ottery Inn.  Then the rain begins to tumble in fat, heavy drops and his grandson shrieks in excitement.

        Mathematicians, poets, and houseboys, we all know that the beauty of a happy ending is not the same as justice.