Attaining a Grecian Urn

by Gautam Raja

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

Thus ends ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats. It’s an easy idea to accept, in a general sense. But what does it mean to you? What is your truth, and is it the same as my truth? If it’s all you need to know on earth, how do you apply it to your life?

Creative people use this word a lot when they talk about their craft. That their work is a quest for the truth. Or that only the truth can produce a masterpiece. But when you take one particular writer, about to write her novel’s first sentence, what is truth at that moment?

In my last ‘Off the Cuff’ I said that as we get to our 40s, our coping mechanisms seem to choke up. As a result, many of my friends are on a truth quest. They are questioning everything, acknowledging deeply buried hurt and pain. One has accepted that his relationship with his mother will never be what he needs. Another is moving on from troubling early memories. A third is re-examining what he always assumed was a happy family life, realising, among other things, that no child should have been yelled at the way he has been yelled at, with a savagery he wouldn’t subject even his dog to. But at 40, all of them are facing the mortality of the people who most affected them, and have to reconcile their anger and hurt with, let’s face it, increasingly helpless old people.

I know they will be okay, these people who are staring darkness in the eye. The ones to worry about are those that live in a fictional world of their own creation. Some live in the fiction of perfection, but when things go wrong, as they will, these people are like actors frozen on stage because suddenly the rest of the cast has gone off script. They are blindsided, bewildered and broken by the smallest upsets. Others create a fiction of a better tomorrow—that they’re only unhappy or anxious because of today’s difficulties, and that once they’ve got that new job or new toy or new body, everything will be better (I’m prone to this). Some people do this on a smaller scale, ascribing their unhappiness to a litany of minor issues—the food, the colour of the walls, the idiocy of people, anything to pretend it’s not about them.

As a friend observed recently, the problem with “sorting out one’s issues” is that dealing with other people’s lack of truth becomes harder. She is having trouble relating to one of her oldest friends. Under the black light of truth, she realises that she and her friend play out the same game of pretend they do in their families. “When I’m with her, we live in a world of unicorns, like we’re still 10. It’s fun, for about a day. Then her health issues get in the way, or I realise she’s never listening when I talk, or I get tired of being given advice, but I can’t say anything.” She paused. “Well I can say something, I choose not to.” She paused. “There’s nothing beautiful about the truth, is there?”

It’s true. The truth is usually ugly. But Keats didn’t use the definite article. ‘Truth’, as against ‘the truth’ is more a state of being. Truth is a place you reach after many, many truths, and I suspect that the reason it’s beautiful, is that you never quite get there.

First published in Gulf News, August 16, 2016