(Written 5 May 2012)

Dear All,

I have, over the last few months, been involved in the moving of physics journals from a relatively secluded library space into a communal room; a room of collegiality, a room with atmosphere, a meeting place with some warmness and a little gravitas. It was an involvement that gave me great pleasure as it was on the way to giving expression to the sense that one would expect to get when visiting a revered department of physics at a fine university. So you can imagine how appalled I was when I saw that the warm wooden panelling around the bookcases – panelling that was imperfect, a bit faded, and so brought a sense of character and age – had been painted white! And even though this space is merely some small corner of one of many buildings, it was important to me. So when I saw it I felt the same gut-wrenching sense of desolation experienced whenever I have had occasion to consider desecrated works.

Over the centuries there have been many occasions when creations that give expression to our humanity and personality have been mindlessly or dogmatically destroyed. I well recall the outrage expressed in 2001 when the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, apparently on the instruction of the ‘Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’. Despite the world’s offerings and pleadings to preserve those 6th century statues, it did not occur to the narrow-minded mullas that cultural landmarks such as those could never be replaced. And while the pleading with the Taliban at the time was in earnest, it was perhaps not quite with the intensity conveyed in Oliver Cromwell’s letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1650 in which he wrote, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken” (Incidentally, it has not escaped me that at the time Cromwell himself also claiming to be doing ‘God’s work’). But sadly those in authority at the time paid no heed to the intersession and today the empty spaces in the hillsides in the Bamiyan Valley are a reflection and reminder of the sterility of that kind of thinking.

After the destruction of the Buddha

On a happier note, there are some expressions of human creativity that are beyond the reaches of barbarians, one being the Watts Towers in California. In 1959 the Los Angeles City Building Department attempted to demolish the towers that had been lovingly built by Sabato Rodia over some 33 years. Fortunately they gave up when, in a wonderful moment of irony, it was the crane that was to topple the structures that broke down. Rodia had built the towers for no purpose whatsoever other that he wanted to do something “big”. He had had no assistance during the construction for, as he said, he couldn’t tell others what to do because he did not know what he was going to do next. All the materials that went into the towers had been collected from the surrounds and he just put them together as it occurred to him on the day; what a wonderful expression of his humanity and creativity.

The hands of Simon Rodia (wattstowers.us)

In the BBC series, The Ascent of Man, Bronowski tells us that “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill” (Futura, 1981, pg. 72), and in this Bronowski is quite right, we do delight in our achievements; but I would like to add that it not just a question of the technical skill with which we achieve whatever we do, it also depends on the sense of style with which we do so… what Italians would refer to as “con garbo”, with grace, with finesse. We have all seen how the twists and turns of acrobats are always that much more remarkable when they appear to be done effortlessly, with panache. And as it happens, the opposite is also true. Achievements without style, “senza garbo”, are achievements greatly reduced. The boorish delivery of otherwise inspiring words do not move us, just as the building of purely functional spaces that look, as Voltaire once described Blenheim Palace, like “a great heap of stone, without charm or taste”, are a betrayal of might have been.

In the Preface to St Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments (1884), John Ruskin wrote,

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children: but its art, only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race.”

May I put it a bit more simply, it is not just about what we do or what we say, it is important how we do and say things we do; using the Italian phrase once again, “con garbo”, with style. So now, when I go to tea in the communal room I have to divert my gaze from those painted panels in the way that I imagine a 17th century traveller may have avoided a gibbet. Looking away to minimise that shock of what for me has become a reminder of the exasperation and helplessness experienced when considering the destruction of great and small expressions of creativity… “senza garbo”.