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Aesthetic Dissonance

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

By Pico Iyer
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2004, pp. 232, Rs. 395.00


Many of us who rant against purple prose are mostly incapable of turning out a beautiful phrase. Call it sheer envy.  It is like scoffing at a pretty girl for being pretty. Pico Iyer does not exactly write purple prose in the pejorative sense but he does strain after beauty in phrase and sentence. And he succeeds most of the time. There are times when it is absolutely impossible to fault Iyer’s fine writing. But everytime you finish reading an Iyer book you turn away dissatisfied. And there are times when it becomes difficult even to read through the rich prose. It is a curious situation. And the only way to describe it is in the phrase: aesthetic dissonance. That is, disenchantment in the face of beauty.   This is not a metaphysical problem of the Keatsian kind. It is not the pain one feels when overwhelmed by the languorous sweetness of the nightingale’s song. It is a more prosaic issue. It seems that Iyer uses the same kind of delicate prose to describe all kinds of situations. Whether it is an encounter with the hippie era poseur Leonard Cohen in a Zen commune high up in the Rocky mountains, or his parting with the Balinese girl where sadness just refuses to well up, or the brutal political climate in Cambodia. The chiming sentences become monotonous, heavy, and you feel a slight headache at the end of it all.   The Cohen koans are made for Iyer’s pellucid prose in the 1998 piece, ‘A Gathering Around A Perplexity’.. And he seems to be sharp and insightful as he analyses Cohen’s enigmatic and complex personality: “And so, as time passes, I really do begin to feel I am watching a complex man trying to come clear, a still jangled, sometimes angry soul making a heroic attempt to reduce itself to calm. As day passes into night  and day again, he comes into focus, and out again, like the sun behind clouds, now blazing with a lucent, high intensity, more like the difficult brooder you might imagine from the records.” But is he insightful? Is he analytical? You are not sure after reading the short passage. In trying to get at the complexity that Cohen is, Iyer is lost in his complex phrases, which are elegant in themselves. But you are not sure that he has unravelled the mystery that he ...

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