In search of beauty

Reflections on beauty, handwriting and a new fountain pen

I haven’t been writing here so much, perhaps because I wanted this space to be a more personal blog, not so concerned with political or social issues, even if those are increasingly hard to avoid in the complicated times we live. But even as we patiently wait for World War III and economic crisis and a winter of discontent with cold and hunger and other calamities, there is always time to do something more cheerful instead — to think about beauty, for instance.

I recently bought a new fountain pen. Well, not exactly “new” — it’s a vintage fountain from the 1950s, a Parker Duofold made in England, which I got for a cheap price on eBay. The pen doesn’t have any mark with its exact year, but this particular model was roughly produced from 1953 to 1959. I always liked fountain pens, and I like Parker pens — I had another Parker pen, I believe from the 1970s, that was a gift from my father when I was still a child and which I unfortunately seem to have lost years ago, in one of my many movings (that pen might have been like this one, a classic Parker 51).

Now, my idea with this purchase was to improve my handwriting, which was always been awful ever since primary school. Perhaps I won’t write in perfect Copperplate or Spencerian calligraphy, but just improving a bit my handwriting would be nice. Of course this takes a lot of practice, and will I have the time or the energy for that?

I’ve heard that many schools in the U.S. no longer even teach cursive handwriting to children. They just learn to write in print and no one cares if it looks ugly or sad. Everyone is using phones, tablets or computers, so what’s the point of cursive handwriting, right? After all, who writes handwritten letters or postcards these days? All authors now use computers, and this text is also being written in a computer, of course. So it is fair to ask: should we really be teaching handwriting to children, instead of more practical things?

My answer would be that, in this case, being useless is really the point. As Oscar Wilde wrote in the famous preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.” He was likely inspired by French poet Téophile Gautier, who had written earlier: “Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly for it expresses a need.”

Beauty is ‘useless’, but we seem to crave it, if only to remind us that it exists. One of the problems of the modern world is that so much is focused on the useful and the practical, and not so much on beauty for beauty’s sake. We can see this clearly in architecture: most modern residential buildings (i.e. basically anything built from the 1970s until today) are just functional square blocks without almost any kind of decoration (and I’m not even mentioning the monstrosities of some contemporary “starchitects”). Just compare to any residential building constructed in the 1930s, and you will see the difference, even in the little details, such as the windows or a stairway or the doors. Even the elevators were beautiful back then: I remember a wonderful 1920s Art Deco elevator I saw in Prague. There is a reason why tourists visit old European towns, and why they should be preserved.

But I think you see the same thing in cars — modern cars are not necessarily ugly, but they seem to have no personality, and all of them look more or less the same to me. Just compare them to any car built in the 1950s or 1960s, and you will instantly know what I mean.

Of course, creating beauty takes skill and effort. Even just learning basic, good-looking handwriting takes a lot of practice and work. I think one of the problems of modern art is the same — there’s too much focus on “originality”, and not so much on skill and effort. Originality can be interesting, but beauty is not always original, and beauty counts more in the end.

I don’t know if that focus on the practical at the expense of the beautiful has to do with our increasingly technological-oriented society, or if it attends to other, deeper reasons. But it would be a pity if beautiful handwriting — or even writing itself — was lost just because people now only type on their phones.