Saturday, 4 October 2014

Plain and simple wins the race

It has always been humanity's experience that plain and simple ideas are the most beautiful. Elegance is beautiful while convoluted agglomerations are ugly.

Not all things of complexity are ugly. Most of the natural phenomena and specialized fields of activity/study tend to achieve a level of complexity but what makes them elegant is that their reality are based on first principles linked by internally consistent logical systems (ie, can be explained and/or described as simple systems or in rationally logical terms).

Some require specific intermediate steps and the right combinations and conditions to achieve full development; some require only specific shapes and geometries. Life processes and chemical compounds are of the former type; the material implements of the Inuit culture are of the latter. I've often been struck by the inherent elegance of Inuit cultural artifacts.

The other day I attended an opening ceremony of a college course where an Inuk woman was talking about and explaining the mechanical and material principles of optimizing the use of a qulliq (Inuit ovoid-shaped lamp) while she prepared the qulliq for lighting. She described the geometry, orientation, and physical properties of the different materials used to make a qulliq, the chemical make up and uses of different types of oil and wick material, and, at the end of her demonstration, she pointed out the calmness that had descended upon the room (even on those who didn't understand her spoken words).

The first principles she described made no appeal to latin or complicated scientific terminologies and yet she was able to achieve something only few and rare species of teachers and mentors can achieve: insight and comprehension. Her style of teaching reminded me of the fable "stone soup":

Stone Soup is an old folk story in which hungry strangers persuade local people of a town to give them food. It is usually told as a lesson in cooperation, especially amid scarcity. In varying traditions, the stone has been replaced with other common inedible objects, and therefore the fable is also known as button soupwood soupnail soup, and axe soup. It is Aarne-Thompson tale type 1548. (

This is Inuit style of teaching par excellence. It involves the student's natural intelligence, linguistic and motor competence and curiosity/imagination; it watches for and celebrates the internal happenings in the student as things (first principles) become clear and lucid enough for the student to gain confidence to try things out and/or innovate.

I try and not give in to the temptations of  romanticizing Inuit culture. My belief and knowledge with respect to Inuit culture and language is that these can more than stand on their own. Its practitioners may not have the language and/or conscious awareness to fully bring out the beauty but it is there nonetheless underlying everything the person utters and does. You may have seen its ineffable reality.

I know someone I care about deeply has seen it, felt it. In her stories of her first experiences of Inuit culture (she was involved with an Inummarik) I can see that spark of imagination. She's also asked questions or made observations that have helped me become more consciously aware of things I had took for granted. Her errors and spot-on observations help me perceive that ineffable beauty more clearly.


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