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Fountain Pen Aesthetics

Part 1: A Problem with Pelikan

Some of you will be aware that I reserved one of the new, limited edition Pelikan M805 demonstrators a few months ago. The preview pictures were released around the same time as the Stresemann and didn’t get the same amount of coverage, but they were truly gorgeous. I’ve been wanting a nice, gold-nibbed, piston-filling demonstrator for at least a year and this really fit the bill. It was exactly what I wanted, and the perfect way to celebrate a year since I got the nod and became Dr JD. 

Months later, the pen finally shipped and I was filled with anticipation. There weren’t any photos on Instagram or the blogs (which heightened my excitement) and, after what seemed a lifetime of waiting, I had the pen in my hands — and the excitement completely fizzled out. I wasn’t sure why. At first, I put this down to an issue with the nib: I had first filled it without cleaning and found that it wrote far too dry for my liking. After cleaning and soaking the nib, I had it writing like a Pelikan should, but it became obvious that there was still a problem. It wasn’t a problem with the pen per se: everything was working properly and the pen was exactly what I hoped it would be. It just felt…funny. I felt disappointed. The pen languished in the box, I felt no excitement or enthusiasm for it. Eventually, I accepted that there was nothing that could be done, I grudgingly put the pen up for sale. 

When selling a new pen, the most common thing you hear (aside from absurdly low offers) is people asking the question of why you are selling the pen. It’s never meant in a negative way; most people just seem curious about whether there’s something wrong with it, and the best I could do was to explain that the pen just wasn’t for me. This response seemed to satisfy people but it certainly didn’t satisfy me. It was an honest answer, but it didn’t feel honest. It didn’t feel authentic. It was just convenient, something which hid my deeper confusion. I simply had no idea why it had been so unsatisfying. 

The pen was excellent in many ways: the design was magnificent, the materials and construction flawless, the piston operated smoothly and firmly, the rhodium nib was beautiful, and it fit comfortably in my hand. It was, in every way, the pen I had wanted and yet it was also deeply disappointing. Yet despite thinking about it for hours on end, despite watching and reading every M805 review online, I could not put my finger on what was wrong. 

It was an issue that worried me. If I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the M805, then how would I know if the next purchase would suit me? How could I know that any pen was right for me? It made me wonder if maybe I was starting to lose interest in fountain pens. The questioning (and the worry) threatened to become an existential crisis. 

Eventually, I forced myself to think through the problem logically. It wasn’t a physical or mechanical problem with the pen. I continued to use (and love) my other pens, so it probably wasn’t a problem of lost interest. The only explanation was that it was something about the pen and my reaction to it: the problem was something aesthetic. 

Trying to understand the problem has led me into the philosophy of aesthetics, the field that tries to understand beauty and our appreciation of it. Reading more deeply about the field has given me the opportunity to think about pens, our experience of them, and our community, and some insights that might help us better understand the relationship between these three. In this series, we will delve into aesthetics (and some related fields) and try to understand something which is holding us back and the potential for change. 

Part II: Understanding the Problem

Thinking about my inability to understand my problem with the M805 — let alone explain it in a way that makes sense — reminded me of an old quote from my undergraduate days, from the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’. This seemingly-simple phrase couldn’t tell me what the problem was, but it went a long way towards explaining why I had a problem at all. 

In the late 1700s, the linguist Sir William Jones made the rather bold claim that a variety of global languages — including those derived from Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit — had themselves derived from a common source. The claim meant that languages as distinct as English, Punjabi, Celtic, and Persian (amongst many others) were all cousins in a single family tree. Sir William based his conjecture on commonalities in the grammatical structure of the languages and the similarities of particular word roots, of an order too improbable to be random. There was no physical evidence for such a language existing — no engravings, tablets, pottery, or the like — which made the claim even more bold. Nonetheless, it is now widely accepted that Sir William was essentially correct; the language — now dubbed Proto-Indo-European — was used by a people who were probably settled somewhere on the Pontic steppe and later settled throughout Europe, western Asia, and the Middle East five to six thousand years ago (4000-3000 BC).

Far more interesting that the existence of a common ancestor tongue is how the language — reconstructed from the similarities Sir William identified — can tell us something about the world of those who spoke it: the fact that they had words for cattle, pigs, and cereal cultivation tell us that they were settled, not nomadic. They had words for the steppe and carts, but nothing about ships or open water, telling us that they could travel but were settled far inland. Although there was a word for a group of homes but nothing corresponding to what we would call a town or city, it seems likely that they settled in tribal communities. Intriguingly, there are words for gold and silver (potentially also for iron) but nothing to reflect any knowledge of smelting — suggesting that this was a society that traded with other, more advanced societies. 

Around 1500BC, one of the offshoots of Kurgan society migrated south, ultimately becoming the Mycenaeans and Achaeans that formed the subject of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. With this in mind, it’s hard to read the epics and not be struck by how the language has been so obviously adapted to describe phenomena that would have seemed new and inexplicable to the Mycenaeans: the sea and ships were were totally unfamiliar concepts, and could not possibly have been understood on their own. And from the oral tradition of Homer — story-telling through poetry — we can see that these people described the phenomena in familiar metaphors, explaining the sea as a vast watery steppe and ships as carts or chariots, transforming the unfathomable into the familiar.

The adaptation of Proto-Indo-European is perhaps the best illustration of Wittgenstein’s point: the limits of their language were the limits of their world. Those limits enable linguists to reconstruct their world, to identify the phenomena which they had (or had not) experienced. Even as their language evolved to include new phenomena (such as the sea), it still depended on established concepts to explain the new. Without those established concepts — ideas that were well-known and easily understood — there would have been no way for the new to be communicated or explained in an intelligible way. 

This is a problem we face in our own community (and perhaps also in many others): our shared language is too limited, we have not yet developed a way to communicate our feelings. I would argue that this is not simply a problem of communication: without concepts or words, we are unable to even comprehend the complex feelings that a particular pen might provoke. It is a problem of both articulation and communication. 

To reduce it to a phrase, you could say that the FP community is aesthetically illiterate: we are not ignorant of aesthetics but we are not able to comprehend or communicate our feelings about aesthetics in a meaningful, intelligible way. This is the problem that we experience when we look at a pen and find ourselves drawn to the design but unable to explain the feeling any deeper or more clearly than “I really like it,” or to articulate why it is so satisfying to find a pen and ink combination that works together. 

I find it interesting that this problem exists for the aesthetic aspects of pens while we have a well-developed vocabulary for the technical aspects. We may be aesthetically illiterate but we are technically literate: if you say a pen is unsatisfactory because the piston requires lubrication, it is an intelligible claim: most other FP users will understand the problem, your experience, your frustration, and even the solution. But when it comes to expressing aesthetic dissatisfaction, we lack even the most basic tools to understand the problem ourselves, let alone convey the problem to someone else in a way they can also understand. 

This may be a result of history: fountain pens have been around for perhaps two centuries and, for almost the majority of that time, they were a tool. Considerable energy was placed into improving and refining the technical aspects to maximise their effectiveness as a tool, and a vocabulary developed for those parts and the tool’s functionality. It is only in recent decades that pens have become a primarily aesthetic object, and so it stands to reason that our understanding of the aesthetic features is not as well developed as the technical.

I believe that we need to develop an understanding of aesthetics if we want to comprehend our feelings about pens and to be able to intelligibly communicate to brands the types of products that we like and why. In tomorrow’s post, I will demonstrate the effect that aesthetic illiteracy has on our communication and explore an example of a community which does not suffer from this problem.

Part III: Art and Aesthetics

In today’s post, we’ll look at whether fountain pens are actually art or simply aesthetic experiences, and then begin to explore the foundations of developing literacy. But before we can apply any of these concepts, we need to consider if it is meaningful to apply ideas developed to study art to a functional object: is a fountain part really a work of art? This is a difficult question to answer when there are so many competing definitions of ‘art’, and we must be careful not to choose a definitely only because it suits our purposes. 

Perhaps the first definition was offered by Plato, who claimed that the arts were representative: that they attempted to show us something else which existed. So a painting of a forest was art because it sought to represent a real forest. Later work expanded Plato’s definitions to incorporate the idea of expression: something could be a work of art if it sought to express an emotion or an experience. A play of fictional events might not be representative, but it could be considered art if it expressed something of the human experience. Kant additionally claimed art is ‘purposive without purpose’: that is to say, when an artwork is complete, it seems to have a purpose, but it is not always possible to discern what exactly that purpose is (therefore allowing our mind and consider the possibilities). By these definitions, fountain pens are certainly not art: they do not represent something else (even though they may evoke associations with other things) and they cannot express emotions or experiences (though we may idiosyncratically project such expressions onto them). 

Modern definitions of art stray considerably from the traditional, and make claims about the projection of an idea onto the public. Alternatively, an artwork is anything that the maker intends to be considered as art. Personally, I find these claims rather meaningless (do they actually communicate anything about what is or is not art?) and do not feel that fountain pens satisfy either claim. The final category of definitions are those which are purely functional: art is anything which contains aesthetic properties or conveys an aesthetic experience. Such definitions can be criticised for being too broad, or too subjective, and I do not find myself convinced. This is the closest that a fountain pen can come to being described as art and, seeing as though the definition is not convincing, I think we need to conclude that our pens are not art. 

But what does it mean when we describe a pen as a work of art? It’s a somewhat common phrase and so it must have some meaning, even if that meaning not the literal one. It seems to mean that something is beautiful and intricate, that it rises beyond the purely functional and appeals to us — or satisfies us — on some deeper level. This broadly fits with the idea of an aesthetic experience: a feeling of pleasure that is not purely sensory but also comes from contemplation. That is to say, it is not just a pleasing in a visual or tactile sense — like looking at a sunset or feeling a soft blanket — but also because we think about it and can immerse ourselves in the experience. It is an experience that is both significant and valuable to us. (I think all of us who are engaged enough to read a piece as long as this post have had such an experience, and know that it drives their commitment to fountain pens). 

This leads me to conclude that our appreciation is not the same as we would respond to a work of art, although they both convey an aesthetic experience. Therefore, the ideas of art criticism are not necessarily a good fit for developing our aesthetic literacy. Fortunately, we can turn to the philosophy of aesthetics to develop such literacy.

The philosophy of aesthetics is an old field, with both Plato and Aristotle making claims about what constitutes beauty, how we should appreciate it, and how beauty (then closely linked with moral goodness) should influence the way we live our lives. An abundance of ideas have since emerged to address these questions, and I want to draw on some of them to get us thinking about how we can build foundations for aesthetic literacy. I should make a point here that I am not an aesthetic philosopher; I’ve never taken a full class in it and certainly haven’t studied it in depth. I will certainly make errors and omissions from ignorance, it is unavoidable. The ideas shared in this series are to provide some foundations for you to think about aesthetics.  

The first idea I want to explore is William Bullough’s idea of distance, from 1912. The idea itself is not widely accepted but it has been influential and I think it is useful for our purposes. Aesthetic distance can take several forms, most obviously spatial (like when you stand back to look at a painting in a different way) or temporal (observing a play from another age, separated from the political or sociological context). Bullough suggested another form of distance, psychical distance, which refers to our ability to separate our emotional or mental selves from an aesthetic object. That is to say, we want to achieve an appropriate balance between thinking about the content of the object — the story of a play, the subject of a painting, the colours of a pen — and the technical nature — the creativity and innovation, the difficulty in its construction. 

Bullough claims that distance can lead to problems in our appreciation for an obect, from being too psychically close to an object (under-distance) or too far (over-distance). Under-distance is where the line between object and reality becomes blurred and we fail to separate ourselves; we become excessively focussed on the content of the object. An example is someone who identifies too closely with a character in a movie, and appreciates the movie primarily if that character succeeds. Or perhaps someone who is caught by the colours of a pen and focusses on these at the expense of other features. Over-distance is where we overlook the content of an object and focus excessively on the technical aspects of production, and miss its emotional resonance. It is entirely possible for someone to dismiss a Twsbi purely because it lacks a gold nib and is prone to technical problems, and entirely fail to understand the pleasure that so many people experience. 

I believe aesthetic illiteracy has led us to become over-distanced in our appreciation of FPs. As we lack the vocabulary to have aesthetic conversations, our judgements about these products are often focussed on technicalities, such as operation and functionality. Does anyone in our community understand the emotional appeal of any particular pen? Even if they did have that understanding, would they even be able to communicate it with another person? The lack of intelligible concepts — that is, the lack of concepts that are able to adequately explain such phenomena and be understood by a second party — makes me think that this is unlikely. 

This can be demonstrated most clearly in fountain pen reviews. I’ve previously written of the importance of reviews in helping people make purchase decisions and believe that they make an enormous contribution. But I also think that the aesthetic illiteracy means that these reviews suffer from the problem of over-distance, that they are overly focussed on the technical aspects of fountain pens and there is not nearly enough on the aesthetic aspects.

The Pen Habit is one reviewer who seems especially struck by aesthetic features of a pen. He often seems quite taken with a design but also seems incapable of articulating exactly why he finds a design so moving or explaining the effect that it has on him. More than once, I’ve seen him emphasise the appeal through simple repetition: to him, a pen or ink is, “…really, really nice”. This is not to judge Matt at all; we’ve exchanged a few emails and he seems a genuinely nice guy. The problem is not with him nor with his reviews. He tries to share his feelings but he lacks a vocabulary which allows him to articulate and communicate his appreciation. He lacks the vocabulary, and so do we. This leads to reviews and discussions that focus on the technical aspects, as our aesthetic illiteracy imposes limits on our world.

An interesting counterexample is the wine community, based around an object which also has aesthetic and technical features. There are strong parallels between our communities (perhaps most prominently between wine and ink) but the wine community is far more literate in understanding and expressing the aesthetic experience.

At least from my outsider’s point of view, the type of grape, the vintage, the wine region (or the ‘terroir’) seem to be technical features and are generally easy for a novice (such as myself) to understand and discuss. There are obvious similarities here with the technical features of a fountain pen, the nib size, the type of filling system, etc. 

But the wine community is significantly more sophisticated when it comes to the discussion of aesthetic features. The experience can be reduced to different elements — aroma, acidity, taste — and those elements are layered, in a way that enables incredible specificity. Was the aroma fruity? Woody? Spicy? Was the fruit a berry or a stone fruit? Was the berry closer to a raspberry, a strawberry or a plum? 

I don’t have the ability to participate in these conversations but I have seen others do so, and they are able to intelligibly communicate an experience in extraordinary detail. Imagine trying to explain your enjoyment of a particular wine without having any knowledge of these elements: you would still know what you enjoyed and what you did not, but you would be unable to discern why. Take it a step further and imagine trying to review a delicious bottle of wine, try to articulate the experience without having any tools to describe taste. You would probably end up explaining it much like Matt explains some designs: “really, really nice.” It is hard to imagine that this would not detract from our enjoyment or our ability to find products that match our preferences.

As you may know, my preferences run towards Montblanc and Viscontis. I have used a lot of other brands and found a lot to enjoy, but they don’t speak to me in the same way that these two brands do. When someone asks me what it is like to use one of these pens, the limitations imposed by our aesthetic illiteracy make it difficult for me to understand why I enjoy them, let alone communicate those feelings in a way that would allow someone else to determine if they would enjoy the same experience. So our discussions focus on the things we can explain intelligibly — the smoothness of the nib, the balance, the weight — than the things which are actually meaningful and that create emotional resonance. It is hard to imagine that this doesn’t influence manufacturers, too. 

This does not seem to be a problem in the wine community; I see there a community that is aesthetically literate, and it gives me hope that our community can also develop the tools to become literate. 

Part IV: The Aesthetic Experience

Although this series might make you think otherwise, I am a complete novice when it comes to art. I have some idea of what I like but my experience is quite limited and I’m certain my taste is not particularly sophisticated. It’s an entirely foreign world to me — as it might also be to you — but one thing I have picked up on is that the idea of art as an ‘experience’ seems to be widely accepted within the art community but far less so outside of it.

This may be a product of history. For most of the time we have had ideas of aesthetics, art was recognised as having an effect on the observer — it was a representation or an expression that provoked a reaction in us — but the subject of analysis was the aesthetic object: the painting, sculpture, play, song, etc. The idea that we should focus on the experience rather than the object was most powerfully articulated by John Dewey in 1934. Over the years, his ideas have taken a beating and been attacked in virtually every way imaginable, but they have remained deeply influential.

He argued that we should focus on the experience because this was the actual work of art, not the physical object. The aesthetic object was merely the tool used to evoke the experience in us. In trying to understand what makes us appreciate beauty, what is important is not so much the design or the materials but the way in which they interact to create an experience in us.

Dewey distinguished between an aesthetic experience from an ordinary experience on the basis of unity: our ordinary experiences are confused and inchoate, a mess of emotional, intellectual, and sensory elements. An aesthetic experience transcends these elements and unifies them into a singular entity, one which we anticipate and savour. This transcendence is beauty. Our appreciation comes not from the object itself but from the experience of transcendence. Maurice Beardsley contributes to this understanding, explaining that we are released from our prior concerns — our stresses and worries — and feel a sense of harmony and exhilaration as the stimuli cohere into an integrated sense of wholeness. 

The idea of aesthetic experience may be controversial but, to me, it is utterly convincing — and even more convincing when applied to fountain pens than it does to traditional art forms, yet it is not without controversy of its own. It would mean that the aesthetic value of a pen — the beauty of it — comes from our experience of it. Unlike a painting, this experience is not only shaped by the effect that the object has on us when we engage it visually but also when we engage with it physically: when we hold the pen and when we begin writing with it. 

One of the implications of Dewey’s argument was that the aesthetic value of an artwork would change over time, as the experience or observers changed. He noted observers of the Parthenon would have had a radically different experience of it in ancient times than it has on tourists today. This corresponds with the experience of using a fountain pen, which changes as we change the ink and paper, as the pen changes with use, and as the pen becomes older and recognised as ‘vintage’. Even if you were to keep a pen uninked, in a pristine condition in a glass case somewhere, and only appreciated it through the visual experience, your appreciation still would change with time; it would become more familiar to you and you would experience more things in life. Our aesthetic appreciation undoubtedly changes as the experience itself changes: sometimes in positive ways, sometimes in negative ways.

A further implication is that our aesthetic appreciation is unavoidably subjective. If you agree with the claim that beauty lies in the experience, then there is no possibility of an objective statement about a pen’s aesthetic value because each experience is unique. To make this claim in a different way, the idea of something being objective is to say that it is a fact entirely independent of our own minds. If you or I had never existed, that thing would be nonetheless true. As it is independent, it is possible for us to compile data on the thing and develop an understanding of it. Obviously, this is not the case with beauty: it is never, and can never be, independent of our minds as it is a product of our minds. Your experience of any object will be unique and incomparable with anyone else’s experience.

But that is not to say that there is no value in sharing the experience and your appreciation with others; in fact, the opposite is true. Understanding the experience of others can make us reflect on aspects that might not have been central to our own experience, this contemplation might deepen our own and enhance our appreciation. There is enormous value in discussing the things that we find powerful or transcendent, but this needs to be a open, qualitative discussion. Reducing the discussion to numbers — trying to quantify on a scale of 1-5 your feelings about the shape of the pen, and weighted equally with all other factors — destroys any nuance, any possibility of someone else understanding what you appreciate. Such discussions are meaningless, and yet they proliferate online because we simply lack the literacy to discuss our pens — our experiences — in any other terms. 

I see this behaviour in the wine community as well and find it equally meaningless. As a wine drinker, I am not interested in only drinking wines that score beyond a certain subjective threshold (eg 90/100) but am interested in finding wines that match my tastes, or wines that move me in some way. It is much the same with pens. Quantification gives us the illusion of objectivity (and, coincidentally, the illusion of precision) but it is a meaningless measurement when applied to a subjective phenomenon. 

While his theories may be controversial within the traditional arts, I believe that Dewey’s idea of the aesthetic experience is quite convincing (and useful) for our community: although this is how we discuss it, our appreciation does not actually seem to come from the object itself but from our experience of the object. In tomorrow’s final post, we will move on to consider some of the tools that have emerged from this subjective, empirical tradition of aesthetics and how we might apply those to our own community.

Part V: Aesthetic Frameworks

Today, I want to consider the contributions of two influential thinkers from the philosophy of aesthetics and explore how they might be used to develop a framework which can provide insights into our individual experiences. These ideas are certainly not the only ones that we can use — indeed, the field has many valuable ideas and there are more to be written about — but hopefully they will be building blocks in developing our aesthetic literacy, and will provide you with an insight into how we can use such ideas to understand and communicate our aesthetic experiences. 

There’s a question here about whether it’s better to adapt existing ideas from aesthetics or to develop original ideas which are tailor-made for our community. On the one hand, original ideas can be more useful and more precise; on the other hand, it seems sensible to learn from previous work and save ourselves from trying to reinvent the wheel. More importantly, the key challenge in developing a new framework is that our judgement might be influenced by what we already find desirable, rather than an appeal to general principles. Overall, it seems more appropriate to draw on the aesthetic tradition for the beginning of this conversation, but move to see original ideas emerge in later discussion. 

Our first framework was proposed by Monroe Beardsley in the 1950s. He built on the idea of aesthetic experience (covered in Part IV) and claimed that the value of an aesthetic experience could be evaluated on the basis of three common factors: intensity, complexity, unity. 

The first of these qualities, intensity, is what strikes us when we first see, hold, or use a pen: how strongly it grabs and holds our attention, and the emotional force that it commands. For FPs, intensity can take several forms: visual (how the pen looks), physical (how it feels to hold), and performative intensity (how it feels in use). Regardless of the dimension, intensity differs from simply being pleasant or nice; it is that moment when we say ‘whoa!’ and we are pulled away from everything else and concentrate entirely on the aesthetic experience. The stronger that intensity, the more valuable the aesthetic experience is. A disposable Pilot Varsity is a (surprisingly) pleasant experience to use but the experience is not visually or physically intense, and the performance is only intense very temporarily. A Visconti Opera Master demonstrator is a superior experience because it is far more visually and performatively intense: it can grab and hold our attention in a way the Varsity simply cannot, and on this basis, we could conclude that the Opera provides us with a more valuable aesthetic experience.

The next factor is the complexity of the experience: that is to say, whether we feel that the experience is imaginative, surprising, and interesting. A pen that is subtle and rich in contrasts — an intricate arrangement of many diverse and varied parts — will be far more interesting than one that is plain and predictable. And an interesting experience is no doubt more valuable than an experience which fails to surprise us or get us thinking. This may be why so few FP enthusiasts sustain any interest in modern Parker, Sheaffer or Waterman: there is no real complexity in the experience. Nothing about these pens is all that surprising or imaginative, and so the value of those aesthetic experiences is much lower than we might experience from a cheaper brand like Twsbi, which is far more creative and interesting. 

The final factor, unity, can be expressed in the ideas of coherence and completeness. Coherence is the visual rhythm that is achieved from the reiteration of a single or a few compatible colours, features, or motifs in a way that feels harmonious, even natural. If everything is nicely tied together, the aesthetic experience will be unified; if the different elements conflict — if our visual attention to one element is interrupted by other elements — the experience will be unpleasant, even distressing. Coherence might appear to be in conflict with complexity and, at a basic level, this is probably true. But true artistry is able to provide an experience that is rich in subtle contrasts while maintaining overall harmony, in such a way that our overall experience is much deeper and more meaningful: a more valuable aesthetic experience. Alongside coherence is completeness, the feeling of finality that emerges from each part, the sense that nothing has been omitted and an overall equilibrium has been attained and can be enjoyed. The implication of this sense of completeness is that the experience could not be improved by the addition (or refinement) of any other element. When the elements are both coherent and complete, we feel a sense of pleasure at its unity, and the aesthetic experience becomes more valuable to us. When we look at a platinum Montblanc 146, it is impossible not to be struck by the unity of its elements: the colours (black, silver, and white) are in perfect harmony, the shine of the resin matches the shine of the silver plating, the symmetry, the way the piston knob is integrated with the shape and form of the rest of the pen. Although some feel underwhelmed by the lack of complexity, each of the visual elements are coherent with each other and feel complete, and our aesthetic experience is much deeper and richer for it.

Beardsley’s ideas can be contrasted with those of George Santayana. His 1896 book, A Sense of Beauty, was the definitive account of aesthetics for much of the 20th century and was built around the idea of beauty (which took the form of objectified pleasure) as emotion. Santayana’s three factors — material, form, expression — did not originate with him but he is perhaps the most influential proponent of them being central to our aesthetic experience.

The first factor are the materials (or matter), the basic elements that comprise an aesthetic object: the colours, the shapes, the physical material, etc. Santayana argued that it was the materials that had the strongest appeal to those who did not have refined taste. This idea is likely to strike some of you as a rather elitist claim, but Santayana was only trying to distinguish between those who had spent time developing an appreciation for a medium (paintings, poetry, music, pens, etc) — those who had a broad, varied experience and a deep knowledge — and those who had much more limited experience. I am sure that many of you would agree that your judgement about pens has improved as your experience broadened: you have a better sense of what you find beautiful or valuable. In fact, I suspect this is why many of us subscribe to blogs and read reviews of products that we have no intention of ever buying; they are an opportunity for us to broaden our experience and refine our preferences. Arguably, Santayana’s concept is only a negative (or elitist) one when used to exclude or denigrate those who have less experience than we do. (And I am glad to say that this is far less common in our community than many others.) This might explain why many intermediate users idealise the Visconti Homo Sapiens before they have used many premium pens; the appeal is primarily in its physical material (the lava), rather than its form or expression.  

For Santayana, an object’s form is far more important than the materials: this is not just the shape and structure of the object but the relationship of each element to the whole. As we broaden our experience and cultivate our tastes, Santayana claims that form becomes an increasingly important part of our aesthetic experience, and our appreciation. This was certainly true for me; when I started moving into FPs as a hobby, one of my first purchases was an AG Spalding. I didn’t love the form but it appealed to me because of the materials; since then, I still find the material an important part of my appreciation (and still love wood pens) but form has certainly become a much more significant factor. Superior form is one which entices us to contemplate: to sit back, stare, and think about the object and the aesthetic experience that it provokes. I think many of you will know exactly what he means by this and will have had exactly such an experience, where a pen stops being a functional object and, at least temporarily, becomes an object that we simply hold and admire. There is something magical in that moment and it seems right to argue that a pen with such form is superior to one without. 

The final factor, expression, is more subjective than the other terms and harder to pin down. Santayana explains it as the ideas or associations that are conveyed by an object which occur in our minds and the emotional effect that it evokes. So the colours of a particular Edison/Goulet Nouveau Premiere might remind us of summer and those pleasant associations then heighten the experience of using that pen. He makes the point that we can sometimes appreciate an object that expresses something we enjoy, even if the materials and form are somewhat lacking (though, of course, it is preferable that it combine these elements). 

Santayana is quite clear in pointing out that we should separate the price or financial value of an object from our appreciation for it — in fact, he describes those who fixate on price as being of ‘snobbish ambition’ and guilty of bad taste (a wonderful description). In such a case, the associations conveyed from the price of an object are not associations  conveyed by the object itself, but something external to it. In other words, a Pelikan M1000 might evoke certain feelings — in addition to admiration for its materials or its form — but our those feelings should not be swayed by its price. 

Beardsley and Santayana’s frameworks offer a nice contrast in ways we can understand why we find something to be beautiful or why we appreciate it. Beardsley is more prescriptive, but in a way that we can (probably) agree with: intensity, complexity, and unity certainly seem to be important characteristics that shape our appreciation, and the framework is a useful tool. Santayana seems to be more about understanding the different sources of our appreciation and how they influence us, rather than establishing some normative criteria. I think his idea of cultivated or refined taste is insightful, and his framework gives us some valuable insights into the aesthetic experience. 

And that is, of course, the purpose of these tools: to develop a sense of aesthetic literacy and to better discern our personal preferences. While two pens might perform differently against a particular criterion or framework, such performance does not support a claim that one pen is objectively better than another. Better can only ever refer to our own preferences, and so these tools are valuable inasmuch as they help us to think about beauty, appreciation, and enjoyment.

To conclude, I want to return to the problem of the M805 demonstrator and apply what has been learned through researching and writing this series. The first insight is that there is a difference between a pen itself being disappointing (which I would regard as technical failure) and an aesthetic experience being disappointing; in my case, it was certainly the latter, and therefore a subjective disappointment. I cannot claim that others will have the same experience as me (and, indeed, I’ve heard from others who are quite satisfied with their M805s). 

To use the Beardsley framework, I think that the design is almost perfectly unified but that unity seems to have come at the price of complexity. The pen lacked any kind of intensity; the preview pictures appeared visually intense but I did not find the actual pen to be the same. I expected to have that transcendent experience of beauty but it was lacking. To use the Santayana framework, the form is simply beautiful and my disappointed stemmed from expression: the association that the pen conveyed was a Twsbi 580 with a gold nib. The 580 is a wonderful pen (I own two of them) but the size, shape, feeling — even the name! — of the M805 was too similar to the 580 for me. 

Ultimately, I am still not sure that either of these frameworks are able to fully communicate my feelings about the M805 but I think that I am starting to comprehend those feelings a little deeper and I am certainly able to articulate them more clearly. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a process to develop a broader aesthetic literacy and, with time and cultivation, we can achieve a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of our fountain pens.