COMMENT: Sophistication —Munir Attaullah - Wednesday, December 01, 2010

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The off-stage exercise of power currently enjoyed by our army is nothing if not sophisticated, and is to be preferred to the cruder forms of the imposition of its will we have seen hitherto

In the Kleenex age, the flash of a silk handkerchief is a delight for these tired old eyes.

I also love small and quiet restaurants that are discreetly lit, have widely separated tables, and offer the clientele large, luxurious napkins. Of course, in any expensive eatery I take imaginative and well-prepared dishes, accompanied by unobtrusive but impeccable service, as a given. But, for me, those additional touches I mentioned earlier are necessary if I am to think of the place as a classy joint worth re-visiting.

One of the wife’s abiding regrets is that I am not a great one for always being impeccably turned out sartorially (I have phrased this rather delicately: actually, she thinks I am slovenly beyond words). My usual excuse is that I am a product of the 60s and 70s in London, that age of flower power, and general youthful rebellion against starchy stuffiness, mindless conformism, and outmoded social mores. The fashion excesses of Carnaby Street may have long been forgotten but ‘designer stubble’ and ‘smart casual’ (whatever that means) live on. And yet, I still enjoy donning a silk shirt and a tuxedo on the odd special occasion.

Are such thoughts – and countless other similar ones pertaining to such diverse areas of human activity as art, music, literature, politics, humour, choice of friends, and even simple conversation – merely fashion preferences on my part? Or are they, mother of all horrors, affectations of some sort, stemming possibly from a snobbish or arrogant personality? But, perhaps, I have got it all wrong. Did I hear someone say basically such thoughts just betray my deep inner sense of insecurity?

For me these are troubling, if not baffling questions. And I am prepared to wager, most readers have also pondered such matters from time to time. But I neither have the faloos (money) nor the inclination to emulate the modern celebrity practice of having in tow a private analyst/therapist (let alone a bodyguard, hairdresser, fitness trainer, golf coach, chef, etc) to cater to my angst and other needs. Yes, I know, besides all the gratuitous analyses I get from friends (routinely ignored), I could also – probably – fall back on a free session or two with my sister, the formidable local Jungian expert. But running this particular gauntlet is not my idea of therapy. Therefore, I have little alternative but to grapple publicly with the question myself today. And that question – I boil it down to: ‘what is sophistication?’ – is what led to the long rambling prelude you have just read.

So, what is ‘sophistication’? In the age of the common man this seems to me to be a worthwhile question to ask. Should the striving for, and admiration of, sophistication be dismissed as merely a class-conscious act intended to make us somehow feel superior to the hoi-polloi? Or is there some solid and genuine substance to the concept that is timeless?

Incidentally, that charge condemning sophistication is nothing new. Indeed, the very word is derived from the ancient Greek word ‘sophist’, a derisive label for someone who, through extra-clever but manipulative use of words and arguments, could justify as ‘right’ what was patently ‘wrong’, and vice versa.

But my own view is that this charge is misdirected. Certainly, sophistication is easily given a bad name by poseurs, and a certain type of nouveau riche anxious to make his mark socially. But, it is equally true that many manifestations of sophistication – though not all – are easy targets for the purveyors of the insidious politics of envy and hatred. For, if necessity is the mother of invention, then luxury is the father of innovation. And, crucially, sophistication is mostly about innovation coupled to inventiveness.

But the luxury I am talking about here is not simply that of a monetary wealth that helps because it buys freedom from drudgery. I am also talking of the luxury of a free and courageous mind. Sophistication is somewhat different from – and certainly more than – those accoutrements of luxury such as fashion, finery, opulence, or grandeur. It is essentially a quality of mind that – relative to a particular era – is modern, curious and subtle. It is a delicate flower that has for its petals artistry, sensitivity, grace, refinement, ease with oneself and the milieu, and the quiet and easy confidence that comes with mastery of a subject and its methodological tools. It also has a clear preference for the rapier over the bludgeon and thrives in a leisurely, understated environment. How many more adjectives do I need?

A quality is hard enough to describe in the abstract, let alone define. So it is with sophistication. Therefore, probably, the best one can do is to give some specific examples, contrast it with its opposite – crudeness – that is far easier to recognise, and let fuzzy logic do the rest in helping us understand sophistication, and intuitively recognise it when we see it. In that sense, no one who understands Urdu well needs to be told why Ghalib was a sophisticated poet par excellence; or, why Nusrat Fateh Ali and Mehdi Hassan were sophisticated singers. The subtle inventiveness and innovation manifest in their art requires no elucidation. You can feel the composite effect of it in your bones.

Is sophistication a morally neutral concept, even though it is at heart a value judgement? I think so. Crime, for example, especially of the white collar variety, can often be incredibly sophisticated in both design and execution. Nevertheless, it is the crime itself and not the sophistication that makes it reprehensible. Was it those breathtakingly complex debt instruments and ingenious financial derivatives, or greedy bankers and a gullible public that produced the latest economic crisis? Surely the answer is the latter.

Much the same can be said about the exercise – even abuse – of power. For example, the off-stage exercise of power currently enjoyed by our army is nothing if not sophisticated, and is to be preferred to the cruder forms of the imposition of its will we have seen hitherto. Even in religious matters, it is possible to have sophisticated views rather than regressive ones. Would you rather subscribe to the Taliban interpretation of Islam or that of Ghamdi?

So, all said and done, and even if it be no more than a case of a personal value-judgement, I have little hesitation in saying I have a powerful preference for sophistication over crudeness. I say this even as I recognise that there is often a thin and invisible line between it and pretentiousness. For, a sophisticated mind is a sign of an open, tolerant, and inquisitive mind. And history is witness that such minds are by far the largest contributors to human progress and all that we call civilisation.

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit

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