X + Y: Where truth and beauty connect

“If beauty is truth, and truth is beauty, then surely mathematics is the most beautiful thing of all?”

My heart was totally warmed after watching this tale of a severely autistic boy come out of his shell. To my knowledge there have not been that many films that deal with autism – only Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise (the former winning Oscar for Best Actor) comes to mind. And there’s the lesser known TV series Touch which starred Kieffer Sutherland.

X + Y has more an authentic British feel to it than Hollywood blockbuster appeal, but this proves to be in its favour. Asa Butterfield, who I last saw in Hugo, does a fab job of playing Nathan who’s condition does make him socially awkward and a nightmare for his mum and family to deal with. But he has one passion that clicks, Mathematics.

(Now I’m a Mathophobe, having sat my Higher Math exams twice, due to the exam board pushing up the pass mark by one because it was ‘a little too easy’. Guess who was sitting on 50%? Enough said. All my therapy took care of that anger. But I saw some real beauty in watching this Maths wiz attempt to not just become one of the best young mathematicians in the world, but to also work out life.)

The Math Olympiad is just a backdrop for the boy’s transformation as he comes into contact with multiple cultures, personalities, conditions and IQs. Nathan, so used to being the most intelligent person on his patch, finds himself feeling rather inadequate in a global pool of children who appear to be cleverer than he.

For so long, equations, circles and squares have been the only way to communicate. These then become inadequate as he navigates relationships with both boys and girls his age. You could say his Chinese love interest creates a problem he just can’t solve.

I love how the film tries to wrestle with love, beauty and truth. Eddie Marsan, who plays the leader of the British Maths team, has a great line: “If beauty is truth, and truth is beauty, then surely mathematics is the most beautiful thing of all?” So often we run with the idea that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ but are still left wondering by what standard are we to judge what beauty is.

There’s a scene where one of his colleagues is playing the piano. She explains that music is basically Maths, and asks him to play with her. For having never played before, Nathan improvises a lovely little tune that is really soothing to the soul. Maths proves to be totally beautiful. I relate to this story in another way. Each day, as I walk to work, Glasgow’s sunrises over the city grip me with a sense of awe and wonder. This did not used to be the case.

A few years back I visited an exhibition of Rembrandt’s ‘Resurrection of Jesus’ paintings, with an artist friend. The two viewpoints were striking: my mate was concerned with how the painting had been put together, while I as a History graduate, had no time for that, only concerned myself with the historical context and who the people were in it. Needless to say, my mind was fried by the mind altering perspective of an artist. But it did hit me that by concerning myself with raw ‘facts’, I had not given Rembrandt, as the artist, the credit he deserved for his techniques and brushstrokes – more can be read here. In other words, my view of truth disregarded beauty, and therefore truth itself.

As evidenced in the film, there are flawed views of how we value people and how ‘beautiful’ we are. For example, it can be based on: looks, social intelligence, IQ, glory or family honour. One of the unlucky ones, who failed to make the final squad, is there to challenge even our own attitudes towards people with autism. He gets on our nerves so like the rest of the team we’re relieved to see the back of him. However, by doing this we have consigned him to a ‘sub-human’ category, disregarding any notion that the boy has feelings, as the disappointment bites.

This is a real challenge to how we treat people with a variety of disabilities and illnesses. There are things that don’t fit our equation. That’s because it’s flawed. A high view of beauty, based upon human beings having intrinsic equal dignity and worth, should lead to a true view of people. What we tend to do, is value the what someone is able to do, rather than for who they are.

The attitude that says there’s nothing but blind, pitiless indifference and we’re living on a pale blue dot proves insufficient to give an answer. Truth isn’t a theory, it’s a person. You respond to a person much more multi-dimensional way than a theory. And that person is truly beautiful. In the same way, a bloke may give credit to the maker of a Ferrari for both its complicated mechanics and great bodywork. A woman will credit the maker’s painstaking technical work of stitching such a beautiful dress she gets to wear.

We must get alongside those like Nathan, encouraging his gifts and applying them in new art forms, walk in the whole family’s shoes, and learn where we ourselves fall short in understanding the world as it is. For this world is truly wonderful.

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