Struggling to understand (2)

In great abbreviation: although no one has ever raped anyone in my presence; nor urinated upon me; yet my life has not been without a certain degree of heroic drama. I was once a political refugee: there were in it illegal border crossings and time served in refugee camps; emigration across the ocean; struggle to conquer a foreign language once; again; and then once more; responsibility for a family of four at the tender age of sixteen; a colonial venture in early manhood: trying to establish myself in Asia, to build from scratch friendships and alliances, to found and grow a business, to beat off a bankruptcy; a love story which probably deserves to be called epic. Then, throw in the usual smattering of adventure travel: a night frozen out on a rock at 4500 meters, in the Alps; surviving an armed bus robbery in Assam; and so forth; and you could say that my life has not lacked excitement altogether comparable to that
experienced by the author of the reviewed book. (If never as humiliating, thanks be to Mighty Athena).

Yet, nothing in my life has felt as exciting, as meaningful, as enriching and as lasting as my cultural experiences: the discovery of Balinese dance-drama, Kathakali, Thai matmee and benjarong, of fencai porcelain, makie lacquer-ware, serialism, Josquin's L'Homme Arme masses, some poems by Milosz, the Pillow Book, Mann's Faustus' third chapter. I am therefore puzzled and disappointed that so many presumably intelligent cultured men writing books of technically attained literature -- through their very narrative complexity clearly not destined to please the common man -- never seem to refer to cultural experiences as their hero's most important -- or even significant. That, for example, a book about the friendship of a monk and an artist (read "spiritual types") -- Goldmund and Narcissus -- should in the end turn out to be a book about one's longing for one's unmet mother seems -- well, pretty disappointing to me. It is as if cultured men were really no different from everyone else. As if their cultural adventures did not really matter, were no more than a decorative margin illustration on a page of prose diary which reads: "Woke up at seven, walked the dog, in the afternoon it rained, I missed my Mom and worried about my personal popularity".



(Interrupting myself: Reunion)


Here -- oh Herr Jahnn, in case you did not know -- is how a cultured man lives his life: he may, for example, imagine it to be a replay of the classics; or, rather, a variation on them.

If so, then this one is one of the oldest; and the variation is this: this time he -- Ulysses -- went ahead to prepare the place; and she -- Penelope -- followed, braving monsters, dangers, contrary winds, sea-currents, gods' curses, technological failures, brigands and -- suitors. Yet, she persevered and, at last, here she is. And here they are rejoined: do they not look good together?

But, pray, old friends, tell me, can you tell: which is the male and which is the female?

As is right and proper, the male is the more beautiful one, even if, contrary to nature, he is not the more gaudy. Of course, that is merely the function of the relative value of the classics and the moderns: the classic patterns, like Popper's well-tested theories, have been tried by generations of makers and consumers, they are veterans, and therefore they continue to perform well. As for the new patterns -- in part, their weakness lies in the fact they are obliged to be different from the past, novel; and thus their makers are banished to search in territories which had already been combed over by artists of the past and found to be -- marginal land, poor mineral deposits, incapable of true greatness. No amount of 14K gold is ever going to disguise that.

Here, judge for yourselves:

The male of the species.

The female.

(Yes, Grasshopper, how smart you are, and how well you remember your lessons. These are Benjarong. Three cheers for The King!)


(Interrupting myself)

The Philosopher's Zone (pardon them their name) has recently had a discussion of "the liar's paradox and other philosophical absurdities". (In brief: "I am lying", says a liar, which means that he's not! Etc.)

It occurs to me that the point to be made about these things is that in order to see the liar's paradox as paradoxical, one has to be a logician; the error lies within logic, so to speak -- because any average-minded adult can see instantly that the liar's paradox is nonsense; what's more: that it is -- irrelevant. Ordinary men and women shrug at the liar's paradox. They know it's garbage.

Now, noble souls like Russell have justly spent their lifetimes trying to fix the liar's paradox: for, if we are to trust logic (and math) in those outlying areas of reality which they seem to penetrate while our minds don't -- things like the shape of the universe at time one times ten to minus ten billionth of a second following the big bang, spacial distortions at the edge of the anomaly, behavior of things in seven-dimensional space, strange matter, why, indeed, things far closer to earth, such as fat tail risk of credit derivatives) - then the instruments of logic and math better be rid of anomalies themselves. All power to them who set out to fix them.

But here is an area of research that is just as intriguing; why, it may have within it the seed to the solution: nearly everyone who hears the liar's paradox (unless they are mentally retarded or a professionally trained logician) knows instantly that the thing is hogwash. I mean, knows to shrug and ignore it. Knows it is an anomaly. Knows something's wrong and also knows that -- well, it does not matter. Knows to sidestep it.

So, here is my question: how does everyone know it? There must be an algorithm; a mental procedure; some sort of a trick, a matrix perhaps, within our brain that instantly reveals the nonsensical nature of the liar's paradox. In some sense, therefore -- in this sense -- we are more intelligent than our logic -- and our logicians. How do we manage that?

If we can figure this one out -- the liar's paradox will have been solved and the likes of Russell will be able to finally rest in their graves.


Struggling to understand what is going on


The 12 cm worm at work

I have written something like this before. In fact, more than once, I am sure. So, why say it again?

Because the topic bothers me greatly. Bothers me? No! It drills me -- like a great jointed, horned, steel-and-tungsten mechanical burrowing worm. (See above). For all the struggle, the business remains unresolved, yet, I will write about it again -- because I must, but also because I think I am making some progress at last.

(Er... Maybe. Bear with me).

This time, I return to the topic on the excuse of having read a review of a modernist German writer. The review is to be found here. (Note the rather cute way in which (I hope) I have managed to post a link and yet remain hidden from the author of the original review to which I am linking... To the same end, all names -- of authors and heroes -- have been removed from this post, because... I wish to speak to you, my friends, not the larger world of admirers of the work in question: years of experience on internet have taught me not to expect to learn anything from debates on it. Nor do I court readership: I am happy if my words are never read by more than the five of you).

Now, I have not read the work in question. And, though I do read German, I never expect to read it. What gives me the right to speak up, then? Well, it is precisely this I wish to speak to you about: the reason why I will not read it.

I will not read the book because, well, thanks to the reviewer, I think I know it already. The review suggest to me that the novel is too much like a lot of other modernist work -- that in fact I know it, have read it elsewhere -- different author perhaps, perhaps a different language -- but I have read it, more than once, and have worse than not liked it.

The work in question, like so much modernist work, appears to me mind-boggling -- and not a little scary -- because of the incongruous combination (as it seems to me) of (on the one hand) great narrative technique -- the descriptions of the technical complexities of the work excite me and make me want to read it right now, right here; and (on the other hand) well -- absolute dullness.

The dullness comes from three directions:

1) uninteresting characters (what can possibly be interesting -- to any healthy human being-- about the sexual travails of a "not-hero"? could someone please explain this to me?);

2) a certain preoccupation with the sordid which I do not share ("Wow! He peed on me!" Well, shucks, for some odd reason, I am determined to manage my life in a manner which will never expose me to being peed on; but if, by some unforeseeable twist of fate such a thing should ever happen -- an unexpected Don Cossack invasion of Northern Thailand, say -- I am sure I would try to forget about the experience rather than dedicate a book to it);

and -- but? -- most puzzling of all -- and this is my central point (after all, lack of interest in dull, boring, ordinary men; and lack of interest in the boulversant facts of life, such as one man peeing on another, can be, well -- local; I mean, it could be a matter of my personality; of the shape of my mind) --

3) total absence of any interest at all in art and culture.

This last is really puzzling to me: weren't these men -- these modernist authors -- think James Joyce, think the author of the book under review -- themselves cultured? Why did they not write novels about the lives of cultured men, then? The lives of cultured men seem to me so much more interesting, so much more worth talking about!

Now, some modern/ist writers can and do write about the lives of cultured men: Mann, who writes about Goethe, an imaginary composer, the Josephus myth; Proust who appears to live a life -- I think one has to take his novel as autobiographical -- which is an adjunct to, or, perhaps, a variation on his encounters with art: his servant makes him think of Italian primitives, a day in the garden -- of stained glass in Chartres, etc.; Parnicki, who writes about the internal lives of intellectuals struggling with new philosophical trends, say, ca. 202 A.D. and trying to make sense of new the outlooks on life risig about them). But not many. Most... most... don't?!

So, then perhaps one could say, perhaps these authors -- Joyce, this guy -- were not cultured? Certainly, their novels don't create an impression of them being cultured, of them engaging in any meaningful way with poetry, or painting, or music, or porcelain, or historiography, or ideology. If they have read the classics, their effect on them lies solely, it seems to me, in the point of style and is otherwise... wholly and completely undetectable. Indeed, if these authors insist on writing about themes such as -- well, being peed on, for example -- (OK, OK, I do get it: the peeing in fact symbolizes a relationship of power and control -- but then perhaps I am not interested in such relationships any more than I am interested in being peed on) -- it means either one of two things: either they have not had strong, memorable, life changing encounters with art and culture; or else they think such encounters are somehow -- trivial, not worth their or their readers' time, compared to the more fundamental (?) experiences, such as being peed-on.

(Which perhaps amounts to the same thing. Really, it does. Think about it).

I can't help feeling that this is a sort of... intellectual failure on their part; and cannot grasp how superior verbal technique can go hand in hand with -- well, a kind of untutored, primitive view of life. It's, as I said above, incongruous: it's like using the great St Jacobi organ (in Hamburg) to play "Fernando". It can be done, certainly. But why do it? Doing so seems a kind of -- slap to the instrument, not so? A kind of... sacrilege?

The problem does not stop there... the reviewer of the book presents himself on his blog as an eminently cultured person, with varied interests pursued in depth... His range of knowledge of the world must be far broader than that of book's hero (and possibly of the book's author's himself). So -- I wonder -- what can possibly interest the blogger in the book in question?

Christ, I so am puzzled.



Laughing my head off at Mme Sei's wit

The fact that there is nothing known about the life of Sei Shonagon after she'd left court has left an opening for the nasty rumor to arise that she'd fared badly: died alone in poverty and so forth. But, observed Ian Morris, who could take a difficult woman, "this is probably the invention of moralists who were shocked by her promiscuity and thought she deserved retribution."

The problem with Morris's theory is that today's sexually revolutioned Americans also find Mme Sei deeply immoral. It is not her bedly doings -- it follows -- certainly nothing especially bad in any case -- which are the cause of the moral opprobrium. Rather, divine the root of the moral outrage from this, No. 5 (as Morris counts them):

Different Ways of Speaking
A priest's language.
The speech of men and women.
The common people always seem to add extra syllables to their words.

The essay starts ambitiously enough: priests do speak an odd language (meaning it to be otherwordly and mysterious); and it continues interestingly, too: in Japan, as in many countries, men and women speak differently. Both facts could have made a good point of departure for an intelligent essay, which is probably what she had intended, and one of which her superior wits would have been perfectly capable (even if her readers' were not)... had she not been diverted by her last comment -- and disarmed by her own guffaws in its wake, bringing the whole thing to a sudden crash.

It's a joke, no more; and old jester's trick: to start high and suddenly drop low. It never fails to amuse.

And she's right, of course: commoners do speak an odd language; and often they are just plain funny, too, seeming -- with their unhealthy teeth, their ungainly laughter, their colorful patois -- no more than a caricature of better men. The problem is -- one is not allowed to say it. We can all see it, of course; but to admit as much is -- somehow damnable: the emperor's new clothes and all.

Which is why I love Mme Sei more with every passing day: a smart, cultured, sensitive woman, she was too intelligent, too honest, and too confident of herself to pay stinking lipservice to politically correct "respect" for instances of bad manners, lack of culture, phariseeism and cabotinism. Surrounded as she was by insecure empty suits whom she delighted rubbing the wrong way, she was envied and hated, and... if she'd not been a woman of independent means, I should not be surprised if she did not end up poor and lonely in her old age: there would have been too many all too ready to delight in her downfall.


My lord, the master of the west wind

Arriving home from faraway travels, after many month's absence and a grueling long trip, how pleasant it is to be welcomed at one's threshold by an old faithful friend who'd rushed on ahead to sweep the cobwebs, warm and light the house and whisk up a frothy tea.

We sit and chat and then in passing she mentions the west wind:

In the ninth month, the west wind quickens
Under the cold moon, flowers of frost have formed.
When I think upon my lord, the spring day seems long.
My soul, nine times, rises towards him in one night.

In the second month the east wind comes
Tearing at the plants till the flowers lay bare their hearts.
When I think upon my lord, the spring day passes slowly.
My heart, nine times, leaps up to him in one night.

Which is a fancy way to say that I have found, upon arriving home, a copy of The Pillow Book waiting in the mailbox -- of all the books that I had preordered, this one was the first to come and the only one to be already waiting. So, having dropped my bags and shoes at the door, I curled up on the sofa with it. This poem, by Po Chu Yi, is mentioned in its 150th chapter (as Morris numbers them), but only obliquely, of course, with the sort of reference you are liable (and calculated) to miss.

I can't explain what I find so very moving about it... surely, I hope, not just the fact that I do not understand it (and my head spins trying to understand it).


Nothing wrong with this neck, though

(Or: if you can't get the neck right, remove it).

About 4 inches in diameter.

What I cannot photograph is the experience of holding one of these things in your hand: the bowls and their lids fit together perfectly; and they weigh -- nothing: the porcelain seems no thicker than an egg-shell and you get the impression that a merest breath would cause them to float away in the air. I saw them for the first time about a week before I could buy them; and during that whole week, every time I recalled holding them in my hand, a soft, warm feeling arose in my chest, like a steamed Chinese bun. And when I closed my eyes at night, I could see their zany colors float up before my eyes. What incredibly precise painting! And what an audatious move: purple dragons?! Only Qianlong could have dared to come up with that.

Paid for the two about a third of I paid for the mynah-vase, too. Peanuts. Not even a hundred bucks. A crap dinner for two with mediocre wine would cost more. I simply cannot believe it. Can you?