Un conte de Noel
The wretched tiresomeness of the anglos

There are numerous films with this title, both French and English.

Invariably, the English movies are about the same things as the French ones: betrayal, disloyalty, sexual dalliance, parents’ failure to love their children (and the reverse), failure to live up to standards of friendship; and so forth. In short: moral failure all along the line; which is to say, well, life.

But – and this is my point here -- also invariably, the English language films are dark, sick, depressing – Scandinavian – while the French films – though they can be profound – manage to be lighthearted and – well, generally quite funny.

(Profundity, it turns out, contra my anglo friends, has no need of moral reproach).

The anglo productions are invariably steeped in the five thousand year old sauce of divine moralization: even the famous sexual revolution has not cured the anglos of their leviticus moralizing zeal: the rules remain, they have merely been tweaked (“dally all you want before you’re married, but once you marry, well, then have eyes only for daddy” – how does one who has dallied all her life do that?); while the French – well, the French seem to make do – with all the heartache it entails but without the divine retribution and without the moral disgust.

Here is to the French. (Herdade grande, red, 2006; and well before noon, too; but, hey, it's afternoon somewhere in the world, no?)


BBC7 is mostly lower-middle-brow. But it sometimes rises above itself to produce something quite good. Last month it was Wharton’s Reef. Good, excellent, wonderful, insightful, wise – well written and well acted, too boot. But, oh, so bloody Anglo-Saxon, so damn – well – sick.

My reaction to this literature is like my reaction to Dostoevsky: instant, deeply felt, uncontrollable revulsion.

(I am a Crime and Punishment tosser, i.e. one of those who have pitched it out the window with disgust… in fact, I suppose, I am a serial-tosser since I repeated the same – Heimlich? -- maneuver with Brothers Karamazov twenty years later. It is a kind of monoethlon: how far anf fast can you pitch your Dosoevsky?)

Yet, surprisingly – or not surprisingly, if you know their literature – the anglos love Dostoevsky.

There is something about the feelings of moral disgust that stimulates the anglos; they appear like that madman who having accidentally stepped into a piece of dog poop in the street, turned round, retraced his steps and, re-locating the poopismo, trod it again; and again; and again.

One assumes – with delight.

(Not my kind of party).


Reading Canetti
Same Old Same Old, part 2

What can we do with the people from our past, with all those we have known? They keep turning up, more and more of them, a kind of transmigration, not of souls but of faces, and not in the hereafter but here. Years ago I was so astounded by their turning up in totally new places, with different ages, jobs, languages, that I was determined to write down every occurrence of this phenomenon. But I did so only rarely, and they have gotten more and more numerous. Now they are proliferating so fast that I could never record them all.

What is it about these constantly recurring people? Is there really only a limited number of possible faces? Or can our memories be organized only with the help of such resemblances?

Canetti writes about this experience often -- that a totally new person we meet is just like someone else we have known elsewhere; sometimes the similarity is so striking that we refuse to believe that it can possibly not be the same person. (And it s not just faces: it is gestures, grimaces, the timbre of the voice – the works). The intuition is not false: those who see more faces – the well travelled, the elderly have it more frequently – as the number of faces they have seen accumulates.

Canetti asks his questions right – first, he asks: is it possible that there is only a limited number of human faces? Had he been familiar with evolutionary psychology it would have been obvious to him that yes, of course, it is: the human gene pool is vast but limited; even accounting for all possible permutations of all possible genes – 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 etc. -- (but note that not all possible permutations are viable) -- given 6 billion of us on earth, there are bound to be repeats; a little math shows that there are probably far more repeats out there than we intuit possible.

Canetti’s second question is also relevant: I suppose he is right in guessing that our brain capacity to remember faces is limited; were it not we’d probably spot a lot more of the repeats than we do.


But Canetti opens the paragraph with a sentence which could be interpreted differently; and which, so interpreted, seems to me a much more interesting philosophical question. For, if you stop to think about it, indeed, what shall we do with all the people we have ever known – all the women we have slept with, say – who have gone, disappeared among the other 6 billion, never to come back, never to be recovered?

Yet, they live on in our memory; and we never quite cease interacting with that memory; we hear their voices; imagine what they might say. We pick shoes, for instance, and we think, she’d like this one better than that. How odd: these people -- for all intents and purposes as good as dead -- they continue to affect us deeply decades after they have disappeared.

It seems like a one way interaction, too, and as such a little unfair – we can’t talk back to them without – well, visibly talking to ourselves, it would seem. But perhaps not? Perhaps we affect them, too, in the same manner in which they affect us, affect them, so to speak, unbeknownst to us?

And if we do, how strange to know that there is something we do without having the least inkling of it.

And another thing: if we do affect them in some way, it is probably all wrong. I mean: my girlfriends, when they were still around, usually guessed things about me wrong – in their expectations of what I would like or say they usually erred in most surprising ways. I’d tease them saying “I am like no other man you have ever known” (which was probably true, actually, given that I came from a place which was a lot like the other side of the moon).

So what chance that, if they continue to interact with my memory, they do it all wrong? What chance they imagine me choosing a pair of shoes I never would?


Reading Notes from Hampstead is not entirely a waste of time: bon mots – books of maximes -- epigrams – have seemed more interesting to me lately than either novels or books written to make a point (say, How Great Empires Fall) -- in part because the epigrams' succinctness makes them not entirely transparent: the thought they seek to express being incomplete works a bit like a Rorschach test -- and stimulates my own thoughts in new directions, directions unforeseen by the author. And these directions I often find a lot more interesting than being guided exactly through that author's thought process.

Canetti works this way for me: the thoughts he stimulates in me seem to me a lot more interesting than his own.

Indeed, I seem to myself a lot more interesting than most famous intellectuals of our day. Not that this is their failure: perhaps being not too intellectual is what it takes to become a famous one. (Certainly, one cannot be too demanding of one's thought processes if one is to prepared to opinionate on TV).

I long to read the books of the unfamous intellectuals.


Love in middle age
Same Old Same Old, part 1
the main reason to love art


I do not much like being grown up and wise, Akhila said to me over a glass of something in the deep shade of the great Bo tree: a Bo tree as huge and as silent as a Gothic church.

(A Bo tree, just think!)

"For, although my mother, now 57, says to me 'I wish I had known at your age what you know at yours', the truth is that this knowledge is -- a burden. The truth is, my old friend, that premature wisdom is... bitter.

"Yes, it is useful to know with perfect 20/20 clarity just what motivates everyone around me, and thus how to press their buttons... and thus how to manipulate them efficiently into doing what I want. It makes one effective at business... look at this house all paid off at 32, and another one... And yes, it is good to know not to expect from people anything beyond that -- one saves herself so much disappointment by not entertaining silly expectations...

"And yet, it is -- disappointing, after all, I suppose -- tiresome -- dull -- to know that people are such simple creatures; that everything in life is so -- predictable; so -- unromantic; so -- mechanical; so -- mercenary... all of it... That everyone is just like everyone else... that they are all after the same things... and that one can trust no one at all, and never ever hope for anyone to surprise us...

"When I think about it now, I realize just how much I do not like it: there is a part of me which wishes I did not know; a part of me that wishes to be mystified, wide-eyed, amazed. I want to believe life is a mystery. I want to be in love -- yes, I suppose I do want to be in love -- which is, to my mind, a feeling of giving oneself to something bigger and better than oneself... of believing in goodness and friendship and -- well -- love.

"But, of course, it is impossible; at our age we know better; we have the perfect knowledge; the 20/20 vision. Zero illusion."


My lady Akhila's words do not surprise me.

They, too, are predictable: it is the voice of the middle age.

I once heard Joe Campbell saying the very same thing: by the time you are forty, you know what a person is going to say before they open their mouth; you know everything; everyone you meet you have met already in a different guise... everything someone else says you have heard... you are ready for -- a whole new movie.

And, of course, this has been my experience, too: same old, same old.

And, like Akhila, I am tired and bored of it.

The difference is that Joe Campbell was 52 when he pronounced those words; and I was forty when I understood them; but Akhila is... thirty-two. How terrifying it must be to be disillusioned at her age.

At her age I was still stupid enough to fall in love -- for what will be, I certainly hope, the last time.


There are, I say to her, two ways to cope.

The first is not to become cynical.

Cynical, think my friends, means not believing anyone we meet; assuming absolutely the worst about them; and then merely waiting to see how right we were in our initial estimation; waiting for them to prove themselves to be just what we thought they were in the first place. At which they do not usually disappoint.

But that is not correct; that is not the true meaning of being cynical. That is merely being realistic, practical, true to the our middle-age knowledge of people and the world. The species is ugly; its members are by and large a worthless waste of time.

This is god's own truth.

It is a fact of life.

But being cynical is not about knowing it, but about agreeing to be like them.

And this we must not do. Merely because x is a louse, why should I be the same? If x fails me as a friend, why should I fail him? The world is lousy, surely; but that does not mean I should be lousy myself, too, does it now?

So my friends can count on me even if I cannot -- and do not -- count on them. They are oftentimes lice, perhaps; sometimes lice squared, even; but I -- I shall be a reliable and trustworthy friend to them.

No one will ever catch me being a louse.


But the second way to cope is probably the better one -- fewer concerns with interpersonal relationships and character in it, certainly fewer disappointments -- it is to take an interest in art.

Every artistic technique -- whether it is weaving, or pottery, or painting, or metalworking -- is a kind of struggle with the technological limitations of the medium; within each there are numerous histories of multigenerational research projects each directed at the attainment of a particular result. In painting this may be the struggle to represent three dimensional space on a flat surface; or to represent texture -- glistening glass, fluffy fur, stubble; in Chinese pottery such projects included the quest for the color of sangue de boeuf; or for the perfect celadon crackle. Following these research projects is intellectually fascinating; but their ends are always fresh and new: they are far removed from the usual same old same old; which is why the artists followed them in the first place, I suppose. They, too, found the endless cycle of seduction and betrayal painful and -- dull. They, too, tried to get away -- and thanks to them now we can, too -- by following them down their paths.


Manoel does it again

The one film career which I have followed longest (since Os Canibais, 1988 -- a wonderful opera with a delightfully odd libretto), that of Manoel de Oliveira, has delivered another of its usual short, quirky, otherworldly jewels: Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura . Based on a short story by Eça de Queirós, Portugal's better-than-Flaubert, the film's action is firmly set in the nineteenth century bourgeois ethos (boy loses employment with his uncle when he develops a fancy for a girl his uncle disapproves of; quits the family business; undertakes a colonial venture; returns home to marry her, but rejects her upon discovering that she is inclined to... shop-lift) -- but also set in modern Lisbon's realities -- restaurants, euros, traffic, neon lights.

It's as if the heroes were ghosts still living out their great tragedy a hundred years later, oblivious to the fact that they have died, time has passed, and everything has changed around them.

The film's otherworldliness is only increased -- and rendered more delightful -- by a kind of fanciful, dream-like jumbling up of the city: the house where the boy works is in a recognizable street in Chiado, though the view from the storefront is onto the market hall in Principe Real and at 11 o'clock one hears from it clearly the bells of... the Basilica de Estrella -- at the top of Lapa, of course. Etc. A kind of know-your-lisbon test for her lovers.

The recurring view of Castello and the Graca hill (where I now live) is, by the way, not from the Miradouro, but from the terrace of Hotel de Chiado.

I failed one of the test's trick questions: in a certain scene a bell strikes one on a church tower with a handless clock; there are trees in front of it, possibly jacaranda. I could not identify it. Santos-o-velho? Sao Antonio? Sao Mamede? Or -- does Carmello have a tower? I will spend the next week walking with my eyes raised up to gaze at the city's clock-towers -- until I find it.


Two musical curios; and then two more


(Portrait of the artist as a young man)

Here is the BBC Indian Voices prom of Aug 16, still available for listening -- probably until the 23rd. It starts with two curios: a processional Ganupati chant -- five thousand year old religious music invoking Ganesha, the Elephant-headed God, the Remover of Obstacles; followed by a choral rendition of a typical tabla practice.
(Footnote: there are many ways to strike the tabla, and each type of stroke produces a different sound; each stroke has its own name - the names are the Hindustani equivalents of bang, bam and thuck. All North Indian musicians must study the tabla and one part of the study is to memorize the taals, or rhythmic cycles, by learning to sing the sequences of bangs and thucks. A kind of solfage, I suppose, but for a total newcomer -- the proverbial white man -- the effect is extraordinary -- what on earth is this? we pinko-grays exclaim to ourselves).

I said these were curios.


But then comes the 81 year old Pandit Ram Narayan with his daughter Aruna, playing, two-sarangi style, two morning ragas in a sea of wonderful, strange, mysterious, raptuous sound. The sarangi -- a kind of viola da gamba, its name -- so rang -- means a hundred colors -- is a metal-stringed instrument -- and therefore I am not sure one can call hat they do sawing wood -- perhaps metal pulling is a better term, but the sound they produce is absolutely extraordinary. Listen to the sections around minute 25-27 -- it is like the howling of peacocks in the canopies of great tropical trees on a moonless night; or hear the section from minute 46 to minute 52 -- it is like a pair of twelve-foot black-and-gold cobras dancing on their tails.

I have heard plenty of sarangi in my life, but the sound this father and daughter team produce is absolutely unlike anything I have heard before. Interestingly, Ram Narayan's instrument, produced in the 1930s in Meerut, is a storied instrument -- a meibutsu -- like our Stradivarii; and his strings are - unusually for sarangi -- western harp strings; I think it is possible to hear the difference between his and hers as a result.

To me their performance of the two ragas (in an abridged 20 minute version -- abrodged for us attention-deficit-disordered) illustrates how much good music making relies on simply being able to produce good sound, an aspect of music my cellist girlfriend used to call -- sawing wood.

EP studies show how much information - regarding the boy's suitability -- female owls get out of merely hearing the sound of the male hoot. The human ear is as sensitive -- and, incredibly -- or credibly, perhaps, if you have learned to trust Darwin and Dawkins -- in the same ways; it takes only a few listenings -- little more than brief familiarity -- for human females to pick the suitable owl male by merely hearing his hoot. Literally, given the chance to hear a few, we, humans, can tell the healthy owls from the quality of their voice. Would you have guessed as much?

The difference is between hoot and hoot; this comes down, sometimes, to little more than the difference between drawing the bow across the string with just the right amount of strength or -- not.


Note something else, too: how much more interesting this music sounds compared to most western jazz. Both styles of music are improvised, but the difference is -- that Indian classical music has a lot more structure -- more precise (and complex rules) regarding how to improvise -- what types of things can follow what types of things, etc. This prevents simplistic treatments.

Moreover, Indian musicians usually agree a plan prior to a concert -- when I do something like this, you will do something like this, ok? -- The greatness of their improvisation, it turns out, lies in not having too much of it.


And another curio, while we are on the subject of music: here, the little g minor fugue in a graphic representation, each harmonic part in a different color. It's useful in helping the newcomer to the genre develop that difficult skill of listening to several harmonic parts simulataneously; but it is fun to look at for us all.

To me it is also useful in another way: the music is computer generated, and therefore played exactly come scritto; and it sounds a little -- well, mechanical. Dead. I can think of no better way to expose Sviatoslav Richter's lie than this; the man, when asked for the secret of his interpretation, invariably said: oh, I merely play come scritto. But he didn't -- as contrasting his rendition of the little-minor fugue with this, computer-perfect one clearly shows.

Our ears pick up something in his playing, something he put in -- something he put in almost certainly without knowing it himself.

Our ears are smarter than we are.