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?


On picking one, or, why aesthetics should be taught in school

You know about the silk brocade wrapper, I suppose. Except... this one is yellow. And you know what that means, of course.

The quality of the painting is very impressive: note that this bird is about 5 cm long in the original!

But then you turn it over to see the seal and... no, it does not say "Made in the Qianlong reign of the Great Qing"! It says... Gugong -- which is to say, of course, The National Palace Museum.

These copies -- this one is of a very famous Qianlong piece dated to 1742 (see here) -- are mass produced now, somewhere on the Mainland -- I am told in Guangdong. But they are produced by traditional techniques and the level of technical attainment is really very high.

Picking the vase I wanted from among the seven that were available was an interesting exercise:

1. One was not stable -- something went wrong with the foot in the initial firing.

2. Another one I rejected because of its shape -- the gall-bladder shape is famously difficult to reproduce. This is important -- the potter must achieve seemless, shoulderless curvature as the body profile inflects from concave to convex around the neck and shoulder (which ought to be indistinguishable). This is very hard to do. The rejected piece looked decidedly shouldered, even square-shouldered, like a football player in armor, and therefore -- graceless. Even in this case, the shape is not perfect, but at best satisfactory. My vase is therefore not a true collector's item; it will neither appreciate in value nor even store it. But I could not have the best shaped vase -- which was as close to perfect as I have ever seen: its painting was awful; and I wanted to have one of these -- on my desk, now, and it had to be at least passable.

3. I rejected another vase because it had a firing flaw: a serious flaw, in fact: too large to be on display in the museum. The piece ought to have been destroyed at the workshop, not shipped out to ruin the potter's name.

4. I rejected another yet because it had a barely perceptible stain on the glaze -- someone handled it with dirty hands before second firing and fixed his fingerprint in eternity for us to admire.

5. And among the remaining three there were noticeable differences in the quality of painting. This painter pleased me especially with his fine, small-brush detail of bird feathers, even though his flowers were paler than on the other vases; nor was his tree bark as gratifyingly gnarly. But I figured: this genre of decoration -- huaniao -- flowers and birds -- requires well painted birds, right?

Back in the days of Qianlong, one vase -- or perhaps two -- would have been selected from among not seven but perhaps -- a thousand; and the rest of the production -- would have been destroyed. The resulting unsurpassed quality of the imperial pieces affects their price (in tens of millions of dollars these days, if you can ever find one) as much as the fact that they once belonged to The Main Man Himself.


A footnote is in order. "Mass produced" -- a word I used above -- is a funny word: it still takes many men and many man-hours to produce each bottle by hand... And the quality of the best pieces is hardly "mass" in any way. I should really be careful about what I say...

After all, the production run cannot be very large: all the porcelain people here confirm this: the production of these copies has moved to China, true, but that was not much of a loss because... -- and this is the point -- the market for them has disappeared. Modern Taiwanese middle class is no longer educated to appreciate the traditional arts. In fact, Taiwanese middle class, like the middle class everywhere else in the world, is no longer educated at all in terms of aesthetics. It is taught to be good doctors and engineers and brokers and mathematicians -- those things which advance the state's cause of ever-rising GDP; but in the matter of enjoyment of life's pleasures, the middle class is left to its own devices, abandoned by the education system, left languishing in the joyless darkness of ignorance. Absent most rudimentary guidelines, it is preyed upon by the purveyors of childish glitter and empty notoriety -- the sort of BS in art it would not accept from quack doctors or fake religious prophets.

Now, if, like me, you think that sex education is a good thing not only because it allows for family planning and disease control but also because it helps people experience more joy in their lives -- makes them happier, and therefore, presumably more productive and more law abiding -- then you must admit that there are good arguments for instating aesthetic education in school.


Wei jun nan

Good things always come wrapped in silk brocade.

In this case, it is a chop -- and its vermilion ink pad:

The chop is made from veined resin in a kind of dark ceremonial red. On the side is inscribed a suitable classical quotation:

And on top, a crouching dragon:

And here is the impression in a kind of seal script:

It says... taoyen gongzuo -- "bung work".

The chop carver took a double-take when I presented to her my order. "You want it to say what?" she asked, her eyes as big as frying pans. "How can one possibly want to make such a seal!?" Chops are either utilitarian -- they serve his in place of our signatures -- for signing bank and legal documents -- or else suitably morally edifying or propitious, or both.

So, I told her about this seal:

It belonged to Yongzheng, Kangxi's son and successor, father of Qianlong; one of China's best and most effective administrators and one of the most interesting, complex characters ever to sit on her throne. He had been a low ranking son and, never expected to succeed to the crown, he'd been left to enjoy life of cultured and cultivated leisure until, suddenly, an unforeseeable sequence of events elevated him to the throne in middle age. Once crowned, he dedicated himself wholly to the duties of his office out of the Confucian sense of moral duty -- to his ancestors and his subjects -- but without any sense of pleasure. I guess it was with a sense of longing that he continued to sponsor, throughout his reign, paintings which portrayed him in his former life: enjoying hunting, literary gatherings, palace games with his concubines, his large collection of art. He used this seal for his private purposes: to seal private letters and as an ex-libris mark on his favorite art objects. It reads: wei jun nan: "it is hard to be emperor".


Speaking of Fen Cai


The National Palace Museum has a very good copy of this. Four hundred bucks! Not the sort of money one meets walking around unattended in the street, but certainly a fantastic deal considering that the original, if it ever came to market, would likely fetch seven figures. You could use it as a spitoon, for instance.


Hiroshi Suzuki

...says Japanese are lousy at shapes but good at surfaces/textures. I am not sure that this is true about all Japanese art, but it certainly is true about Hiroshi himself. Here. Right click on the images then select "View Image" to see the details.


Mountain memories

Very many years ago I lived here. I was a student then -- the Normal University gave me a scholarship to study Chinese -- but as that was not enough, and as I was eager to get ahead, I also worked. I woke up at 4 a.m. and studied; at 7 a.m. I taught an English class to bankers; at 8 I went to my Chinese class; at 10 I taught my favorite class -- a group of "retired" housewives (there is a sweet spot in a traditional housewife's life, when the children have grown up and gone to work; but the husband still works; his hours are still long and his income has reached its peak; as a result she has both free time and money to burn); at twelve I lunched with my students and went home to take a nap; then at 5 p.m. I began to teach again and taught till 10; and some days till midnight. It was a pretty busy life.

Taipei was then a sick city -- nightmarish traffic, horrible air. It has since de-congested (much business has left the city for China); and built the subway; yet, even today it smells of gasoline early in the morning; back then it seemed to me the seventh ring of hell. So, on weekends, I fled to the country. Usually, I got up at 5, took the first bus out of Tapei to Keelung and from there I hitched whatever ride I could. (I once even rode in a garbage truck). There were hardly any white dudes in Taiwan then, and in the countryside none at all. All I had to do is stand by the road side and wave: every car stopped to see what was going on. "Can I ride with you?" I would ask and the drivers would always be surprised ("what a weird idea!") and would always say "qing ni" ("I invite you"). We'd ride some distance and chat. "What on earth are you doing here?" they wanted to know. But often they were far more interesting than me. (Read on).

My direction was east. The island's west has wide, fertile plains, large successful cities, factories, dense population, and a few monuments of traditional Chinese life, such as is no longer to be found in China proper where the cultural revolution has destroyed much of it. But the east, separated from the west by the central north-south spine of high mountains -- 4 thousand meters high -- is a wild country, hard to reach, rough, and incredibly beautiful. It's hard to reach by air since there are few places where planes can land; and it is hard to reach by land because the rough mountains make access difficult; and regular mighty earthquakes keep dropping tunnels, ripping down bridges and tumbling down whole sections of tarmac.

In many places in the east, the mountains come all the way to the sea. In several places, where five- or six-hundred meter sheer rock drops into the ocean, the coastal road bores into the mountain side; cars travel in a kind of intestine, some 200 or 300 meters above the sea level: rock above, rock below, rock to the right, and to the left the intense blue of the glittering sea. A section of that road (Su-Ao) is time-wise one-way. By which I mean that 9 am to 12 pm cars travel south. A check point at the northern end of the section counts them then radioes their number south to the final check point there. That check point then counts them on their way out before the road is closed north-south and opened south-north and cars are let into the opposite direction.

I once traveled on the Su-Ao section with three civil engineers, who, being engaged in the road's maintenance, had a permit to travel up it in the wrong direction. You'd think they'd go slow: no such luck. We barreled north like madmen; blasting the horn at every turn was our only security precaution; otherwise traffic was the usual Taiwanese: we talked dirty, listened to Taiwanese songs, sang along, ate binglang (betel nuts), pitched out favorite stock picks, discussed the best kinds of moonshine and where to pick it up, and the most reliable aphrodisiacs; every now and then the driver cast a passing glance at the road; once in a blue moon he suddenly swerved to avoid a head on collision.

About half way down the coast is the Taroko Gorge: a narrow pass turns left, inland, and leads up the main range.

Yes, that crack in the sheer rock below: that is the road leading up the gorge.

Eventually, that road takes you to the top:

Photography does not do justice to the view: on the horizon there is a feature barely perceptible in photography but clear as the palm of your hand to the naked eye: the horizon: the line where the sea (visible from the top of the road) meets the sky. Looking from the height of the Li-shan tunnel (about 2.500 meters above sea level), you can just make out that the earth is round: the horizon curves ever so slightly. (The effect is very obvious from the top of mount Fuji, in Japan, which, being 4000 meters high and right at the sea-shore, offers an even better vantage point).

Here, in the rare air of the high mountains, I have had other memorable encounters -- with the old man who ran the Li-Shan youth hostel, a former soldier of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, the nationalist army which, having lost the war in China, evacuated to the recently seized Taiwan. He was, he said, twenty when, drafted into the army, he had to bid good bye to his just married wife; by the time I met him, it had been forty years since he'd last seen her. She'd remarried, had children and grandchildren, and was, somewhere in Hunan, a matron to three generations of her new husband's descendants. But he still loved her. He had remained faithful. His voice broke and his eyes welled up with tears when he spoke.

Then, there were the gold prospectors. Gold, it turns out, can be found in small quantities anywhere. Life in the mountains is cheap: one lives in a tent, shoots most of his food. To live well all one needs if 10 or 20 ounces of gold a year. That, it seems, can be found almost anywhere. Not economic for commercial production but to keep the soul and body of a lazy bone -- easy enough to find and extract. And your wives? I asked. Guan tamen, was the answer: the devil may care.

And then there was the Bunun headman's son on the other side of the Li-shan tunnel, in Nantou County. The Bunun are a mountain folk -- or, as the polite language has it -- the aborigines. Some twenty tribes once lived on the island, before the coming of the Chinese. Some of them took a few Polish heads when Beniowski arrived here in 1771, touching land somewhere near Keelung. ("Hey, look at this white head I took", said one to another presenting his catch. "A nice addition to my collection, don't you think?" "That's nothing, old man", said the other, "check this out: I got a red-head!") Today at least nine tribes remain -- some 300,000 people -- depending on how you count them. (There are still places -- like Ba Du ("eighth bump") and Qi Du ("seventh bump") near Taipei -- and others, like Jiu Fen ("Seventh Division"), near Keelung which record the successive steps by which the aborigines had been driven out of the flatlands and up into the hills).

Well, this Bunun fellow had, at the entrance to his house (otherwise perfectly normal Taiwanese farm house) a rack and in it some dozen or dozen and a half-heads. Seeing me pale, he rushed to explain: "Oh, these are my grandpa's. We don't do that anymore."

My favorite memory remains that of the Taiwanese truck driver on the Gong-Heng Gong-lu (Central East-west highway which eventually connects into the Taroko gorge) who, at every dangerous turn, took his hands off the wheel, and his eyes off the road, in order to burn paper money and throw it out the window to propitiate the hungry ghosts of the drivers who had fallen to their deaths on all those dangerous pin turns. For safety's sake, of course.

And the snow-white-headed white-dude, professor of Chinese from Oxford, who once picked me up somewhere on the Nantou County side of the Li-shan pass; and, impressed by my Chinese complained about his students; (it is easy to be impressed by my Chinese, most western students never learn to speak the language at all). It was great fun speaking to him: I was at the time bedding one of his students in Taipei and she thought he was the worst language teacher she had ever had.


The word and the flesh (60)

It is not really the novel's 60th installment. I am in fact not sure which installment it is... but given the novel's fragmentary and jumbled up nature, I don't suppose it will make a whit of a difference in which order I present the letters of Khesroes to Markia, as long as I preserve the letters themselves in their entirety as written. So here are the two I was reading yesterday: letter the 11th and letter the 12th.

Wait, first we need a suitable picture. With a suitable caption, of course.

Opus tesselatum factum saeculo III post Christum natum


Is it true that you were not at all conceived to the repeat and breathless recitation of Quandocumque igitur nostros mors claudet ocellos accipe quae serues funeris acta mei? That Hiankintos found you three-year-old, cold and hungry, hugging a somewhat older boy, who was to grow up one day into the elusive Son of Vengeance? Were you his sister, Markia? Or were you two joined by accident, at the cross-roads of two paths of pain: orphancy and homelessness? Oh, upon the god of freedmen and men of mixed parentage, do I benefit richly from giving new year parties to Romans!


In a moment I’ll be leaving for Rome. Not alone: with Didia Klara and Numerianos. You will ask: perhaps orders have arrived from the kaisar altering my assigned place of residence and revoking Didia Klara’s exile? No. No such orders have come. Indeed, the exalted Septimios can at most open for us the portals of the Rome he rules, while our destination is the capital city of Kommodos, that city which still knew women-attorneys. It did not have as many of them then as it had had in the time of Hadrianos or the time of the first Antoninos; yet, as you moved – mournfully, I am sure – from the bed of Humidios Kvadratos to the bed of the kaisar, one could still hear in the basilicas defense speeches made by three or four proponents of the theory of the equality of genders – or at least their equality in the field of defense of justice and preservation of the art of rhetoric.

Yet, within eight short years, two or three more believers of this thesis let themselves be convinced that these fields, too, ought to be the exclusive preserve of men. The clinching argument may have been ridicule; or threat; or perhaps the awareness that a woman may well earn her daily bread in the legal profession – perhaps even her daily onion, too, if with some difficulty; but she will most certainly not earn her olive oil; and even less likely her wine; not to mention an occasional small bauble with which to grace her hair, neck, dress or shoe. But one woman could not be chased away from her lectern, not even by you: the ridicule did not bother her, the threats did not scare her, and as for income… – she had the wherewithal with which to bribe all the judges Urbis, and, if need be, Orbis, the most powerful of them all, your lover, the purple-wearer, included.

She did not bribe them, or rather, she says she did not; and perhaps she tells the truth: her father, the richest man of Rome, had in his time not been as rich as he had been vain; perhaps, taking after him, she was vain enough rather to lose a case than to owe its success to anything other than her own – never mind how true or imagined – capacity to convince the judges regarding the merits of her defense.

Of course, the fact that no one has ever tried to bribe her proves nothing – beyond the fact that Romans can’t think. Which they will one day regret; and which some regret already – Numerianos, for instance. Yesterday, during our lesson, his voice was shaken repeatedly by violent sobs; two hours later he was still reading this most amazing, most unbelievable book De spectaculis. And he interrupted his reading with frequent wild -- indeed, animal-like -- guttural cries of “Tear out his tongue!” and “Cut off his arms!” and “Gouge out his eyes!”; and yet there is so much intellectual honesty in his love of knowledge, that through all this thicket of his barely suppressed tears and through all his guttural cries of anger a whisper cleared its path towards his lips, a whisper of deep admiration, bordering on humble submission: “What a master of words! What an architect of sentences! How easily he managed to chain to his chariot Kikero, Julios Kaisar, Apuleios, Juvenal! How he manages to drive this quadriga! How proudly he races towards the victor’s podium to receive there, from the hands of Christ, the laurels of a sportsman above all sportsmen: the laurels of Christ himself!”

An d yet, if only Romans could think, De spectaculis could never have been written! Indeed, had but one been able to think – that fellow with three L’s in his name, your one-time companion in expeditions towards triangular cities of red-bearded monkeys… Of course, there had once been a moment when he did begin to think… it came the day after Klara had submitted her motion in the case “Klaudia the British versus her step-brother” the motion that the investigating committee call Hiakintos as witness. Yet, in his ruminations this Roman did not move beyond the conviction that res priuata could not tempt the daughter of Didios Julianos… which done, he lost his way and went aimlessly in the darkest wilderness... Perhaps only to accuse her father of crimen lesae maiestatis? Or to send an assassin to kill her?

A Greek would have done differently; too bad your father was by then dead! For he, familiarized with all the aspects of the case and after some moments of reflection would surely have asked: “Is there a thing which Didia Klara desires very much but which may not be bought for all the treasures in the world?” But the Roman thought of Livios was not capable of reaching such sophisticated heights… and so you have De spectaculis!

In case I forget, would you, Markia, please ask Alexandra to remind me when I return from Rome: I intend to ask Herais whether she knows De spectaculis and whether she continues to think herself capable of being wholly satisfied with the possession of the chariot of the eparchos of Egypt for a thousand human years and the whole eternity of the otherworldly time thereafter? For it now appears that an even better deal can be obtained for the same price: such as, for instance, the harnessing of… the chariot’s owner (instead of merely some purple swans) and the driving of him in the arena for a thousand years…

I wonder what Tatian-Taddeo-Adonai might say about De spectaculis? Would it be again something on the order of “Did you create the eparchos of Egypt?” Perhaps this time he might say more? For instance: “Florens Tertulian says that Christos promises this and that, but what assurance do we have that Christos is in fact speaking through Tertulian’s lips?”

I should like him to say this. I am very disturbed by the image of the amphitheater with Christ reigning upon its podium, while in the arena are tortured to death (and yet unable to die) for a thousand years consules, praefecti, procuratores. What a primitive mind has this master of words! They say that it is not written anywhere that Christ has ever laughed while he remained clad in his human body; but perhaps now he laughs at this supposed worshipper and defender of his? How I wish he may! Again my words of a few moments ago are clearly proven: Romans cannot think! An excellent lawyer that he is, and a brilliant writer, yet Tertulian is unable to penetrate through mere appearances to the essence of the obvious truth: when it comes to the science of the soul, nowhere can one find as much wisdom as in the commandment: “When your brother strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the left”.

Though perhaps I am mistaken? Klaudios Julian is also Roman, yet he appears to understand the profundity of this commandment, however vaguely. It is simply impossible to explain otherwise his enthusiasm for the idea of employing the brotherhood of Klaudioses in the defense of the Third Race against both the anger of the street and the cunning plots of the Civilian Association for the Combating of Godlessness. Of course, all of his enthusiasm will be for nothing, should Klara go into the street with her story that you murdered principem Romanorum et omnium gentium in your role of a fanatical Jewess avenging the destruction of the Zion temple. It is precisely in order to prevent this deadly snake from crawling into the Alexandrian street that Klaudios Julian, and Klara, are sending me to the Rome of eleven years ago...

I am very curious about this sojourn. It should work. If, as the High One claimed (echoing Gautama Buddha) -- and as Samgila now claims echoing the High One – all time is illusion, then surely so must be all space. And so, now, watch this, Markia: without leaving the table, without standing up, without even interrupting my writing – here I am in Rome! And I am now ascending the steps – I must be very careful, they are chipped and worn out – (Numerianos has once fallen on precisely this section of the staircase, between the fourth and fifth stories – fallen and hurt his knee). How strange that Didia Klara has never suffered a mishap here! Not even on the day on which Tertulian pushed her down the stairs while yelling at her: “You Babylonian whore!” Indeed, what a sight this must have been for that whole story! I should gladly dive into that day, into that hour. Alas, I am in a hurry to get to another evening, some six months earlier, into that moment when, undressed by Numerianos for the benefit of Tertulian, Didia Klara asked her dresser, willing but unfree:

“Is it true, my dear grammarian, that Vergilios Maron was able to see into the far away future? And that he recorded what he saw in his great work, twisting his words somewhat in order to hide their meaning?”

“I do not know what you are talking about” mumbles darkly Numerianos, checking once more whether his bed – his only nighttime companion for so many nights – might be sufficiently comfortable for the two lovers.

“I shall give you an example. But first rub my feet, they are so cold... No, no – first the right one. You liar! You want to cast a spell upon me… you want to prevent the African from being taken in by me… well, listen: what is the name of the Greek who, in the first book of the Aeneid lies to the Trojans regarding the true purpose for which the wooden horse had been built?”

“Sinon” mumbles Numerianos even more darkly, not raising either his sight or his hands from the instep which seems to taunt him: “Will you dare to kiss me?”

“Precisely. Sinon. But did Vergilios put an n in the place of an m?”

“I do not follow” answers submissively Numerianos, addressing himself to the instep rather than the excited voice.

“I always knew you were thick, though all around you always say “What a learned man!” Sinon – Simon, do you now understand? It is written “Sinon”, but it should be read -- “Simon”. The Jew Simon, otherwise known as Peter. That Peter to whom it was said: “whatever you dissolve on earth, shall remain dissolved in heaven…” and “to you I give the keys of the kingdom”…
“Who said that to him?”

“The Jewish Agamemnon, of course. Jesus. Joshua, Iozue – I am not too sure of his real name. He who twice performed silly magic tricks with the sun, as if it were but a red copper serving dish: once he stopped it, while he killed others; and then again later, when he was killing himself and threw a darkness upon his face at the moment of dying…”

“Troy! Judea? Where is Judea! And where is Troy!”

“Nothing… You know nothing! You do not know history… Who killed Ulysses?”

“His own son, born of Kirke, Telegonos.”

“And whom did he lead?”

“Some pirates.”

“Some! Some! Let go of my foot. Hear me? Our Eminence is approaching… If he only performs in bed like he does at the lectern… Go away now. And do not return until the first watch…”

“You were supposed to tell me whom Telegonos was leading… You will tell the two of us now.”

“I know what you want. Oh, yes, I do know you well. And no, you have not earned it yet…”

You will say, Markia, that it is no journey. That it is but empty talk. But I repeat, word for word, only as much as was said in that apartment on that night: first, I was told it by Klara herself; later, Numerianos confirmed everything. Yet, what is most interesting to me in this conversation is that Didia Klara’s banter had been confirmed to me, so to speak a priori, by Rachela Erato. I did not know then as much as the existence of Didia Klara and Numerianos… why, I had not even met Klaudios Julian at the time… and I certainly have not heard about Vergilios Maron…

Now, in the second year of our pretend-marriage, Rachela Erato began to read Greek with great enthusiasm. The memoirs of Herod Antipatride were not enough for her; she moved on to Apolodoros the Artemisian; and then to Appian. Both – the very same copies – I still have here with me now. Before I began to write to you, I looked into them frequently. These are notebooks, not scrolls; and every time I open Appian’s Syrian Wars, I always chance on the same place: the beginning of the Forty-Sixth chapter. There is a print of Rachela’s three bloodied fingers there: she had once sat down to read immediately after having robbed some caravan, without as much as having washed her hands first. She usually cut the throats of her bound prisoners with a short fruit knife… having first released one of them, of course, so that he may bear witness to wherever his caravan had set out from (and all places in between) – bear witness to the great and glorious power of the God of Gods who had donated all the silks of the world, and all her spices, to the… not so much descendants of Abraham as his adopted descendants… those who have not submitted their necks to the yoke of Edom, but who, like sharp-horned mufflons, disport themselves in the freedom of the highlands, and praise the Lord of Even Greater Heights by jumping upon the necks of the Edomites… necks weighted with the goods of the East and West, South and North… goods which are all the rightful possession of Israel.

“Something isnt’t right here”, I said once to Rachela. “Why has not your God of Gods warned those people whom you call the Edomites that everything they possess, and everything they will ever possess, is really the exclusive property of Israel? You can’t possibly tell me, and if you do, I will refuse to believe you, that your God of Gods is less just than the King of Kings… Yet, Vologases III, making my father the feudatory of Elamis, had warned him clearly: “You receive it for only as long as you live… without the right to pass it onto your sons...”

Just as Klara answered Numerianos, so did Rachela now answer me: “I have always known you were thick, even if everyone always says about you that you are oh-so-very learned…”

And then she began to explain to me how Yahwe had warned the Chinese by way of a parable; and Indians by way of the Jewish script; wanred both to the effect that everything that seems to belong to them, in truth belongs only to Israel. The argument made a huge impact upon me at the time, I listened to it with ever increasing amazement and respect; but as great as my admiration for Rachela had been then, so much more silly she seemed to me years later when, already in the Kushan state, I learned the secret of that Chinese prophecy; and the secret of the similarity of the script called kharoshti to Hebrew letters; similarity which, if it at all establishes anyone’s right to the riches of India, it hundredfold more so supports the rights of Ardashir than of Rachela; and thereby my own right to these riches, since Ardashir himself belongs to me, and with him all of his possessions; belongs to me and will continue to belong to me for as long as I please, regardless of Alexandra’s whims.

Returning, however, to the strange similarity of views between Klara and Rachela: they both hold that Rome, Troy and Edom are but three children of the same ancestor, while Jews and Spartans are branches of another tribe. Hence Rachela’s constant readings in the lives of kings Agis and Cleomenes. And Klara’s firm belief that Telegonos, son of Kirke and Ulysses, was leading a band of Edomites, when he clashed with his own unrecognized father at sea, who, by the way, was on his way to Judea, to render help to Moses. All of these are very interesting things; and may seem even more interesting, if I could afford at present the luxury of occupying my mind with anything other than the mystery of your origin. For if you are indeed a foundling, and not an incarnation of one half of a love wish of two Seleukian Greeks, then the last twenty years of my life have been but a confused dream, and all the heads in my room may laugh at me in derision. And most sarcastically, of course, the head of Rachela Eratona: for I will have escaped rendering services to one Jewess – to what end? Only to lay them at the feet of another Jewess; a foundling into the bargain!

Yet, here I am seized by doubts: after all, the Second Race – like the Third – does not have among her customs child-abandonment. Yet, the little boy in whose arms you were supposedly discovered by Hiakintos carried upon his body undoubtful signs of having had close familiarity with a stone knife. Is there really no way to penetrate this mystery, to shine light upon it? Herais says: “Oh, but there is a way: Christ will return and raise Hiakintos from the dead, and then we shall know everything.” But when will he return? Is it not enough that half my life already is subject of the ridicule of six women’s heads? And whence the certainty that he will return? He said: “it is but a short time before you see me”. But everything depends on the question of who he was. Alexandra says: god. Theodotos: man. Herais: both this and that. But even if I assume that Herais is right, not either of the other two, yet this does not help me in my calculations as to when this arrival could possibly be expected. By saying “a short time” did he speak as man, or as god? If as man, then he should have returned a long time, a very long time ago; but if as god? Oh, then he may not return yet for a million years and no one should have the right to accuse him of making false promises. Herais, of course, repeats her story: that he promised his second coming as both god and man. Do you understand what you are trying to say? I ask her. She says she understands. I ask her to help me understand then. To which, she:

“Can you, prince, make a blind man see these beautiful women’s heads on the walls of your room? Forgive me, I misspoke. Not a blind man, but a man with cataracts on both his eyes?”

I: I can. I will bring and pay a surgeon. He will remove the cataracts.

She: The surgeon is waiting for you. He is waiting for you, even though you have not yet called him.

I understand what she is trying to say. But does she not realize that by saying it she only confirms the whisperings of the most determined enemies of the Third Race? That there is some kind of secret knowledge, which they reveal to no one who does not join? Yet I, however much I would like to plumb the secret of this “short time”, will not join them; I will not join them for two reasons. The first does not matter now -- for now, at least -- but the second I can reveal to you: I did not allow the posthumous thoughts of the High One, or its proponents, or Samgila and her circle to pull me onto the fourfold path of Buddha; all the less can I forget, for all my admiration, indeed, all my worship for your divine ally, the withered fig tree; or the terror of the pigs rushing towards the abyss. He created them as well as he created me and – the hippopotamus and crocodile? Well, first, I repeat what I had once said to Rachela already: I do not know who created me, you, the High One, crocodile, hippopotamus, pigs and the fig tree. But if I did know, I would ask the creator, whoever he was: “Did you make us so that we could be your toys? Why? So that you may be amused by your own powers, right?” Of course, I would not expect an answer: many who have asked this question broke down at this point: they believed that they deserved an answer; and when they received none they all drew but one conclusion: who are they to deserve the answer? Who are they even to ask? But I will do differently: having asked my question, I will add, all in the same breath: Was not the legless Achilles a greater master than you? He took great care to make sure that the toys he created could never ask him the question: Why did you make us? Or: to what end?

One could, of course, like one of the agents of Felix, join the Third Race formally, but say to oneself, one’s employer, and one’s gods: “I am only pretending. I am fooling them.” I would ask such a man: whom do you mean by “them”? Christians? Or Christ, also? For if he means to deceive the god as well as the men, I should advise him to be careful: imagine a dog belonging to Klaudios Julian pushing in among my dogs towards the food I give them, trying to convince me that he’d come with me from beyond the Tigris! But even if Theodotus were right, and Christ were not at all divine, only the greatest of all men who have ever lived – that is hardly reason enough to think oneself justified in deceiving Christians by fraudulent joining. What might the king of Atropatene say if Rachela, entering into the archery and singing games, were to shoot four arrows into the target, and reach for the luth four times, even though she’d been informed that each contestant is allowed three arrows and three songs? Would the king not ask: Is there not in your language, o knight, a word for “Respect”?

No, Markia: it is hard for me to resign myself to the possibility that I may learn the truth of who you really are only from Hiakintos raised from the dead. “A short time” may well mean a million years and I – am in a hurry. Are you curious: hurry to what? Why, to laugh back at the six heads. Or at least one of them.

You are asking me something else, are you not? Is it not – how I liked the Rome of Kommodos? Imagine this: far less than I had expected. I was in the amphitheater, I saw you in the disguise of an Amazon, standing next to your purple-clad lover. I had the impression that Kommodos had made fools of you all – of all the well born Romans as well as you personally. You thought that his performances in the arena were signs of madness – you were pained by it, you bewailed it; yet I think these performances were proof of extraordinary cunning, not madness. How could you – you of all people – not have realized the same thing? But perhaps I am mistaken? Perhaps you did realize it? Perhaps this is precisely why you killed him? Not because you could no longer stand the ridicule and the shame to which he exposed himself, not because you loved him, but because you felt you owed him unfaltering loyalty and faithfulness because he – loved you; you, the only person under the planets, other than himself. Oh, how I like such beautiful stories, filled with noble sentiments! But, as legless Achilles used to say, the most beautiful, the most edifying story about a lion will not convince its listeners to enter into a lion’s cave. And therefore neither will I, while trying to plumb the mystery of your origins, follow the trail of your fairy-tale duties of loyalty and gratitude towards Kommodos. Rather, I will sell to the Son of Vengeance, or, as he now styles himself, the Son of the Blind Woman, the right to hide here. I know that by doing so, I take a serious risk. But the sword which might cut my neck one day, remains yet in its scabbard, while the Son of Vengeance has a sword on his neck already. He was five and a half years old when (if one is to believe Klaudia and Klara) Hiakintos found you two; at such age one understands and knows a lot. And more: one remembers long afterwards what one has experienced and known at such an age. Let him pay for his hiding with the truth – the whole truth – about himself and – you.


Some Japanese enamels

Cloisonne enameling was not a traditional art in Japan and its birth is owed to just one fellow, Kaji Tsunekichi who, apparently bored out of his wits in the small provincial town of Toshima, in Owari, began to make reproductions of Chinese cloisonnes sometime around 1830. After 15 years he was joined by another, then another, then another; then the practice moved to bigger cities: Yokohama, Kyoto, Nagoya and cloisonne production became big business: both for export and domestic production. As the business grew, Japanese experimented with the technique ceaselessly, introducing new breakthroughs. Among the techniques they invented was musen ("no-fret") technique (in which wire is glued to the object, enamel applied to the spaces in between and the object then fired, but the wire is then removed while the enamels are still not fully dry). This creates clear color boundaries without the fret outlines. In a variation of the technique, enamels can be applied without fret at all, in which case the neighboring colors blend along a gradient, which creates the impression of wet on wet ink wash. Another technique is nagare-gusuri ("running colors"), in variation of which a dab of one enamel is applied in the center of another prior to firing. Here are a couple examples of effects which were made possible by these techniques.


More nationalist pride


The Thai term benjarong is derived from Sanskrit panchrang for "five colors". It describes a type of pottery still made in Thailand today. It was originally made exclusively for the ceremonial needs of the Thai court, to Thai designs and patterns, in China. Several producers make it in Thailand today, with varying degrees of technical expertise. This one, my newest puppy, about 20 cm high, is by one of the best, Vangtal. The gold is 14K.


The earthly success of the Lims


I spent a better part of the afternoon last night learning about the irreversible nature of time. I was at an exhibition of Qing curio boxes -- an interesting show both on account of the technical mastery required to produce them; and on account of their kinship with the contemporaneous western Wunderkammer collections -- kinship with a difference: instead of collecting, like any other normal people, objects the Chinese curio collectors collected... their miniature effigies.

One could wax philosophical here on the Huntington themes, but a much simpler message forced itself upon me: I discovered that I was too old for the show. The objects were small, behind glass and the light was dim. I squinted at them glasslessly, then through my reading glasses, then in my prescription glasses, finally with the help of a small magnifying glass; yet, from more than half of the displays I had to walk away unsatisfied: I would never catch the details. It was all nothing but blur to me. I have missed, it would seem, the chance to admire them.

I suppose this is what happened to my Taiwanese friends, too. Encouraged -- compelled! -- by their families, teachers, and friends, they went out and were productive: they worked 12-hour a day jobs, saved and economized, and gave birth to numerous children. Now, thirty years of hard work has born its fruit: their children are healthy and tall, intelligent and well educated, and soon they will be loosed upon the world to make their mark upon it. And they have amassed a great deal of property which they will pass on to their children: several apartments in the city, acres of land and houses in the countryside. (Being traditional Chinese they believe in only one store of value: land). But they have grown old and frail; their bodies have acquired the usual long list of chronic complaints; not debilitating, by any means, but enough to make simple comfort a matter of considerable rarity and difficulty. They have lived this otherwise successful life frugally and selflessly, devoid of luxuries and pleasures, without the smallest measure of self-indulgence (except, of course, for food, which was always simple, economic fare). Now, knowing them as closely as I do (as a non-Chinese outsider I am on occasion able to pierce the veil of pretense imposed by the society) I know what few do: how intensely unhappy they have been all these years; how much they have had to sacrifice; how much pleasure and gratification they have delayed, thinking sometimes no doubt that it was temporarily delayed, while it fact it was, as they now well know, like my ability to appreciate Qing curios, foregone; lost never to come back.

Today, their happiness consists in this: at their parents' farm, over the Chinese New Year, four generations of Lims sat down to eat a sumptuous feast: 78 people: 2 parents, 12 children, 62 grandchildren, and -- a sign of things to come, the first shoots of the next generation -- 2 great-grand-children. This was their success. It sounds Biblical. The earth has been populated. The Lim tribe has become an economic power to reckon with. The Lim ancestors have been assured of progeny to sustain them into infinity by their worship1.

Yet, for me, it is hard to tell what my friends have gained through this personally. Millionairies, they still economize. He insists on wearing plastic shoes to work. She will still not send laundry out to wash.

Yet, sitting with their relatives at the jam-packed six tables, eating and talking, they say they are content. This is the warmth of the family, they say; this is their reward. Anyone who knows the Taiwanese knows that being in their company can be nothing but pure pleasure; not only for us, foreigners, I am sure, but, surely, for the Taiwanese themselves. If you didn't know them as I do, you would never know what I do -- and what they seem not to remember on most days -- the cost in self-sacrifice and denial paid for this family warmth.

On the fourth day of the New Year, six nephews and nieces -- all between 18 and 22 -- drop in for a day on my friend, Mr Lim. He spends the morning cooking for them, and the afternoon feeding them, with an expression of absolute delight on his face. "You are their favorite uncle", I say to him, and he beams. He is the traditional ideal male: he lives to feed people. He likes it. If you ask him he will say, and he believes it firmly, that personal happiness is irrelevant.

My grandfather came from a similar background to his: a hard working, farming family of modest means. And he lived his life in a similar manner: relentlessly making a living in order to feed countless mouths; he paid for the project the way Mr Lim is still paying for his: by denying himself simple comforts and pleasures, by never resting and sleeping very little, by putting up with an unhappy marriage, cheap clothes, uncomfortable furniture; in short, by taking nothing for himself out of his life. Men like my grandfather, and Mr Lim, think themselves virtuous; and think virtue to consist in constantly giving and taking nothing in return. Virtue to them is a kind of perpetuum mobile, an economic engine which never stops and runs on empty. It is hard not to admire these wonderful traditional men. But it is also difficult not to feel sad for them.

But perhaps one should not. Their life protects them against one pain at least, the pain of the Chinese curio box. They'll never know what they are missing there; and -- they won't miss it.

Footnote: On the origin of the surname Lin (Lim)

1 During the reign of Shang Zhou, 1154 BC to 1122 BC, the last king of the Shang dynasty (1783 BC to 1122 BC) had 3 of his uncles advising him and his administration. The king's uncles were Bi Gan (also spelled Pi Kan), Qi Zi and Wei Zi. Together the 3 men were known as "The Three Kindhearted Men of Shang" in the kingdom.

Bi Gan was the son of Prince Ding, son of Emperor Shang and, thus, was King Zhou's uncle.

Unfortunately, Zhou was a cruel king and the state's citizens suffered tremendously. His 3 uncles could not persuade him to change his ways. Failing in their duty to advise the king, Wei Zi resigned. Qi Zi faked insanity and was relieved of his post. Only Bi Gan stayed on to continue advising the king to change his ways. “Servants who are afraid of being killed and refrain from telling the truth are not righteous,” he said. This put him in danger of incurring the king's wrath. Bi Gan stayed at the palace for three days and nights to try to persuade the bloodthirsty and immoral king to mend his ways.

The stubborn king would not relent and had his uncle, Bi Gan, arrested for treason. Upon hearing this, his pregnant wife (surname Chen) escaped into the forest to protect her unborn child from death. She knew, in time, the king would execute Bi Gan and his entire family. In the forest the baby was born. Alone with no one to help, she grabbed hold of two trees and gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jian. When she reached the nearest town, she gave her child the surname Lin (Chinese character depicted by two trees).

Thanks to the efforts of my friends, the spirits of Bi Gan and his son are well taken care of for decades to come.


All I ever needed to know I had learned years back

The stunning decorative porcelains from the Chianlung period show at the National Palace Museum (here) is a chance to a) see old friends, b) see their never before seen friends (who chill their heels in cool dark of the museum storage caverns), c) learn that some friends have twins (having been executed in pairs; sometimes quartets; the NPM has at least two of these, for instance), and above all d) learn that one may go round the world to see everything it has to offer and in the end decide that what he still likes best what he had liked in the beginning.

It is also a chance to learn, thanks to a great educational video -- part of the show -- the 12 step production process:

1. Throw the piece on wheel using wet clay. This produces a surprisingly rough-hewn, fat, lumpy object. In fact, it looks surprisingly like the sort of stuff your friends throw in their weekend pottery class.
2. Let it dry and then carve and grind it (yes!) into final shape. This is what produces the extra-fine, thin walls and elegant shapes. The connoisseur's expression "well potted" does not mean "well-thrown", it means well well carved!
3. Paint the reign mark on the foot of the object.
4. Apply white glaze. (Spray).
5. Let dry and load in the furnace.
6. Fire. (The glaze turns clear, leaving a shiny white body with a clear reign mark).
7. Draw the decor design using charcoal.
8. Apply color glaze and let dry. (The decor design remains visible through the partly transparent glaze).
9. Carve the dry color glaze. There are two options: 1. carve all the way through to the (previously fired) clear gaze underneath. This leaves flat areas which can be painted in later. These will be the roundels for landscape or figurative scenes; or the scrolling colored leaves and flowers. Or 2. carve half-deep. This leaves a fine, barely impressed, somewhat lighter in color barely perceptible pattern which looks like -- well, brocade. (Magnify the two purple objects beneath to see the pattern within the purple "background").
10. Fire to fix the color glaze.
11. Paint the decorative elements (color flowers, landscapes, figurative elements).
12. Fire again to fix the painted decorations.

(The high rates of breakage and failure at every step make flawless pieces literally unique).

Some objects are decorated without the scrolling brocade pattern.

Here is a pair of dishes, top (enamel painting on white glaze) and bottom (brocade pattern yellow with painted scrolling flowers).

The quality of the miniature painting on these pieces is stunning. Enlarge yourself:

Having seen so much pottery everywhere in the world, I remain helpless slave of the detail, technical mastery and rich color of Qing fencai pieces.

In which I am, I suppose, like Ibn Battuta of Tangier, who, having traveled half the world, returned home and for the next 30 years, until his dying day, never left the city of his birth again.

PS. The video and the objects used in its production (and now part of the display at the show) suggest that someone still commands this technique. This could be the Jia Yang Company, of Jing de Zhen, listed in the credits. It has no internet presence.


Concerning the nomadic mind

(Mushroom picking makes a good metaphor for all life projects. How so? Read on).

Imagine going out mushroom picking in an area where you have never picked mushrooms before with a group of experienced locals. Once they enter the forest, they all turn right. What do you do?

If, like yours truly, you have true nomadic instincts, you of course... turn left.

For although the fact that everyone turns right probably indicates that plentiful mushrooms are to be found right and perhaps hardly any left; and to any normal mind this just might seem a strong reason to turn right (“surely, these people know where the mushrooms are”); yet – the fact that everyone turns right also means that there will be stiff competition for any mushrooms found. While, even though by going left instead, the nomadic mind risks finding no mushrooms at all, yet he also gains the chance of leisurely taking 100% of everything he finds (assuming he finds it) -- a far better shot at the jackpot than anyone has on the right hand path. Plus he gains something priceless: freedom from stress: he can afford to stroll slowly, stop to take in the view, etc. He avoids the mad scramble of competition of the right hand path. Surely, it would seem, these benefits are worth the risk of going mushroomless every now and then?

Now, this the universal truth: everywhere and always, the right hand path is overcrowded; too many intelligent, efficient, capable people chase too few opportunities there; as a result there are no opportunities for arbitrage and profit margins are egg-shell-thin. Unless one is much faster and much stronger than everyone else -- and can therefore thrive in competitive, crowded situations -- the profits of the right hand path are simply too meager to be worth their while. For most participants, the right hand path is all work and hardly any reward.

On several occasions, when asked for advice, I tried to explain the nomadic left-hand-path logic to friends who stood before significant life choices (education, profession, migration, business venture, management of family affairs). They nearly always rejected my advice. Often, I could see that they could see the point of my argument. Often, they even thanked me for my brilliant insight. But understanding the logic of a proposition is one thing; trusting it with one’s life is another. My friends' minds were settled minds, farmers' minds. They could understand the logic of my idea, but they could not see it applying to their lives.

I have sometimes thought my friends timid on this account. But that is a silly view: one does not call a snake timid because he crawls into holes, or a monkey timid because she lives in a tree. This is what snakes and monkeys do. Likewise, this is what the settled minds do: they take the right hand path. They cannot help themselves.

Nor is there anything especially heroic about the nomadic mind's persistent preference for the road less traveled. A nomad like myself cannot help himself, either. In the nomad’s risk-taking decision to take the left-hand path there is no heroism at all: this is how his mind works. It takes no courage whatsoever because the decision comes automatically; there is no pride in it; there is hardly any premeditation; it just makes sense. That anyone would turn right boggles and amazes him. The nomad is no more free to go right than the settled mind is to go left. The nomad knows -- just like the Hurons did -- that the strains of the right hand path would emotionally kill him.

Whether the nomadic mind turns out more successful in specific instances depends more on luck than anything else. A nomad who turns left and stumbles upon some chanterelles, will be acclaimed a genius; one who comes up with nothing and starves, or, as is more common, ends up having to eat berries instead, will be deemed a fool. Such views are silly, too: at the time when the choice between the right hand path and the left hand path is made, no one can know how thigns will turn out. The choice is simply this: poor odds of a good payoff versus good odds of a meager one. Which do you take?

To settled minds, the relatively high certainty of the poor pay off, makes the right hand path more attractive. To my mind, the choice is skewed in favor of the left hand path by the fact that the left hand path, being less crowded, is more leisurely. If I do not find the chanterelles, at least I did not have to scramble in search for them.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that the nomad is... a lazy bone.