Sunday, March 25, 2018

Out of the Hospital

There was once a man who did not feel well, and he therefore went to the hospital to get better.

He found many doctors there, each with his own plan of treatment.  He trusted one, and then another, and then still another.  He tried their medicines, their exercises and followed their advice.

He felt he was getting better and better, but he still remained in the hospital.  Curiously, now and increasingly when he looked outside of his hospital window, he saw only sick people.

He still remained in the hospital, but believed that he was now healthier than he had ever been.

He continued to be on medication, and if he missed his daily dose, he felt uneasy and anxious.

One evening as he was looking out of the window, and saw so many sick people of the world, a beggar stopped on the street and looked at him.  The man in the hospital looked with pity at the beggar, sympathetic to what he thought must be a pitiful existence.  He invited the beggar into his room to share some fruit that had been kept by his bedside by the hospital staff.

The beggar smiled and turned as he walked and entered the hospital through its main door, and found himself in the man's room.  He was very happy to eat the fruit so generously shared by the man.  The two started talking.

The man told the beggar about his past, that he had been sick.  He told him that after spending more than seven years at the hospital, he felt as if he had found his destiny and had found the elixir of health.

The beggar had a twinkling look in his eyes.  He kept listening to the man as he told the beggar about the eternal sickness and its nature, about the medicines and the doctors, and about his daily exercises.  The man told the beggar about his realizations during this period, and how he now understood sickness and health and the deepest truths underlying the mechanisms of the body.

The evening had become the night, and conversation was nowhere close to its end.  But the beggar had to go.  He had to go back to his little tent near the railway line, where he slept every night.

As the beggar got up and said his farewell to the man, the man exclaimed, "It is your birthright to be healthy.  I have found the fountain of immortality, and I only wish everybody knew the secret."

The beggar nodded as he threw the banana peel and the apple crumbs into the wastebasket, and started walking out toward the door.

With one foot out of the door, the beggar turned around and said to the man, "If all that you say is true, you need not remain here.  Come with me."

The man was dumbstruck as he saw the beggar walk on, and walk toward the exit, and walk out of the hospital.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Stand-Up Comedy and Sitcoms

Sitcoms used to be a thing. It would be a skit in a room where on cue, there would be recorded laughter to remind you that what you just heard was supposed to be funny. This Pavlovian programming then "progressed" to repetitive infantile clown tunes when a joke was cracked.

During the last decade or so, stand up comedy has become quite popular. There is a guy (or rarely, a woman) wearing not-too-smart clothing (because they have to be relatable) on the stage weaving in rehearsed routines in between remarking on the audience and quipping about some recent events.

In India, there are special "laughter" shows on TV.  Navjot Sidhu or Kapil Sharma or the AIB shows try relentlessly and desperately to make you laugh.  You wonder if you are weird for not finding their jokes funny.  In humor, "trying" is always trying too hard.  A joke or anecdote weaved in a conversation is a very different beast than a show whose very raison d'ĂȘtre is to crack one joke after another.

There is also the phenomenon of well-dressed sarcastic news coverage called "late night commentators" pandering to their audience and making fun of easily targeted celebrities (Trump has been a God's gift to these) or social classes (usually men and conservatives). Examples are Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Jimmy Fallon, ...

Due to what I can only consider a quirk of constitution, I have rarely if ever found them worthy of my time. They are in a position of power where they can make fun of somebody, usually by mimicry or exaggeration or cherry-picking out-of-context quotes) to millions of people, and the other has no way of responding. I consider these shows vulgar and low-brow. Their target audience is the educated middle classes, which is somewhat informed about what is going on the world but is only too keen to be schooled in what is deplorable and what is admirable, what is regressive and what is progressive, what is urbane/hip and what is gauche.

My introduction to sitcoms was when I watched a few episodes of Seinfeld or Friends, and I might have seen some ancient replays of "Small Wonder" and The Bill Cosby show. My introduction to stand up comedy was watching a few clips of Russell Peters and George Carlin. I think both George Carlin and Mr Peters are quite skilled and I admired their felicity and expressions. But for some reason, I never became a fan. Sarcasm is witty and entertaining but generally simplistic. It pokes fun at others, and even sometimes aspects of one's own identity, as a form of fashion. It is a mistake to regard a quip by a professional comedian as an insight. You might say "But nobody makes that mistake!" You'd be surprised at people who are influenced by these comedians and forward their clips as persuasive arguments for something that they believe in already.

I guess my primary negation about these shows stems from their pandering nature. A comedian is in the business to make money. He will only make jokes that are going to not make him unpopular. A book by Voltaire, Jonathan Switf or Oscar Wilde was published without much regard to its royalties. The aim was social commentary, not agreeableness or entertainment. A comedian has to make sure he offers "value for money" in these days of art as a form of consumption. If you are paying $100 for an hour of laughter, he better not make you feel bad by poking fun at a holy cow or by making a politically incorrect joke.

The stand-up comedians are to real humor what Andrea Bocelli is to Opera. The popular, easily-digestible, ticketed version of an art form. People go to these shows to "unwind". One cannot these shows to really provoke or inspire deeper thoughts.

Perhaps they are similar in vein to most things on sale these days. A relief to counter the tedium in most people's lives. I think I understand why people watch The Big Bang Theory instead of a discussion about cosmology. Such stuff is "comfort food" for the brain. Just like comfort food is to make you feel good, and is not really meant for nourishment or health, such shows are for entertainment, not for edification.

I guess a "need" for unwinding and entertainment as a persistent, chronic feature of modern life is what I rebel against. People are paying others to make them laugh. I can't be the only one who sees the tragedy of this.

Two Views of Revolutionary Road

I first watched Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008) soon after it came out.  I watched it again yesterday.

It was quite amazing to me how a mere ten years had made me see the film in a completely new light.

I remember being quite impressed by the film in 2008, and recommending it to family and friends.  It was the portrait of a suburban couple who dared not take a risk for happiness, and it ends in disaster.  It resonated with my own thoughts on society.  The film's narrative confirmed my own viewpoint: that most people live lives of "quiet desperation" (cf Walden Pond, Thoreau), that socialized living was full of hypocrisy and in-authenticity, and most people were too scared of realizing their full potential.  Also, that people gave excuses for not living the life they wished for, because they were probably too scared (or so I thought), and they were loath to give up the comforts of certainty and security for adventure.  I saw myself as an iconoclast, having taken the "road less traveled", and had an attitude of condescension toward the regular folks who were doing unexciting jobs, and taking care of their family.

But in these ten years, 2008-2018, I have come a long way.  Richer in life experiences, and having studied sociology, politics, gender dynamics, modernism in all its forms (modern jobs, modern family, modern urban living) and the individual and communal consequences of modernism, I now consider the film and the director's message to be deeply flawed.

The film is based on a book, and I'm not sure how much the film deviates from it.  Perhaps the book is more balanced and may be less flawed in its message.

But I cannot recommend the film anymore.  Not for its message at least.  Some of the performances, especially by one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, are nice, even if over-dramatic.  But I will recommend it to anyone who can watch it without getting influenced by it.  It can be an interesting sample in the study of at least three things:

1.  Creativity versus tedium.
2.  Narrative obfuscation: I call it the "Ayn Rand" technique.  How one's opinion of a character and a situation is prejudiced by the narrator.
3.  Gender dynamics, as portrayed by Hollywood and its financiers.

A heavily flawed book or a film can nevertheless be an instructive study-aid, if there is enough clarity in the reader/viewer.  I wouldn't give any awards to Mein Kampf, but I do consider it required reading for anyone interested in the history of Europe. 

I consider "Revolutionary Road" to be a pretentious, facile film.  It pretends to be deep and insightful, but it has very little depth and understanding, as it depicts its characters and their interactions.  The film is cartoonish, with caricatures instead of real characters.  Its message is Oprah-esque, with much Betty Freidan thrown in.  It is apparently the faux intellectual's version of "Eat Pray Love".

My second viewing of the film made me aware of how blind I was to not notice these in my first viewing:

1.  The woman as the sympathetic, self-aware character, with the male being depicted as an insensitive brute, closed to his own subconscious.  This continues the overwhelming bias of Hollywood in non-noir films: the woman being on the pedestal and having the higher moral standard.

2.  Regular life being demonized and worthy of rejection, with very little understanding of what Unabomber called the lack of "power process" in modern times.

3.  The "unhappy wife" blaming all her unhappiness on a husband, and her refusal to love him as a valid, justifiable state of affairs.  If her lack of love for him was only because of his lack of risk appetite and spirit of adventure (while he being an otherwise good man), the film's message would be weak.  So the director/author throws in some other character flaws as well.  The husband cheats.  He is a bad listener.  He is obviously therefore to be hated.  But observe how the affair of the wife is then later depicted.  It is as if we are supposed to feel sorry for her. 

4. The depiction of gender roles, motherhood and domesticity as subtly evil and oppressive.  In a telling scene, the wife is shown to be irritably and harriedly tidying up the house.  While the husband is shown as having "fun" at work, with very little drudgery, despite the proclamation that he hates his work.  So he hates his job, and the wife hates cleaning up around the house.  I would venture to say that the problem is not what they are doing, but something else.  They go to the beach, they play with their kids.  But notice the total lack of joy (especially in the wife's character).  She loses her temper frequently with her daughter, and has no enthusiasm for a new baby.  She has no friends to speak of.  She doesn't enjoy reading or cooking.  Does anything in her current life bring her joy?

5.  The Maslow model of human fulfillment being a perverse consequence of modernity.  Fulfillment or self-actualization was earlier realized in the day-to-day living and its challenges.  But since those are no longer enough for a man's soul, he or she needs to "find" themselves.  The finding never happens.  But this fantasy has been peddled relentlessly by new age philosophy, spirituality and self-help authors.  "If only you live in a different way, either inwardly or outwardly, you will find the pot of gold."  For the inwardly ambitious, they seek to demolish their egos (while in the process inflating it to be bigger than an average bloke).  For the sheep, the message is to leave this herd and become a different kind of sheep (cuz "Think Different"): finding fulfillment through Lonely Planet or Anthony Bourdain or the iPhone.  For the vast majority of the world population, the lifestyle of the Wheelers would only be a heavenly dream.  But for the Wheelers, it is nothing but hell.

6.  Most people do not really have enough of a creative/adventurist side to them, even though they might want to think romantically of themselves.  For such people, it will be far more helpful for their contentment and happiness if they, with self-awareness, accept their vocation instead of constantly wishing for something in "Paris", where no one bakes bread or drives the bus, but everybody is an artist and is on the verge of finding themselves.  A parallel study to this film can be the book/film pair "Into the Wild", in which a romantic young man leaves society to live free, and travel.  With no long-term goals or commitments, his life is one adventure after another.  The century of the self, indeed.  But then, who will till the soil?  If only we could be back in the Garden of Eden, with apples falling from the trees.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Social Pressure versus the Self, some notes

The deeper layers of the self are what drive your important decisions.

The deeper layers of the self are not essentially more noble than "others"' expectations.

What "you" want is not more sacred, at least not till the importance of your "why" is more than just "cuz I feel like it."  Of course, nobody can coerce you to read a book instead of becoming an alcoholic, but if you regard others' expectations with an attitude of "I don't give a #$#", you might want to calm down and reconsider.

Freedom to do as "one" wants is an illusion.  What one wants is not an act of creation, but born of inner stresses, the individual history, and the impressions and influence.

Consider the expectations of your loved ones carefully.  Especially if they are emotionally tinged.  They might have the wisdom of history and community on their side.  For the vast majority, it is exceedingly likely that those expectations are to your eventual benefit.

You might think that you are unique, and not subject to historical and communal rules for living, but that would be usually a sign of youthful rebelliousness rather than understanding and wisdom.

Consider the expectations of your loved ones carefully.  Deviate from them only if you have a higher purpose which involves achieving something extraordinary, and of value.  If you want to be a mountaineer, to write a book on the decline and fall of Roman empire, or want to prove the Poincare conjecture and want to spend years in that pursuit, for examples.  In most cases, your desire to be rid of "others"' expectations will take you into a decline toward hedonism and meaninglessness.

There is a difference of intent between the expectations of your loved ones, and between the influences you derive from popular culture and media.  The former, in general, intends for your well-being, and the latter is intending you to become a loyal consumer.

To be sure, family expectations can be born of fear of loneliness and of an unhealthy possessiveness, especially if the parents are living empty lives, but it will usually be clear if that is the case.  In those cases, it requires great understanding, courage and compassion to gently refuse them and help them cope with their demons.

The modern situation is unwieldy because the ways of living and relating are becoming unstable, but if in doubt, follow a normative trajectory.  It is far, far more important for the average person to have meaningful relationships and be well-adjusted in the community than to have a facile autonomy to be up till late hours or to have a tattoo.

America is individualist, and it is also on Prozac.

Teenage is rarely the age of wisdom.  Of course, teenagers will not read this text, but as a parent, you might want to feel more reassured that by keeping your teenage children away from what you know is risky, you are not guilty of cruelty but are doing what parents are supposed to do.  Teenage seeks licentiousness, usually to great harm.

Only when a person's ego is rooted in the superego of morality and history, are they free to disobey their parents.  If their ego is obeying the id instead, they are going to destroy themselves.

How do you know if you are obeying the id or a the superego?  Simply ask yourself how your way of living will make the world a better place, or whether your ambition is more for self-gratification.

It is a form of adolescence to want to be free from expectation.  More and more, people are too burdened by a mechanized and exceedingly rule-driven society and are seeking some space to be on their own (and then perhaps switch on Netflix).  The power-process (cf The Industrial Society and its Future) has been whittled down to nothingness, and the soul rebels against its imprisonment.  But to be free from expectation is not the same as a meaningful freedom. 

Meaningful freedom comes from having some constraints and values which are larger than yourself, and then being free to achieve the fulfillment of those values.  In contrast, a vacuous freedom is to do "as you like" without any larger value system.

If you seek freedom, first establish the foundations of your meaning.  And don't look to Facebook or Oprah to establish that.  Marcus Aurelius, perhaps.

In the changing landscape of relationships, geographic dispersion of families, and an increasingly uncertain livelihood, you may not consider the old tactical rules of navigating life (think transport and telephony) any more relevant.  But cast away the strategic rules (think relationships and belief in a higher, transcendent morality) to your peril.

Social pressure is rarely about the tactics, it more about values and what kind of a person you are.

Consider morality outdated only with great caution.

You might ask, what about a gay person in a conservative household?  Should he concede to the pressure to behave as a straight?  No, and we cannot devise a philosophy of life which will cover all situations.  In situations where there is a genuine ambiguity about the strategic aspects of life, navigation will probably have to be improvised.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Culture of the Market

Some earlier observations.

Social and cultural critics often write about how the "market" subverts humanity and its deeper values.  On one hand, market is simply about the exchange of value.  The freer the exchange is from state intervention, with effective regulations to deter malfeasance and exploitation of the environment, the more liberated is the society.  On the other, being subject to market forces with deep pockets can wreak havoc on smaller communities and individuals.

If the essentials of an economy are in elite hands, who have special access to the legislature, media and the army, what does such an economy do to individuals?

But that is at the macro level, what does market do at the micro level?

In what fundamental ways is a market society like modern-day urban America different from a society where money and the overt-ness of value exchange is not all-pervasive?

There are societies, or at least sections of societies, where people invite each other for no good reason.  Where people share home cooked food.  Where gifts are not bought but made.  Where artists and writers practice their craft without an expectation of a reward.  Where gadgets and branded personal items are not talked about.  Where, in essence, there is no expectation of an immediate pay-off or ego-stroking.

I remember an anecdote told to me by an old neighbor from India.  He had gone to the US to meet his sons.  While he was being driven in his son's car, they both noticed a man trying to load a big chunk of lumber into his pickup truck.  They both stopped to help him and lifted the weight into his truck.  As they were about to leave, that individual offered both of them five dollars each.  They were not only shocked, they felt bad at being offered money and vehemently refused it.

It is not my case that India is less money-minded.  Probably the big cities in India are much worse when it comes to helping a stranger.  Even the small towns are getting infected by the virus of "What's in it for me?".

The culture of market can be summed up as: I don't care about you, or have no space to care about you, as long as you don't give me something, now or in the future.

The culture of leisure is opposed to the culture of the market.  The culture of leisure involves doing things just for the inherent pleasure.  To read a book not because it will lead to self-improvement, but because... There is no because.  One just reads a book that one finds in one's hands because somehow something about it speaks to oneself, and one feels that it is a book that one has to read. 

The culture of leisure might be somewhat spartan, but we all understand that a long conversation and a cup of tea with friends is somehow far more valuable than a housewarming party where everybody is stressed about whether their gift will be considered suitable. 

The difference between an act of leisure and an act of exchange is in its lack of expectation.  To do a thing without expectation is to do it without the market driving it.

When was the last time you were at leisure?  Without an awareness of time being "wasted"?

The market finds a home in us when we cannot seem to have leisure and when we cannot relate to other people without an agenda or an expectation of something in return.

It can be said that love can truly exist only in a culture of leisure.

To really get a feel for the culture of the market, read an airline magazine while on your next flight.  Even a holiday is described in a manner which is less of a travelogue than a sales seminar.  Eat this seafood at this restaurant,  have this margarita at this nightclub, scuba dive with this company, try that local handloom market for gifts to take home.  Even if that magazine describes a walk along the beach, it will narrate it in a manner almost as if they are trying to sell nature to you.

Leaf through the magazine, and you might see some doctors who look and dress like models under the heading "The Best Doctors in America".  Everything in that magazine is to sell something to you.  And that is a pity.

Turn your gaze to the small screen in front of you, and you will see singers who are more interested in looking good than in singing well.

"You have to market yourself".  "You have to create an attractive package".  Adele cannot just sing "Hello".  She has to wear make-up, fake eye-lashes, and wear clothes which hide her weight.  The entire notion of a "music video" is for you to divide your attention between the sound and the spectacle.  The music is "packaged" for you.  If even one of the package's contents is a hit, the thing sells.  The package will include auto-tune, beautiful locales, skimpy models, tight choreography, acrobatics, time lapse photography, the latest fashion, sculpted muscles, chic homes and interiors... What does that have to do with the quality of music?  The music will suffer because it is no longer of primary importance. 

Because sale-ability is paramount, packaging has become important.  The creation or product in itself might be simple, but it is glamorized because you have to be bewitched.  Because you are not trusted to just enjoy the music on its own.  You can definitely enjoy the package too, but a sensitive individual cannot help but feel that too much effort is being made for him to deliver his applause and acquiescence.  And that it is somehow impure and almost vulgar.

The logic of the market is that something is worthwhile only if others are willing to give you something for it.  Intrinsic value is nil.  Inherent happiness is not the goal.  Unconditional love is considered medieval.

When art, writing and philosophy get infected by the market, they suffer the most.  At their best, an artist or a writer creates for a future, potential human.  A marketing specialist, though, creates so something will sell now.  A lack of regard for compensation makes for transcendence, while a focus on how much money we can make makes for manipulation of the present and pandering to the baser instincts in us.

I always had a feeling that Jagjit Singh prostituted himself when he used to crack dirty jokes in front of drunk audiences just so he could keep them entertained.  Nusrat corrupted himself toward the end of his career when he, wanting market share, produced the atrocious "Mera Piya Ghar Aya" and "Afreen".  (The latter has been the subject of a short film: "Nusrat has left the building")

Even the rich in a culture of market are not rich because they continue being obsessed by the means of living.  Consider an artist who has internalized the logic of the market.  For such an artist money, status, fame, instead of being organic effects of the artist's creation, will become primary and the work of art or literature is then cunningly designed to achieve money, status and fame.  So the work becomes the means, and what should have been secondary achieves primacy.

That is corruption of the artist's soul.  That is when a writer starts writing "Ph D" on the cover of the book.  That is when a music album contains coupons for the artist's future tour.  That is when a painting makes the news only for how much money it made in the market. 

When was the last time a painting was discussed in a newspaper, unconcerned with its "record breaking auction price"?  What matters for books these days is if they make the "best selling" list, not if they are works of outstanding originality or depth. 

To sell, you have to have your ear to the ground to know how the masses are gravitating.  To create, you only have to listen to your own voice.

Can it be said that true art is unconcerned with its reception?  That true philosophy is not about a TED lecture?

An artist, if he hankers after awards and endorsements, is not an artist but an entrepreneur.  Of course, one could be both, but the desert and the sky and the stars do not need endorsements.  They stand alone.  You can admire their beauty, without a billboard asking you to look up or look further.  It is not a question of money, but of dismay, when I find that a natural landmark has been commercialized.  It is not that I have to buy a ticket to be close to it, but that it is somehow no longer untrammeled nature.

One of the greatest mathematicians of our times, Grigori Perelman, was disinterested in accepting the Field's medal, because his proof of Poincare's conjecture stands taller than any certificate honoring him.  On the other hand, a politician will accept honorary doctorates or a Peace Nobel without even the least bit of self-doubt.  Though we are all subsumed by the market to varying degrees, something in us still marvels at the pure mathematician, and is somehow repelled by the politician.

We admire the freckles on the face of an old woman, and the wavy hair of a child in a very different manner than when we get impressed by an airbrushed Rihanna in People magazine.

That deep light within us, that the market constantly tries to extinguish, recognizes an instance of its nature and reflection quite easily.

The challenge for a sensitive human these days to be in this world, and yet remain un-corrupted by it.  That does not mean a spiritual detachment, but an understanding and awareness of the high and the low, of the silent versus the noisy.  To find oneself in a shopping mall, and yet understand that there is nothing there that one needs or wants.  To find oneself listening to music, and to put the noise of its marketing aside.  To read a piece of news, and to disregard the sensation and outrage of the journalist.  To be silent in the midst of the cacophony around oneself.

It is easier to be silent when in nature, and it is no wonder that those whose souls need healing go to the mountains and to the sea.  Is it not obvious that the primary joy of being in nature is that of being away from civilization and its groping of your spirit?  It does not matter that the landscape be beautiful.  Anyone who tells you that you must visit "those falls" which are "so awesome" does not understand silence.  They regard nature as yet another article of consumption.  You can know them because they will plan their day when in nature, instead of recognizing that what their soul truly needs is that sense of leisure and non-seeking, non-acquisition, non-greed.  Just silence.

For silence, mere wilderness, desolation, solitude is enough.

The market has become more powerful than ever, and so the struggle is harder than ever.  One could say that one is more free to be oneself these days, and choose one's own path, but is it easier or more difficult these days to remain free from influence?  At every turn there is bombardment.  It is an illusion to believe that modern man is more free.  In essentials, when it comes to his life and relationships, he is on the highway of civilization, patrolled by helicopters and cop cars.  He has the freedom to change lanes and choose the color of his car, perhaps.

This has been a meandering essay, but I needed to write this.