Friday, September 19, 2014

Tattoos, sports cars and other symbols

Ratcheted down by law, the atomized modern man seeks symbolic victories.

Tattoos were historically symbols of gang membership, of belonging to a certain group, of one's identity as being part of something larger.

In the absence of a meaningful community, self-expression becomes perverted: it gets directed at strangers.

A tattoo on an otherwise sane person says a number of things:
  • "Please look at me."
  • "I am not just another, anonymous, person."
  • "I may not be able to verbalize what I am, but here's something cool that may interest you."
  • "I make my own rules.  I am an individual.  But I need acknowledgment for being me."
  • "I am not part of the herd.  I am esoteric." (people like to choose a foreign, sometimes ancient, script for their tattoos, e.g. David Beckham has his girlfriend's name etched on his arm in Devanagari).

Mutilating one's body to a further extent, by piercings and studs, is an attempt to rebel by violating one's own body. Since one cannot meaningfully rebel against socioeconomic oppression, one chooses to violate the "rules" about one's own body. That, at least, is under one's dominion.

These rebellions are symbolic. But symbols can be pacifying. In the absence of freedom, an illusion of being an outlaw might soothe.

Sports cars are likewise attempts to be find adventure where there is none: to get a rush from something mundane. Since urban life is full of anomie and dullness, sports cars offer the childlike thrill of getting to the speed limit (again, the law) with an unholy acceleration. It is to want to be in a roller-coaster as an adult.

Understand: "Sports" cars are mostly driven to "work". Sport, adventure, the "power process" (cf the Unabomber manifesto) is absent in life today. So, a symbolic, temporary, meaningless alternative is purchased, at a premium of thousands of dollars.


People who do not have tattoos, and who do not drive sports cars, do they have less of an instinctual drive to rebel, even if symbolically? Or maybe some of them realize the vise-grip they are in. And realize that mutilating their own bodies, and paying large (automobile) corporations more money to feel alive, is not the way to go.

Are they more institutionalized? Or is a tattooed person more deluded than someone who realizes their own oppression and refuses to be placated by symbols?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Subjective Response to Music

An earlier essay on music.

In my experience, individual response to music can be highly varied.  As an example, I enjoy the works of the guitarist Joe Satriani, but many consider his music to be too cerebral, and they enjoy the works of Carlos Santana or Jimi Hendrix with far more feeling and gusto.  I might try to argue with them that Rubina's Blue Sky Happiness or The Forgotten (part 2) are both intensely emotional experiences, but in the final analysis, their subjective response cannot be denied.  It just is, and emotions cannot be argued with.

We appreciate music for many reasons.  We may be in a certain mood and a song just captures our feelings in a beautifully poetic way.  A song or composition might bring about a feeling of nostalgia and rekindle long-lost memories because of how and when we listened to it for the first time.

Some songs that I listened to while I was a little child (on a gifted radio-cassette player) continue to be favorites because they evoke in me memories of the first home that I lived in, of the room that had that player, and of the very bed that I sat on while listening to that. Sometimes they bring about memories of the people who were with me when I listened to them.  Their musical excellence can be doubted, their production values can be critiqued, but the subjective experience that results from them is indubitable.

Music is also perceived to have therapeutic effects.  A melody may soothe our nerves, or it may invigorate and uplift us.  It may make us dance, or it might be an aid to contemplation.

To add to the complexity, there are genres of music that appeal to us, while we are immune to others.  Each genre of music can contain a whole spectrum of moods, and I speculate that after a certain age, we are resistant to develop an appreciation of unfamiliar genres.

Certain eras have a context to their music.  The 60s and 70s in India hadn't really seen an urban boom and late nights, so music was less inclined toward dance and was more melodious and hum-worthy.  That is not to say that today's music is in any way inferior.  In many ways, today's music is vastly more innovative.

Contrast these three songs, having a similar theme from different eras.  The pace increases, and a variety of technologies and instruments are introduced, as the compositions become more modern:

For another take on context, consider Jazz or Soul.  People who grew up in small towns and who have listened to live bands in small taverns or restaurants might naturally have a deeper appreciation for it.

Contrast that with Gangsta Rap.  Like Jazz, Gangsta Rap has strong elements of improvisation but is obviously more of an urban ghetto phenomenon: full of strong words, expletives, rebellion and violence.  Finer feelings are typically absent, and alienation and rage rule.

We continue to have fondness for the genres that we grew up with, or with those whose general rhythm and acoustics resonate with our personality type.

Extroverts will perhaps find the following composition "boring" and slow:

And contemplative minds might abhor techno or trance music, because it is typically associated with hedonism, parties, raves and intoxication:

Being a somewhat contemplative mind, I nevertheless find techno music, using nothing but digital instruments, supremely musical.  The imperfection or the human element might be missing, but then one remembers that no machine (at least for the foreseeable future) could create such music.

For example, the following composition, though short, shines through with a mood (subjective, again) of strength, of being re-born, of rising from the ashes:

Even if the composition be energetic, it need not deter soulful souls.  As examples, these two composition, though having a fast rhythm, can create a reflective, somber mood:

If the general perception of a particular genre does not appeal to me, I try to find out if there is something in it that creates a response.  Invariably it does.  It is not that difficult to flow with the artist and his experience during the creation.  The only requirement is that one put aside one's preconceived notions and prejudices.

This way, one can experience new vistas, while continuing to have a cherished musical home where one can again and again experience the familiar.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Dylan Thomas, 1951)


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

While there be notions of reincarnation, it is doubtless that something ends at death.  The memories, the familiarity, the history of interactions, the face and its expressions, the nostalgia of the childhood and of the home one lived in, ... all that comes to an end.  To begin again in a different form and frame, perhaps, but to end as one too.

After a certain age, most of us become resigned to our ongoing momentum and inertia.  Inertia and momentum are, as physicists since the time of Newton have known, the same thing.  Steady motion in the same direction is not different from stillness.  To change direction is the nature of life.  To apply force is the nature of the will.  To fall and slide down requires no effort.  To get up and to again push back against the earth, does.

Like a candle that burns even more fiercely as it nears its end, let old age not be emblematic of embers, but of a fiery passion that knows the end is nigh.  And therefore let the old age be of days lived with a fullness that is absent in youth.  The youth has time on its side, and is full of hubris and a lazy postponement of one's dreams and passions.  In old age the dreams at night must be no more, for the clock is ticking, and the ticks of the clock must act as knocks on one's closed doors and windows.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Man, unlike other animals, seeks to change his environment.  To sculpt the earth and others' minds.  But the idealism of youth, the possibility of revolution and the fierceness of a fearless hope give way to resignation as we realize the limitations and hear cautionary tales about foolhardy men who thought they could change the world and suffered from their bravado.

But as death comes close, the fear of death must vanish.  What have the old got to lose?  A couple of years?  A young man can be frightened of a long suffering or of death, but an old man must be fearless and must, like a wise fool, rush in where the unknowing timid fear to tread.

If they were unable to ignite a spark back in the day, now is the time to firebomb and to light a fuse under the armchairs made of safe, wooden compassion occupied by bored, distant, comfortable slacktivists.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The end of dreaming must not mean an end to action.  It must mean a graver understanding of the impediments and therefore more insightful and effective action.  Because the acts could not flourish in an environment of harshness, old men might become bitter and cynical.  Is a different outcome possible?  Is it possible to have passionate hope tempered with wisdom?

There are examples.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Men who weren't afraid to fly and fall, who weren't afraid to marry danger and who didn't want to fight a small skirmish but who wished to go all out, guns blazing...  Who wanted to seek truth and meaning and enlightenment... And who thought their light and passion would ignite the world but who saw nothing change as the dawn turned into noon and then to dusk.  They grieved and cried because they thought their lives have had no effect, that there hadn't been any lasting change, justice hadn't won over injustice in their lifetimes.  How could they peacefully pass away?  They must rage, rebel against death, rebel against defeat.  For they, at the front-lines of humanity, are not yet defeated.  They are but passing the swords, sharper than ever, to the next line of soldiers, ready to fight.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,   
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

With their vision sharpened through a lifetime of discarding one illusion after another, it may be weak in the light it can capture, but it is piercingly sharp because of the light it can impart.  It is blind and blinding at the same time.  Like meteors, the blaze of the knowledge is soon to get extinguished, but their light is not thereby less spectacular.  They are hurtling toward nothingness, and in that final journey they might shine a light on something which was hitherto hidden.  The finality of that final journey need not be a source of sorrow, it can be a joy of the kind that only comes with knowing that one did not hold back, that one was not trying to be safe anymore.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Any sign of life in one's dying beloved, even if it be a curse, is a blessing.  At that height of aloneness, where another breath can blow away the wispy frame from all that one held dear, let there be no forgetting, let there be no inertness even if it means pain and heartbreak.  For these are the final moments of a setting sun, and the none can dare look at anything else but the strange beauty of it.

Death in the end ... but let there be no death till then, till the very end.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Ride

It was still dark when he woke up.  The stars were shimmering and there was only the very bare outline of the sky becoming lighter in the east.  It was, as the ancient sages declared, the time for meditation.

He got up from his bed, half alert and with a chaotic grogginess.  The house was quiet, except for the hum of the fan and the occasional sound of a car cruising on the nearby highway.  He switched on a light in his bathroom and slightly squinting, looked at himself in the mirror: his ashen face, his disheveled hair and the two day old stubble on his jaw.  As he turned on the faucet in the basin, the sound of water filled his ears.  Soon the water was warm, and he splashed his face and his eyes.  As he brushed his teeth, the invigorating fragrance of mint and cloves filled his nostrils.

The sun was still a few hours away from the horizon.  He came out of his nightclothes and put on a cold gray t-shirt, his black jeans, and the waterproof wrist watch.  The distance to the outside of his house was only twenty feet, but it was a journey not unlike that of a monk preparing to go inside his pagoda and to sink deep into timelessness.  He put on his cushioning socks, his ankle-high boots, and put on his rather heavy leather jacket.  In the left jacket pocket went his garage remote, and in the right pocket he carefully put in his wallet.  The jacket was almost too heavy, but his heart was slowly unburdening itself.  He inserted the foamy green plugs into his ears to protect them from the noise of the wind-stream and took in his left hand the helmet and his gloves  from the wooden table next to his door.

As he stepped outside and locked his door, he was a man composed.  The fragrance of the trees hit his nostrils, and the cool air stung his still moist face.  The hair on his arms stood up, and he instinctively closed his right palm as if to prepare for a vague battle.

Steadily, and with a silent poise, he descended delicately.  Everybody else must have been still asleep and he was careful to muffle the clank of his boots on the concrete stairs.  The parked cars were wet after a night of rain. In what seemed to be an automatic movement, he transferred the helmet to his right hand, took out the garage remote and pressed the button.  The garage door motor whirred into life, the garage light switched itself on, and there was his motorcycle on its side stand, inclined toward the left.

He circled the motorcycle once, as if examining his horse.  The tires were rounded in their fullness, there was not a speck of dust on the windshield, the chrome was brilliantly reflective.  With a deft and practiced movement, he unlocked the handle-bar and turned the key to ignition.  The battery in the intestines of the motorcycle awoke from its slumber and tiny LED lights glimmered on the instrument panel.

He put on his helmet.  It felt warm and snug.  The gloves were now on as well.  The inside of the gloves felt rough and cold and he rubbed his hands together to generate some much-needed warmth.  He got on his motorcycle from the left and slowly and silently wheeled it out of the garage.  He turned the bike to face away from the garage door and pressed on the remote one last time.  The garage door closed, as if signaling to himself that the only way now open to him was the open road.

He took a quick breath.  He looked down on his lifeless speedometer, and after what seemed like an inordinately long time, turned off the engine kill switch.  It was time.  The meditation was about to begin.

The needle gracefully swept the speedometer dial toward the extreme right, to 160 mph, and then back to zero.

His hands gripped the handle bars, and with his left fingers pulling on the clutch lever, his right thumb resolutely pressed the engine starter.  The motorcycle's 800cc V-twin rumbled to life.  It was the roar of a wild animal roused from its sleep by a sudden jerk.  The engine's sound was a steady thump.  The vibration made him sit up straight and stretch his back.  The monk would have closed his eyes after sitting on his cushion, but the rider's eyes were now intently focused ahead of him.

The motorcycle started to move.  It was still waking up and in the first gear, and it glided smoothly while overcoming the numerous bumps.  As he exited the private street and turned toward the empty county road, his trance was deepening.  The sound and the vibration of the motorcycle was entering his muscles.  First gear quickly gave way to neutral, the green light briefly flickering, and then it was on to the second gear, and then the third.  As he approached the red traffic light, he slowed down.  He was barely able to control his motorcycle which was almost sulking at being forced to stop.  The traffic signal magnets in the road surface didn't detect his ethereal presence, and the traffic light remained a glaring red.

He looked around.  There was not a soul in sight.  The motorcycled roared again and he acceded to its unreasonable demand.  The red lights stared angrily at him in his peripheral vision, but after the turn, his mirrors showed the orthogonal green lights, as if grudgingly confirming his rash decision.  He felt slightly amused.  But the monk knew that the first few minutes of meditation are the hardest, with strange thoughts and memories of unfinished dreams still flashing across the mindscape.

The sign ahead said: "Freeway Entrance.  Pedestrians, Bicycles, Motor-driven cycles prohibited."  He had once wondered at the distinction between a motorcycle and a motor-driven cycle, but now it didn't even cause a whiff of anxiety.  The sign was a warning to other wanderers who were just starting to venture into the unknown, not to him.  He belonged there.  Just as the monk felt at home on his cushion, so was the rider at peace with the empty, high-speed highway that lay ahead.

The wind was now strong on his face.  He brought down the helmet visor with his left hand.  His face was now shielded from the elements and from the occasional projectile.  He was going at fifty miles per hour, now in the fourth gear.  As the motorcycle leaned on the on-ramp, he smoothly accelerated.  He could feel his MSF training in his bloodstream.  The bike leaned to its limit but he leaned it still more.  The right foot-peg scraped against the hard pavement and golden sparks flew in the darkness.  These were the screeching fireworks, welcoming him home.

The motorcycle was giddily accelerating now.  50 miles per hour, 60, 70 and now 80 miles per hour.  It was finally in top gear.  There were no more gears to be changed.  The vibrations were smooth and stable, his hands were lightly resting on the handlebar, and his feet firmly on the pegs.  His jacket was tightly wrapped around his torso, and only his neck and a small part of his wrists were feeling the cool morning air.

His body was relaxed but straight.  His vision was acutely aware of the wide empty highway that stretched ahead for miles.  His mind was now quite alert.  His legs were tightly hugging the sides of the motorcycle and the hem of his jeans was fluttering in the wind.  There wasn't any traffic, not at that unearthly hour.  The roar of the V-twin and the intense whoosh of the wind were anything but silent, but the silence inside of him was deepening.

To ride, he had to be wholly mindful.  He had to mind the surface of the road, he had to frequently check his rear view mirrors, he had to look far ahead for any potential dangers, he had to intently listen to the engine's roar, and watch his speed.  All without moving his head.  Only his eyes could move.  His body had to keep the 600 pounds of metal under him in balance.

The road was smooth, but for an occasional crack in the pavement.  The motorcycle weaved slightly when it went over this occasional crack, only to regain its graceful movement again.

As he glanced down at the fuel gauge, he faintly smiled.  He could go on for another one hundred and fifty miles before needing to stop.

His mindfulness was now reaching its peak.  He was now fused with the machine.  The thump in his heart, the rhythm of his lungs, the movement of the pistons, the shuddering of the speed needle, the steady grip of his wrists, and the boom of the exhaust were all part of one organism now.

He felt like he had come a long way, but the road ahead was endless.  There was no GPS, no map and no destination.  The sun was now up in the east.  The wind thundered around his face and swirled around his body and around his motorcycle.  His arms had lost their stiffness and were fluid and the hot air from near the engine was warming his legs.  There were no more thoughts.  The silence within him was complete.

The wind was him, the smells and the fumes were him, the road was him, the buildings and the trees and the valleys and the hills and the lakes were him.

He was no more, and he was everywhere.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion, part V

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

The last stanza:

And death shall have no dominion.

And the ashes of death will cease to tyrannize and menace those consumed by the fires of their passions.

As I once heard:

अगर है शौक़ मरने का ,तो हर दम लौ लगाता जा,
जला कर खुदनुमाई को, भस्म तन पर लगाता जा.
(If you are passionate about death, let the blaze of that passion burnish every moment of your existence,
As that blaze turns your self-centeredness to ashes, let those ashes then adorn your body.)

No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
After the men are gone from the earth, perhaps there will come a time when other forms of life too slowly pass into oblivion. Birds and oceans may cease to exist. There was a time, billions of years ago, when life on earth was only in the future. But the wonder is that life sprang from that apparent lifelessness. Lifelessness did not endure eternally. There might be another ice age, another deluge, another apocalypse, but, so what?

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
"The strength and the beauty of a tender leaf is its vulnerability to destruction. Like a blade of grass that comes up through the pavement, it has the power that can withstand casual death." (Krishnamurti's Notebook)

What is that power? What is that brave facing of an ending but an implicit, intrinsic, inherent, intoxicated determination that life shall begin again. That this ending is but a hiatus.

The beauty of life - the birds, the waves, the flowers - may fall into lifelessness, but this passage is life itself. There will be further waves, further life forms, even stranger trees. Life is the arrow of time, as it moves forward from chaos to order to chaos again.

Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
And even though the soil and earth contain death and a seeming chaos and insanity, that insanity camouflages and hides the seed that gives rise to heartbreaking beauty when new life blossoms forth. Perhaps the myriad forms of death are what give shape to the myriad forms of life.

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,

And this dance of life and death and then life again will continue to witness and be witnessed, till the stars and the nebulae and the galaxies and the constellations scatter away, into dust, into vacuum, into darkness.

And from that apparent void and darkness and nothingness shall again come matter and light and life and little children and singing and the beauty of creation in all its forms.

And death shall have no dominion.
"To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible — and eternal, so that come what may to my 'Soul,' my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part — I shall still have some sort of a finger in the pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me — but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you." (W. N. P. Barbellion, in The Journal of a Disappointed Man)

And death shall have no dominion.