Friday, August 28, 2009

The Wisdom of Humanity

Strikes a deep chord, and sells in millions, is translated into hundreds of languages, but ... it keeps sorrow alive.

Exhibit A: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Some excerpts:

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”

“One’s Personal Legend is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is."

“The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there”

“We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand”

“At that moment, it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him. When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all the world spoke – the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. Something older than humanity, more ancient than the desert. Something that exerted the same force whenever two pairs of eyes met, as had theirs here at the well."

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

"That night, the boy slept deeply, and, when he awoke, his heart began to tell him things that came from the Soul of the World. It said that all people who are happy have God within them. And that happiness could be found in a grain of sand from the desert, as the alchemist had said. Because a grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it. “Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said. “We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer whant to go in search of them. We speak of them only to children. Later, we simply let life proceed, in its own direction, toward its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them – the path to their Personal Legends, and to happiness. Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place. “So, we, their hearts, speak more and more softly. We never stop speaking out, but we begin to hope that our words won’t be heard: we don’t want people to suffer because they don’t follow their hearts.” “why don’t people’s hearts tell them to continue to follow their dreams?” the boy asked the alchemist. “Because that’s what makes the heart suffer most, and hearts don’t like to suffer.” From then on, the boy understood his heart. He asked it, please, never stop speaking to him"

Exhibit B: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Some excerpts:

"Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

"But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart..."

""If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, 'Somewhere, my flower is there...' But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened..."

"At one time I say to myself: "Surely not! The little prince shuts his flower under her glass globe every night, and he watches over his sheep very carefully..." Then I am happy. And there is sweetness in the laughter of all the stars.

But at another time I say to myself: "At some moment or other one is absent-minded, and that is enough! On some one evening he forgot the glass globe, or the sheep got out, without making any noise, in the night..." And then the little bells are changed to tears..."

"Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat..."

"One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed... "


In both, the heart and its sentiments are extolled over the facts of life. Both appeal to our very being. If something is a hit, I consider it an exposition of human nature, a normative book rather than a prescriptive one.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The New World by Terrence Malick

Nature in Malick's films is a protagonist in its own right, the changing seasons transforming the course of the other characters' lives. Having a poetic and a painter's vision, he can properly be called a romantic director.

In The New World the romanticism is of three kinds: the tranquility of nature, the "pure" love between Smith and the princess, and the nostalgia of Eden as depicted in the lifestyle of the native Americans. The film is a long one, and though I am not one to get restless at languid or static shots, the film does become somewhat cliched towards the end. The best part for me was The Stranger which in great poetic fashion depicted the flowering of love between two people.

And the film is also interesting because though one may be forgiven for eulogizing love in the first half of the film, and for flowing along the river of feelings, the pain and suffering which it entails in the second half is no small cautionary tale.


On a related note, I recently watched a 12-minute short film. The film is about love. Though the film is not profound, I will leave you to interpret what it says about alienation, longing and the void within. I shudder to think of the dependence the man is going to fall into.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Aphorisms on Virtue

An economic system in which charity is needed is unjust.

To do help as a virtuous activity is nobly egoistic. It does not whittle down the ego, it exalts it.

To do "good" and to feel good about it is as pernicious as to do "bad" and to feel good about it.

A selfless act can not lead to feeling good. In a selfless act, there is no smoke after the fire.

Feeling good is not a crime, but neither is selfishness. The danger is that virtue, which is at best altruism in operation, can be mistaken for selflessness.

To be free of the need of feeling good is the ground of selflessness. To do something because one cannot not do it.

Good acts and good feelings are therapeutic. As such, they are means to free oneself from the need of good acts and good feelings. They are not ends in themselves.

Compassion is expended in charity. If it is not thus channeled, but instead directed to fuel the pursuit of the end of neediness in oneself, can it not be revolutionary?

To not be psychologically needy is your ultimate gift to humanity. Other gifts pale in comparison.

If you are needy yourself (psychologically), you are buying your good feelings in a dangerous way by indulging in virtue. Dangerous because it is praised so universally.

Humanity can be helped, but it is a cop-out to start helping others instead of putting oneself first beyond the need of help. It is a cop-out because you were now enabled to seek something beyond physical freedom, and you chose something easier.

Physical co-dependence is understandable, as we all co-habit the earth, but is buying virtue not parasitical?

Most people's virtue extends insofar as it is not personally discomforting.

If the roots are sick, is not washing the leaves an eye-wash? To fix the roots is not easy, but washing the leaves is dangerous, for it gives the illusion of health.

Discontent is extinguished through virtue. It is akin to guilt getting extinguished through apology. The momentum of one's realization of one's nature or of an oppressive system is brought to a halt because "all is well now".

The fire of discontent is stoked, made more fierce, by the lack of feel-good solutions.

An effortless benevolence is not virtuous. It has no cause, and hence it has no agenda for "me". It does not seek objects of charity.

To seek evolution through virtue is to aggrandize oneself.

On Meaningfulness

What makes something meaningful?

In essence, a meaningful life or a meaningful act goes beyond its vicinity. The here-and-now is implicit, it does not require any meaning to exist. Man is discontented with the here-and-now. A journey, or an arrow fired into the future, sustains the desire to live.

To "look forward to something" gives potency to the present moment to be meaningful. If something makes one "come alive", then it is an opportune moment to find out what nutrients does that something have.

The journey from discontent to contentment always begins by rejecting the given meanings of life and proceeding towards meaninglessness. The lack of meaning is frightful, and the apprehension of a meaningless life is painful, and that fear and pain keeps us tied to our hollow meanings, and we do all that we can to avoid contemplation of our so-called absurdity.

Krishnamurti was not wrong in that psychological time sustains "me", but his here-and-now was not of this world.

To be myself, as this body in this infinite universe, is ceasing to find pleasure in what I am not. It is not true that illusion is only pain, otherwise why would it be so alluring? To be sure, there is pleasure aplenty in illusion, as is there pain, and it is the ever changing flux of my inner world that sustains "my" existence.

To reject the pleasure of a known illusion is the mark of integrity. That man is not at fault who is not aware of his illusions, and who is blissful or sorrowful in his ignorance. It is the divided man who is at fault, who knows what he knows, but cannot act upon it. To be integrated is simply to refuse the charm of illusion once one has seen its true face.

The journey from illusion to fact goes through the valley of fear. It is infinitely easier to exchange one illusion for another than to exchange an illusion for a fact.

That is because illusions are meaningful, they are potent and nourishing, whereas facts are simply existent. In a way, facts are barren. They cannot sustain "me". "I" need "my" fix through my meanings and illusions. "I" am essentially an addict of illusion.

And it is wrong to say that it is directed efforts which sustain "me". They cannot fill a man's heart. Of a beast perhaps... ("The struggle enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." -Albert Camus) It is the meaning in the outcomes of those efforts which sustain "me". Sisyphus is not happy rolling the stone, but he is perhaps happy because he sees the direction in which he is rolling the stone. It is the illusion of a meaningful destination that keeps him happy.

Once you strip meaning from the direction, you also necessarily strip the passion for the destination.

But without direction, without passion, without a destination, without meaning, can a man live? The entire wisdom of humanity says No. And that pessimism is "mine". It is true that "I" cannot live without meaning.

To embrace meaninglessness without flinching is to perhaps come upon the magical. To find out that meaning is not essential, that existence is wondrous without a reason, that one need not look at the future to live in the present.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Five Comedies, seen recently

  • The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009): Hollywood comedies fall into some distinct genres, and this one is the male-bonding one. Distinctly misogynistic (and celebrating the blessed stance in which males piss), it revolves around three friends and a sub-human comic relief who get sloshed out one night in Vegas. When comedy is not situational but depends upon characters or, even more pathetically, upon the race or gender of the character, it is time to doubt the inventiveness of the screenwriter. Stupidity and seeing someone piss improperly is fun, but it is a rather low kind of fun.

  • A Shock to the System (Jan Egleson, 1990): A delightful black comedy, even though venturing into some thriller aspects towards the end. Stories of comeuppance have a strange charm. The enormous popularity of Roahld Dahl's stories are a testament to this (I especially recommend Taste and Mrs Bixby's and the Colonel's Coat from The Best of Roald Dahl). Michael Caine is generally a very fine actor, and his subtle expressions have just the right amount of mockery as a protagonist in this film. Treated unfairly by those who think there is no Karma, here comes Graham Marshall! People treat him like there is no justice in the world, and he shows them, and boy how he shows them!

  • Stuck (Stuart Gordon, 2007): A black comedy in which you might flinch once or twice, this is a rather curious look at the lack of remorse in a professional caretaker. Beset with issues of her own, she delivers the best line of the film after she has tried and failed to kill a poor and under-utilized Stephen Rea: "Why are you doing this to me?" Mena Suvari has a face which looks quite naturally like someone who needs a good spanking from a catholic father (to put some morality into her, damn her locks!). And oh does she burn in hell. Dahl would again smile.

  • Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007): Speaking of Catholics, now this is something else. A film which finally makes fun of virginity in a way you can only shake your head at (with glee!), the tagline is entirely appropriate: "Every rose has its thorns." Very very underrated, and criminally overlooked, this deserves to be seen, if only for a lesson on what dogs really like to eat (pun intended).

  • Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998): Highly recommended! This could have been (and fortunately, isn't) a male bonding type of comedy. The Hangover seems to be a lesser version of this. It is not that the characters react in an over-the-top manner, it is precisely because of the (quite human and entirely believable, mind you) distinct strain of stress in each character (and they all love each other) that this film is hilarious. It is also a cutting commentary on family life (husband and wife, parents and children, brother and brother). And what a character Christian Slater has in this film! The dialogues are a work of genius. Werner Erhard will be turning in his grave (if and when, of course) at the mockery of self-help and personal growth movement. The last scene begins as a pantomine by Cameron Diaz and becomes surreal in its intensity as it goes on. The misogyny is there, but it is more nuanced, and that is why it is more, ahem, fun.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Mountaineer

Once upon a time, a man who lived near a hilly range decided to climb the highest peak amongst those mountains. He gathered a few friends one evening, told them of his plans and started before dawn the next day.

As he started to climb, he met many people and was very happy conversing with them. He delighted in the company of fellow climbers, but was a little dismayed that only very few were aiming at reaching the highest peak. He never tired of talking with them about the climb and about the peak.

But as he climbed higher and higher, the company dwindled. Now he saw tents pitched with his fellow hikers having made a home there, and he met only two men in an entire week who were still climbing.

As he went still higher, he become not a little tired and short of breath, and was moreover mortally afraid that there would be nobody to help him in case he collapsed.

In his tiredness, whenever he looked up, he was blinded by the harsh sunlight and could not see the peak that was his destination. He started shifting in and out of fantastic hallucinations.

Immensely lonely, he wondered in his delirium why there were so few people nearby when he was no near the peak. He could not believe that nobody else wanted to reach the peak that he so desired to stand upon. He became forlorn and confused and doubted if he was on an altogether wrong path.

He looked down in the plains and saw multitudes frolicking, laughing, crying and fighting. He had a great urge to turn back, as the way forward was treacherous and uncertain whereas the view downhill was comforting in its familiarity.

He sat down wearily, and as he turned his eyes away from the peak and the sun, he saw a single eagle gracefully gliding in a circle, alone, unconcerned. And then as he looked down into the plains, he saw a great swirl of birds following each other in a pattern.

He closed his eyes and a deep stillness came over him. Blood rushed to his white hands and to his cold feet, and with a surge of energy he ran to the peak and cried with joy.

In that duration-less moment, he stood straight on his two feet, without wavering, with his eyes firm and unmoving, while the gliding eagle vanished from his sight into a cloud.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Back to Nature, or Forward?

Exhibit A

Theodore Kaczynski: A bright dot on the long strip of dissenters against the inexorable march of progress, a man deeply troubled by the usurpation of individual freedom through technology and institutionalization, a scholar who taught at the University of Berkeley, born 1942, and a man who is currently in life imprisonment in a maximum security Supermax prison in USA for mail-bombing, among other things.

Also known as the Unabomber. His manifesto, published 1995, is a remarkable document from the annals of twentieth century. I also highly recommend his short story, The Ship of Fools

According to him, "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in "advanced" countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world."

A few excerpts from the manifesto:
We use the term "surrogate activity" to designate an activity that is directed toward an artificial goal that people set up for themselves merely in order to have some goal to work toward, or let us say, merely for the sake of the "fulfillment" that they get from pursuing the goal. Here is a rule of thumb for the identification of surrogate activities. Given a person who devotes much time and energy to the pursuit of goal X, ask yourself this: If he had to devote most of his time and energy to satisfying his biological needs, and if that effort required him to use his physical and mental facilities in a varied and interesting way, would he feel seriously deprived because he did not attain goal X? If the answer is no, then the person's pursuit of a goal X is a surrogate activity. Hirohito's studies in marine biology clearly constituted a surrogate activity, since it is pretty certain that if Hirohito had had to spend his time working at interesting non-scientific tasks in order to obtain the necessities of life, he would not have felt deprived because he didn't know all about the anatomy and life-cycles of marine animals. On the other hand the pursuit of sex and love (for example) is not a surrogate activity, because most people, even if their existence were otherwise satisfactory, would feel deprived if they passed their lives without ever having a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. (But pursuit of an excessive amount of sex, more than one really needs, can be a surrogate activity.)


We divide human drives into three groups: (1) those drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort; (2) those that can be satisfied but only at the cost of serious effort; (3) those that cannot be adequately satisfied no matter how much effort one makes. The power process is the process of satisfying the drives of the second group.
The more drives there are in the third group, the more there is frustration, anger, eventually defeatism, depression, etc.


In modern industrial society natural human drives tend to be pushed into the first and third groups, and the second group tends to consist increasingly of artificially created drives.


We suggest that modern man's obsession with longevity, and with maintaining physical vigor and sexual attractiveness to an advanced age, is a symptom of unfulfillment resulting from deprivation with respect to the power process. The "mid-life crisis" also is such a symptom. So is the lack of interest in having children that is fairly common in modern society but almost unheard-of in primitive societies.


In response to the arguments of this section someone will say, "Society must find a way to give people the opportunity to go through the power process." For such people the value of the opportunity is destroyed by the very fact that society gives it to them. What they need is to find or make their own opportunities. As long as the system GIVES them their opportunities it still has them on a leash. To attain autonomy they must get off that leash.

Exhibit B

The book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, published in 1992. This goes further than "Industrial Society and Its Future" and considers agricultural revolution itself as the seed of destabilization on this planet.

A few excerpts:
Ishmael: There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.

Ishmael: One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets.

Ishmael: What makes it so striking is the fact that there is absolutely nothing like this among the Leavers.

Ishmael: What were the prophets trying to accomplish here? What were they here to do?

Alan Lomax: They were here to straighten us out and tell us how we ought to live.

Ishmael: But why? Why do you need prophets to tell you how you ought to live? Why do you need anyone to tell you how you ought to live?

Alan Lomax: We need prophets to tell us how we ought to live, because otherwise we wouldn't know.

Ishmael: Why is that? What does Mother Culture have to say?

Alan Lomax: there's no such thing as certain knowledge about how people should live. It's just not available, and that's why we don't have it.

Ishmael: Has anyone ever said, "Well, we have certain knowledge about all these other things, why don't we see if any such knowledge can be found about how to live?"

Ishmael: Considering the fact that this is by far the most important problem mankind has to solve has ever had to solve you'd think there would be a whole branch of science devoted to it. Instead, we find that not a single one of you has ever wondered whether any such knowledge is even out there to be obtained.

Ishmael: Not a very scientific procedure for such a scientific people.

Ishmael: We now know two highly important things about people, Ishmael said, at least according to Taker mythology. One, there's something fundamentally wrong with them, and, two, they have no certain knowledge about how they ought to live and never will have any. It seems as though there should be a connection between these two things.

Ishmael: Perhaps in fact the two things are actually one thing. Perhaps the flaw in man is exactly this: that he doesn't know how he ought to live.

Ishmael: We now have in place all the major elements of your culture's explanation of how things came to be this way. The world was given to man to turn into a paradise, but he's always screwed it up, because he's fundamentally flawed. He might be able to do something about this if he knew how he ought to live, but he doesn't and he never will, because no knowledge about that is obtainable. So, however hard man might labor to turn the world into a paradise, he's probably just going to go on screwing it up.

Ishmael: With nothing but this wretched story to enact, it's no wonder so many of you spend your lives stoned on drugs or booze or television. It's no wonder so many of you go mad or become suicidal.

Exhibit C

Masanobu Fukuoka
, the developer of the so-called Do-Nothing Farming. An excerpt from his book, The One Straw Revolution:
When a decision is made to cope with the symptoms of a problem, it is generally assumed that the corrective measures will solve the problem itself. They seldom do. Engineers cannot seem to get this through their heads. These countermeasures are all based on too narrow a definition of what is wrong. Human measures and countermeasures proceed from limited scientific truth and judgment. A true solution can never come about in this way.

It is not in dispute that humans have messed up their habitat (through pollution) and their minds (through neuroses) in ways too many to list. And I do not for one moment disagree with the listing of symptoms by the three authors above.

But what is the essential cause of our propensity for greed and destruction? Is it our knowledge (and the "arrogance" that it leads to), or is it something else? I submit that the primary reason is instinctive, and technology and tools are used for furthering the goals of that instinct.

There are at least two ways out of this quandary:

The Easy One: to go back to nature, and live unconsciously, and surrender the (howsoever incomplete) scientific knowledge gained till date, or,

The Difficult One: to move forward, to change ourselves, to address the instincts in operation, and discover better and more consciously harmonious ways to live and prosper.

In the former, not only is it going to be impossible to convince the vast majority of human beings to turn back the clock, it is moreover guaranteed that the sorry state at present will be repeated in due time. Since the drive for power and knowledge will remain, it is only a matter of time that another metaphorical northern hemisphere forms itself and starts exploiting the south, or another agriculturalist is born and starts farming.

In the latter, there is at least a chance that we may yet redeem ourselves. For thousands of years we have been searching for a way to live happily and harmlessly, and why be so pessimistic that humans will never find it?

Mr Kaczynski, Mr Quinn and Mr Fukuoka are the kind of people who deserve admiration for the deep problems they have tried to tackle, but their solutions fall short of addressing the root causes.

To take away power (read knowledge) from an animal can lessen the damage that that animal can cause, but a powerless animal is still an animal who will not stop seeking power, and who will look for opportunities in whatever form to further its goals.

To regress into wild nature is impossible, given the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex, and the thinking it enables, is what makes humans "unnatural". (I use the word "nature" here in the context set in the "man versus nature" debate. In another context, of course everything is natural.) To think rightly, and rationally, rather than to simply abdicate thinking and rationality, is the challenge for pioneering humans.

To "surrender to nature", being a conscious choice driven through the neo-cortex, is a contradiction in terms. This surrender may be possible for a few "enlightened" beings who can easily go "beyond thought", but those who cannot stop thinking, what are they to do?

Follow the enlightened blindly, perhaps?