Friday, September 25, 2009

Freedom and Society

In the past one month, I have not been able to write much on my blog. The reason is simply that I have watched at close hand a situation of conflict where the human condition is palpable in all its sordidness.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. A foxhole is a kind of bomb shelter where there is every possibility of being mortally wounded. The adage is supposed to mean that one becomes a believer when the circumstances are overwhelming, that atheism is simply a reactive condition which is given up when it becomes too much to face life and death squarely. (The film Nastik comes to mind.)

In Albert Camus' The Outsider, the absurd man refuses to compromise by starting to believe. Many others involved in the present conflict, though ostensibly atheists, have turned into believers in Karma, in a "higher power", in "justice beyond the human realm", etc. This situation has therefore been an acid test for me whether my practice of actualism could withstand a highly aggravating set of conditions.

The human condition (or rather, our animal heritage) is much, much more deeply entrenched in us as human beings than our surface beliefs, our rationality, our efforts at being "good" to each other, our inclination to be fair, and so on. When push comes to shove in times of war or in times of deep loss, it is quite shocking to observe to what extent we are still animals.

The question that has been flickering in me is: in the world as it is, is it possible for a human being to live without the constant threat of being targeted by others because of one's rejection of conventional morality, in which one is beholden to no God or man. Willy-nilly, people thrust obligations and morality on a member of society, and to reject morality in a traditional society is seen as a flagrant act of hurting the feelings and sentiments of others and is therefore fraught with danger.

As one moves from a village to a metropolitan city, the weight of an oppressive morality becomes lighter. Similarly, the moral brigades have less of a say in modern states such as Netherlands and France than in, say, India or Pakistan.

The human condition still continues to afflict the dwellers in these liberal regions, but since the social pressures are lesser, an individual has greater freedom to be different.

Freedom in the social realm is in many ways an important factor for a human being to be free from one's inner afflictions. Conventionality and authority not only stifles freedom of action, it also threatens an individual's thirst for experimentation, exploration and enquiry. In societies where the cost of being different is lesser, there is a greater possibility of new discoveries and ideas.

This is a unifying idea which appeals to me because it does not disregard social progress, but also considers it only as a platform for total freedom. In this view, the progress of institutions, the evolution of laws, the education of the illiterate, the advances in medicine are not at all trivial but are the foundations of a tangible platform from which a flight into freedom from one's psychic nature can be attempted.

It is no wonder that the questioning of morality and religion, two cultural artifacts which impose a spurious authority on an individual's thoughts and acts, is more frequent and insistent in advanced societies than in regressive ones.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis

I had heard good things about this film, that this film was existentialist and that it was an ironic tale about human mortality.

To be sure, it is not a bad film. The premise is brilliant, the film is quite entertaining, and it does have many genuinely funny moments. There have been quite a few mainstream films with world-weary cynical protagonists who undergo a change in perspective. About Schmidt, American Beauty and As Good as it Gets spring to mind.

However, in many such films, and especially in this film, the metamorphosis is linked to becoming lovable again. It is as if the measure of a man, and of his life, is to to be able to win the love of a beautiful woman whom he fancies. It is as if love is the answer to the big puzzle, it is as if the woman has it already figured out and the man has to finally reach her level to be happy.

I am not at all objecting to the wise person being a female. This is not a debate about gender. What I am objecting to is the infantile notion that we are good and innocent when we are born and we get corrupted and bad as we grow up. That someone who has refused to grow up and acts emotionally, dreams, thinks wistfully, has romantic notions, likes specific things to eat and to drink, is somehow an evolved and happy person.

Observe the central woman character in As Good as it Gets and in Groundhog Day and you will nary find a thing wrong with her character. She is afflicted with the human condition, but she is portrayed as the ideal to which the fallen man must aspire. And the man is fallen because he doesn't believe in human relationships. And to lend credence to his villainy, he is needlessly, in fact cantankerously, rude, bitter and lonely.

It is as if there are only two ways to live: bitterly, or lovingly. It is as if there can be no kind and generous association without also having love and compassion in one's bosom. It is as if one needs to just reawaken one's "essential" humanity to be able to happy again. Never mind that the "essential" humanity is animal at its core.

In short, such films are retrogressive in the garb of being prescriptive. What is prescribed in most of such films is a regression to an infantile state where good feelings set the standard of what is sensible.

It is instructive to note in these films that the ideal to which a man finally aspires is to be a good husband and a good father.

There is nothing wrong in being a family man (or woman), but as the vast majority of mankind is already married and involved in parenthood, such films trivialize the essential problem of humankind.

The problems of life are brought in sharp focus when the usual solutions are seen to be insufficient. If the usual solutions were good enough, there wouldn't be the mayhem that we see all around us, and within us.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Prosperity and Survival Patterns

In affluent societies, the survival mechanisms wired into our brains at birth are leading to what are now called Lifestyle Diseases. People are trying to balance their propensity for boredom with surrogate activities, their indulgence in calorie-rich food with compensatory exercise, their depressions with their addictions, their heart ailments with surgery, and so on and so forth.

I will not go into the reasons why people like to eat a lot, why they get bored, why they get depressed, why hearts are failing. These are well-understood phenomena.

My question is whether there is a better alternative than to precariously balance (consciously or unconsciously) the ill-effects of our behavior patterns with other behavior patterns. This is an important question because the ill effects mostly stem from a deeper source (our in-built patterns or what was earlier called our unconscious brain) whereas the compensation has to be willed and adhered to consciously. And moreover, the ill effects are usually visible only in late adulthood when it is too late for most people to change their ways.

It is an unfortunate sight to see someone who likes to eat punishing himself by walking on a treadmill, or someone compulsively indulging in mobile phone games to ward off boredom.

Is there another way to live in these times, in which neither indulgence nor compensation are there in the picture? Indulgence is a constant danger even if one doesn't want to indulge. There are strong financial forces working to make people consume and then regret. Can an individual hope to live these days without constantly worrying whether he or she is living a healthy life?

This is a rather hard problem. I am pretty sure that the stresses of modern life (e.g. of living in extremely dense habitats, of having to appear likable throughout the day at one's workplace, of having to protect one's money from a constant atmosphere of financial predation, etc.) lead one to want to relieve one's stresses by consumption which, though having some positive mood-elevating effects on the various neurotransmitters, plays further havoc with one's health.

Non-consumptive reliefs such as meditation or breathing exercises are not to be sneezed at, but they are still in the realm of compensatory acts. Meditators usually need their daily "fix" of meditation in order to go through the day. Yes, meditation is healthier than having a drink in the morning, but the question is: what is the causation of the stress which is being relieved?

It is interesting to read Richard's notes on how he experiences hunger. In short, he doesn't.

[Respondent]: ‘Do you experience hunger?

[Richard]: ‘No (all appetitive desires are null and void).

[Co-Respondent]: ‘If you don’t eat for a day or two, there would be certain sensations in your body which are usually classified as hunger by normal humans.

[Richard]: ‘The bodily sensation of an empty stomach is not what is usually classified as hunger by normal humans – and it does not take a day or two of not eating anyway but only a few hours – as what is usually classified by normal humans as hunger is a feeling of being hungry which arises from that sensation ... which feeling desists (in normal humans) when replaced by a feeling of satiety which arises from the sensation of a full stomach after having eaten.

[Co-Respondent]: ‘This is certainly new to me.

[Richard]: ‘Laboratory tests have shown that stimulation of the lateral nucleus of the hypothalamus (known as the ‘feeding centre’) activates feeding in animals – whereas lesions of the lateral nucleus abolish all desire to eat (aphagia) – and that stimulation of the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (aka the ‘satiety centre’) inhibits feeding ... whereas lesions of the ventromedial nucleus can lead to compulsive eating (hyperphagia).

Incidentally, it has been found that opiates also stimulate the ventromedial nucleus (hence the use of amphetamine for control of obesity)’.

In my thinking, environmental stresses and harmful internal stresses both need to be addressed. It is silly to claim that people can be happy and calm even in a highly stressful environ (for example a lawless city, or a war zone). Man to a very great extent is influenced by his environment and to claim otherwise is to simply advocate dissociation.

- Since environmental stresses (e.g. pollution, inducements to consumption, crowding, cognitive overload, threats to health and wealth) are not within the power of a single individual to tackle, one can either be very rich and protect oneself from most of these stresses (but at the cost of the new stress of having to sustain a high level of prosperity), or one can just remove oneself from a stressful environment and retreat to a small town, have a less stressful job, to less polluted surroundings.

- On the other hand, I believe that to a large extent, personal psychological ailments are within the power of an individual to address. There are various approaches one can take to address one's in-born lust, greed, insecurity, fear of death, need to impress, etc. It is not my intention here to go into the merits of any particular approach.

The situation is complicated because as an adult, personal psychological ailments and environmental stresses feed on each other. Bored people seek consumption, insecure people seek branded goods, loveless beings want to appear attractive, etc. It is hard to break this vicious cycle of personal and environmental stress. People get addicted to their ailments: to their need for a consumptive fix. It can be hard to break this pattern.

Some suggestions:

- A short vacation to a place where man-made influences are few can act as a bootstrapping catalyst.

- Spending time with people who are much below or much above one's financial standing can be a sobering reflection on one's lifestyle and aspirations.

- Experimenting, for fun, with one's consumption patterns. Spending the whole day in front of the TV (and nothing else), eating the same meal twice a day for a week, not talking to anybody for 24 hours, going blindfolded for a whole weekend inside the house, can be pattern-breaking activities. Such experiments just might bring that one is a compulsive addict in ways that one didn't realize, and that one is deeply sick.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Two Parables

Before the Law by Franz Kafka

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, ‘just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.” During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the flea ‘ s as well to help him and to change the doorkeep er’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

(Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. Copyright © 1971, Schocken Books.)


Parable VI (From Darkness to Light, J Krishnamurti)

The mountains look on the town and the town looks upon the sea. It was the time of many flowers and calm blue skies. In a big house, where the trees gathered around there lived a man, rich in the possession of things. He had visited the capitals of many lands in search of a cure. He was lame, scarcely able to walk. A stranger from the distant and sunny lands, came by chance to the town that looks upon the sea. The lame man and the distant stranger passed by, touching each other in a narrow lane. The lame man was healed, and the town whispered in amazement. On the next day, the man made whole was taken to prison for some immorality.