Category Archives: Philosophy

Confessions of an Author that Never was (TSS)

From Flickr

From Flickr

I have always wanted to write. However, I have always failed to achieve much beyond self-pleasing tid-bits. Like most of us who want to be ‘authors’ without having the discipline to churn out a single short story of any decent standard, I have always blamed it on the genius of people I have already read.

After a lot of thought, it was settled that I will be the one to show that despite the madness that is the modern life, a solution to this ‘human condition’ lies in seeking a reconciliation between the creative urge and the materialistic compulsions. Ideas after ideas were mooted and rejected. Characters were created, played with, and killed. Plots ended before they began. Ultimately, I have been left with nothing but utter desperation and a huge dint on my self confidence.

Probably, I think nowadays, I was never meant to be an author. Or rather, to be consistent with my existential claims, never ‘good enough’ to be an author. By disposition, and by training, I am a lawyer and probably a good one at that. But author I definitely am not.

People say that all illusions are best when in the past. I myself have been and remain a big proponent of that school of thought. Living in absolute reality is not only a tenet I preach but also purportedly practice. While in theory, there is hardly any evidence to the contrary, it is difficult to accept that the one thing you like, the one area were you are passionate is that where you have no talent.

For now, it is settled that I shall focus on the profession of my choice and relegate my passion to write to a hobby. Whether this is ‘giving up’ or living up to reality is something time shall tell. Or maybe, time shall not. In either case, I am bound to bear the consequences of my choice.

Sunday Salon

Reading a Golden Notebook (TSS)

Inspired by Bob Stein’s email about the ‘integrated reading experiment‘ with The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, I picked it up way back in early December 2008. Thanks to a lot of other things happening in my life, I have been getting very little time to read compared to what generally satisfies me. Ergo, I am yet to read the last chapter titled ‘The Golden Notebook’. However, this book is so rich with ideas that one may not need to finish to share one’s experience.

It is my personal opinion that though a little background on a work of literature helps our understanding of the intricacies of the work, it is generally advisable to read a book devoid of any preconceived or rather pre-propounded theories about the same. Anyone reading Lessing in our time will be struck by atleast two facts – that she won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2007 and that she is considered to be one of the leading ‘feminist’ authors of the 20th century. Neither of these are relevant to one’s being able to understand or appreciate her work.

The conciousness that Lessing is a ‘feminist’ author was something I made myself dispel within 20 pages of my reading. I realized that this fact was clouding my perception of every sentence I read. I feel, standing at the epilogue of this monumental work of literature, that Lessing has much more to convey than mere sexist themes. This is not to be misunderstood as an aversion of feminine rights in any way. Only that, I feel it is unjust to sweep away other powerful themes of such an epic merely because the feminist ones shock the male dominated society the most. Should shock and awe be a value to judge literature by?

Having said that, let me acknowledge Lessing’s masterful command over the female psyche. Probably, it is the dearth of such powerful and shameless expression by women that makes Golden Notebook relevant even after decades of its first publication. I consider Colin Wilson’s Outsider to be one of the most important books I have ever read and I remember him having observed that female ‘outsider’ artists were hard to come by. Lessing is definitely one of them.

One of the most interesting theme of this novel is the promise and disappointment of the communist revolution. She captures in all its essence, the temptation of communism to the generation of the 50s -70s, in various parts of the world. More than the feminist overtones, being able to capture with perfection the political debacle of communism and its effect on the intellectual youth of that era is the most important achievement of Lessing. Communism holds no temptation to my generation and therefore, to be able to understand its appeal in the past is a tricky task. I believe, Lessing provides an able road-map to all those who would care to.

It is too easy to pretend that communism is an evil; though it is actually insane if we do. Across borders, throughout the wide world, more than a 2/3rd majority of the intellectuals were attracted by it in the last century. Most of them today are professors in various universities teaching either the history of communism or the economics of capitalism. For anyone interested in an understanding of the 21st century world, this political history is the single most important theme to understand. For that alone, The Golden Notebook deserves a very serious read.

The feminist aspect of the book deserves to be read with passion and a will to understand, at least from the male perspective. And that is what I have attempted to do. To be able to read a matter of factly stream of conciousness passage about the various kinds of female orgasm is an education in itself. Not biological, but psychological, and more importantly social. However, I shall hold my guns for now and return to this theme in detail once I have finished the last chapter of the book.

To conclude, a warning. This is a long book and becomes long specially when the diary entries record the dry facts. There are pangs of ‘Let’s Chuck it’. If you survive them, this is a book worth all the time.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon

Not So Curious in a Long Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

I know I came to this late, but I had my reasons. I have generally been weary of books that become too famous too soon, even with the people who have never read a book. This was one of those books. It was everywhere – streets, newspapers, magazines, and small talk between friends. Therefore, I dismissed without ever bothering to even find out what the book was all about.

However, I kept stumbling upon this curious one every now and then in the blogosphere. Sometimes the revies were quite good. Some even called it a sensitive book. Then I came to know it about a 15 year old guy suffering with Aspergers Syndrome. So, I said, let’s give it a try.

I first heard about the Aspergers Syndrome through the famous Boston Legal series. However, it was beyond my comprehension what it actually means to be suffering from it. As far as that is concerned, Mark Haddon, I believe has captured the essence in two ways – the pain of both the patient and his family. Imagine if one of your family members lived life by pure logic. It sounds OK, but you need to read this book to understand the what it actually means.

Having said that, I must state that the book reads too easy, sometimes frustatingly so. After about 1/4th of the book, I was about to drop it for it seemed there was too much pointles gibberish. The book is replete with nonesensical passages. If that was meant for the reader to understand exactly how frustrating and difficult it can be to live with a person suffering with this disease, I guess Haddon achieves it successfully. However, if it was meant to sound cute, he fails miserably.

The one interesting thing that this story makes you wonder about is the question that Dostoevsky puts forth in his Idiot. Was Prince Myshkin the idiot or the rest of the world? A person suffering from Aspergers Syndrome has no problems with logic. He is more logical than any of us can ever be. He has problems absorbing or appreciating emotions, people, and social relations. Why? Because, somewhere down the evolutionay cycle, logic was left behind. Being human no longer is synomous to being logical – far from it. We are the most ‘conditioned’ of all species. Probably, those suffering from AS have somehow escaped that conditioning. So, who is the patient?

This is not a book you need-to-read-before-you-die, however, next time you take a long flight, it could be a easy and relaxing read.

P.S: Neither do I, nor has Mark Haddon in the book made any claims to having known much or understood at all, people suffering with Aspergers. Mark Haddon actually doesn not name the disease at all. I have never met anyone with the syndrome and can not even begin to understand what a person having it would be like. This is in response to a reply to this post.

Killing With Indifference

 

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

 Elie Wiesel in Night

When I read these lines in Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, I got goose bumps. I read it a number of times again and again and somewhere deep inside vowed to find out about all injustice happening around, and speak out at least against the ones of the higher magnitude. Then, with a great feeling of satisfaction, I closed the book and felt good about having read such a good book.

It has been a couple of months, and like many other, that resolve remains postponed to the uncertain future. Like many other profound ideas that never get converted to action. Then, today, while browsing from link to link, from one blog to another, I received another jolt. First this post by Ramya and from there to this one at Mow Books, I was shaken up from the deep silence of indifference.

I remember having watched an episode in Boston Legal where one of the cases concerned Darfur or the genocide in Sudan. I loved the episode and in the last one year must have watched it, with admiration, over thrice. And yet, thanks to my deep rooted rut of indifference I never felt the urge to to know more. And that is when we can google anything. I have read at least 30 books, watched at least 40 movies since I first saw that episode and blogged quite a bit. Interestingly, I have read at least 5 books and 5 movies set around the theme of the genocide by Hitler. And have written posts earlier, seemingly sounding disturbed. It is so easy to be disturbed about history, and so difficult to even give a damn about anything in the present. We are so happily living in the past and the future that the present drifts, as if non-existent.

Before the question as to what we can do to remedy such situations arise, the question arises why do we not know. And from there stems the answer to our next question. And there is a lot more we can do. Maw Books talks about it in great detail, acheiving from her side the minimal action that is required.

This is not about Darfur but about us. About me. About my indifference and reasons behind. But trying to figure out those reasons is another criminal waste of time. Specially, when very close to where I live, in Kashmir people are dying and are denied basic necessities because some land was transferred to some trust which wants to provide facilities to some people who want to visit soem temple to pray. I am a Hindu and I would never like to visit the God if that requires killing people around me. And that is being justified because the other side is not of my religion? And no one in India, NO ONE is concerned. One blast in Bombay makes national news for months and a month of blast in Kashmir hardly finds a minutes mention in national news here. And we Indians say Kashmir is an integral part of India? And when Arundhati Roy talks of freedom for Kashmir, her nationality is threatened? What the hell is happening?

I am too angry right now to write anything coherently anymore. But you might be able to. So please do.  

Under the Net of Iris Murdoch

People used to the metro lifestyle would definitely recognise this phenomenon, where you know a stranger quite well and yet he remains a stranger nonetheless. As in, let’s say some guy you have never spoken to, who happens to take the same train or bus every morning for work. There is a similar phenomenon for readers who read about books and reading almost as much as they read the books themselves – an author sounds so familiar as if you have been reading him/her for ages. Whereas, in fact, you may not have read a single word penned by him. At least, this happens to me a lot. To remedy that situation, I have been picking up certain authors at random just because they have been floating in my head for quite sometime. Iris Murdoch happened to be one of them.  

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Under the Net impressed me from the beginnig, however, if I said I was dazzled by the book and it turned out to be one of the best I have ever read, that would be lying trough my teeth. The first reaction at finishing the book was “What was the point?”. However, if you let it sink in, Under the Net does cast a spell, though not as ‘magnificient’ as you may have expected from Murdoch’s only title in the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century List by the Board of the Modern Library (a division of Random House). 

There is nothing ‘fantastic’ about the plot or the characters. On the contrary, all is quite normal. However, probably to add that magical hmour, there definitely are events that you may not expect to experience every day. Having said that, let me add that the element of humour hangs at some little corner throughout the story, even at times when you are made to wonder at some profound implications of certain conversations.

Iris Murdoch’s existential inclinations are well-known. It is my belief that the novel is a marvellous achievement in that respect. It is in the character of youth to be dazzled by the ever prominent struggle between action and ideas in life. Whereas all within feels profound, everything tangible is uninspiring. This gap that has prevented so many potentiatialities from being realized is so vague that to be able to describe it in a story as simlple as this one speaks volumes about not only the literary skills of the author but her clarity of thought.

The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“. This simple sentence is the essence of all that Murdoch has woven the novel around. Throughout the book, there is a mention of ‘extraordinary, profound, and interesting’ conversations between the protagonist and his best friend which just eludes us till the end. This best friend happens to be one of the most interesting characters of the book, and in a frustatingly teasing manner, Murdoch keeps him silent most of the times.

A failure to find inspiration to act has been the nemesis of many great artists and thinkers and many others who never shall reach that stage of recognition so as to be categorised even as a ‘failure’. The life of the ‘ordinary’ in the wake of great potential is probably one of the most difficult. Somewhere on these lines, Murdoch kepps you under her net throughout the journey of this book and when you least expect it, lets you go. Disappointed we sulk and ask – What was the point. Murdoch answers, “The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“.

Dealing with Reality

Human race is addicted to illusions. I guess, at a very early stage of the evolution of human society, it became clear to man that what they termed as reality was too painful to accept as it was. Therefore, man created a pseudo ‘reality’ in the name of god, eternity, afterlife, heaven, hell and what not – this was man’s survival instincts at its creative best. When society needed order, man created god as an eternal punisher; when time became his existential limit, eternity of the soul was discovered. And probably boredom combined the two and created mythologies.

Despite all the attempts, none of this could prevent glimpses of reality in human society. Even the blind-by-choice could catch these glimpses, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually it became clear that belief in Krishna or Jesus could be desirable but disbelief in Hitler and the two world wars, however desirable, was difficult to attain. Illusions are impermanent shield and there remains no choice but to deal with reality.

The search for ‘truth’, a poetic synonym of reality, has apparently been on since the Greek ages. However, the most relevant of such inquiries have only taken place in the last couple of centuries[1]. It started when man finally decided to question his abilities and acknowledge his limitations. The first undeniable truth that came to be known by this process was that even if there is an absolute truth (or reality), man can never know it. Man is only capable of knowing what is within the limits of his five senses. Beyond that, all knowledge at best are calculated guesses. It took over three centuries and an Einstein to figure out that Newton was wrong. It was only after his theory of relativity that the idea that time need not always be a constant was brought from the realm of science fiction to a scientific theory. As absurd as it may sound, there is a very thin line of distinction between fact and fiction – the line of human capacity to see.

Therefore, in order to ensure that we live our lives true to our reality, it is necessary first to acknowledge that our reality itself is limited. Man must accept man as man – with all his failings, with all his limitations. Any attempt to surpass the limitations of the reality knowable to us is an attempt to deny the limitations of human existence. A warning for the romantics – do not misread deny as defy. Living in denial is shameful, living in defiance of reality is quixotically impossible.

It is this limited and undeniable reality of human life that Sartre[2] calls ‘human condition’. Like all existentialists, Sartre paints a dismal picture of human condition[3]. But then, is not most reality dismal? Which is more real – the happy picture of Jesus turning water to wine or Hitler turning Jews to ashes, methodically?

Franz Kafka wrote that man lives like man but dies like a dog. Sartre said that man is a useless passion. Camus said that man is condemned to a Sisyphean pointless labour. Are you shouting, “Stop it! Do you have a point?” Well, this precisely is my point. Time and again the reality of man’s futility hits him in the face. All the illusions that he has comfortably wrapped himself in, can not protect but only suffocate him in the face of reality. His situation is like someone who has sewn himself in a permanent warm overcoat in winter completely negating the fact that summer inevitably shall follow. And once summer arrives – then what? Two choices – suffocate in the coat until death or tear it open.

One may ask why paint such a dismal picture of human limitations and tragedies? Isn’t it life negating? If calling apple an apple is negating apple, then it is. Otherwise, it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality that is. And why is it necessary? Because a man living in denial of his disease always fails to take medication. A gory picture of human condition is precisely what the doctor prescribed for the human race – a race wrapped in illusions. How does this prescription help? By eliminating unfounded fears, liberating man to uninhibited and innumerable choices that had been kept away from him in the fake promise of the possibility of attaining heroic ends.

If we acknowledge human condition as it is, with all the disturbing details, what then? It is only on the acknowledgement and consciousness of the true human condition that we can truly venture into attainment of any value. When Camus talks of being aware of the absurd[4], in simple terms, he asks man to accept all the givens and not struggle into despair trying to change it. It is only when we identify the given can we concentrate our efforts on constructing the rest of our ‘conditions’ by choice. Unfortunately, most of our efforts are wasted in defying the given. A very crude example could be the time, energy, and money spent in the name of religion and prediction of the future (astrology, numerology, etc.) when every man knows within, the futility of it.

It has been said repeatedly and with an irritating conviction that desire is the root of all human miseries. I beg to differ. Desire is a given human condition and any theory that labels it as evil labels our very being as evil. And because it is not possible to change this given, it leads to false frustrations and miseries. Result – in the attempt of killing all desires, we now have added frustrations and miseries of failure alongwith the desires which, obviously, cannot be eliminated.

To see one’s life beyond the futility of daily chores – beyond aspirations, beyond achievements, beyond ‘success’ – that should be the purpose of any human inquiry. For, what are success, achievement, and aspiration beyond life? We trouble ourselves to no end in an attempt to define us, to find a purpose. We fail to see the obvious – that our existence comes predefined; the definition being ‘life’. However, our purpose on the other hand is not pre-destined. We need to realize that our purpose exists not in a pre-defined fate but only retrospectively authored by us by our choices, our actions. For, as Camus says, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Consciousness and rejection of the comfort of illusions are the only tools one needs to acquire the ability to scorn fate. The choice is simple and clear – either we deal with our reality or die within the life of illusions. As Albert Camus says:

If it (human mind) must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid – polar light, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding.


[1] This article is based on my personal understanding of what is commonly known as existentialism. I owe the development of these thoughts to the ideas I have read amongst the works of Albert Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and others. Without justification to the theory, I can best explain existentialism as a philosophy which asserts that man exists first, without any meaning. He dies without any purpose. The realm of man is only that small part between his being and nothingness. Man is free to fill that void entirely at his discretion with complete freedom; whether he recognizes that freedom or not. Existentialism rejects all moral foundations and philosophies built on presumptions of tradition or after-life.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher, most notably known as the chief exponent of the philosophy of existentialism. His epic work, where he expounds his philosophy in great detail is Being and Nothingness. One of his most popular work of fiction is Nausea

[3] However, it may be noted that Sartre’s philosophy itself is not gloomy. Like Camus and many other ‘existentialists’, Sartre believes that man is the author of himself. In his work Nausea he shoes that glimpse of possible human victory at the conclusion, despite the entire book being set in a tone of despair and anguish.

[4] ‘Absurd’ is central to Camus’s philosophy. What Camus calls absurd is the existence of two irreconcilable eternal truths – the randomness and unreasonable world on one hand and the insatiable desire for order, logic, and happiness in man on the other hand. Camus discusses this in his work The Myth of Sisyphus and shows how it is essential for man to maintain the absurd and not defy it.

Contemplating Blake

For quite sometime now, William Blake’s Poems and Prophecies had been Everyman's Library Editionstaring at me from my bookshelf. Therefore, I finally have started reading it. I have finished the Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Each word of Blake seems to be worth contemplating for ages.

My first introduction to Blake’s words was through Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Colin Wilson in this masterpiece not only described the social problem of ‘the outsider’, but also studied the various solutions lived by certain outsiders. One of the solutions was Blake. Blake happens to be one of those first artists who lived what has today become famous as the ‘spiritual religion’. His poems deal quite often with life’s ultimate questions, but with majestic simplicity. Like all artists, ‘truth’ holds a special position for him and after some arguments, he declares as a primary truth – Energy is eternal delight. Complete dismissal of all dogmatic religious practices, Blake lives in his own world where “Man has no body distinct from his soul“. “If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake probably was the first of the Prophets amongst the artists.

Every single poem in the collection titled Songs of Experience is a human portrait painted in beautiful words with Blake’s extraordinary insight into human condition. Some lines from the collection as evidence:

(Nurse’s Song): Your spring & your day are wasted in play, / And your winter and night in disguise.

(The Garden of Love): And Priests in black gown were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.

(A Little Girl Lost): Know that in a former time / Love! Sweet Love! Was thought a crime.

I was amazed while reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for itshttp://www.flickr.com/photos/markdodds/ surprising parallels with Nietzsche’s thought. Energy is eternal delight. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free. Blake’s Energy is Nietzsche’s Pure Will. As Blake says, Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

Finally I leave you with a few lines from my favourite poem by Blake called The Fly. Interpretation of these are mysteriously wide and vague – insights into which are welcome:

If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly
If I live
Or if I die.