An Apology in Retrospect

Throughout the last two weeks, I have been traveling. All through, I kept promising myself that the moment I could lay hands on a keyboard, I shall get back to blogging. However, it seems to be in the nature of promises to be broken.

Well, I have been traveling for business and in the meantime got engaged. I hope that is justifiable excuse for the blogging hiatus. However, the reading (in bits) continued and the posts should start flowing soon. Till then, let this sad retrospective apology suffice.

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.

Doubting Kierkegaard

I have been re-reading Michael Watt’s book on Kierkegaard and have been wondering whether Kierkegaard was actually close to Sartre’s and Camus’s thoughts (as far as the whole ‘existentialism’ tag goes). It has been a doubt earlier and reading him in context to his life and personality, the doubt seems to grow to confirm itself.

The question of god is irrelevant to the inquiry as to how best must one live life. In face of empirical data, I agree with Camus and Sartre that even if a ‘unifying absolute truth’ (what we may universally term as ‘God’) exists, it is unknowable and therefore irrelevant for ‘earthly life’. In face of that, how does one reconcile the ‘leap of faith’ of Kierkegaard as an existential solution?

It is a common interpretation that Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is a solution offered by him to solve the empirical deadlocks that man generally hits. I consider such interpretations fallacious and biased. In my opinion, leap of faith was never a solution offered by Kierkegaard but a presumption with which he approached life and philosophy in general. It is true that most empirical data that came to be recognized as existential truths later on, had been acknowledged in some form or the other by Kierkegaard. But, it is not true to say that Kierkegaard solved these ‘existential truths’ with the leap of faith. He only stuck to his faith despite acknowledging existential truths.

Time and again Kierkegaard has expressed that his authorship was primarily ‘religious’ and his inquiry was ‘being Christian’. It is very obvious and apparent in his various writings that faith came to Kierkegaard before he embarked on any kind of inquiry whatsoever. Unlike Camus’s inquiry, Kierkegaard started with a presumption and arranged all empirical data collected by him around that presumption. Despite all his attempts, this arrangement could not lead to any logical pattern despite his brilliant penmanship. And therefore, faith took a leap.

A Cat and Mouse Chase (Me and the Holocaust)

Yes, the Nazi genocide has been chasing me. I have no idea why. First, it was the Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Then it was Imre Kertsze’s Liquidation. And now, I just finished reading Gunter Grass’s Cat and Mouse. And as if that was not enough, I ended up watching The Pianist today.

It is not that I want to stay away from the holocaust history – the fact is that I am as far from it as can be. I live in a country where there are not many Jews, none of my acquaintance have anyone who has anyone having faced that trauma. It is also not that i was never aware of (in general terms) what Hitler had done to the Jews. However, for some reason I kept myself away (consciously) from any literature or movie that describes the Jewish execution. It leaves me shaken to the core.

But the cat catches the mouse, sooner or later; only this time I was the mouse. First the books, then the dilemma

The Book Thief is mostly a humane story written with amazing simplicity and originality (imagine Death as the narrator). There is only one Jew character sheltered and loved by a stranger German family. I consider that family as the definition of ‘humanity’. However, you need to read it to understand why I say that. Book Thief is the only book by Zusak that I have read, and if it is representative of his brand of literature, I am simply in awe.

Cat and Mouse turned out to be my introduction to Gunter Grass. I had his Crabwalk lying with me for a long time, but I ended up buying and reading this one straight away. These are the kind of coincidences that make me feel that I have been the mouse in this strange game. I found Grass’s style endearing and personal. For some reason, in all the time that I had been anticipating his literature, I had assumed he will be dry, serious, and effective. Effective and powerful he is, but without the baggage. Through a strange teen-friendship, Grass has plotted the regular life of the youth in Hitler’s Germany during the war – without any bias, without any excess. I am definitely picking up the Tin Drum soon.

Imre Kertsze is different. I think he is in the category of Kafka and Beckett, only with lesser use of metaphors. I hear Liquidation is not one of his best books, but that was the one I stumbled upon, read and loved. He has attempted to characterize ‘holocaust survivor mentality’ as a whole and has tried to negate it. Being a survivor himself, I guess he was aware that it was necessary for the Jews to move on. However, I find myself incompetent to judge whether it is desirable, if at all possible.

And then came the Pianist. All the literature I had read, had never described the Hitler brand of torture. I also know that the three books I have mentioned do not intend in any way to achieve that. However, the Pianist does. I just cannot watch it! I have stopped my DVD thrice by now, and I do not know whether I will end up watching it completely. My head is occupied with a single question – WHY?

Why does holocaust trouble me? I do not live in Europe, not in the US, not even in a country where a single individual might have been directly affected. No Jews live around me. Then, why? Why so much so that I conciously avoid literature and movies related to it? I do not have answers. Probalities, yes. But no answers.

There are another set of Whys, deeper and more troublesome kind. Why did Hitler do it? I can understand a politician in a democracy trying genocide for votes, but why a dictator? It is not even that he gained power through the holocaust, he started it all at his peak – WHY? And why did he not order a shoot-at-sight? Why the methodical execution? Why the gas chambers when one absurd bullet could have done the job? Why? Why?

I have decided that I am done with running from this Cat of the holocaust. I want to read good literature, fiction or non-fiction which gives me a some idea of the those times; and I need suggestions from you. In this Cat and Mouse game, the mouse surrenders. Why? I have too many others to answer.

A Useless Passion, Condemned to be Free – Sartre’s Definition of Man

Jean Paul Sartre has said a lot. So much so that I do not know if I will ever be able to read him enough. However, in bits and piees every now and then, his words have enough power to attract you, defying gravity. Under those laws of attraction, there are two sentenes of his whih have stuck to me and I have had a tough time figuring out their meaning for myself. This post is an attempt to share those two of his most qouted statements and my perception of them.

The first one is “Man is condemned to be free“. Reading without context, these words are open to a thousand interpretations. I have never read it in the exat ontext as Sartre used it. However, in light of Sartre’s philosophy in general, I have come to understand it as this – It is human nature that man desires transcendence. Transendence, even if not rejected as a fiction, is not an achievable goal in this form of human existene. That’s why he is condemned to immanence. However, within immanent reality (meaning to remain within the boundaries of possible experience), man has endless possibilities, unlimited choices – complete freedom. Combining the two – Man is condemned to be free.

The second one is “Man is a useless passion“. This is a phrase that Sartre uses in a very difficult passage in Being and Nothingness (which I have not yet been able to read completely). This also emanates from man’s passion with transcendental goals and the impossibility of the fulfillment of that passion. To conclude, in Sartre’s own words:

It is as if the world, man, and man-in-the-world express an abortive attempt to become God. It is as if the in-itself and the for-itself reveal themselves in a state of disintegration with respect to an ideal synthesis. Not that the integration has ever taken place, but precisely on the contrary because it is permanently suggested and permanently impossible. … the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain: man is a useless passion.

The Myth of Absurdity – In Defence of Albert Camus

At the risk of sounding repetitive and hero-worshiping, this post is in response to the discussion on Camus and his primary work The Myth of Sisyphus (used as “The Myth” from here on) in my previous post. It serves two purposes – firstly, a self-centric purpose of making me understand better what I have already come to believe of Camus’s theory and secondly, if possible, to explain Camus in a positive light. For, it has been my experience that this understanding can let one see life in a very different way. And in my experience – in a very real and positive way.

‘Absurd’ is a theme running through most of the thinkers who have been branded as ‘existentialists’. Now, it is well known that the tag of an existentialist has been a bit controversial and many thinker in their lifetime had not liked it, as I had touched upon in a previous post. The one man who was most comfortable with the tag and made the use of this term with great passion was Sartre. However, it does not sound sensible to therefore exclude any thinker from the categorization if he differs in certain methods and conclusions from Sartre. In any case, these are matters of definition and as Juliet says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name, would smell as sweet.

What we are essentially concerned here with is Camus’s thoughts. What Kierkegaard may have considered absurd is definitely different from what Camus defines it as in The Myth. Camus, though briefly, discusses Kierkegaard and rejects his leap of faith. I say he rejects ‘leap’ and not ‘faith’ in itself. Faith is a collateral damage, rejected purely because it makes one leap. In the absolute, whether Camus successfully rejects Kierkegaard’s leap or not is a question that can only be mooted. But it is clear from the very beginning that the path with Camus treads has rejected all leaps, whether it be faith or ‘the absolute reason’. The very purpose of The Myth is to inquire whether man can cross the path that is ‘life’ without any leap whatsoever. I say he answers in the positive – emphatically and convincingly. Before analyzing the various leaps that thinkers have chosen time and again, Camus writes:

Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them. It deserves attention.

It has been argued that the ‘presumption’ by Camus that this world is random and without order is his “leap of faith”. It has been argued that it is not an empirical truth. I say it is, if we go by our experiences. However, if we go by experimental proof, there is none. By nature, it cannot be experimented upon. Do I deny the possibility that the world might have a meaning? No. Like a missing chapter from a very logical text can make it nonsensical, this world might be so. However, empirically, i.e. whatever I know of my experiences, I do not require a leap to conclude that the world lacks any unifying principles and at best is random.

His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.” This passage has been quoted to suggest that Camus considers passion as opposed to reality. This is what he writes just before the quoted passage – “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much trough his passions as through his torture.” Therefore, Camus suggests on the contrary that passion is worth any torture – even the possibility of an after-life underworld, hell, or whatever – passion is worth it. There is no suggestion that passion is opposed to reality. On the contrary, a sum total of Camus’s theory has made me conclude that passion is the only value available to man. Even Sartre’s Nausea has confirmed this for me. There is no guilt in the philosophy of either of them, maintaining it is not an option.

There is objection to the ‘dropping of God’ on the assertion that the idea is so deep rooted that in any analysis, we can not ‘just drop it’. I agree but differ that Camus has ‘just dropped it’. He has mostly chosen to stay away from the debate. In the analysis in The Myth he drops it for the simple reason that The Myth is an inquiry based entirely on experiences and possibilities of life within the limits of those experiences; and in that light there is no choice but to drop it. I understand Camus’s position on God as this – I have not experienced it. I do not deny the possibility. In all probability, my choices in this lifetime will not depend on which way the answer goes. Therefore, I chose to live life without seeking to answer that question in black or white.

The randomness of the world is painful and torturous has never been Camus’s conclusion. He asserts that it is human nature to unceasingly desire a unifying principle and order in his setting. That is unavailable. This interaction of the two contradictions is painful only in the absence of its consciousness. “The random nature of the world and universe as best we can describe it or measure it also gives it its perceived smoothness, like the strands of sand that fall in a random nature and appear smooth in our hands”, by the very consciousness of the absurd. Man is in constant wonderment of life, in the consciousness of the absurd and in his passion for life itself. The one contradiction that threatened to change that wonderment into futility, Camus solves it by the seemingly paradoxical theory of the absurd.

Albert Camus – The Absurd Hero

I have found Camus’s philosophy to be the most easy to live with, without trying to escape anything. It also allows me ‘intellectual honesty’ in Dostoevskian terms. Anyone who allows himself the luxury to think about the basic questions of life, comes to a point where he asks himself – “What the hell am I doing in life? What is the meaning of all this and what is my purpose? I am a XYZ, is that what I should be? Maybe I am meant to be a writer? Or maybe a philosopher, professor, blah, blah…” I have, like many, faced a similar crisis at one point in my life and (probably) salvaged myself from it. It took some time and the understanding of existentialism to recover from that crisis. And Albert Camus happened to be one of the most important of all authors that I read. His The Myth of Sisyphus gave me the essential understanding to view this world as it is and let go all inhibitions, speculation, and illusions.

In the last one year, I have read too often that Camus was a good author but not much of a philosopher. I have also at times read the comparison where more people agree than differ that Sartre was a better philosopher than Camus. I do not intend to counter that as I think it is naive and irrelevant to compare thinkers like this. All a thinker deserves is a little contemplation from our side on ideas propounded by them. I write this post, therefore, to charter out as an introduction, my understanding of Camus’s thoughts which I have found to be a rare clan as it requires no leaps to understand.

Camus is known as the propounder of the theory of absurd. Absurdism is a often repeated theme in existentialism, however, Camus’s proposition is distinct from all of them. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus undertakes an inquiry into whether this life is worth the trouble if we accept our experiences as the limit of reality for our purposes. He says that man knows two things as certain – first, the fact that man desires order, logic, and happiness; second, the fact that this world is random, illogical, and indifferent. This constant tension or divorce between the actor (man) and his setting (the world) is the absurd. What is essential to know is that irrationality of the world is not the absurd. Absurdity contains man’s rationality in itself. It is precisely the constant co-existence of these two irrefutable realities that create the absurd.

Camus concludes that it is essential for man to maintain the absurd. To attain that man needs to keep intact his contribution to the absurd, i.e. his desire for rationality, order, and happiness. This is the only choice, as changing the given world, man’s setting, is quixotically impossible. Only in light of this can we understand the true import of Camus’s words the end of his famous novel, The Stranger

It was as if the great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

The indifference of this world is indeed benign for that is what makes man free. For, what freedom lies in living out a fate that is pre-determined by some unknowable force? It is a mere consciousness of our reality, of the absurd, that gives man all the understanding needed to scorn fate.

Links to some interesting discussion on Camus I entered elsewhere:

The 9 Country Author Cruise

For the second time now, I have decided to join a reading challenge. After signing up for the Russian trip, I have decided to go on a world tour – 9 countrie to be precise. The Orbis Terrarum (whole world) challenge being hosted by B&b Ex-Libris is a truly irresistible one. No one can give you as much variety and quality at the same time. I need to pick 9 books from authors of 9 different countries (the best part being I can change the same anytime). Here is my pick currently:

  1. The Prague Orgy Philip Roth (US)
  2. Cat and Mouse Gunter Grass (Poland)
  3. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami (Japan)
  4. Ignorance Milan Kundera (Czechkoslovakia)
  5. The White Tiger Aravind Adiga (India)
  6. Plague Albert Camus (Algeria)
  7. The Case of Exploding Mangoes Mohammad Hanif (Pakistan)
  8. Under the Net Iris Murdoch (Ireland)
  9. The Life and Times of Michael K J.M. Coetzee (South Africa)

Using the flexibility provided by this challenge, I have edited the list. A word for the book that helped me compile this list – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and the Booker Longlist 2008 (UPDATE). It is a fascinating collectors piece for any book-lover, whether you agree with the compilation or not.

A Dead Laptop’s Poetry

They jumble within and die.
These thoughts which I cannot write.
Don’t read more than I say;
I am no writer, not yet anyways.

But then I read a lot, you know
and from the pages these thoughts flow.
See, there is no pseudo claim of origanility
for I am no thinker, just dealing with reality.

This technology, however crude
has helped us bloggers, a lot so shrewd
to make writers of us, with readership however low.
This transition happens, by no standards slow.

But what do I do now that my laptop is dead,
the reading is on, and the thoughts have not fled.
Therefore, they jumble within and die.
These thoughts which I cannot write.

My Infidelities with the Days

fridaysky.jpg

My days complain of predictability,
ask the reason for my infidelity.
“Why are your mornings so full of hope?
Your romance with the evenings, I cannot cope.”

What do I say to my beloved days
from which I keep by choice away?
I am faithful to the mornings
for its promise of the days.
I am indulgent witht the evenings
for then the days are away.

But how do I explain
the incurability of this pain;
this infidelity, to my beloved days?
Oh, what reasons for choosing to live away!