Monday, December 31, 2012

I kissed a girl
wearing a cross
around her neck
her lips didn't taste
like church
but her hips
felt like God
I wonder what
her pastor would
have thought
I wonder if that
cross around her neck
meant more to me 
than it does
to her.

Author - Unknown

"The logic of social media follows us long after we log out. There was and is no offline; it is a lusted-after fetish object that some claim special ability to attain, and it has always been a phantom....

We have come to understand more and more of our lives through the logic of digital connection. Social media is more than something we log into; it is something we carry within us. We can’t log off."

The IRL Fetish by Nathan Jurgenson

"By thought alone I made myself both echo and abyss."

Fernando Pessoa, The Book Of Disquiet

Joshua writes at the Examined Life tumblr:

"Ahistoricism is a necessary pre-condition for every form of ideological blindness. The more ahistorical, the more fanatical.

‘Ahistoricism’ does not mean merely one’s ignorance of dates, events, and names in history, but the interconnection of those things out of which all our ideas today have evolved.  Ideas never spring from an ahistorical vacuum.  One can know many historical facts and yet have an entirely ahistorical outlook.  One may not know many historical facts and yet may possess a keen sense of historical awareness."

That is an excellent observation, and it is borne out by my own interaction with those leaning towards Islamic fundamentalism. There is a striking lack of appreciation (not necessary knowledge) of how Islamic Sharia originated and developed, and how the doctrines that seem eternal and rigid to current believers, as if handed down in this form by God, are products of scholarly disputes, interpretations, and engagement with the socio-political challenges of the respective historical epochs. Indeed, the more ahistorical, the more fanatical. (Sadakat Kadri's Heaven on Earth is a good place to start.)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Working in philosophy — like work in architecture in many respects — is really more a working on oneself.  On one’s own interpretation.  On one’s way of seeing things.  (And what one expects of them.)"

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

Friday, December 28, 2012

My review of Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin for The Friday Times.

Mountains in Love
Awais Aftab

The book begins with two intriguing and sub-textually pertinent quotes, providing hints as to what the story has to offer: “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.” (Virginia Woolf) and “There are one or two murderers in any crowd. They do not suspect their destinies yet.” (Charles Simic) Indeed, Thinner Than Skin is a tale of characters who are grappling with tenacious phantoms and stumbling towards destinies they cannot foresee.

The novel is set primarily in the background of Pakistani Northern areas, Kaghan Valley in particular, with its melting pot of communities of Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans. It is a place where old traditions and customs are laced into the fabric of geography, and the sense of enchantment is palpable and ever-present. The culture is being corroded by the presence of government officials and military convoys, and the infiltration of jihadis with their fanatical brand of religion. A terrorist suspect, actively pursued by the military, is said to be taking refuge in the valley, where the locals speak of him as the Fareebi, the shapeshifter.

Three strands of narration are woven together through the pages. First is the account of Nadir, a photographer from Pakistan seeking recognition in USA (a man who “spends his life hiding behind a lens”), and his relationship with Farhana, an American woman of German-Pakistani ancestry, who wants to ‘go back’ to a country she has never visited, on the pretext of studying glaciers. Second is the story of Maryam and her family, members of nomadic tribe who make seasonal journeys between pastures and mountains with their livestock. Maryam’s affinity for her family pagan rituals earns continual consternation of the increasingly puritanical Muslims. The third account is that of Ghafoor, a trader with a past linked to Maryam, who has traveled far into China and Central Asia, and is well-acquainted with trouble and trouble-makers. 

To her credit, Uzma Aslam Khan recognizes the way Pakistan is stereotyped. “Where are the beggars and bazaars or anything that resembles your culture?” Nadir is asked by an interviewer examining his photographs. Almost as if in protest, the novel attempts to show the depth of cultures indigenous to the areas, and how there is far more complexity to it than foreign eyes can see. She is acutely aware of how well-meaning cultural condescending attitudes can do more harm than good (“You do not barge into a place thinking you can fix it. Who are you? Who are you? What makes you think you can do that?”). At the same time there are ruminations on the transcendence of human nature over languages and cultures. (“Do we desire and despise in the same sounds in all tongues?”)

There are discerning observations sprinkled throughout the book, on the state of life in Pakistan struck by one tragedy after another (“And yet, despite the monotony of dead, something lived. Resilience can flower in the muck of death and despair, particularly when it doesn’t even know it.”), the hush-hush treatment of sexuality (“where lust was a life-size secret”), romantic relationships (“Why did men always expect gratitude for the smallest gesture, when their largest, most catastrophic mistakes were irreversible?”), history and geography as anchors of community (“What will become of us, without homes? Without our past?”), and cultural imperialism (“… my father had a fierce aversion to what he called the fascist eye. He was terrified of its power to replicate an imagination that could not resist it. He bemoaned it, right until his death, the way the Third World is seen by the First World that makes up these terms. What he called ghoorna. Their gaze. On us.”). 

Uzma Aslam Khan provides us with many gorgeous descriptions, such as the ritual of the mating of glaciers, which can only be watched after swearing an oath of silence, the various shamanistic practices of the nomads, and the striking anthropomorphic qualities of mountains, with the romance of Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat making frequent appearances:

“Apparently, people believed that on days when the mountain appeared – the one that only looked liked Nanga Parbat, but could not have been – the Queen’s snow melted even faster, due either to her rage at having her beauty overshadowed, or her excitement at beholding her lover. And on such days his snow also melted faster, due either to his rage at having his beauty uncloaked – whose eyes were worthy enough? – or his triumph at beholding the Queen’s ferment. Whatever the reason, the lake that day had a strong tide.”

Thinner Than Skin is best appreciated for the poetic and tender quality of its prose (“They watched her, and despair became their glue, and glue became a tangle of arms in which to carry the woman to her hut.”), for observations laden with philosophical musings (“…she would say that a broken heart should never grow cold. It was the cruelest of burdens. Not even God would carry it.”), and its unearthing of ancient traditions (“Looking up from beneath him in the grass, she spoke a name of God that was older than Allah. Tengri…. It means the endless hemisphere of the sky.”). The plot is ultimately unsatisfying, the pace of the novel is often sluggish and demands persistence, the mythical enchantment at times appears forced, and the ponderings of characters are prone to repetition and monotony. However, despite these drawbacks, the book offers a rewarding and memorable journey into the emotional and geographic landscapes of Northern Pakistan.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

I do not presume that this solves the problem of suffering, nor does it imply that we should not seek to alleviate it wherever possible, but it does seem to me that there is an element of a moral challenge to the suffering we face in life. How we respond to pain and evil in our lives, and how it impacts our character is of moral significance. Confronted with suffering, we can transform ourselves for the better, with hope and courage, and by cultivating compassion, sensitivity and humility. To do so is to succeed in this moral challenge. The same adversity, however, can turn many into bitter, base, selfish and vengeful creatures. That is a moral failure. 

Of course, we do not get to experience the same amount of pain in life. There is a huge disparity, and that is unfair. It is, however, an unfairness that lurks at the very heart of morality itself.

Related post:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The following conversation from the film Liberal Arts may be considered a spoiler by some.

"It doesn't bother me."
"Well, it bothers me."
"Well, it shouldn't. Age is a stupid thing to obsess over. What if reincarnation is real, huh? Think about that, What if I am like thousands of years older than you?"
"Okay, that's not really a sound argument."
"Why not?"
"Because it's like saying what if reality is all an illusion, then there are no consequences to anything, we're completely off the hook... and I believe in consequences."
"No, you believe in guilt."
"Maybe, but guilt before we act is called morality." 

Liberal Arts

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A testimony of love.— Somebody said: "About two persons I have never reflected very thoroughly: that is the testimony of my love for them."

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hyperbolic skepticism rests on a self-defeating criterion, as Maverick Philosopher points out:

"Those who believe that it is wrong, always and everywhere, to believe anything on insufficient evidence believe that very proposition on insufficient evidence, indeed on no evidence at all."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

New Wine in Old Wineskins is an elegant and succinct post on how the author realized that his wholesale symbolic interpretation of Bible amounted to being disingenuous. An excerpt:

"I’ve travelled along the Christian spectrum from one end to the other, from Church of Christ to Universal Unitarianism.  In the last few years that I called myself a Christian in the late 1990s, I kept edging further and further toward a broader interpretation of the Christian narrative until I had discovered I had fallen off that edge!  In those last few years, my understanding of what was symbolic or metaphorical encompassed the whole of the Bible.  It was finally the resurrection of Jesus understood as symbolic that I had to face up to the fact that calling myself a Christian was disingenuous....

There is no reason to have a sense of loyalty to a religious narrative just because it has been around for ages.  It seems to me a lazy way of doing a kind of pseudo-philosophy rather than engaging with the world directly oneself and understanding it on your own ever-evolving terms.  Why translate your own unique experience today in the religious terms of someone else from another time?  Talk of putting new wine in old wineskins!  Where an image helps shed light on one’s own situation, by all means, utilise it.  But there’s no need to jump through hoops in order to make the Bible mean something other than what it meant for Christians over the past several centuries.  It is in this sense that I find Christianity—even of the well-meaning, tolerant, liberal kind—lacking."

This pretty much applies as it is to Islam as well. I don't mean to say that all modern and liberal interpretations of Islam are delusory. All theology is interpretative, I maintain, but there is a certain point beyond which you are just stretching it, and the distinctive essence is lost. Furthermore, there is a difference between appreciating that a religion has something of value to offer and being a believer of that religion. The latter is not necessary for the former. This is my minimum standard, and I think it to be reasonable: To be a believer is to believe in the collective truth of the scriptures, and that the religious tradition is still relevant to the modern condition of man and serves as the primary source of moral guidance. This is a huge commitment to make, and if all you want to do is cherry-pick, why make this insincere commitment when you can give a more authentic expression to your perception of religious reality 'on your own ever-evolving terms'?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"In the context of our present pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom, all our frames of reference are ambiguous and equivocal.

A man who prefers to be dead rather than Red is normal. A man who says he has lost his soul is mad. A man who says that men are machines may be a great scientist. A man who says he is a machine is 'depersonalized' in psychiatric jargon. A man who says that Negroes are an inferior race may be widely respected. A man who says his whiteness is a form of cancer is certifiable.

A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her. That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from 'reality' than many of the people on whom the label 'psychotic' is affixed. 

Psychiatry could be, and some psychiatrists are, on the side of transcendence, of genuine freedom, and of true human growth. But psychiatry can so easily be a technique of brainwashing, of inducing behaviour that is adjusted, by (preferably) non-injurious torture. In the best places, where straitjackets are abolished, doors are unlocked, leucotomies largely forgone, these can be replaced by more subtle lobotomies and tranquillizers that place the bars of Bedlam and the locked doors inside the patient. Thus I would wish to emphasize that our 'normal' 'adjusted' state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities."

R. D. Laing, Preface (Pelican Edition, 1964) to The Divided Self

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"In this article it is argued that evolutionary plausibility must be made an important constraining factor when building theories of language. Recent suggestions that presume that language is necessarily a perfect or optimal system are at odds with this position, evolutionary theory showing us that evolution is a meliorizing agent often producing imperfect solutions. Perfection of the linguistic system is something that must be demonstrated, rather than presumed. Empirically, examples of imperfection are found not only in nature and in human cognition, but also in language — in the form of ambiguity, redundancy, irregularity, movement, locality conditions, and extra-grammatical idioms. Here it is argued that language is neither perfect nor optimal, and shown how theories of language which place these properties at their core run into both conceptual and empirical problems."

Anna R. Kinsella and Gary F. MarcusEvolution, Perfection, and Theories of Language

Friday, December 7, 2012

*Major Spoilers Ahead*

"We believe what we see" "...what do you do when you're in the dark?" - Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a beautifully profound film, and leaves much to think about. I haven't read the novel, but friends tell me that it's over-all a pretty faithful adaptation. Yann Martel seems happy with the film as well, though he does note that the "ending is not as ambiguous as the book’s". The film is decently good and engaging for most part, but it is really the ending which takes it to a whole new level. The possibility of another version of how the events in the film happened hits you out of the blue and alters the whole perception of what had happened. I also like how the story is tied up with spirituality. To understand the film fully, one has to understand how the film makes a case for God. The film begins with a writer approaching Pi after hearing that he has a story to tell that would 'make one believe in God'. The tale Pi tells is his shipwreck survival story as a boy, who gets stranded on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan who lost her child, and a hyena. Soon the hyena eats the zebra, and kills the orangutan. At this point a Bengal tiger (who has previously been introduced in the film as Richard Parker) emerges from hiding and kills the hyena. From there on Pi has to struggle to protect himself from the fierce tiger as well as keep themselves both alive, taking him to the very brink of desperation. An encounter with a carnivorous island provides them with lifesaving rest and nourishment (while making the story more fantastic). Ultimately the two reach the coast of Mexico. Richard Parker goes away into a jungle without so much as a goodbye and Pi is taken to a hospital. Later he is approached by two insurance agents investigating the shipwreck. They find his story incredulous, and request him to tell 'what really happened', something that they can write in their report. Pi then tells another story, but with striking parallels to the previous one. He describes how he was stranded on the lifeboat with his mother, an injured sailor and the ship's cook. The cook kills the sailor, and then his mother, using them as food and as bait to catch fish. Furious and mad, Pi kills the sailor. The two stories are analogous as the injured zebra can be seen as representation of the sailor, the orangutan of Pi's mother, the hyena of the cook, and Richard Parker of Pi himself.  Pi asks the writer which story he prefers. He picks the story with the tiger, and Pi states: "And so it is with God."

As I see it, there are two possible ways in which we may interpret it.

1) One of the story Pi tells is true, but we don't know which one. As the evidence available to us is consistent with both, we have a choice, depending on our preferences. We can either pick the more fantastic story as a spiritual adventure of courage and hope, or we can pick the more physically tangible story which is otherwise bleak and horrible. From the point of view of Pragmatism, as the choice between the two cannot be made on grounds of objective evidence alone, the choice would have to be based on pragmatic considerations and the 'will to believe'. We'll pick the story that goes along and supports our world-view. In this sense, the question of believing in God is the pragmatic question of believing in a higher presence, assuming that the bare physical and scientific evidence is consistent with both theism and atheism. (Life of Pi views God in a very broad manner in which he transcends the differences and conflicts of specific religions.)

2) Both of the stories Pi tells are true. They are true simultaneously in virtue of being two perceptions of the same reality. From the physical perspective, what happened to Pi is the horror story of starvation, cannibalism and madness, and from the spiritual perspective, it is the story of Pi confronting and taming his inner animal, and finding his life imbued with a higher meaning. This argument strikes me as somewhat similar to a neo-Wittgensteinian view of religion as a language-game. To believe in God is to view the physical world as having an allegorical and deeper significance just as Pi saw an allegorical and deeper significance in his otherwise tragic story.

P.S. This is the second of the new films I have seen recently (the previous being Cloud Atlas) which juxtapose the despair of a world that has no plan in it with the faith in a world that has one, while being ambiguous enough to allow both views to be possible.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"The only copy of Catullus’s poems to survive from antiquity was discovered in the Middle Ages, plugging a hole in a wine barrel. One of two morals can be drawn from this fact. Either pure chance determines what survives, from which it follows that eventually every work will lose its gamble and be forgotten; or else every worthy work is registered in the eye of God, the way books are registered for copyright, so that its material fate is irrelevant. The first conclusion, which is rationally inevitable, would in time lead anyone to stop writing; anyone who continues to write somehow believes a version of the second. But surely a God who was able to preserve all human works could also preserve all human intentions—indeed, He could deduce the work from its intention far more perfectly than the writer can produce it. Thus a writer with perfect trust would not have to do any work, but simply confide his intentions and aspirations to God. His effort, the pains he takes, are the precise measure of his lack of trust."


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