April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
Coriolianus stirs two reflections: first, on the man’s excessive pride, which ruins his otherwise promising career.
I, too, am a victim of destructive pride: so many projects and relationships have been crossed out because they offended, because they were judged beneath me. My retirement is as much a result of the aesthetic repugnance at the world as of my inability to act in it — a kind of paralysis brought on by pride.
But this is not necessarily a loss: Coriolianus does not become consul, so what? I do not miss what I have not achieved in the world because — pride helps me see it — these are worthless, airy things. To be a consul is to rule over (i.e. receive submission and adulation) of men who are beneath us anyway. To concern oneself with what others think is to stoop. The consulship here is a metaphor for all socially recognized achievement.
Such is not the nature of Coriolianus’ pride: it is, as it were, a cut below: he does worry about what others think; and when he is banished, he takes revenge; in the end he dies because he insists on reminding the Volskis that he had once beaten them. In short, to Coriolianus, what others think matters — and so he dies. (If analogy has any power to compel effect, I shall live forever).
Second, the motherhood. Coriolianus dies as he lives — as many men live, perhaps most — to please his mother. Why does this feel like a loss? If one chooses an active life, one will have to please someone — the Roman people, the critics — the object of one’s pleasing might as well be his mother, provided she’s not too old and isn’t going to die early leaving one purposeless halfway.
What puzzles is the mother: what motivates her? Social-climbing, perhaps: she will achieve a higher position in Rome if she can maneuver her son into consulship; failing that, by saving Rome from his wrath. Yet, when she comes to beg of him to spare the city, she must understand his standing in the Volskian camp and realize that if he relents, the Volskians will kill him. Does she not care?
April 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
My mother has written to me, out of the blue, a flippant, lighthearted message, as if nothing has ever happened, that she was in Poland and did I want the number?
The bronze of it appalled me. How does her mind work? Does she imagine that one may betray someone and then go back and continue the old acquaintance as if nothing has happened? Is it because she thinks that betrayal isn’t a big deal – no more than a lapse in table manners? Or does she think that a mother may do anything and children have no right to take offense?
Would an admission of wrong have changed anything, asked Matilda who has never admitted a wrong in her life, and gave an example of an acquaintance who’d cut off his sister totally, which devastated her but apparently cost him nothing: he had apparently made the simple calculation that his sister was worth more to him gone from his life forever.
Oh, yes, I replied, an admission of guilt would have made a difference. The Catholic church, which has thought about contrition and forgiveness perhaps longest of all organizations on earth, recommends that a reconciliation have four parts: an admission of guilt, an apology, an atonement, and a promise of improvement. Properly conducted, such an apology places a moral onus on the offended party to accept: not to accept would seem vicious. A properly apologizing person – whether a mother or a total stranger – has the power (right?) to compel forgiveness.
Perhaps to change the uncomfortable topic, Matilda turned her thoughts to the nearby subject of her relationship with her son.
The topic is much on her mind, she has interviewed many men about their relationships with their mothers and she concluded there was reason to hope: none was as close to his mother as her son was to her. Ah, no, I exclaimed, on the contrary! Precisely therein lies the danger: my relationship with my mother had been very close, too: the closer they are the more dangerous any break.
It is inevitable that your relationship with your son will cool dramatically, I continued. Soon, he will no longer need you; the laws of nature will require him to move on; any spare time he gives you going forward will come from his good will and nothing else. What is more: it will be begrudged him by others. In that calculus all your past sacrifices mean nothing — as a child walker means nothing to an adult. Hence, god forbid you should ever cross him — we already know you do not understand the importance of apology and I can tell you your son will not accept an argument that you and he are not friends and that your relationship with him exempts you from ordinary decency. He will expect an apology, an atonement, and a solemn promise of improvement.
At the very least.
November 1, 2011 § 14 Comments
A wistful longing for a good book — why not a learned epic? (oh, cry for the lost Thebais of Antimachus!) — led me to The Rings of Saturn, said by reviewers to be learnedly digressive; alas, I came to it with over-expectation. Sebald’s digressions are almost all on subjects I already know — indeed, know well enough to spot mistakes in (e.g. black dresses in Poland did not become de rigeur until after 1863, etc.); and they add almost nothing to what is already in the public domain, neither reflection nor, for the most part, beauty.
The one exception seems to be the last two pages of Chapter I, written in beautiful baroque style (“the winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash” etc.) — its beauty well attested by its frequent quotation in the blogosphere — but only seems: it turns out not to be Sebald’s but Thomas Browne’s — the topic of the digression — and is, rather embarrassingly, quoted without credit.
I should have known to continue avoiding the book — for I have avoided it for years on the basis of who had recommended it to me years ago: a mousy under-read girl with a hopeless literary ambition; I had never heard her say anything original, or noble, or interesting: her recommendation had to miss, no matter who favorably reviewed the newly filmed version. (The Economist, Patience).
Reading The Rings is only somewhat like playing the far more delightful game of “flip the encyclopedia” (so agreeably played in a panoramic window on cold, bright Sundays) in which one entry leads to another; for the game let’s you take any direction you fancy and does not oblige you to read twice anything you already know. (It’s all the easier done with hyperlinks and Wikipedia does well on many topics: some entries — like Operation Vijay — amounting to veritable academic treatises).
A college acquaintance played this game with The Oxford Dictionary: a well-read pianist, deep and sensitive, delicate and polite, full of good conversation — his game had made him delightfully eloquent and, to give vent to his eloquence, though we lived but two stone-throws apart, we exchanged frequent handwritten letters. But, like many pianists, he was a broken soul, partly for his struggle with desperately covered-up homosexuality, but mainly for his insistent deathwish: at the time when I knew him he imagined — and let it be known — that he was suffering from terminal melanoma which his Christian Science forbade him to seek to remedy.
It drained me emotionally to struggle with his struggles, his frequent depressions, his fear of death; and having been tricked once already into a similar relationship some years earlier, at the tender age of sixteen — a relationship in which the other party — a barely older aunt, as it happened — by feigning disease or tragedy bleeds us of empathy like a spider sucks a fly — I was by then too knowing to let that sort of thing linger; and shook off his friendship without explanation; no doubt confirming in him thereby the tragic misperception that I left him on account of his sexual, not his emotional, deviancy.
How convenient homosexuality can be in helping its owners avoid true self-knowledge!
Years later I heard he had managed to make his death wish at last: a lover had (apparently intentionally) infected him with the wasting sickness. The deathwish is the easiest of all to fulfill.
Years later yet another person like this, also an aunt, latched onto me; a person whose entire life was but an uninterrupted series of tragedies and failures, many, one suspects, perhaps (subconsciously?) intentional, for she artfully used them to generate pity. Such people, like lampreys, suck you but do not kill you; like insinuative poison, they waste you but not unto death. And, as no amount of tenderness will make them better because being bad is their source of living, the healthy party’s only sensible course of action is — to flee.
Which is what I had done with my eloquent friend. I have often missed his eloquence: such like is almost nowhere to be found.
I wonder about Sebald: is there perhaps not enough epic here? It isn’t clear what linkages exist between one digression and the next, the plot, such as it is, does not support them; as a result of which it all seems haphazard — as well as dull.
He’s well liked, for all this. I wonder why. Are all his lovers mousy girls with literary ambition and nothing interesting or noble to say? (Apparently not).
I put the book away and fell asleep with the night-light on. I must have slept an instant, no more, because the dream, when I woke, seemed but a shapeless fragment and I had to carve it out from that part of memory which borders on imagination. In it, I had been walking down a narrow corridor on the second floor of an old house somewhere in the northern climes; as I passed, a room opened on my left, sunk in the blue-grey light typical of north-facing rooms in the temperate zone; its shadow framed an open window in which a autumnal ash tree — a mass of trembling, sparkling golden leaves — shone in a bright, cold morning sunlight.
September 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
One of M’s arguments why we should correspond is that we have a lot in common — a lot which distinguishes us from others and which should make us natural intellectual partners: we are both educated, multilingual, cultured, well-traveled, and well-read.
It is true: M is well educated (two master’s degrees) and cultured (competent amateur pianist, draftswoman, and painter of water-colors) and well-traveled (she’s certainly familiar first hand with a lot of Europe’s best architecture and museums). Like me, she’s multilingual in a truly cross-cultural way (Arabic and Armenian in addition to English, Spanish, and French), though this cross-culturality does not seem in her case philosophically fecund. I am not impressed with her reading — but give the girl a break, who else reads 2500 pages a week?
So, yes, she is cultivated, yet — I don’t find her companionship interesting. And it comes down to this: her observations on art and culture are wholly conventional: things read in textbooks, learned attitudes, borrowed opinions; automatic repetitions of established views. The world of art and culture isn’t her world — it is a world she aspires to in a star-pupil-like manner: by memorizing and reciting her lessons. It does not seem authentically hers.
In this, she is like most people pretending to art and culture whom I have met, who often exhibit impressive fluency with established theories and canon — but hardly any personal response to specific works. Perhaps not everyone has the rebellious intellectual attitude which makes me question every sentence I read (and therefore deride every art theory I read); but, for crying out-loud, what makes art interesting? Surely, it must be the fact that it inspires in us our own response, that it means something to us personally. I am too deeply moved by the incredibly tactile texture of the dead swan’s down in Weenix still-life not to disagree with Philostratus, let alone repeat his dicta; what I read in The Magic Mountain wakes in me powerful reflections on life, and love, and sea, which cast into utter and complete irrelevance any regurgitated observations that the novel is, in some way, about passage of time. I don’t get any of this out of M.
Perhaps the point I am trying to make is the one already made to me many years ago: that intelligent people are plentiful; but what is lacking are people with a spark. And it is precisely that: M lacks the spark. All that culture and education and experience — and… nothing.
Can one say about M — and people like M — that she lives a cultured life? That she experiences art and literature? Is there really something going on in there in response to these things and is she merely failing to understand it sufficiently to put it in words; or — is there nothing, just a kind of blind ambition for the higher things because they are said to be higher?
September 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
About twelve years ago my mother has done something unforgivable which made me walk out of the house and stop talking to her. Not out of vindictiveness — any desire to hurt her — but simply because I could not imagine how I could talk to her without her first making a profuse apology, admitting her guilt, and promising — no, not promising — swearing on a stack of Bibles — never to repeat it.
As it happened, she did make several attempts to get in touch, but always pretended that nothing has happened, that she has done no wrong. These attempts of course fell flat — like they had to. (A 35 year old adult does not need his mother enough to compromise his dignity and self-respect. 55-year old mothers do not always understand that).
While I waited for her to do the right thing, I often suffered from deep hurt — the memory of what she had done would come back to me suddenly and stay with me for days, making me feel profoundly unhappy.
This went on for years.
And then, suddenly, it all changed: suddenly, I stopped caring. The past really and truly became the past. Suddenly, it made no difference what my mother thought, or what she had done. I was strangely content in the feeling that I was quite alright if I never saw my mother alive again. Indeed, the very notion of seeing her again became uninteresting: I thought of the sort of conversations I would have to have with her if we met and the whole idea seemed so unappealing that I resolved that I would not see her again no matter what she said or what happened. Not because I wanted to punish her but because — well, I simply had no interest in seeing her.
This change happened very suddenly. I can tell very precisely when it took place but I cannot say what caused it — except perhaps that, somehow, the wound had closed. Wounds do close slowly, gradually, but nevertheless there is one very definite moment at which they stop bleeding. Well, it was like that: the wound just stopped bleeding.
August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Last year, I spent two weeks in Japan. Catching up with old friends was part of the visit. I found them all older, sicker, greyer and — in the same dead-end jobs, in the same apartments, and with the same “one day I will x” plans, none of which have advanced an inch since I had left.
And that was 25 years ago.
I have since lived in four countries on three continents, learned four languages, new literature, new music and new art: but for them, nothing has happened. Meanwhile, fifty’s just around the corner, what chance the next decade will pass in the same way while they continue to muse about how “one day they will x”? When will they notice x isn’t going to happen?
I remember a story about someone’s uncle, born a penniless outcast in Hyderabad, who’d conceived the vision to go to America and become a self-made billionaire. The next day he got up, bathed, prayed, ate his chapati, and — started walking west. It took him three months to reach Bombay, and it is possible that he never actually reached America — but that is not the point, the point is — there is never any other time to do x than now.
Any statement which begins with “one day I will” really means “I will never”.
May 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Outwardly, nothing has changed. I am the same. The life-plan remains the same; my work at it — constant. Yet, inwardly everything has changed. I am not the man I was twelve months ago. Seen from inside looking out, everything looks different. Totally new.
The cause of the change was an unprecedented — and unrelieved — sequence of betrayals which I have suffered over the course of the last year. It was a rare conjunction, certainly: I have suffered as much betrayal in the past, but the individual instances were spread out over years and interspersed with occasional acts of good faith, which allowed me to see the world as mixed, neither good nor bad. Now they all came fast upon each others’ heels, unalloyed, unvaried, relentless.
Why this should happen now is an interesting question.
It could have merely been a matter of bad luck, as when in a game of dice one keeps rolling low and his opponent high (and, to paraphrase a market dictum, one could remain unlucky longer than he is liquid).
But it might also be something about my age: there is a reason why so many men my age turn into curmudgeons: no matter how beautiful we may have been in our youth; and how well we have kept up over the years; come fifty or so our engagement with age begins to resemble a high-speed collision with a Mack truck; the aging process accelerates dramatically, there is a kind of instance of inflation (as a big-bangologist might call it1), or, perhaps I should say, saggflation; and now it is no longer possible to disguise or ignore the effects of age. And if, god forbid, we also drink and smoke, well, there is no hiding the fact that we’re over and done with and the only direction is south. We can see it for ourselves: we don’t like looking in the mirror when shaving: even to our own eyes we have become repulsive.
And perhaps, wittingly, or unwittingly, this is what people respond to: our value as a sex object has deteriorated and with it deteriorates people’s willingness to give us credit of any sort. Not merely because they no longer want to sleep with us but also because, in their correct estimation, no one else does.
Or perhaps it is that they can see death creeping up on us: their strategies with us become more short term, in search of a quicker payoff. They no longer bother taking time to set us up for the big fraud, but pass directly into a series of small frauds. Perhaps they fear we may not be around long enough for the big one.
So, while it is possible that my last 12 months were but an accident, a statistical freak, you can see why the same accident might happen to men my age with a strangely reliable frequency. And it does: many of us become bitter and cynical. This may well be a rule of life: and not only among humans.2 This just may be the way nature works with all pack mammals.
In fact, my first clue that my own series of unfortunate events may not be unique to me, came during my conversation with Chris, an old friend about a decade older than me. We met for lunch at a hotel, I had not seen him for about a year and I was shocked to see how he looked: he had been physically devastated by his struggle with his run-away wife over the custody of their son. (In fact, he died only days later from a ruptured aorta). “You try to be nice to people”, he said, “and they turn around and shit on you.” He was not lying: I knew him as a generous and kind person; and his death occasioned a feeding frenzy among his heirs and friends.
So, come to our age, we suddenly begin to see people in a new light; it is as if scales fell off our eyes; like the blind man cured by Jesus, we suddenly see the world we had never seen before. And the view which this new power of vision affords us is not pretty. It is hard not to feel hurt. There is a desire for payback, perhaps, but mainly a desire to change one’s life-strategy entirely to prevent the hurt form happening again. Something needs to be done, but what?
In the past, when I came to the decision to break up a relationship — whether a love or a friendship — I sometimes said nothing, and merely changed my behavior, letting them figure it out for themselves. I suppose I did it to avoid the melodrama of partings, but also as a kind of proof of disrespect: not telling people about an important decision you have made concerning your relationship with them is a way of telling them how little you value their opinion. The calculation was that, eventually, they would figure it out for themselves — and be hurt by my unilateral decision — and yet, if they ever confronted me about it, I could add disrespect to disrespect by denying that anything has changed, saying that I have merely been busy, have moved, changed my hours, etc.
This time, though, the change is more general — I have come to see all people in a new way; and decided to break off with all; by which I mean — never to cultivate a warm feeling towards another person again. And what could possibly be the point of letting everyone know that? In the past, abandoning a single person while retaining my friendship with others, could be calculated to hurt that person if they ever realized my abandonment of them was selective, personal. But this, of course, does not work if we abandon all people: the people abandoned would not so much see our action as somehow an effective punishment we inflict on the world (the world will continue as it has always done) as — a punishment of ourselves; a beaten retreat from the world: a defeat. They would not be upset to see it; but the contrary. Thus, visibly abandoning all would only increase their pleasure.
This is of course what the curmudgeons do: their bristling exterior is a kind of revenge against the totality of human race which has disappointed them in so many of its individual instances. But this sort of revenge is not just silly as shown above — it is also a form of whining: a kind of appeal for humanity to note how badly it has treated us, perhaps a desperate plea for it to mend its ways. (The Japanese have an special term for this behavior: amaeru, or solicitation of pity). In doing so, the curmudgeon persists in the misguided and fundamentally unproductive effort to seek comfort in the feelings and reactions of others, whether positive or negative. It only perpetuates the curmudgeon’s dependency on others. But this is not the point. The point is to end it.
Thus, grumpiness is not the way to go. Better do the opposite: change nothing. Smile. Trade complements and small favors. Do not let on that anything at all has changed, but keep your heart firmly locked against the least feeling of warmth, of liking. The correct way to deal with the duplicity and faithlessness of the human race is not to try to change the race (which will never happen); or to somehow trick it into changing its ways (it is an empty sort of victory to force people to love you); but to secede form it entirely.
It was observed by a commentator (may have been Russell in his History), that at the heart of The Great Man’s3 philosophy lay a paradox: his prescription to pursue individual pleasure at all costs seems to have quarreled with his genuine decency and generosity towards people: it gave Him pleasure to be nice to his friends and to spend time in their company. People like Him will find it difficult to secede: they will have to learn to control their natural impulses.
1 “In physical cosmology, cosmic inflation, cosmological inflation or just inflation is the theorized extremely rapid exponential expansion of the early universe by a factor of at least 1078 in volume, driven by a negative-pressure vacuum energy density. The inflationary epoch comprises the first part of the electroweak epoch following the grand unification epoch. It lasted from 10−36 seconds after the Big Bang to sometime between 10−33 and 10−32 seconds. Following the inflationary period, the universe continues to expand.”
2 Aged alpha-male silver-back gorillas (themselves a symbol of grumpiness) retire from their tribes to be left in peace. So do old alpha-male wolves.
3 Epicurus, of course. Who else?