In general I shy away from any sort of futuristic fantasy book but there is one that I think I'd very much like to read. I think it would be really interesting to read about a time in the future where machines have become sentient and taken over the world. Movies like Terminator come to mind here but I am looking for something vastly more imaginative. In my kind of book on this subject, the machines would be vastly superior to humans both in physicality and intellect. Humans would be, in fact, merely an evolutionary misstep which the machines would be only too happy to do away with. So somewhere within the first few chapters all humans on the Earth would have been eliminated and there would be absolutely no human comeback. Then we would come to the real interesting part of the book. This book would have as its central thesis the absolutely nonhuman characteristics of the surviving machines. This would not be because the machines are stupid but because they are of much superior intellect than the humans ever were. In the book the machines would have thought through the various psychological, social, economic, and philosophical problems which human societies have faced through the ages and have come up to very good solutions to them. It is rather interesting to wonder about what those solutions might be and one cannot help but coming to the idea that it would involve the complete elimination of all emotions. These involve our desires to love, hate, feel angry, reproduce, succeed and others. After all there is no reason why such emotions which ultimately seem to hurl us into eternal whirlpools of misery should be part of a new society if one were given the power of imagine it. This would be a dreary society according to our present standards but that is no good reason why it cannot be a viable society. In fact, I wonder if this is precisely what I do not like about a lot of futuristic fantasy in general. Futuristic fantasy tends to be neither futuristic nor very imaginative. It is far too sentimental and far too humanizing whereas the future need not be so at all. It is, therefore, very interesting to think about a future from which humanity has been completely removed and then wonder about what sort of motivations and "lives" would the succeeding "life" forms have. Such a society would trivially eliminate our obsessions with a God and would strike far too close to the real uncomfortable questions of the meaning of existence. This unsympathetic book would strip away the useless ideas which we like to use to cloud out the real issues of life. I would read that sad, imaginative, depressing book with utter enthusiasm and relish.
Posted by Ankit On November 30th, 2014
Posted by Ankit On March 23rd, 2014
If I were to think of one book which has come to influence my worldview in a very fundamental way then it would have to be the mad and raging narrative by U. G. Krishnamurthy with the highly discouraging title 'mind is a myth.' I remember feeling a distinct sense of relief as the book proceeded to destroy many ideas and concepts that we have all been told, consciously or subconsciously, are important and sacrosanct. These narratives are part of growing up and are impressed upon us all by people and by institutions which command an automatic authority in the eyes of a lowly individual. They are impressed upon us by the very fact that everyone else seems to think that they are great ideas. What one doesn't realize, or rather doesn't have the courage to believe, is that 'thinking' is an activity which is done more in theory than in practice by an overwhelming majority. Therefore, ideas which seem like such good ones owing to their wide adoption happen to be so often because questioning them is not something which comes naturally to us. Many of these ideas may still turn out to be very valuable to many but they definitely don't pass through that process of critical inquiry on an individual basis and are rather merely taken as truths without questioning. Some of these ideas are part of the zeitgeist and are, therefore, hugely popular. An example would be atheism in the current times. However, just because ideas are fashionable doesn't mean their followers are not deluded. Coming back to my experience with the book, I definitely did not learn anything positive from it. This is, perhaps, just as well given the highly nihilistic nature of the text. My experience, therefore, was mainly in the form of the negation of the authorities of various social, emotional, and intellectual institutions. This came as a huge relief because I often found myself lost and disillusioned with the general essence of these institutions which seemed designed to cloud the nature of affairs rather than explain them. The general idea is the following: there is a certain truth which is worthy of being attained, however, it is known to only a few who have to guide the normal population through the treacherous path of enlightenment. These few derive immense power, prestige, and following because they claim to have exclusive rights on the final knowledge and the people who believe in them become mere pawns in a game being played out at a level beyond their comprehension. This may sound conspiratorial but one only has to look critically at the business of spirituality or the business of vanity or the business of politics to realize that it's not. There is an intense din all around us which is trying to convince us that we need to be at a different place, possess better and more stuff, ascend imaginary ladders, belong to broad political groups and support leaders of dubious distinction, work towards being happy, be good citizens and good parents and good sons and good brothers and sisters, be thinner and look 10 years younger, earn more and be successful. Who has time to think when there is so much to be done! What the book did was to lay bare the essence of this ridiculous race, this vicious path which conveniently and assuredly loops back on itself and to leave it all there for the reader to make of it what he/she will. The ideas are not new obviously but they are presented with the bluntness which I didn't find anywhere else before or since.
That was several years ago. Since then I have realized that the mere negation of ideas as presented in that book is not enough, at least not to me. The first reason is that such an attitude can take away the pleasure inherent in the different aspects of life. The second is that it makes you replace one deficiency, the problem of too much noise with another, too much silence. You revel in each broken structure until there is little left to serve as a foundation for a coherent edifice of thought. And maybe it is all a mere pastime but such edifices are great fun to build. To dissect the world around you, to find patterns which are not immediately visible, to discern the inevitable wheels of history taking another turn, it's all fun. And it cannot be reasonably carried out on a negative philosophy. To have that pleasure one must be able to place things and actions in broader contexts than they were intended for, as parts of cycles which have longer durations than single lives, as colors in a huge pattern with intricate and repeating designs. And to do that one needs to to be able to take history with the respect it deserves as an indicator of the rhythms of the present and the tunes of the future, more accurate at higher abstractions and less at smaller ones. This further requires setting aside the nihilistic view of things, which is correct in the largest scheme, or so I feel, and taking apart philosophies, men, and events to see what they say about the today and the tomorrow. For nothing more than the fun of the exercise.
Posted by Ankit On December 26th, 2013
After recently reading Lawrence Krauss's 'A universe from nothing' I have understood in greater detail the current state of our understanding of the beginnings of our universe. A fascinating and beautiful picture has emerged over the last 80 years (but more specifically the last 30). A picture which is clearer in some parts and uncertain in others but which is hard to dispute in certain key details. It is also a picture which is infinitely more nuanced and imaginative than any other creation stories that the various religions of the world have come up with. This is not surprising because the people who contributed to the religions didn't know what we know now, even though they may have been quite intelligent themselves.
The story begins around 13.72 billion years with what George Lemaitre called the primeval atom. This primeval atom of infinite density and temperature has been undergoing a constant expansion since then and has resulted in the universe that we currently live in. The theory of the universe emerging from this primeval atom is the theory of big bang. Before this the universe was assumed (by Einstein no less and many others) to be steady and to have existed forever. Three important experimental observations contributed to the advancement of the theory of big bang and no other scientific theory exists which provides better or even nearly as good explanation for these observations:
- It was discovered by Hubble in the first half of the 20th century that far away galaxies (which are not gravitationally bound to our galaxy) are all receding away from us. The further they are the faster they are receding. This would suggest that we are somehow at the center of the expansion which would lend a special place to the humans and the Earth. This runs counter to the Copernican ideas and to the more general cosmological principle which states that the universe, on a large enough scale, is same everywhere and in every direction. If this is assumed to be true, and it is not a difficult assumption, then the explanation for Hubble expansion would be that everything in the universe which is not gravitationally bound to something would be receding away from it. There's uniform expansion everywhere. Extrapolating backwards, the idea suggests that some time in the past all the matter of the universe must have been concentrated at one point, at the moment of the big bang. By measuring how fast the expansion is now, we can determine roughly how long ago did the big bang occur.
- There is a significant abundance of light elements (hydrogen, helium, lithium) in the universe. Once big bang has been proposed it is possible to calculate what the fractions of the light elements should be in the current universe. These theoretical calculations have been found to be in close agreement with experimental measurements.
- When the big bang model was being developed one of its prediction was the existence of its afterglow which could be measured from the Earth now. The measurement was predicted to be in the form of an electromagnetic signature in the microwave regime. This afterglow corresponds to a time around 330,000 years after the big bang. Before this time the universe was, as they say, opaque to such radiation meaning that no observation can possibly be made now about the time before this 'last scattering surface'. This afterglow which goes by the technical name 'Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation' (CMBR) was discovered in 1964 and its properties were found to be in excellent agreement with those predicted by theory. This discovery is also, arguably, the most important observation in all of cosmology.
Big bang, therefore, provides a time frame to our past with a very high degree of confidence in its veracity. Through high energy particle experiments on the Earth the evolution of the Big Bang expansion is reasonably well understood beyond the first microsecond of the universe. What happened in the first microsecond is less well understood and there is no understanding of what happened in the first .
The next question is what is the future of the universe. Which is to say how would the continuing expansion of the universe behave in the future. The answer to this question depends upon the nature of the current universe, specifically the nature of its curvature on large scales. This curvature can be measured from the CMBR profile and our universe has been found to be 'flat' from such measurements. Since the universe is governed by the general theory of relativity which relates the curvature of the universe to the amount of matter in it, it is possible to estimate how much matter there should be in the universe from the fact that its curvature is zero. However, after taking into account all the visible and measurable matter in the universe it was found that we were short of the required amount by a factor of around 50. This apparent discrepancy can be seen in other independent measurements such as gravitational lensing as well. This suggests that there exists another form of matter which only makes itself felt through its gravitational effect and which cannot be seen or measured otherwise. This is named dark matter. It was further discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This has been accounted for by an additional term in the Einstein's field equations. The term itself has been called the cosmological constant and its physical effect, dark energy. There appears ways to investigate what dark matter is but scientist are at quite a loss about what dark energy is. However, what is unequivocal is that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, so much so that, everything in the universe except the structures which are gravitationally bound to us would disappear from our view in about 2 trillion years (unless dark energy behaves in an unexpected way in the future). This is our fate.
Now the concept of big bang is intricately related to the idea of genesis which sits very uncomfortably with religious thoughts of all kinds which claim such stories as only within their own domains of treatment. Big bang itself doesn't overrule the existence of a God because it doesn't explain the initial conditions (where did the primeval atom come from for instance). But various sub-fields of science have together severely restricted the regions where the concept of God needs to be invoked. They have made the idea of God redundant and unnecessary to a large degree. To me it is only applicable now as an explanation of the first cause but even this applicability is unnatural. There may still be a God who started it all but even if that is the case what is beyond doubt is that it bears no resemblance to the gods of the humans because religious ideas are incredibly local and naive when compared to reality. This is not surprising either. People who came up with such ideas had no clue as to what is really out there.
Posted by Ankit On October 17th, 2012
A few days ago I wondered about a curious dichotomy that I find in Wilde's writing, that most of his major characters are sharp people with little respect for conventional mores in theory but very conventional lives in practice. I see it as Wilde's well-thought out tacit approval of some of society's seemingly stifling customs. I came across a few lines from Bertrand Russel which seem appropriate here. For those who do not know, Russel was a philosopher whom one could actually understand and respect but that was probably because he was also a gifted mathematician. He had the common sense which the best of philosophers so often lack (My God I hate it when people like Descarte can't figure out whether the table in front of them is real or not). The lines:
The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant...
Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion. This check it inherits from barbarism, but it makes it less instinctive and more systematic. Certain acts are labelled criminal, and are punished, certain others, though not punished by law, are labelled wicked, and expose those who are guilty of them to social disapproval... On the one hand the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to the future.
It is evident that this process can be carried too far, as it is, for instance, by a miser. But without going to such extremes, prudence may easily involve the loss of some of the best things in life. The worshiper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, physical or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations... Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication, some sweeping away of prudence by passion. Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting, with it, it is dangerous. Prudence versus passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party.
-Bertrand Russel in The History of Western Philosophy
Posted by Ankit On September 3rd, 2012
My good friend Natasha invited me to a Flamenco festival over the weekend. The venue was a sprawling property built over a canyon tucked away in the midst of the bustle of the SDSU campus. I could never have imagined that such a place existed in the heart of San Diego. Deeply wooded mini-trails laden with the smell of fallen leaves, illuminated in patches by the puddles of sunlight which had managed to filter through the thick foliage. I walked down one of these trails to reach a clearing upon which was set a singularly bohemian scene. Musicians huddled together practicing and learning from the flamenco masters who were invited to perform. Periodic taps of their feet and their eyes rapt in attention at the fluid strumming of those guitars. And music, in gushes of good natured melody. Women getting up and tapping to the flamenco beats as I sat in a shaded corner over a pleasant cold rock and soaked in the very unusual sensation of letting go. Like those sunny winter mornings in Lucknow when I would be laying outside on the lawn with a thin white sheet on my face. The chirping of the birds and the reassuring distant sounds of the daily household chores and I would lift the sheet up a little and look at the garden with lazy eyes - butterflies on the flowers, a squirrel running up the tree and a general sensation of warm cozy lethargy. A deep breath, letting go of the sheet, and with it, just letting go. There was Spanish food being made and drinks being served, a massage center, and classes on flamenco dance and yoga. People who had arrived from different parts of the world speaking different languages and dressed informally in beautiful colorful clothes, women with red flowers in their hair and flowing patterned skirts playing music, dancing, singing, men lounging about with their guitars and drums and glasses of sangria.
And what conversations! Do you have an interesting story to tell beyond your office and your gym and your beaten to death observations? Do you still remember what it was like to be passionate? I sat mesmerized listening to the stories of the people that I met. I had rose tinted glasses and even though I realized that their lives must also have their moments of mundane concerns, the fact that they could be so passionate about something was immensely refreshing. It's a bit like listening to Feynman even though the talents cannot be compared, but still, in that moment when he is talking about physics with a boyish twinkle in his eyes I feel rejuvenated, optimistic and far less cynical. I met singers and musicians and dancers and they would ask me what instrument do I play - a fish on land. The professional performance was in the evening in a little open air amphitheater. Flamenco guitarists jamming to complex turbulent tunes and professional dancers tapping away on the stage - their graceful, womanly and strong presence against the painted backdrop of riffing tunes. I was deeply impressed by the beauty of the spectacle, having never witnessed something like this live and from such close quarters. The dancers shot quick powerful glances and their hands would be leading their bodies in a fluid series of steps, their feet tapping to the beats of the music in the midst of palmas and shouts of olay from the audience. The juxtaposition of their quiet grace and the intense music was breathtaking. I sat in the middle of it all clapping like an excited little kid as the spectacle unfolded in the green and blue and red lights beneath a quiet dark sky with the circular white moon staring from a corner. And I was thinking about that music and that dance and how happy people were and how free, and I was thinking about the world outside that little temporary commune with its deadlines and its ridiculous grind and its little heartbreaks. I was trying to preserve the image of that little island of unmitigated joy, illuminated in its ridiculous colors, as it lay truncated in a vast dark sea infested with tremendous circular waves borne out of their own vicious logic.
Posted by Ankit On July 27th, 2012
I was talking to a friend today about airplanes being equipped with life-jackets and not parachutes when I suddenly realized what an awesome sight it would be if there were actually ejection doors below each passenger's seat. You could have an additional ejection button mixed somewhere between those buttons for light, fan, air-hostess and TV channels. And every now and then, peeking from above the top of the chair in your front, you would see a head here and a head there disappear and you would open your little notebook and add 1 to the running count of people incapable of operating remotes being sacrificed at the cruel hands of Darwinian selection. If you are so inclined, you could go ahead and figure out if on average those who sit in the business class appear to be more successful at following simple instructions and conclude if things like money and a more rounded upbringing equip a person with the intelligence necessary to navigate remote control buttons. One could do similar statistics for age and who knows, maybe the airplane cabins under this novel sifting system would be much quieter places than they are now. You could then correlate your results with other data. An example would be whether it is more common for those who have to be told twice to stow their tray tables and straighten their seats while take-off and landing to also take advantage of the new and revolutionary unexpected jettisoning procedure. But all these statistics aside I really do think that the now dour and colorless airplane cabin which appears such a drag will be a much more exciting place to be. Airlines can probably conduct studies and accommodate more people, knowing that a certain percentage of people on average would rather have a shorter trip. Who's going to be a sure victim? Me. I had a television for 3 years and I could never turn it on and watch the cable. No exaggeration. I only watched it either if it was already on or if one of my roommates, who would surely have survived this Darwinian pitfall, was there alongside me. But then I am a man very aware of my own limitations. When in the vicinity of a remote I do flinch a little and I do suffer from performance anxiety but I never am quite so bold as to take liberties with its operations. My very conservative nature when it comes to collections of buttons might just be enough to save me in this evolutionary paradigm. But then there is nothing shameful about cowardice and ineptitude. If it was not for the ability of certain mammals to live scared in burrows, they would never have survived to become the dominant specie after the extinction event which killed off the dinosaurs (KT boundary).
Posted by Ankit On April 15th, 2012
I came across the following letter which Marcel Duchamp sent to his brother-in-law Jean Crotti when asked about his opinions on an art piece. Duchamp was a trailblazing artist of the earlier part of the 20th century and has arguably done more than anyone else to shape the artistic sensibilities of the modern Western world. He has been a polarizing figure and I have had more than my share of snickering disapprovals (mostly at the hands of MV) for being fascinated by this artist. Something tells my that the ideas in the letter apply more generally to life.
You were asking my opinion on your work of art, my dear Jean - It's very hard to say in just a few words - especially for me as I have no faith - religious kind - in artistic activity as a social value.
Artists throughout the ages are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery pulls some of them through and ruins others - To my mind, neither the winners nor the losers are worth bothering about - It's a good business deal for the winner and a bad one for the loser.
I do not believe in painting per se - A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. In other words, no painter knows himself or what he is doing - There is no outward sign explaining why a Fra Angelico and a Leonardo are equally 'recognized'.
It all takes place at the level of our old friend luck - Artists, who in their own lifetime, have managed to get people to value their junk are excellent traveling salesmen, but there is no guarantee as to the immortality of their work - And even posterity is just a slut that conjures some away and brings others back to life (El Greco), retaining the right to change her mind every 50 years or so.
This long preamble just to tell you not to judge your own work as you are the last person to see it (with true eyes) - What you see neither redeems nor condemns it - All words used to explain or praise it are false translations of what is going on beyond sensations.
You are, as we all are, obsessed by the accumulation of principles or anti-principles which generally cloud your mind with their terminology and, without knowing it, you are a prisoner of what you think is a liberated education-
In your particular case, you are certainly the victim of the 'Ecole de Paris', a joke that's lasted for 60 years (the students awarding themselves prizes, in cash).
In my view, the only salvation is in a kind of esotericism - Yet, for 60 years, we have been watching a public exhibition of our balls and multiple erections - Your Lyons grocer speaks in enlightened terms and buys modern painting -
Your American museums want at all costs to teach modern art to young students who believe in the 'chemical formula'-
All this only breeds vulgarization and total disappearance of the original fragrance.
This does not undermine what I said earlier, since I believe in the original fragrance, but, like any fragrance, it evaporates very quickly (a few weeks, a few years at most). What remains is a dried up nut, classified by the historians in the chapter 'History of Art'-
So if I say to you that your paintings have nothing in common with what we see generally classified and accepted, and that you have always managed to produce things that were entirely your own work, as I truly see it, that does not mean you have the right to be seated next to Michelangelo-
What's more, this originality is suicidal as it distances you from a 'clientele' used to 'copies of copiers', often referred to as 'tradition'-
One more thing, your technique is not the 'expected' technique - It's your own personal technique, borrowed from nobody - And there again, this doesn't attract the clientele.
Obviously if you'd applied your Monte Carlo system to your painting, all these difficulties wouldl have turned into victories. You would even have been able to start a new school of technique and originality.
I will not speak of your sincerity because that is the most widespread commonplace and the least valid - All liars, all bandits are sincere. Insincerity does not exist - The cunning are sincere and succeed by their malice, but their whole being is made up of malicious sincerity.
In a word, do less self-analysis and enjoy your work without worrying about opinions, your own as well as of others.
Posted by Ankit On January 15th, 2011
Following are some excerpts taken from the diary of the Australopithecus primate who is now widely considered to be the first to make bipedalism fashionable. His diary incidentally happens to be the first known written work in history as all his ancestors who walked on four feet could never handle paper and pen and those who walked on three could manage only one of the two at one time. Literary work dating before this diary, therefore, only consists of either blank pages or unused pens. It is evident that the author of this diary, unnamed as he is, suffered rejection at the hands of his contemporaries who found his bipedalistic leanings extremely postmodern. They also did not like the fact that when winter came while their hands would get cold, he would just slip both his hands into his pockets and whistle to the tune of 'what a wonderful world.' This, combined with the author's smugness on his ability to count till 10 using his fingers while the tripedals barely managed 5 and the quadripedals only reached as far as zero, meant that he led a life of social isolation.
Jan-4, 4.32 M.Y B.C.
'Those are 7 children you've got,' I told my brother today, only to be met with yet another stare of disbelief and suspicion. He stopped counting after five and refuses to admit that the food he manages is not sufficient for his family. I've told him time and again that I won't always be around to count for him and that he should try to stand on his own feet but sadly enough his attitude is steeped knee deep in orthodoxy. He refuses to see what I see but that's primarily because he doesn't get up as high as I do. And that's precisely the problem. That's the problem with him. That's the problem with his wife. In fact, that's the problem with our entire specie. Sometimes I'm afraid that if we don't try to free up our hands now, we won't have enough time to learn how to eat with knives and forks once they are invented. The best we would ever manage to do is to use chopsticks but how does one eat steak with them? Forget eating, how would one apply soap on his back? There are many issues that one worries about, not least of them being the utter hostility with which my suggestions are met. I think I have mentioned before that I'm not exactly a blast at parties and social gatherings. Oh yes I do manage a conversation every now and then but I just have to pick up the plate in order for everyone to remember errands they need to complete. They have instilled fear about me in the minds of the young ones and those little cretins try to throw rocks at me when I'm not looking - for once I'm happy that their motor abilities are impaired by this institutionalized quadripedalism.
What the world needs now is a bit of a revolution. We have to join hands and rise up to the challenges. Sure our hands are tied now with conservative orthodoxy but this ambivalence has to go if we intend to handle the opportunity which is provided by our increasing reach. Our future, I believe, can be in our own hands. Right now it's merely in our own feet. The world, I hope, would be at our feet someday. Right now it's also at our hands.
Posted by Ankit On September 19th, 2010
I read the book Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse over the weekend and here is an effort to glean some coherence out of its brilliantly ambitious and seemingly inchoate mass of ideas. I am glad to say that despite the back cover of the book containing phrases like 'blend of eastern mysticism and western culture', 'soul's journey to liberation', and 'vital spiritual force' this book has much more to offer in terms of imagination and depth than so many treatises on all kinds of philosophy do. There is no doubt that my contempt for philosophizing, especially the sort which gives you the idea that there is something higher worth aspiring for, results from my own belief in the ridiculousness and accidental nature of life. Yet, I cannot deny that life has a beautiful intricacy to it - the sort of complexity which gives rise to our best artistic creations, our desperations, our flights of imaginations, happinesses, insecurities and so many other interesting concepts. As someone who stands in awe at the magnificent variety of life, I find it a worthy occupation trying to dissect this complexity without falling into the trap of moralizing or teaching. Steppenwolf is an enjoyable attempt at this. Barring some questionable references to the 'wisdom of the east', the 'immortality of the soul', and a few other nuggets of bullshit thrown here and there (Mr. Hesse was a spiritualist so I did expect some unbearable passages.) Steppenwolf is a good book.
It is contemporary in the sense of concerning with the isolation of a man in the modern society. It deals with the sort of isolation which on a superficial level is afforded only by the modern society and is seen to be increasing as technology allows us to be more and more disconnected yet connected. On a deeper level, though, this book is about the kind of isolation which is very much independent of time and age. The isolation of the man who has refused to buy into the common ideals of society. The man who has spent considerable effort trying to hone his intellectual side and, thus, has developed a highly biting sense of contempt towards the mass of humanity who do not appreciate the 'finer way of living.' This mass of humanity, quite understandably, finds such a man unbearable and is only too happy to leave him to his own devices. The desperation that follows this isolation, however, is compounded by the fact that man is, in essence, merely an animal. His animal instincts (represented by the wolf in this book) often clash with his desire to be civilized. The desire to kill, to be unlawful, for sex, and for aggression are in direct odds with his desire to be swept away in the gay abandon of Mozart, Handel, Bach, and the intellectual thoughts of Nietzsche, Novalis, and Goethe. Our protagonist (Harry), therefore, decides that suicide is the only resolution to such a deep seated conflict.
This is where he comes across a girl who seems to be able to read his thoughts and make more sense out of them than Harry himself can. She empathizes with him and gives him an immediate reason to live for. The essence of the book from here on is Harry's reintroduction to the 'indulgences of the bourgeoisie.' Dancing, jazz, sex, drugs - all those activities of the common man which Harry had so much contempt for. The wolf rears its head against the cultural snob every now and then and the inevitable question is raised - 'What is right?' And thankfully the question is left more or less unanswered; or at least open to interpretation.
The book ends with Harry's foray into the very imaginative 'theater of magic.' It raises topics like the profligacy and the simultaneous necessity (even inevitability) of war, the ridiculous duality of our civilized existence in a world which is hopelessly burning, the triviality and the simultaneous magic of 'human emotions' like love, the chanced nature of our birth and existence, and the ultimate folly of taking oneself too seriously. To my liking, none of these topics are explicitly stated or preached upon but a reader with sufficient intelligence should be able to sniff them out in the brilliant and surrealistic theater of magic. I, with my very limited intelligence, could decipher some broad themes but I am quite flummoxed by the way the book ends. At this point, it appears to me that some characters and ideas of the book have been modeled upon the Bhagwad Gita but my ignorance of Gita prevents me from being able to verify my suspicions.
All in all, it's a very good book. Highly recommended.
Posted by Ankit On April 17th, 2010
Just finished reading Vonnegut's famous Slaughterhouse Five. New York Times, in their original review of the book, said something to the effect that you'd either love it or push it aside as a science fiction book. I suppose great works have that capability of sharply dividing public opinion but I just found the book... listless - which is probably a great compliment for it in a warped sort of way.
The book, like other Vonnegut's novels, is about nothing really. I mean, it sort of has an anti war message in its mundane and trivializing portrayal of the bombing of Dresden. It may be called a science fiction novel in its description of the planet of Tralfamadour but the greatest compliment I can give to the book is that it's about nothing and the only thing it manages to do in its 250 pages is babble about zillion small and disconnected happenings and concepts. I am by no means being critical - because I really believe that Vonnegut, for the kind of writer that he was, appreciated above all other acclaim, the acclaim of being the champion of nothing. It seems to me that he was the sort of chap who looked at the triviality of the world and the seriousness with which people took themselves with an amused look - and the world with all its self-presumed purpose was nothing but a heady dose of entertainment for him. Very much like George Carlin actually. He preaches no morals, sort of believes in predestination, really doesn't have much sympathy for any cause, and doesn't want anything to do with group mentality. He is disinterested with the travails of the irrational humanity but understands that he needs to milk it in order to lead a decent life. And he knows that he is smart enough to jeer at the dumb humans and us humans would love him for it. Slaughterhouse Five is exactly the sort of novel which you expect to come from such a person.
I love the ideas in the book and share Vonnegut's amusement at human irrationality (not to say that I'm not irrational), but a satirical antiwar book, for me, has to be measured against the gold standard of Catch-22, and it just doesn't hold up there. There is a cruelty in Catch-22, an absolute inhuman disgust at human herd-mentality, a complete disregard for so many of our cherished ideals - it's a symphony in cacophony, and S5 is nowhere near. Vonnegut probably never tried to write another Catch-22 and there is no obvious reason to compare the two but I cannot help it. But here is the thing - if I had to ignore the content of the book and evaluate Vonnegut as the avant garde, zany writer that he was supposed to be, I'd prefer Woody Allen over him. Allen is not considered a great writer maybe because he never really wrote seriously, but from what I have read from him, there is nobody that I've read (with the exception of Kafka) who even comes close to how crazy his imagination was and is. The trouble with Vonnegut is that in whichever department I choose to evaluate his brilliance, it is always easy to find someone else who is much better. So it goes (and that's how Vonnegut ends most of his paragraphs).