The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

University of Chicago has a student run movie club (Doc) which has been running continuously since before the war (second). In my years living in Hyde park in Chicago, I have found Doc films to be a particularly enticing aspect of the neighborhood. For 40 bucks, I can watch excellently curated movies from across the world every evening if I wanted. One series this quarter in Doc is Werner Herzog movies and that’s a special treat to me, as I have long maintained that one needs to watch Herzog movies before they die, almost as a pilgrimage. His movies and documentaries are, in part, studies in the assorted curiosities of the world by a man who possesses an exquisite sensibility for them. They are also a mirror to one’s own consciousness - a measure by which one can gauge the depths of one’s own sensitivities and the timbre of the resonances of one’s own soul.

The movie today was The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - the story of a German teen who was found abandoned in a town square in Germany in 1828 and who, presumably, lived all of his early years in a cellar with no access to other people or to the outside environment. After reading a little more about Kaspar Hauser, it appears to me that this origin story is not necessarily true and that Kaspar Hauser may have fabricated it all. However, that’s beside the point and irrelevant to the movie. What is important here is that in Herzog’s tale (and his imagination), there was a boy who, owing to the very unusual and isolated circumstances of his early childhood, develops into an adult with an extremely peculiar and largely stunted relationship with the world around him. This fact of course is at the very basic level of understanding and empathizing with the story since the archetype of wolf-kids is well established in the social consciousness. From this perspective, it is logical that the boy finds alienation in society and essentially longs for his life in the cellar, that there is both pathos and contempt to be found in how society treats him as an object to gawk over. There are two threads in this movie which, to me, rose above the mean of obvious logicality (as brilliantly as that logicality may have been executed by Herzog).

First, there is an undercurrent of contempt towards the professional classes which I found fascinating. There is a scene where Kaspar is being quizzed by a mathematician/logician. He asks a convoluted logical question and upon not getting a solution from Kaspar, presents his own very complicated solution. On being subsequently confronted by a very simple solution to the problem by Kaspar, the mathematician refuses to accept its validity saying instead ‘we, as mathematicians and logicians, are not interested in understanding but only in reasoning.’ The doctors and detectives in the town similarly are exclusively concerned with tabulating, it seems, the surface patterns of the life of Kaspar, both before and after his death. In a very deep sense then the movie portrays the well adjusted common man as one who is captured in the swirling vortex of his own local minima, where a lifetime spent successfully in social regulations has left him unable to look below the surface - in a poetic sense unable to compute and process the higher order terms of existence. The movie does not portray Kaspar as having some particularly special insights into life either but it does show intriguing examples of creativity emerging in a system which has not yet managed to come into coherence with its surroundings. There is a point where Kaspar argues that a small room is in fact bigger than the tower inside which it is situated. The argument is not correct but it is refreshing and it is also interesting to think how “wrong arguments” such as his can instead be viewed as creative and how a similar kind of creativity is seen in kids which is scrubbed soon enough from them through the relentless corrective feedback from society.

The second point that I thought was particularly interesting in the movie was the treatment of Kaspar’s dreams and how his inner world is sketched out. Since the mental state of a person like Kaspar is even more inaccessible (even to a genius like Herzog) than the mental state of a well adjusted person, it is only treated in a generalized way with a lot of in built vagueness. Therefore, it has to be the case the its treatments have a lot more of Herzog’s sensibilities and artistry than the other parts of the movie. The last scene involves Kaspar telling a story that he has seen in his dreams and the peculiarity of the story is that he only knows its beginning. It is extremely poignant that in life he was not allowed to tell that story since stories with only beginning are not interesting, but in death he tells it. The story is indeed incomplete and even nonsensical but it is powerful enough to Kaspar to bring despair to him in life (since he could not tell it) and bring release to him in death. It is not important what the story is perhaps. Perhaps it is just a placeholder for all that Kaspar wanted to tell the world, all that he was not able to communicate, all the times when the world did not care to listen, and all the hurricanes of silent internal turmoil that such a life as Kaspar’s might have to endure because of it. Commonplace artifacts such as nonsensical stories can assume deep significance in such circumstances, with powers enough to deliver freedom from the mortal coils.

As I grow older and make feeble attempts to analyze my own life, as I try to distill some vague essences of the few odd decades that I have spent on this planet, a noteworthy trait (noteworthy at least to me) stands out very prominently to me. I am not sure how prominent this trait is in others. I seem to see myself, my past, and my "accomplishments", as if I were observing a stranger, in whose life I had so little stake that I could not even be bothered to pass judgements, feel pride or shame, or even care. Let me elaborate. I imagine that people can look at their past and their present and weave a more or less coherent (maybe even compelling) narrative explaining why they turned out the way that they did, that they can tell their story where they can identify their own agency and credit it with making good judgements at certain important junctures. Maybe they feel pride in the things that they have accomplished, in the money that they have made, in the status that they have accumulated, and in the social cache that it all automatically implies. Maybe they have grand dreams for the future, a future which lies clear in their subconscious with the logic and certainty of a clock. In sum, I imagine that people think of their lives as uniquely interesting (and why not, since they have always been the center of the universe as far as they are concerned), and live not only as if they are never going to die but also as if they will not be completely forgotten. I don't find my life to be uniquely interesting at all and I find it extremely dull to dwell upon its "accomplishments". I find myself unable to be interested in grand ambitions for the future. In fact, my patience runs dry when I even start to think about what those grand ambitions might entail. This is not to say that I live my life morosely - I'm the most contented person I know, especially when I can isolate from dreary people who do take themselves too seriously. I attribute my present largely to a series of accidents in my past which had no particularly special consequences. As far as the future is concerned, it is tinged heavily by the intense and ever present realization of my own mortality followed by eternal oblivion. Thus, it makes no sense to me to feel anything but a strange sense of detachment when I look at myself. It's just another life, like billions before me and billions which are to follow.

I am trying to remember what I thought I would remember, and in this process I am making my peace with the process of growing old - not that I ever had much of a quarrel with it in the first place. I once thought that the formative memories of San Diego would always dwell heavy and vivid in my memories, that the evenings that I spent walking the sands of Torrey Pines -- imagining myself in the context of Dylan's Tambourine man who wished to bury both the dreams of the future and the sorrows of the past in the whitemaned waves of the ocean -- that those bittersweet and melancholy evenings, always solitary among the crowd of silent silhouettes against the sea, always iridescent in the muted pastel sky which stood in stark contrast against the brilliant setting sun, would remain forever within my immediate sensory grasp. San Diego, despite my great hopes, appears to be receding though, as I now have to strain my memory to get into a space where the deafening silence that I once felt in the sun drenched wide avenues of North park becomes obvious and internalized. That feeling of deep isolation, of being in a state of mind where one is perpetually a step removed from reality, a state of mind galvanized so easily by the uninterrupted skies of the west where the sun beats relentlessly on roads which are always a little too wide than they need to be, a state of mind which I found particularly easy to slip into as I found the reality of the bustling cities of the west bleed so effortlessly into that of the ghost towns which litter the landscape of the golden state, those memories and that state of mind have retreated into a deeper layer of my consciousness now. And it is only with effort that I can access them again. However, this effort is always well spent as it was only in San Diego that I ever could put life in its proper perspective.

Spring and Fall

Came across a poem in Joan Didion's "Slouching towards Bethlehem". Spring and Fall by Gerald Manley Hopkins.

to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Mansur Fakir−Amar Nitai Chander Bazare

Mansur Fakir singing the Baul folk song Amar Nitai Chander Bazare with his son Aminul Fakir accompanying on the dotara. Although I do not understand much in this Bangla song, there is something about it which has held me in rapt attention over countless re-playings. Perhaps it is the transcendent theme of the song which, as I was able to gather from admittedly sketchy sources, concerns life beyond this one. Perhaps it is the rustic, almost impoverished, setting of the song which stands in stark contrast with the ebullience of the singer and the contented smile of his son which makes it so compelling. As if the song's meta-narrative is emphasizing the old eternal truth - that prosperity and happiness are very different things.

Remembering Stephen Dedalus

As the world buckles under the strain of Covid, it seems to me that the dead have become a mere statistic at this point, with every new one sucked by the Covid counting machinery. Another life extinguishes somewhere and the counter goes up infinitesimally. It's insulting to a human life, to be so reduced and diminished. There are a few lines in Joyce's Ulysses where Stephen is remembering her dead mother:

Where now?

Her secrets: old feather fans, tasselled dancecards, powdered with musk, a gaud of amber beads in her locked drawer. A birdcage hung in the sunny window of her house when she was a girl. She heard old Royce sing in the pantomime of Turko the terrible and laughed with others when he sang:

I am the boy
That can enjoy

Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed.

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love's bitter mystery, For Fergus rules the brazen cars.

The last line is not in the book at this precise place. It was left unsaid by Stephen and I have added it here. I think it's appropriate. The less said after Joyce the better. All I want to add is that what Stephen so poetically remembers in these few lines is emphatically that her dead mother was not a statistic. She was a girl with a birdcage in the Sun. What was lost was an entire person with an entire life full of hopes, disappointments, and material possessions - a fate which awaits us all, it must also be remembered.

The nameless hero in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground claims that 'the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man's proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig.' He is railing against the grand endeavor of progressivism and science to, in some sense, enumerate the human existence, to atomize it to its constituent parts, and understand it thus. To isolate the causes of all human impulses and identify them in nature or in nurture, to the extent so as to render useless such ideas as personal responsibility and free will. He is railing against the modern conceit that human beings can be 'improved' using the tools of science, that their defects can be ironed out in the future as science lets us probe the human condition deeper. I share his pessimism in the success of this project and I also share his disdain at even the existence of such a project. Science, to me, is just a pastime like any other. Art, sports, food, travel, religion, movies, whatever. Anything to keep one's mind occupied and prevent him from a life of relentless despair. There is no special nobility in science and it is not proceeding towards any special understanding of life which helps to improve the human condition. To the extent that science and rationality have succeeded, they have only succeeded in making the human condition worse. What human beings may have gained in material benefits due to science and technology, they certainly have lost in spirituality, society, and camaraderie. The gift of modernity to humanity is isolation, depression, loneliness, and a general loss of of a sense of autonomy. But wait, science can solve these maladies as well. It can give you a pill for your depression. It can invent bullshit like social media and help one pretend that he is not imperiously lonely, that he has a thousand friends who care. Does he even have 2? Does that thought set up a deep sense of dread and insecurity in you? Well, that's the gift of science and technology right there. And it's downhill from here for those who believe in the power of modernity, science, and technology to improve our lives.

The Absurd

I have a vague recollection of how it all started, the most important transformation in my life. The most important transformation that there is in anybody's life. In my early years in the US, I came across a book titled Mind is a Myth by an Indian philosopher U G Krishnamurty. I am sure that he would have scoffed at being called a philosopher with all the contempt that one reserves for someone who does not know what they are talking about. Nevertheless, I saw him as a philosopher and his book (which he may not even have written himself) did fatal damage to my my world view which was, at that time, still deeply rooted in the Hindu religion. As the first order of business, it utterly shattered my belief in a God but perhaps I should not put too much of a blame at UG's feet since I was perhaps primed for that transformation anyway. UG would not care in any case. The destruction of my religious worldview was, however, only half the story. Perhaps the more pernicious effect of that book was the relentlessness with which it attacked the possibility of any alternative system which might give hope and meaning to a human life in the absence of religious grounding. UG himself seemed perfectly at ease and he seemed not to care about the philosophical violence with which his words were replete. He seemed not to care about the struggles of others and to me it was deeply seductive for some reason. Perhaps it was his brutal honesty which was so refreshing. He wasn't trying to sell anything and it seemed as if he did not want anything from the world, not even its admiration.

It has been a little more than 10 years since those fateful days sitting in cafe Roma in UCSD reading UG. I have a lot more gray hair now and perhaps a little more wisdom. What began as a revolt against religion in my young heart has stabilized and mellowed into a gentle respect for it. And also a certain kind of envy directed at those who find it so easy to believe. What has not changed is that irrelegious transformation which was set in motion by that book and I think that transformation will be a permanent pillar of my life. It does set up the problem of absurdity though - the problem of finding meaning in a meaningless and arbitrary universe. A realization of absurdity not in the abstract but as a constant and weighty presence all around, engulfing in its cold embrace all life and all of life's pursuits. After all, what's a life, a generation, an age, even a thousand years in the face of silent eternity? What's the value of hopes, ambitions, and achievements of one individual in an unending and unsympathetic universe?

Although I have very much enjoyed being a professor over the last several years, I have also realized with a certain sadness some effects that these years have had over specific faculties of my mind. Perhaps these effects are due to the highly technical nature of the job which often tends to dominate other parts of the brain; perhaps it is simply a manifestation of the process of growing older. I am, of course, thinking about the ability to look at one's life from a very broad perspective, one within which its beginnings and ends are sharpy punctuated like two bookends and the importance of its aims and goals and pleasures and purposes are accordingly cut to size when it is placed in the greater scheme of things. I am distinctly aware that half a decade ago, I had internalized this point of view to a greater degree than I do now. The result of this attitude then was to engender in me an amalgamation of detachment from and curiosity about the world around me. I could at once be fascinated by the stories of mundane lives (since no life is really mundane) and unburdened by what happened to them. This attitude extended to the world in large and allowed me to be detached from any noble causes and any great communal goals. In a few words, I simply did not care. But I did not did not care in the same sense in which a selfish person does not care. I did not care because the idea that it is all meaningless in the end was always front and center in my consciousness. The world was ridiculous and pointless and that people did not seem to realize this was endlessly fascinating to me.

I think reading literature of a certain kind had something to do with the development of this attitude. A steady diet of stories from those nineteenth century Russians is guaranteed to instill in the mind of an impressionable young man the seeds of a hard-edged realism. The mellifluous meanderings of Proust and Flaubert are sure to inspire an enchantment with the mundane, with the grand stage of life itself upon which the pathetic and inconsequential drama of individual lives are played with an endearing self-importance and a charming delusion. I had a chance to relive it all recently when I read Madame Bovary again. When I first read the book, Emma to me was so much more than the main character of an exceedingly well written story. She was a lens with which to see and understand the world. She, with some moderation, was a metaphor for the average joe you could sympathize with. A person living a truncated and unfulfilled life, eternally caught in the currents of destiny which are too strong for him to affect and too inscrutable for him to comprehend. Every move that he makes to counter his predicament only serves to lodge him deeper into the morass, thus setting up a delicious example of the human condition if one were to be a little heartless in one's descriptions. There are other characters in the book which are less useful in this sense than Emma. Homais is eventually irritating because he ends up succeeding. What must surely be an inner life in Homais which is monstrously ravaged by insecurity and conflict is too little comfort for me as a reader and as an observer. Charles, Emma's husband, is a useless idiot (as opposed to a useful idiot). He does not have the intelligence or curiosity to understand that he is doomed and, consequently, does not have the sensitivity to make something beautiful out of his predicament. Even in his eventual grief he is entirely unoriginal, copying directly from that great master (mistress?) of cosmic tragedy -- his deceased wife Emma.

This was a bit of a digression but it goes on to show what good literature can do to the brain. Such delicious morsels of thoughts, such interesting perspectives do not emerge in vacuum but are easily germinated in the fertile grounds of a master storyteller's words.

For regular readers of this blog (both of them) it should come as no surprise that I am no fan of modern technology. Over the last ten years, my opinion concerning such aspects of daily life (for many people) as the smartphone, social networks, and increasing algorithmic intervention has morphed from an initial enthusiasm and utter fascination, transitioning through a stage of increasing skepticism as to their merits, and finally now resting on a solid crystallization marked by utter hostility. Even before the idea was cool - which makes me a hipster of sorts - I had deleted my Facebook account and had never bothered to deal with the various other ephemera of the online social existence which seems to now have such a vice grip on the social glottis. It is absolutely clear to me that the technological revolution which has taken root since the middle of the first decade of this millennium has, on balance, been utterly poisonous to both society and to the humanity of individuals. On a social level it has caused massive mayhem in both the western and the eastern worlds by accentuating the worst tendencies of a human being. His propensity to believe in bullshit when it is soothing to him, his pathetic inclination to root for his tribe no matter how ridiculous it may be, and his infinite capacity to rain wrath on the members of tribes he does not agree with. On a human level, the effects of technology have also been disastrous as they have reduced what should have been reasonably functioning human beings to slavish automatons continuously glued to their screens, always plugged in to the world of infinite facts but little understanding. I think that it is a legitimate question to ask that the person you see walking on the sidewalk, his eyes on his smartphone as he absentmindedly maneuvers the perils of city traffic, or the one you see sitting at a restaurant table lost in the virtual world as her real life friends sit by doing the same, is actually human. Or is he/she a member of some new species of sub-humans which has risen out of this technological revolution? A queer specimen who on the face of it seems to have lost the ability of self-reflection and who seems to engage with human emotions purely in cliches. He/she probably can still feel pain but having lost the ability to think about it in a coherent manner responds to it in highly templated ways. In the absence of self-reflection (and how could they self-reflect as self-reflection takes time and an openness to boredom) it appears that life to them must be a bit like how it is to lower creatures. A set of essentially unconnected stimuli the canned responses to which are readily accessible in the interwebs. The entire structure of the web then is the opium which drugs these individuals into a kind of stupor which characterizes the unthinking, unexamined lives of lesser animals than humans.

Do I feel superior in this situation? Do I feel that I took the right steps at the right time and that it has worked well for me? You bet I do.