It was 1999, the year when I had to begin preparing for the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam) which is the nationwide exam to get into one of the 7 IITs in India at that time. Every single one of my friends who was even remotely serious about passing the exam had joined one coaching or the other. I decided not to. I did pass the exam but I'd probably have done better had I done what others did. I don't regret that decision because of two reasons: I'm now doing what I love to do anyway and I think Indians tend to highly overestimate the importance of an IIT education (especially if they graduated from one.) Still, sometimes I wonder why I decided not to join a coaching. That was the first major decision, as far as I can remember, where I made a conscious choice to not follow the flow.

It should come as no surprise that there is a part of me which would like to believe that that decision was inspired by a courageous stance of rebellion. That would most probably be delusional though. The truth, as far as I can tell, is that I was and have always been at a loss when it comes to understanding and appreciating the various forms through which social wisdom is dispensed. The great social machinery which chuffs and hums with stunning harmony might as well be a secret cabal to me. The customs of all of its groups have always appeared foreign. I seem to have stood outside of its circle of mysterious inner workings. And I don't think that I ever chose to be so aloof. Most of those early decisions which might now be mistaken as rebellious in hindsight were taken, as I now understand, purely out of my own hesitation and confusion. This includes not only not doing a coaching but also leaving my job and coming to the US for a PhD. This includes many other personal decisions as well. The overwhelming forces that have shaped my life have been indecision and hesitation, and this I am quite convinced of. Brighter, more ambitious people than me might as well have their lives and goals laid out in front of them but that was never my position.

Over the years I did notice something important though. I noticed that, as far as I can tell, I don't really regret anything from past and I do not feel anxious about the future (at most times anyway.) I noticed that I see my own situation in life as having emerged from a series of accidents, to which I have more or less only been a passive witness. And this series of accidents has landed me at a point where I can lay claim to a certain sense of inner peace and contentment. Perhaps others possess these qualities to a greater degree than I do. Perhaps not. They don't seem to, at least. This observation - that a life created from accidents can find contentment and one which is built upon foresight and wisdom often fails to do so - has sown great doubts within me. Does anybody know what they are talking about?

In defense of arrogance

I remember a conversation that I was having with someone many years ago in San Diego. The talk came to the topic of books at which point I mentioned, in gushing overtones, the incredible joy I found in reading Catch-22. "Of course you would, since it's such a sarcastic book," came the immediate response. That person was a good friend of a good friend and at that moment, politeness and civility barely managed to eke out a slim victory over a harsh and stinging response. The statement was correct (only partially of course) but the person making it was not the correct person.

I'd have taken the exact same comment with good humor had it been made by some specific people that I have known in my life (countable on the fingers of one hand.) These people, in my opinion, were well read (better than me in any case) and had developed an acute thought process over time. In my eyes they had earned the proper right to make such a comment and be taken seriously. Those who are brought up on a steady dose of bestsellers, suspense thrillers, book-club suggestions, self-help trash, and young adult garbage would be well advised to at least cultivate humility in these matters. Their observations are better suited to a much more monochromatic world. One in which a hero is always good and he has to suffer in order to be good, one where there is such a thing as pure love which is excruciatingly painful but ultimately redemptive, one which deals with the inevitable besting of adversaries and adverse situations in a long and linear story-line culminating in a success which could not have been otherwise, one with simple morals and certainties for the simple people that they are geared towards. Quality sarcasm of the Voltaire and Heller variety is a domain these people have no business commenting upon.

It is clear to me that this attitude, which I hold in all walks of life, can be taken as extremely arrogant, especially in this society which teaches how unique and special everybody is and, by extension, how valuable everybody's opinion is. I disagree on both counts. I disagree that this is arrogance and I obviously disagree that every individual is special in the sense that his/her opinion is worth listening to. What is referred to as arrogance is often just a pruning mechanism: an essential tool for separating the wheat from the chaff. I think everybody has this general attitude to differing degrees and in different domains. What they do not like is when it is directed against them. I am perfectly fine with it. I have met some very "arrogant" professors and have been at the receiving end of their impatience and brusqueness but I have always felt okay if there was something backing up their "arrogance" (specifically, some relevant talent or understanding that they had which I understood to be much more refined than it was in me.) I felt that not only was this behavior efficient on their part but it was also a rite of passage for me. To not expect respect for my opinions automatically - this is a deep lesson I learned from the "arrogance" of those who could carry it well. On the other hand arrogance in those who are incompetent in a certain domain really drives me up the wall, from whom I expect humility instead. However, this is never true. In this life I have always found that those who understand the least are also the most confident. They are the quickest to offer what they consider is their very special and singular insight. And the world is full of such people - they spend their days watching trash TV, reading trash magazines, following the humdrum lives of others through social media, who then feel no hesitation in moonlighting as the great philosophers of life. In this world I find that a little arrogance is essential in maintaining my own sanity.

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The truly conventional and dreadfully boring people talk about their day but the interesting ones talk about ideas. And it was over a conversation with an interesting friend recently that I came upon an idea, a part of my personality, which I was not aware of, at least with any sort of clarity, earlier. Our conversation came to the general topic of extra-sensory perceptions and I have, as a matter of principle and practicality, always maintained that it is all a lot of hot air. That wasn't the point that I found interesting though. It is absolutely idiotic to argue whether there is a God or not and I try not to lower myself to to the depths of intellect where I'd be forced to partake in such a conversation. Similarly it is absolutely ridiculous to argue about other supernatural phenomenon and it is waste of life to argue one way or the other. However, it is supremely interesting to think about whether one would like the possibility of a given supernatural phenomenon and if yes then why. Because it tells something deep about the person in question, about his or her personality. During the conversation I mentioned that I see two broad categories of people in this regard, one which is simple minded and numerous in its members and the other which is devious and very small. However, the latter category is small only because people are hypocritical and cowardly, especially when it comes to those characteristics in them which they see as being flawed.

The categories are with respect to the question, whether one would like the possibility of life after death and the possibility of any communication between the two realms. Allowing for this possibility may be greatly consoling for those who have lost someone dear (but perhaps not.) In this respect the first category comprises of those who would not want to accept this possibility but would instead try to provide an alternative form of hope. This hope generally goes along the lines of this life being precious and meant to be enjoyed, a life which is but waiting to be distilled into whatever meaning one would like it to have. The vision is one of a great and curious explorer, one who looks courageously in the distance, his eyes set forward, and has no business looking back and no need for much consolation from without. I do not belong to this category but to the second one. The second category comprises of those who, again, would not like to accept this supernatural possibility but would like to provide no hope and no redemptive possibility either. I did not have to think twice in order to conclude that I had no interest in being in the first category and that it was, indeed, the second one where I naturally felt at ease. The follow up question, obviously, is why, and the answer to this is not very clear to me. A related question, which I asked my friend, was on the nature of the kind of God that one would like to have. Whether one would like for there to be a benevolent God - who then must be incompetent in order to account for the great misery in this world - or whether one would like for there to be a devious, vile God who is having fun at the expense of poor humans. Again, I'd go for the latter. I feel that it lends more meaning and more dignity to human misery than a bumbling buffoon almighty who just happens to suck at his job. I ultimately have infinitely more respect for an intelligent and devious entity than a foolish and "good" one. And this perhaps is the central point here. My vested interest is not in whether the world turns out good or bad or whether people turn out happy or sad. I do not feel any automatic connection to the broad liberal goals of human emancipation and/or environmental protection, seeing much of it as a perverse extreme of self-congratulatory and self-delusional behavior anyway. My vested interest, which is much more modest, is only in whether they turn out interesting or insipid. A peaceful world full of good and happy people is the stuff of my nightmares. Like the very limited imagination of those who dream of it and hope for it, this world is pale, colorless, tasteless, featureless, and pointless.

Now, as he reviewed his past, he saw into what a deep rut he had sunk. The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else. At least that was the view that the men of his generation had taken. The trenchant divisions between right and wrong, honest and dishonest, respectable and the reverse, had left so little scope for the unforeseen. There are moments when a man's imagination, so easily subdued to what it lives in, suddenly rises above its daily level, and surveys the long windings of destiny. Archer hung there and wondered...

Nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance that the world had traveled. People nowadays were too busy - busy with reforms and 'movements', with fads and fetishes and frivolities - to bother much about their neighbors. And of what account was anybody's past, in the huge kaleidoscope where all the social atoms spun around on the same plane?...

Archer did not accompany his son to Versailles. He preferred to spend the afternoon in solitary roamings through Paris. He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.

-from The Age of Innocence

Deadly Duo

Over the last 10 years I have noticed my entire personality move towards the cynical end of the spectrum and this transformation has occurred, no doubt, from the confluence of both my scientific training and my humble dabbling into such areas as philosophy and literature. Let me explain.

While it is a cliche to say that the most important trait of good scientific training is a liberally sprinkled dose of deep skepticism, there is some truth to it just as there is some truth to all cliches. Generally this skepticism is confined to specific scientific disciplines or, if allowed to fester any further, still limited by the confines of all things technical. This skepticism teaches not to take everything that one is told at face value, to check and recheck and to try to separate facts from fiction. When applied to scientific disciplines it imparts the self-correcting and self-doubting characters which are so central to their existence. It also teaches, as a corollary, to develop some degree of humility as one can never be too sure of one's own positions. And it also teaches, ideally at least, that an opinion is only as good as the force of its argument, its merit is divorced from its agency. This is all well and good for scientific disciplines but this kind of general skepticism does not go down well in society. People derive a lot of their self-worth from the statuses that are implicitly granted to them through the mere accumulation of years. They become old and  with age they automatically seem to assume that their ideas also become wise. They win prizes and get promoted and really start to buy into the delusion that they have important things to say. Of course, in their delusions they are helped by the unquestioning minions who form the bulk of our regimented social structures. I am skeptical of the wisdom of people and I wonder how much of them is actually them and how much is merely a sum total of others. Since I fail to automatically ascribe wisdom and worth in this fashion, I also fail to ascribe automatic respect. They take this attitude as arrogance and I can only scoff at their ignorance! Respect, I have long maintained, is merely charity in disguise and I find it very hard to be charitable. What is generally taken as arrogance is in fact merely apathy. Apathy towards whatever an individual may think his/her opinion is worth. In a mutual conversation I will be the judge of how much they are really worth.

A healthy reading habit is not good for anybody and it certainly has not been good for me as far as my being a well functioning social member is concerned. There are patterns in human behavior and in history which are revealed by books. Circular, mindless, repetitive patterns which end as abruptly as they begin. An individual doesn't exist for an incredibly long time and then ceases to exist forever. And between these two eternities and for a very short duration he goes about mostly following orders in predictable patterns which have been laid out for him by forces larger than him and beyond his comprehension. What kind of an existence is that? Not only is his life pointless and ridiculous in eternity, it is also pointless in this life. Of course he tries to make it better by actively cultivating many delusions. He really does seem to believe that things matter, that his ideas matter, that his life matters, and that his possessions matter. It is all rather amusing as I sit around sometimes thinking about how much I know about my own ancestors from only three generations ago! Virtually nil. They ceased to exist and with their cessation almost everything that they might have thought important and eternal. Vanished into thin air just as I will. At least I do not harbor any delusions of grandeur or permanence and I do not take such ideas seriously in others either. Out of politeness, decorum, social propriety, and a fear of being throw out, however, I refrain from telling people how pointless their lives are. And sometimes I wonder whether there is camaraderie to be found in this view of life, whether happiness, if only in the form of mockery, can emerge from this effluvia and I am sure that it can and it does. Even with the incredibly intense cynicism which dwells within me, I find myself inexplicably content, even happy. And in the company of similar minded people who, above all, do not take themselves and others too seriously, I have often found such moments of joy which might appear fictional to those who are hilariously and permanently tied to the many yokes that they have chosen for themselves.

Russian literature of a certain era

The most pointless people that I have met have all been conventionally happy with their lives. Their general state of lukewarm satisfaction results in a certain kind of intellectual morbidity, cowardliness, and superficiality in them and my dislike for these characteristics explains, in turn, my aversion with social media. Social media is infested with pointless people, plain and simple. On the other end of the spectrum, I am endlessly fascinated by the darkness which so often accompanies tragedy and travail which is perhaps why I have such a fascination with Russian literature of a certain era.

Russia, during the years ranging roughly from the 1820s to the 1930s, produced a canon of literary work whose impact, not heft, rivals that produced by any other country over any other time period. In excellence it more than stands up against the French, the English, the Spanish, and the German traditions. In that one century Russia produced writers of such brilliance as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky, Turgenev, and Nabokov with such classics as The Overcoat, The Idiot, Anna Karenina, Lolita, Eugene Onegin, and many more. I would consider any of these books to be more important and more deep than any single book ever produced by any American writer. This is not to say that American writers have not been good but that Russian writers of a certain era were unusually brilliant. And I often wonder why that was the case. I also wonder about a related question: why was this kind of success never emulated in India (at least in Hindi literature with which I have some familiarity).

The Russia of let's say Tolstoy is an exceedingly grim place. It shivers under the perpetually frigid temperatures of the northern cold and it trips, falls, and huddles into a corner under its dark depressing skies. It is too cold for the general visions of healthy, plentiful, agricultural farms to breathe; instead, the only beauty it ever presents is the dead beauty of colorless, barren Siberian landscapes. There's widespread poverty of the general population, a direct result, no doubt, of a dictatorial monarchy which outlasted any other in Europe, finally overthrown only to be replaced by the more brutal reign of Communism. The life of the common man in such a place is a very tough one. While he is squeezed from one side by the unrelenting elements of nature, he is dehumanized from the other by a gargantuan, unsympathetic, and humiliating bureaucracy. His existence is fraught with the kinds of limitations that one can only dream of in the modern Western world. And with such monstrous institutional and natural limitations in place, the weak and pathetic common man indeed becomes a very interesting person. He must limit his dreams in order just to survive and he must grow used to being kicked around and denied the very little that he wanted in the first place. With his entire human vitality suppressed within the confines of his own sorry self he gains a depth of emotions which cannot be matched by those who have had a happy existence, by those whose wishes have been more or less granted. I think Russia, of a certain age, presented to its great intellectuals the potential building materials of a deep storytelling tradition. There was enough misery to provide the raw material but not enough censorship to stifle creativity when it arose. The latter part is what changed after the 1930s when the Bolshevik jokers took it upon themselves to treat Russian literature as their propaganda vehicle.

Why did America never produce anything comparable? Because people living here have always been far happier than their Russian counterparts. The only worthwhile voices amidst a sea of literary mediocrity are from those who were and are deeply affected by that peculiarly American malaise: horrific isolation and pointlessness which result in an utterly materialistic society. However, this sense of desperation is an individual experience by definition, as opposed to the communal desperation of 19th century Russia. The American sense of desperation is felt more or less only by some people of adequate sensitivity. Everybody else is busy buying shit.

The Gifted Reader

...for just as the universal family of gifted writers transcends national barriers, so is the gifted reader a universal figure... It is he - the good, the excellent reader - who has saved the artist again and again from being destroyed by emperors, dictators, priests, puritans, philistines, political moralists, policemen, postmasters, and prigs. Let me define this admirable reader. He does not belong to any nation or class. No director of conscience and no book club can manage his soul. His approach to a work of fiction is not governed by those juvenile emotions that make the mediocre reader identify himself with this or that character and "skip description." The good, the admirable reader identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book. The admirable reader does not seek information about Russia in a Russian novel, for he knows that the Russia of Tolstoy or Chekhov is not the average Russia of history but a specific world imagined and created by individual genius. The admirable reader is not concerned with general ideas: he is interested in the particular vision. He likes the novel not because it helps him to get along with the group (to use a diabolical progressive-school cliche); he likes the novel because he imbibes and understands every detail of the text, enjoys what the author meant to be enjoyed, beams inwardly and all over, is thrilled by the magic imageries of the master forger, the fancy-forger, the conjurer, the artist. Indeed, of all the characters that a great artist creates, his readers are the best.

-Vladimir Nabokov

My Madeleine Moment

One of the greatest masterpiece of all of literature in any language is Marcel Proust's seven volume collection of his reminiscences. And it begins with the softest of whimpers imaginable. With the taste of a Madeleine dipped in a cup of tea. The sensation engenders an automatic train of thoughts and memories which form the basis of the seven books. Proust describes this phenomenon with his characteristically stunning touch:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

Neither my imagination nor my language skills are even in the same ballpark as Proust's but if I were to think of a similar effect in my own life it would have to be the sound of certain lines from Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man. I am specifically talking about parts from the last stanza which go:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

I am sure that poets more talented than Dylan (although it would be hard to think of one) have written more beautiful and more perfect lines than the above and I am also sure that musicians more gifted than him (again, hard to find I think) have composed much more melodious songs. However, the above lines somehow very deeply connect me to the vast Pacific ocean and to a time which I think was the most formative one in my life. I have fond memories of picking up my motorcycle after work and riding, almost daily, to the North Torrey Pines beach. Of parking my bike right next to the road which lay parallel to the beach itself and gazing out at the ocean for hours on end. At times I would be late enough that the Sun had already set but it was never too cold in San Diego for a motorcycle ride. And in those evening and those nights, under the dim and vague lights of the diffused stars, with the background soundtrack of a distant and muffled ocean and with a refreshingly cold breeze blowing from the west, I'd find myself lost (find myself lost!) at the sight of an otherwise black ocean illuminated in part by the reflection of the moon. Of course, the external reality of many such nights either reflected, in synchrony or opposition, my own internal self. Far too often I sought to find both refuge and consolation in the infinitude of the mighty Pacific and I think this is why Dylan's lines remind me so much of that particular experience. His lines, more than anything else, are in search of a consolation which does not exist outside of the infinite. And there is nothing in a human life unmoored from religion which is infinite. Contemplation of nature, in fits and start, does provide such moments though.

The windy beach of Mr. Tambourine Man is not a cold and distant concept to me. It is deeply connected to my nerve endings through the still visceral touch of the salty streak of moisture which once left the corner of my eye only to disappear in my hair. I did carve out lazy patterns in the sand as the waves crashed a few feet away and stood by as their impressions were slowly dissolved by the advancing waters. I still remember the piercing aloofness of a distant figure visible only in silhouette against the ocean, its entire substance engulfed and expressed merely as a vanishingly unimportant negative to the vast, imposing, and infinite positive of the Pacific.

In this hyper connected world, it seems to me that my own existence is a relatively spartan one. I used to have a Facebook account but do not anymore and I don't have any other social accounts, at least none that I still remember the password of, either. My Moto-E phone has further simplified my life by have a camera which sucks so much that I never feel inclined to take a photo. Which is just as well because the act of taking a photo appears ridiculous to me on various levels. The need to share them with others is more so.  I haven't fallen into the trap of trying to quantify every aspect of my life with gadgetry (fit-bit, smartwatch) and I try my best to not allow "intelligent" algorithms to dictate what I should buy, who I should connect with, what I should listen to etc. This means permanently disabling things which might, on occasion, be helpful such as Google Now, Cortana, all personalized search results, location on the phone. I have found that I do not miss these features and life goes on well enough for me without them.

There is an explanation to these tendencies of mine and it can be seen either from a negative point of view or a positive one. I am contemptuous of groupthink and have been so as long as I can remember. To me the joy of connectedness that comes with belonging to a group is not worth the loss of individuality. And this loss is not merely a temporary one. People in groups not only seem to think alike but they also seem to lose the ability to admit that they might be wrong. Their ideas are often mediocre because they are not theirs to begin with. They belong to the group and there is very little either of interest or of any truth beyond that which deals strictly with insipid practicality. This insipid practicality is nothing more than the survival of the group a fact which becomes evident when you peel off the layers of self-delusion which the members too often display. There is also a strong desire to conform and seek acceptance and approval from others. I think these tendencies are demeaning to free human beings. Similarly I am contemptuous of certain kinds of technologies as well, and for various reasons. Not only do I think that the march of technology will be a ruinous one to human societies in the absence of humanistic interventions, but I also think that any ground one gives to them makes one a little less human. The transference of the will and decision making capacity of free human beings to faceless algorithms is not worth the convenience that comes with them.

The above is essentially the negative explanation. Its essence is a freewheeling contempt and I think well directed, surgical contempt is important in a personality which seeks to achieve a semblance of peace with itself, what it has, and what it has achieved. The positive angle is my conception of a "worthy" individual and how this idea gets trampled within large groups. A free human being who is always flawed, understands it, understands that the flaws are part of his destiny, and yet tries to make sense of the world to the best of his abilities. One who doesn't try to actively delude himself and has courage enough to accept the very real possibility that the future might be bleak and his life purposeless. Amidst this darkness, one who can still conduct himself with a bit of humor and humanity, one who can still laugh at his own misfortunes and, if it is still allowed, at the misfortunes of others as well. In other words one who still displays the entire spectrum of human emotions good, bad, and evil.

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