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.

The roots of Hinduism

I have been reading a lot lately on the history of the Indian civilization. History of India by John Keay is a brilliant book which charts the often murky civilizational developments in the areas which now roughly constitute India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan over the last 5000 years. The book is relatively light on details when it talks about the time period spanning 3000 to about 1000 BC but is quite detailed about more modern times, especially charting very well the various Mongolian, Turkish, Persian, and British invasions of the subcontinent. While the latter time period is historically clearer and also more important to the development of the religion and culture as we know them today, the earlier time period is much more interesting when it comes to figuring out who the ancestors were to the modern Indians, where they came from , and what the roots of the Hindu religion were. This is where John Keay's otherwise excellent book is lacking. I am currently reading Asko Parpola's brilliant The Roots of Hinduism which sheds an eye-opening light on the earlier time period. Parpola presents compelling archaeological and linguistic arguments to answer one of the deepest questions when it comes to the ancestry of the Indian people (at least the North Indians anyway). In what ways are the modern Indians connected to the ancient Indus valley civilization, also known as the Harappan civilization?

The Indus valley civilization was a large civilization which coexisted with the Egyptian civilization and spanned a very large area around the Indus river and its tributaries. Its ruins have been found all over Pakistan, Afghanistan and Western India and they represent a highly advanced culture especially when it comes to town planning. The Indus valley script has eluded decipherment even after more than a century of intense interest. In comparison, the Egyptian hieroglyphs have been successfully decoded mainly due to the fortunate discovery of the Rosetta stone. Indian nationalists have had a deep interest in connecting the current culture to the Indus valley civilization as it presumably lends great prestige and antiquity to the Hindu religion. However, as nationalists everywhere, the Indian nationalists are not very intelligent, relying more on emotions than on logic, reasoning, and evidence. Parpola presents compelling evidence, mostly linguistic in nature, which would make it hard for a reasonable person to disagree with his central conclusion - the connection between Hinduism and the Indus valley civilization are very tenuous and the case against it is quite strong. Sanskrit, that great Hindu language, from which emerge the majority of the modern Indian languages, especially north Indian languages, shares great similarities with other ancient languages such as Greek and Latin. In fact major languages in the Indian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Iranian, and Armenian regions share deep similarities with each other and they all derive from the now extinct Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. By studying the similarities and differences in the words of these related languages, linguists have been able to reconstruct PIE itself. On the other hand, by studying the archaeological evidences which relate to seals and inscriptions researchers have been able to map out the trajectory of the migrations of the PIE speakers. It appears that the PIE speakers dwelled somewhere in the present day Ukraine and moved from there to inhabit the rest of Europe, Persia, and the subcontinent, the latter around the 1800 BC time frame. The oldest Hindu scripture, the Rigveda, is believed to have been penned (obviously not by any single person) around 1500 BC and its gods and rituals again share deep similarities with the ancient Greek and Persian gods. Another indication of shared historical roots. The Indus valley people were already in the region (~2500 BC) much before the PIE people ventured here and it is the PIE people and their traditions from which Hinduism derives the overwhelming bulk of its religious history and culture. This includes all of its Vedas and all of its subsequent epics. In fact the closest relation that the Indus valley civilization has with any existing cultures in India is possibly with the Dravidian people and its languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and most directly Brahui). The fact that it is Hinduism which is practiced in Southern India is a relatively recent phenomenon aided by the north to south migration of the people who originally descended from the PIE speakers.

Useless solidarity

There was another attack on Paris. Very sad indeed but the more poignant article is this and it serves to elucidate the absolute lack of perspective with which people respond to news in today's news climate. I noticed that YouTube has started featuring the French flag which has also become a sort of a background for the profile pictures of many on Facebook. This is meant to represent solidarity with the French but is anything but. For companies like Google such displays of solidarity are little more than vehicles by which they say to their users that they are considerate corporations and not the power hungry behemoths that they really are. And for people, well the people will wait for the next tragedy so that they could use it to spice up their own empty lives and useless narratives. In the meantime these people will forget this tragedy soon enough and move on to posting their selfies and pictures of food. Very soon they will move on to doing what they do best on social media - selling themselves for the meaningless likes and approval of others.

I am not surprised anymore by either the opportunistic behavior of corporations or the blatant self-promotion (disguised more benevolently mind you) of individuals. But let's spare a thought for those who died and for those who were close to them and are still alive. Do they deserve the travesty that is this fake concern? This ridiculously dishonest veneer? I have always wanted to ask the following question to the many who I thought were faking it: Are you really concerned for a cause or do you just want to appear like a good human being in front of me and others? In other words, are you a real human being or just completely full of shit? I feel that for many many people the honest answer to this question is "yes, unfortunately I am just completely full of shit." This is the real answer that they would have given had they not been so completely full of shit.

Let's also stop here and think about those killed in Beirut and the downed Russian plane recently. Their lives are of no lesser value than the Parisians. Just because the news media doesn't find their stories juicy enough doesn't mean that the grief of their relatives is any less. For that matter let's also think about the innocent people who are killed every day by anonymous drones hovering out of sight on one hand and by the religious fanatics on the other. Most likely these people are the collateral damage of your solutions. And when our minds start reeling from the many conflicting facets of the story, from the relentless carnage, let's stop and think about how idiotic we appear when we decide to put some meaningless symbol of non-existence solidarity on our Facebook profiles just so that we could get some likes.

Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless...?

He repeated to himself the lines of Shelley's fragment. Its alternation of sad human ineffectiveness with vast inhuman cycles of activity chilled him, and he forgot his own human and ineffectual grieving.

From The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by Joyce

The consumer society

It is frequently said that we live in a consumers' society, and, since,... labor and consumption are but two stages of the same process, imposed upon man by the necessities of life, this is only another way of saying that we live in a society of laborers. This society did not come about through the emancipation of the laboring classes but by the emancipation of the laboring activity itself, which preceded by centuries the political emancipation of laborers. The point is not that for the first time in history laborers were admitted and given equal rights in the public realm, but that we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of "making a living"; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only "worker" left in a laboring society...

The hope that inspired Marx and the best men of the various workers' movements - that free time eventually will emancipate men from necessity and make the animal laborans productive - rests on the illusion of a mechanistic philosophy which assumes that labor power, like any other energy, can never be lost, so that if it is not spent and exhausted in the drudgery of life it will automatically nourish other "higher," activities... A hundred years after Marx we know the fallacy of this reasoning that the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites... The outcome is what is euphemistically called mass culture, and its deep rooted trouble is a universal unhappiness, due on one side to the troubled balance between laboring and consumption and, on the other, to the persistent demands of the animal laborans to obtain a happiness which an be achieved only where life's processes of exhaustion and regeneration, pain and release from pain, strike a perfect balance. The universal demand for happiness and the widespread unhappiness in our society (and these are but two sides of the same coin) are among the most persuasive sign that we have begun to live in a labor society which lacks enough laboring to keep it contented. For only the animal loborens, and neither the craftsman nor the man of action, has ever demanded to be "happy" or thought that mortal men could be happy.

...The easier that life has become in a consumers' or laborers' society, the more difficult it will be to remain aware of the urges of necessity by which it is driven, even when pain and effort, the outward manifestations of necessity, are hardly noticeable at all. The danger is that such a society, dazzled by the abundance of its growing fertility and caught in the smooth functioning of a never ending process, would no longer be able to recognize it own futility - the futility of a life which "does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject which endures after its labor is past"

-Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition

I remember meeting up with some old friends of mine from college on a trip back to India several years ago. This was in Delhi and we decided to go to a restaurant for dinner. The place might have been in the posh locale of Connaught place but my memory isn't the most reliable when it comes to these things. What I do remember though with much vividness were the exorbitant food prices there and what surprised me more than anything else was how comfortable everybody else was with them. The prices were dearer than what they would have been in the US if I had made a direct conversion to the USD. This time when I went to India I noticed a place selling a cup of coffee for Rs. 300 which is equivalent to around $5. It'd be hard to find a 5 dollar coffee in the US outside of the yuppie circuses.

And it is really a circus. Both here and back in India. A circus which is made up of people who have more money than brains and whose utter lack of appreciation for the value of things is rivaled only by the maniacal consumptive streak that they exhibit like pack animals. This consumptive streak is not accidental either. It is their substitute for any real meaning to their lives, any real issues and agendas, any intellectual or emotional depth, and any structure which might transcend their own individual selves or their own futile lives. This is the emergence of a new kind of human being, one whose dawn perhaps coincided with the prosperity which followed the West after the second world war. The kind of prosperity which can now be found in parts of India and China as well. This is the emergence of Nietzsche's last man. A person entirely defined by market relationships. In some sense I actually do not mind the high prices themselves as I understand that the prices of things are what people are ready to pay for them. What I do mind are the kind of people who are ready to pay these prices. I do mind the kind of society that these people constitute. I imagine having to meet one of them and having to listen to all the shit that they did not need but bought anyway. The purchase of the newest gadget, fanciest car, the small batch, fair trade, handcrafted, artisanal, and organic coffee beans straight from Peru. And of course the fancy new contraption that they had to buy in order to convert those coffee beans into the perfect cup of coffee.

I have met such people and I can recall with much clarity the sequence of feelings that I have felt at such moments. Bewilderment at the importance which is being given to such an inconsequential activity as buying something, amazement at how much I do not care to know, and the intensity with which I realize that the sum total of the joy that these people seem to feel in the moment is not worth the seconds of my life which are wasted listening to their drivel. Let's talk about topics less self-obsessed and more permanent.

There is a curious dichotomy that I notice nowadays. Technology has provided people with more sources of knowledge and information than ever before in history. There are search engines one could query, Wikipedia articles one can refer to, or read entire books which are now available at one's fingertips. Despite all this information at his disposal, however, the average person appears more ignorant than ever before. He appears ignorant of local and global history, ignorant of world affairs, ignorant of politics and geopolitics, ignorant of basic economics, philosophy, ignorant of his own roots and ignorant of his own position as an individual in this world. How does one explain this in an age which provides unlimited potential for knowledge through technology? The issue is that the average person consciously chooses to ignore all the advantageous aspects of new technology and concentrate on taking and sharing selfies, on spouting, re-spouting, and re-tweeting his observations or the observations of his friends, on basing his entire understanding of the world on simplified explanations from simpleminded people. He reads what passes off as literature nowadays, LoTR, Harry Potter, Hunger Games and then considers himself a book-lover because it is cool to be a book lover. Perhaps he even deludes himself into thinking that he is literate after all and in this delusion he is helped by the many degrees which society has heaped on him. BE, MS, PhD and many other such balderdash which have nothing automatically to do with intellect.

All people are born idiots which is to say that they have no automatic interesting ideas to begin with and no intelligence to write home about. Children, as young people, make up for their lack of intellect with a freewheeling and spontaneous attitude and this transaction is very appropriate for their age. This is, in fact, an automatic transaction and it keeps the world colorful. No gravity should, therefore, be expected of kids and young people. However, the continuation of idiocy in older people is embarrassing and this is what I see in the modern world. I am too much of a cynic to have the romantic idea that there was ever a time when the world was bubbling with a citizenry which on the whole was reasonable. I don't think this was ever the case but I do think that the prevalence of simplemindedness is increasing and that it is being fueled by the modern obsession with technology. In this world we have equated information with knowledge and this is a deep mistake. Not only because the two are not equivalent but also because it allows those who are intellectually bereft to hide in the shadows and pretend that their opinions are worth more than they really are. And this you notice in all the comment sections on the internet which, one gets the feeling, are fueled mostly by Google searches and superficial understanding of issues. Why is this understanding superficial? There are roughly two sets of people from whom one learns in this world. The first set comprises of those with whom we come in direct or indirect personal contact and with any luck we will find a few in this bunch who will teach us something lasting and worthwhile. But more often than not this first bunch will comprise of no such people in which case the best that can be expected is that we at least learn that there is a wide and complex world out there which requires careful thinking to unravel. The second bunch is made up of those who are vastly more intelligent than one is and contact with them is an indirect and conscious choice and is in the form of books, music, essays etc. It is only in the company of this second set of people that one can train our otherwise uncultivated brains to think in shades of grey and it is this component which is missing in the modern deluge of connectedness. When we derive all or most of our understanding from our fellow human being through Facebook then we understand nothing at all. We remain the idiots that we were born as, except this time with no saving grace at all.

Yossarian's lesson

One of the most enjoyable books that I remember reading is Catch-22. I am sure that this book has featured amply in my musings on this blog over the years and I keep going back to it as the definitive example of an entire genre, as the most brilliant exposition of the reaction of a sane man to an insane world. This man, Yossarian, has in him the complete essence of such amazing contemporary thinkers as George Carlin and Bill Hicks. He shares with the latter both a sense of lost idealism and the resulting cynicism run amok. I think, however, that cynicism is the rational reaction of those who can think to this world. And I think Yossarian is a rationalist par excellence.

Yossarian is an American fighter pilot in the second world war and all he wants to achieve in the war is to get out of it alive. For this he is chastised by his fellow soldiers and his bosses and treated as a madman. The essential reason why this is so is the following: the bosses have invented a fiction for personal gain (the concept of patriotism) and the foot-soldiers believe in it because they are not very intelligent and cannot see through the charade. The bosses, therefore, are evil and manipulative and want to portray Yossarian as a madman because he confronts their narrative and puts their personal benefits at risk by doing so. The soldiers want to do the same to Yossarian because they really do think that there is something inherently worthy about being patriotic, not realizing its cynical roots. Yossarian then, despite appearances, is neither evil, nor manipulative, nor an enthusiastic trouble maker. He is merely an honest intelligent person caught among those who are stupid and honest and those who are smart and evil.

This is the essential quandary of this world and, therefore, the rational response of a reasonably intelligent person who is honest with himself is cynicism. In this world narratives are created for personal benefits by those who have authority (or by structures of authority) so as to perpetuate and solidify their own existence. These narratives are blindly assimilated by the vast majority who does not or can not see through the complex interconnections. Not only do they assimilate these narratives but through incessant repetition they start to ascribe to them qualities which are external to them. Qualities such as good, proper, honorable, desirable, and worthy. And by buying into these narratives people turn themselves into mere tools, mere robots at the beck and call of a machinery that is vastly more complex and interconnected than they can fathom. What are the examples of this machinery in action? A simple example is consumerism. There's no end to what people can want and it is up to the industrial machinery to make people want more at all times. To satisfy what people consider as their need but which is merely a cynically created want by external agencies, they need to work harder and harder and perpetuate the very industry which created the want in the first place. But to make the process work seamlessly society has to create its own justifications beyond setting up newer and ever changing standards of desire. It has to create ladders of success and it has to assign goodness and worth to those who are more willing to climb it. It has to discourage and stamp out any instinct which goes against the merciless rat race. In short, it has to label those who ask difficult questions as madmen and misfits. This is the story of Yossarian all over again.

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