In Thomas Mann’s short story, The Path to the Cemetery , the central character, Piepsam Lobgott, is walking on the road to the cemetery. He ‘walked slowly, with lowered head, and supported himself on a black stick’. We are given a description of his face (‘smooth- shaven and pale’), nose (‘the dark rubicundity of which contrasted sharply with the dull pallor of the rest of the face’). We are told of his melancholy life, and that he drank. Mann goes on to explain how his addiction came about.

For you must know that ill fortune slays the dignity of a man – it is just as well to have a little insight into these things.

What follows is a remarkable insight into the human condition.

But self contempt and vice have a strange and horrible interrelationship: they feed each other, they play into each other’s hands, in a way to make one’s blood run cold. And that is the way it was with Piepsam. He drank because he did not respect himself, and he respected himself less and less because the continual shameful defeats of all his good resolutions devoured all his self-confidence.

This is just the part before the action begins. I can’t seem to find a link to the story online, but if you must read it, find it in The World’s Greatest Short Stories

captainpicardspeech2

I have vague memories of watching Star Trek (both the original series and the next generation or TNG) as a kid, mostly dominated by the quirky personas of Spock and Data. Watching Star Trek TNG on Netflix is, in a way, a walk down a memory lane where the memories have sadly not withstood the test of time. It is like re-discovering something that one had not quite discovered properly in the first place. And yet, even if I had watched it back then with the full force of my attention, I would have still missed the profound philosophical undertones of this wonderful series.

The year is 2364. The Enterprise, a Starfleet ship of a United Federation of Planets, is on its mission of deep space exploration, commandeered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his team that, notably, includes Data (an android), Deanna Troi (a betazoid who has telepathic abilities), and Worf (a Klingon). In the course of their voyages, one gets glimpses of different species inhabiting distant planets – each with their peculiar customs and beliefs, varying levels of technological advancement, and with names like the Ligonians, the Edo, and the Ferengi. Through the physical and moral challenges that Jean-Luc and his team face, one gets a sense of their ethos. There are references to the troubled history of war and violence as also capitalism out of which humans had evolved, to having stopped enslaving and killing animals for consumption, to the Prime Directive of not interfering with alien civilizations. The technological advances – of warp speed that allows travel faster than the speed of light, of teleportation, AI (as portrayed by the persona of Data), and space travel to distant galaxies  – are likely to be the stuff of fantasy for many years to come until we realize it, if we do. The portrayal of this distant future fills the gap in one’s imagination of what the world might look like 300 years from now. What separates the world of Star Trek from us is not merely time or the technological advancement, but also the ideology that looks back at the time we now inhabit for all that it is not. There is no nostalgia for the past, merely a sense of relief at having evolved out of it.

Fictional futures of the kind portrayed in Star Trek provide us with an idealized view of the future – one of space explorers that, much like the seafarers during the Age of Discovery, explore the far reaches of the galaxy but with a reformed ethos – to learn and understand and not interfere. An alternate view of the future may have humanity snuff itself out of existence or atrophy away on a desolate planet. It is the burden of every age to determine where this trajectory is headed, for the path to the future goes through us.

Parsing through old book notes, I found this wonderful passage from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell:

Schopenhauer in his splendid essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual”, points out that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have the consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggests that just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself which your consciousness is unaware, so too your life is composed by the will within you. And just as people whom you will have met apparently by mere chance become the leading agents in the structuring of your life, so too will you have served unknowingly as an agent, giving meaning to the lives of others. The whole thing gears together like one big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else. And Schopenhauer concludes that it is as though our lives were the features of one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too; so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will to life which is the universal will in nature.

The book is based on a series of 6 one-hour conversations between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell in 1988.

‘When some men suffer unjustly’, I said to myself, ‘it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it’

On the fringes of the Empire lies a frontier town administered by the magistrate, the narrator of the book, who hopes to live out the rest of his days in peace indulging in his hobby of uncovering ancient barbarian relics. The barbarians are the original inhabitants of the land – the natives who have been pushed further up north into arid lands by the Empire. While the magistrate knows they mean no harm, the Empire sends Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau, an intelligence wing of the Empire, to stave off any possible attack by the barbarians by sending a contingent of soldiers beyond the frontier to barbarian lands. The soldiers bring back prisoners and torture them to get information on the plans of the barbarians. Despite the magistrate’s protests, the Third Bureau have free reign to go about with their torture tactics, as described by Colonel Joll to the magistrate:

‘First I get lies, you see – this is what happens – first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth’

The magistrate tries at first to ignore the torture, but after the Third Bureau leave, he is left to handle the damage, both physical and psychological, to the victims and comes to recognize the brutality and injustice of it. One of them is a barbarian girl who has been partially blinded by the torturers. He takes it on himself to tend to her, setting him on a path of justice rather than blind adherence to the Empire’s unfounded excesses.

Published in 1980, Waiting for the Barbarians seems as relevant today as in any period of recent or distant history replete with empires and the brutal suppression of one group of people, often native, ‘barbarian’, by another – stronger, civilized. The laws that protect the citizens of the empire do not apply to the barbarians, whose only fault is that they are the other – the source of imagined fears, uncivilized, and hardly worthy of being treated as humans. The magistrate stands up agains it, and yet he is not without his follies. His relationship with the barbarian girl who he tries to help is not entirely unselfish. His narrative is largely personal, most of it obsessed with the girl, and her torture is the tipping point that puts him in opposition with the Empire’s Third Bureau.

Some of the best passages in the book are those of the adverse landscape that lies beyond the frontier leading to the barbarians. In the magistrate one finds echoes of characters in Coetzee’s later books – the disgraced aging professor, David Lurie from the book Disgrace, in the attraction that aging men feel to young women and the fall from grace, and Michael K from Life and Times of Michael K in the ability to withstand personal affronts and survive in unforgiving landscapes. Coetzee’s writing style is one of simple elegance, with a restrained voice that conveys a visual imagery of the world that the magistrate and torturers live in without any hint of over-dramatization in its most telling sections.

I am quickly coming to the conclusion that there is nothing so boring as having a career.

Stafford Nye, Staffy to his aunt Mathilda, a British foreign office diplomat is on his way to London from Malaya when his flight is diverted to Frankfurt, where a woman makes him an offer he cannot refuse. She asks for his passport that would let her travel to London as she may risk her life getting to Geneva, her original destination. Staffy, ever on the lookout for a break from monotony, agrees. What follows is an international conspiracy complete with mysterious cars trying to run you over at intersections, coded messages posted in the classified section of newspapers, an international covert group, mad scientists, angry generals, thick-headed politicians, and a spy with multiple identities. At this point, you are probably thinking – what about high speed car chases and empty cartridges bursting out out of semiautomatics? Ms. Christie prefers her characters expend their little grey cells than shells.

Passenger to Frankfurt, written in 1970, is one of 66 detective novels that Agatha Christie has written in addition to 153 short stories, making her the most published author in history. This is the first and only of her written works that I have read, and if I can shore up my credibility at this point, I have enjoyed the Poirot television series and David Suchet’s fine portrayal of the Belgian detective. Passenger to Frankfurt in comparison, if one can compare the written with the visual, falls short of the high standard set by Poirot. True, this is not a detective story or a murder mystery, somewhat of a spy novel but not quite that either. Passenger to Frankfurt begins with a lot of promise, but half-way through the book, it slows down, gets repetitive, and by the end one feels like being taken for a ride in a rickshaw in a town that you have never visited before, which is to say that one is held captive by a curiosity for how all this is going to end.

One of the Radiolab podcasts on NPR talks of an analysis of the works of Agatha Christie by Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, with regards to the frequency and number of different words used in each of her works.

When Lancashire looked at the results for Christie’s 73rd novel, written when she was 81 years old, he saw something strange. Her use of words like “thing,” “anything,” “something,” “nothing” – terms that Lancashire classifies as “indefinite words” – spiked. At the same time, number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. “That is astounding,” says Lancashire, “that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost.”.. “I did not want to say what was said in the end,” says Lancashire, “that yes, the data supported a view that she had developed Alzheimer’s.”

The 73rd novel referred to above is Elephants Can Remember, written in 1972, 2 years after Passenger to Frankfurt.

Christie was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. But she often complained of an inability to concentrate in her later years, and friends reported that she would have fits of anger and wouldn’t make sense in conversations.

I haven’t read Christie enough to even speculate on her condition. Christie has sold the most books after Shakespeare and the Bible, according to her estate, and that is no easy feat. Passenger to Frankfurt remains an engrossing read, and one can weather the rough patches in the book knowing that this comes near the end of a splendid career.

Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.

From Rushdie’s collection of essays and criticism from 1981-91 titled Imaginary Homelands.

He has an infallible moral sense, but very little intellectual curiosity

In his essay on Charles Dickens published in A Collection of Essays and written in 1939, George Orwell points to the lack of any serious references to work in Dickens’ novels.

And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us – that he has no ideal of work

Dickens’ characters aspire to settle into a sort of radiant idleness, according to Orwell. Earlier in the essay, Orwell describes Dickens criticism of society as almost exclusively moral. Dickens abhors violence of any kind, and his books call on individual kindliness with the view that if men were to behave decently, the world would be decent. Orwell saves his most biting criticism of Dickens for what he refers to as Dickens happy Victorian endings:

The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic…The servants are comic and feudal, children prattle round your feet, the old friends sit at your fireside, talking of past days, there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans, the Christmas parties with charades and blindman’s buff; but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear. The thought of that kind of existence is satisfying to him. This alone would be enough to tell one that more than a hundred years have passed since Dickens’s first book was written. No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality

Later, a comparison with Tolstoy

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s – why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect

Orwell acknowledges that Dickens was always on the side of the underdog, on the side of the weak against the strong.

He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong

You can read the complete essay here

Reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy , and in one of the first chapters on the rise of the Greek civilization, is a wonderful exposition of prudence vs passion.

First, prudence, or forethought, a key aspect of civilization from the earliest civilized societies to our present day:

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. This habit began to be important with the rise of agriculture; no animal and no savage would work in spring in order to have food next winter, except for a purely instinctive form of action, such as bees making honey or squirrels burying nuts. In these cases, there is no forethought; there is a direct impulse to an act which, to the human spectator, is obviously going to prove useful later on. True forethought only arises when a man does something towards which no impulse urges him, because his reason tells him that he will profit by it at some future date. Hunting requires no forethought, because it is pleasurable; but tilling the soil is labour, and cannot be done from a spontaneous impulse.

Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion… 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 his future.

The civilized Greek society had its detractors, and one of them was the cult of Bacchus – worshippers of the god of wine, intoxication and spiritual ecstasy. It is in the context of this group within civilized Greek life that Russell contrasts passion against prudence

The worshipper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, spiritual or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence has destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every-day preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called “enthusiasm”, which means, etymologically, having a god enter into the worshipper, who believed he became one with the god.

Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication (mental intoxication, and not intoxication by alcohol), some sweeping away of prudence by passion.

Which one is better then – A prudent life? or the passionate life?

Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence vs passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party

Simon Singh makes geek as delightful as watching a gripping television series- one can binge read through entire chapters one after the other. The topics of his books are fascinating, and they are explained with such lucidity that when you are done reading you might feel like a quasi-expert on a subject that you knew little about prior to the reading. In Fermat’s Enigma (1997) he leads you on a quest to solve a 350+ year old conjecture by the mathematician Pierre de Fermat that was proved by Andrew Wiles in 1995. In Big Bang (2004), he tracks the evolution of the Big Bang Theory and how it became the dominant theory of the origin of the universe, and the numerous discoveries along the way. In The Code Book (1999), he deciphers the fascinating world of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

The Code Book begins with the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1586 where she is accused of conspiring in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. The case rests on the ability to decipher encrypted letter exchanges between Mary and the plotters. Subsequent chapters cover the Vigenère cipher, the Enigma machine used in WWII by the Germans, and how these were cracked. The last three chapters cover RSA, PGP, and quantum cryptography. One of my favorite chapters was the deciphering of ancient scripts such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics by Jean-François Champollion in 1824, and the Cretan script known as Linear B by Michael Ventris – an architect, and John Chadwick.

Simon Singh touches on the debate on whether good encryption tools should be available for everyone to use, or whether government should limit their usage lest it falls in the wrong hands and gives them a means to communicate their nefarious plans. The book highlights well the passion of the people involved, their struggle with finding a solution, often within short timelines as in the case of the Enigma, and often their unheralded success. Each of these successes in cryptography (safe encryption) and cryptanalysis (deciphering encrypted messages) is built on the partial successes of those that have attempted the solution before. Simon Singh explains each of the methods going from the monoalphabetic ciphers, to quantum cryptography in a simple style that is easy to understand, and engaging to read to the very end.

The Kabir Project is, among others, a series of 4 documentary films by Shabnam Virmani in quest of Kabir, the 15th century mystic and poet whose lifetime is shrouded in mystery, but whose dohas (couplets) survive in different forms and places, from the folk singers in Madhya Pradesh to the qawwals in Pakistan, transcending caste, religion, and borders. Each of the films can be watched independently, and bear titles from dohas of Kabir.

In Had Anhad, we meet Prahlad Tipaniya, the ‘rural rockstar’ as Virmani calls him, a popular folk singer from Malwa in Madhya Pradesh who, like other artistes covered in the film, not only sings these dohas but also demonstrates a deep understanding of the couplets. From there, the film travels to Pugal in Rajasthan to the house of Mukhtiyar Ali where we hear a different rendition of Kabir. We are then taken across the border to Pakistan where we meet Farid Ayaz and hear his wonderful rendition of Kabir’s doha Bhala hua, a part of which is reproduced below:

bhala hua mori gagri phooti, mein paniya bharan se chooti re
bhala hua mori maala tooti, mein raam bhajan se chooti re.

(trans.)
Glad that my (earthen) pot broke, I am now relieved of the task of filling water.
Glad that my prayer beads snapped, I am now relieved of the task of praying.

Through these seemingly playful verses, Kabir calls for giving up blind practice and seeking a deeper understanding of one’s self, or the God within. In another couplet, he observes:

chalti chaaki dekh kar, so diya kabira roye
do paatan ke beech mein, saabath bacha na koi

(trans.)
seeing a millstone, Kabir laments,
between the two grinding stones, nothing remains intact

Life wears one out. Nothing can be expected to remain the same. To this, someone (presumably his son, Kamaal) responds:

chaki chaki sab kahe aur keeli kahe na koi
jo keeli ke paas me, baal na baaka hoye

(trans.)
all speak of the grinding stones, no one speaks of the center (the eye of a millstone where the grains are dropped for grinding)
one that stays close to the eye remains untouched

Staying close to one’s core – beliefs/values/personal faith – is the way out. Kabir’s dohas convey a message that resembles Sufi and Buddhist thought – one of searching within, of breaking away from ritual, idol worship, and religious institutions and norms and instead following a personal and direct approach to divinity. Consider, for example the poetry of Bulleh Shah, a Sufi poet in the 17th century rendered wonderfully by Abida Parveen.

je rab milda nahateya dhoteya
te rab milda dadua machiya nu
je rab milda jungle phireya
te rab milda gayian vachiyan nu
ve miyan bulleya rab unhanu milda
athe diliyan sachiyan achiyan nu

(trans)
if God were to be found by bathing and washing
then he would have been found by frogs and fishes
if God were to be found by wandering in forests
then he would have been found by cows and beasts
O Bulleh Shah, God is to be found by those
whose hearts are true and sincere

Consider now the following passage from the Dhammapada

They make holy wherever they dwell, in village or forest, on land or at sea. With their senses at peace, and minds full of joy, they make the forest holy

Here was an effort at the democratization of divinity from the confines of temples, the purvey of priests or the dogma of caste, religion and ritual; an effort at change reinvented with every passing age by free and discerning minds. And what better medium to pass this message other than through music that is easily accessible to one and all, passed down from one generation to another, moving across boundaries, and morphing into the local dialect.

The part titled Koi Sunta Hain (someone hears us) in this 4-part series features Kumar Gandharva, renowned Hindustani classical singer responsible for introducing Kabir to the Hindustani classical stage. Kumar Gandharva is known to have discovered Kabir while recovering from tuberculosis after being told by his doctors at 23 after a stellar rise to fame, that he may never be able to sing again. In addition to Kumar Gandharva’s beautiful renditions of Kabir, we hear from his student, Madhup Mudgal, a sublimely sung Murshid nainon beech nabi hain (the master resides between the eyes).

In one of his performances, Farid Ayaz suggests that one should not view Kabir as a person but as a perspective. The 4 films can be thought of as a perspective of profound depth and a journey through space and time. The films can be viewed here.

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