Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Gerin Oil

Came across another great essay by Richard Dawkins. In it he coins a new term, Gerin Oil (which is, as smart readers can spot, an anagram of 'religion') and then goes on to list all the evils associated with it. The essay is also a concise summary of theological concepts behind all the major religions like after-life, hell, redemption etc.

Strong doses of Geriniol can also lead to "bad trips," in which the user can suffer morbid delusions and fears, notably fears of being tortured, not in the real world but in a postmortem fantasy world. Bad trips of this kind are bound up with a punishment culture which is as characteristic of this drug as the obsessive fear of sexuality already noted. The punishment culture fostered by Gerin oil culminates in the sinister drug-induced fantasy of "allo-punishment"—the belief that individuals can and should be punished for the wrongdoings of others (known on the in-group grapevine as "redemption").

This is his hilarious take on "prayer" and willful disbelief against the evidence from the real world so prominent in religious people:
Medium doses of Gerin oil, though not in themselves dangerous, can distort perceptions of reality. Beliefs that have no basis in fact are immunised, by the drug's own direct effects on the nervous system, against evidence from the real world. Oil-heads can be heard talking to thin air or muttering to themselves, apparently in the belief that private wishes so expressed will come true, even at the cost of mild violation of the laws of physics. This autolocutory disorder is often accompanied by weird tics, hand gestures or other stereotypies, for example rhythmic head-nodding towards a wall.

And finally, how this evil is being sustained and propagated by powerful institutions all over the world:
You might think that such a potentially dangerous and addictive drug would top the list of proscribed substances, with exemplary sentences handed out for trafficking in it. But no, it is readily obtainable anywhere in the world and you don't even need a prescription. Professional pushers are numerous, and organised in hierarchical cartels, openly trading on street corners and even in purpose-made buildings. Some of these cartels are adept at parting clients from their money. Their "godfathers" occupy influential positions in high places, and they have the ear of presidents and prime ministers. Governments don't just turn a blind eye to the trade, they grant it tax-exempt status. Worse, they subsidise schools with the specific intention of getting children hooked.

Read the whole article here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Admiralty Spire

A few weeks back, I blogged about the fantastic short story, The Admiralty Spire, by Nabokov. In it, the narrator alludes to Pushkin while discussing the title of the story, saying that it is a famous Pushkinian line and a part of an "iambic tetrameter". Now, I have never read anything by Pushkin and my knowledge of poetry in general is equally pathetic, so I didn't make out much from reading this little bit in the story. But some googling and I found this great poem by Pushkin to which perhaps Nabokov was alluding. It is called The Bronze Horseman which Pushkin wrote in 1833. The poem is about the fate of a poor young man and his family in the aftermath of the overflowing of the Neva river which happened as a result of the founding of the St. Petersburg city. Peter the great, the czar of Russia, founded this new capital of Russia to bring glory and prosperity to Russia but the whole project had an enormous human cost. As this wikipedia entry says, "Pushkin uses the flood of 1824 to show the conflict between the large interests of the state, represented by the Tsar's statue with its gaze fixed ahead and its arm reaching out towards the future, and the immediate needs of a simple person for life and safety".

Read the poem here.

A good biographical and critical sketch of Pushkin here.

And a picture of The Admiralty Spire here.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Back in the Windy City

Came back to Chicago yesterday. It's been more than two months now and it is strange how familiar the city looked this morning as I was coming to office. As if it was only yesterday. Even the hoardings looked familiar!

I was reading Mario Vargas Llosa's Death in the Andes in the flight. I was sleeping for most of the time (not the fault of the book) and so I could finish only half of it. The novel looks quite good so far. Will write in detail after reading the whole.

Friday, September 23, 2005

W G Sebald's Vertigo

This is the most recent book I have finished reading. I will not bore you with what I think of the book (it is brilliant, by the way) but will just suggest you to get a copy of the book and start reading. There are many excellent reviews and articles on the internet about Sebald. This one in partcular was really good.

So who is W. G. Sebald, this peculiar writer who resurrects figures from the past only to follow them like an undertaker to their deaths; this connoisseur of eccentrics and madmen, of the detritus of history; this poet and swindler who, according to all accounts, doubles as a professor of languages somewhere in the east of England? Whoever he may be, all we can say for sure is that he is restless, and we can only wait until he briefly appears to us again, like one of those phantom creatures rarely sighted, mythical, and easily frightened away.

Nicole Krauss, who wrote the review, is herself a novelist. Her most recent novel The History of Love was recently published. And she is quite good-looking! Read this.

Is God Still Dead?

This is an interesting and informative article on the history and the future of Atheism.

By proclaiming that atheism is on its last legs, McGrath turns one of the most burning questions in American culture on its head. When everyone is asking about the growing strength of religion and its political ramifications, we might instead ask, Why is disbelief on the wane? Today's commonsense answer is that atheists, agnostics, and secularists are less and less relevant to the needs of Americans (and, McGrath adds, the rest of the world). Whether true or not, this is an amazing commentary on the self-confidence that once made atheism the modern creed, which McGrath summarizes as "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising of the sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity."

I have read only one of the books discussed in the article, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini, which is a wonderful short book. It is a great defence of atheism as a positive and a complete philosophical world-view rather than just being a negative anti-religious doctrine. The book also made a good case against militant atheism, with which I didn't agree personally. Baggini discusses the philosophical ideas of Plato (specially his Euthyphro's Dilemma), Hume, Kant and Kierkegaard (his analysis of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac) in very accessible terms and lays out a very good foundation for both budding and grown-up atheists.

He also defends atheism against critics who cite the examples of avowedly atheist regimes like those in communist countries and claim that atheism sanctions worst forms of torture and authoritarianism. As any reader of Marx would know (Baggini also explains this), Marx's ideas were just secularized version of Christianity, although he was a great critic of society structured according to the tenets of Christianity. His philosophy of history is the same as the christian philosophy of history with just the names of the principals changed. Baggini also makes a good case against what he calls the "sacralization of politics", which he says afflicts even secular countries. Anyone, who has seen how nationalism works in "secular" countries like India, will have no trouble understanding what sacralization means.

There are some other very interesting books under review. I will definitely be on a lookout for them.

Here is the link to the article.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cloud, Castle, Lake

Okay, another obligatory post on Nabokov (obligatory because of the title of the blog). I have recently finished reading five stories by Nabokov collected under the title of one of them, Cloud, Castle, Lake. Actually the book is published by Penguin as a part of its seventieth anniversary which falls this year.

As is typical of any Nabokov writing, there is lot of "showing off" in each of the stories (which I mean totally as a compliment), in terms of word games, striking imageries, metaphors and literary allusions. One story that really struck me in particular was the first one called "The Admiralty Spire". The narrator of the story, who remains unnamed, is writing a letter to the author of a sentimental, romantic novel (called "The Admiralty Spire") to protest, as he claims, against the fictional use of his own love affair, that he once was involved in, in his youth. In process he indulges in literary criticism which is sometimes very curious and at other times very enlightening. For example he claims that he can identify the correct gender (behind the male pseudonym) with the way the sentences in the novel always "button to the left"! At other places he expounds further on Russian and French authors and poets and questions her uses of images and symbols which he claims are derivative and cliched. He then explains his own love story (which he does wonderfully) to correct the "misrepresentations". In the end the narrator reveals or at least claims that the writer of the novel is no one else but Katya herself, the girl he loved, which only mystifies the story further. Very nicely done overall. I totally forgot the dreariness of the two-hour Bangalore-Calcutta flight journey because of the story. Yes, it took me two hours to read the six-seven pages. But then which other writer will use words like "chatoyant" in a casual description of an evening in a garden!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Cult of Feelings

I have recently finished reading Immortality by the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera. Like his masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being this book is a digressive tale about the meaning of love, relationships, human existence and the nature of "being" in the modern world. What struck me in the book however was one small passage where Kundera discusses the nature of human feelings and sentiments and puts it in a historical perspective. He coins a new term for the new kind of human being. He calls him Homo Sentimentalis:

“Homo sentimentalis cannot be defined as a man with feelings (for we all have feelings), but as a man who has raised feelings to a category of value. As soon as feelings are seen as a value, everyone wants to feel; and because we all like to pride ourselves on our values, we have a tendency to show off our feelings...

I don't know if it is the influence of the crazy new-age philosophies or those dimwitted theories imagined by management "gurus" (they call it "emotional intelligence") or perhaps it is just plain, old conspiracy by the greeting card companies against our collective brain, whatever it is, the pressure on individual human being to not just keep "feeling" about everything under the sun but also to show off what he is feeling, is just enormous. Everywhere you see, on TV, in films, in newspapers, in celebrity interviews and autobiographies, the fascism of sentiments continues unabated. There is even a neologism coined for this trend. People call it "Oprahfication". I personally find this public display of artificial emotions immensely embarrassing at best and absolutely loathsome and irritating at worst. I will even go so far as to say that I find even pornography more wholesome and tasteful than those celebrities tell-it-all on the oprah-winfrey show or those two hankie fest of Karan Johar movies.

Anyway, Kundera continues further in the same passage and credits Cervantes of understanding the idea behind the artificial display of emotions. He says:
No one revealed homo sentimentalis as lucidly as Cervantes. Don Quixote decides to love a certain lady named Dulcinea, in spite of the fact that he hardly knows her (this comes as no surprise, because we know that when it’s a question of wahre Liebe, true love, the beloved hardly matters). In chapter twenty-five of Book One, he leaves with Sancho for the remote mountains, where he wishes to demonstrate to him the greatness of his passion. But how to show someone else that your soul is on fire? Especially someone as dull and naïve as Sancho? And so when they find themselves on a mountain path, Don Quixote strips off all his clothes except for his shirt, and to demonstrate to his servant the immensity of his passion he proceeds to turn somersaults.

I think Don Quixote is a good example of a solid critique of the idea of sentimentality in literature. The idea that sentiments are enough to make all the right moral decisions in life, or that we should always "follow our hearts". What better to show this, than to recount all the follies of Don Quixote, be it tilting at the windmills, freeing the prisoners or attacking a herd of sheep. Of course it is an exaggeration but the idea remains the same. In fact in one of his essays, perhaps collected in his Testaments Betrayed, Kundera says that the worst disasters mankind has suffered were spawned by those who followed the dictates of their heart most passionately. All those dictators and tyrants were Don Quixotes, perhaps not as benevolent, but Quixote nevertheless.

Actually, it is not just a question of tempering your passions with rationality (the plain old Platonic concept) but rather it is about authenticity and what is true. Sentimentality is all about generating artificial emotions to extract favourable responses from the audience, be it in cinema or in real life and this is what I find absolutely detestable. Kundera further says:
It is part of the definition of feeling that it is born in us without our will, often against our will. As soon as we want to feel (decide to feel, just as Don Quixote decided to love Dulcinea), feeling is no longer feeling but an imitation of feeling, a show of feeling. This is commonly called hysteria. That’s why homo sentimentalis (a person who has raised feeling to a value) is in reality identical to homo hystericus.”

This is also the reason why people, who at one moment bask in glorious emotional connections with each other, suprise each other with their supreme indifference the next moment without any trouble. Because once you "decide" to feel something, you are no longer feeling it authentically and it is easy to get over that feeling without any trouble at all. That feeling then has no basis in reality at all. It is absolutely artificial.

Long post and it sounds all hotch-potch now. But I have no time to edit it now. In short it is, Down with Oprah-Winfrey Show, Down with Karan Johar films, Down with Greeting Cards (and other emotional packaging products). It is down with sentimentality! Let's give the old, lame guy Reason a little helping hand instead!