Tag Archives: Fiction

Bored in Korea? Read a book!

Slide1Teakettle Mountain, the story of one loser English teacher’s quest to not be a loser, has been re-released on amazon.com. Check out the story reviewers are calling “a joy to read”—available now for $2.99, less than a third the cost of a cup of coffee in our adoptive homeland!

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The Ecstasy of Reading (Flaubert)

Pieter_Bruegel_(Temptation_of_St_Antony)

If you have ever felt, upon reading some comment or review that complains about too much description in a given book, or too many difficult words, a feeling of disgust—if you have ever suppressed an urge to roll your eyes when someone you know wonders about the point of fiction, or dismisses entire genres out of hand—then you must stop reading this blog post right now and go devour The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Don’t let the book’s religious veneer fool you. This is a story that Gustave Flaubert (an ardent and lifelong atheist, skeptic, and misanthrope) conceived as a child, worked on his entire life, and finally published as an old man, a book that is itself about the struggle to read books and to write them—a book that brings to life all of the distractions that tempt us from the divine act of consuming the written word, and turns them into the most beautiful and eloquent monsters, embodiments of what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance“, which Flaubert himself conquered and destroyed by holing himself up in the country for almost his entire life to write pages, cross them out, rewrite them, and then read them aloud by shouting them at the top of his lungs while pacing his study (his bearskin rug) endlessly back and forth. Though he wrote for his entire life, his oeuvre is relatively small, and The Temptation is a slim volume, clocking in at under two hundred pages, with few paragraphs exceeding three sentences.

It is a grotesque fantasy. It is gorgeous science fiction. At one point the devil grabs St. Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, and lifts him up above the solar system, and then the galaxy itself, in an attempt to convince him that his religion is false, and that his obsession with words is pointless. (The attempt fails). There is a bizarre cinematic acid trip quality to the text as well, as monsters transform themselves into beautiful women, as the shadowed arms of a cross grow horns, and then, as the darkness deepens—

…suddenly in the air above there appear and disappear successively—first, a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple; a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing.

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes—outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

This is a novel written as an impossible play, but it’s really a film script, a proto-Borgesian distillation of all of western science, art, and philosophy, into a single very intense shot glass. Flaubert said he read something like a hundred and fifty books in preparation for writing this one; what’s more likely is that this man simply read and then reread everything worth reading, and that, when combined with his remarkable imagination, perhaps the most powerful (certainly the most chimerical) of any writer, the book leaped from his brain fully-armored in its front and back covers.

In a way it’s unfortunate that Flaubert is mostly remembered for Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, two books he wrote with the purpose of reigning in and controlling his imagination. In St. Anthony (and also in Salammbo) that imagination is completely unbounded, though not out of control; the book has a definite structure, and moves toward the best ending imaginable, a cyclical finale which is almost the same as in Bouvard and Pecuchet as well as Joyce’s unreadable Finnegans Wake. Just as the devil is defeated, just as the greatest speech in defense of art for its own sake is delivered—

O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life. I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting. I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,—that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,—make my body writhe,—divide myself everywhere,—be in everything,—emanate with all the odours,—develop myself like the plants,—flow like water,—vibrate like sound,—shine like light,—assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,—be matter itself!

—Anthony resumes his devotions, and, one may imagine, opens his book just as at the beginning of the story, all while Temptation gathers its strength and prepares to assault him again.

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A Sample Chapter From Sorabol

beomeosasorabol

Sorabol takes place during the collapse of the Shilla Dynasty, when the Korean peninsula was torn apart by factional strife and reduced to a state of chaos and civil war. A Jewish Radhanite trader, traveling all the way from Muslim Spain, arrives to procure exotic Asian merchandise for consumption in Europe, but finds herself caught up in the rebellion against the corrupt Queen Jinseong, and unwittingly burns one of her greatest cities to the ground, falling in love with a sword-dancer and getting enslaved by the royal palace’s copyists along the way. But “Sorabol” isn’t just a story of adventure and romance. It takes place in an unknown land, in a forgotten time, and examines the civilization-wide clash between Buddhism and Confucianism in the context of a young woman’s search to accept the power of her own femininity.

Buy it now on Amazon.com for $2.99, or watch the trailer here.

And now, for a sample chapter—

7. THE RIVERMAN

Bidding farewell to the driver, whom Kep Tosal had already paid, we stepped off the carriage at the placid riverside by a milestone and waded through the waves and the crowds to one of the nearest ships, which was hardly larger than a canoe and manned by a single small sailor who had only one sail to work with. Such a vessel would be crushed to splinters by the tidal currents the moment it made for the offing, like the lateen-rigged feluccas of the Red Sea, but the river was covered with similar craft drifting back and forth like flocks of swans, their holds swollen with cargo. The owner of our hire lived under a thatched tent at the center of his ship, and told us in the most haggard Midlandese, and almost as soon as the Kambujadesans greeted him and threw their heavy luggage aboard, that his name was Suro, and that he was one of the Garak people who had in ancient times lived to the south before they were conquered and absorbed by Sorabol, a polity of such great antiquity that its founders might well have breathed the same air as Julius Caesar. Suro maintained that both Garak and Sorabol had been created over thirty generations ago when all the land was seeded with golden chicken eggs that had descended from on high. “That’s nothing!” shouted Tep Kosal, folding his arms across his bare chest. “The Holy City’s twice as old!” “Oh?” asked Suro, a smile lifting the curtains in his cheeks. “Twice old you say?” Tep Kosal nodded, smiling back at him. “Well!”, started Suro, “before Sorabol Old Kao-lee was! And before Old Kao-lee Old Chao-hsien was! And before Old Chao-hsien—”

I stopped him there, paying the small old man a little cash (five copper coins) to get us to the capital by nightfall. Kep Tosal asked if he could give me his share of the money, and when I shook my head he put the coins in one of my pockets; when I tried to give the coins back, he put his hand on his sword hilt, saying, with his growing smile, his fulminating teeth, that he was not joking. So I kept the money.

Partly with the help of the wind, but mostly with the aid of Suro’s taut elderly muscle working a long wooden pole that splashed into the black water and sunk into the muck beneath, he pushed us away from the port and into the country. Before long we left the suburbs and found ourselves surrounded by rice farms and huts that resembled Suro’s sleeping arrangements, with brown walls of mud or clay and gray roofs of thatch. The vast mountains were covered in sturdier-looking temples with red pillars and black rooftops of curving tile whose smoking incense I could smell even at this great distance. That sweet, dry odor permeated the air, as did the murmur of the chanting monks, who believed that sin could be washed from the soul merely by reciting certain (admittedly lengthy) sutras, with the result that the chanter would be reborn as a demigod dwelling in the Pure Land above the sky—this according to the heretical readings of my uncle Moses, an illuminated manuscript in human form who took an interest in the religions of all the lands we visited and spent much time studying their most sacred texts during our voyages, sometimes even reciting the dhikr, or the names of god, on his own, and throwing in a few more from Europa, al-Sin, and al-Hind, for good measure, bowing to Mecca with Amin al-Hejaz and Khalid ar-Rahman or debating whether Christ was man, You, or some mixture of both, with Nikephoros Diogenes and Andronikos Dukas. He did this, he said, to get at the true nature of things, to pierce the veil of dreams and illusions and rap at the source core as if with a crow’s beak, the black marble void upon which everything is founded, though he never seemed to succeed, and would always scoff at the elephant-headed idols daubed with red kumkuma in al-Hind, or the wild African dancers leaping and screaming to the throbbing of their malevolent tom-toms, which we saw while sailing up the coast from Mogadishu.

We reclined in the floor of the boat, listening idly to the songs the riverman sang in a language none of us could speak, rising sometimes to prop ourselves up on our elbows in order to watch the naked laborers in their soiled loincloths amid the green rice stalks, heaving and hoeing in sync with their own singing, men and women alike. Drummers walked among them to help keep time, and Suro whistled along with his own songs, his twittering serving as a counterpoint to the lyrics. This little old man, who was burned as black as soil, his long beard and eyebrows colored like the flying clouds, his head ideally bald, told me that he was singing about his village, which was called Koomkwan and located along a river to the south near the port of Donnae, and that though he sounded like a fool in Midlandese, he was an eloquent orator in his own tongue.

In a handwoven basket Suro kept some rice that he’d cooked a few hours before, and with our bare hands we ate a few mouthfuls each. Actually I was ravenous from fighting the beggars, and would have devoured everything Suro possessed, if he’d offered it, but he was wise enough to give me only a little. Regardless, I think he hardly would have cared what happened with his food, preoccupied as he was with singing and shouting greetings to all his friends along the river, which was always thick with sailing canoes. Some of these were transporting goods or passengers, while others were flinging nets into the waves. “I’ve learned that the Sorabolan word for fish translates to ‘water meat,’” said Tep Kosal, and Suro nodded with a content grunt. “Mool-go-gee,” he replied.

Animals were also common. Vast white birds flew over us in echelons, and cranes waded through the water, stabbing at the big dark fish swimming beneath. “Hak!” Suro said, pointing at the birds. “Not delicious,” he added. “Much delicious food in Koomsong.” “What’s Koomsong?” I asked him. “Your moke-jok-jee, your go place,” he replied. “Sorabol different name.”

Happily we drifted down the river of time and memory for a long while, dozing and dreaming to Suro’s songs, the peasants rising and falling in the rice paddies around us, living off the fat of the land, the wild earth. Blessed are You who brings forth bread from the fields that stand from everlasting to everlasting, who makes the river always the same and always different.

The moon had risen above the mountains, and the skies and the trees were all red, when at last the structures lining the river ceased to be built of straw and sunbaked mud. Soon there was sharply-cut masonry everywhere I looked, and even stone stairways leading down to the water, where piers were guarded by statues of lions, turtles, roosters, or water dragons. This was the outer edge of Sorabol.

At the paved riverbank I tried to pay Suro extra for getting us to the city on time, but he refused me with a smile, leaped back into his ship, and pushed off into the quiet waters, as Tep Kosal and his two friends packed their luggage onto their backs. “Will you come with us, barang?” he asked, his eyes glittering with lightning. “They say the queen likes strange young men best of all!” I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I can’t,” I told him. “I have to get back to the port in a few days.” That was the decision I’d made by then. Stay out for a day, buy some nice things, go back, and apologize to my uncle. But if I didn’t make it to the Simurgh I thought I might imitate the Kambujadesans and bow before the Queen, reasoning that an even rarer Daejin like myself would have no trouble finding some sort of employment in her government.

“Then perhaps we’ll meet in our next lives,” said Kep Tosal, smiling, clasping his hands flat together and bowing before flying off into the red darkness.

But the prospect of giving oneself like a sacrifice to the ruler of a strange land frightened me. For amid all these new people—the fat bearded customs official asking to see my passport, the hawkers crowding around me to offer carriages or sleighs or wooden cages full of chickens or ducks, the powdered flowerboys giggling and whispering to each other behind their paper fans at the sight of me, the smiling monks hurrying back and forth in their red robes, the armored soldiers looking far more alert than their brethren at the port, the scholars in flowing black clutching heavy books, the destitute lying in the muck, the poor and naked rushing about in the sombre brooding gloom—I decided that I couldn’t live here. It was shocking to be left alone with these Sorabolans, delightful but at the same time horrifying to be in this land completely by myself, without the shelter of my uncle Moses, that muscled Oceanus, the bearded sea god with his undrowned books…I missed his company and his dinner table sophistries in the candlelight of the Simurgh’s swaying cabin as I struggled through the crowd in search of someone who could tell me where the central market was, like a bumpkin guarding my pockets with my hands.

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The Last President’s Fate; an excerpt from my novel

…[He] discovered that George W. Bush had been snatched off the deck of a shrimp trawler by an enormous purple tentacle in the Gulf of Mexico and gotten himself devoured somewhere miles beneath the ocean by a giant squid; his remains were, oddly enough, located inside the belly of a sperm whale, along with the enormous beak and the hideous tentacles of the beast which had presumably eaten the former president of the United States. This was the second modern right-wing ideologue to have been eaten alive by a wild animal in the 2010s; the astute reader will recall that Rush Limbaugh met a similar fate in the Amazon, where he was devoured and then regurgitated by a truly monstrous anaconda while doing racist impersonations of Chinese government officials. Bush was only found at all thanks to his Finnish cellphone, which was waterproof. America’s other long-since irrelevant and mostly forgotten neoconservatives (like John Podhoretz, David Frum, Ann Coulter, those infamous beneficiaries of Soviet largesse and the principal creators of the Tea Party, the Brothers Koch; Dick Cheney, Judith Miller, John Bolton, Sean Hannity, Roger Ailes, etc.) sent their condolences, took note of a new pattern in history, and wondered if the gods had not finally turned against them, after favoring their meteoric rise for so many decades.

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The Yucatan And A Few Ridiculous Instances Of Historical Bias

The impossibility of viewing this civilization objectively.

An hidalgo of Cuba, named Hernandez de Cordova, sailed with three vessels on an expedition to one of the neighboring Bahama Islands, in quest of Indian slaves. (February 8, 1517.) He encountered a succession of heavy gales which drove him far out of his course, and at the end of three weeks he found himself on a strange and unknown coast. On landing and asking the name of the country, he was answered by the natives “Tectetan,” meaning “I do not understand you,”—but which the Spaniards, misinterpreting into the name of the place, easily corrupted into Yucatan.

My best friend wikipedia mostly agrees with this origin of the modern appellation. When I first read this remarkable passage I was struck by the silly idea that all nations should be named in this fashion, since it is an established fact that people who consider themselves to be different (often because of language) are usually unable to understand each other. We would have Idonno instead of America and Mulayo for Korea, Nosé for Spain, etc., etc.

It can be ridiculous to see the barriers people erect in front of themselves, the biases that prevent them from seeing the plain truth before them. In this book alone, the excellent William H. Prescott constantly indulges himself as the mirror of his times in declaring that the native Mexicans are, alternately, barbarians or savages, and devotes numerous pages to comparing their cultural achievements to the civilizations of the West. He is a brilliant writer, an exquisite stylist with a heavy and laborious Latinesque prose that squeezes every drop of beauty from his long, meandering, perfectly-constructed, comma-laced sentences; but he still filters, he still Orientalizes, he still objectifies, and in seeking to describe the fantastic world of pre-Columbian Mexico, often just describes the prejudices thriving inside his own perceptions.

His spectacular descriptions of nature in the beginning of the book are a perfect example of his seductive, imaginative, but ultimately subjective prose. Bear in mind as you read this excerpt that the author never visited Mexico in person and relied exclusively on secondhand accounts of the region.

[The traveler’s] road sweeps along the base of mighty mountains, once gleaming with volcanic fires, and still resplendent in their mantles of snow, which serve as beacons to the mariner, for many a league at sea. All around he beholds traces of their ancient combustion, as his road passes along vast tracts of lava, bristling in the innumerable fantastic forms into which the fiery torrent has been thrown by the obstacles in its career. Perhaps, at the same moment, as he casts his eye down some steep slope, or almost unfathomable ravine, on the margin of the road, he sees their depths glowing with the rich blooms and enamelled vegetation of the tropics.

It is so beautiful, and perhaps this described the Yucatan as it was in 1843, but I have the suspicion that this well-organized symmetrical portrait, this painting in a paragraph, only truly exists in the world of the text. I briefly visited the area many years ago and for the most part the rather flat landscape seemed to be occupied with endless forests of trees, dirt roads, and the occasional wood hovel.

My family and I did make it to Tulum, which was extraordinarily beautiful, with white step pyramids perched on the cliffs overlooking a coral-blue sea of warm bathwater, and old broken temples overrun with darting lizards, but it was nothing like what Prescott has described.

Tulum

To return to people and and societies—the Conquistadores and their brilliant historian frequently comment on the state of advancement and refinement present in the capital city of Tenochtitlan—take the remarkable feather-paintings, for example, constructed with the vibrant silvery plumage of hummingbirds, a lost and forgotten art thanks to the Conquest—but every time they dwell on the achievements of the Aztecs or the Toltecs or any other non-European race, one cannot help but hear a certain condescension in their tone.

They do not understand how the natives of Anahuac, the old name for Mexico, have achieved so much, because in their biased minds only Europeans are capable of advancing the progress of humanity; their faces, their words, are plastered with I-Don’t-Knows, Nosés, and Tectecans; every unfamiliar land and person they look upon is drawn in through their eyes and filtered through a system of biases they absorbed in Europe.

Conversely, the Aztecs mistook the Europeans for gods, and believed Cortes to be Quetzalcoatl (which I spelled correctly on my first try, bitches), the bearded white-skinned feathered serpent who created their civilization and then left Anahuac for the mystical land of Tlapallan in the East, claiming that he would one day return. Cortes apparently took advantage of this myth, once he found out about it, but the idea that the fall of Aztec civilization was caused by this gullible belief is not wholly accepted by modern scholars and actually somewhat controversial. Since so many Aztec records were destroyed during and after the Conquest, we have little choice except to rely on the history of the victors, who, naturally, cannot be fully trusted. It is possible that this myth was exaggerated by the Spaniards, and that we are seeing yet another instance of obvious cultural bias altering historical truth.

Prescott’s History is alluring and fascinating to read, but it seems obvious to me that it is impossible to describe the past with any real certainty, a sentiment I’ve more or less picked up from Borges. My wife and I argued about this some months ago when I unwisely proclaimed that history is fiction, a claim that a comfortably white man like myself can make with relative ease; she then inquired if all the comfort women tortured and abused by the Japanese colonial occupiers of Korea were fictitious, and her anger blew up into fury when I said that we can’t know the truth of what happened, nor can we be sure of the extent to which Korea collaborated with its colonial occupier.

Korea under Japan.

The case made by B.R. Meyers in his truly excellent book about North Korea, The Cleanest Race, is that Korea was largely complacent and even eager for Japanese domination, despite all the horrible outrages we’ve heard about those times, and that Koreans only changed their mind about Japan when the Empire of the Rising Sun began to lose the war against America.

But although I write about these ideas here in English I know that if I spoke of them to my wife or to her family I would seriously jeopardize their good opinion of me; if this is the truth about the past here, if Myers has found it, then I doubt (highly-nationalist) Korea is ready for it, and suspect that there are few Korean-language articles in existence that support it.

I speak of Korea as an example to segue into something I just read yesterday about Japan, but I’m not pretending that America is somehow exempt from these troubles; everybody knows the USA has an army of skeletons clattering together in a massive attic; some occasionally rise up like zombies and return to terrorize us from the historical graveyard, like the neo-confederate Tea Party; we habitually idealize and distort the past, although I think it is all far darker than any of us can imagine.

After I submitted the first part of my book yesterday (which was rejected this morning for unstated reasons—“It’s simply too beautiful!”—but probably, hopefully, technicalities) I was granted a few hours of free time. I whiled these away (somewhat exhausted from the massive literary efforts of the past few days) in the company of Prescott’s book as well as a fat volume about the life of Douglas MacArthur, which I briefly consulted as a result of his involvement in the Korean War. The question I posed to myself, in a moment of idleness, was this: How did Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il, come to power? Why was he so successful? And how did he establish the world’s strangest country on such firm and seemingly unshakable foundations?

Historical Truth as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Answering that question requires a real library and a fluent knowledge of Korean that I lack, but as I was browsing this really fun, excellent book about MacArthur (American Caesar, by William Manchester) I stumbled upon a ridiculously racist caricature from Japan:

[MacArthur] was not deceived by [Japan’s] 90 percent literacy, for he was aware that the sensei, the quaint teachers with yellow buckteeth and baggy pants, merely taught rote memorization of the language’s complicated kanji, characters derived from Chinese ideograms. The meaning behind the words eluded their pupils and, indeed, the sensei themselves. Every textbook in geography, history, martial sports, “ethics,” and even mathematics, was used to disseminate superstitions. The Japanese lived, quite simply, in a world of make-believe.

Beyond the blatant Mickey Rooney caricature we find here, it’s difficult to believe how people who are only pretending to read could have possibly conquered most of Asia in the space of a few years, or attacked Pearl Harbor, or built up such a powerful economy after the devastation of the war, etc., etc. The quotation marks around ethics are particularly painful; as if these warlike Japanese could ever be ethical! One suspects an imperfect knowledge of written Japanese as well, and, as the book continues into a kind of short travelogue through Tokyo, the author persists in exotifying and Orientalizing everything he describes.

Even though American Caesar was written a century after Prescott, and takes place in a different part of the world, and is still quite a fun read, written by an excellent writer, in reading it (and any other history) I only gain more questions, more doubts, and cannot help but conclude that modern history is incapable of truthfully describing the past.

The thought is ordinary and jejune, but hopefully the path that brought you to this end was a pleasant one.

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Gore Vidal’s Julian And The Fall of Rome

Gore Vidal Basking As Paragon

Wikipedia fails to summarize the world we get in this novel, saying that Julian primarily concerns itself with “the changes to Christianity wrought by Constantine and his successors”, and though this is true I think it’s only the beginning of the bigger ideas presented in the book. The Emperor Julian is a devout pagan but everyone else in the novel thinks his beliefs are outdated, simplistic, immature, and absurd; every other religious figure in the text is a manipulative liar, and utilizes faith only as a method of personal advancement. Paganism and Christianity are both either superstitions or means to achieve greater and greater power.

(I am a wikiphile, but the article is also wrong when it says that Gore Vidal himself writes in the very short introduction that the novel “deals” with the changes wrought to Christianity by Julian—Gore Vidal summarizes Julian’s life and mentions this fact, but nowhere says that his novel is principally about these changes)

The next level of ideas goes beyond that—virtually every text that deals with Rome must somehow examine the question of Why Did Rome Fall?, even though the corrupt demagoguery of Republican Rome is still thriving in American politics and even if practically every conqueror of Rome styled himself as a Roman Emperor—and the Emperor Julian himself has this question on his mind (as does Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian), both of whom notice and complain that the intellectual vigor of previous generations has been lost, that there are no new ideas and that everyone looked upon as wise simply quotes the ancients and memorizes as much of Homer as humanly possible. Julian, his two philosophers, and Hadrian (if memory serves…) all say that this is why Rome is falling apart.

But I think Vidal’s answer to this great silly question is different: before Julian becomes Emperor everyone must constantly watch his or her mouth, afraid of all the informers and spies who seem to be the Empire’s only citizens; one cannot badmouth an Emperor, even though there may be multiple rival Emperors at any given time, and the victory of one over the other is usually a matter of chance. Then, after Julian’s accession, Gore Vidal establishes with one sentence that justice at this time is absolutely no different from whoever happens to be in power—

That evening [Eusebius] was arrested for high treason and sent to Chalcedon to stand trial.

This character, Eusebius, was in power for decades, and was the be all and end all of right and wrong—Julian did away with him in a heartbeat. If people cannot speak their minds, and if justice is so arbitrary, a decline in intellectual vigor is obvious and inevitable.

So, postscript: a better question to ask is Why Didn’t Rome Fall? Why is that snake so swollen with life, so vicious, and so vigorous, today?

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Fragmentation

The human condition!

The most horrifying moment in this film is not the explosion of an innocent girl exposed to extreme pressure, nor is it a dead body floating in a river of sewage, nor is it the bloating of a teenager into a hideous giant—it is the uncovering of the fragmentation of the world and the fragmentation of the human being. Through the entire movie the main characters search for someone or something named “Akira”; the word is little more than a convenient McGuffin until one of the youths in the plot discovers a batch of frozen orange tanks buried at the heart of a giant refrigerator which had been hidden underneath a new Olympic stadium—always a symbol of modernity, growth, and progress. Inside the orange tanks are mere bodyparts: a brain, a spine, various organs, all labeled “Akira”. Here is your human being! Everyone in the film was searching for humanity, although none of them realized it until they found that a person is no more than the sum of his bodyparts.

Which is the real person?

The harshest and most obvious aspect of modernity is its fragmentation, the endless division and sub-division of the world around us and our inability to grasp the entirety as a whole. “Borges” does glimpse it once in The Aleph but has now almost completely forgotten what he saw and would be unable to describe such a thing as the world even if he were able to see it again. The search is hopeless, pointless, and ultimately destructive because true knowledge is powerlessness. An awareness of everything past, present, and future would reduce a man to a vegetable, or, in Akira’s case, a few orange tanks full of what are in essence vegetables: what reason is there to act when you have already seen every mote of your destiny, and the consequences of even your most insignificant actions, down to the ten thousandth generation?

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The Objective Correlative

Vesuvius

One thing naturally leads to another

The cause of the pounding, the throbbing, the fighting in my own heart was an electrification of both the recent and distant but continuous past: an epiphany, as when I understood what T.S Eliot meant by objective correlative, and experienced the great pleasure of receiving a communication of thoughts and emotions across time and space through a shattered pile of glittering textual shards; the thick black rich coffee surging through my veins in place of blood; the thrill of taking a day off from monotonous work to write and dream at home, caused by a lack of sleep caused by a sudden and really unexpected night of the darkest, loveliest, and most savage passion; the nonsensical life I have yet again found myself leading in a place few Americans could ever find on the map; the certainty that I can hammer and bash a refinement of welded sparks from the barbaric crudities that mix together to form my existence as a titanic blacksmith laboring in the deep red light that glows inside the hollowed-out cone of a mountain blooded with lava and smoke.

But as for the forested mountains outside my window, forested in trees and forested in twenty-story tenements, these elements combine at different times to produce different emotions: I have wanted to tear away my windows and leap away from everything to join them in a lust of joy so sudden and powerful I find little in the way of ability or reason to resist it; I have wanted to flee away from them, and leap back inside the wall behind me, blanketing myself in scarves of the past, bundled as safely as an infant, at the sight of such rolling mountains dashed with such tides of smog, haze, and rainy monsoon clouds.

Between these two extremes the golden mean is naturally writing

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Diomedes and Aphrodite (Real and Fake Fiction)

Botticelli's Pallas and Centaur, or Reason and Strength

It occurred to me (in a forehead-slapping duh moment) that Nabokov’s consistent hatred of moralizing tales and fables of virtue that carry within them any kind of ethical lesson—his amorality, his Wildesque art for art’s sake—is a morality of its own, in the same silly and contradictory way that everything should be done in moderation—even moderation. This percolation originated from a perusal of some of Samuel Johnson’s essays as well as a very, very brief skimming of some ancient literary exegetical texts, all of which stressed the need for the ideal artist to present the ideal man so that the reader can learn from him and therefore augment and make more wholesome (and dull) his own personality. The self-evident absurdity of this notion seems to have been lost on nearly every commentator who has ever written literary criticism, but thankfully the greatest artists have completely ignored such sophistry, and always manage to deliver human beings in their stories, rather than models of perfect virtue, with strengths as well as weaknesses. Superman is completely uninteresting without his kryptonite, and I remember almost cheering out loud the first time I read the moment when Diomedes manages to stab Aphrodite in the Iliad. The fickle goddess of love has been far better to me lately but in those days she was just as cruel as she usually is and totally deserved it.

Would anyone care for Don Quixote if the knight of the rueful countenance lacked the flaw of an overactive imagination? Would anyone care for Sancho Panza if the man were capable of even the slightest flight of fancy? Could the first great novel exist without character flaws its author might exploit? Does this sort of question even need to be asked?

There is far more to say on this subject, particularly with regard to political activists of any persuasion, who have little interest in the real fiction of Shakespeare and Nabokov, and only really care for the fake fiction that confirms and solidifies the skewed lines of their realities, but there is much more yet to write tonight, so I will leave off here.

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All We Know About Lysis (from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers)

Harran


[In 323 BC] the Greek philosopher Lysis, who belonged to no particular school of thought but that which was most politically expedient, found himself in Zariaspa [modern Balkh], thanks in large part to the conquests of Alexander the Great. While he was staying in the city he encountered an Indian gymnosophist, perhaps an ascetic Brahminical monk or maybe even a fledgling Buddhist, and said to the man in Attic Greek that “If you can speak one word of my language to me, I will convert to your philosophy.” The monk was in the middle of a busy thoroughfare bowing and beating on a drum to a crude idol he had set up there for that purpose; when he heard the words of Lysis he looked up and said, in perfect Attic Greek, “Language is nothing, thought is everything, but you are a poor man indeed, for you have neither words nor thoughts.” And that same day Lysis shaved his head and his beard, donned the red robe, found a pillar in an empty city of ruins that was nearby, and there on its capital began his meditations in search of Enlightenment.

It was some time later [on April 18th, 316 BC] that an eclipse cast its shadow over the city of Zariaspa and the surrounding country. The people were amazed and terrified, and Lysis, having gazed deeply into the glare of light glowing around the edge of the black disk in the sky, suddenly found, upon glancing away, that he could no longer see anything at all. He rejoiced at this, saying to himself he would be less distracted by the world of illusions, and how wonderful it would be to lose the rest of his senses, that he might be allowed to contemplate the universe in peace, untroubled by the gnawing cold from the north, the sound of laughing women, the taste of warm bread dipped in olive oil.

And he followed through with this pursuit, asked a soldier to pull out his tongue, burned off his nose, and pressed his ears to the anvils of the loudest blacksmiths, thus rendering himself almost totally senseless. He never learned how to eradicate his sense of touch, and could thus be seen sitting in a shaft of sunlight in the marketplace near where he had first met the Greek-speaking monk, his eyes shut, his pursed lips smiling pleasantly. He died of natural causes [in 310]. A crystal was found in the ash of his cremated body, but this disappeared sometime after the invasion of the Tocharians.

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