Schrodinger’s Cat Has Only One Life

The thing about writing, specifically (at least for me) writing fiction, is that there is this moment when the story (doesn’t matter how long or short) is ready — you’ve penned the last full stop, or question mark, or exclamation mark, or pressed the save icon, or the keyboard shortcut, whatever. That moment, when the story is between you and the world, when it is a Schrodinger’s story so to say — neither dead nor alive, when you don’t know if you would kill it then and there, or expose it to the world, and you with it. It’s in that moment that as a writer (and I am using the word in its most liberal sense) you’re the happiest person. Or should I just speak for myself, not make gross generalizations based on a strong personal experience.

Okay then, that’s what I will do. That moment, when I know that a story is ready — not necessarily for the world, not necessarily safe from my own doubts (is any story ever?), not necessarily worth the (proverbial) paper it might be printed on, not necessarily good/decent; in other words: not necessarily something anyone else should/would care about — is the moment I’m at the happiest. It’s a moment that makes writing worth all its troubles: all the doubts that keep eating at your sanity, all the misery of being stuck in a place where all the roads seem to lead back into it, all the anger at terrible stuff that seems to be getting written and published, all the anger at oneself for not being able to write anything that convinces the inner critic, all the cluelessness, all the anxiety (would I ever write anything better than that piece I wrote when I was young, which, btw, now I believe was shit) , all the helplessness, despondency.

It’s a fleeting moment though. For the demons that you had just managed to stuff into a cupboard for a very brief respite, come running out. The cat is out of the bag. There is no turning back now. One has to confront it. So what if the world doesn’t know of its existence, you do. You are Schrodinger. You fu**ing created the cat. You ought to now open the box, and deal with the reality that was in there, unaware of you.

Not all cats have nine lives. Surely, not Schrodinger’s — for one would say with a very high probability that it is alive, and be right 8 out of 9 times. Sometimes, it is alive, and Schrodinger is so confused, that he buries it. Sometimes, Schrodinger carries it around as if it were alive, and gets ridiculed. Sometimes, he just keeps staring at it, not knowing what to do with it, and it keeps staring back at him, with a deadpan gaze that is neither apologetic of its existence, nor pleading for its life. It’s as if, the gaze is coming from within. In that moment, Schrodinger is the cat.

 

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The remains of the words, not to be

IMG_20180615_144822.jpg
words never written
words that will never be written.
words, lost to time
to serendipity
to their time that never was
to opportunities wasted,
to procrastination
to neglect
to priorities misplaced
to unreliable memories …
words that were never meant to be
the scattered remains of the words,
that could have been.

The Unbearable Weight of Words

If you want to be a writer, first be a reader, or so say many masters of the craft, when talking about writing. I suspect they’re basically saying you don’t know what good writing is till you have read good writing, and reading a lot of quality writing will change you as a writer. All true, probably. I’m not a master to dare contradict them.

But I suspect, even if they don’t mean it that way, there are more reasons to read writings — good, great, wonderful, fabulous, out of the world, the kinds that make you want to shout out to the world just because you’re able to get them.

One reason in particular.

When you read that kind of, knocks you flat, stuff, it pushes you into an existential crisis as a budding writer. I mean, why bother writing, if you know you’re, in all probability, never going to reach there, or somewhere about there. Even to the base camp of the summit, really. Or realistically. It plunges you into a writing block so freakin debilitating that you think: is this where the story ends? Literally.

Oh, did I say the reason was going to help you become a better writer? No, right? Just that it’s important. To have stared into the abyss. To have a sense of the depth of utter despair that is always just a step away on that path. For if one doesn’t have a heart for that, one shouldn’t be aspiring to reach the summit.

Of course, there is another way. To ignore summits. To aim for mediocrity. And if one is lucky, to taste success, in the conventional sense, and to build one’s house far from summits, one story higher than all that’s around, and to stand in the gallery and marvel at where one has reached. Many happy stories have endings like that. If you care for them, that is.

But maybe, the stories worth living are those that don’t have such happy endings, somewhere in the middle. Maybe, one needs to hit a wall and rethink one’s route. Maybe, rethinking “why” one should aspire, is a step to sustain that aspiration. And to ask that why one needs to read the best of the best. Maybe there is no happy ending. But maybe, the route to the base camp is itself worth stepping out of one’s comfort zones for. Seriously, though, why bother, otherwise?


 

My friend and co-conspirator at Gaizabonts who has again generously offered the image that serves as the featured image here, and also has indirectly kick-started this post as part of FB comments. Thanks Atul!

As Time Goes By

Another year bids us goodbye. That is: another repetition of a random marker, one of many methods of demarcating time, but one that is now universal by its overall acceptance. In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the power of gods is decided by the number of people who believe in them. Sir Pratchett probably just wanted to make a point about the arbitrariness of belief — it’s been a while since I read it, so cannot say with certainty — but all myths, and all conventions, definitely need the numbers to survive. So while different calenders still survive, and different new years are still celebrated,  they are like the small gods, while this Gregorian Calendar is the big league.

Anyways, the point wasn’t that (it rarely is with me, as the regular — haha, it feels good to use the term — readers already know) at all. As the year comes to an end, I got thinking, how do I want to spend the rest of it? I mean, I hate parties, I hate to step out on the NYE, because, more or less, I hate crowds, and lines at restaurants, and overpriced food, and collective superficial euphoria, and most things that come on the television, and so on. So, over the years, I’ve welcomed the new year in my sleep — or more precisely by waking up to the sound of firecrackers, which, yes you guessed it, I hate.

So how is it going to be this year?

 

***

There is a weird pop-wisdom (popularized recenlty by Steve Jobs, no less) that runs something like this: live every day like it’s the last day of your life. For some reason, it’s considered self-explanatory wisdom, even an obvious one. But is it?

If I knew, when the day started, that it’s the last day of my life, how would I live it? Let’s see. It would be too late to run through the list of “important things to do” to make sure the family is somewhat set to deal with the eventuality. I mean yes, I’d possibly come up with a list of passwords and likes, that I need to handover to the spouse. Let her know the list of credit cards that need to be stopped (they need to be, right?). And such sundry things. That would take less than an hour, I’d recon. Then I’d probably call up a very small list of people and bid goodbye. Few more hours. Then I’d probably spend rest of the time with my loved ones. Cook something good for them. And as the hour approaches, put on the last of the Jazz pieces I’d like to listen to, once again. A bit of Mingus. A lot of Coltrane. Love Supreme as a finale.

Here is what I will NOT do: work, plan for future, read, watch movies, contemplate on philosophical issues, exercise, help others, sleep, learn anything new, try anything new actually, write …

You see why it’s useless?

I think the better wisdom would be: live every day as if you know when you’re going to die. So that you can come up with the perfect plan. And stick to it, because we know there will be no extension. Prioritize time because you know exactly how much you will have, no more. It’s the uncertainty, and more precisely the apparent abundance of time, that stops us from a lot of it. Not just the non-emergency of it. Because emergency is not the best way to schedule your life goals. Especially, when you don’t know when you’re going to die. Like the most of us.

***

So what has this got to do with the new year’s eve?

Nothing really. What it reminds me of, this new year thing is that it’s that time of the year again, to take a stock. Because it seems like the right time to do it. And it’s that time of year when you know very little time is left — of the year. How should one spend it? Like it were the last day to change anything about the year (it is!). And if there is anything I want to change about 2017, it’s the writing part. Or the non-writing part, to be precise.

So here I am. Trying to write. And to keep the flame burning, through to the next year. And hope, it will be better, the next year. But let’s face it, without a serious plan, it won’t be. But even acknowledging that is a good start, right? And the thing about “last days” is, it’s too late to change anything substantially. It’s too late to plan. It’s too late to do anything but relax, and reminisce, and remember, and maybe think about what wasn’t, and what was, and what could be.

***

In more ways than one, 2017 was the Annus horribilis. And I’m strictly speaking of writing. Yes, I wrote some verses, some non-fiction pieces, which were not cringe-worthy. But where it counts — fiction — it was the worst year since I started writing (if one could call it that — but I would, even if it’s basically writing for oneself). This was the year distractions got the better of me. This was the year I’ll write off, happily. I’m even happy it’s ending. Because however arbitrary, a new year seems like a new start. At least I know that over the last 365 days, I’ve failed in prioritizing something that gives me a sense of achievement. I’ve failed terribly. Completely. And what better way to spend the last night of the year than to admit that to oneself, and to the tiny part of the world that cares about it (like you, maybe, because you’re still reading this). Maybe this is the rock bottom that I needed to hit. And the last thing: of course I know 2017 is not to blame for any of it. It was only the messenger.

 

 

Infinity of Jest, Finitude of Grace

A major part of growing up is coming to terms with the fallibility of our heroes. Okay, make it “gradual erosion of faith in our heroes” or “being almost free from the belief in heroes”. The same heroes, or rather, the same faith in the existence of heroes, that was our ladder to adulthood, that sometimes we want to cling to, rather desperately. However, as we start seeing more and more shades of gray, the photographs of heroes in our attic start seeming gradually lackluster. And yet, curiously, even ironically, more real. As if, finally, we have access to the third dimension which, hundreds of two-dimensional projections were a poor substitute for.

Still, we’re never really free of belief in heroes, because, in a world ruled by chance and chaos, we need that straw to keep afloat. And so, when someone else tries to cut down our heroes to a size too small for a pedestal, we instinctively cringe; or — get angry, or combative, or even, dismissive.

David Foster Wallace (DFW), one of the best-known American novelists of our era, killed himself in the month of September, nine years back, a day after the date that no American will easily forget, two days after the World Suicide Prevention day, ironically. With DFW, one is never sure if the connections are tenuous or real. And I get a feeling, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it. Being sure would have defeated the purpose.

In last two decades, as I’ve struggled to make progress on my personal, non-professional, ambition of being a writer (or wanting to be a writer, to be precise), there are a few writers (and I’m really talking about fiction writers) I have looked up to. Umberto Eco, for instance, or Amitav Ghosh, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Hermann Hesse, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie. The list is long, and not exhaustive. But if there is one writer who I’d have liked to be, one writer I’d have liked to write like (not exactly same, obviously, but you know what I mean), it’s got to be DFW.

I say this based, not just on his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but also his debut book, Broom of the System, or his unfinished symphony, Pale King, tied up into some semblance of a novel by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch, and his Interviews with Hideous Men, and other short-story collections; I’ve read every word of Wallace with adulation. And especially with Pale King, I’ve cried thinking of DFW writing that, while feeling inadequate as a writer, and a human being, and killing himself, denying us all a lot more he could have produced, with his abundant talents, but above all, denying himself all those years of unlived life.

And so, when I read his longtime friend and competitor Jonathan Franzen’s piece “Farther Away” (from his eponymous collection of essays), dealing with, among many things, the death of David Foster Wallace, my reaction was almost visceral. In a sense, because, on some level, Franzen was right (if not on many levels, after all, he knew Wallace, I just read him). Especially when he says:

The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms.

And I got to know about that more when I recently read DFW’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It talked of a Wallace that one would have a hard time imagining just reading his fiction — because that kind of understanding, that level of pathos, that kind of empathy, as exemplified by his writings seems incongruous with some of the aspects of his personality, especially the (lack of ?) personality ethic. Then again, it’s always a possibility. Growing up has taught us as much, if nothing more.

Still, Franzen’s writing about his self-confessed friend seems devoid of grace.

A bit of context is due for those who do not know the background. Jonathan Franzen and DFW shared a borderline healthy (or unhealthy, as you see fit) rivalry as writers. With Infinite Jest, DFW seemed to have pulled ahead into a territory that’s reserved for a few. Much of what Franzen writes about DFW seems to be weighed down by that enormity — and it’s almost like Franzen is angry with DFW because he basically cheated Franzen of a chance to prove he could beat DFW to it and more.

*

Franzen makes no efforts to hide his anger at DFW for killing himself in a hideous way:

At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved so much but instead to take refuge in anger and work. Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels. The desperate edge to my own recent boredom: might this be related to my having broken a promise to myself? The promise that, after I’d finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David’s death?

Strangely, though, this seems to be the only way in which Franzen seems to relate to DFW’s suicide — this being the only sympathetic interpretation in the article. Thus, subconsciously, elevating himself to DFW’s level — a boredom of the Titans.

That just sets a tone for a piece, that for every other distraction in it, is basically about DFW — and Franzen’s getaway to reflect on the relationship, in its glorious contradictions. But what is shocking, for a close friend of someone who’s grappled with depression all his adult life, and a very perceptive writer, to have almost completely ignored the elephant in the room.

In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not. (emphasis mine).

The joy of birds? Really? And this, while he starts the paragraph with “he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else”. How can a friend miss the forest for the trees?

This is where it starts making sense, though:

The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.

A cursory google search will give you some interesting figures (link):

  • In 2015 (latest available data), there were 44,193 reported suicide deaths.
  • Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • A person dies by suicide about every 11.9 minutes in the United States.
  • Every day, approximately 121 Americans take their own life.
  • Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

David Foster Wallace may have been a genius. But he was a part of those statistics. Just one in many. What’s more, there is a strong link between creativity and mental disorders, as discussed by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Lord Byron, the high priest of crazies, wrote. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” Versions of this story have been told, over and over, with bipolar disorder, with some variants of schizophrenia, and with rare cases of autism; all are “more or less touched.” It is tempting to romanticize psychotic illness, so let me emphasize that the men and women with these mental disorders experience paralyzing cognitive, social, and psychological disturbances that send gashes of devastation through their lives. [SNIP]

In Touched with Fire, an authoritative study of the link between madness and creativity, the psychologist-writer Kay Redfield Jamison compiled a list of those “more or less touched” that reads like the Who’s Who of cultural and artistic achievers: Byron (of course), van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jack Kerouac—and on and on. That list can be extended to include scientists (Isaac Newton, John Nash), musicians (Mozart, Beethoven), and an entertainer who built an entire genre out of mania before succumbing to depression and suicide (Robin Williams). Hans Asperger, one of the psychologists who first described children with autism, called them “little professors” for good reason. Withdrawn, socially awkward, or even language-impaired children, barely functional in one “normal” world, might produce the most ethereal version of Satie’s Gymnopédies on the piano or calculate the factorial of eighteen in seven seconds.

In the years that I’ve read more and more about DFW, I’ve asked myself this: “would I be willing to host his demons, if that were the precondition of being the kind of artist that he was?” The answer is a rather quick and an emphatic NO. We lesser mortals, the statistically normal humans, are blessed with a missing bone. We wouldn’t know what to do with the demons. It’s not a kind of price one chooses to pay. It’s what one pays because there is no choice.

Later in the piece, Franzen tries to be more charitable:

That he was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil—was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it—is not inconsequential.

Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him—as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, and as long as these dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest news to the mainland—he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

But here again, even at his charitable best, Franzen cannot accept DFW as just one in those thousands, who kill themselves, unable to cope with chronic depression. Occam’s razor asks us to pick the simplest explanation. Franzen, on the other hand, comes up with a twisted logic of “phenomenology and teleology of suicidality (sic) being same …” He wants to be fair, to his friend and competitor. But what is fair about dissecting a dead person who cannot question anything, even the reason (or unreason) he chose to be dead over being alive. Franzen, one suspects, would have taken the deal, demons and angels together, if it were on table, but is angry that it’s not on the table.

It’s this tone deafness of the article, even when he has access to the big picture from a close distance, that has kept me from reading Franzen’s fiction all these days since I read this piece for the first time. I know that’s not a right response. And that I’m doing a Franzen here, trying to read a betrayal in a survival strategy. Maybe, I lack the grace too.

It’s probably unfair to expect authors to be better than us in empathizing with others — yes, even those authors whose writing seems to overflow with empathy. Because, writing, above all, is a self-serving exercise. But, it does seem rather strange, that someone who understands motives and motifs, can open themselves to a charge like that, by being so transparent (if they were actually — daft otherwise). And yet, it takes a kind of courage to open one’s heart, with all its pain and anguish, even at the risk of sounding insensitive. Franzen has displayed that in abundance.

*

Ironically, the grace I was looking for, in this context, came from a this piece:

I wish he had spoken to me, or I to him: I could have offered him some fatherly  advice on the futility of competing with your younger self: every review of every novel I’ve written since Gravity’s Rainbow contains the phrase, either explicitly or implicitly, “not as good as.” It is clear that taking the Big Dirt Nap was already very much on his mind when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:  “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…[sic] the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” After the antidepressants and electroshock therapy had failed, I guess he assumed he had nowhere else to go, and succumbed to Entropy.

I say ironic, because, this wasn’t written by the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, and an early influence (that DFW went to lengths to deny) on DFW, Thomas Pynchon, that reclusive writer who’s avoided the eye of the media religiously, and successfully. This was a parody piece published in Salon, as a spoof Pynchon piece, now unavailable (I had to dig up this passage, which I remembered vaguely, from the Internet Archives WayBack Machine snapshot).  Many fell for it. Including me. Because it seemed like something that had to be written, about DFW. And what better person to write it, but Pynchon, a father figure that DFW consciously, and consistently, disowned. For death makes all amends impossible from the one who has died, leaving those who are left behind, to forgive, and forget, magnanimously. Because they’ve still got that one thing the deceased doesn’t have: a chance to make things right, even if unilaterally, and marginally. It’s what grace demands.

Maybe, there is no Infinity of grace. Maybe, the celebrated authors, who we assume, have been given a special x-ray vision into people’s souls, are as blind with petty human emotions like anger, and pain, as the rest of us. Maybe grace is finite. And one has to find it in a fictionalized parody alone. Maybe, in reality, grace is a price too steep for even the Titans to pay.

*

“Dhoondh ujade hue logo me wafa ke moti. Yeh khazane tumhe mumkin hai kharabo.n me mile”

(Search the pearls of loyalty in those who have lost everything else, for maybe there, in the broken men, you may find those treasures)

That’s a loose translation of a couplet from Ahmad Faraz’s ghazal. But that’s incidentally what Infinite Jest is all about, among other things. Maybe the Titans are too upright to expect grace from. Maybe, we’re cursed to find it only in those we shy away from. And definitely not within.

The Narrative Games

There are stories all around us. Not all are interesting when one tells them, but when they are unfolding before you, they manage to hold your attention.

Last week, I was traveling back home, from a business trip when I witnessed a story. I boarded the flight and sat down in my aisle seat on the left half. A few minutes later, a couple with two very young kids arrived. The mother sat in the half of the row in front of me, with two kids on either side. The father took the aisle seat on the right.

Another couple of minutes later, boarded a girl who had the window seat in the same row, on the father’s side. The boarding was almost complete by now, and the attendants were getting ready for the safety drill. For a few mins, it looked like the middle seat next to the father was going to be unoccupied. Everyone put on the seat belts. Just then another (very good looking, incidentally) girl boarded, the last one to board, and took the middle seat. The father who had gotten up to give her access, quickly sat back into his seat, not looking at his wife, who was trying to get his attention.

Soon, the plane started taxiing to the runway, and the status quo was maintained for a while. But as soon as the plane took off, and the seat belt sign was off, though, the mother got up, and so did the father, as if on cue, and they exchanged seats. In a few minutes, she had gone off to sleep in her new seat.

***

There are of course multiple ways to interpret this simple sequence.

1. The simplest: the mother got jealous, and didn’t want the husband to sit next to a very attractive girl.

2. Mother was feeling sleepy, and the boys were not sleeping, so she decided to let the dad take up the duty of putting them to sleep.

3. The boys wanted their dad to be next to them.

4. The mother thought that the father, who was a heftily built man, was getting uncomfortable in the aisle seat, especially considering the person next to him was a girl.

5. The father, and not the mother, initiated the exchange because he thought his wife was getting uncomfortable with him sitting next to a (very) good looking girl.

6. The mother thought that the girl in the middle seat will be more comfortable with a woman being next to her, because, she herself would have been more comfortable that way, having listened to horror stories of girls being molested on planes, buses, trains.

7. The father, the mother knew, is a molester, and she’s really trying to save the girls from his prying hands (or trying to save her husband from the consequences).

***

I’m sure we could keep on coming up with multiple such reasons or their variations/combinations. But do we? Or do we (or rather, our minds) lazily pick up the Occam’s razor and select the simplest interpretation?

I think the storyteller’s role becomes crucial here because his/her job is to steer the reader/listener to a particular interpretation. Of course, there are lazy story tellers, who will pick up the simplest of sequences themselves (like yours truly here), in the hope that the readers will instantly pick up the “most obvious” interpretation, and thus believe the narration very much like real-life, aka, realistic. But is realism just the “most common” or “obvious” view of reality? Because if that’s what story-telling does (and here, I cannot but use examples of writers like Chetan Bhagat, and many “romance” writers who are popular currently in Indian writing scene) then art is basically majoritizing  of narration, and hence just reinforcing the norm (not ethical, but statistical) as the only reality worth talking about.

This is where the interesting story tellers come in. Either as writers, or film-makers. Some of them give us enough extra slice of reality to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly — something that propagandist story-tellers fall into, even though they’re going beyond the norm) nudge us to a different reading of reality (for instance, I’ve also tried to nudge you into a specific interpretation by adding “not looking at his wife”, when in reality, since I was in the next row, would have found it difficult to make that claim with certainty), forming a different interpretations of the actions of protagonists, for instance, by giving us enough glimpses into the minds of the characters, say, or painting the relationships between principal characters with a fine brush. While some, want to go beyond even that nudging and give you enough contradictory seeming clues to put the burden of interpretation on you entirely (David Lynch? Pynchon? Wallace?).

Then there is another category of story-tellers who provide you enough clues, but also some misleading clues, although, they want you to solve the puzzle. There is an answer they want you to have, but don’t want to let it be too obvious, lest the fun is lost. But these story-tellers, are also a little afraid that the listener/viewers/reader will entirely miss the point and come up with a different interpretation based on the clues that they pick up. Someone like Nolan, for instance, who ended up explaining his intended interpretation of Inception.

The thing is, there are so many stories and so many interpretations. And one way to look at our evolution as readers/watchers is to evaluate the complexity of the chess game that one is able to play, at the level. Then again, profound can be captured simply. So one can’t have a hegemony of complexity of narration.


PS: There was another colleague traveling on the same flight who was seated in my row, but in the other half. He was trying to tell me something when the couple boarded. I asked him today, after writing this, what was it that he was trying to tell me, and he narrated this:

“The guy (the father) was very frustrated with his child’s tantrum, and he picked him up and told him “if you don’t shut up, I’ll throw you out of the window”. Anyone wants to go back to the list for a different interpretation, with this tidbit? There is also very interesting takeaway, in all this: the narrators miss many stories as they concentrate on one. In a perfect symmetry: where the reader/listener ends up walking away with just one interpretation.

 


Picture Credit: Atul Sabnis of gaizabonts.

From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/atulsabnis/16043765717/in/album-72157650244516635/

Incidentally, there is a small story of the book too: read on the photo page. Atul is a story teller in various mediums.

 

 

 

 

On Melancholy and Poetic Prose

Sometimes twitter throws at you something which suddenly makes all the garbage there inconsequential (including garbage one contributes to), even an okay price to pay for sublimity.

Melancholy, the rethinking of the disaster we are in, shares nothing with the desire for death. It is a form of resistance. And this is emphatically so on the level of art, where its function is far from merely reactive or reactionary. When, with a fixed gaze, melancholy again reconsiders just how things could have gone this far, it becomes clear that the dynamics of inconsolability and of knowledge are identical in function. In the description of the disaster lies the possibility of overcoming it.

From W. G. Sebald, Die Beschreibung des Unglucks (1985), trans. Louis Klee.

I found this thanks to a tweet by  (strong recommendation to follow if you are in love with words), and have reread it a few times. Recently, thanks to couple of excellent twitter feeds, I’ve been reunited with poetry — in the sense of reading poetry to be precise. Although I’ve scribbled a few bad to okay poems (most of those posted to this blog), I’ve never been into poetry that much. Read a few urdu shaayari, in the adolescent years, when everyone reads it. Tried to read Wasteland multiple times, always got lost in its labyrinths, and gave up eventually. Read bit of Neruda, a bit of Anna Akhmatova, bit of Wisława Szymborska, bit of this and that, took a few random trails down the Wandering Minstrels (wasn’t there a poetry site with this name — one with random poetry hopping function for a serendipitous meeting with a poem, a tinder for poetry really?). But I’ve never read the classics, nor can I claim to be a good reader of poetry.

And yet, I’ve yearned for the poetic writing, the kind that comes naturally to some writers. It’s more common among the fiction writing, but sometimes even non-fiction surprises you with that fluidity, that poetic flow of prose, that innate rhythm, that poignant dance of thoughts. It blurs the borders between prose and poetry. And what remains is an almost visceral understanding of thoughts. It’s to that aim that I keep on dabbling with writing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it’s because of that, that when I see it, I pause and marvel, and cannot help but share it. God knows there is enough there already that even unearthing some of it might be worthy enough use of a lifetime.


PS: Wandering Minstrels is still there, only as a blog now, with all the archives too! You can check it out at : http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/. Oh, yes, there is still the random hop button, too.

PS2: Melancholy, the subject of the excerpts, is really the rarefied essence of most great art, isn’t it? I mean, to use Tolstoy’s take on happy/unhappy families, in this context, all happy art seems to be same, but there are a thousand shades of the melancholy that make art that dabbles in melancholy so different, almost every time.

Tools Are Us: aka “The Frankenstein Chronicles”

Louis Sullivan, considered by many to be the father of Modernist architecture, is attributed to be the originator of the phrase “Form follows function”, although the principle itself is quite ancient. Just like Architecture, and Industrial Design, “world wide web” has gone through waves of design philosophies, and thanks to Google’s groundbreaking clean design when it landed on the scene, that seemed to be following the modernist adage to the letter, look and feel of web-pages saw a major shift to more utilitarian design rather than (most of the times) one based on gaudy aesthetics (or anesthetics, really) that the early visual web (anyone remembers the grotesque Altavista and clone pages?) epitomized. But forgive me if I’m erring on (or overly simplifying) the web design history, as I’m sure I am, given that I’m no expert there (or anywhere). The point is, from Yahoo/Altavista to Google, and ironically from Google’s own (although acquired, not created) Blogger to WordPress (ha, couldn’t resist that!), and so on, blogs/webpages have been moving to a cleaner, efficient, functional designs.

Yes, there is a point that I’m actually driving at. We’ll come to that. Recently, Atul Sabnis at Gaizabonts, who has been responsible for many posts on this blog — by providing subject matter directly/indirectly — wrote a post (yes, Atul, I’ve been very careful with blog and post differentiation lately) which I read on my phone. Then, in the usual blogger’s spirit (a, no doubt, vanishing trait, for better or for worse), I wanted to comment on the post. Now, remember this: I’m actually quite used to browsing, even reading short-to-medium length pieces on my phone. And still, I found it not very easy to find a way to comment on this post. Also remember this: Atul isn’t exactly a “form over function” kind of guy, rather the opposite, and is much more likely than the average Joe (including yours truly) to choose templates with a consideration for things like “ease of doing comments” (ha! couldn’t resist that, either.) So I don’t think it’s a problem with that one template problem. Yes, I went and checked my own blog and a few others, just to be sure. Yes, it’s not very difficult to do, but the thing is comments section isn’t in the prime real estate of the posts anymore. They have been relegated to the afterthoughts section.

Sign of times, yes. The fact is, these days, most people do not read blog-posts on original blogs, but are led there from twitter/FB/. Which means that, a lot of time people comment right there, if they do comment that is — because not many have time to write comments these days (except for those who we wish rather didn’t have the time for that: a human derivative species identified with a mythical animal that has brain the sign of peanut and body the size of gorilla, whose name starts with a T). So much better to RT/forward, press the like/love button. Yes, I’m a bit of an old-fashioned guy in these matters. While FB comments are good to have, if the alternative is no comments,  the problem with them is that they are for a subset of blog readers. Yes, point could be made that it’s thanks to FB/SM that those comments are even made and/or visible to more people than would be possible in the pre-SM era of blogs. Fair enough. Still, I prefer those comments on the blog, where there is a common audience, possibly interested in those comments. But maybe that’s just me.

***

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Our relationship with technology is interesting, to say the least. We crave for the fruits, however forbidden, but are always afraid that they may come with a hidden price-tag (or snake, to use well understood imagery). Scientists, especially those in love with gizmos are rarely presented as dependable, responsible, members of society. They are, at best mostly harmless geeks, and at worst blind-to-anything-but-the-possibility-of-innovation mad scientists who are tools at the hands of someone who wants to destroy something, or rule everything. Basically, unwitting, or uncaring agents of the power hungry. This, of course, gets worse if the object of their creation is capable of wielding power by itself (himself? herself? do anthropomorphic machines have gender?) and not through human proxies. That explains the obsession with the concept of Frankenstein, that has been portrayed in various incarnations, in popular literature (and even cultish, dystopian science fiction) and movies. We live in the dread of the Frankenstein. Even a more benign one, that may just take away our jobs, not necessarily our lives.

***

Still, we love tools that these inventors, technologists, mad-scientists invent. We adore them. We need them. But tools use us just as we are using them. They change us. Tools are like memes. They need to change us for their survival.

How we think, how we write, how we speak, how we express, this all is shaped by the tools we use. Even how we read, how we consume, how we listen. Between the stimulus and response is you, say some of the self help gurus. I agree. But sometimes between you and the world there are tools. And they change your response. They can even change the stimulus, in route, to get a different response.

Our fear of Frankenstein is both paranoid-ly unreal, and almost instinctively right. Frankenstein isn’t one machine turned rogue. Frankenstein is every tool/machine that changes us, by bits and pieces, even imperceptibly. It’s through us that tools rule us. By making us constantly aware of the here and now, social platforms are making us turn away from the sublime, and the timeless. By making us aware of the power of likes from complete strangers, social platforms are making us conform to the standards of faceless strangers. By making it easy to like a post, and harder to comment, blogging platforms are changing us into hit-and-run readers.

The lunatic is in the hall
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

— Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (Brain Damage)

The Frankenstein is here, and now. And it’s us, not the tools and machines we invented.

***

The origin of the “Frankenstein” is curious. The first novel, by Mary Shelly, has Frankenstein as the creator of a “monster”, not the monster itself that it later started to be associated with – to the extend that Cambridge Dictionary has this entry:

Frankensteinnoun 

something that destroys or harms the person or people who created it:

Example: “In arming the dictator, the US was creating a Frankenstein.” 

Wikipedia entry from Frankenstein (novel) has this interesting tidbit:

Part of Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation is the fact that he does not give it a name, which causes a lack of identity. Instead it is referred to by words such as “wretch”, “monster”, “creature”, “demon”, “devil”, “fiend”, and “it”. When Frankenstein converses with the creature in Chapter 10, he addresses it as “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “fiend”, “wretched devil”, and “abhorred devil”.

And so the nameless creature,  has actually managed to steal the identity of its creator, and in all probability will outlive its creator — who has become nameless, identity less. Because now the creator is any man, while the creation is Frankenstein.


PS: This curious inversion, is an apt parallel to what I said up there: “[Frankenstein] is us, not the tools and machines we invented”. Till I looked on Wikipedia for origins of Frankenstein, after I wrote those words, I was blissfully unaware of this inversion — I assumed that Frankenstein is actually a fictional monster, not its creator!

The Illusive Cordon of Excellence

 

As an aspiring writer, your relationship with words is like a marriage struggling to keep itself afloat. There are good days, far and few between, long streaks of dismal days when you don’t trust the other. Although, in this case, one party can’t even claim sentience, the distrust seems mutual. And you tend, like in any strained relationship, to see yourself as the injured party, almost always. After all, words may not be sentient beings, but they hold an age whenever there is a conflict.

Sometimes I believe we kid ourselves that we choose words. If you look at evidence without the bias that comes with being human, you could quite easily argue that it’s the words who choose us. In his phenomenal work, the Selfish Gene, Dawkins puts forward a gene centric model to explain evolution better. Any meme could be seen as choosing the vehicles for their propagation.  The words choose us. We set arbitrary, and not so arbitrary (according to some of us, anyway) rules to restrict freedom of words. We believe we are enhancing the life of words. But more often than not, those rules end up hurting words. And then words revolt. They choose those who can break the rules, or choose rules that help them. Those who swear by rules are relegated to the forgotten footnotes of existence. While the words live on, way longer than any of us.

We live in a make believe word where writing can be taught. And yet, those who teach writing are struggling with it, just like the one who is learning. Maybe there isn’t anything more to it than practice, practice, practice. Then again, it’s not even remotely sufficient, just necessary. Or neither necessary nor sufficient. If we knew, all would be doing one thing. Thank heavens we don’t know!

Excellence, I sometimes think, is about hitting the target more often than others. Even masters come up with banal, awkward, even downright bad writing. And that assuming literary quality (and by extension, any artistic quality) is measurable, even partially objective.

The difference between good and bad writing — let me rephrase — the difference between good and the best of the bad writing, is tiny. To use a sports analogy, it’s the difference between good and bad timing. Between touching a line and missing a line. The masters seem to make the lines more often.

And yet, there is an endless playing field for those who can’t make those percentage, those cuts. Sometime, right in the middle of a mediocre field, one steps into the zone. Maybe by pure accident. Maybe, that day, the words decide to drop their defenses.  Even a strained relationship has its moments. That’s why we go on.