"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Importance Of Routine–Giving The Mind Some Room For Thought

In the remake of the movie The Fly (1986) Geena Davis asks Jeff Goldblum (Seth Brundle) why he never changes his clothes.

“What do you mean?”, Seth replies. “I change them every day.”

He walks over to the closet, opens the door and shows her a rack of identical suits and shelves of identical shirts, ties, and shoes.

“This way I don’t have to think about it.”

Einstein was supposed to have followed the same routine; and both men explained that all the mind was infinite, it still could get distracted.  The fewer distractions, the more focused they could be on more important concerns. 

Most regulars at the gym use the same lockers, hang their clothes in exactly the same way and reverse the order when dressing;  soap up, shower, rinse, sauna, and dry in the same way, in the same order, and in the same amount of time.  Daily exercise is important but tedious; and routine – the same stationary cycle, the same treadmill, the same round of machines and weights – can free the mind so that time is compressed, the tedium less noticeable, and most importantly, two things can get done at once.

Without unnecessary decisions (calibration of the equipment, which order to follow, how much time to allot to each step), the exerciser can both keep fit and fulfill intellectual compromises.  Review Turkish verbs, edit an important speech, scroll through the register of recipes for dinner, rehearse an upcoming interview – any one of thousand mental enterprises that need doing.

There is far more to routine, however, than practical efficiency. Hindus have long known the importance of routine.  The Vedas are explicit about hours of waking, sleeping, lovemaking, walking, praying, and eating.  Marriages are arranged according to caste, wealth, skin tone, and social status.  The laws of social intercourse are prescribed, inflexible, and longstanding.

If the world is illusion, Hindus say; and if the only purpose on earth is one’s individual spiritual enlightenment, then the real world not only should hold no interest but should be disregarded. Although few can achieve moksha (liberation) in one life, the practice of yogic discipline and mental purification can limit the number of one’s rebirths.

Westerners have often criticized Hinduism for its social rigidity.  The caste system is nothing more than ritual subjugation, social ossification, and an impediment to individual expression.

“Nothing of the sort”, reply traditional Hindus for whom social equality, individual expression, or self-fulfillment have no meaning whatsoever.  The rigid social system and highly-structured personal routines have a higher purpose – salvation, seeing God, and release from an unnecessary earthly cycle.

The less one has to deal with unnecessary choices, the more he can turn his attention inward to his own soul and outward to God.

Easier said than done of course.  There are as just as many Type A Bombay industrialists, entrepreneurs, and financiers as there are in America.  While many Indians have retained their Hindu roots and have not forgotten the lesson of maya and moksha, it is harder and harder to maintain any spiritual focus once the discipline of religious routine has been disrupted.

Americans have never had this conflict.  Calvinists never denied the importance of material success; and in fact wealth, status, and well-being were signs of divine election.  Worship and prayer have always been distinct from secular enterprise.  Salvation has always had more to do with respect for canon law (Catholic) and absolute faith and belief in Jesus Christ (Protestant).  No cleric has ever preached renunciation of the world, just how to negotiate its treachery.

Conrad in The Nigger of the Narcissus had a more Hindu take on human activity.  Singleton, the old mariner aboard the Narcissus, never thinks, but only performs his duty.  He is sage, responsible, and morally sound.  It is those who think, says Conrad, who foul their lines.  What comes of intelligence, he asks, other than confusion, plots, conflicts, and self-serving intrigues? 
It isn’t so much what work you do, it is the work itself that counts.

Vershinin and Tuzenbach, Russian soldiers in Chekhov’s Three Sisters debate the value of work.  One, anticipating the Russian Revolution, says that it is a means to an end, a more equal society.  The other says that work itself has meaning.  It is work that provides social and personal grounding in a complex world.

It is almost impossible for a modern day young American to take any of these arguments seriously.  Everything, it seems, revolves around the development and worth of the individual.  Routine implies capitulation to patriarchal and authoritarian attempts to keep workers in line.  Women’s and men’s traditional roles must be jettisoned and an entirely new social order must be put into place.  Not only should social roles be questioned but the entire assumption of sexuality.

In short, routine as a value has been largely discredited and dismissed.  A closet full of unique, fanciful, bold, and inspired clothes is a good thing, not a bad; for image and looking good are essential add-ons to character and personality in a competitive world.   Foie gras, seared tuna; a mélange of Asian, Californian, and Louisiana cuisine; salads with greens, fruit, nuts, seafood, and cheese in hundreds of combinations.  Sustenance – rice and beans, meat and potatoes, rice and dal – has been replaced by variety, innovation, and creativity. 

More and more time is spent on choice – what to wear, what to cook, where to go – than on intellectual or spiritual evolution.

Only when one gets older does routine come into play – but not as a matter of choice but necessity.  Unless older people follow worn treads, they will get confused, disoriented, and anxious.

Materialism leads to choice which leads to clutter.  Not only do we buy what we don’t need, but such purchase require thought, deliberation, and economic concession.  The more diverse our life is, the more complex it is; and the more complex it is, the more easily confusion can slip in.

An American friend of mine once studied sitar from an Indian master.  He was impatient with the slow, deliberate, tedious exercises on the most fundamental and basic aspects of the music.  He saw how other Westerners could, after the same amount of time as he had spent, could actually play the alaap or even jhor segments of different ragas.   He asked his teacher if they could speed up their lessons.

The maestro sipped his tea, straightened his kurta, and smoothed his hair.  Each note, he said, was comprised of microtones; and each note was to be played with the understanding that it was not one thing, one unit, or one position on the fret.  It was to be played with understanding according to the time of day, the mood of the artist and that of the audience.  Only through an understanding of the infinity of a note and playing it with respect for its spiritual and musical meaning, could anyone be called a musician.

Discipline, repetition, and routine – all were essential before any student could possibly add any personal insight.  The teacher was not suggesting that practice makes perfect; nor that repetition and routine make for a highly achieved performance.  He was insisting that the routine itself had value.
Most people are too busy to ask, “What’s the point?”.  The rewards of professional success, sexual prowess, physical challenge, artistic talent or intellectual ability are rewards in and of themselves; and they lead to further rewards.  Wealth, status, social engagement, travel, and sexual adventure all come with them.  The course is never finished.

Few people can, will be, or even want to be a Hindu ascetic or monastic recluse.  Most in fact like things just as they are, happy to put up with social division, erratic governance, or temporarily straitened times as long as the paycheck keeps coming, the economy offers more and less expensive products, and simply getting around becomes easier.  Routine has no part in their lives; and in fact is antithetical to success, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Seth Brundle, Hindu sadhus, and the monks of the silent Carthusian order, however, have a point.  What is the purpose of diversity?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Complexity vs People Magazine–What’s The Point Of Figuring Out What’s What?

Few people have not picked up a copy of People Magazine, E!,  or Entertainment Weekly while waiting at the beauty parlor, dentist's, or doctor’s office.  

There is no reason at all why anyone should be fascinated by the doings of the Kardashians, Madonna, or Jay-Z, but we are.  Who is pregnant? Who left whom? Who is the hottest? Who has been left out?

Those raised in plummy New England – summers on the Vineyard, winter skiing at Gstaad, Main Line or Park Avenue residences – hesitate before picking up a copy of The Hollywood Reporter,  look to see who is nearby, thumb through The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books until they are alone,  then sit back and read what they have always wanted to but never found the right ‘opportunity’.

Their coffee tables show off Hockney, Ansel Adams, and Vermeer.  Their bookshelves are filled with Joyce, Faulkner, and Willa Cather.  Bedside tables have the The Sonnets and early editions of Gary Larson.

Low-brow entertainment stays at the hairdresser.

A colleague of mine whose distinction between the worthwhile and the throwaway was especially clear.  He read only Proust, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche at home; and only potboilers on long haul flights.  ‘Airplane reading’, he said, had a different objective.  ‘The mind needs to rest’, and mindless romances, Westerns, and mysteries were the best means to this end. 

How he, a student and aficionado of the most challenging and intellectual works of literature, could possibly read ‘Anna and Her Five Lovers’  was astounding to John.  It is one thing to lighten one’s reading – say, to set Women in Love down for an hour or two and read Carson McCullers or Flannery O’Connor – but another entirely to read ladies’ romances.


“No shame at all in shutting down for a while”, the colleague said.

Yes, parsing the philosophical prose of Conrad or Dostoyevsky can be tedious.  Lawrence can most definitely be a preachy.   The Red and the Black impenetrable, and Tristram Shandy unreadable; but weren’t they preferable – from an intellectual point of view at least – to beauty parlor fare?

Yet couldn't there be a compromise? There are those for whom life’s last laps are to be run the fastest; and those for whom the whole idea of a race disappeared decades ago.  In other words, some people as they get closer to the finish line race to the end as if their life depended on it; while others pull back on the reins and enjoy the rest of the ride.  Is there no middle ground?

After retirement another colleague, John Phillips, left all thoughts of his profession behind.  He, unlike many of his colleagues, had no interest in volunteer work, offering legal counsel to small non-profits, and educating newly-independent states in the principle of the rule of law.

It wasn’t that he had no sympathy.  He felt that at his age, there were too many things he did not understand.  He had to solve his  own problems; to face death with dignity, if not understanding.  And in the interim – the grey, ill-fitting period between retirement and finality – make sense out of something.

He taught a course on Dostoevsky – how The Grand Inquisitor’s challenge of Christ reprised Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Book of Job.  He studied Biblical exegesis and examined the Gospels of John and Luke.

Image result for images paradise lost

If this weren’t enough, he began to study Turkish, one of the most devilishly complex languages on earth.  There is no simple way of saying something without complicating it with adverbial agreement, phonetic shifts, derivative applications of 10 different tenses, nouns and adjectives which stand alone without reference to Indo-European tongues.

He worked seven days a week on all projects and continued into his late 70s.  He moved on from John and Luke to Ecclesiastes and the Torah; progressed from intermediate to advanced Turkish, and tiring of Conrad and the Russians, turned to Laurence Sterne and the Pre-Raphaelites.

“What’s the point?” asked a less demanding, more confident, and much more relaxed colleague. 
John was still not ready to listen and enrolled at one of the Pontifical universities of the Vatican. “Get to the source”, he said. What was the point of exegetical analysis unless one understood the theology of the Early Church?  Augustine, Aquinas, Plotinus, and  Irenaeus – they not only explained Christian theology but by extension life’s eternal questions of spiritual being.

Meanwhile his friends and colleagues, however, moved entirely in the other direction.  They had left intellectual vanities behind and led an indolently happy life.  George P had bought a condominium in Naples, Florida and spent the winter months biking along the Gulf, bird-watching, and entertaining his grandchildren. Bill S had retired to Tucson where he and his wife had lunch at the Museum of the Southwest, had cocktails by the pool until late November, and visited family in San Diego when the weather got cold.

Yet Phillips stayed stayed the course. He felt, if irrationally, that a final inquisitive push to the end might reveal answers to the eternal question, “What’s what?”.

Those of his friends with no such illusions replied that there was no ‘what’, so why bother?
“In other words”, John said, “we have wasted our time”.  If there was no ‘what’, then his decades of inquiry were not only for naught but silly.

“We all die alone”, said Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novella who realized – too late - that his past activities, relationships, and enterprises were all vanity.

Image result for images ivan ilyich

John was convinced that his last intellectual pursuits – despite Tolstoy’s own demurral in A Confession – could ease his passage; and he never let up on the accelerator despite his friends’ encouragement to slow down.

He never found Tolstoy’s resolution.  The Russian simply wore out after decades of purposeful search and concluded that if billions of people had believed in God, then maybe there was something to it.  Phillips was different.  Even if there was no ‘what’ to figure out, the pursuit itself was worth something.

For Nietzsche, the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world was the expression of pure will.  There could be no purpose to activity, but the vitality of willful enterprise was still worth something.

This was John Phillip’s final compromise.  There was no inconsistency in trying to decipher indecipherable codes or trying to calculate imaginary numbers. It was all that mattered.

Although he still never read People Magazine, E!, or Hollywood Reporter and although purpose might have been given up, vitality remained; and as Nietzsche suspected, that was enough.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Women In Love’–Will, Despair, And Not Much Love At All

D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love is a pessimistic book about the lives of four selfish people – Birkin, Gerald, Ursula, and Gudrun.  Each of them struggles with a native individualism, one which celebrates will, domination, and superiority; and a desire for love, emotional accommodation, and security.  None of them find a resolution to the conflict, and all ends unhappily.

Gerald had penetrated all the outer places of Gudrun's soul. He was to her the most crucial instance of the existing world, the ne plus ultra of the world of man as it existed for her. In him she knew the world, and had done with it. Knowing him finally she was the Alexander seeking new worlds. But there were no new worlds there were no more men, there were only creatures, little, ultimate creatures like Loerke.  The world was finished now, for her. There was only the inner, individual darkness, sensation within the ego, the obscene religious mystery of ultimate reduction, the mystic frictional activities of diabolic reducing down, disintegrating the vital organic body of life.
The outer world for Gudrun was exploration and conquest but little of substantive value.  Finally one must accept the ironic reality that not only does life and its creatures have no meaning, but that understanding and philosophical resolution – the result of the vanity of knowledge as Lawrence describes it – mean nothing as well.  All that is left at the end of one’s life is ‘ultimate reduction’.
Gudrun, like Gerald and Ursula, have been Nietzschean determinists. The expression of pure individual will, they all believed, is the only validation of human life.  While both Supermen and those of the herd over which they ride end up in the same unceremonious way and in the same, hard, unsanctified ground, the Übermensch has at least given his life temporal meaning.

Yet Gudrun realizes that even this philosophical indifference has no salience nor solace.  The disassembling – the ‘disintegration’ of the ‘vital organic body of life’ – begins at birth.  There is nothing one can do to stop it.

Konstantin Levin remarked about God’s cruel irony in Anna Karenina. God created man with intelligence, wit, creativity, insight, and passion; gave him life for a few, scant decades, and then consigned him for all eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes.

It is this sense of divine mockery that leads all of Lawrence’s characters to despair.  Birkin dismisses this total pessimism by claiming that self-knowledge is worth something – perhaps the only thing – but he cannot get over his disillusionment with life and humanity.
'I?—I'm not right,' he cried back. 'At least my only rightness lies in the fact that I know it. I detest what I am, outwardly. I loathe myself as a human being. Humanity is a huge aggregate lie, and a huge lie is less than a small truth. Humanity is less, far less than the individual, because the individual may sometimes be capable of truth, and humanity is a tree of lies.
And they say that love is the greatest thing; they persist in saying this, the foul liars, and just look at what they do! Look at all the millions of people who repeat every minute that love is the greatest, and charity is the greatest—and see what they are doing all the time. By their works ye shall know them, for dirty liars and cowards, who daren't stand by their own actions, much less by their own words.'
Yet Birkin gives in to love – not for Ursula but for Gerald. 
'Did you need Gerald?' Ursula asked one evening [after Gerald’s death].
'Yes,' he said.
'Aren't I enough for you?' she asked.
'No,' he said. 'You are enough for me, as far as a woman is concerned. You are all women to me. But I wanted a man friend, as eternal as you and I are eternal.'
'Why aren't I enough?' she said. 'You are enough for me. I don't want anybody else but you. Why isn't it the same with you?'
'Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love,' he said.
'I don't believe it,' she said. 'It's an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity.'
'Well—' he said.
'You can't have two kinds of love. Why should you!'
'It seems as if I can't,' he said. 'Yet I wanted it.'
'You can't have it, because it's false, impossible,' she said.
'I don't believe that,' he answered.
Ursula is no different, and reflects Gudrun’s sense of final dissolution; but she says that death, far from the ignominious end to a ‘mechanized life’, is the only true spiritually meaningful part of it.  In what is perhaps Lawrence’s central theme of the book, Ursula says:
But better die than live mechanically a life that is a repetition of repetitions. To die is to move on with the invisible. To die is also a joy, a joy of submitting to that which is greater than the known, namely, the pure unknown. That is a joy.
But to live mechanized and cut off within the motion of the will, to live as an entity absolved from the unknown, that is shameful and ignominious. There is no ignominy in death. There is complete ignominy in an replenished, mechanized life. Life indeed may be ignominious, shameful to the soul. But death is never a shame. Death itself, like the illimitable space, is beyond our sullying…
But the great, dark, illimitable kingdom of death, there humanity was put to scorn. So much they could do upon earth, the multifarious little gods that they were. But the kingdom of death put them all to scorn, they dwindled into their true vulgar silliness in face of it.
How beautiful, how grand and perfect death was, how good to look forward to. There one would wash off all the lies and ignominy and dirt that had been put upon one here, a perfect bath of cleanness and glad refreshment, and go unknown, unquestioned, unabased. After all, one was rich, if only in the promise of perfect death. It was a gladness above all, that this remained to look forward to, the pure inhuman otherness of death.
Whatever life might be, it could not take away death, the inhuman transcendent death. Oh, let us ask no question of it, what it is or is not. To know is human, and in death we do not know, we are not human. And the joy of this compensates for all the bitterness of knowledge and the sordidness of our humanity. In death we shall not be human, and we shall not know. The promise of this is our heritage, we look forward like heirs to their majority.
Yet at moments Ursula “yielded and softened, she wanted pure love, only pure love.  This other, this state of constant unfailing repudiation was a strain, a suffering also.  A terrible desire for pure love overcame her again”.

Gerald is the most interesting character in the book because throughout he maintains a willful individualism and acts on it.  He revolutionizes the coal industry, turns his own family collieries into highly productive and profitable enterprises; uses his own physical beauty and charm to attract both men and women; and is of the four, the most seemingly secure. 

Like Singleton (The Nigger of the Narcissus) who expresses Conrad’s view that knowledge is tantamount to misery and failure and that work, duty, and non-thinking self-servitude is the only key to happiness in a brutal world, Gerald speaks for the enterprise which satisfies individual will and intelligence but also produces something of value.

Konstantin Levin shares Gerald’s view.  When congratulated by his wife for having made the lot of the peasants better through innovative agricultural reform, he replies, “Nonsense”.  He did it for himself and the revenues that it produced.  Worker benefits were a by-product.
There was plenty of coal…here it lay, inert matter, as it had always lain, since the beginning of time, subject to the will of man. The will of man was the determining factor. Man was the archgod of earth. His mind was obedient to serve his will. Man's will was the absolute, the only absolute.
And it was his will to subjugate Matter to his own ends. The subjugation itself was the point, the fight was the be-all, the fruits of victory were mere results. It was not for the sake of money that Gerald took over the mines…What he wanted was the pure fulfillment of his own will in the struggle with the natural conditions.
His will was now, to take the coal out of the earth, profitably. The profit was merely the condition of victory, but the victory itself lay in the feat achieved…
Yet Gerald is the one whose philosophical construct fails him most.  He commits suicide in despair.  As he stumbles through the snowy mountain woods, he is afraid, resentful, and disgusted at his hatred for Gudrun.  The vanity of his sense of superiority and Übermensch will have been found out.  He is no more than a pathetic creature posturing as a dominant male while acting like a pitiful member of the herd.
There was something standing out of the snow. He approached, with dimmest curiosity.
It was a half-buried Crucifix, a little Christ under a little sloping hood, at the top of a pole. He sheered away. Somebody was going to murder him. He had a great dread of being murdered. But it was a dread which stood outside him, like his own ghost...
Lord Jesus, was it then bound to be—Lord Jesus! He could feel the blow descending, he knew he was murdered. Vaguely wandering forward, his hands lifted as if to feel what would happen, he was waiting for the moment when he would stop, when it would cease. It was not over yet.
He had come to the hollow basin of snow, surrounded by sheer slopes and precipices, out of which rose a track that brought one to the top of the mountain. But he wandered unconsciously, till he slipped and fell down, and as he fell something broke in his soul, and immediately he went to sleep.
Women in Love has few redeeming values and fewer new insights.  The issue of will was far better expressed in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler published only a few years before Women. Hedda is a woman of indomitable will and ambition, the model of Rebekka West (Rosmersholm) and Hilde Wangel (The Master Builder).  Strindberg’s The Father, published 30 years before Women is similarly a depiction of an amoral woman with unstoppable ambition.  All these characters have no doubts nor are given to the often preachy moralizing of Lawrence. 

Questions of meaning, meaninglessness, being, and nothingness were far more articulately discussed by Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra) and Tolstoy (A Confession).

Perhaps most importantly Lawrence’s characters for all their conflicts, intelligent reasoning, and fearless exploration of sexuality, are uninteresting if not antipathetic.  It is hard to relate to, sympathize with, or have any compassion for any of them, especially the women.  At least Birkin resolves his dilemmas, marries Ursula, and admits his love for Gerald; and at least Gerald comes to brave if fearful accommodation with his weakness and unfulfilled life; but Ursula and Gudrun are either idealistically romantic or pitilessly indifferent.  They both try to justify their desire for love in philosophical terms which makes their emotions so much the more untenable and unbelievable.

There are some interesting points raised by Lawrence.  The idea of dissolution is interesting - “Dissolution just rolls on, just as production does…It is a progressive process, and it ends in universal nothing, the end of the world…If it is the end, then we are the end, fleurs du mal…If we are fleurs du mal, we are not roses of happiness…”.  His ideas about the corrupting nature of knowledge reflects Conrad but is more harsh and uncompromising.   His passages about death and dying are uniquely positioned within a philosophical context.
Darkly without thinking at all, Ursula knew she was near to death. She had traveled all her life along the line of fulfillment, and it was nearly concluded…She had experienced all there was to experience…and there remained only to fall from the tree into death; and one must fulfill one’s development to the end….and the next step was over the border into death.  So it was then!
The passages describing the dying of Thomas Crich are similar to those of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich and almost as powerful.

The book is ultimately unsatisfying because it presents conflict without resolution.  The characters are neither here nor there and seem very adolescent in their search for meaning.  They are too changeable for one to develop sympathy or empathy; and their struggles are too predictable to interest the reader.

Women in Love is a bit of a slog, very preachy, sexually revolutionary for its time (1920) but long passé; without any real intellectual innovation and especially for a novel, passion.