ad astra per alia porci

a million allusions which i cannot catch
January 5, 2011, 4:07 pm
Filed under: the arts | Tags: , , , ,

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy

It is tremendously annoying and intriguing at the same time to read a book filled to the brim with allusions and references. Blood Meridian wears a myriad of influences on its sleeve; one sees Faulkner, Melville’s Moby Dick and the Bible all over the book.

The problem is, I have not read all these sources before. The closest I got to being well-acquainted with any of them is reading Moby Dick, cover to cover. And even though I have done that before, I cannot say that I can recollect the novel well enough to sustain a proper comparison between Blood Meridian and Melville’s masterpiece.

So my experience of reading Blood Meridian is that of encountering a very long series of inexplicable allusions and being constantly tugged by the niggling sense that there is a broader significance to events in the novel and that these events and the very writing style draw upon a much larger history and tradition. I constantly get the sense that there is an unseen depth to the novel to which I have no access given my lack of knowledge and experience of related literature.

Undoubtedly, this book is very special. McCarthy is clearly not seeking to replicate verbatim historical events in the Wild West, but rather he is seeking to recreate, and to express his message. McCarthy comments on the ineradicable depravity of men, but withholds judgment. The book reads like scripture, has the grand timelessness of epics, and displays moral complexity (without judgmental finality). It seems to comment on the very fabric of the universe, as would any other primary religious text. As a post-modern novel, Blood Meridian is also keenly aware (thought not explicit) about its place in the literary tradition, as well as the limits of artistic creation. It unashamedly borrows from other traditions and yet at the same time intends and seeks to locate itself in, comment on and contribute to the development of literary traditions.

Blood Meridianl gets its meaning from comparison. In particular, the novel has many parallels with Moby Dick. The judge Holden is an inscrutable, compelling and ultimately horrifying character, a sophisticated and intellectual counterpart to Melville’s Ahab. He knows and speaks in alien languages, understands the complexity of law and science and exudes erudite wisdom and insight. He also brutally murder others, pillages towns, cunningly and falsely frames others, engages with whores and possibly indulges in paedophilia. From my summary searches, readers tend to be captured by the figure of the judge, and it is easy to see why. Professor Hungerford in her lectures ( suggests that judge Holden is a symbol of heroic evil, similar to Milton’s Satan. He has an allure that draws people to him, even though we can see just how morally repugnant he is, for he is eloquent and seems to be always in control, and yet he remains opaque to the reader who must guess what he stands for and what he thinks inside. It is initially puzzling to the reader why the judge is known as such since he is not a judge in the literal sense at all and instead his moral character is diametrically opposed to what we conventionally expect from a normal judge, but this curious inversion seems to lend weight to the idea that the world in Blood Meridian is poised on a knife’s edge, at the meridian, and the judge is the person who orchestrates and decides the flow of inevitable violence. The ironic naming of Holden as “the judge” contrasts with his lack of moral judgement on the depravity of all that goes around him and his active, self-conscious and self-gratifying participation in the propagation of violence and immorality.

However I am more fascinated by the figure of the kid, and how his character supports McCarthy’s (probable) message.

The kid is a poor and limited imitation of the wonderful Ishmael. The kid is flat and opaque, with no richness of moral interiority. He has no name. The reader gains little access to the kid’s inner thoughts and struggles for unlike Melville, McCarthy narrates in the third person and does not adopt the first person perspective from the position of the kid, and the only means of understanding his development (if any) is through his outward actions. However, his outward actions are decidedly cryptic and ambivalent; there are no instances where the kid unequivocally asserts a clear moral stance in his actions. Unlike in relation to the judge, I feels less compelled to understand what lies under the kid’s opaque exterior, for I get the sense that there is nothing underneath. The kid is like a puppet: he only has the outer resemblance of emotion and development. Towards the end of the

Judge Holden openly expresses his opinion that the kid is special, and alone and solely resists the corruption that overtook everyone. However this is deeply ironic for the kid hardly develops and one may even possibly construe the judge’s words as sarcasm. Sometime towards the end of the novel, the kid is described as “the man”. One would naturally expect some moral development or emotional maturity in the kid, but this is hardly evidenced in the novel. What we have is a crude caricature, a stillborn bilsdungroman, where the novel is uneasily crammed into the bildungsroman tradition when there is no material justifying it.

As if to make the point more emphatic, the kid’s final end is left ambivalent and open to interpretation. The reader is left to presume that the kid (now the man) went into the outhouse and was murdered in some gruesome way by presumably the judge, who later leaves to join the debauchery in the saloon and dance his eternal dance. The stark descriptive silence over the kid’s probable violent death greatly contrasts with the novel’s abundant willingness to depict explicitly and in almost virtuosic quality the rampant violence that pervades the novel. It seems almost as if McCarthy is literally erasing the kid from the novel, rendering mute the already scarcely audible voice of the kid. In doing so, McCarthy seems to be telling us that there is perhaps no means of understanding, confronting and subduing the evil that is innate in all men, and in the end moral evil reigns supreme and eternally. The judge dances his dance without end: “He never sleeps. He says he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favourite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

Given the richness and deliberate quality of the writing, I am sure Blood Meridian holds a great lot more than I perceive. I have not been impressed by much of the “modern” fiction (i.e. published in the 1900s) so far, so I am quite surprised to find such a gem. This is a book that I will revisit again once I have read the other books that it references.

Moore’s non-naturalism, but with a touch of… love

The nature of goodness has perplexed many and generated a huge corpus of diverse philosophical works. For theists, the concept of the Good is intrinsically bound up with God, for God determines what is good. Philosophers however in general tend to be of the secular persuasion, and hence tend to view the Good and God as distinct and separate, and place the Good above God. Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is one of the attempts to construct a metaethical view without God, a project which is of particular interest to me from an intellectual and personal point of view.

Murdoch is a unabashed neo-Platonist, an increasing rarity in today’s academic landscape which is increasingly moving away from the Platonic worldview. Murdoch’s view of the nature of the Good finds it roots in Plato’s concept of the Forms, where the Good has an ethereal, non-natural quality, and is a close cousin of G.E. Moore’s ethical non-naturalism. Murdoch rejects the pervasive rationalist influence on the conception of the Good, which states that in the absence of God, the Good is purely the product of human will. In the gap that God left, the existentialists and rationalists fill it with human will. In Murdoch’s words, “Kant abolished God and made man God in his stead”, such that the will is the creator of value and “values which were previously in some sense inscribed in the heavens and guaranteed by God collapse into the human will”. Murdoch sees the Kantian man as “the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational and yet increasingly aware of his alienation from the material universe which his discoveries reveal”.

Murdoch advocates a return to conceiving the Good as being identical to God’s characteristics. While some philosophers view Good as materially different from God, Murdoch’s concept of Good is essentially God without God. Murdoch defines God as “a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention”, and suggests that “moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics”. Murdoch’s view of the Good is mystical, and almost religious:

“A genuine mysteriousness ataches to the idea of goodness and the Good. This is a mystery with several aspects. The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue… Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define good but we would not understand the definition. We are largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend… And if we look outside the self what we see are scattered intimations of Good. There are few places where virtue plainly shines: great art, humble people who serve others. And can we, without improving ourselves, really see these things clearly?”

She suggests that Kant looked at the wrong place when he tried to find the Good without God: the self. The Good stands outside of the human self, and is a non-natural singular entity that can be perceived but never fully defined.

A unique aspect of Murdoch’s view is her introduction of elements that are seldom seen as the core of ethical deliberation: love, beauty and the arts. Rationalism has formed the core of much of ethics since the Enlightenment, with Kant being the most prominent advocate of the use of reason as a neutral objective means of determining the Good. Even Plato was suspicious of the power of the arts and argued that the arts distorted reality. To the contrary. Art, to Murdoch, is closely connected to the Good. Murdoch rejects the Platonic suspicion of art, and argues that instead of distorting reality and manipulating man’s perception of reality, art offers a more accurate view of the real, and ultimately the Good. Murdoch hand suggests that beauty and the arts are a means to access the Good, the apprehension and comprehension of which is part of the process of “unselfing”, where an existence that exist independently of the self is perceived and validated. Love, while not being the Good itself, “is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to the Good and joines us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good”. “Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves”.

I think Murdoch makes several important points. Firstly it seems to stand to reason that the Good probably is acutely similar to God. If philosophers replace God with the Good, it seems that replacement suggests compatibility and similarity. God is mystical, unknowable and all-encompassing. If human experience tells us anything, the Good is also similarly impossible to fully comprehend and retains a mystical allure. How much of this is due to Murdoch’s possible deep-set desire to cling on to the vestiges of Christian thought is probably a moot (but interesting) point. Secondly the Kantian grip on moral philosophy should be reexamined and perhaps rejected. The self and its will, unlike what existentialists say, is not the creator of all value, and is not the sovereign entity in this world. The world outside of us is much bigger than the single consciousness that apprehends it, and anyone who has encountered the beauty and immensity of nature will have to admit so. Anyone who apprehends art will know that concepts like beauty and love exist outside of the human will. If anything, the will is at the mercy of hard reality, and anyone who claims to be doing the Good is exerting a claim of objectivity, which presupposes an objective existing source of normativity that stands outside the individual. Third, and this is linked to the second point, it seems that we should start being honest with ourselves and give proper consideration to the role that emotions and beauty have to play in achieving the Good. The arts seem to me a means to reveal reality and the Good, and appreciation of the arts itself is at least commonly accepted as something that is prima facie good. Love, to me, seems to be as mystical and unfathomable a concept as Murdoch would view the Good. It has a strange attracting quality, and its mysteriousness is the reason why countless poems, novels and songs have been written about it. Its complexity is fascinating, while its simplicity is understood by all humans.

Non-religious ethics, be it at the first order or second order, is a particularly young and exciting field of growth in philosophy, because of growing secularism and an increasingly interconnected world we find ourselves in. Many people who grow up without God or rejected religion remain (I hope) genuinely interested in what is the right thing to do. Problems like pollution and financial meltdowns are global in nature and are no longer localised, and it is important to find a common ethical ground upon which people of diverse cultures and religious affiliation are able to agree upon and formulate enlightened global policies. In an interview I watched a while ago, Kwame Anthony Appiah went further to suggest that it is inevitable and necessary for the world to find a common ethical system, as our formerly local spheres collide with each other in this cosmopolitan world.

And this is where philosophical ethics can step in. Rational argument is the basis of philosophy, and the means through which men of different backgrounds may come to agree upon certain points. Hopefully, philosophical ethics may in the future provide a viable ethical code that any rational man would accept, upon which global action may be based upon and misunderstandings and divisions may be erased.

These are exciting times for me, on the intellectual front. Finishing Murdoch’s book coincided with the start of a new academic term, in which I will be continuing my exploration and deepening my understanding of ethics. Particularly, I taking courses on first-order moral philosophy, political philosophy and normative ethical theory; these courses are exactly the courses that I have wanted to take since my junior college days, and the focus of my interest in philosophy. I always had my reservations about the apparently elegance and simplicity of utilitarianism as well as the otherworldly abstraction of Kant’s categorical imperative, and found the inadequacies of consequentialist and deontological approaches to ethics to be somewhat patched up by virtue ethics. I would like to listen to what my professors have to say.

August 3, 2010, 3:08 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , ,

“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog”.

– Oleg Gazenko, 1998

Despite my interest in graphic novels, I have not read anything that got me close to shedding tears. So it was a strangely pleasant experience when Laika came close to doing so.  A well-crafted and ultimately heartbreaking mix of fact and fiction, Laika tells the story of the eponymous dog, who was the first living creature to be sent to space. Through Nick Abadzis’s simple yet evocative drawings, we are introduced to a dog who touched the lives of those she interacted with and while unable to speak had an ocean of emotions. Laika came to trust the humans who cared for her, and earned their love and affection. However by the end of the book Laika was unfortunately reduced to a pawn in the former Soviet Union’s plan to boost its national pride during the Cold War, a casualty of the folly of human pride and carelessness, as she was hastily sent on a one-way trip to outer space as a test subject on the Sputnik II, which was commissioned to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution.

There is something deeply heartbreaking about sending a sentient creature who cannot speak and cannot make its feelings known to anyone else to die alone in space in a metal container, thousands of miles away from the nearest breathing creature, because of some mindless, meaningless and ultimately childish contest of power between two impersonal blocs of power, under the guise of “progress” and “the greater good”. I believe that anyone with some heart, not just animal rights advocates, will be moved by Abadzis’s able and sensitive portrayal of a dog’s remarkable journey from the streets of Russia to the lonely heights of outer space. One of the best graphic novels I have ever read, not on the basis of technical accomplishments but rather its strong emotional pull.

gazing into the abyss
July 16, 2010, 6:20 pm
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Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bored me was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why – I couldn’t put my finger on it. The only thing that calmed me was the satisfying sound of ice being dropped into a glass of J&B.

Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire – meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

American Psycho

Holding up a mirror to society and making it take a cold hard look at what it has become and unmasking the spiritual decay that widespread materialism and wealth breeds in a particular era and place  is a well-trodden literary path, with authors like Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, Wolfe in The Bonfire of Vanities and Yates in Revolutionary Road criticising the zeitgeist of the times and places they live in through their art. However while  Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho does not have the equivalent style and craft in writing as the other greats have, it strikes much closer, and much more uncomfortably, to the heart of the modern reader born in the capitalistic, MTV-fuelled 1990s. Ellis unveils the disturbing spiritual emptiness and malaise that grows surreptitiously under the garish veneer of wealth and “culture” in our modern age.

When I read fiction there is usually a barrier that exists between me and the events in the book, that I am conscious of and allows me to assume a level of detachment. The artificiality of fiction is apparent and I am conscious of it. However Ellis’s American Psycho has a degree of realism that is distinctly disquieting and disturbing, for its fiction uncomfortably mirrors our reality.

The protagonist is Patrick Bateman, a high-flying Wall Street executive living the “high” life. He is obscenely rich, lives in a posh apartment, wears the most expensive branded clothing, eats and drinks at all the fine dining establishments and socialises with people of high social class. Bateman seems to be the embodiment of the American Dream of social mobility and economic prosperity. Except for the fact that he is also a psychopath. He lures women to his appartment, where he rapes and murders them in countless twisted ways and engages in taboo acts like necrophilia and cannibalism. He randomly murders the homeless, all the while berating them about how they should work their own way out of poverty and how it is their fault they are in the situation they are in. Underneath the Armani suit, healthy tan and immaculately coiffed hair is an unfeeling, unfettered and inhuman psychopath who delights in engaging in the most depraved acts, without remorse and limits. He is like Dorian Gray, leading a life of opulence and physical perfection but moral corruption and sexual depravity lay buried under his wealth and physical beauty.

Despite Bateman’s apparent refinement and sophistication, his veneer of culture and class is slowly eroded as the novel progresses. Bateman’s life revolves around TV talk shows, obsessing over which brand of mineral water to drink, dolling out detailed fashion advice to all and sundry, endless iterations of “power lunches” at posh restaurants where nothing ever meaningful is ever said, trips to the video rental shop for explicit videos, maintaining a tan and working out at a private gym in order to attract women to bed. Bateman kills, tortures and rape methodically without flinching, but obsesses and feels truly awed by a well-designed and expensive name card that his friend owns. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion brands and clothing, and identifies people by their clothing, by naming the brands of each item of their clothing from head to toe, yet his obsession stops at the surface for he identifies clothing only by their brands and has no interests in the difference in fabrics and colours, and other finer and more substantial details, and he scarely has any interest in the personalities and character of the people that hide under the threads. Bateman’s inadequate existence seems sympomatic of living in the 1990s, where life has been reduced into consumption, superficiality and mass media, at the expense of substance, culture and true emotions.

Bateman is a sad example of what modern life has transformed humans into. He lives in an age where people are identified chiefly by the brands and price tags of their clothing, social gatherings exist only in form, conversation has degenerated into ramblings about TV talk shows and the rules of dressing up, and mass media and consumption has run rampant over good sense and culture. In order to plug the spiritual void, banality and even immorality of modern living, Bateman turns to sublimating his unused energies and unworked mind on the grotesque and immoral. He is reduced into a murdering, raping caveman in a suit, for his darker and untamed primative energies grow in the void and are expressed in an exceedingly destructive manner. The audiovisual overload that modern life brings has numbed and blinded him to what is right and the truly important and valuable things in life. Bateman treats people like nameless and faceless interchangeable objects, which is exactly what the commodifiying tendencies of capitalism surreptitiously teaches people to believe, and indeed the people in the novel are portrayed like such objects for they espouse the same empty materialistic values and have the same materialistic interests in clothing, money, consumption and power. What is even more scary and pathetic about Bateman is that he is self-conscious of his depravity and emptiness, but he seems unable to stop himself. There are moments in the novel where he is lucidly self-aware and even engages in self-criticism, yet he is stuck in this emotional and psychological gridlock. If Bateman is meant to be a representative of the psyche of the modern man, the modern man is a hopeless case.

Apart from his sadistic streak, Bateman is scarcely a gross caricature, for I believe many of his quirks and obsessions are found in varying degree in almost all of us. While I am sure most of us do not engage in murder and other crimes, I believe that there is a little bit of Bateman in all of us. We engage in sublimating activites to cope with the general emptiness and banality of modern life. Office executives sign up for various courses and activities outside of work, in order to unearth suitable hobbies to be interested in. The younger internet generation spend countless hours on facebook and other “social media”, posting banal messages in the hope of producing some measure of any human interaction and eagerly reading the latest posts on the most minute details of the lives of others in order to generate interest and excitement. Girls gossip about the minutest developments in the lives of others and talk about what to wear and where to buy what to wear. We have dozens of brands and variations for each product on the market, without any compensating practical benefit. Singaporeans obsess over eating and shopping, doing these activities with almost religious fervour and regularity over the weekends and after work in order to escape their daily existence, only to flock back to boring old work during the weekdays where they spend most of their waking hours.

The discomfort from reading American Psycho comes not just from the graphic depiction of murder and sex, but more importantly making the reader want to read more about the explicit gore and depraved sexual acts that the protagonist engages in. Ellis’s artistic masterstroke lies in making the reader a voyeur first, before making him conscious that he is a participant in and product of the very malaise that infects the characters in the book, as well as everyone in this age of rampant consumerism and materialism, through injecting numerous equally sickening episodes where Bateman’s sick acts are graphically and exhaustively described, with its many variations and changes. In doing so Ellis makes a very discomforting statement about how even the reader is part of this spiritual decay. For every moment I agreed with Bateman’s taste in clothing or food, or felt a pulling urge to read more about Bateman’s sordid acts, I felt myself get an inch closer to identifying myself with the empty values that the characters espouse, as a product of the debased culture of our modern era. As I became gradually conscious of Ellis’s craft as I read the book, I kept thinking of how salient Nietzsche’s famous words in Beyond Good and Evil were: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”As I got more appalled bythe characters in the novel, I also became more disgusted with myself and the age that I find myself in.

As a whole, it is interesting to note that in terms of plot movement, nothing much actually happens in American Psycho. The characters of the book are essentially involved in continuous and endless cycles of meetings, clubbing and power lunches and social dinners, interrupted markedly by Bateman’s sadomasochistic killings and depraved sexual acts. This reflects the inanity of modern living; it seems that despite the opulence and wealth, we have degenerated into our primal selves, obsessing over pleasures of the flesh, always asking for more and more, and living lives of superficial variety and spiritual emptiness. We have not truly progressed over the years for the progress was only in economic terms, and the lack of progress in the novel seems to suggest that society is unable to extricate itself from this mess.

For all his sadistic crimes, Bateman was never caught and persecuted, and the book ends with yet another routine and bland social gathering between Bateman and his oblivious friends at a pub. Nobody ever discovers his hideous wrongs, and perhaps nobody ever cares. The dirt disappears under the rug, and there is no justice. Society remains the same, mindlessly preoccupied with flashy brand names and empty hedonistic pursuits. Ellis does not explicitly moralise, but he seems to suggest that the moral cancer has reached its terminal stage, for nothing redemptive ever occurs in the novel and in fact Bateman was acutely conscious about his inability to normalise himself through a meaningful relationship with his girlfriend. The book ends with the image of a sign at the bar stating “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT”, an ironic reminder of the inescapable plight of the novel’s damned. The scariest thing is that we as readers might not be just starring into the abyss.

lost letters
March 22, 2010, 2:46 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts

A persistent favourite, by Travis when they were still green and melancholic, and not producing those saccharine radio-friendly hits:

This song reminds me of how difficult it is to reach across hermetically-sealed minds and find some degree of honest and sincere connection, as a respite to our collective cosmic loneliness and the pervasive underlying sense of quiet unease. Words are our only tools to do that, but they are hopelessly inadequate. We constantly write, listen and speak, in order to reach across the gulf to each other; we write eager letters, hoping to receive replies that evince some degree of understanding. Yet we remain living in quiet desperation, hoping to find that precious special someone which our minds merge completely and fluidly with. Sometimes I wonder if it is all worthwhile.

Because my inside is outside
My right side’s on the left side
‘Cos I’m writing to reach you
But I might never reach you
I long to teach you about you
But that’s not you

personal demons, personal insecurities
October 24, 2009, 6:06 am
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Not a big fan of rap, but this Kanye West x Spike Jonze production resonated with me. Hazy, surreal, and brilliant.

Kanye West x Spike Jonze, We Were Once a Fairytale


Won’t post any Youtube links because it will probably be broken by then due to copyright claims, and won’t mention what’s really inside the video. Just Google and find the video, watch, enjoy, and ponder.

wedding singer obsession
August 26, 2009, 3:29 am
Filed under: diary, the arts

It’s a mix of humour and sadness that appeals greatly to me.

Adam Sandler was excellent, and Drew looked so pure.

life stops when the machine starts
August 1, 2009, 8:03 am
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It is amazing how prescient EM Forster’s The Machine Stops is, given that it was written way back in 1909, long before the internet was invented and the digital age even begun. Forster manages to encapsulate the anxieties and pitfalls of embracing technology, by illustrating a world in which the substance and warmth of humanity has been replaced by cold efficiency and shallow satiation of the senses.

Forster paints a world in which sterile and faceless technology has infiltrated all aspects of life. People literally live in their own worlds, as they do everything in subterranean hexagonal cells with various machines that provide for all of their needs. The Machine, as it is rather blandly named, provides everything that humans need. No one lives above the ground anymore, and air outside in fact kills. Public gatherings are “clumsy” and have since been abolished. Travel is often unnecessary since telecommunications is so advanced.

The protagonist, Vashti, is a mother who lives apart from her son Kuno, and communicates with him only through imaging plates and knobs that adjusts broadcasted sound. Their relationship has the air of formality one would normally reserve for strangers and professional acquiantances, and Vashti was reluctant to physically visit her own son who wanted her counsel and help. Mother and child are literally and metaphorically distanced. Upon realising from him that he visited the surface, she was shocked, and disappointed with him, and saw him as a disgrace to the Machine, a formless entity to whom she owes a larger allegiance and more affection to.

The dystopian world Forster presents to us is clearly a product of fiction, but I can see parallels that world has with ours.

A key feature of life in the Machine is isolation. Life is solitary, and much of the “needless” social interaction has been either abolished or reduced to electronic means. Just as people in the story interact through electronic intermediaries, we too are doing the same. Instead of meeting physically, we meet online and talk through phones and email. Subcultures that excessively trumpets the call for technology to engulf every area of our lives like the “Otaku” culture in Japan are emerging. Electronic gaming has become to many an adequate substitute for physical sports and a hour or two in the sun.

While people of the Machine was physically and spiritually segregated, we are yet to reach that point. I guess physical seggregation is impossible in this increasingly congested planet, but spiritual and emotional seggregation is already creeping into our lifes. We plug into our iPods and tune out the world, people marry later and many do not marry at all. Traditional religions are losing their hold to individualistic materialism and secularism. Many of our children grow up playing single player electronic games, not board games or marbles with their kindergarden and primary school friends.

Marshall McLuhan famously opined that the medium is the message. The form of communication often has an impact on the message itself, and has the insidious and subtle power to transform the very relationships between people. There some truth to this, in relation to the impact of electronic communications has on human relationships.

Compare traditional post with email. Sending a mail by traditional post requires more effort; one has to buy sufficient stamps, find out the applicable postal rates, obtain the appropriate stationery, plan the letter, vet and edit drafts, set pen to paper, seal the letter, affix the stamp, get the address right and finally make the trip down to the post box to send the letter. Email in contrast is free and just require you to tap a few keys and click a few buttons.

When one sends a traditional letter, one has to be careful. Words must be carefully selected because there are constraints, like the amount of space on a post card and the need to maintain the aesthetics of the letter by avoiding cross-outs and minimising corrections. These concerns are less pronounced in the context of email.

Care requires effort. And effort is an expression of the amount of value one places on particular relationships. Effort has the peculiar ability to strengthen relationships through a cycle of positive feedback. The more effort a person puts into a relationship, the more likely the person will cherish his counterpart. In economic parlance, effort put into relationships can be termed as “sunk costs” which motivates a person to stick with preexisting relationships instead of seeking greener pastures.

I read from somewhere before that a handwritten letter is equivalent to a personal visit from a friend. Having received a few in the past month, I must say there is a large amount of truth to that statement. Nothing beats the sense of warmth and pleasant surprise that one gets upon receiving a letter from a cherished friend in the mail and reading about her feelings and reengaging with the happenings of her life.

In contrast emails are utilitarian and to some extent encourages careless thoughts and words. It is little wonder that email often find its greatest use in the calculative and coldly rational world of business, where time is everything, speed and efficacy is paramount and effective communication of facts and orders and not conveyance of emotion is required. However email as a mode of communication is sorely inadequate between friends.

Sadly the culture of letterwriting has been on the wane, with the prevalence of email and the ease of writing electronic letters. Email clearly has its place and usefulness, but my concern is that the ascension of email will come at the cost of another avenue through which human emotions and warmth can be cultivated.

However I am also confident that letterwriting will not be abolished. As the persistence of print in the information age suggests, people do recognise the inherent value of old technology. I hope the value of letter writing is not lost on future generations.

Just as I find room for hope, Forster is not a pessimist in his story. There is redemption at the end of the story. Mother and son kiss for the first time,the first and unfortunately last act of intimacy and love between them and an admission that life in the Machine is in fact not really life at all. Hopefully, just like how Vashti reaches a moment of epiphany, those of us that place blind faith in technology at the expense of our very humanity will too realise the truth before it is too late.

anonymous virtue
July 24, 2009, 5:47 pm
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Can a person find peace with himself when he sacrifices the lives of people personally acquianted with him in exchange for the survival of an anonymous mass of people? Is the death of a friend worth exchanging for the survival of tens of other strangers?

This was the central recurring struggle that tormented the lead character Martin McGartland’s conscience in Fifty Dead Men Walking. I just watched the movie with J and I was well-entertained. While the cinematography and pacing were excellent and Jim Sturgess’s performance as a more animated and cocky counterpart of Tony Leung’s brooding, taciturn undercover cop character in Infernal Affairs was outstandingly believable, it was the fundamental conflict McGartland faced that most fascinated me.

As the title of the movie would suggest, is it morally, or at least personally, justifiable to sacrfice family and friends in exchange for the “greater good” of letting say, 50 men who one has never seen or heard before and are supposed to die, live?

Aside from the question of whether a crude and unfeeling utilitarian calculus can be used to justify or rationalise the sacrifice of human lives in exchange for others (e.g. 1 life can always be justifiable exchanged for 2 lives because 2 is more than 1), the problem of whether one is able to morally justify, and live with, the consequences of sacrificing everything that is real, tangible and personal in pursuit of an abstract ideal that seems so removed from one’s immediate concerns and perceptions.

In some sense, fidelity in this form is similar to religious belief. The Muslim God in particular has no physical manifestation, and in fact Muslims frown upon depictions of God. Hence to believe in God is in a way to believe in a pure idea, a non-corporal entity or ideal. Just like how McGartland betrays his “mates” (as he affectionately calls them) for the higher ideal of saving abstract lives, religious fundamentalists seek to fulfill their version of God’s abstract purpose and will by blowing themselves and others up.

I was also reminded of just how similar this form of love for the right is to the Duke Orsino’s rather ridiculous predicament in Twelfth Night: he was in love with the idea of love, and it took the trickery and cross-dressing of Viola to get him out of his self-imposed romantic stasis. Perhaps fidelity to an abstract ideal can indeed be counterproductive and undesirable, stymieing the proper order of life.

In the end each of us chooses his own poison. Life is perhaps a question of trading precious and finite time, health and effort in exchange for meaning and value, in the form of whatever endeavour we choose to focus on.

At the end of the movie I felt that McGartland was a hero. Yes, lives were sacrificed along the way and he had to betray his closest connections. But his bravery, courage and steadfastness were admirable, and the fact remains that his unintentionally Machiavellian ways did save many lives. In a perfect world everyone is a saint, but clearly perfection is a dream. In an imperfect world where circumstances are often out of the control of the hands of men, McGartland did the best he could while listening to the voice of his conscience.

the myth of the self-made man
December 12, 2008, 3:47 pm
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The path of success has not been trodden by many and is explained by even fewer. Success fascinates and has been analysed time and again, especially by the plethora of self-help gurus peddling recipes for success, and this age-old pursuit of mankind which does not fit itself to summary conclusions.

Joining the list of attempts at unraveling the mystery of success, Malcolm Gladwell has this to conclude about success in his latest book Outliers: success is the result of a combination of hard work, cultural factors and opportunity, not “innate” genius or natural ability.

This conclusion is unconventional; most self-help gurus will tell their audiences that success is the product of individual action, and indeed the entire American ethos is based on the understanding that race, religion, culture and other “background” factors have naught to do with the success of an individual who works his way up solely through his own actions and innate ability. If these factors helped at all, they provided the motivation for the individual to work his way out of a miserable existence; the person succeeds in spite of circumstance.

The difference between Gladwell’s view and conventional thinking is probably explainable. If success is not primarily or solely the result of individual work, the self-help legion loses its clientele. They have to preach this approach for fear of losing their ricebowl. Gladwell, being a purveyor of pop-general knowledge, adopts the more neutral stance of an interested researcher and observer on the subject of success.

Gladwell traced the personal histories of extremely successful people and found that it took a serendipitous coalescence of culture, opportunity and sheer hard work to precipitate success. He cited the example of Bill Gates, who was the only kid at his age and time to be given the opportunity to have unlimited access to computers, and hence the opportunity to hone his programming skills. Asians do better at math because of their roots in the strong work ethic and culture necessitated by rice cultivation, and the manner in which Asian languages deal with numbers (e.g. instead of saying “eleven”, the Chinese use the English equivalent of “ten-one”). Practise of 10,000 hours is the rough minimum required to achieve expertise in any skill or subject.

From a practical and common-sensical point of view, this seem to make sense. Gladwell’s reasoning seem to pass the simple rules of causation; if Bill Gates didn’t end up with the opportunity to use computers for so long, he probably would not be where he is today. No computer usage, no success.

However this method of reasoning can be expanded and applied ad infinitum, leading to ridiculous conclusions. For example, what would happen if a different sperm met the egg in Bill Gates’ mum’s womb? We can say that without this event, Bill Gates would not have existed. Do we then say that the sperm and egg lottery is crucial for success in life? Certainly it makes sense. We can extend this method of reasoning to almost every event in Bill Gates’ life. Do we then conclude that every event, from the most minute to the seemingly crucial, is important? If every event is important, it leads to the paradoxical inference that none of the events are important since relatively speaking all events count. Therein lies the Achilles’ heel of Gladwell’s book.

Yes, it is easy to poke holes in Gladwell’s research and thinking on success. If we adopt the stance of a statistician or even a scientist, we will tell him to plot graphs and find correlations between IQ and success in life. Give us cold, dependable statistics, rather than causal connections seen by a single (albeit well-read) individual. That said, the accuracy of statistical methods is doubtable: correlation can be found between almost anything if we look hard enough. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, philosopher of risk and uncertainty and writer of Fooled by Randomness fame (a book that I heartily recommend for anyone who believes wholeheartedly in a deterministic universe and the accuracy of conventional statistical methods), would tell you that.

However an unsophisticated approach to causation and causal analysis is inevitable for a pop-journalist like Gladwell, and I mean it without a hint of disrespect or disdain. We lead our lives working in such a manner too, and any extensive and sophisticated approach to analysing our lives will make decision-making practically impossible. Life just can’t happen without reductionist thinking.

Despite the apparent flaws, I do still agree with Gladwell’s observations. A disclaimer: I have not arrived at my personal conclusions on the basis of painstaking statistical or scientific analysis, but rather on the strength of my personal experiences and beliefs, which I believe any common man would use as their own basis for their own personal conclusions.

As one matures, youthful brashness is slowly replaced by a recognition of human vulnerability and the interdependent nature of our existence. As I grew older I gradually realised the contours of my abilities and learn to cope with my shortcomings as they surface and try to capitalise on what I am good at. As I grew older and had a longer history to ponder and analyse, I begin to note that any success I have in life is the combination of a myriad of factors, many of which are not entirely controllable by my own hands.

Looking back on what I have done and the opportunities I was given, I have gradually moved from an attitude where I took things from granted to appreciating the miracle of existence, a shift which occurred probably due to the process of maturing as a person.

Being in the gifted education system engendered an early belief in self-determinacy; whatever I have got was as of right or due solely to my own hard work and abilities. Of course this led to an inflated sense of self-worth and ability. The government preached meritocracy and the whole economic system was and still is premised on individual work; I naturally became a firm believer in the Gradgrindian idea of the “self-made man”. Success is the result of me, me and me. Nothing else. Encountering the supposed virtues of lassez-faire economics fanned the flames.

The first chink in the armour came when I studied Charles Dickens’ Hard Times for my junior college literature paper. The Victorian society depicted by Dickens is eerily similar to the modern Singaporean one where capitalism ran rampant and individualism grew, and the character of Thomas Gradgrind embodied the mistaken belief that the self-made man existed. Dickens set out to show that no man can achieve what he has in life through himself solely, and to expose the myth of the self-made man, and he did so by unveiling the hypocrisy of Thomas Gradgrind, who brags about how he climbed up the social ladder from the “gutters” through his own hard work without the help of others, through revealing the fact that Gradgrind had a caring family who took good care of him.

That book got me thinking. Then came various events in my life that gave me the clearest of signal that however hard I may have tried, the tides of fate may turn against me at any one moment. Amongst other events I failed to obtain the scholarship of my dreams, despite getting near perfect scores for my ‘A’ Levels. Currently I am yet to achieve the grades I know I am capable of in law school, even though I work really hard. These events validated the hint of doubt and changed my perspective. Success is a mixture of chance and work, and today whenever I see someone who is successful, I always factor in this element of chance and avoid hero-worship of any kind.

The best conclusion, I think, is that success is complicated, just as life itself is, and anyone who says that he or she is self-made is making a fallacious and untenable claim. Success can be largely due to innate ability, but we can never conclude unhesitatingly that ability is the sole cause of success. Indeed, Gladwell does not outrightly deny the role that natural aptitude and genetics have to play in the race to success. Culture and opportunity are but two other factors out of a multitude that synergises with aptitude to create success. We will have a more holistic, realistic and healthy view of the world if we recognise that no one is an island. There are no true Gradgrinds, only happy results of the machinations of fate and endeavour.

the last waltz
December 10, 2008, 12:50 pm
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I first encountered the Band when I was in junior college; I borrowed the DVD for The Last Waltz from the school library (yes, RJ library does kick some serious ass) on strength of the fact that Martin Scorsese directed the film.

I didn’t appreciate or understood the merits of the concert then. But now I do, and i struggle to find concrete reasons. The Band just seems to grow on me with the years passing. Might be because I am growing older and bluegrass/country singalongs are beginning to stretch their claws over me. Breezy croons with swagger to boot. I like.

Lon Helm is a god.

can’t wait, must watch
November 26, 2008, 2:20 am
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Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.
October 9, 2008, 1:43 pm
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“I can tell you frankly, 7 out of 10 lawyers here don’t like to come to work. Yet they still do. Sometimes I have trouble getting myself to work at 9am everyday.”

This was what my tutor for trial advocacy said to us today, at the end of our last session. Coincidentally, I was talking to L about how life would be after law school. Days spent in the four walls of a cubicle, agonising over every letter of a contract you are drafting, feeling happy that the font size you chose was readable and pleasing to the eyes of fat cat clients which balls you have to lick everyday.

Our tutor told us not to waste our law degrees. Try out practising for at least 2 years, just to find out what you like, and whether you can take it. Coincidentally, I was talking to L earlier as we made our way to the firm where we had our lesson about how we can say that we will try practising for a few years, but the inertia at the end of that few years will be too overwhelming to overcome for us to change things. Because of money, or family, or expectations, or sheer laziness, we will choose to live on autopilot after that first few years of practise.

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

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what I write about when I read about running


People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits, that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life

I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two everyday running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reaing books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.

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everest dreams of death and glory
September 16, 2008, 12:03 am
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I am beginning to become a fan of Jon Krakauer, a writer whom I think writes really well about the lives of people living on the edge of experience, rejecting the tragedy of a bland existence. Straight after finishing Into the Wild (the review of which I am yet to write, regrettably. I am trying to find a slot of time when I can write a really thorough review of it) I reserved Krakauer’s chronicle of the doomed 1996 Everest expedition, Into Thin Air.

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