Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for October, 2009

A Philosophy of Mutability (or) what was supposed to be a love poem

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 31, 2009

Illustration is probably science and religion with the wall being philosophies.

I'm not completely sure why I think this fits here. Not a collage, I swear.

The world is full to the brim with religions and philosophies. Religions are based on faith. Philosophies are, going on what I have observed, based on perspective. Religions are based on belief in a (technically) immutable God. Philosophies are based on belief in a mutable enough perspective. Philosophies, it can be argued, are better for that very reason: mutability is certainly better than non-mutability (please accept this for now; I’ll come to the justification later). Going down that road, it would seem that the more mutable a philosophy is, the more points it would have by default. Actually, the closer mutability is to the heart of a philosophy, the more points it would have by default. Now, imagine a philosophy based entirely, and exclusively, on (its own) mutability. It would be the best possible thing, except for the fact that we need something concrete to work from. So, we’d need a philosophy that, in spite of being based on mutability, provided us with a concrete basis. Now, suppose the principle behind mutability, for we would need something to guide the mutation, itself provided the means for choosing that concrete basis.

In real life, we have natural selection, a mechanism based on a similar process of guided mutation. Is it a co-incidence that long before we had discovered natural selection, we had discovered its intellectual equivalent? (Not really answerable; just a cool parallel.) In fact, is it a co-incidence that natural selection itself was discovered using, and has maintained respectability due to, this very philosophy?

Yes, dear reader, I am talking about the scientific method. It is a method which starts at the basis that everything is a hypothesis, and we have to search for the truth. It is the first system of thought in history that has started from a method for looking for the truth rather than a statement, or at least tentative idea, of the truth; it has replaced knowledge by the search for knowledge, much like the progress of narrative art from the Greek morality plays to the “art for art’s sake” post-modernists. Most people will tell you that science does make the assumption that our senses are right. Let me tell you: science makes many, many more assumptions. It’s just that they are not central to it.

The idea here is what is known as ‘Ockham’s razor’ or ‘Occam’s razor’. Suppose you arranged every hypothesis in the world such that the more assumptions it made, the farther right it would be. Let’s call this the ‘idea line’. Now you start from the left, and say put a razor in as far left as possible. If whatever came out on the left turned out to be useful or not wrong, we would use it. If it didn’t, we would move one space right. This razor that we are shoving is what is known as Ockham’s razor. If you think about it, it’s a logical step away from the premise I have not quite stated, given the need for something concrete to perform our search with.

So, here’s the beauty of the idea line: none of the hypotheses on it are making any pretensions at truth. They are merely making attempts to get at the truth: science’s basic claim is not truth, but the best way to get there.

How come? What if something to the far right of Ockham’s razor is true? Science’s best answer is a question: how can we ever know if it is true? To which, it gets the question how do we have a better idea of the left hypothesis’ trueness than the right one’s?

Science, of course, must answer this question. Its answer speaks in terms of probability, or – as many would have it – a different version of probability called truthlikeness. I won’t go into the difference, as I am not outlining the various standpoints in science. What it says is, in essence, this: for a hypothesis further left, a statement stating it is true has a greater likelihood, according to our knowledge, of being true (for any estimation of probability is an approximation based on knowledge). That’s it. From what we know, we can’t justify either God or relativity. It’s just that we can come closer to justifying relativity. This is also why mutability is good: if it can be seen that the doctrine is wrong, it should be open to change. The basis for mutability is the ability to disprove anything that is said, and that – that any concrete claim that is made must be refutable – is the best statement, that I know of, of the premise of the scientific method.

Now – and here’s the crunch –, how do we translate this to action? If we don’t know what’s true, how do we manipulate the world based on what little knowledge we have? There is one response to this: the experimental sciences, a branch of science that only experiments. There is also another, not mutually exclusive with the first, response: approximations. Where these work, they work, like in technology, due to which I am now writing this and you reading it.

And, where they don’t, they don’t. Like in medicine. Much of modern medicine can be considered to be quackery, full of doctors making approximations based on statistics. Many of these statistics are in question, as are many of the approximations: many of Somalia’s children may be getting a vaccine proven to work on eighty percent of Americans, and dying because of the mild version of the disease they are getting.

There is also one case where the scientific method is well nigh useless: outliers, a specific kind of them. Remember that story you heard about the blind woman who could narrate a scene which is supposedly recorded by a trustworthy doctor? How do we know whether that is a figment of someone’s or many people’s imagination, or true but unbelievably infrequent? Most of this stuff is what is known as ‘anecdotal’. This means that it has reached from source to other places without meticulous and rigorous examination at the source, so we really have no idea. Now, suppose many, many independent witnesses, at least a few among whom are experts who have thoroughly cross-examined the situation, corroborate an observation, and it is stunningly improbable, like the Statue of Liberty waving at us and going back to its original position, how do we study it? The answer is that we simply can’t. All studying has to be of the evidence for the event actually having happened, in which case no theory can be verified/disproved, for the simple reason that none of its predictions can. And I can make this point without even referring to the human tendency of hyperbole.

There is another thing, not quite a problem with it but an issue surrounding it, about science: fair discussion. It’s very hard to achieve this. It’s a natural human tendency to employ a more effective means of convincing: show me a man who has never used bad logic to his advantage and I’ll show you an alien (see what I mean? If no, look at what that sentence means). Very often, even when your reasons are good enough, they sound weak, which leads you to hyperbole. There are many lines of argument one can, in a large discussion group, demolish in one sentence, but speak it, and the line of argument is going to go on; that measly sentence just doesn’t take up enough space in your audience’s minds, minds where point after point, argument after argument, thread after thread, are fighting to take up space. In such an environment, what chance does one(1) measly, even if incredibly deep – especially if incredibly deep –, sentence have?

This is just what happens in the case of helplessness. There is another, more natural, tendency to bad logic: that of conviction. I’ve already talked about the difficulty of translating this method to action. For this very reason, many have learnt that it’s better to stick to your guns than listen to someone who’s telling you you’re going to die if you do, possibly. It’s as simple as that. The second guy doesn’t make the good leader, the first guy does.

Also, if you notice, the doctrine that would better fit the first guy is religion, which is why all through history it hasn’t been a conquest of people without science by people out to teach them science but a conquest of people without the invader’s religion by people out to teach it to them. It is the great failure of these conquests that a majority of those invaded in the modern times have learnt science rather than Christianity.

This is also the ultimate demonstration of the power of science. Yes, it has its problems, but it is also the best thing we have, and this is the only way I can possibly end this, something that was supposed to be a love poem to the greatest doctrine of truth – nay, the search for truth – in all of human history.

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“The clamour of voices filled the air, each one impossible to distinguish, like the waves on a raging ocean, leaving no trace except an awesome, all-encompassing uproar.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 29, 2009

The cover

It's not as ugly as this; the colours are actually pretty toned down due to the texture of the cover, giving it a very nice look

When I read this sentence both times I started Rhadopis of Nubia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt (written in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz and translated to English by Anthony Calderbank), it sounded exactly like an excited crowd. I don’t suppose you felt any such thing while reading it, apart from maybe thinking that it was a pretty poetic line. Mahfouz’s writing, like Wodehouse’s, consistently shows this quality where the value of each sentence is strongly enhanced by the passage it is in. Just like Wodehouse’s writing is consistently fresh so that you are going to start laughing at some random word-gag, Mahfouz’s writing is consistently beautiful in a way that you are likely to feel something completely during some random burst of beauty. For me, it was the above sentence. For another reader, it would be something else.

Another thing that surprised me about the writing of this book was my discovery of the best sort of superfluousness there is. Time after time came a metaphor that was new when it was introduced, but so completely natural that I knew what he was going to say next. Unfortunately, I can’t find any examples of this now, and so can’t quote any of these (brilliant) bits.

The book is the story of how the love between a courtesan Rhadopis renown in all of Egypt as the most beautiful woman ever and the Pharaoh Merenra II causes their eventual downfall. It is, in almost every way, a Greek tragedy, where the character has a major flaw, and that flaw eventually causes his/her death. In this case, the flaw is Pharaoh’s: his pride.

I can say that despite the fact that it has a varied cast of major characters – the king’s counsellors a priest Sofkhatep and a commander Tahu, his wife Nitocris, and Rhadopis and Pharaoh – who’s characterisations are all solid, with me only confusing the source of a dialogue once, that once being my own mistake. It is a formidable achievement of the book that I was able to write down these (for me) alien names without thinking about their spellings.

The story is that Pharaoh takes away most of the lands of the priesthood, an unpopular move, to increase the splendour of Egypt, then falls in love with Rhadopis and starts showering his wealth on her, making everyone think that the latter is the cause for the former. The exact details of the downfall I won’t reveal here, except to note that for a Greek tragedy, it is remarkably surprising. Another remarkable thing is that we are given no way of knowing whether most of the insults flung by people at each other are true or not. Further to its credit, we are given indications.

And now, the most interesting thing: the eponymous Rhadopis (who I’m pretty sure is mentioned to have come from some place other than Nubia). She, as I’ve already said, is the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought of how being that affects a person, and for good reason: beauty is subjective, rendering this question meaningless. You could think of one of the most beautiful women, which is a meaningful question, but it is not the same as one person obviously towering over all the others. In the beginning, Rhadopis has a frozen inside. She has given up the thought of loving, instead drowning in meaningless sex and (other) intellectual pursuits, regularly holding court – and bed – with the top political, philosophical and artistic minds of the region (Mahfouz uses one of them , the philosopher, to take a jab at Keats: “Do not be surprised, for beauty is just as convincing as the truth.”). That is why her meeting with Pharaoh is such an important event: she completely melts, not knowing how to deal with this newfound nervousness. Needless to say, hers is the most interesting character arc in the book.

Somehow, halfway through the book, I was convinced that in some complicated way Rhadopis was a symbol for Egypt itself. Not so much a good, respectable feeling as a guess. This was the only problem I had with the book: the fact that I was out of context had an effect on how I looked at the book. Though I am sure that the book had a significance in 1930s Egypt when it was written, I found that, in the end, it has no significance at all for me. In the end, for me, it was just a beautifully written book, nothing more.

PS: the form of the title was copied from Pechorin’s Journal, written by Max Cairnduff.
Rhadopis of Nubia

(written in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz and translated to English by Anthony Calderbank),

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Mahfouz, Naguib | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Sin City: Goodness and Sin – Of the filmmakers

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 25, 2009

A Still From The Movie

Every day, we go out into life and see the same things, or the same type of things. Every once in a while, however, some of these stand out; they have colour none of the others have, because we’ve seen the others too many times to see their colours, their details, their specifics. This philosophy, I think, drives the colouring of Sin City, based on a comic book series by Frank Miller and directed by him and Robert Rodriguez, which is mostly in black-and-white but has colours – mainly red, blue and yellow – for things like blond hair, red women’s dresses, Clive Owen’s boots and all cars’ taillights. One can never be sure, however, because, after all, it’s a graphic novel movie, and these graphic novels are over-themed beings of awesomely gargantuan complexity.

The movie has four stories; one involves Josh Hartnett as a hitman of some sort, one Bruce Willis as a 60-year-old cop with a heart problem who’s trying to save a little girl from rape and murder, one Mickey Rourke as a big ugly hunk of a man who’s trying to take revenge for the death of the only woman who has ever slept with him and one with Clive Owen as a come-back hitman trying to save Oldtown, the home of the whores of the meticulously named Basin City. These four stories cross paths, with not one story not having a character of another at some point. But, what really connects them is a context, a setting, of the underworld of Basin City and a lifestyle, a glee, almost, at action that lights up their lives. And it is this glee that I think the movie is trying to examine.

Of course, I’m wrong. The movie is all-out artified porn (remember the last Frank Miller graphic novel that made it to movie form? 300. This is true even though Robert Rodriguez is significantly better than Zack Snyder). No, seriously, it is, even if you want to say that pornography is merely in the eyes of the beholder. It is very much porn, toned down little by the lack of colour of some of the blood: observe, for example, the number of times I went evil-laughing at a great description of true gruesomity. Then again, is it wrong for a movie to be pornographic? I don’t think so. If the cast is there of its own free will, I think it’s allowed to be porn. In fact, I’m very much tempted to say that porn is the form it takes to communicate this thrill to us. Perfectly plausible, but wouldn’t explain all the cringing I did; it’s too well-made a movie to allow me to cringe if I wasn’t supposed to.

Okay, even I’m not completely convinced by my arguments in the last paragraph. The reason: there is no right argument. As I’ve already said, this is graphic novel movie. It is porn, yes, but porn is also an instrument for a study of the uses of morality in an amoral setting and of the glee these characters feel. And anything you say it is, I’d have to quote Clive Owen’s character:”always and never”. But, whatever else it may be, it is a brilliantly directed and acted movie that is a must-watch for all who have a not-too-weak stomach.

Posted in Miller, Frank, Movie Reviews, Movies, Rodriguez, Robert | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: I don’t want to be told what the movie is about by the writer

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 24, 2009

I remember watching, long ago, a movie called Alex and Emma, which was a love story between a writer and his stenographer. It was a fairly enjoyable movie, with good chemistry between the two (the guy, after all, was Luke Wilson, the best actor I know of in B-movies). And then there was the book Alex was dictating to Emma; it was a horrible book, and we got to hear parts of it narrated by Luke Wilson. It wasn’t that the writing was bad as such, but it was eminently ordinary, something a little worse than J. K. Rowling. This is exactly what Woody Allen’s narration in Vicky Cristina Barcelona reminded me of.

There are two ways narration can spoil a movie. One we can see in adaptations of little children’s books, like Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss, where narration lifted right out of the source unfailingly reminds you of the infinitely superior, infinitely smaller original. Not that the movie is bad; it’s just that the original is so good that the only way the movie has a chance of working is if you aren’t reminded of the original. The other we can see in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where the narration is so eminently ordinary, and for the most part unnecessary, that it distracts you from an otherwise good movie, with above average dialogues.

The movie is about best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, not as good a performance as I have come to expect), who have come to Barcelona for the summer. Vicky is an eminently normal person, engaged to a, fairly nice, yuppie. Cristina, on the other hand, is your cheerleader from high school, who only enjoys steamy, unstable relationships. Also, she has just finished a twelve-minute movie she has been working on. When asked what the movie was about, she says it was about why love is so hard to explain. She gets the reply, “awfully big subject for twelve minutes, isn’t it?” And, now, we know what the movie is about. Great. This could have been a one-minute movie with just this exchange, and it would have said only a little less than the whole movie. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the movie can be summed up in one question, but why – oh why – do we need to be reminded about it? And can you imagine how irritating this was after that horrible narration?

They meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem; yes, the same one from No Country For Old Men; completely takes the cake), there’s weird entanglements involving the three of them and Antonio’s ex-wife (Penelope Cruz), and so on. It is really well done, except by – as I’ve already noted – Johanssen, who gives merely an average performance.

Except, you know, the narration. It is even more irritating than me repeatedly bringing it up here. Suffice it to say that:

a) halfway into the movie, the only reason I was finishing it was so that I could write my first ever bad review.

b) I was wondering how this movie would be if you exchanged the two leads.

Finally, I should mention the background score, which consists of one Spanish song. One song scores can work, like in Requiem for a Dream. It’s just that even though it was a pretty nice song – especially when the singer said the word ‘Barcelona’ – I really felt that some more mood-modulation by music would have done the movie wonders.

And, before I round up this review, I ought to observe that the later part of the movie is actually pretty good, what with the (relative) lack of the narrator. Except for one revelation that I felt was given ambiguity that was resolved in two minutes, which was rather stupid.

Posted in Allen, Woody, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Two men And A Man, None Of Whom You Want To Be

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 23, 2009

E. E. Cummings (he never changed it to e e cummings) once wrote a set of three poems called the ‘chanson innocentes'(songs of innocence), the first of which – ‘in Just-‘ – we did for English class in college. We had to write an essay on it of one and a half pages for our mid-semester exam. After getting the paper back, I decided to post it here. This is a largely unedited version(I corrected spelling and grammatical errors).

E. E. Cummings’ first ‘chanson innocente’, for me, is a poem about growing up. It describes the bliss of childhood, comparing it to spring, and the call of a balloonman (or two balloonmen and one balloonMan) which the blissful children heed. The interpretation of the poem lies largely in how one sees him (or them).

The poem starts with a reference or a call to spring. The line is ‘in Just-/spring’ which can be read in one of three ways: ‘during the just (as in fair) spring’; a call to injust (as in unfair) spring; and ‘during just (as in only) spring’. This three way reading is essential to the meaning of the poem, as he seems to compare spring to childhood – for example in the lines

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

where ‘it’s spring’ is like another game they play. This same thing can be seen in the similar lines involving ‘bettyandisabel’.

It is also worth noting that in both sets of lines, they leave their games because of the distant, softly beautiful call of balloonman/balloonMan, suggesting that he is calling them away from spring or childhood. In addition, the girls follow the call of a balloonMan rather than a balloonman, suggesting that the gender, and generally manliness, of the balloonMan is important in that case, as adolescent girls feel particularly attracted towards older men.

Coming back to the three readings of the beginning, it is now easy to see what they may mean. Spring is fair as all children grow up, unfair as all children grow up and just spring as children always grow up. The second meaning is particularly important as it implies growing up is bad.

To explain this we go back to the descriptions of the balloonman/balloonmen. The first one is “little/lame”; he is calling no children, so he is unimportant, little and lame. The second one who’s calling the boys is “queer/old” as boys grow up wanting to be like older boys or men, who are different from them. The third one is ‘goat-footed’, possibly because goats have really insensitive feet and older boys/men rarely know their influence on adolescent girls.

This makes perfect sense if you think of them as three different people. In fact, it still makes perfect sense if they are three aspects of the same one. This latter view, however, shows a greater depth: that the call may be that of the Greek God of nature and wilderness Pan, who has the legs of a goat and the torso of a human. He is the symbol of both pristine nature and decadence in general: his is the call of both nature and decadence.

This would imply that Cummings sees adulthood as both natural and decadent. This is why spring is unfair in its fairness of all-round ephemerality.

I think the poem is really effective in its communication for three reasons: the alliteration, throughout, of ‘l’ that makes up both ‘playful’ and ‘evil’; the word ‘spring’ always on its own, showing how isolated a state it is; and the breakage of lines in the end , which acts like something asking one to stop, slow down, not grow up – or finish the poem – so fast.

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Child’s Play

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 21, 2009

This is one of my poems. All constructive criticism – why you like it and why you don’t – will be appreciated (I personally hate this poem, but I’m repeatedly told that it is my best piece of work and that’s why I decided that this would be the first one I posted). At the very least, please click on one of those little thumbs at the bottom of the post. Thanks.

They scatter as I approach –
Half in fright, half in mischief -,
Unheeding,
Untamable,
And lovely:
Lovely in their antics,
Lovely in their wildness,
Lovely utterly in their true, utter, love,
And lovely in my need:
To catch them,
To tame them,
To use them in my Grand Plans,
To mould them . . .
Into works of art –
Plans established, and great,
Bits and pieces come, and lovely too,
But little else true -,
Poems and adults.

For words are like children,
And I’m bad with children.

Posted in My Own Fiction, Poetry | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Fugitive Histories by Githa Hariharan

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 13, 2009

Book Cover

The Cover

The cover of Githa Hariharan’s sublimely written Fugitive Histories, done by Rosana Claudia Marchini(photograph), Gunjan Ahlawat(design) and Urmimala(illustration), has, coming out of a mudglaciated-over map of India, a pair of hands of a person doing a military ‘stand at ease’, but not quite: the fingers of the hand are straight, not at ease, like the person – the country – they belong to is itching to do something but can’t, forced to look like he(/she) is at ease. We also see that in this odd representation of the country, the three cities of Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Delhi have been brought much closer than in reality. We open the book and we see Mala, whose painter husband Asad has just died, trying to sort out Asad’s possessions, his sketchbooks, wallowing in her childhood memories, of the time before she had even met him, and memories of her children Samar and Sara when they were still that and using those memories to understand her life as it is now, and one of His – Asad’s – drawings. Soon, we come across this:

That’s how the ant not only shows what she can do, but also makes them all a part of a living chain, so they change from creatures indifferent to other people’s stories to creatures changed by other people’s stories. That’s the way Samar and Sara also saw it once, a game in which everyone is linked. What happens to one also happens, in some way, to the other. That’s how all those fragments that pass for different lives forge a cunning chain. The interlocking links may not always be visible, but still they are made of iron. And the ending of a chain story can’t really be the end. To make sense of it all, you have to go back to the beginning.

There, to be sure, is a lot more to the book, lots of little(r) themes, and vignettes of considerable power, – otherwise, to paraphrase J. M. Coetzee, why not scrap the rest of the book altogether? – but this, as defined by the cover and the quote, is the centrepiece of my reading of the book. Read the rest of this entry »

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My Favourite Genre of Movies (Or not)

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 11, 2009

I see it clearly now: idea movie schmidea movie. Being John Malkovich is an idea movie exactly as much as The Dark Knight is an action movie. It’s just dressed up as one, and it’s only morons like me who think it actually is. Charlie Kaufman is using this format of comedy/inventiveness to make repeated statements about human nature, building up a fearsome oeuvre. This means that it’s not idea movies that inspire my excitement but something else(the classification, of course, still stands).

This is my original post, from yesterday 11/10/2009 (note especially how I rationalise my classification of Being John Malkovich):

My favourite type of movie is what I call an ‘idea movie’, a type of movie which takes an idea, a vision of an alternate reality, and looks at its consequences. Not science fiction, so much, but a movie that squeezes everything out of the idea, every little consequence, the income tax officer – to refer to an old joke about the squeezing out of the juice of a lemon – to the strongman that is science fiction. The best ones, of course, are the ones that do the looking unflinchingly, while also giving us a credible, if not great, human story. It is, honestly, a minute genre which only includes, as far as I know, the works of Charlie Kaufman and the movie The Man from Earth. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in General, Movies | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

The Problem of Change

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 3, 2009

We all say, pretty often, that a person has ‘changed’. But what does that mean? If the person has changed, isn’t he a different person now? If he is still the same person, how can it be that he has changed ? What, basically, do we mean by the word ‘changed’? (This is an easily solved problem, but worth stumbling upon anyway: some essential properties stay the same and some peripheral ones change.) What, also, do we mean by ‘this person’? Is a person simply the sum total of his actions and thoughts, or can his essence be somehow distilled out? In other words, what do we mean by ‘knowing a person’? Does it mean that, given a situation, we can predict what the other person will do? Obviously not. People are too complex for that to be possible. But what does the word ‘complex’ mean here? What, exactly, in a person is so complex that we can never really predict his actions, except in the most mundane of cases? Read the rest of this entry »

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