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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ballet etc.

Apollo's Angels 这本书基本上稀里哗啦地跳着看完了。尾章作者十分坦率地说 Ballet is dying. 而且回天无力。作为一个热爱芭蕾的人,作者对此当然十分伤感。作为一个不太了解芭蕾的人,我没有那么伤感。芭蕾的历史前前后后也就三百多年,如作者所述,芭蕾的兴起和发展与王公贵族宫廷礼节有不可分割的关联。养育的土壤已经消失,芭蕾之树不能凭空生长。芭蕾虽然无以为继,但舞蹈本身从来没有离开过人类社会,以后也会继续以各种形式流传。

同时想到古典音乐。所谓 classical music,指的是从德奥中欧发展出来的一套音律体系和作品,满打满算不到四百年的历史,目前面临跟芭蕾类似的命运。即使现在仍有很多人学教演奏古典音乐,但它在社会中已经非常边缘化,广播上成天播的是死人写的作品,还活着的作曲家的作品基本没有人听(除了Philip Glass是唯一的例外)。同样的,音乐从来不需要发明也不会消失,它会以各种不同的方式继续流传下去。

但是,古典音乐归纳出的音律,芭蕾归纳出的控制肢体的技巧,不会消亡,而是被吸收到现在和未来的音乐舞蹈之中,达到某种永生。

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Confessions of a Sociopath (完)

The book is fairly repetitive at places, but kind of fascinating and a fast read. The author commits a large number of curious inconsistencies and contradictions throughout, which seem to result from vacillation between self-aggrandizement and serious self-examination --- unless she's just lying randomly, which would be entirely pointless.

Nevertheless I find the book overall fascinating and refreshing. Yes, refreshing. She's completely without shame and guilt, and somehow it provides an interesting perspective on what purpose shame and guilt serve in nonpsychopathic people. But I digress.

One of the rather confusing subjects is her compulsion for "ruining" people, but then stopped short of describing any specific examples except two examples. In one case she got herself involved in a love triangle in which she "made" the young man dump another woman who was (according to her) infatuated with him. In another case she made (apparently false) accusation about a high school teacher, which may or may not have forced him into early retirement.

The author makes endless references to her habit of and skills in manipulating other people, but again gives very few concrete or believable examples. I can't help but suspect that it is her psychopathic mind that has overestimated her own effect on other people.

Also she claims repeatedly that she is only attracted to men who are handsome and rich and successful (ie, presentable) and then, in a separate chapter, recounts a very serious relationship she had with a man who was almost certainly an Asperger patient who had no job and played video games and ate McDonald's every day. It's small contradictions like this that ruin the credibility of most of her claims.

Nevertheless one can gleam some patterns in her narrative. For example, her grandiose view of herself and her power could be related to the tendency that the psychopathic brain reacts very weakly to negative cues and produces low level of negative emotions such as fear, sadness, disappointment, disgust. The psychopathic brain has an extraordinary capacity to dismiss the negative feelings that often bother the nonpsychopathic people. This allows they to indulge in an inflated sense of self-worth (almost omnipotence) and all the positive emotions associated with it. Apparently the rate of depression is very low among ASPD individuals.

The grandiosity may at times seems comical, but it does make one wonder. I have certainly felt the anxiety from other people's criticism, rejection, or negative judgment. The size of the anxiety is almost always disproportional to the realistic harm due to their low opinion of me, which is usually none. Yet I am still bothered by being disliked by someone here and there. It costs me some amount of cognitive reserve to overcome my negative reaction to others' negative opinion, obviously an inefficient mental process. Perhaps, a pinch of psychopathic indifference (without the unrealistic inflation) to other people's opinion might do some good.

Another interesting confession is that she has a flimsy sense of self. In ordinary interpersonal relationships, she takes on imitated behaviors as her "mask." In intimate relationships (often characterized as "conquering" or "possessing" others for thrills), she makes a significant effort to probe and learn the others' needs and give them exactly what they need. If they want sex, she would give them sex. If they want to confirm their own insecurity, she would feed their insecurity. She claims that no one else would work so hard to understand you. I don't know if that's true and, even it were true, whether it's good for anyone. Although she seems to feel pretty good about this quality because she's always in control, it is in a way kind of sad --- She does not have enough sense of self to offer a full independent person in a relationship, so all she can give is to feed the others' needs, albeit in an exploitative way. On the other hand, she does not feel sad, so it's irrelevant to her.

It does make one wonder: Are negative emotions important to developing a fuller sense of self?

Or perhaps the consequence of NOT having negative emotions lies in another trait of ASPD individuals. Apparently they are reckless and thrill seeking, in part because they do not learn well from their mistakes. She makes some vague references for having made some fairly stupid and unsafe choices over and over throughout her life. She admits that she is not deterred enough to not make the mistakes again. Quite possibly the reason is that the harm does not scare her as much as it does others and the regret does not congeal into lasting memory so that she'd never to do it again. If you don't feel much pain from getting burned, you'll play with fire again. Meanwhile, the grandiosity does not help her recognize the gravity of her mistakes, either and thus modify future behaviors. Avoidance is the result of learning from mistakes. Fear (and sometimes other negative emotions) drive avoidance. Without fear, the brain can't avoid the same mistake again.

So, perhaps, negative emotions are critical for learning from our mistakes.

Philip K. Dick argued in "Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep?" that empathy is what makes one human. For him, a person without empathy is not human. M.E. Thomas (not her real name) vehemently disagrees. She argues that she is every bit as human as nonpsychopaths, only different. It is true that a large proportion of psychopaths are not criminals and many hold high-level positions. In typical psychopathic fashion, she alternately argues that psychopathy is superior to in modern business and professional environment and that psychopathy is a disability not to be discriminated against.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Confessions of a Sociopath


Borrowed the book from the library and just began reading it. The author does sound like a genuine case of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD, also known as psychopathy, which the author prefers to call sociopathy because it doesn't make her sound like a "psycho"), but she is highly functional and smart enough to not commit any crime (at least not enough to get caught).

It is a bit amusing to read her repeated declaration, plus citing a few other fellow ASPD individuals' declarations, that they believe not having empathy is better than having it, because they are invulnerable to various irrational emotions such as guilt, shame, anxiety, or low self-esteem. I am not saying they are wrong. I just find it funny because, by definition and by all account, having empathy and not having empathy are essentially two incompatible states of existence. If you don't have empathy, you can't know what it's like to have it, and vice versa. I don't claim that life is better with empathy than without, because I can't possibly know what it's like to have ASPD. It's like, I can't claim it's better to be a woman than to be a man, because I can never know what it's like to be a man. Without first-hand knowledge it is impossible to compare. It's pointless to claim one "prefers" a life with or without empathy because it is even less of a choice than being homosexual or heterosexual.

There are some other curious "confessions" in the book as well, although I've only gotten through the first 80 pages. For example, she claims she does not empathize with people's emotions. Don't know. Don't care. But in her chapter on a fairly unhappy childhood (although she was not grossly abused or neglected by my Chinese standard) she wrote paragraph after paragraph speculating her mother's state of mind as a narcissistic aspiring actress. She presents it as "facts," of course, but it's clearly her concerted effort to make sense of her mother's mind. She also writes a rather short but heart-breaking section about her fragile older brother Jim that seems to suggest some sympathy.

Another declaration she makes repeatedly, for which I do not doubt her sincerity, is that she is fine. FINE. Great. Please don't worry or be afraid of her. She's not a monster or a criminal. Rather, she is an upstanding member of the community and goes to church regularly and teaches Sunday school and is gainfully employed and has close friends and family. I'm totally fine with that. I believe her. She sounds like a perfectly rational person ... most of the time. And then she describes her reckless, impulsive, thrill-seeking tendencies, such as choosing to live in the worst neighborhood in town and getting repeatedly broken into, driving with wild disregard for her own and others' safety, and her inability to be deterred by awful consequences. Plus she describes with vivid details an incident in which she was so angry at a trivial confrontation with a stranger where she fantasized killing him and then casually mentions that similar reactions have occurred multiple times. Well, I do hope her cold, calculating, unemotional, and self-beneficial urges keep a lid on the murderous impulses. Perhaps she gets enough release from being a lawyer and therefore never needs to resort to killing someone.

Overall I quite enjoy her candor and wish more people without ASPD would more openly and freely discuss their "dark sides" with such ease. We all have plenty of dark sides. I don't feel at all superior to her. I guess that won't happen any time soon as people without ASPD are more or less stopped by all those annoying emotions like shame, guilt, and embarrassment.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Manhattan


I'm watching this Woody Allen movie (1979). Wow it has the most glorious cinematography I have ever seen. Lawrence of Arabia can kiss its ass! (LOL I sound like the character played by Diane Keaton.)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Cause-and-Effect Problem

It occurred to me the first time when I read something in a popular science magazine about a theory that proposes that time is an illusion and that time, as we experience it, is created by the human brain's perception alone, which begs the question of whether animals experience time in the same way. (See also here.) I can't remember the specifics, which I didn't really understand anyway, but it had something to do with quantum physics. Of course there is also the long-standing argument about time being non-directional, derived from the theory of relativity. The only linchpin that still supports the unidirectional nature of time is the second law of thermodynamics (ie, entropy).

Lately the thought has re-surfaced to bug me. It's not my concern whether in physics time does not exist. My concern is this --- If time is merely an illusion, then what we think of as cause and effect in the world is also an illusion; therefore there is no cause, only effect.

For a while I was hoping to come up with a story to describe the theory mentioned above, which says time is a conglomeration of unrelated and discrete quantum moments, like many pieces of paper stacked into a pile. So I began to dream up a series of unrelated excerpts or sentences strung together with no logic or connection with each other. Well, what a pretentious and boring pile of horseshit that would be.

It then dawned on me how the mind hates a pile of separate pieces of paper thrown together. Nope, please give us a story in which one thing leads to another until the logical end. A string of unconnected quanta of moments would not do. It's unhuman.

Then something cracked open. What if the mind is indeed wrong? What if cause and effect are merely the story created by our mind to explain phenomena of the world and it is completely wrong?

It has been known for a long time in psychological experiments that consciousness does not direct the body, but only tells stories about what the body experiences, and sometimes gets it very wrong. For example, experiments have shown that one does not smile because he feels happy, but rather the facial muscle's tension in forming a smile that sends signals to the brain to feel happy. Sounds crazy. I tried it. I pulled my facial muscle into a forced smile position for about 2-3 minutes while folding laundry. Nothing happened until about 5 minutes later. Suddenly I began to smile involuntarily but naturally with no particular stimulus. (This realization, of course, led to more giggles, although the cause and effect could not be determined.) Then about 10 minutes later, the stupid smile emerged again involuntarily while I was doing or thinking nothing in particular. There have also been experiments showing that consciousness has nothing to do with one's decisions, except to make up stories or excuses for them after the fact.

These thoughts converge into one idea. What if there is no realistic connection between what happened one minute ago and now and one minute later? There is an incentive for us (ie, our conscious thoughts) to believe in cause and effect, isn't there? Because it gives us a sense of control, a sense that things happen because we make them so, and therefore we have choices ... What if the sense of control is all false? What if my action now and my action before and my action later have nothing to do with each other? What if I cannot have what I want by reaching for it and willing myself to get it? Oh that is too awful, too horrible to contemplate. I shall have what I want by taking it, and I have what I want because I reached for it. Can't these physicists leave me alone in the happy illusion of free will and control of my own life?

I mentioned these thoughts to another sci fi writer, who said, "Oh yeah, Kant said that time, space, and causality could be all in our head, and we can never know for sure." Ugh, so it's nothing new whatsoever in what I came up with! It's all been said before!! Maybe there are no new thoughts to be thought any more!!!



Saturday, September 14, 2013

Miss Saigon



Eric Schaeffer directed the revival at Signature next door. For a small theater, the show seems a bit too bombastic. I suppose one should not expect anything less from Schonberg and Boudlil. "Les Miserables" is even more bombastic.

Overall the show is very competently done. It is a bit squirm inducing for me, getting a full blast of the imperialistic symbolism through the romance between a white American soldier and a devoted Asian woman, Asia/colony as feminine and US/military as masculine, he is the sun and she is the moon, etc., etc. At least it's not a complete glorification.

The set design is quite complicated and intricate for a small stage. Actors/actresses are good, but in terms of singing not quite Broadway quality. 

Coincidentally a Cameron Mackintosh (of "Les Miserables" fame) production of "Miss Saigon" is about to go on London's West End. 

I watched the show with a friend who has a Ph.D. in theater directing. We talked about Shakespeare, family blood feuds in Greek tragedies, and directors who have their actors act naked and half naked on stage. :)  A funny thing she mentioned was an actor she had cast in a production in school who was from Kansas. He was put in some Shakespearean plays and apparently the Kansas accent is closer to English spoken in the 17th century than modern English English. Interesting ...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Apollo's Angels

The first parts in the book about the history of ballet out of the 1600s French royal court are so boring that I skipped several chapters and went straight to Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. It got a lot more interesting. And the next chapter was all about the Soviet ballet, which is riveting! All the characters, dancing on the edge of political demise and physical destruction at the hands of Stalin's machines ... Fascinating and, of course, eerily recognizable to me, who inevitably saw 红色娘子军 in childhood.

And the poor composers! Khachaturian, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. Just trying to imagine Prokofiev being humiliated and terrified by the clueless and vulgar and stupid party bosses filled my eyes with tears.

I am impressed by Homans' nuanced assessment and sympathy for not only Soviet ballet but also the social and cultural context behind the Soviet ballet and their domestic audience. Instead of repeating the same Cold War ideology, which colored Western views of Soviet ballet as much as it did Soviet's view of Western ballet, she dug deeper and looked closely and made an effort to keep an open mind without losing the critical eye.

Plus, some of the gossip and dirt are pretty delicious and satisfy my morbid curiosity about colorful personalities.

Out of curiosity I went on YouTube and watched bits of the prototypical Soviet ballet "Spartacus" and then George Balanchine's "Apollo". Shit. I definitely prefer Balanchine to the Soviet crap. Does that mean I've been corrupted by the decadence of the capitalist culture? :D

(BTW I prefer Jerome Robbins.) 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Receptionist

Rene looked to be in her early 30s and impeccably courteous. It did not occur to me until now that her greetings and smiles, delivered with affectation and theatricality, might have been the result of acting classes. I also could not determine whether the big strawberry blonde bob with a tint of pink was a wig or her own hair. That, the heavy makeup, the false eyelashes, and the mole on her right cheek always led me to mistaken her as a French aristocrat at Louis XIV's court.

Once we chatted about what to do in the City (New York City, there is none else) that weekend --- stranded as I was in Paramus, New Jersey for two weeks. I mentioned Broadway, and she immediately rattled off all the current shows on and gave a brief assessment of each. I barely kept up, thanks to the theater reviews in recent issues of The New Yorker.

"You've got great theaters down in DC, too," she said. "I visit my brother who lives in the area sometimes. You have a Shakespeare theater. Very nice. Very sophisticated. And Arena Stage." She nodded rhythmically.

I mentioned I now lived next door to Signature. It's small and in the suburbs, I said, but it's serviceable.

"I've been to Signature as well," her head bobbed appreciatively. "It's very nice."

I asked her about great performances she had seen.

"I saw a play with Vanessa Redgrave in London," she said. "It's kind of a comedy, you know. She plays a woman visited by her old flame. She was amazing. So good, Jun, the Brits really know how to do it."

As I am writing this, now comfortably sitting at home, the New Jersey project finished and over, it suddenly occurred to me that she could be one of those struggling actors who pay their bills with a menial day job. I'm kicking myself for not having asked her whether she's ever been on Law and Order.

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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