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Friday, December 25, 2015

More Psychology on Mr. Robot

There is a lot to mull over if I am to look at "Mr. Robot" from the psychological point of view. In my opinion Sam Esmail is far more deeply invested in psychology in the context of Internet and technology than any other issues on the surface, be it hacking or corporate greed.

It touched a nerve for me because I have been thinking about similar ideas for the past year or two. How do we adapt our social needs and instincts, honed over a hundred thousand years of talking incessantly to our relatives in tribes of a few hundred people into this diffuse community of faceless clicks around the world? This is more or less what I am doing right now, typing on a blog space, leaving some online footprint, while satisfying the ambivalence of both putting my thoughts "out there" for anyone to see and knowing that few, if anyone, will read them.

Of course being lost in anonymity is not a new phenomenon. That began when we moved from agricultural society to the industrial age. That was when we began to leave our village and everyone who knows us from birth. The Web merely took us further down the road. How are our natural instincts holding up in this world?

In Mr. Robot, Elliot Alderson tells us (his imaginary friend), "I hack everybody," from friends to foes or just people he is curious about or rubs him the wrong way. But he has not told anyone he likes or cares about that he has hacked them, except Krista, his psychologist. As I pointed out before, a psychotherapist hacks the patient's mind --- No, that's not accurate; rather, the therapist helps the patient hack his own mind, with his consent of course. So one could argue that the reason why Elliot has told her to her face that "I've hacked you" and then threw out some unpleasant facts about her online footprints is an expression of his hostility and aggression toward her, even though he also appears to want her help and her love (with inevitable transference of his relationship with his mother). This is entirely realistic and astute.

This reminds me of a discussion I heard at one of the meetings I covered when I was reporting on psychiatry a few years ago. The question was whether it is ethical for a psychiatrist to google his patient, especially when the psychiatrist suspects that the patient is lying. I remember one of the arguments was that knowing more facts about a patient can help the psychiatrist better diagnose and treat the underlying disorder. However, the presenter was generally against googling patients without their consent for both ethical and therapeutic reasons. It would probably damage the psychiatrist-patient rapport and do more harm than good.

It does bring up the question of how much one can know another person through their online persona, and then the question of how much one can know another person through face-to-face interactions. While we instinctively give more credibility to the latter type of relationship --- and I am no exception --- I do wonder about the limitations of face-to-face relationships as well. How many times have we heard or participated in conversations in which people talk past each over? Do people really hear each other when they speak? The futility of online debates has been well established, and I suspect the deterioration of democratic process and increasing political polarization have been at least partially caused by moving the civil discourse from town halls to the comment sections of Web sites. Human communication is ineffective enough even when we are looking into each other's eyes. Now we are just tossing our own thoughts out into the world and imagining being heard, all the while never hearing anyone else.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

And Seven Times Never Kill Man


After someone made the connection between Chewbacca (and subsequent the Ewoks) and the George RR Martin's novella "And Seven Times Never Kill Man," I went back to re-read the story. It became clear that both Georges were metaphorically commenting on the Vietnam War in their depiction of a jungle war, in which the technologically more dominant and more powerful side is defeated by a weaker tribe.  



Needless to say, GRRM was vastly, vastly more interesting. Lucas catered to what people want to believe, derived from wishful thinking; and Martin went by his astute observation of history. 

What is mind tickling, however, is how Martin's vision based on one particular war panned out in many future wars, in which the military victories of the mighty empire over small insignificant tribes set off an insidious slow incineration from within the empire ... until they too begin to sacrifice their children to the pale god of war Bakkalon. 

Martin's predictive power is spectacular. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Mr. Robot


I have been a little obsessed with this series lately. Binge-watched Season 1 twice, with some of the segments more than twice. Not being a computer person, what I have picked up is the psychoanalytical parts. I'm guessing the author/showrunner Sam Esmail has probably been analyzed himself. In interviews he admitted to having had OCD and anxiety disorder. Plus he grew up in New Jersey, close to New York City. It's not far-fetched that he is proficient in the psychoanalytical theories.

Putting aside the computer hacking stuff (which is generally regarded as pretty authentic, though not that I could tell) and "Fight Club" references (which Esmail flaunted rather than concealed), the first series can be interpreted as using hacking as a metaphor for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis (which is back in vogue within the psychotherapy community now after all the shortcuts have more or less failed or faded) is essentially hacking one's own mind. While most of us do not have out-and-out dissociative identity disorder like the main character in the series, we all repress and suppress some things in our mind, as Freud pointed out over a century ago. The unconscious is a huge part of the human mind but inaccessible to our conscious thoughts. Psychoanalysis tries to "hack" at least some of the hidden mind, but behavioral therapy tries to fix us without this. Brilliant.

Separately, Esmail himself has admitted that he was in part inspired by the Arab Spring movement. It took me an unnaturally long time to realize that my visceral reaction to this part of the story --- young people trying to "change the world" --- is connected with my own experience with the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. It was a traumatic event to my generation, even though I never directly participated. I have tried not to think about it and all the complicated feelings it stirs up. See how this works? We all have things we want to hide from our own mind. The Chinese government has been able to scrub that event from most Chinese people's memory, more easily than "1984," thanks to computers, the Internet, and the Great Fire Wall. What "1984" has gotten wrong is our own complicity in the forgetting. The power forcibly erases it from the digital world of knowledge, while people voluntarily erase it from their mind to forget their feeling of powerlessness.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The World Until Yesterday: Notes #3

After discussing subjects of social structures --- children, elderly, conflicts and war, and tribal boundary and travel --- Jared Diamond made a thesis on risks of daily life. Here he made only a passing mention of an observation that struck a cord with me: People in pre-literate societies talked a lot. They talked all the time about everything and all the time with each other. Given the limits of their daily life and tribal size, they inevitably have to repeat things over and over in conversation. Diamond notes that most anthropologists are initially surprised by just how much chatter goes on in a traditional society. People drift in and out of sleep at night and talk with each other intermittently, unlike we in modern societies who sleep through the night in one block (which is well established as a phenomenon since only the industrial revolution). In one instance, he heard two New Guineans talking for an hour about a pile of sweet potatoes.

Why do people talk so much? Diamond gives several reasons: 1) They can't write things down and go back to the records, so talking and repeating verbally can help them remember stuff. 2) They have no modern diversions like books, movies, TV, the Internet. 3) Incessant gossip is critical for their safety. 

The last part is critical because information can mean life and death --- Someone spotted fruits for foraging some distance southwest of the camp; someone spotted lion tracks nearby; someone got killed by a fallen tree in the woods yesterday; someone has fallen ill with suspected witchcraft; etc. Now it's become apparent that we moderns are no different. The exchange of information is critical too for our survival. The difference is that we don't have to get most of the useful information from talking to others all the time and try to remember by constantly repeating it. We can learn from books, newspapers, TV, YouTube, and the all-mighty Google. We can write things down and look them up later. 

This is an astounding realization, for I just never realized how much humans survive on sharing information

I have been wondering for quite a while lately about why we seem to have the tendency to be "addicted" to the Internet and uncontrollably reach for our Smart Phones every idle moment, despite the sense of stress and anxiety and being overwhelmed. No doubt, we are naturally predisposed to collect and share information, and the predisposition --- be it genetic, epigenetic, or some yet unknown mechanism that is vaguely known as "instinct" --- is too simple to distinguish useful information (eg, how to make fire and track animals) and useless information (eg, what shit came out of Donald Trump's mouth today). We are the species that gossip. 

----------------------

This realization brings up the question of the Jungian concept of "collective unconscious." I used to dismiss it and things like "ancient memory" that passes down generations as pseudoscience, but now I'm not sure. These instincts --- whatever the biological mechanism --- are real, such as the instinct to gossip, the fear of snakes or spiders, and the irresistible charm of fireplace. Where did they come from and how did they transmit over time? I don't know, and I find a genetic basis to be very unlikely. 



Saturday, November 21, 2015

The World Until Yesterday: Notes #2

As a Chinese person growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I straddled the traditional extended family model and the modern nuclear family model. Because of increased social mobility, both my parents have lived far away from their own families, so that we had a family size of 4 throughout most of my life. Nevertheless I had brief intervals of living at my maternal grandparents' house. So I can easily understand and identify with the family structure in primitive tribes described in the book.

Of course, my experience with extended family did not include some elements in small-scale tribes. For example, in hunter-gatherer societies, parents and children live together in close proximity. Children see their parents have sex all the time and imitate it in sexual games among themselves. This was treated with no particular alarm by adults. 

However, other family characteristics are very familiar: Aunts and uncles share childcare frequently (I played with my cousins and ate at my aunt's house countless times); grandparents take over much of the work; the specific role and boundaries of biological parents are blurry. This stirs up a lot of memories. 

When I was in the nuclear family with my parents and brother, I was in fact home alone most of the time. Both parents went to work, and my brother went to school. I often ran off to my cousins house and played there until my parents came home from work. This was the norm until I started school at 6 and a half years. But my memory of being in my grandparent's house is much stronger and more vivid. In their Shanghai house with narrow, steep, creaky wooden stairs, people came and went all day long, most of whom I knew not. My grandfather's father had three wives, resulting in a huge number of relatives with tenuous and ambiguous relationships. They randomly dropped in for a social visit and exchanged gossips and gifts, and then stayed for a meal. It was said that grandmother could never turn anyone out before lunch. I loitered with my cousins and uncles of the same age in the background, playing games of our own. Children were well fed but otherwise ignored. I never got a fraction of the attention in Shanghai as I did at home as the youngest child. Most of the time it was chaotic and confusing and had nothing to do with me. Yet I often recall the sense of peace and safety in my grandparents' house, with constant chatter (in the Ningbo dialect) and the smell of food. 

Diamond writes that anthropologists have documented their surprise at how far advanced tribal children are in social maturity, compared with children in Western countries. He attributes this maturity with their contacts with adults of various ages and generations all the time, while Western children have limited contacts with adults other than their parents and are often segregated by age in daycare and school. 

I wonder if I would have become a more social person if I had grown up in my grandparents' household. 

The World Until Yesterday: Notes #1


I'm reading this book very slowly, which does not mean it's any less fascinating than A Song of Ice and Fire or Mahabharata. What rubs me the right way about Jared Diamond's style is perhaps exactly what I consider my own hopeless deficiency --- He presents more facts than opinions. There is a distinct lack of posturing for his own self-image and position. The confidence in his facts and the modesty in his claims immediately elevate him above the likes of Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell in my mind.

The first part of the book on violent conflicts (from small clashes to war) in primitive, small-scale societies immediately blew my mind and opened a new perspective on the shape of the world. Maybe I'll make some notes on this at a later time.

What compelled me to begin taking notes though is the second part about family structure and child-rearing tradition in primitive societies. There is an astounding range of child-bearing and rearing practices, from giving small children complete autonomy (eg, letting them play with knife and hurt themselves or by fire and get burned in hunter-gatherer tribes) to strict discipline and physical punishment (eg, in herding societies).

The variations are partially but not entirely determined by how they make a living. For example, hunter-gatherers are the most egalitarian type of society, because of the lack of personal possessions --- there is hardly anything to possess, and you can't carry much with you in endless trekking. They regard children as fully equivalent to adults, only weaker and smaller, and therefore deserve to make their own decisions (like playing with fire). In a hunter-gatherer band, a child who misbehaves is unlikely to hurt anyone but himself, and therefore is not a cause of too much anxiety. However, a careless or mischievous child can lose the family's precious animals in a herding clan, which therefore must be prevented harshly.

Another fascinating observation is that infants are surrounded by allo-parents (eg, aunts and uncles, grandparents, older siblings) nearly all the time in primitive societies. As soon as an infant cries, regardless of reason, he is usually touched or picked up within 10 seconds by his mother or an allo-parent or someone in the tribe. This compares with the practice in 20th century Germany (where Diamond lived in the 1960s) where mothers responded, on average, 1 to 10 minutes after their infants started crying, because of the cultural belief that children must be taught self-reliance and independence as early as possible. As a result, a primitive-society infant cries only half as much/long as an infant in a modern Western society.

I don't know how many books have been sold and how much money has been spent in Europe and North America on this very subject of whether babies should be picked up when they cry and how long parents should wait before doing it. Even a person with no children, like me, knows this is one of the most contentious subjects among parents and experts. Yet, shockingly, Diamond does not seem to feel compelled to take a side. He even admits that he and his wife were agonized by their children's crying when they tried to follow the advice of not picking them up too quickly. But he did not denounce the German approach as wrong, nor did he brandish research proving the long-term emotional damage this has caused in millions of disappointed children. He merely points out that immediate response to a crying child reduces, rather than increases his crying overall, according to some anthropologists' observational data.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Death of Stringer Bell



I have been binge-watching The Wire lately. Just got to Season 3, Episode 11, which ends with the killing of Stringer Bell at the hands of Omar and Brother Mouzone, two killers with their codes of conduct.

Even as a show renowned for its gritty realism, the makers could not help a bit of romanticism. In the empty house, Omar in a trench coat strolled through the door, shotgun in hand. A couple of pigeons flapped around him. Hehe, anyone familiar with the gangster genre would recognize an homage to John Woo. The connection here is no accident --- George Pelecanos, the DC crime novelist and writer of this episode, was involved in importing Woo's Hong Kong movie The Killer into the US in early 1990s. The movie caused a bit of a sensation in the cinematic circles and created a sizable cult following of the sub-sub-genre of HK gangster films that included Martin Scorsese.

And then, before his execution, Bell argued weakly that he was no longer in the criminal world and on his way to becoming a legit businessman. Then they shot him. This bit could very well be a nod to the famous climax in "Unforgiven" --- Gene Hackman exclaimed, "I'm not supposed to die like this. I'm building a house!" before Clint Eastwood shot him. Indeed, Stringer Bell was also a building a house, and had his sight on building a few more houses around Baltimore. It was his American Dream.

I can see why The Wire is considered possibly the best American TV series ever. I think the writing greatly benefited from Pelecanos' involvement starting in Season 2, which brought the plotting and characterization up a few notches from Season 1 while maintaining the gritty realism of David Simon and Ed Burns. Still, the series suffer a little from a few weaknesses inherited from Season 1, particularly the unfocused characterization of Avon Barksdale. Unfortunately Wood Harris, who played Barksdale, was one of the weaker actors in an otherwise strong cast. I can see the intention in the portrayal of the relationship between Bell and Barksdale, but I don't feel it. It does not hit me in the gut like many of the other characters in the series.

Cutty (played by Chad Coleman), on the other hand, is perfectly cast. Every time he is on screen I would feel a quiver in my stomach. The character is an archetypal man straight out of Pelecanosville, and Coleman conveys every bit of that with a mere look.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

To Go Forward You Must Go Back

I was re-reading A Dance With Dragons out of order. Eventually I got to Jon Snow's viewpoint chapters, which are the least interesting part to me. But it proved necessary. About half way through these chapters, the pattern became unmistakable. I checked the eBook table of contents --- Indeed, the Jon chapters are almost always adjacent to Daenerys chapters with one exception. 

When George RR Martin split a planned Book 5 into A Feast for Crows and ADWD, the viewpoint chapters were not randomly arranged. Besides the obvious plot chronology issues, the close proximity of Jon and Daenerys chapters is no accident. The evolution of these two characters mirror each other in ADWD, and their paths echo Quaithe's prophecy to Dany --- "To go forward you must go back." 

For both characters, they seem to be going forward during most of the novel, albeit with great difficulty. At the Wall, Jon faces the demands from Stannis to support his campaign, internal strives with Bowen Marsh and other Night's Watch members, and the external threat from the Others and their wights. More important, he is torn between his own conflicts: To remain loyal to the Night's Watch as the 998th Lord Commander, or to heed Stannis' offer to become Lord of Winterfell and join the battle against the Boltons. In Meereen, Dany is pressed by enemies outside and within the city walls and torn between her duty to the people and her personal desires. Her internal conflicts are externalized as the chained dragons, Viserion and Rhaegal, who represents her wildness and aggression, just like Ghost represents Jon's. Both are able to temporarily restrain their wild, animalistic, and (possibly) lethal aspect of their nature and to stay human and civilized. 

The conventional arc is a journey of taming one's wildness and animal instincts and becoming a social being. In the end, the hero grows from an unattached individual to a leader of men and a member of society. However, here the journey seems to be take a sharp turn, at least in ADWD. By the end both Jon and Dany burst out of their "human" form and morph into their animal avatars --- Dany is spiritually merged with the biggest, baddest Drogon, and Jon enters Ghost after his human death. 

Before they reach this end, however, both also retrace their steps to the past. This is why the imagery of the "red doors" in Dany's memory dominated her thoughts and Jon is constantly reminded of his family and Winterfell throughout the novel. Dany's second burning in the fighting pit echoes her first burning in A Game of Thrones, and afterward in her wandering she is back in the Dorthraki Sea. Her adventures eastward has led her back, and the curse laid down 4 books ago is now reversed. Meanwhile at the Wall, Jon finally openly abandons his vow and the Night's Watch and chooses his family (ie, to rescue what he believes to be Arya) over Night's Watch. Both characters have come a full circle to where they started. 

This may seem contrary to the convention of the genre, but let's not forget that The Lord of the Ring trilogy is ended with a return to the Shire, and the Hero's Journey also concludes with his return to home. Of course, in those cases, the heroes return after victory rather than frustration or defeat. This is why it's so hard to predict where GRRM is taking the characters and the plot. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Universal Exceptionalism

As recently as ten years ago, the single-origin and multiregional theories of modern human evolution were neck and neck, with perhaps more supporters for the latter theory, which postulates that very old (approximately 2.5 million years ago) archaic humans spread throughout the world, and humans living in different regions evolved separately into their current state. The fact that there is so much similarity among humans of different regions may be due to interbreeding throughout the history.

It was not until the rapid democratization of genomic analysis tools that the evidence firmly settles the argument in favor of the recent single-origin theory. This theory says that a single tribe/family was the only ancestors of all modern humans living today. Small groups of the tribe left East Africa and spread all over the world with astonishing speed and efficiency to become Homo sapiens. The exodus occurred as recently as 60,000 years ago, probably after a climate-related bottleneck (eg, the Ice Age) that cut their size down to a small number of blood relatives.

As these early humans migrate to northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, northern Asia, and the Americas; and to Indian Ocean, southern India, and then the South Pacific, they replaced many other human species who had left Africa much earlier and inhabited these regions. It sounds incredible, doesn't it? The earlier human species took hundreds of thousands of years just to carve out a place for themselves in the world. They coexisted in relative balance but geographically separate from each other. And here came a few new cousins. Within 50,000 years, all other humanoid species were wiped out. Gone. Extinct. Homo sapiens alone dominate the world. The phenomenon is so extraordinary and out of proportion with previous history, no wonder it did not gain popularity until recently. It seemed more sensible if humans evolved on the time scale of a million years or so, as the fossils of other primates and humanoids suggest.

But the genomic evidence cannot be helped. Homo sapiens exploded onto the world with an exponential speed. Their routes of migration are illustrated on the National Geographic site The Human Journey.

Last weekend, my friend Helen made a profound observation about this subject: How did we not see this? Why couldn't we see that humans all over the world are absurdly alike, until the truth is forced on us? Looking back, the common traits are unmistakable. We all think abstractly and take to our symbols. We all have language. We organize society in nearly the same way. Despite cultural and historical differences, we instinctively understand each other like no other species. In "The World Until Yesterday," Jared Diamond described how remote islanders who had lived all their lives in primitive tribes could adapt to life in the 21st century within a just few years. And yet, we are naturally drawn to the theory that we separately evolved in multiple regions. Many Chinese academics still believe that the Chinese descended from Homo erectus pekinensis, whose fossils are dated to 500,000 years ago. Sorry to burst their bubbles, but the poor Homo erecus pekinensis were likely victims replaced by the ancestors of modern Chinese.

Why haven't humans preserved the history of leaving their original tribe behind or separating from their brothers and sisters and cousins? Without this tribal memory, when we encounter our long-lost cousins from another part of the world, all we want to do is to make war with them, rather than recognizing our shared lineage and hug each other. One possible explanation is that any history transmitted purely orally (before the invention of writing and means of recording writing) is fragile and prone to loss. But I think there may be something deeply embedded in human nature that drives us to believe in our own uniqueness. Funny how we are exactly the same in our narcissism and exceptionalism, which further supports the single origin theory. It is like what GK Chesterton pointed out, the two sides are in complete agreement, and therefore they go to war with each other.

Also ironic as hell is how we feel so lonely in this world that we set up massive telescopes and send out spacecrafts trying to find intelligent beings like us on other planets, even though we in fact lived alongside our cousins once upon a time and probably killed them all off. Perhaps all of these phenomena are manifestation of the same underlying trait --- we want to believe that we/I/our people are unique; we are perhaps the most aggressive and ruthless branch in archaic human species; when we encounter someone like us, we want to kill them or at least outcompete them rather than making friends; and last but not least, we are now the only human species left. We may not be inclined to the truth, but our bias may confer some kind of advantage. That is why truth is often hard to accept, even when it's right under our nose. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Re-reading A Dance With Dragons, Final Chapter


The last chapter before the epilogue in ADWD was one of my favorite chapters in the entire series, if only for the beautiful imagery of flying over the Dothraki sea. It's a "quiet" chapter in which hardly any action happens except Daenerys' wandering thoughts. Upon re-reading it I realize that it is full of hints for future events. It's an excellent example of George RR Martin's subtle writing and the game he plays.

There are mini-arcs within the chapter itself. Like episodic television, some plots begin and resolve within an episode. For example, within the first few pages (on my Kindle), Daenerys' thoughts go back to her past as the bride to Khal Drogo, in the paragraph starting with "Daenerys Targaryen was no stranger to the Dothraki sea." Her pregnancy and loss of the unborn son are mentioned. We are reminded of Mirri Maz Duur's curse. This strand later concludes with her miscarriage at the end of the chapter, which some have pointed out signals the fulfillment of the curse. Daenerys is fertile again.

The implication of this is not necessarily that Daenerys can bear children again, although it should not be dismissed, either. The curse says,
When your womb quickens again ... Then he will return, and not before. 
Here the "he" refers to Drogo. The Citadel believes that her next child will be named Drogo and therefore become this return. I think it might be more metaphorical (also it's difficult to imagine Daenerys laid up with a pregnancy in the next two books involving lots of battles and action). Perhaps it is simply the return of Drogon the black dragon (named after Drogo), or the return of her khalasar, which is all but certain with the arrival of Khal Jhaqo at the end of the chapter.

And Drogon certainly returns. The taming of Drogon began in the previous chapter, in the fighting pit of Meereen when she cracked her whip and made him sit, and then jumped on him and flew. Here, Drogon is unresponsive to her at the start of the chapter. She rides him every day but cannot make him go back to Meereen. The whip and words no longer direct him. So she leaves him and walks for two days and two nights toward Meereen. But throughout the journey he follows her. On the second day, she sees him in the sky at least three times. Clearly he is her mount now and they can never be separated again, but Martin remains coy until the end of the chapter to complete this mini-arc. After seeing the Dothraki scout, she "called until her voice was hoarse ... and Drogon came, snorting plumes of smoke." She jumps on him and they follow the scout to find Jhaqo's khalasar. By now she doesn't even need the whip any more. The ending may sound like Jhaqo has come to her, but it is the other way around. She has commanded Drogon to meet the khalasar rather than fly back to Meereen. She is now in control of the biggest, most bad-ass dragon in the world, so why would she be afraid of a horse lord?

Yet another mini-arc here is in character development. At the beginning of the chapter Daenerys mutters the mantra that has sustained her until now, "If I look back I am lost." So she keeps walking, on and on, always forward. Quaithe's prophecy is revisited,
To go north you must go south. To reach the west you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow. 
Both Daenerys and most readers interpret this as circling around the globe (?) to reach Westeros, passing through Asshai. Well, I'm not convinced it's so literal, although her journey to the east since A Game of Thrones has been literal so far. Near the end of the chapter, in the same paragraph of calling back Drogon.
"To go forward I must go back," she said. Her bare legs tightened around the dragon's back. 
She then flies to meet the khalasar. On some level, she is already retracing her steps from Meereen to Vaes Dothrak (now that her womb has quickened again and "he" has returned).

A curious symbol in the chapter is that she calls the hill on which Drogon has been living as Dragonstone. Dragonstone is the springboard where Aegon the Conqueror took off to conquer Westeros with fire and blood. On and near her Dragonstone, Daenerys has not only tamed Drogon and regained her fertility (and possibly her khalasar), but also comes to the important psychological turning point --- Rather than always charging ahead (If I look back I am lost), she is now looking back toward where she has been (To go forward I must go back). Before the Slaver's Bay, she was in the Dothraki Sea. Before that she was in Pentos and Braavos. And before that she was on Dragonstone.

The need of looking back is also a spiritual growth of some kind, considering that GRRM is a historian at heart and has a deep understanding of what lies behind the present world. If Meereen is an analogy for US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan (which it is, but that's for another discussion), he is begging us to look back toward the forgotten lessons of the Vietnam War and all the other failed attempts at Imperialism. Daenerys has learned her lesson. We haven't.

There is much symbolism and foreshadowing throughout the chapter that serves both as Dany's backward gaze and forward outlook, such as her dream of Viserys and her imaginary conversation with Jorah Mormont. This time if Jorah makes it back to her (after having been punished for his history in slave trade), she will not banish him again. And mentioning Viserys might be a reminder of Ilyrio of Pentos?

In the middle of the chapter, before Daenerys falls asleep, there is a line that made me laugh out loud, "Off in the distance, a wolf howled." As far as he has spread the story, GRRM does try to connect the separate locations and strands with this kind of hints and imagery. If one reads closely A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, one would see the traces of invisible links. And immediately the mention of wolf brings about another more substantive link to the other side of the world.

On the second morning of her journey, Daenerys wakes up and discovers that ants have crawled all over her. She brushes them off her and crushes some with her fingers. She has slept by some crumbling stone wall in the grass the night before.
It turned out that their anthill was on the other side of her wall. She wondered how the ants had managed to climb over it and find her. To them these tumbledown stones must loom as huge as the Wall of Westeros ... 
Well, I don't know how much more explicit he could make it. This seemingly pointless segment is obviously a foretelling of the fall of the Wall in the North and a scene of the Others and their wights (I call them ice zombies) climbing over it, pouring into Westeros like the ants all over Dany. The Wall may have already fallen with Jon Snow's assassination (that's for another day), so the invasion is imminent.

My friend Ellyn once astutely noted that reading ASOIAF is labor intensive because Martin has buried many clues and hints of future events in current text, but he is particularly skillful at hiding them among a sea of details that seem to do with only the present events. One never knows which details will become echos of the future or a trigger for major events. This is why I am particularly drawn to the "slower" books (A Clash of Kings, AFFC, ADWD) where nothing seems to happen. I find them much more fascinating precisely because of their demand on my attention and my intellect. They are puzzles where only the patient reader can dig out and piece together the shape of the world. It is a game he plays with readers. AGOT and A Storm of Swords are more like payoffs, in which we are given the answers in the back of the puzzle book, which is not nearly as fun.

Beyond the above-mentioned clues and puzzle pieces, this chapter is also centered around the theme of "The human heart in conflict with itself" within Dany. She is torn between the wish to be a young girl and sense of duty as a queen and leader. As sprawling as the series have become, it is slowly dawning on me that GRRM is not a wasteful writer. There is a purpose to every chapter and every segment within each chapter. It's not always clear what the purpose is until much later. It is a very complicated puzzle that rewards the patient reader. The joy is in the journey, not the end. I think this point has been amply proven by the by-now failed attempt to "condense" the books into TV adaptation.

There is a lot more I can say about this chapter and the overall Meereen story line in ADWD. But I will leave it here. BTW, I don't think either Daario or Jorah Mormont will live very long in the next installment, but I have nothing to support this outlook.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Dolezal Case and Outsiders

One can never tell exactly what motivated Rachel Dolezal to pretend to be a black woman. Besides all the complexes and embarrassment that she has provoked in many Americans, black and white and, oddly, transgendered people and their advocates (fascinating how they got mixed up in all this), there is a kernel of recognition of a common --- perhaps even universal --- phenomenon. Here is a person who at some point feels that she does not belong in her environment and wants to find the sense of belonging elsewhere. She wanted to find the sense of belonging among black people, for whatever reason, and was willing to pile on lie after lie to get it. Is that so strange?

Coincidentally, I saw a documentary about Broadway musicals a few weeks ago. The short version is that nearly all notable Broadway musicals were written by Jews (except Cole Porter). They wanted to talk about their feelings of being outsiders in the American society, but in the musicals they chose to express it through other outsiders rather than Jewishness. Hence we got "West Side Story" with Puerto Ricans, "South Pacific" with Polynesians, "Showboat" with blacks, even "The King and I" with reversed roles between whites and Asians. And the kicker is that everyone loves them. Not only the immigrants who all see themselves in the disguised Jews, but even the dominant white audience find themselves in the stories of outsiders. This sense of being excluded from other people and therefore alone in the cold outside has to be a feeling that is universally appealing.

The stories of social outcasts and outsiders are the mainstream of literature and other forms of narratives. That is the irony. If the majority feels alone, are they alone in their likeness, or are they alike in their loneliness?

I wonder if there are people who never feel a sense of isolation and loneliness from time to time. Extroverts? Bullies? Psychopaths? It seems obvious that they are either nonexistent or definitely in the minority. For most of us, what would it take to rid oneself of the sense of being alone in the universe once and for all? Maybe nothing. Maybe that is just one of the permanent human conditions that we want to escape but have to live with, like the inevitability of birth and death.

Another phenomenon that had baffled me until I understood the universality of loneliness is fandom. Average people identifying with famous people in various fields and projecting themselves onto these strangers. People feel such a deep connection and kinship with flickering images or words of the page or glimpses from faded pictures. In the fans' mind, the self and the idol merge into a strange entity that is neither the same nor separate. The idol's success feels sweeter than the fan's own success, and the idol's failure more bitter. The animosity between two opposing camps of fans can be intensely vicious, despite the lack of real conflicts or harm to the celebrities in question. Anyone with exposure to figure skating would be familiar with the venomous and vehement battles between fans of Yuna Kim and Mao Asada, or Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, or Plushenko and Lysacek. I am not immune to this type of sentiment, even though I never understood why.

Now I think I do. Public celebrities serve as a conduit for our need to escape the feeling of being alone outside the crowd. Their function is two fold. In their public glamor and glory, we boost our own sense of worth through projection. In sharing our adoration with other fans we get a sense of togetherness and belonging to a larger group. What wouldn't we do to come inside, away from the cold, even if for a moment of hallucination and self deception, like the little Matchgirl in the Hans Christian Andersen story. Note that Andersen was a very typical outsider and, with his stories about being the outsider, moved millions of readers.

Of course, the more realistic and less hallucinatory realm where one escape the loneliness is family. But family carries their own risk of disillusion. Knowing someone so closely and intimately can dispel the sense of belonging and heighten the feeling of difference. Fantasy togetherness with strangers, on the other hand, can be as perfect as your imagination can achieve.

Thus the space created by the Internet is most curious. The people you are sharing message with on the other side of email or Web site or group chat are real. You feel like you know them, but not too much to dispel the sense of belonging. If you know how to play this game, you can be as close as you want without being too close to be reminded that, in the end, we still each live out here.

Oh, and another irony. Every time I read about how lonely it is "at the top" for famous people (or superheroes in comics) --- being so famous that they cannot mix with ordinary people and have to keep to their sad loneliness as celebrities, I laugh. Isn't the point of being famous to be universally admired and never be left out (again)? Yet, somehow, by being "special" one might exclude oneself from the common experience of feeling alone and insignificant.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Folger


I have heard the name Aaron Posner mentioned in association with DC theater scenes several times, but only today saw his direction for this Folger production of Tom Stoppard's early but most famous play. It's indeed quite good, quite impressive. The comic timing was spot on and had the audience laughing all the way through, despite the play's length and the absurdist dialog. The casting was inspired and the two young lead actors had real chemistry.

Yes, it's known as an existentialist and absurdist play. It's about the unreal space occupied by minor characters between their sporadic appearances in the main characters' story. It's the meaninglessness and aimlessness of life, and the inevitability and pointlessness of death.

It's all very clever and meta. The production notes point out that it owes as much to Shakespeare (ie, the source in Hamlet) as to Waiting for Godot. I have not seen Waiting for Godot, but I cannot shake the feeling that all this was said by Shakespeare already, not only in "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns," but also "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Note to Self: Othello @STC next season

Just got the brochure in the mail. No dates yet. I will go see it.

Below is a poster of Vishal Bhardwaj's modern adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006). It's pretty excellent and very faithful to the play. Like in most productions, Iago, played by Saif Ali Khan, steals the show.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Theological Subversiveness in Mahabharata (Notes #17)

I suppose one should not be surprised by the mess of stories, mythologies, cults, and messages that were crammed into Mahabharata over centuries of telling and retelling. Many of the lessons and points conflict with and even contradict each other, down to the basic definition of "dharma." Fine. There is something in the Indian history and culture that drove the exacting English colonialists crazy, because one can never seem to get a straight answer to any question about India. Any simple question, like, What is dharma? What is maya? What is sin?, can lead to a lifetime of research and philosophical argument with no end in sight.

Be that as it may, I want to sort out a few signs of direct theological antagonism in the epic, particularly in the Bhagavad Gita.

The most striking message in the Gita is to act without expectations of rewards, ie, the karma yoga. This is in opposition to the traditional Indian mythology based on asceticism, which is full of anecdotes of someone getting his wish granted by a god, big or small, by starving himself, chanting the god's name a million times, and standing on his toe for a few years, known as tapasya. If you're a well pampered king who doesn't want to go through that self-torturing routine, you can hire a team of Brahmins to do the praying for you and throw in a lot of good stuff (eg, milk, ghee, flowers) in the ceremony. Voila! You get your wish granted. It is such a straightforward even exchange between the gods and men and universal to nearly all ancient cultures on earth. I offer/sacrifice something precious to the gods, and the gods give me what I want. Simple and instinctive. Yet the Gita says, you should not even expect a reward for your sacrifice to the god. Forget it.

Well, that's an unpleasant gift, isn't it? Even though it is more realistic and empirically true, telling people that they cannot bargain with (and therefore control) fate/gods/fortune is contrary to our hopes and dreams. Such realism can't win any followers. So we are thrown a bone. Yes, there is a reward, which is moksha. Who needs earthly rewards (eg, wealth, happiness, long life, death to your enemies) when you can achieve the ultimate joy of being released from the cycles of life and death, heaven and hell.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Palace

Last night I dreamed of the palace again. This has become a recurrent dream in recent months. The building is always somewhere nearby, in downtown DC or on the National Mall, behind one of the Smithsonian museums but easily. Or it might be just past Old Town Alexandria, between the red-brick buildings and the river. Or it was a ten-minute walk from home, across a field of waist-high grass and behind willow trees.

On the outside it is not gigantic but exquisitely complex. Topped with a golden dome, the deep blue frames and colored glass form intricate patterns. Whenever I visit it in a dream, it is always with someone --- family, friends, or just Sam, but never alone. It's a hidden gem that I show off to them. We have to first pass through a plain and ordinary building and a courtyard to see the grandeur of this palace.

At the sight of the dome and the glorious walls, a gentle gladness and calm excitement wash over me. We enter the palace and up the spiraling stairs. No royalty live here; it is an art museum, like National Gallery of Art. Let me show you all the good stuff, I say to my companions. It feels like home.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Ending of Chinatown (1974)


The original ending of Chinatown, written by Robert Towne, was changed by the director Roman Polanski to be more tragic and ironic, and Towne complained about it later in some book he wrote. Film critics generally take Polanski's side as the superior choice.

In Polanski's version (ie, the movie version), Jake the private detective (Jack Nicholson) and his associate, the villain Noah Cross (John Houston) and his henchman, his daughter Evelyn Cross (Faye Dunaway) and her daughter/sister Kathrine, and a couple of police detectives all congregate in Chinatown. Evelyn tries to drive away with Kathrine. Her father, the henchman, the police, and even Jake try to stop her, but somehow by holding a gun she gets into a car and drives off, and then one of the policeman shoots and kills Evelyn. Noah takes Kathrine. The end.

Towne's version is in some sense indeed more conventional to the genre and appealing to the popular expectation. Jake, Noah, Evelyn, and the police (but no Kathrine) also converge on a beach in pouring rain. Evelyn takes her revenge by shooting her father dead. She goes to jail. The end.

Well, I can see why critics favor Polanski's version of the ending, and clearly he wanted to do this when he read the script, because earlier in the movie he dropped several foreshadowing hints to duplicate the climactic ending (eg, Jake has his car's tire shot out by an orange farmer, Evelyn lowers her head in the car and accidentally hits the horn). An unsatisfying and tragic ending in which "the bad guy wins" is bound to stay with you longer than a just resolution. It is also understandable that Polanski wants a bleak ending in which the lead female character dies, since this was a few years after his wife was murdered by the Mansons.

Yet, I am not happy about Polanski's ending, either. All 3 female characters in the movie are victims through and through, used and abused lying down. They are weak and neurotic and pathetic. It is suggested but not confirmed that Evelyn has given her daughter to her husband as a sexual gift. One might excuse this treatment of women within the context of time and culture, but it becomes a lot harder to excuse when the original ending gives so much more power to Evelyn. Even if she fails in her revenge --- which would be an ending I prefer, she would have made an attempt and done something more than running away. Why not keep her fight while still kill her off and let the bad guy win?

I know it is not fashionable to bring Polanski's personal life into critiques of his work, but if we want to acknowledge the effect of his wife's murder, then I think his sexual preference for adolescent girls is fair game. One may argue that it is no surprise that he doesn't much like women with any strength. I suppose a male critic is unlikely to notice the dismal portrayal of women or be disturbed by Faye Dunnaway getting slapped around by the hero without much resistance. Even I did not much think of it, until I read up on what Towne had in his original script.

Last week I re-watched "The French Connection" (1971) and was much disappointed by several plot holes and unrealistic, illogical details in a film that prides itself for the documentary-like realism in style. The plot problems in "Chinatown" are less glaring, but nevertheless quite visible. For example, it is never explained clearly who hired Jake to expose Mulwray's extramarital affair in the first place, and the feeble reveal is limp and unconvincing and does not fit into the two main threads of the story. It is never explained how the police get to Chinatown in the end, yet do not seem to make a real effort to arrest Evelyn, who is by then the main suspect in her husband's murder and is about to become a fugitive. Why and where does Evelyn intend to run in the car? The story states early on that she did run away from home years ago, yet this time she is still incredibly incompetent at running away. It also makes no sense for Jake to confront Noah Cross, right before he carries out Evelyn and Katherine's escape. What is he, born yesterday? What's the rush?

I don't know what's the problem with these classic movies from the early 1970s. Did they not have script editors back then? Maybe I should re-watch The Godfather next because I do not remember any visible plot holes in that movie. This is not to say movies today do not have glaring holes and mistakes, but tightly written scripts like "Michael Clayton" and "One False Move" are not uncommon.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

King John and ASOIAF

Let me count the similarities ---

1. The bastard of Richard the Lionheart. He's pretty dashing, but he talks like Tyrion Lannister, or more accurately Tyrion talks like him. And they both are in fact loyal and pure at heart. They just like to put on a cynical appearance and deliver some zingers.

2. The sympathetic poor Hubert. The misunderstood killer. The wronged bad guy with a heart of gold. He is almost exactly like Sandor the Hound.

3. At the center of the three-sided battles is the question of whether it is justified to murder a child. John decided that he had to, and was duly punished for the crime. Ned Stark refused to be the cause of potential execution of three children born of incest (and treason), and he was duly punished for his kindness. Yes, damned if you do and damned if you don't.

4. Even after all three parties opposing him (Rome, France, and his own dukes) have been appeased, King John can still be killed off by an almost random person and act. See also Ned Stark and Balon Greyjoy and Tywin Lannister.

This is what drives me crazy when I try to dig out Shakespeare's influence on GRRM. Nothing is concretely transplanted --- No, GRRM is too clever for that. Rather, it is a strong whiff of shared view on people and the way of the world.

Friday, April 24, 2015

King John Revisited

I am trying to test my memory on this absurdly complicated story.

In the beginning King John was the de facto king of England. His brother, Richard the Lionheart, named him heir to the throne, despite a stronger claim by their nephew Arthur, as Arthur's father (dead) had been older than John. Still an innocent child, Arthur was not particularly keen on overthrowing his uncle, but his keen mother, Constance, took him and the claim to the King of France, Philip. France confronted England in Arthur's name. One does not need France's true intention spelled out, however, considering the ongoing land disputes between the neighboring countries (England held Brittany and other territories on the Continent).

And so they attempted to resolve the dispute the old fashioned way: through war. The conflict was stuck in a stalemate. What to do? John and Philip reached a truce, in which John married his niece Blanche to the Dauphin Louis and England gave up some of the land to France as her dowry. Methinks England probably lost in reality. The war ended and Arthur's suit was put aside. Constance, of course, was not happy about the arrangement, but John and his army had captured Arthur in a battle. Now England seemed to hold all the cards ... Or do they?

Peace with France might not be the best policy, but the king had little choice at the moment, because he was being attacked on another side by the Pope, who was unhappy about his domestic policy to levy taxes on the churches. England's conflict with Rome also put France in an awkward position. If you don't denounce England, the angry Roman envoy Pandolf threatened Philip, you would be excommunicated along with John. Ah the problem of The Three Kingdoms. The fragile alliance between England and France hung in a balance. Pandolf convinced the Dauphin to invade England, because now Louis also had a claim to the English throne through his marriage to Blanche. Oh isn't that clever of the little cardinal?

Meanwhile in England, John did not want to sit and wait for the French invasion in the name of rescuing Arthur, the rightful king. So he ordered the boy executed by Hubert, everyone's favorite killer. Only this killer had a heart of gold (unlike the killers in Richard III but not unlike Sandor Clegane) and was moved by the child's innocence. So he quietly hid Arthur somewhere in the Tower, while telling the king he'd done the deed. But the king changed his mind two minutes later! When his already-disgruntled lords were appalled and outraged that he had murdered a child! John wished he would kick the stupid lords' asses, no doubt, but right now he needed their help to fight off the French. Oh how he regretted having given the order.

Man, it sucks to be a lowly henchman. One moment your boss wants the kid dead, the next he is blaming you for being a psychopathic killer. What a bhenchod (oops, wrong language). Anyway, so Hubert told John the truth and they all hugged each other and thought, The kid's still alive! We're all saved from a rebellion and bad names for a thousand years! Unbeknownst to them, Arthur sneaked out of the Tower and jumped the wall and broke his own neck, lying dead in front of the fuming lords. Awkward. If they had been wavering a bit about betraying England, now they had to be pushed to the Dauphin's side by the bloody corpse.

And so there John sat in his tent on the battlefield and couldn't believe how things had fallen apart. An hour ago he had married Blanche to Louis, got France off his back, and Arthur had lost. Everything had been so peachy. Suddenly he became a child-murderer, even though he rescinded the order, was excommunicated by Vatican, and was about to lose his country to France! Maderchod (sorry, wrong language again). In a desperate last-ditch effort, he treated with Pandolf and gave the Vatican whatever they wanted.

Mission happily accomplished, Pandolf went to Louis and said, OK, we can go home now, I got what I wanted. Louis laughed, What about what I want? Do you think you can let the wolf out of the cage and then drag him back before he's fed? The wolf will not let go of the big fat piece of steak between his teeth. He told Pandolf to get lost and pressed his army on, along with Salisbury and the other well-meaning English traitors. Finally, somehow, the English lords came to their senses and decided to switch sides from the French Dauphin. Louis had to abandon his dream and go home. All seemed to be finally looking up for John. Then King John got himself poisoned by a monk, I guess because of his earlier excommunication. So he died and his son Henry was crowned. The end.

How did he cram all this into just one play?! It gave me so many whiplashes I thought my head was going to fall off.

Oh, and in the middle of it all, there was this fabulous character who is a bastard and has all the best one-liners.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bhagavad Gita and Figure Skating (Mahabharata Notes #16)

The phenomenon of "choking" in competitive sports is well known. It refers to those high-stake moments when a competitor performs far below his normal ability, as if he has forgotten to be himself. Choking is particularly in sports that require highly precise techniques, such as figure skating. After years of watching skating live, it's become clear to me that, in an important competition, figure skaters routinely achieve no more than 70% of the highest level of difficulty they are capable of in practice. This level can drop further if the skater is temperamentally sensitive to the psychological pressure. For skaters often called "headcases," he might fail on techniques in a critical championship that he would succeed with 90% certainty in practice. Why? Perhaps the reason is that figure skating is exquisitely affected by the skater's mind. I have done a little bit of recreational swimming, running, and skating, and found that skating demands the most attention and concentration. Therefore, when the brain is wandering toward the thoughts of winning and losing, it is so easy to lose focus, which destroys one's technique.

The fact that many of my favorite skaters are prone to "choking" has vexed me for years and led me to wonder years why the mind fails them. Do they unconsciously sabotage their own success? Or does the chance of choking increase with how badly one wants to win? If so, how does one suppress the desire to win for a few minutes in order to focus on just the skating?

This is why, when I first read one of the themes in Bhagavad Gita, "detach from the fruits of your action," I immediately felt a tingling inside my skull. There is something profound and subtle about this seemingly paradoxical about the advice.

And this phenomenon is not limited to sports, for in life the wish to have something does not often lead to choices toward its realization. Thinking about what you want may spur you on sometimes and paralyzes you other times. The problem of self-defeating behaviors is complicated and difficult to remedy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Get on Up



What do you do if you want to make a biopic of James Brown? The easiest and most obvious approach is to recreate a compilation of his greatest hits, sprinkled with anecdotes of his life. That was exactly the director Tate Taylor did. In a sense that is enough. It might have been even better to just do a fake concert movie with his recordings, re-enacted by actors, one song after another. James Brown's songs are sufficient to carry a movie all on their own.

The only somewhat distinctive but not entirely successful feature of this movie is to sprinkle the life anecdotes out of chronological order. The messages and themes, however, are no different from most other ordinary biopics of geniuses, especially but not limited to music geniuses. It's always about what egoistic womanizers they are. That is also not entirely wrong, because they do tend to be egoistic womanizers. Still, it is also a trope. Another trope is the tortured genius, whose childhood emotional trauma has driven him to the road to success.

Why is it so difficult to depict the life of an artistic genius that seems realistic and fascinating? The play "Red" about Mark Rothko might be the closest to believability that I have seen. It is hopeless when it comes to musical geniuses, however. We all seem to be more interested in their bedrooms drama than the grinding rehearsals in studios. Are filmmakers themselves not interested in how creative sausages are made or, more likely, they think the audience are not interested in the unglamorous hard work? But I am interested! The best scene in the movie is precisely a rehearsal, in which Brown schools his musicians on rhythms and syncopation. Its writing is not particularly credible, but is nevertheless all about working rather than fake and superficial psychoanalysis or wasted glimpses at women.

I did not begin to appreciate funk and old-school R&B until only recently. I wonder why it took me so long. It seems that when it comes to music I am just really slow.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Mutual Frustration (Mahabharata Notes #15)

Before the Kurukshetra war commenced, Queen Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, came to Karna, the dearest friend of Duryodhan, the crown prince of the Kauravas, and a most formidable kshatriya in the land. She came to Karna at mid-day, immediately after he performed a daily prayer to the sun god Surya, to make a favor of him, because Karna never refused a favor asked of him on such an occasion. Not long ago, Karna had granted a boon asked of him by the god Indra, the father of Arjuna his arch-enemy, and given up his own magical armor, effectively giving away his own safety and life, in the upcoming war.

Yet, this time, the absurdly generous Karna who never refused anything asked of him upon his sun-worship ritual, refused the strange but strangely familiar lady who came to ask for a boon.

Karna was Kunti's first and illegitimate son with the sun god. One could easily imagine a realistic version of this scenario: An aristocratic young woman got herself pregnant at fourteen with a moment of indiscretion. When she gave birth to a boy, shame, panic, and fear of disgrace induced her to throw the infant away. The child grew up in a lower class family, ignorant of his origins, and suffered terribly for his mother's moment of weakness and selfishness. On the other hand, his mother went on to a respectable life, a suitable marriage, and five sons born within wedlock, seemingly suffering no consequence for her abandonment. Now, her five legitimate sons were about to fight their bastard brother in a life-or-death battle, while none of the six brothers knew of this looming family train wreck.

Mother Kunti's motive for approaching her first-born with the truth in this critical juncture may be interpreted as an attempt to dissuade Karna from endangering her other sons. Her request to Karna could be boiled down to this: "You are by blood the brother of your best friend's enemies. I ask you to leave the Kauravas' side for the Pandavas' side."

One could argue that Kunti loved her legitimate sons more than her first-born, because she went to Karna rather than the Pandavas with the secret. If she had told the Pandavas, the war would have dissolved into their instant defeat (at least in her mind). Instead she wanted to dissolve the war with their victory. Yet another component of her wish is to ensure the survival and unification of all six of her sons, because the pending conflict presented a threat to Karna as well, considering that he was at least outnumbered five to one. In other words, what she wanted was to "have it all," not just for herself but for her sons.

Karna clearly understood her intentions, both the spoken and unspoken aspects. As a son who had lived with his mother's rejection all his life, he took revenge. She had not given him what he had wanted, so now he would not give her what she wanted. After denying her request, he granted her something different from what she asked for: "I would not kill any of your other sons, but I will battle Arjuna to the death. Either him or me, but one of us will surely die. So that in the end you will still have five sons." It is as if he was directly denying his mother's unspoken demand --- You can't have six sons and will only have five. His revenge is to turn the table completely on her: You had not wanted six, and now you cannot have six.

One could, of course, argue that Karna rejected Kunti's request because he loved his sworn brother (ie, Duryodhan) more than newly discovered birth brothers, who indeed had had a few run-ins with him previously. Yet, if Karna were so deeply invested in the victory of the Kauravas' cause, he seemed to have a funny way of showing it, by giving away his invincible armor and earrings so easily and by spontaneously promising Kunti to never harm four of the Pandavas. Therefore, his loyalty to Duryodhan seems but an excuse, yet his revenge to frustrate the mother who had disappointed and frustrated him rings true.

(This rather crude analysis is inspired by Adam Phillips' essay "On Frustration" in his book "Missing Out." In the essay he pointed out the symmetry between King Lear and Cordelia, who both withhold something from each other. The same can be said of Kunti and Karna. Phillips wrote, "All love stories are frustration stories. As are all stories about parents and children, which are also love stories.")

Monday, March 23, 2015

King John

I'm up to Act 4 now.

Oh man it is such an intense play packed with twists and turns. Characters take turns throwing flaming insults at each other. Oh the madness, rage, and screaming. Why isn't it being revived more often? Why had I never heard of it before?

At the center of the plot is King John who is stuck in an impossible situation. His brother, Richard the Lionheart had passed his throne to John, but their older brother's son Arthur, still a teenager, had a better claim. Although John seized the crown with force, France was trying to invade and install Arthur. When John captured Arthur in battle, he was stuck between rock and a hard place. Keep Arthur around, France would invade in the name of rescuing the rightful king. Get rid of Arthur, which was what he did, would drive barons already annoyed by his fiscal policies into open rebellion. To add to his siege was the Pope, in a dispute with John not unlike the one between the Vatican and Henry VIII three hundred years later. 

Yes, John was a kinslayer, but what else could he do? He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. I thought about it and thought about it --- Short of conceding the crown to his nephew, he had no way out of the dilemma. I suppose it is a far more common situation in human history than we are willing to admit to ourselves --- The choices you are given are no choice at all. You are fucked no matter what you do.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Childhood's End by Arthur Clarke


What prompted me to re-read this book is, of course, my recent obsession with Mahabharata. When I first read it about twenty years ago, I didn't understand most of it, but much of the imagery left a deep impression and seeped into my unconscious memory. In some ways, I could say that this novel, Rendezvous with Rama, and a few of his short stories (eg, "The Star", "Nine Billion Names of God") cultivated a latent taste for mysticism that kind of blew up two decades later, when I happened upon Mahabharata.

The first part of the story is about an alien invasion by "Overlords" (which was later ripped off in Independence Day and other movies) and the subsequent utopia on earth. The second part is about the conversion of the human species into a mysterious and unknowable existence that is eventually absorbed into "Overmind." Indeed there is similarity between the concept of merging with a cosmic consciousness and similar ideas in Buddhism and Hinduism, in which people might, through meditation, yoga, and whatever mind-altering practice, might transcend the limits of individual mind and become one with gods or absorbed into the gods or something to that effect. The novel makes a few direct references to Christianity (references to Jonah and devils), but the central concepts are closer to Buddhism and Hinduism, plus elements of popular mysticism, such as seance, telepathy, inherited racial memory, and UFO sightings. Clarke was clearly having some mash-up fun.

I can't remember who said it --- something about the individualism being not a common or dominant idea in human societies. When I first read "Childhood's End," I had the impression that the loss of human individuality at the end was a tragedy. Mr. S admitted to the same impression (he read it in high school). Clearly the theme is not that palatable to modern people with a western education --- or modern Chinese people, for that matter. Yet Clarke's depiction is ambiguous with a sense of both loss (of humanity as we know it) and marvel (merging into a great collective consciousness).

What left the deepest impression on me the first time is the speculation of time and memory. The Overlords had never been to earth until its arrival in twentieth century, yet their devilish appearance always existed throughout human history, because some minds can access memory in all directions, both forward and backward. Future and past are the same. That is a dazzling idea and, somehow, thematically connected to Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Maya: Illusion and Reality (Mahabharata Notes #14)

At least one of the meanings of maya is simply "illusion." In the battle scenes in Mahabharata, maya is often a supernatural weapon used by a few characters to create a distortion of reality --- fog, rain, cold, darkness, demonic figures, etc., that do not actually exist --- to disarm the enemy and create fear and chaos. In fact it sounds a lot like some sort of psychological warfare.

Yet maya is far more complicated than illusion. Its entry in Wikipedia seems to suggest that the evolution of its meaning, coupled with atman, is linked to the pair purusha and prakrti. Yeah, Wikipedia. Obviously I have not read through the relevant vedas and puranas and upanishads to begin to understand these ideas. But, at least, my absurdly superficial glimpse at these abstract concepts is enough to demonstrate how sophisticated the philosophical theories were in Hinduism.

Anyway, not being qualified to discuss these concepts does not deter me from contemplating something along these lines. At some point, maya came to mean the material, external existence, ie, the body or prakrti, that houses and conceals the eternal driving force of life or spirit, ie, the soul or purusha. The theory is that, although the body and its senses seem to be real, they are temporary and constantly changing and subject to inevitable decay. Here, obviously, the Hindu philosophers incorporated time into their observation of the physical world --- All senses pass, including agony and ecstasy, and therefore are elusive over time. Even life itself passes so quickly. Therefore, the need for a life force that permeates the universe and animates things that cannot disappear or diminish is irresistible. And they are not wrong, because energy does fit the concept of purusha and obeys the first law of thermodynamics.

Nevertheless I have been thinking of something that seems to be the opposite: One's perception and thoughts are subjective, conjured by the mind, and unreal, but the body at least somewhat able to get a more concrete and reliable picture of the world around oneself through the senses. Another way of looking at the distinction between the real and unreal is what is actually going on within one's senses and what is not. For example, the room temperature is 75 F and the time is night and I am lying on the couch typing on my laptop --- that's tangible reality. I'm thinking about the work to do tomorrow and reading some babbling on Twitter --- that's not tangible reality, even if the babbling might be someone else's reality. The novel I'm reading is all in my mind, and so is the contemplation of whether I will finish a couple of documents by the end of next week, because none of these exists outside of the electrochemical reactions in my brain. On the other hand, that I am thirsty or hungry is real enough, for the sensations are connected to my blood concentrations of sodium or glucose, not just in the brain. How real is reading fiction, nonfiction, news, and someone else's opinions and editorials?


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Note to Self: Books to Read

1. Fountain of Paradise and Songs of A Distant Earth
2. The Journalist and the Murderer
3. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life
4. Ramayana (maybe)

The start of a New Yorker's article about Adam Phillips' "Missing Out" had me laughing hysterically. I suppose it's not meant to be funny, and I don't know why it seems so to me.

Adam Phillips, Britain’s foremost psychoanalytic writer, dislikes the modern notion that we should all be out there fulfilling our potential, and this is the subject of his new book, “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Instead of feeling that we should have a better life, he says, we should just live, as gratifyingly as possible, the life we have. Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for bitterness. What makes us think that we could have been a contender? Yet, in the dark of night, we do think this, and grieve that it wasn’t possible. “And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives,” Phillips writes. “Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pluralism and Contradictions (Mahabharata Notes #13)

There are a lot of oddities and inconsistencies in Mahabharata, even in the shortened version (a "modern rendering") I read, in which the author no doubt excised a lot extraneous details and sidetracks from the original versions (yes, plural) of the massive poem. For example, it is described that Arjuna was the son of the deva (god) Indra. There is an interlude in the middle of the story that Arjuna was brought to Indra's heavenly abode. Yet it is also repeatedly claimed that Arjuna is one of the holy twins, Nara and Narayan, who are avatars of Vishnu, one of the trimurti (the three-form gods that are at the top of Hindu deities). Arjuna is the human incarnate of the twins Nara (Krishna is the godly one of the pair Narayan). Just who the hell is he related to, Indra or Vishnu? Another example is the character Ashwatthama, who is supposed to be a partial incarnate of Shiva, another of the trimurti. Ashwatthama fought on the opposite side to the Pandavas against Arjuna and, after the death of his father in the war, nearly caused the termination of their family line. Yet, before the war, Shiva gave Arjuna a deadly supernatural weapon and the blessing to win the war. The rishi Vyasa, who knew everything in the story, told Arjuna that on the battlefield he was led by the invisible Shiva and triumph followed him wherever he pointed his arrows because of this. It is like Shiva blessed his own enemy to defeat a part of himself. Which side exactly is he on? In the end, while the Pandavas seemed to have decisively won the war, they went to heaven and saw all of their enemies returning to their eternal godly forms, happy and content. All the old grudges and hatred and blood feud and even arguments over dharma versus adharma seemed to be washed away by the tide of time. The Pandavas are deemed the good guys, but they nevertheless have to go to hell, even if temporarily. It's enough to drive one crazy.

This kind of delicate and complicated logic, which teeters on the edge between perfect sense and complete nonsense, tickles the mind. One might easily dismiss the phenomenon as the result of centuries of meddling by generations of storytellers. They must have inserted various stories and ideas over time, leaving a big pile of mess. Yet that is not quite true, as the massive story is also filled with meticulous details and characters that remain surprisingly consistent and logical from the beginning to the end. There seems to be method to all this madness. 

(This post is long. I'm going to start using the "Read More" function.)

Monday, March 2, 2015

Nazi and the Gita (Mahabharata Notes #12)

Well, it looks like synchronicity, or coincidence, or my premonition (just kidding), as one of my random thoughts connecting Hitler and Bhagavad Git turned out to be true. Apparently some Nazis did love the Gita. Apparently, ancient Indian mythology and philosophy were a big deal among German intellectuals in the 19th century and subsequently garnered some fans in Nazi leadership. Apparently, it is no accident that Nazis chose the swastika as their symbol and identified themselves as Aryans, which seems to stretch one's imagination if we were to compare the appearances of Indians, however light-skinned they are, with the ideal looks touted by white supremacists. One has to wonder if they asked real Indians whether such re-appropriation of their religion and philosophy was acceptable. Somehow I doubt it.

Perhaps one should not be too surprised. Didn't we all read Herman Hesse's fictional biography of Buddha? Didn't we hear that Schopenhauer was a fan as well? So Hinduism was no doubt pretty fashionable in Germany back then. Here is a fairly substantive article about one of the prominent Gita fans: Heinrich Himmler. He identified the military expansion and aggression of the Third Reich with the martial values and beliefs of kshatriyas (the warrior caste) in Hinduism. According to Himmler, Hitler is Krishna reincarnate (perhaps figuratively) to bring dharma, ie, Nazism, to the world. Funny how mercy and family and the revolving wheel of life and death, and all the other stuff in Hinduism and Buddhism never made it into Nazism, for whom death is just death. You can't blame me for not seeing the connection before.

Nevertheless one does have to wonder whether Herr Himmler actually read Mahabharata. If he had, he might think twice about comparing themselves to kshatriyas, the ancient warrior caste. It does seem to me that he had no idea what happened to kshatriyas in Kurukshetra and what Krishna was sent into the world for. In fact, Krishna was no leader or savior of kshatriyas at all; rather, his true purpose was to wipe out all the kshatriya kings and soldiers in this deadly conflict and leave a world "unburdened" by kshatriyas at the start of the Kali Yuga. If we were to follow this train of logic, hmm, what did happen to Nazi armies in the Kurukshetra of our time? I am not a superstitious person, so I will not say all this is some weird, time-warping phenomenon. But the irony is killing me.

Anyway, what is unexpected in this odd pairing is not that Nazis found inspiration from the Gita (a possibility that even I "foresaw"), but rather that they looked to the Gita at all. I always assumed that they pursued their mission with absolute conviction of their own righteousness and needed no confirmation from anyone, least of all some foreign religious text. Only those with doubts need the Gita to inspire them and spur them into action, no? Might Himmler have doubts about what he was doing, like Arjuna, and feel as if he needed some moral and philosophical support? Taking this thought one step further, we may have to contemplate the possibility that Himmler and other Nazis were indeed human, too.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Evil and sin (Mahabharata Notes #11)

Despite the claim that "this is a battle between good and evil" and scary omens that show up from time to time (jackals and wolves howling in the streets, birds flying in the middle of the night, other abnormal natural phenomena), it slowly dawned on me that my frame of reference for words translated as "sin" or "evil" is built upon Christianity, which does not quite fit the context of Indian mythology.

For one thing, the concept of hell (naraka) is more like the purgatory in Catholicism. No one is condemned to torture and misery forever. Sinners pay for their sins by serving time in naraka, and get released afterward. The worst punishment is to reincarnate into earthly creatures life after life after life for a few thousand years, until one reaches enlightenment. But the prison sentence is always finite.

This system cleverly solves a common logic problem in the permanent and dichotomous (heaven or hell) scheme in Christianity. Even the virtuous and pious people are not perfect and commit sin sometimes. Catholicism tries to deal with it by the confession-and-absolution ritual. Protestants just stick with the simple "believers go to heaven, nonbelievers hell" rule of thumb. Simple but unsatisfying. In the Hindu system, even the pious and virtuous have to take responsibility for their life on earth. At the end of Mahabharata (I've finally finished it!), it is explained that all kshatriya kings have to make a round in hell to atone for all the killings they undertake in life, even if they were executed at the direct order of god (or his avatar). Nobody is immune. Everyone has to pay. And then they can go to heaven.

The transient nature of both life and death and even afterlife in this system somehow washes away the vehemence of judgment, leaving everyone and everything in different shades of gray (a lot more than fifty). Morality is still important, but not rigid or obsessive. Certifiable villains die heroically on the battlefield and go to warriors' heaven. In general, a flexible and relaxed attitude pervades this world, giving less soil for the growth of hatred and paranoia -- less but not none, for hatred and paranoia are in our nature, aren't they? Cannot be helped.

There is a kind of mercy in this that I did not quite see in my limited encounter with Christianity. In this world, the gods claim to inhabit everything and energize everything in the universe, including sinners and evil ones, and even sages accept death, suffering, injustice, and pain as inevitable tides of time. There is no promise to permanently eliminate any of these by simply being virtuous or a believer. Therefore, I the audience feel like I am treated like an intelligent person with my own eyes, and reality of the world is respected rather than denied.

It is funny (not funny haha but funny weird) that a lack of a severe and judgmental religion has never prevented countless Chinese people from developing a severely moralistic perspective. Perhaps moral dichotomy is something inherent in human society, while tolerance, complexity, and mercy are the exception. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Karna: The Mondern Man (Mahabharata Notes #10)



The first part of Karna's life story --- being born to a princess and the sun god but abandoned and raised by a charioteer and his wife, thus not recognized for his right to be a kshatriya warrior --- is more modern than any other character in Mahabharata. Rising above his caste, based almost entirely on his talent and skills rather than birth, his success in life is singular in his time and society, but eerily similar to the Horatio Alger, hero of the modern American mythology. Nevertheless, the story also has some typical folklore elements: A hero with a hidden identity and mystery of his birth; he is separated from his real family from an early age and his nobility is revealed only later in life. 

Yet, during the prolonged climax of Mahabharata, ie, the 18-day battle of Kurukshetra, Karna's story takes a turn into the realm of modern fiction. No other character in this story --- perhaps none in any story of the ancient times --- is portrayed with the level of psychological complexity seen only in modern novels.

Karna's psychological struggles are two fold. First, his internal thoughts and external behaviors are incongruous. Before the war, Karna found out that his sworn enemies, the Pandava brothers, are his biological brothers. He promised their mother --- also his mother --- that he would spare four of the five brothers' lives. Throughout his involvement in the war, his heart is not in it. His hands slay the Pandava army and Arjuna's son, but his thoughts are in conflict with his action and he no longer hates his oblivious brothers. He is only motivated by honor and duty. Second, his mind is battling itself throughout the war. On the one hand, he yearns to belong to his biological family and their noble status, which could end his lifelong loneliness and misplacement. On the other hand, to do that means betraying his only friend Duryodhan, the Kaurava prince who leads the war against the Pandavas. The two urges are mutually exclusive. Karna cannot have it both ways. So his struggle is purely internal and directed at the self.

This never happens in ancient literature. The earliest psychological novels are generally considered to emerge in French literature in the 17th century. Madame de la Fayette's The Princess of Cleves is often cited as the earliest sample in this genre. From then on, the psychological turmoil of an individual has become the mainstream of European and modern literature, as novelists delve ever deeper into the dark, contradictory crevices of the human psyche.

This psychological focus is a bit like the (re-)discovery perspective in European art in the Renaissance, before which older paintings were "flat." Old literature, derived from folktales, mythology, and epic poems, is full of characters who are consistent in their internal and external presentations. Even when a character is lying, he is described as being fully aware of his intention to lie and its untruth. There is no hint of self deception or internal conflicts. He or she struggles with other characters, with society, with fate, but never with himself. The only internally conflicted character that predates Madame de la Fayette's novel that I can think of is Hamlet. Even Hamlet's internal conflicts (his reluctance to kill Uncle Claudius) are not as well defined as modern literature, and the tension between his thoughts and actions is not as taut as any 19th century Russian novel. Shakespeare still relied mostly on external rather than internal forces to steer him from the revenge he has to carry out.

Therefore it is astounding that Karna seems like a character written by a modern novelist who somehow managed to time-travel to the past and stick it into Mahabharata. There is nothing like it -- that I know of -- in Greek, Roman, or Nordic mythology. For some reason (unknown to me), Indian mythology and philosophy reached a level of psychological insight at a very early time that was absent in other ancient civilizations. It is no surprise that Buddhism seeped into modern psychology rapidly in the 20th century, much more so than the more popular Judeo-Christian religions.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

War is Drug (Mahabharata Notes #9)


After endless politics, conspiracies, gambling, threats, peace talk, and arguments, the war finally broke out on the field of Kurukshetra. Rivers of blood soaked the earth as the Pandavas and Kauravas tried to vanquish each other. People got shot full of arrows or their heads chopped off or trampled by war horses and elephants. By the end of Day Eight, the troops were too exhausted to collect and burn the piling corpses that had been once their comrades and brothers.

It is no accident that two of the most enduring and beloved epics of human history are about war: Mahabharata and Iliad. Just reading the battle scenes gets my blood roiling and adrenaline surging and I can barely put it down --- Me! A peaceful harmless little woman who can't give anyone a flu shot with a tiny needle. Throughout human history, war defines men, and women are complicit. We love and fear men who fight. In the grip of danger and fear, dopamine rushes out and time slows down, and everything becomes a hundred times more vivid than usual. Like the feeling I got seeing "The Hurt Locker," again it dawns on me that I am no different from the others. I am as susceptible to the appeal of death and violence as anyone.

In "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," Chris Hedges condemns society's myth-making machines and propaganda that glorify war and killing, all the while admitting its intoxicating effects.

The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. 

Nevertheless Steven Pinker is convinced that humanity is heading to a more peaceful world, because the rate of violent conflicts and deaths has been declining steadily over the past decades. Perhaps the simulation of war --- competitive sports, violent movies, reading war stories, and thrilling activities (eg, ski jumping, sky diving, extreme sports) --- is the only effective way to quench our thirst for danger and excitement and keep our darker urges at bay.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cold Weather Redux


I am sure I have written about "Cold Weather" before. It's a Mumblecore-Sherlock Holmes hybrid of a gem. Ever since I saw it a few years ago, the movie has stayed with me, tickling the back of my mind, planting a little curiosity for the Oregon coast.

Apparently you can rent it on YouTube for 3 bucks. I highly recommend it and, upon seeing it again, the yearning to see the Oregon coast is stirring again. It has officially gone on my bucket list. Hope to go soon.

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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