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Blog Archive August 2013

An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller

George Orwell’s 1940 review of Tropic of Cancer is worth revisiting for several reasons. Not least of which is the critical lens that one novelist uses to examine, evaluate and analyze another novelist’s work. Reviews often reveal as much about the biases of the reviewer as they do with the book under review.

Orwell’s review details a bias about Miller’s class (working class), nationality (American), and art (he’s a failure) and politics (the absence of political context). Orwell’s sensibilities were fashioned at Eton; Millers on the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn. Orwell’s sympathies were with the working class; Miller was from the American working class. In the English world of 1940 the class distinction would have been a significant factor in the literary world where the Orwells were expected to write meaningful books and the D.H. Lawrences given a shovel and told to dig coal. It is important to remember the rigidity of class divide and everything that flows from it whenever an Orwell reviews a Lawrence.

Reading Orwell’s review of Henry Miller is at times painful when his class talons are involuntarily exposed. His review of Tropic of Cancer displays the conflict between the ideal of what the working class consciousness ought to be—politically attuned—and the reality of Miller’s working class absolute focus on the sensual to the exclusion of the larger political framework.

Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence broke free of the bonds of their culture and class by travelling and living abroad. In Orwell’s case, fighting in a foreign civil war (The Spanish Civil War) showed a commitment to overcome the walls of class and upbringing and how very hard a road that is to travel. Orwell sought a literary life devoted to repudiating the chains of his class. In his review of Miller, it seems for Orwell that those chains were never fully severed.

Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London where Miller set The Tropic of Cancer. Both books were intensely autobiographical. He may have had a propriety feeling about his Paris. This is a kind of old hand attitude that one finds in many places including Bangkok where the old days were always better, more alive, more interesting and stimulating. Orwell couldn’t quite figure out why Henry Miller would bother with Paris after the golden age of the late 1920s when “there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them imposters.” Paris was swamped with “artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.” Though Orwell didn’t live long enough to see a similar accumulation of people in Bangkok in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For Orwell, the Paris scene populated by the expats of the 1920s had vanished by the time Henry Miller arrived to find “bug-ridden rooms in working-men’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs.”


George Orwell

George Orwell, an old Paris hand, felt that 1930s Paris (it was no longer his Paris) had less promising material for a novelist. Actually, it comes across even stronger; he thought Paris was a waste of time, a distraction in the larger European theatre, a spent force where nothing of interest would emerge. By comparison, in Orwell’s view there was vastly more interesting material to be mined in Rome, Moscow and Berlin as Hitler and Stalin worked the military and political levers pushing toward war. The fact is, by the time of this review Orwell had the advantage of hindsight. Henry Miller was writing in Paris in the 1930s before the war started. To strike Miller with a cross-over punch to the jaw for not anticipating the future outcome is an easy shot as the fist is coming from an arm originating in 1940.

To ignore the European political developments, to Orwell’s mind you were “either a footler or a plain idiot.” [Note: A footler is someone who wastes time or talks nonsense.] Orwell chose not to answer in which of those categories Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer fell. But it was plain to Orwell that Miller’s literary credibility was on the line. Or more graphically, he was driving a stake through the heart of a minor monster that no one should take seriously. He wanted to grab Miller by the throat and shouted in his face, “You fool, what about Hitler?  Concentration Camps? Forget about bonking and look what is happening around you at the gathering forces of history which are building to send you and the rest of the working class back to the battlefield!”

While Orwell came to the brink, he blinked and chose to sidestep the absence of political context and the fact that Paris had become a backwater. Despite a silver literary stake driven through Miller’s heart, Orwell concluded that Miller’s book was ‘a very remarkable book.’ That is a remarkable observation given Orwell’s doubt about the value of a novel “written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter.”

What brought Orwell around despite his obvious reservations about Miller’s choice of where to set the book and the lack of even a remote bit of interest in the larger political clouds forming over Europe, including Paris, at the time the story was set, was that Miller was genuine working class. As much as Orwell fought for and wrote about the working class, he was never a member of that class. Orwell was as much an outsider to the working class as Miller was to the French in Paris, and for the same sort of reasons—attitude, education, and sensibility.

What saved Tropic of Cancer and made it linger in his memory, was that Miller was about to ‘create a world of their own’, not based on the strange but the familiar. Miller’s genius was in letting the reader know that he or she was being understood. Miller’s reader would say, “He knows all about me. He wrote this specially for me.” There is no humbug, moralizing, trying to persuade you to understand his perspective or values. What Orwell valued was that Miller dispensed with the usual lies and simplifications and instead wrote about “recognizable experiences of human beings.” Miller gave the reader that the things he was writing about were happening to you.


Henry Miller

The nature of the experience chosen by a writer mattered a great deal to Orwell. It is interesting that Orwell who was born in India and was a colonial official in Burma (and whose first novel was Burmese Days) should take a negative view of expatriate life and the role of authors writing about such lives. He noted that Miller’s book wasn’t about “people working, marrying and bringing up children” but about people who lived and survived by their wits on the street, visited cafes, brothels and studios. Orwell believed that expatriate writers transferred their ‘roots into shallower soil’ as a result of concentrating on these experiences.

For Eton educated Orwell, I suspect what he secretly loved about Tropic of Cancer was his feeling Miller was interested in bringing what was common in the real life of ordinary people with all of its callous coarseness out into the open. What he secretly envied was Miller’s class credentials. Orwell might have lived down and out in Paris but his self-imposed suffering could never have made him a member of the working class. Orwell fought alongside the working class in the streets of Barcelona. Henry Miller drank and fornicated in the Latin Quarter. Tropic of Cancer made it clear that it was one thing to make an intellectual commitment to the working class, argue their cause, fight their battles, but quite another thing to become an authentic spokesman of their emotions and desires.

Miller laid open the lives through their spoken language. “Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words.” There is no protest about the horror and meaninglessness of contemporary life. In its place, Miller had written a book about someone whose life circumstances should have made them miserable but instead, in the case of Henry Miller, he was incredibly happy. Such an epiphany must have been a slap in the face for someone committed to the struggle of the working class.

In contrast, Orwell thought James Joyce was an artist who turned ordinary working class life into art. Miller was the tabloid writer who entered the mind of the ordinary person and his words to the ears of one who marched on the playing fields of Eton had not gone through the usual filters that censored language and thought.

What separate the two men transcends class, nationality and politics. It comes down to Orwell’s view of a writer at all times and all places which is to resist fear, tyranny and regimentation. When Orwell looked up from Tropic of Cancer, what horrified him wasn’t the language or whoring, it was Miller’s acceptance of ‘concentration camps, rubber truncheons” as well as Hitler, Stalin, machine guns, putsches, purges, gas masks, spies, provocateurs, censorship, secret prisons, and political murders. For Orwell it was unthinkable for a serious writer to ‘accept civilization as it is practically means accepting decay.’ Orwell makes the case that Miller’s point of view was passive and he laid down and with a sense of resignation and let things happen to him.

On reflection, who are the characters in Tropic of Cancer? They aren’t the ordinary factory worker or family in the suburb, but “the derelict, the déclassé, the adventurer, the American intellectual without roots and without money.” And what evaluates and saves Tropic of Cancer is isolated by Orwell to one crucial factor: Miller ‘had the courage to identify with it” as he was part of this group. He didn’t look down on them, try to explain or justify, he reported their lives, troubles, loves, sensual preoccupation.

Orwell was a political writer who used the form of the novel to great effect in 1984 and Animal Farm. He would hardly be the reader of choice for a novel preoccupied with sex among American expats in Paris in the 1930s. For him the sensual man was out of fashion, it was the time of the political man to take a stand on principle. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer accepts a world with endless cycles of violence, greed, aggression, inequality, and injustice as largely unchangeable, and that the best chance anyone has is for an escape from the constraints of the madness and limits of one’s own culture and exploring their emotions inside a new culture. Both Orwell and Miller lived in a pre-global world. Literature and writers were identified with their nationality and class. This is less true in our modern world. To read Orwell’s essay on Henry Miller is to see how far we have travelled since 1940 in terms of what readers expect of authors, and what authors’ expect from each other.

American Henry Miller was an escape artist, a hustler, and sensualist. Englishman Orwell was a Barcelona street fighter and British colonial official. The divide between the two men could hardly have been greater in terms of personality, education, temperament, and philosophy. The gap between Eton and the working class slums of Brooklyn was huge. For all of those differences, though, Orwell saw why Miller had attracted readers—he brought them into a story, never talked down to them, and made them feel they should step inside and join him on a grand odyssey of the sensual world that was recognizable and real and spoke directly to their own lives.

That part of Orwell’s review is as true today as it was in 1940. The social, economic and political distance between Orwell and Miller’s consciousness may be greater today. Few novelists have taken up the cause of the working class struggle. That fell with the Berlin Wall and in place of a wall is a growing inequality, repression and acceptance. It seems that Miller may have won in the end. What is important to remember is that Orwell took Miller seriously. In 2013 writers situated along this divide are receding like galaxies traveling at the speed of light away from each other. Soon they will no longer have evidence the ‘other’ ever existed. As recently reported in the New York Times,  novelists are no longer critically review each other’s books. The competition for money, academic position and literary prizes has silenced a generation of novelists too afraid and timid to speak truth not just to authority but to each other.

Posted: 9/5/2013 8:55:38 PM 

 

Updating Craziness and Madness

There is a fifty-year publishing anniversary that needs celebration. It has to do with the meaning of insanity and related terms. Our use of language in every day conversation—in novels, movies, newspapers, TV, and on the Internet—changes the meaning of terms from the past. Take the trio of insanity, craziness and madness. Those three ideas have been around since we’ve had language, and one day someone will find from big data on the development of language, that one reason we acquired language was to keep tabs on people who the community thought weren’t quite right in the head.

It has been 50 years since the Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released. That makes it a good time to revisit and ask questions about how insanity, craziness and madness remain powerful and effective tools to protect state power and authority.

The film based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, won five Oscars. The book and film struck a chord with the Academy and filmgoers. McMurphy could be any of us who pushed back against authority. McMurphy, a criminal in the prison system with a relatively short sentence to serve, thought he was clever in gaming the system by being transferred from prison to a mental hospital. He challenged the power of the head nurse. What he discovered that he was inside a system that could keep him indefinitely and no law, no institution, no authority could prevent the head nurse or her staff from using the full range of ‘treatments’ (in the name of medical science) to break him (or from their point of view, cure him).

If you are anti-authoritarian, then you run the McMurphy risk of being labeled insane, rebellious, and troublesome. You go on a list. Nothing that you can do as McMurphy found out will prevent the authorities from carrying out a lobotomy. At the end of the story, the Chief sees what they’ve done to McMurphy whose unresponsive face is a testament to the power of the State who employ the words ‘insanity’, ‘craziness’ and ‘madness’ with the precision of drones.

Insanity is both a legal and medical term. Madness and craziness are ordinary, common usage to describe abnormal mental acts of another person. Political correctness has erased insanity, madness and craziness and instead discussions that would have used ‘insanity’ now refer to ‘mental disorders.’

Science has dispatched madness and craziness to the old world of magic, herbal cures, and shaman trances. Science has replaced the local shaman with doctors, nurses, scientists, and psychiatrists. That has been called progress and a victory over superstition and backwardness. In the 50 years since the novel was published, science hasn’t been successful in changing the attitude, nature, and emotions of mankind. In 1963, the medical workers, in the name of ‘science’, doomed McMurphy. Science acted then, as it does now, as a good cover for those in power to legitimatize the repression of people like McMurphy.

It is difficult to say what is more dangerous—the old witchdoctor non-scientific approach, or the new science, medical approach. A person’s liberty should stand on magical thinking of superstitious people. It is cruel and senseless and barbaric. Has science has put an end to the era of witchdoctors? Many people are doubtful. The history of insanity correlates not as one would wish with the developments in science. The idea that science brings progress and the ways of a superstitious people are left in the past. What we are discovering is that science is creating better tools for lobotomy for critics and opponents. Insanity, craziness, and madness become mud-slinging words hurled against the rise of new ideas, philosophies, and technologies.

Don’t forget that at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest it was Nurse Ratchet who won. In 2013 we have a new cast of Nurse Ratchet’s and McMurphy’s and every indication that the outcome will be the same as it was in 1963.

Remember the bottle thrown from the plane in the Gods Must Be Crazy?  Whenever a tribe comes in contact with an unknown technology, instability of the existing system of belief and thought starts to list like an oil tanker that’s rammed a reef. Soon the peaceful tribe is racked with high emotions such as hatred and envy and violence follows as the hotheads arm themselves to control, own, and monopolize the novel invention. At the end of this 1980 film the hero Xi throws the bottle over a cliff and returns to his village.

But the days when the hero could return the world to its pre-bottle ways is over.

What is new is not a bottle thrown from a plane, but the Big Data quietly culled, stored, and analyzed into marketing, economic policy, and dissent suppression. That bottle won’t be thrown over a cliff. It is here in the village to stay. New tools to spot and isolate (or control) the ‘hostile disruptions’ increase the reach to track and watch people who are ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. Though you will be less likely to see those terms used. As insanity has been tainted by the long history of loose standards, terrorism has been copied and pasted in places where insanity, madness and craziness were commonly found.

The mental health issue always has risked being politicized into a campaign to reduce violence, and maintain security and order. We don’t have to look very far back in history before we stumble upon the inconvenient truths about state authorities using mental health as a method of repression and control.

A list of from the Reasons for Admission used by Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum from 1864 to 1889 gives an idea of the range of thinking and acts that landed you in the bunk next to McMurphy. These 19th century reasons describe the mental state or behavior of a person before being admitted to the asylum. From the 1963 film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a case could be made that much on the list below had survived well into the 20th century. A case can be made that dressed up in different terms, the list will still be sufficient to catch the 2013 version of McMurphy.

Business nerves and bad company along with brain fever, sexual derangement, dissolute habits and women trouble could fit about 90% of the writers I have met over the years. The reasons associated with the definition of crazy may explain why many people view writers, painter, dancers and others as belonging under the big tent of art as crazy or insane. The point is people who don’t wish to or are incapable of fitting into morality and norms of their society are by definition psychologically abnormal and their alternative way of living might be further evidence of abnormality. Religious or ideological fanatics see other non-believers as abnormal. Our technology hasn’t updated the definition, only the power and capability of tracking people who fit one of the categories, of craziness.

The clear and present danger of the concept of Insanity that finally caught up with McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been summarized: a term that “may also be used as an attempt to discredit or criticise particular ideas, beliefs, principals, desires, personal feelings, attitudes, or their proponents, such as in politics and religion.”

In 2013 would McMurphy’s outcome have been any different? Have the last 50 years with all of our advance technology given us better outcomes? Or are we still back at the gate of Trans-Allegheny Lunatic asylum, where McMurphy is put out of his misery and the Chief’s only hope is to escape as fast as one can from the clutches of repressive power. There is a big difference. In 1963 escape was an option. In 2013, Nurse Ratchet’s forces would find the Chief and he would end up like McMurphy.

Whether you identify with the Chief or McMurphy doesn’t matter. It is Nurse Ratchet’s world. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a warning unheeded. We live in the shadow of the Reasons for Admission to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. As ‘novel reading’ is one of the grounds for admission, you’ll forgive me if I put on my track shoes and go looking for where the Chief has gone to ground.

Posted: 8/29/2013 8:57:56 PM 

 

Digital Tracking of Corruption

The website www.bribespot.com is devoted to citizens from around the world who complain that state authorities have demanded bribes to overlook infractions of the law or as an additional, informal condition to receiving a benefit or service. Corruption can occur around the edges of a political system, or may have developed as part of the culture.

Here’s a recent example of a posting from Thailand by a motorist who paid Baht 200 ($5.00) to the police.

3 Lane Rama IV Road, near Bangkok University, direction Theptarin Hospital.

They: 6-8 Police, most likely from Tha Rua Station were waving “all” motorbikes to stop. 2 were blocking left+middle lane.

Officer: You were not driving as req on the left lane but in the middle lane & showed me a plastic home-made-menu-pricelist lamented sheet with a list of all offenses & their prices. On the list: Driving in Middle Lane = 400thb

Me: But how can I be on the left lane, if u guys are blocking it and I need to swap to the right lane to make a U-turn? Shall I fly over?

Officer: Give me 400thb or u go police station & this take long time.

Me: opening the purse and taking out 200 thb and telling him I not pay more than 200thb (had a meeting and was in rush).

Officer: literally pulling my 200thb out of the purse and saying: Now you go!

Q: Is it illegal to drive in the middle lane to change lanes? Only in Thailand. Police Officers I guess, they fly over the middle lane.”

It is useful to start with an understanding of what corruption means. Corrupt or corruption derives from the Latin corruptus meaning to abuse or destroy. Corruption manifests on several scales:

1) petite scale – when bribery in the form of small gifts and personal favours and is tolerated within the larger normative values of the community;

2)  grand scale – found in regimes run by a narrow circle of plutocrats or tyrants where the political, social and economic institutions are subverted for the gain of the tyrants and their cronies;

3) institutional scale – where process and institutions are weak and are found in a culture of impunity where state authorities have little or no fear in exacting personal benefits. The weak institutions indeed may feed and indirectly encourage corruption by paying a low salary to employees and turn a blind eye when they supplement their salary through bribes.

Wikipedia has this definition of corruption in the context of policing:

Police corruption is a specific form of police misconduct designed to obtain financial benefits, other personal gain, and/or career advancement for a police officer or officers in exchange for not pursuing, or selectively pursuing, an investigation or arrest. One common form of police corruption is soliciting and/or accepting bribes in exchange for not reporting organized drug or prostitution rings or other illegal activities. Another example is police officers flouting the police code of conduct in order to secure convictions of suspects — for example, through the use of falsified evidence. More rarely, police officers may deliberately and systematically participate in organized crime themselves.

We will have at some stage Big Data from sites like www.bribespot.com to see patterns in the behavior of state officials. It may be that the data will confirm that at the end and start of the month, and near major holidays that bribe taking increases as officials are under pressure to pay rents, school fees, or buy gifts. What bribespot.com relies on is self-reporting. It is difficult to assess how representative of the problem are the cases that people choose to report. This takes effort to do. I suspect that most people can’t be bothered to self-report.

The other problem with corruption reporting is that, by its inherent nature, secretive and non-transparent, that it is difficult to prove. The motorist says the cop asked for a bribe, the cop says that is a lie. He said, she said is an eternal loop and the law mostly favors the police in the case of doubt. People aren’t stupid. They know that without concrete evidence, they are wasting their time to complain. And if they complain, police who are corrupt are more likely to intimidate a whistleblower than non-corrupt police. As the theory goes, once the cops break one pillar of the law, it is much easier to knock out other pillars to protect themselves against the law.

The Bangkok Post on August 21st 2013 ran an editorial titled “Corruption is a two-way street”  by blaming the corrupt official and the person paying the bribe. The editorial concludes that to be effective to stop corruption action must be taken against the state official and the person paying the bribe.

This proposed formula to solve the problem of corruption in my opinion is fundamentally flawed and fails to address the underlying causes. It treats all cases of bribery at the same level—one corrupt state official, one citizen paying the bribe. The illegal gambling casinos run by state authorities is an example of how corruption is often a one-way street. In some systems, the corruption is closer to an expressway rather than a two-way street, with eight-lanes filled with traffic. That is the problem with thinking of political solutions in terms of metaphors. They quickly fall apart when the metaphor is expanded to expose the scope of the problem. The approach championed by the editorial would be as effective as asking people to drop suggestions into an anti-corruption box.

As we’ve seen in the categories above, bribery falls into a number of distinct categories, each of which has special issues and problems that should be addressed.

In the second category, the Grand Scale, treating the bribe payer in a system of tyrants that act as rentiers and extractors as wealth and resources as equal to state officials, is missing the larger issue. It is the nature of how power is allocated and abused throughout the system. Corruption is a symptom of a much more fundamental political issue. To focus on the bribe payer is a distraction, it is irrelevant to finding an overall solution.

The same analysis applies to the third category, the Institutional Scale, where justice system operates with weak, highly flawed law enforcement institutions. The state officials act with impunity. To suggest that the bribe payer is an equal bargaining partner with such an official neglects the power and authority that can be effectively employed to compel a target by placing them under duress such as torture, imprisonment, heavy penalties unless a bribe is paid. To call this a two-way street would require a radically different view of how streets, rules and traffic are interconnected.

Thailand falls into the first and third category. It is a gift-giving culture and bribery is the slippery slope that gift givers use to glide out of a legal jam or to obtain a state concession or benefit. Many Thais don’t view the giving of small gifts to officials as a bribe. The attitude is reflected in the Thai phrase sin namjai—something like “gifts from the heart.” It is part of being kind and generous; the gifts give both the gift-giver and gift-receiver face, with the benefit of oiling the social wheels and keeping them moving. Such a gift-giving tradition comes from a system of ancient attitudes that worked in a small scale agricultural based society (which most of Thailand remains).

The problem is the attitudes are difficult to fit with law enforcement in large populated cities where more and more people live. In places like Bangkok, the cop isn’t someone the bribe payer knows and has a long connection to through family as would be in a village. They are strangers. The giving of the money isn’t an act of kindness and generosity; it is an act of desperation, made out of fear and anxiety.  The institutions of justice are weak as protection isn’t sought within an institutional framework but within a network of connections where a patron provides protection. The state officials are selective in enforcement of laws depending on the rank and status of the person they ask for money. If that is an important/influential person, then it is unlikely that a low-ranking state official will even ask for a bribe.

The same principle extends to protect the wives, children, relatives and immediate household of people of power and status. It is not just state officials acting with impunity that is a sign of weak justice system institutions, one also needs to look at the elites and ask whether they can act with impunity. If the answer is the police and the powerful are both immune, but others must comply with the law. Being in that privileged position there no incentive to create a strong criminal justice as that would make the powerful vulnerable. Weak institutions which they control directly or through proxy, can be more easily controlled. The tacit promise of a political system to keep the elites strong and institutions weak delivers: I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine. And all this back scratching will occur behind closed doors. It isn’t enough to say ‘don’t pay the bribe’ as that fails to address the imbalance of the power relationships and the nature of how impunity is distributed in a political/economic/social system.

Corruption shouldn’t be viewed only through the lens of cops taking bribes. It involves tea money for parents to pay to get into a school. Money paid for medical services or for installation of water, sewer, or electricity. Whenever there is a government service to be provided, the question is whether the officials administering the system seek additional payments before authorizing or approving the benefit. If the answer is yes, it likely follows that such the officials inside that organization are not only corrupt, and the institution that employs them is weak and can do nothing to counter the culture of corruption.

Corruption continues to work because we still live in a small data world. In a few years after the methods of surveillance have advanced another technological leap and become prevalent, and unstoppable, then it will be difficult for state authorities to maintain the essential secrecy that is the lifeblood of corruption. The Big Data Political System (BDPS)—the next stage of political evolution—we can expect advanced computerized system to monitor the behavior and conduct of its human agents and actors as well as the rest of us.

Our old more, simple world of free choice is slipping away. Nothing is certain as to our future world will greet us one morning. It may start with a news report: “A large majority of people agree with urgent need for preventive detentions and secret interrogations as a necessary precaution to support our government’s goal to protect all citizens against terrorism and corruption.” It will use nouns and not verbs. Actions will be downgraded, potential acts upgraded.

That morning may be sooner than we imagine. We will kick ourselves for not suspecting that corruption like terrorism while real, were a great cover for an invisible government to scale up its own culture, priorities and institutions.

Systematic monitoring may be sold and bought on the basis it ends corruption. But before you sign on, be careful for what you wish for. You might be trading one old problem for ten new problems. The BDPS coming soon to your country may extract a very high price in terms of liberty and freedom. We may find that we are substituting one culture of impunity for another. And we may long for the days, that we paid Baht 200 to a Thai cop who demanded it even though we committed no traffic infraction.

Posted: 8/22/2013 8:56:38 PM 

 

Fake Lions, No Choice

Zoos in China are cutting costs by a sleight of hand trick. In a Chinese privately run zoo called “People’s Park” in the eastern city of Louhe, the sign on the front of a cage says the animal inside is an African Lion. When Ms. Lui’s six-year son asks her why the “African Lion” barks like a dog, she’s put in a curious position.


Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion

A zookeeper said the real African lion was unavailable being sent away for breeding. So the zoo may have had no choice. The A world without choice is a phony, impoverished world trying to be authentic and rich and failing at both. How do you explain political/economic theory that forces consumers to accept one animal as equivalent to another in order to cut the zoo’s operational costs to a six-year-old child?


African Lion playing himself

Another cage in the same zoo labeled “Snakes” had a couple of rats scurrying around hoping to be mistaken as snakes. The Telegraph went on to report: “There was another dog in the wolf cage, while some foxes were standing in for the leopards.”

It is bad enough for animals to play themselves in captivity for human entertainment. Having to pose as other animals must be confusing and humiliating. It’s sad that the zoo had no choice. But even sadder are people who have no knowledge of choice when they are seized by a negative feeling.

Many novels are like this Chinese zoo. In reading a novel, one of my foremost pleasures is finding an author who examines interior mental processes of the characters. Giving the characters an authentic inner life is difficult. Fiction without great characters will disappear quickly from mind. How does a writer go about capturing the complexity of a character’s mind?

It is as difficult to understand another’s emotional reactions to daily problems—someone cuts in front of you in a queue, insults your intelligence, a taxi refuses to stop for you, you’ve lost your keys, or passport, or can’t remember your passwords. These are examples of banal annoyance that teaches us lessons about ourselves to ourselves. The question is whether a character is open to lessons about his or her feelings. Our feelings expose us to others in powerful ways that leave our ideas far behind. In a memorable novel it is clear the characters also share our frustrations, defeats, our sense of alienation. We want to know if they think about their feelings, and if so how does that change the way they are in the world.

We look for something beyond sharing. For example, we won’t like a character who is a Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion and not admitting to the lie. But if he is lying and we as readers know what factors in his life against which he’s struggling in his quest to continue the deception or overcome it, we’d be very interested to know what has caused that ‘African Lion’ to bark like a dog.

Like the six-year-boy at the Chinese Zoo, we would question the dog-like nature of the lion. We’d turn the pages to find out how others in the story will react to this lie and deal with the situation. Will they share the delusion that the dog is a lion? Are you as the reader supposed to share that delusion? Page after page, we search for how a character life interest has brought him to this juncture. This point. This cage. What transformations did he experience along the way? What conjunction of events led him to crawl into that cage and take the attitude of something he knew was a lie?

I’ve been reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life. The book is part patient case study and part memoir written by a British psychiatrist. Psychiatrists make a living in getting patients to understand what in their past relationships and upbringing caused them to bark like a dog when they are pretending to be a lion. A good novelist does something similar in the creation of memorable characters. The profile of the author’s tea with an old friend in London revealed the process required before a closed mind opened. And it is in the opening of a mind that had been shut off to oneself that hold our interest. The story is a good example of how a character’s self-knowledge is what makes his story memorable, and why I am writing about it here. The books we treasure and return to increase our self-knowledge by learning the techniques others have used to gain self-knowledge.

Dr. Grosz’s friend, a famous radio personality, who suffered from depression and isolation, described himself as negative, always looking for a flaw, a fault, or a reason to criticize another person. Indeed he introduced the author to a new word: captious. The friend defined ‘captious’ to mean someone who noticed and expressed displeasure over trivial issues. Each transaction or event registered as a victory or a defeat. He was talking about himself being not just critical but petty critical. The author asked him if he thought the analysis over a number of years had been helpful. The friend replied that he hadn’t resolved that issue but he was more ‘aware.’

His self-awareness gave him a feeling of choice at the moment he felt annoyed or upset. He could examine the feeling prior to reacting. He could permit himself the right to feel that it was his anger that was making him critical. Projecting the anger onto another as a defect in them, rather than something coming from inside himself. He no longer had to accept that the triggered emotion would automatically take control over his reaction. Instead, he could observe the source of his feeling and ask: where was it coming from? Was the source internal or external or mixed up?

What mattered was the self-knowledge that he had a choice when he experienced negative feelings. Without choice he’d lived without freedom in the truest sense of the word. To be ‘unfree’ is to be without choice. In that world of non-choice, you enter a cycle triggered by criticism because you believe you have no other choice and lapse into guilt for your conduct. He also could reflect on his years of therapy when he thought of about his feelings. And that made him feel less lonely.

Posted: 8/15/2013 8:57:32 PM 

 

 

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