Thursday, May 19, 2005

Chess with Jorge Luis Borges

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote prolifically across the realms of fiction, poetry, philosophy, and literary criticism (and some of his work, such as the piece on Shakespeare cited below, is so complex and teasing that it is not easy to tell which genre it belongs to). Borges can sometimes be difficult and puzzling - he read vastly across the literature of different cultures, and his work is full of allusions and references to these works - but he also has a great gift for compressed, powerful expression, evoking an entire world of thought or feeling in a few beguiling lines of verse or a two-page short story (perhaps this is why he never felt the need to write a novel).

Consider the gorgeous adjectives with which he breathes life into chess pieces in this, the second part of his poem "Chess", and then the way in which the thought of the poem begins to slowly uncoil after the scene has been set by the relatively conventional opening stanza:


Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
Straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn -
Over the checkered black and white terrain
They seek out and begin their armed campaign.

They do not know it is the player’s hand
That dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
Controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(The words are Omar’s) on another ground
Where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the players, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
Of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

It might be interesting to compare the idea of God in the last lines of this poem with that found in the passage from the Rig Veda I quoted in my previous post. The hymn from the Rig Veda speaks of the almighty, but instead of ascribing absolute omniscience to him it ends with the phrase 'only he knows - or perhaps he does not know'. Borges, moving from a different direction, suggests that both chess pieces and men are not aware that a higher power is controlling them, and leads step by step to the searching question 'what god beyond God'? And to this question one could legitimately give the answer: 'Only he knows - or perhaps he does not know'.

Chess makes a fleeting appearance once again in this beautiful Borges poem, "The Just", which moves, like a butterfly taking wing from flower to flower (or like God musing one morning about those things about human beings that please him the most), over those affairs of men that Borges considers most broad-spirited, large-hearted, true to the spirit in which life must be lived (and hence 'just').

A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a cafe in the South,
a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well
though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets
of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.

(translated by Alastair Reid)

Borges's life contained a great tragedy: passionately fond of reading like most writers, he found in middle age that a congenital eye defect that ran in his father's side of the family was beginning to take his toll on his eyesight, and by his fifties he was almost completely blind. In 1955, the year he was appointed to the directorship of the National Library of Argentina, he noted God's splendid irony "in granting me at once 800,000 books and darkness." But he kept his twinkling wit going well into old age. In this interview from 1971 with the New York Times writer Israel Shenker, Borges begins to talk about death and finishes with the observation: "Sometimes I think, 'Why on earth should I die, since I have never done it? Why should I start a new habit at my age?'"

More poems by Borges can be found here and here. His marvellous three-paragraph story about the life of Shakespeare, "Everything and Nothing", (the story begins "There was no one in him...") can be found here. And in this piece, also featuring Borges's poem among other things, the writer Steven Poole asks what is it that draws so many artists to chess.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Rig Veda's deep questions

Which man or woman has not felt at some point in life, perhaps when contemplating the night sky full of stars or thinking about loved ones now dead, something of the the wonder and the puzzlement expressed in this passage, some three and a half thousand years old, from the Rig Veda:

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen - perhaps it has formed itself, or perhaps it did not - the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows - or perhaps he does not know.

What is most fascinating about this passage (often referred to as 'the creation hymn') is the extent to which it takes its skepticism. First there is the thought, found in many ancient texts, that although mankind cannot fathom the mystery of creation, 'the one who looks down on it' surely must. But how can we know this? A settled picture of 'the highest heaven' rapidly dissolves, to be replaced by one of a creator himself in doubt - struggling like man to grasp the meaning of existence: 'Who really knows? Whence is this creation?'

This version of the creation hymn is from a translation of the Rig Veda by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, who writes in her introduction of how the hymns are meant 'to puzzle, to surprise, to trouble the mind'. A selection of hymns from the Rig Veda can be found here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul

People who have travelled comparatively little but read quite a lot (and there is an essay waiting to be written on why, for some, readerly journeys are preferable to real ones) often derive their conception of the world's great cities from novels. Their image of London is from Dickens, they think of Naguib Mahfouz whenever they hear the mention of Cairo, and Chicago for them is the same Chicago that can be found in Saul Bellow's novels. In much the same way, when I think of Istanbul I picture it as it appears in the novels of Orhan Pamuk, one of the leading novelists of our time.

Pamuk's novel My Name is Red, a luminous tale about a group of sixteenth-century Ottoman miniaturists and calligraphers whose conception of art is a religious one and who feel disturbed and threatened by the emerging Western school of portraiture, is a modern classic, containing hundreds of sentences so beautiful and evocative as to move, in Bellow's phrase to describe the effect of great books, 'wonder in the soul'. Also, each chapter of the novel is entrusted to a different narrator, so that the book itself becomes, like a fine Ottoman carpet, a weave of many perspectives, each adding to the effect of the other. Early in the novel a murder takes place, but we do not know who the murderer is. However, the culprit appears every once in a while to narrate a chapter from his point of view, all the while refusing to divulge his identity. In this passage below - note that it is only one long, winding sentence - the murderer follows Black, an artist who is competing with him for a woman's affections, around the city one night:

We were two men in love with the same woman; he was in front of me and completely unaware of my presence as we walked through the turning and twisting streets of Istanbul, climbing and descending, we traveled like brethren through deserted streets given over to battling packs of stray dogs, passed burnt ruins where jinns loitered, mosque courtyards where angels reclined on domes to sleep, beside cypress trees murmuring to the souls of the dead, beyond the edges of snow-covered cemeteries crowded with ghosts, just out of sight of brigands strangling their victims, passed endless shops, stables, dervish houses, candle works, leather works and stone walls; and as we made ground, I felt I wasn't following him at all, but rather, that I was imitating him.

What is wonderful about this sentence is the way it gives us a sense not only of an external world - that of various Istanbul scenes at night - but also at the same time through an internal world, that of the murderer. We note his fevered and extravagant imagination, which senses hidden presences in the most deserted places; we feel his intense vexation at his realisation (which the sentence delivers up in its final clause) that he is merely mimicking his antagonist, tailing the man he wishes to dominate and defeat. In a way, this sentence is a story all by itself.

Pamuk's most recent book is a work of non-fiction called Istanbul, in which he makes the case that the city of his birth is the most melancholy (the word for this in Turkish is 'hüzün') of all: "For the poet, hüzün is the smoky window between him and the world." An excerpt from Istanbul can be found here. The first chapter of My Name is Red is available here, and an interview with Pamuk on the subject of the novel here.

And speaking of journeys that involve staying at home instead of travelling, here's Alain de Botton's introduction to Xavier de Maistre's eighteenth-century classic Journey Around My Bedroom, recently reissued by the Hesperus Press.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Clay Sanskrit Library

Every culture has a story of how poetry came into being. In this month's New Criterion, Eric Ormsby writes of a one such story of origins found in the Ramayana:

Valmíki, a sage, is wandering in the forest when he sees “an inseparable pair of sweet-voiced krauñcha birds wandering about.” Just then a Nishada hunter, “filled with malice and intent on mischief,” fatally wounds the male of the pair. While the stricken bird writhes on the forest floor, his mate utters “a piteous cry” and the sage is filled with compassion. As he listens to the grieving bird, the sage says, “Since, Nishada, you killed one of this pair of krauñchas, distracted atthe height of passion, you shall not live for very long.” As he meditates on his own words, Valmíki realizes their true nature: “Fixed in metrical quarters, each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments, the utterance that I produced in this access of shoka, grief, shall be called shloka, poetry, and nothing else.” Thus was the Ramáyana, and indeed, poetry itself, created.

The occasion of Ormsby's long essay on Sanskrit literature is an ambitious new publishing venture, the Clay Sanskrit Library, which plans to bring out about a hundred English translations of Sanskrit classics over the next five years. Among the first batch of titles, released in February 2005, are three of the first four books of the Ramayana, Kalidasa's Shakuntala, and Much Ado About Religion, a satirical play by the ninth-century author Jayanta Bhatta.

I'd better get talking with some of my bookseller contacts about when these titles will be available in India.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The role of human nature in public policy

Don Herzog writes in the blog, Left2Right:
Today's quiz has just one question. All you have to do is fill in the blank and explain what "unnatural" means. Notice that your account of "unnatural" has to justify the crucial closing clause, "and therefore wrong." I'm happy to make it an open-book quiz, because you'll all fail anyway. Ready? Here goes.

_____________ is unnatural and therefore wrong.

I hasten to note that I am not any kind of skeptic about moral or political argument. My conviction that there is no sound way to fill in the blank here is a targeted skepticism. We have to get along without any appeals to what's natural or unnatural, I think, because those appeals are strictly speaking nonsensical.

That is right, of course. To derive an ought from an is, a moral prescription from a natural description, you’d be committing the naturalistic fallacy, and you’d end up with a non sequitur. So no matter how you fill in that blank, the sentence simply wouldn’t make sense. Herzog points to “gay marriage” and “anal sex” and “abortion” as examples of terms that are filled into that blank and presented as arguments by conservatives.

However, Herzog builds a straw man later in the post when he says:
Worse yet, with confusions piled on confusions, is trying to make just-so stories about evolutionary biology ground moral arguments. We're free to reject the morality of rape or promiscuity even if we think it would pay off in gene pool frequencies.

No evolutionary psychologist that I know of has tried to ground moral arguments in human nature, and Steven Pinker, in fact, constantly warns against drawing such conclusions. And of course we’re “free to reject the morality of rape or promiscuity”; whoever said otherwise?

While human nature should certainly not be the basis of morality, should it play a part in public policy? I believe it should. Instead of Herzog’s test statement, consider the following sentence:
_____________ is unnatural and therefore impractical.

Can the blank here be filled in for the sentence to make sense? I think so. One example: “communal sharing of property”.

Any political system that requires us to behave in a manner contrary to human nature is likely to fail. For example, EO Wilson once said of communism: “great idea, wrong species”. He thought it would have worked for ants, who are wired differently.

Capitalism, on the other hand, is the perfect system for humans because it mirrors the manner of our evolution perfectly. John Maynard Keynes once said of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species that it was “simply Ricardian economics couched in scientific language”, while Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels that it was “remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his own English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’, and the Malthusian struggle for existence.” Stephen Jay Gould described natural selection as “essentially Adam Smith's economics read into nature.” (These three quotes are from Matt Ridley's fine book, The Origins of Virtue.)

Thus, if public policy is to work, it must take into account human nature and recognise our limits. But that should not become an excuse for justifying immoral acts, such as, to use Herzog's example, rape. As Herzog writes, morality must be determined independent of human nature. Only then should we think of what is practical.

[Link via email from Sanjeev.]

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The art of Joseph Mitchell

Yesterday, over at India Uncut, Amit and I made some remarks about a report in the Telegraph of Kolkata, and I made a brief reference to how journalism can sometimes aspire to the qualities of literature. In my opinion an example of such journalism is the work of the late New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996), whose essays on the life of New York city, now collected in several books, shimmer with intelligence, grace, curiosity, and a close observation and a flair for detail that could be said to be novelistic.

Mitchell came to New York at the age of 21 in 1929, spent a few years working as a reporter for a number of newspapers, and then joined the New Yorker, itself one of the city’s great institutions, towards the end of the next decade. He wrote scores of pieces about the city for the magazine, but it is only late in his life that his best work has been republished in book form, and his posthumous reputation has been deservedly on the rise.

Mitchell took many years to perfect his style, but what resulted from his labours was something authentic and mightily impressive. Consider the perfect opening sentence of one of his most unusual essays, 'The Rats on the Waterfront' (1944), and the details that then trip off one by one:

In New York City, as in all great seaports, rats abound. One is occasionally in their presence without being aware of it. In the whole city relatively few blocks are entirely free of them. They have diminished greatly in the last twenty-five years, but there are still millions here; some authorities believe that in the five boroughs there is a rat for every human being.

And a little later:

As a rule, New York rats are nocturnal. They rove in the streets in many neighbourhoods, but only after the sun has set. They steal along as quietly as spooks in the shadows close to the building line, or in the gutters, peering this way and that, sniffing, quivering, conscious every moment of all that is
going on around them. They are least cautious in the two or three hours before dawn, and they are encounted most often by milkmen, night watchmen, scrubwomen, policemen, and other people who are regularly abroad in those hours. The average person rarely sees one. When he does, it is a disquieting experience. […] Veteran exterminators say that even they are unable to be calm around rats. "I've been in this business thirty-one years and I must have seen fifty thousand rats, but I've never got accustomed to the look of them," one elderly exterminator said recently. "Every time I see one my heart sinks and my belly flutters." In alcoholic wards the rat is the animal that most frequently appears in the visual hallucinations of patients with delirium tremens. In these wards, in fact, the D.T.'s are often referred to as "seeing the rat."

This is work that leaves the mind teeming with possibilities. Could a long contemplative essay on these lines, full of details that require journalistic legwork but also speaking in a rich personal voice rather than the generic tone of most reportage, be done on the subject of the stray dogs of Mumbai city? Could one be done on the ice-cream sellers who stand all day in the sun, ubiquitous and unnoticed, on every nook and corner of our cities - what the volume of the trade is, what kinds of flavours are most popular, how demand goes up and down across seasons, and so on. Could one be done on the auto-rickshaw drivers of Delhi and their attitudes towards meters, containing the opinions, whether candid or defensive, of drivers themselves, of government sources, law enforcement agencies, and men who tweak meters for a living?

Here are some samples of Mitchell's work: chapter one of his book My Ears Are Bent, in which he describes his early years as a beat reporter, and some excerpts from two essays about skyscraper-building and the oyster trade.

And in this essay Russell Baker offers an assessment of Mitchell's achievement, arguing - and here again we see a reference to the porous boundaries of journalism and literature - that "through the middle third of the twentieth century he had created a tapestry of New York lives comparable to Charles Dickens's astonishing assortment of Victorian Londoners. To be sure, Dickens's most memorable people were fictional while Mitchell's had all actually lived and breathed, but just as Dickens's fictional Londoners seem more real than life, Mitchell's real New Yorkers seem born to live in novels."

Two Indian journalists whose essays I like very much are the late Behram Contractor ("Busybee"), whose pieces on Bombay's restaurants are classics of food writing and are full of his distinctive presence, and Sankarshan Thakur, who writes splendid essays on politics and politicians for the weekly Tehelka.