April 26, 2010

The Beautyful Ones Are (still) Not Yet Born

Posted in Literature, Malaysia, Reflections, The Cause at 9:40 pm by egalitaria

When I started this blog more than four years ago (as a young, fresh wide-eyed newcomer into the working world), one of my first posts was titled “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born“. In that particular post, I made reference to the Moorthy case and candlelight vigils, which, I believe, was one of the catalysts in many people’s participation in the vibrant civil society movement of today. But today, I am compelled to write again of this book by Ayi Kwei Armah, which so simply and profoundly describes the nature of a rotting nation – and the decisions that different people choose to make amidst this rottenness.

The book describes the protagonist, named “Man” in an African nation (he is given no other name, most likely to remind us he represents just any one of us citizens), whose country has just been taken over by a new regime, overthrowing an old corrupted government through democratic process. This new regime, however, begins to show signs of adopting the very same culture as did the old one. One of his old buddies, for example, succumbs to the sweetness of a luxurious life complete with huge cars, a posh home and furniture, and modern imports from the Western world. It is obvious the means by which this friend has obtained such wealth. 

On the opposite end, “Man” chugs away at his laborious day job at a railway station, having the opportunity to accept bribes in order to better his livelihood, but makes the most difficult choice of pushing it away. One of the most poignant scenes is when “Man” is scoffed at by his own wife, for he cannot afford to purchase the most basic of necessities of shoes for his children. This is in stark comparison with his friend’s possessions, and at one stage he is forced to weigh the moral costs and benefits of maintaining his “straight as an arrow” stance. Why bother sticking to the moral high ground, when his own children can’t wear shoes? Better to let them wear shoes than to continue resisting temptation, after all, is it not? 

The daily trudgery of “Man” goes on. Until… one day, there are rumours of yet another coup. “Man” hurries home to be with his wife and children. At some point, the rumours become reality, and his friend comes looking for him in desperate fear, as he is being witch-hunted himself. He has lost everything, his wealth, his material possessions, and is being hunted down as he was part of the well-oiled government machinery that was so very much despised, despite having gained its seat through idealist and democratic means. There is an ugly scene in which he is forced to escape through the toilet chute and emerges with faeces upon his body, replete with the most horrible odour. (One can draw parallels to the corrupt politician and all he represents). 

“Man” is eventually vindicated. No richer for his choice made, he walks as a free man. Free from any guilt of having behaved in the same morally corrupt manner as all of his friends in the apparently new democracy. This individual decision, to walk the path most would have otherwise laughed at, is the defining difference. 

The darker side of the story is that (as far as this fictitious African nation was concerned, extendable of course to all countries in the world, including ours) coups are cyclical. The regime change (once, at the beginning of the book and twice, at the end) signified merely the innate nature of humanity to fall into the trap of selfishness and greed. Ayi Kwei Armah was describing his own nation’s downfall, Ghana, and its leader Nkrumah, during its struggle post-independence. 

Perhaps it will take numerous generations before the Beautyful Ones can be born in this country of ours. As it is, too few individual “Men” make that very difficult choice of saying no to any sort of temptation. The pull of money and power is too strong for most. In the January 2010 Economist issue, there was an article describing a Psychological experiment which proved the maxim we all know too well, that power corrupts, and the more you hanger after power the more likely it is you are to be corruptible, whilst the reverse is true. If you do not think you deserve the particular position you are placed in, the less corruptible you are. (The experiment also revealed other interesting things, such as the fact that politicians have a higher moral standard for society, but a lower one for themselves). 

“Man” in this book was one of the rare, beautyful ones who in his simplicity, plodded through life being true and just. Must we remind ourselves of the reasons revolutions are sought after and fought? Is this not what we are slaving away for? 

For, the Beautyful ones are still not yet born.

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September 23, 2008

Things Fall Apart

Posted in Literature at 2:45 pm by egalitaria

Two books I studied for Lit. a long time ago always reemerge in my head. Especially of late when thinking hard about the situation Malaysia is in.

It seems the Man, the protagonist in Ayi Kwei Arma’s book, “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”, would have much in common with any freedom fighter in Malaysia presently. The corruption, the patronage, cronyism. In the end, the Man receives vindication for his resilience and no-nonsense approach to bribery. I wonder which of the nation’s present leaders can compare themselves to such a gleaming touchstone.

Chinua Achebe’s book “Things Fall Apart” paints an appropriate picture of how systems unravel to a point of irretrievable gloom. It ends in terror, with little to redeem. My heart panics at the thought of Malaysia falling in such horrid fashion. Achebe quotes from W.B. Yeats’ poem to prelude his book.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

July 27, 2007

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Posted in Literature, Philosophy at 2:07 am by egalitaria

Pirsig, in his book classic (which I admittedly never got round to reading till now – when I’ve been sick and stuck at home luxuriously with books in my lap that I finally have some time to look through), “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“, philosophises upon Quality.

And increasingly gets his readers curious about this concept.

Quality, little thought of concept – or is it really? How does one determine Quality of any object or subject? Does it really even exist? Market-driven?

If Quality exists inherently, then what are the characteristics attached to it? For example in music, is there a standard for quality, i.e. consistency in tone, harmony, melody, elements that we must look out for? Classically yes, music students would be exposed to the typical theories that determine the Quality of a composition. Likewise in art, people are trained to look out for texture and particular talent explicit within a painting.

But then this assumes Quality lies within the object and the subject is left with nothing. Meaning, there is no need in interpreting the Quality therein. And this makes a mockery of critics of literature, art, music. Plus, I believe in the variation of choice and interest. What the market apparently labels as Top Quality (based on American charts), I may find absolutely rubbish. I may instead prefer independent artistes like Death Cab for Cutie and Damien Rice. So this assumes Quality lies with the subject – the interpreter, the observer, as opposed to the object.

Pirsig debates upon this concept and eventually comes to the conclusion that Quality lies not within object or subject but is the source of both. He says that,

The sum of quality does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not just passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them. They are subordinate to it!

That’s incredible. To me, anyway. It’s a question that I’ve also struggled with, and couldn’t come to any conclusion. I remember entering into an active debate with a friend about this issue sometime last year. Anyway, friend, if you are reading this post, I hope you come to the same conclusion as Pirsig. So Quality lies not in the manifestation but IS the manifestation. It is latent within the object but relies upon the subject to draw out its essence. This is liberating for me. Phew.

July 26, 2007

Sing Song

Posted in Literature, Music, Reflections at 7:49 pm by egalitaria

I’m thinking of presenting a song I wrote, during the Social Justice talk. Not sure if it’s appropriate, but it is about freedoms and the choices people make in life. It is about the imagined freedoms people think they have, but in reality do not experience. Abundance of life is taken away as a result. The freedom to choose, believe, see. Related to justice and the social order. But the philosophy of freedoms is a tricky one.

What really sets someone free? What frees an individual? Does total freedom truly encapsulate a freed life? Living a life that is free and unencumbered? This is related directly to human rights and the freedom of conscience, thought and belief.

Extracts from the song’s lyrics: “free the people so they can be free to be the people who choose to forever be free” – I am using the word free here with multiple-layered meanings. In literature we are given poetic license to play around interpretations, subtleties in language and so on, and all these make for interesting readings.

February 12, 2007

On words

Posted in Literature at 2:38 am by egalitaria

I’ve been indulging myself recently with poetry and prose, and none of them to do with my supposedly intellectual study of theology and public policy (the two subjects I ought to drown myself in). Words stir in the hearts of man and change the world by changing the mind.

Public policy educates,

Philosophy confounds,

Prose stimulates,

Poetry liberates.

October 3, 2006

Animal Farm

Posted in Literature, Malaysia at 5:22 pm by egalitaria

Orwell wrote a long time ago that “all are born equal, but some are more equal than others”. In his book, the pigs took over the animal farm, in an amusing play of characters and dialogue – all pointing towards the failure of communism. Although the tale speaks of the danger of overthrowing the government in seeking a more equal society, themes are still relevant today. In particular, you observe the horrors of a totalitarian regime – one that dictates rules and regulations ‘just because’, and with no further explanation necessary.

In the book, the character ‘Squealer’ is able to convince the animals that it was for their sake that the pigs (the designated leaders) ate most of the apples and drank most of the milk, that leadership was “heavy responsibility” and therefore the animals should be thankful for their leader Napoleon. In essence, being in a position of leadership allows you to do stupid things and at the same time convince the people that you’re really doing it for their sake.

Oh, spare me the laughs!

Now, does this sound all too familiar? Is it for our sakes that a portion of society gets to eat more apples and drink more milk? Hmm, perhaps we will need some logic lessons here if this is the argument put forward. The slice of the pie is never equal. The pigs have managed to convince the rest of us animals in this farm that this is the way it’s going to be for a long time yet, and that is for the GOOD of the people.

No arguing, no talking about it, because it is a sensitive topic. One can not ever argue with Napoleon, or ANY of his little Napoleons. Anyone belonging to the Napoleon/swine family is considered sacred. Any relative – through blood or marriage – can eat more apples and drink more milk.

And so it is in Malaysia. All races are born equal but some are more equal than others.

August 15, 2006

Pilgrim’s Progress

Posted in Literature, Religion at 12:40 am by egalitaria

Perchanced upon a 21st Century version of Pilgrim’s Progress here.

Interesting take on modern day Christianity.

On another note, a website called Muhammad, Prophet of Doom is here.

Some random sites on religion that might be of interest.

July 26, 2006

Brave New World

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Reflections at 12:35 am by egalitaria

Read one of those books I “should have read but never got round to” over the weekend: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Written in 1932, it had an insight too deep for its time. Predicting that humanity would be reduced to merely that of continuous pleasures. In order to maintain a socially stable society, it was necessary to remove all possible barriers to pain and sorrow. This included pregnancy, parenthood, love, monogamy, individual opinion, personal feelings.

And in its place you had an order all too perfect and complete: the breeding of babies in test tubes, altered according to the purposes for which they would eventually serve: the Alphas, Epsilons and Betas and so on. Each class of infants would be socially conditioned into believing this was the caste for them – there was no way out.

And if ever there was the feeling of restlessness or being disturbed at anything in this Order, you would pop a pill of soma in, or a number of them, depending on how long you would like to escape into another world. Soma relieves you from depression, pain and suffering on this earth – instead transports you into a paradise, an ethereal world inside your head.

How far are we from this, really, 74 years after Huxley had that brilliant idea? Let’s think about it. You have a pill-popping nation. Think Prozac Nation. Think all sorts of medication that allow one to transcend the painful, real world – which eventually can kill, if not your body, your mind, your heart.

Social conditioning. What really has society been socially conditioned to believe? That certain things are necessary in order to keep society in its comfortable place and position? That anything out of the ordinary will ruffle feathers, step on the growling lion’s toes so an implosion is bound to take place?

And then of course you have the Savage, named so because of his believed and presumed position – uncivilised. But oh how much more civilised this creature is! Because of his knowledge of Shakespeare and how this means the world. The question of what reality is arises. Where from do we draw inspiration? The perfect squeaky clean sterile environment? What is a perfect society? Is it really necessary to impose regulations such that all and all alike behave the same way, subscribe to the same teachings?  (Huxley goes the extent, proving that the most ridiculous of beliefs can be imposed upon us – something to think about.)

In the end, the book (like Orwell’s 1984) provokes questions that are applicable in both the political and spiritual realm. Politically, what level of control is leveraged upon a nation and citizens to achieve social stability but giving up individuality? Spiritually, what sort of happiness is false happiness? If it is imagined and imposed, does it become genuine? Is perceived happiness truly happiness? Personally, I choose pain and gore. Give me the fight, the furious battles of suffering and blood. Also give me emotion, happiness, elation, frustration, love, truth and freedom. O Brave New World is not so brave and not so new after all…

May 29, 2006

Howard Bloom

Posted in Literature, Philosophy at 7:37 pm by egalitaria

Heard of this guy? Said to be the next Stephen Hawking, or so his website here says.. 

(of course they would)

But check it out. If I read correctly from the reviews, he combines spirituality, philosophy, science, anthropology, history and psychology into explaining humanity. Very strange combinations, and even stranger titles: The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History, and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. 

May 21, 2006

Browning the Bible I

Posted in Literature, Religion, Theology at 4:58 pm by egalitaria

I've written on this briefly before, but again as the movie comes into town with a big bang and wallakazzam I'll summarise a little of what was spoken about today during a "Da Vinci Code I" session. The book and movie are merely new entrants into a growing market for controversies, including the recent discovery and report on the Gospel of Judas. 

The claim made by Dan Brown in his book is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were secretly married and had a child. This is based upon the Gospel of Philip. In this post I will just focus on the basis of this claim and why it is arguably false.

What these gospels have in common, along with others Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas, is that they are known as Gnostic Gospels. What are the characteristics of Gnostic books?

  • They are contained within the Nag Hammadi texts, discovered in Egypt in 1945.
  • The earliest Gnostic gospel, Gospel of Thomas, was written in the early 2nd Century.
  • They are not historical biographies, as opposed to the four books in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Instead, their contents are skewed towards philosophical explanations.
  • They were written by Gnostics, a small group of Jews who believed that only the elite has secret knowledge that has access to Jesus. (They are called so because of the root word gnosis, which means knowledge) – Gnostics also believe that the body is inherently evil, and were largely anti-feminist.

Based on point two, if the Gnostic gospels were written in the 2nd Century, this means that they were using pseudonyms. It was someone else who wrote and used the names Philip, Thomas, Judas. 

Hence, nobody disputes that these gospels DID EXIST. In fact, Dan Brown's answer is ONLY to this extent. He says that "Documents, rituals, organisation, artwork, and architecture in the novel all exist." The existence of a document makes no solid evidence that its contents are accurate. Follow me further.

What we have is a diametrically opposed claim of Jesus' life: The Four Canonical Gospels (in the Bible) vs. the Gnostic Gospels.

  1. The CGs were written in the 1st Century, a mere couple of decades after the death of Jesus. The GGs were written roughly 150 years after the death of Jesus. Historians note that the closer the document is written to its actual date of occurence, the more reliable it is. Based upon the date of writing, the CGs clearly have a higher authenticity level.
  2. The CGs were written by the actual apostles or close friends of Jesus. These were people who were eyewitnesses to the actual life of Jesus. All of them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John satisfied this. The GGs were written under pseudonyms. Do we know who wrote them? The Gnostics. And why write them? Because they had a particular message to communicate across, which they would not otherwise have been successful in doing without using famous names of Jesus' disciples themselves.

Consider this timeline as a visual aid: 

  • AD50: Paul's letters
  • AD60: Mark's Gospel
  • AD62 – 68: Matthew and Luke's Gospel
  • AD90: John's Gospel
  • AD130: The 4 Gospels and Paul's letters recognised as authoritative sources.
  • Late 2nd Century: (AD250+) Gnostic Gospels

How was the New Testament Canon formed, then? And what about the Council of Nicea? And the divinity of Jesus that was seemingly fixed by Constantine the emperor? Wait for II.

Here, if one were to make an objective cross comparison between the Canonical Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels, it would be a non-brainer to state that the former carries a lot more weight than the latter. And if Dan Brown uses the claims made in the Gnostic Gospels to fill in the entire storyline of his book, he stands on rather shaky ground. 

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