Giacometti created sculptures of the walking man, as towering as they are thin—the walking man standing tall and confident, hurried in his stride, too busy to pause at the mirror to see his own emptiness and insubstantial being, just one passing evening wind. So too Gao Xingjian painted silhouettes of vague, isolated wanderers placed in a ghostly, intangible, shifting, empty landscape, pieces whose brushstrokes breathe fading life yet whose poignant weight carries the same tone as Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL in which Man can only dance around but never evade Death, only Gao Xingjian’s figures are nameless, faceless, unknowable, themselves forgettable and forgotten. These are our parents, children, friends, and every soul that is presently inhaling air who will in no time at all meet the same end as those who have long returned to ash and soil. This is us, and the private, individual anguish can for just a moment be soothed by recalling that prior generations have already crossed the finish line, and we are merely continuing along at our own sweet pace. March forth like the soldiers in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy THE HUMAN CONDITION, whose marching line evokes Bergman’s ending dance, because we are all in line for the same twilight finale. All we can do is greet it and dash it the faint human smile.
stumbling onto a fishing pier, black night surround
San Diego after tourists retreat
one fisher’s neon green bait sitting in the abyss
a quiet sea breeze, sudden flush of peace
2021-06-29, 二. On Authenticity In Art, Politics, and Taxes.
David Foster Wallace mentioned a few interesting ideas when he said:
Let me insert one thing, which I'll bet you've noticed from talking to writers, is that most of the stuff we think we're writing about in books is very difficult to talk about straight out, you know, question-and-answer, and in some sense it probably can't be talked about directly, and that's why people make up stories about it.
The idea of being a citizen would be to understand your country's history and the things about it that are good and not so good and how the system works, and taking the trouble to learn about candidates running for office . . . When people don't do that, here's what happens. The candidates win who have the most money to buy television advertisements because television advertisements are all most voters know about the candidates. Therefore, we get candidates who are beholden to large donors and become, in some ways, corrupt, which disgusts the voters and makes the voters even less interested in politics, less willing to do the work of citizenship . . . Talking about this now, I feel ashamed, because my saying all this sounds like an older person saying this like a person lecturing, which in American culture sets me up to be ridiculed. It would be very easy to make fun of what I'm saying, and I can hear in my head a voice making fun of this stuff as I'm saying it. And this is the kind of paradox, I think, of what it is to be a halfway intelligent American right now and probably also a Western European. There are things we know are right and good and would be better for us to do, but constantly it's like, 'Yeah, but it's so much funnier and nicer to go do something else, and who cares? It's all bullshit anyway.' . . . The paradox is that sort of tension and complication and conflict in people also make them very easy to market to, because I can say to you, 'Feeling uneasy? Life feels empty? Here's something you can buy or something you can go do.'
There's probably more demand for serious books in Europe, but here there's a small pocket of probably, I don't know, half a million, say a million readers, many of whom are from the upper classes and have good educations and have been taught the pleasures of hard work in reading or music or art and like that. I mean, when you're talking to me, you're talking to someone who doesn't have very much power in the culture and who's not very important except in a fairly small—I don't know what the analogue would be. It would be something like contemporary classical music in the U.S., which there are people who enjoy it and listen to it, partly because of training and partly because they are disposed to be willing to do a certain amount more work reading it. But compared to popular music and rock and roll and hip-hop and stuff, classical music is nothing, economically or commercially or in terms of how many people have heard of it or how much an influence it has on the culture . . . I think in the U.S., people who have been doing serious stuff, which is harder and stranger, have always played to a much smaller audience . . . Reading requires sitting alone in a quiet room, and I have friends, intelligent friends, who don't like to read—it's not just bored—there's an almost dread that comes up here about having to be alone and having to be quiet. And you see that when you walk into most public spaces in America, it isn't quiet anymore. They pipe music through, and the music is easy to make fun of because it's usually really horrible music, but it seems significant that we don't want things to be quiet ever anymore. And to me, I don't know if I can defend it, but that seems to me to have something to do with, when you feel like the purpose of your life is to gratify yourself and get things for yourself and go all the time, there's this other part of you that's almost hungry for silence and quiet and thinking really hard about the same thing for half an hour instead of thirty seconds, that doesn't get fed at all . . . I think it's true that here in the U.S. every year the culture gets more and more hostile. It becomes more and more difficult to ask people to read, or to look at a piece of art for an hour, or to listen to a piece of music that's complicated and that takes work to understand.
In the United States, there is another divison, between corporate publishers and non-profit publishers, who are often very small and do a lot of poetry and avant-garde fiction. If you are 'lucky' enough to be published by a corporate publisher, you get more exposure, you get reviewed in the New York Times instead of just in your local paper, you get translated into other languages, but literary stuff loses money for corporate publishers almost all the time, and one of the ways they try to keep from losing money is marketing the stuff—having the author go around and talk and read—the thing they most like to do is send you to a bookstore and you give a reading . . . and that generates free advertising for the book.
Sally Rooney’s take on it:
Writers turn up to events full of people from a particular class, with a particular educational background, and essentially the writer sells them the product which is cultured existence in the form of a commodity, and the commodity is a book. And people can purchase this book and therefore purchase their way into a seemingly cultured class. And all the money that changes hands in the book industry is actually just people paying to belong to a class of people who read books.
David Foster Wallace goes on:
When there's a question-and-answer at the end of a reading, the question is easy to answer if it's dull or stupid. The good questions are the questions that can't be answered in a Q-and-A format. They're ones you have to sit down with a pot of tea or a pot of coffee. They are things that can only be answered in conversation between two people, and so I always feel vaguely fraudulent . . . It makes me nervous and self-conscious to try to talk about stuff that I find almost impossible to talk about, or else to just go, 'So how long are you in town?'—'Oh, three days.' . . . The whole going around and reading in bookstores thing, it's turning writers into penny-ante or cheap versions of celebrities. People aren't usually coming out to hear you read. They're coming to see what you look like and see whether your voice matches the voice that's in their head when they read, and it's all—none of it is important.
If you do work like this, you pay certain prices. You don't make as much money, not as many people read your stuff, but the people who are reading it and are interested in it—the thing I like about doing this kind of stuff is that I'm pretty sure my readers are about as smart as I am. I think if you're someone like Crichton or someone who's a Harvard M.D. but you're writing for a mass audience, things get very strange. I don't worry that people who are reading my stuff are misunderstanding it or banalizing it . . . This is something else about being an American. When I hear 'existential' now, half of me rolls my eyes—'Oh, what a big sexy philosophical term.' And it becomes hard to speak seriously about it because all I can hear is being made fun of how serious and boring and dull I'm being.
I know that there's a paradox in the U.S. of, the people who get powerful jobs tend to go to really good schools, and often in school you study the liberal arts, which is philosophy, classical stuff, languages, and it's all very much about the nobility of the human spirit and broadening the mind. And then from that, you go to a specialized school to learn how to sue people or to figure out how to write copy that will make people buy a certain kind of SUV . . . I'm not sure really that it's ever been all that different. There are things about my job that I don't like, but this is one of them I do like, is that I get to use everything I've ever learned or think about . . . I know that there is, at least in America, an entire class of—and now I'm talking about a very specific class here—I'm talking about upper and upper-middle class kids whose parents could afford to send them to very good schools where they got very good educations, who are often working in jobs that are financially rewarding but don't have anything to do with they got taught was important and worthwhile in school.
What it seems like here is that, television and corporate entertainment, because it's so expensive, in order to make money it has to appeal to a very wide audience. Which means it has to find things that a lot of people have in common. What most of us have in common here are our very most base, uninteresting, selfish, stupid interests—physical attractiveness, sex, a certain kind of easy humor, vivid spectacle. That's stuff I will immediately look at, and so will you. So it's in our very most base and childish interests that make us a mass. The things that make us interesting and unique and human, those interests tend to be wildly different between different people.
David Foster Wallace said this in 2003. Not much has changed, and nor will it, but indeed he suspected correctly that things have never really been all that different. In 1880, Dostoyevsky wrote in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV:
Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, [people] distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horses, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it . . . I ask you: is such a man free? . . . And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one's habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumerable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.
I’ll now switch to politics. This first paragraph is directed not at sensible, well-meaning Republicans but those who follow and agree with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Republicans, scream election fraud all you want; two can play that game. Populists, if you are so wary of intellectuals, to science, to thinking and evidence, do you go to the dentist when you have a toothache? To the hospital when you have cancer? Trusting intellectuals is not socialism. Physical distancing and wearing masks during a global pandemic caused by an airborne virus is not socialism. Raising taxes on the rich is not socialism. The personal income tax, corporate tax, and estate tax are not socialism. If you think higher taxes for the rich also means higher taxes for struggling farmers, you’ve been duped by people who sell their agenda by calling it your individual liberty when they buy their islands, hide in their bunkers at the outset of a pandemic, and, when Earth is not enough, race each other to fly to space. How disgraceful have you become not only as a political party but as people when you refuse to investigate an attack on your own Capitol? If liberal-run cities are indeed rampant with violence and there is no law or order, why do the educated still live there and continue generating the highest economic output? Consider for a moment the possibility that those you revile as intellectuals spend considerable time thinking about problems you yourself do not, and sometimes facing truth requires putting aside blind national pride. How is it possible with all the knowledge and advancements of modernity we have in America a movement steeped in anti-intellectualism? Let me get to the point. Religious fundamentalists teach distrust towards intellectuals to silence alternative worldviews in an increasingly secular society where they are losing power as their followers, becoming self-sufficient, break away. And what happens when anti-intellectualism is taken to the extreme? History offers a few data points. In 1915, Ottomans, fearing Armenian independence, began their genocide first with the intellectuals to remove leadership. In the 1960s Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in China in which for a full decade academics, scientists, professors, and any intellectual ranging from those employed in the institutions down to recent college graduates, all associated with the bourgeois, were implicated and were marched in public in humiliation, beaten, killed, or sent to work on farms, and schools and universities were closed, sending scholarship and literacy down a monumental backslide in a country that had for many centuries prized education, all to consolidate power for himself in the name of glorifying the people, whose descendants now are more drawn to material excess than the humility of the long time prior. We in American have not yet descended so low, but when the people elect someone who withdraws from the WHO, seriously considers pulling out of NATO, promises to revive the coal industry, and repeatedly disregards the recommendations of scientists during a global pandemic, do we suppose we are heading in the right direction? In antiquity, Plato advocated for a philosopher king, and through all the progress we’ve made since then we’ve come to be threatened by duplicitous capitalists appealing to irrational fear and incompetence. After the Capitol rioters succeeded in seizing the building, looting and destroying, they meandered about, having ridden the tide of hysteria and rage to find themselves without any idea what to do next, pawns to someone afraid of losing power.
I’ll now talk reasonably. This section talks about taxes and also, because this topic relates to wealth, politics. Full disclosure: I’m not an economist or a tax lawyer, nor do I believe I’m going to change anyone’s views on this. The question of whether the rich are already being taxed enough seems nearly as difficult as the question of whether a God or gods exist. You already have an answer you believe in, and what you see will either confirm your position or raise your suspicion at its correctness. For those who like me are not experts in tax research and who are interested in my side, which calls for equitable redistribution of resources, the notable researchers are these French economists: Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman. Raj Chetty also does promising and very interesting work on the country’s inequality and unequal access to opportunity. But case in point on the difficulty of the tax question: in 2011 Saez, with Nobel laureate Peter Diamond, calculated that the optimal tax rate for the highest income bracket in the U.S. is 73%. Currently, it is 37%. The principle behind this high rate is optimal tax theory, which aims to maximize everyone’s well-being without inhibiting innovation. For comparison, AOC’s proposed tax rate is 70% on—this is key—only income higher than $10 million. A great majority of American families do not reach that threshold. Then, a paper like this points out the logistical impracticalities of raising taxes. And this from Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, modifies two parameters in the model. The author writes of the original paper, “They argued that, if the Pareto parameter is 1.5 and the ETI is 0.25, then ‘τ* = 1/(1 + 1.5 × 0.25) = 73 percent’. If that formula is accepted uncritically, then the conclusion follows from the premises. But neither the formula itself, nor the two parameters (Pareto and elasticity) need be accepted uncritically. If this was a recipe for baking a cake, it might be prudent to question both the recipe and the ingredients.” The author also writes, “with empirically credible changes in parameters, the Diamond‐Saez formula can more easily be used to show that top U.S. federal, state, and local tax rates are already too high rather than too low.” However, the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank supports the high rate, writing, “The policy implications of this research are that increasing top marginal tax rates can raise substantial sums of revenue and potentially dampen the rise of income inequality without unduly restraining economic growth.” I think this kind of disagreement is ridiculous. For comparison, even though machine learning research has a lot of bloat and myriad models, parameters, and modifications to explore, at the end of the day there is consensus on a model’s performance because researchers don’t question the evaluation metrics. But when it comes to taxes, because money is involved, where a right-leaning think tank says the rich are already paying their fair share, a left-leaning one has data suggesting they don’t. Opposing these facts are also these. And what does the public think? One poll shows 62% of Americans say that it bothers them a lot that some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share, and that views on the country’s tax system is increasingly colored by political affiliation.
I think the interesting question isn’t: Are the rich paying their fair share of income taxes? but rather: Why is inequality still rising when the rich are already paying so much? By “so much”, I mean the fact that in 2018 the top 1%, according to the two conservatives’ links at the end of the paragraph above, the numbers also corroborated by another Tax Foundation article, earned 21% of all income but paid 40% of federal income taxes, and the top 10% earned 48% of the income but paid 71% of the taxes. Before I go further, I think it’s important to put these numbers in perspective. Using a flat rate for simplicity, taxing 20% on someone making $100,000 does not have the same effect on the standard of living as 20% on someone making $10,000,000, which would produce a much larger share of the taxes between the two. I think the answer to this question: Do the rich pay their fair share of income taxes? is: yes. But this is not the right question because income is only part of the picture. You might wonder how inequality is still rising if the wealthy pay their fair share of income taxes. Conservatives are hesitant to talk about the other variable: existing wealth. The real equation of annual net worth growth is:
net worth growth = income + wealth growth - debt growth
income = salay, wages, interest, dividends, etc. wealth growth = stock appreciation, real estate appreciation, etc.
Among the rich, wealth growth dominates. I’m going to focus on wealth growth from stocks which, in our current system, favors those who already own them, and those with more shares benefit disproportionately from rising values and begin to own more and more, i.e. the game is rigged. Piketty wrote a more complete discussion on this kind of growing inequality in CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. Piketty traced the history of wealth and inequality and observed that when investment growth alone outpaces the rest of the economy, the inevitable end is rising inequality. His recommended solution is a progressive wealth tax, which is what I also believe in. It is crucial to keep in mind that the wealth tax is separate from the income tax most people are familiar with. The wealth tax is imposed on already acquired wealth which for the rich is the main instrument for wealth growth, a method that is out of reach of most Americans. The U.S. has never had a wealth tax, and it is not hard to imagine who might go to extraordinary lengths to prevent one and why they might call it unconstitutional.
In 2019, the Federal Reserve released a paper describing the rising wealth inequality:
At the highest level, the [Distributed Financial Accounts] show significant wealth concentration and a clear increase in wealth concentration since 1989 . . . In 2018, the top 10% of U.S. households controlled 70 percent of total household wealth, up from 60 percent in 1989. The share of the top 1% of the wealth distribution increased from 23 percent to nearly 32 percent from 1989 to 2018. The increase in the wealth share of the top 10% came at the expense of households in the 50th to 90th percentiles of the wealth distribution, whose share decreased from 36 percent to 29 percent over this period. the bottom 50% of the wealth distribution experienced virtually no increase in their nominal net worth over the last 30 years, resulting in a fall in total wealth share from 4 percent in 1989 to just 1 percent in 2018. The rise in wealth concentration stems primarily from increased concentration of assets, with trends for assets largely mimicking those for overall wealth. The share of assets held by the top 10% of the wealth distribution rose from 55 percent to 64 percent since 1989, with asset shares increasing the most for the top 1% of households. These increases were mirrored by decreases for households in the 50-90th percentiles of the wealth distribution. we observe that the share of real estate held by the top 10% of the wealth distribution has increased by 5 percentage points from 39 percent to 44 percent, suggesting that increases in wealthy households' share of real estate holdings have contributed to the increase in concentration. Corporate and noncorporate business equity have been large drivers of wealth concentration. The distribution of these assets has long been skewed: in 1989, the richest 10% of households held 80 percent of corporate equity and 78 percent of equity in noncorporate business. Since 1989, the top 10%'s share of corporate equity has increased, on net, from 80 percent to 87 percent, and their share of noncorporate business equity has increased, on net, from 78 percent to 86 percent. Furthermore, most of these increases in business equity holdings have been realized by the top 1%, whose corporate equity shares increased from 39 percent to 50 percent and noncorporate equity shares increased from 42 percent to 53 percent since 1989.
The paper contains charts of the data, but it’s easier to go to an interactive version for the stock dataset from the Federal Reserve’s database. We see that stocks are predominantly owned by the wealthy, and their share has grown in the last 30 years. The share among the top 10% in Q1 1991 was 79.7% and rose in Q1 2021 to 88.7%. We also see that since at least as far back as 1989, the bottom 50% have never owned more than 1.6% and in 2021 owned 0.6%, which is next to nothing. Another dataset shows the net worth distribution, and the same pattern emerges. The share among the top 10% in Q1 1991 was 60.3% and rose in Q1 2021 to 69.8%. The bottom 50% never owned more than 4.1% since 1989 and in 2021 owned a mere 2%. The Pew Research Center also has data showing the growing wealth inequality. When we also account for wealth, the question “Do the rich pay their fair share?” takes on a different meaning. The income tax numbers that conservatives toss about are only skirting around the issue. That the top 10% earned 48% of one year’s income but paid 71% of the year’s taxes no longer puts the burden on the poor when we see that the bottom 50% have almost nothing to tax. According to the Tax Policy Center, the portion of income from salaries and wages also diverges by income class. For households with an adjusted gross income less than $500,000, most (71%-81%) of the income came from salaries and wages—from working. For households whose AGI is at least $10 million, that portion shrinks to 17%. The majority of their income likely comes from bond interest and dividends—from their wealth by either investing or owning shares of their own company. Inequality also plays out in college admissions. An article from the Times visualizes data from a study co-authored by Raj Chetty and Saez, finding that:
[a]t 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League . . . more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent. Roughly one in four of the richest students attend an elite college – universities that typically cluster toward the top of annual rankings. In contrast, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college; less than half attend any college at all.
It is important to distinguish between groups within the top 1%, which has its own massive internal inequalities. The Chicago Booth Review has an article that differentiates the average income in 2015 between four segments in the top 1%, and even in this echelon, the wealthier acquire wealth faster; each step from one group to its next higher group is a jump on an exponential curve, from $485 thousand to $901 thousand to $2.9 million to $18.9 million. The richest group, the 0.01%, are the 1 percenters of the 1 percent. Inequality.org gives a more concrete look at the wealthy, splitting the top 10% into five groups and gave a brief descriptive profile of each one. One investment manager suggests that there is a large divide between the bottom and top halves of the top 1%. In 2011 he emailed Bill Domhoff at WHO RULES AMERICA? the trouble he saw in the economy’s inequality, particularly as caused by the top 0.5%. He remained anonymous to protect his identity since his clients are primarily the ones he is criticizing, as they “largely fall into the top 1%, have a net worth of $5,000,000 or above, and — if working — make over $300,000 per year.” He writes of the lower half:
The 99th to 99.5th percentiles largely include physicians, attorneys, upper middle management, and small business people who have done well . . . The net worth for those in the lower half of the top 1% is usually achieved after decades of education, hard work, saving and investing as a professional or small business person. While an after-tax income of $175k to $250k and net worth in the $1.2M to $1.8M range may seem like a lot of money to most Americans, it doesn't really buy freedom from financial worry or access to the true corridors of power and money. That doesn't become frequent until we reach the top 0.1% . . . Our poor lower half of the top 1% lives well but has some financial worries. Since the majority of those in this group actually earned their money from professions and smaller businesses, they generally don't participate in the benefits big money enjoys. Those in the 99th to 99.5th percentile lack access to power . . . Unlike those in the lower half of the top 1%, those in the top half and, particularly, top 0.1%, can often borrow for almost nothing, keep profits and production overseas, hold personal assets in tax havens, ride out down markets and economies, and influence legislation in the U.S. They have access to the very best in accounting firms, tax and other attorneys, numerous consultants, private wealth managers, a network of other wealthy and powerful friends, lucrative business opportunities, and many other benefits. Most of those in the bottom half of the top 1% lack power and global flexibility and are essentially well-compensated workhorses for the top 0.5%, just like the bottom 99%. In my view, the American dream of striking it rich is merely a well-marketed fantasy that keeps the bottom 99.5% hoping for better and prevents social and political instability. The odds of getting into that top 0.5% are very slim and the door is kept firmly shut by those within it.
The investment manager then describes the upper half:
Membership in this elite group is likely to come from being involved in some aspect of the financial services or banking industry, real estate development involved with those industries, or government contracting. Some hard working and clever physicians and attorneys can acquire as much as $15M-$20M before retirement but they are rare. Those in the top 0.5% have incomes over $500k if working and a net worth over $1.8M if retired. The higher we go up into the top 0.5% the more likely it is that their wealth is in some way tied to the investment industry and borrowed money than from personally selling goods or services or labor as do most in the bottom 99.5%. They are much more likely to have built their net worth from stock options and capital gains in stocks and real estate and private business sales, not from income which is taxed at a much higher rate. These opportunities are largely unavailable to the bottom 99.5% . . . The picture is clear; entry into the top 0.5% and, particularly, the top 0.1% is usually the result of some association with the financial industry and its creations. I find it questionable as to whether the majority in this group actually adds value or simply diverts value from the US economy and business into its pockets and the pockets of the uber-wealthy who hire them. They are, of course, doing nothing illegal . . . A highly complex set of laws and exemptions from laws and taxes has been put in place by those in the uppermost reaches of the U.S. financial system. It allows them to protect and increase their wealth and significantly affect the U.S. political and legislative processes. They have real power and real wealth. Ordinary citizens in the bottom 99.9% are largely not aware of these systems, do not understand how they work, are unlikely to participate in them, and have little likelihood of entering the top 0.5%, much less the top 0.1%. Moreover, those at the very top have no incentive whatsoever for revealing or changing the rules. I am not optimistic.
In a 2014 addendum, the investment manager wrote:
One might think that physicians, America's highest-paid professional group, would be largely exempt from the economic currents affecting most other Americans. This isn't so. Medscape, a key physician website, reports that as of 2013, mean income for male physicians in all specialties was $259k; for female physicians, it was $199k. Family practice doctors and internists earned the least, averaging around $175k. Orthopedic surgeons earned the most, averaging around $405k; they are the only physician specialty falling within the top 1% by income . . . If our hypothetical physician saves and invests for 35 years, he will have contributed less than $2 million dollars to retirement plans . . . Thus, an average physician — while doing very well by most people's standards — is unlikely to earn or accumulate enough to place him or her in the top 1% by income or net worth at the end of their career. Opportunity for most Americans, even physicians, is decreasing, even while net worth and income accelerate for those at the very top of the system. If an average physician today is unlikely to make it into the top 1% (Piketty and Saez's end-of-2012 data show that the 1% income line is crossed with an income of $396k per year), then it seems pretty clear that crossing that line via income, savings, and investments will be impossible for nearly every American in the future.
He wrote also about someone who put up with finance enough to retire early, and her account of investment banking reminded me of academia, only the currency there is not money, and there’s not so much as damage to anything as a large part of it will not see the light of day and has no other purpose than publication:
Recently, I spoke with a younger client who retired from a major investment bank in her early thirties, net worth around $8M. Since I knew she held a critical view of investment banking, I asked if her colleagues talked about or understood how much damage was created in the broader economy from their activities. Her answer was that no one talks about it in public but almost all understood and were unbelievably cynical, hoping to exit the system when they became rich enough.
What does net worth growth look like for those in the highest echelon? Let’s look at Stephen Schwarzman’s in 2020. I have nothing personal against Schwarzman; he has a history of philanthropy, and he’s signed The Giving Pledge. I’m just using his wealth as an example. According to Reuters, Schwarzman received $86.4 million in compensation and $524.1 million in dividends from his Blackstone shares, for a total income of at least $610.5 million. What about his wealth growth, considering solely his earnings from Blackstone? According to the same link, he owns 19.3% of Blackstone, which had 682.91 million shares outstanding in 2/2020, so he owned 131.8 million shares. Using stock price data from Yahoo Finance:
Share Price, 2/2020 Share Price, 12/2020 Price Change Wealth Growth $53.84 $64.81 $10.97 $1.4B
Forbes shows his net worth in 4/2020 was $15.4 billion and rose to $19.1 billion in 9/2020, so he has more earnings than from Blackstone alone. Because the government does not tax wealth, it is only when Schwarzman sells his shares that his earnings get taxed. If Schwarzman holds on to his shares for at least a year, which he already has, he avoids paying the higher rates of the ordinary tax brackets and gets charged lower rates. But what happens if Schwarzman doesn’t sell his stocks? From a recent ProPublica report:
The notion of dying as a tax benefit seems paradoxical. Normally when someone sells an asset, even a minute before they die, they owe 20% capital gains tax. But at death, that changes. Any capital gains till that moment are not taxed. This allows the ultrarich and their heirs to avoid paying billions in taxes. The 'step-up in basis' is widely recognized by experts across the political spectrum as a flaw in the code.
Dividends from stocks, however, do count as taxable income, but investors can avoid that burden by choosing companies that reinvest in themselves rather than pay dividends; Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway does not pay dividends. If the rich avoid receiving income, how do they pay for their large purchases? I’ve not yet mentioned the third variable in the net worth growth equation: debt. It turns out that if you’re ultrawealthy, you can borrow money to avoid taxes. According to the same ProPublica report:
For regular people, borrowing money is often something done out of necessity, say for a car or a home. But for the ultrawealthy, it can be a way to access billions without producing income, and thus, income tax. The tax math provides a clear incentive for this. If you own a company and take a huge salary, you’ll pay 37% in income tax on the bulk of it. Sell stock and you’ll pay 20% in capital gains tax — and lose some control over your company. But take out a loan, and these days you’ll pay a single-digit interest rate and no tax; since loans must be paid back, the IRS doesn’t consider them income. Banks typically require collateral, but the wealthy have plenty of that.
Abigail Disney, an heiress of the Disney family, is among the exceptions in America’s aristocrats in that she has a conscience to admit the failings of the system. She writes in The Atlantic a response to the ProPublica report:
Nowhere does ProPublica assert that these men cheated, lied, or did anything felonious to lower their tax burdens. The naked fact of the matter is that not a single one of the documented methods and practices that allowed these billionaires to so radically minimize their tax obligations was illegal. What's worse, these methods and practices—things such as offsetting income with losses in unrelated businesses; structuring assets to grow rather than generate income, then borrowing against those growing assets for cash needs; and deducting interest payments and state taxes from taxable income—are so downright mundane and commonly applied that most rich people don't see them as unethical. The more interesting question is not how the men in ProPublica's report were able to avoid paying much or anything in federal income taxes, but why. What motivates people with so much money to try to withhold every last bit of it from the public's reach? . . . Having money—a lot of money—is very, very nice. It's damn hard to resist the seductions of what money buys you. I've never been much of a materialist, but I have wallowed in the less concrete privileges that come with a trust fund, such as time, control, security, attention, power, and choice. The fact is, this is pretty standard software that comes with the hardware of a human body. As time has passed, I have realized that the dynamics of wealth are similar to the dynamics of addiction. The more you have, the more you need. Whereas once a single beer was enough to achieve a feeling of calm, now you find that you can’t stop at six. Likewise, if you move up from coach to business to first class, you won’t want to go back to coach. And once you’ve flown private, wild horses will never drag you through a public airport terminal again. Comforts, once gained, become necessities. And if enough of those comforts become necessities, you eventually peel yourself away from any kind of common feeling with the rest of humanity. The older I’ve gotten and the more clearly I’ve understood these things, the more the impulse to betray my own class has taken charge of my judgment. What’s shocking about the ProPublica report is not just that the tax bills are so low, but that these billionaires can live with themselves.
Abigail Disney also references David Foster Wallace’s THIS IS WATER commencement speech in 2005 at Kenyon College, during which members of the audience laughed out loud at certain points from the habit of watching too many sitcoms without realizing the brutal reality of what was being said, provoking a rage like watching an arthouse film amidst a jovial audience that has no idea what’s being shown on screen, and then realizing not everyone comes from your background, sighing in resignation, and recalling that we are all nothing: “All I know is that if you are a fish, it is hard to describe water, much less to ask if water is necessary, ethical, and structured the way it ought to be.”
To an average American family earning $70,000 a year, an additional $10,000 makes a sizable impact. To someone in this stratosphere, an additional million or two makes no meaningful difference. In the end, there are two choices for the ultrawealthy: 1) signing The Giving Pledge to give to charity most of the fortunes made in their lifetimes by their own accomplishment, which Schwarzman and Buffett have done, and 2) starting a new capitalist dynasty like these families whose heirs know it is best to stay away from the limelight, instead protecting their wealth by calling for lower taxes and lobbying in various forms, such as repealing the estate tax, calling it the death tax to scare the common American to whom the tax would never apply.
The wealth tax isn’t a new idea; it’s already been proposed in politics. Bernie Sanders proposes a wealth tax that would:
only apply to net worth of over $32 million and anyone who has a net worth of less than $32 million, would not see their taxes go up at all under this plan. This tax on extreme wealth would have a progressive rate structure that would only apply to the wealthiest 180,000 households in America who are in the top 0.1 percent. It would start with a 1 percent tax on net worth above $32 million for a married couple. That means a married couple with $32.5 million would pay a wealth tax of just $5,000. The tax rate would increase to 2 percent on net worth from $50 to $250 million, 3 percent from $250 to $500 million, 4 percent from $500 million to $1 billion, 5 percent from $1 to $2.5 billion, 6 percent from $2.5 to $5 billion, 7 percent from $5 to $10 billion, and 8 percent on wealth over $10 billion. These brackets are halved for singles. Under this plan, the wealth of billionaires would be cut in half over 15 years which would substantially break up the concentration of wealth and power of this small privileged class.
This last sentence, of course, would not make the referenced class happy. Elizabeth Warren’s more lenient version of the wealth tax raises the minimum threshold at which the tax starts and has lower rates: “Zero additional tax on any household with a net worth of less than $50 million (99.9% of American households).” The tax for the wealthy is: “2% annual tax on household net worth between $50 million and $1 billion”, and for billionaires: “4% annual Billionaire Surtax (6% tax overall) on household net worth above $1 billion”. Furthermore, research suggests that more equitable distribution of economic growth leads to more opportunity for all. Raj Chetty found that:
rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s. Increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates alone cannot restore absolute mobility to the rates experienced by children born in the 1940s. However, distributing current GDP growth more equally across income groups as in the 1940 birth cohort would reverse more than 70% of the decline in mobility. These results imply that reviving the 'American dream' of high rates of absolute mobility would require economic growth that is shared more broadly across the income distribution.
We have data that confirm that taxes successfully redistribute income and reduce inequality. Our World in Data visualized income distributions before and after taxes, as they currently stand, for multiple countries and found that “inequality is not only reduced by redistribution between individuals at a given point in time, but also by achieving redistribution over the course of life.” OWID also has an interactive visualization comparing inequality between the U.S. and several European countries. The U.S. notably has the highest inequality, and lowest inequality is in the group of Scandinavian countries which have higher taxes to support a broader system of government services.
I should mention explicitly that I do not support socialism. It didn’t work out well for the countries that ran that experiment, but unbridled capitalism leads to growing inequality and does not yield equal opportunity for all. Inequality is presumed and necessary in capitalism, but what is the right level of inequality? One paper proposed that the fairest inequality is a lognormal distribution. The paper hasn’t generated much interest, and I suspect this is a hard problem, not to mention the politics involved, so this question is not one I’m going to explore.
I don’t think the main driver of the economy relates solely to taxation, but a classic Republican claim is that lower taxes jumpstarts the economy. I’m not convinced. If an old-school Republican points to Reagan’s economic success by lowering taxes, I’ll point out that Clinton did better in terms of GDP and job growth with higher taxes on the wealthy. The Federal Reserve has job growth data since 1939 in absolute terms. Clinton did lower taxes for businesses, but it was for small businesses, not the wealthy. It certainly wasn’t a trickle-down utopia. And Mike Pence recently wrote:
Under the Trump-Pence administration, we proved that low taxes are the key to creating prosperity for Americans of every background and income group. In 2017, we passed the historic Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which delivered more than $3.2 trillion in tax relief to American families and businesses. Within months, our economy took off like a rocket. America gained more than 7 million new jobs, unemployment plummeted to the lowest rate in 50 years, and more than 10 million people were lifted off of welfare—the largest reduction in poverty in modern history.
Actually, they didn’t prove anything. The two job growth links above put Pence’s claims in context. In addition, we can compare Trump’s numbers and Obama’s. FactCheck.org summarized the numbers at the end of Obama’s term: “The economy gained a net 11.6 million jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to below the historical norm.” The numbers Pence mentions were not caused by Trump’s TCJA. The unemployment rate data show that by the time Trump took office, unemployment was already in decline, a trend Obama started when he became president in 2009 immediately after the recession. If Trump improved on Obama’s performance, we would see a steep drop in unemployment starting in 2017, but we don’t. Again, Trump’s TCJA didn’t prove anything. What about Biden’s tax proposal? Lately there’s been a lot of intimidating news about it, with some calling it outright socialism. I will not give them more coverage by linking to them, but Biden’s tax hike is not socialism. According to the Tax Foundation’s Biden tax tracker, Biden’s tax hike to fund his infrastructure plan would “raise the top marginal income tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent”. How does this compare to the historic rates? The Tax Policy Center has tabulated the top marginal rate from 1913 to 2020. Biden’s new rate of 39.6% is the same as Clinton’s when he was in office between 1993 and 2001. What Biden is proposing is not socialism. For a complete listing of the tax bracket history, the Tax Foundation has a document that shows all the rates between 1913 and 2013. Furthermore, no one called the taxes socialism in the 1950s when the top marginal rate was 91%. To be fair, this high rate should be construed with a grain of salt because in fact the effective tax rate for the rich was not much higher than it is these days. One analysis shows that “between 1950 and 1959, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid an average of 42.0 percent of their income in federal, state, and local taxes. Since then, the average effective tax rate of the top 1 percent has declined slightly overall. In 2014, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid an average tax rate of 36.4 percent.” This was perhaps because few households fell into the top bracket or simply due to tax evasion. However, my point is that even the 91% rate of the 1950s was not rampantly labeled socialism the way Biden’s proposal currently is. It’s not socialism. The Tax Policy Center has also analyzed Biden’s tax increases: “Nearly all of President Biden’s proposed tax increases would be borne by the highest income 1 percent of households—those making about $800,000 or more . . . At the same time, Biden would cut taxes for many low- and moderate-income households and reduce them substantially for those with children.” All the scare about impending doom sounds to me like the wealthy don’t want to pay more taxes to help relieve the country’s inequality.
The idea of fixing economic inequality is only a start. This is the solution that’s obvious in light of the data, and it’s what progressives push for, yet policy changes, redistributing wealth, and improving opportunities are not adequate solutions when we assume we understand the working class without actually seeing their perspective and troubles. If you are reading this, you in all likelihood are not in this class. David Shipler’s THE WORKING POOR: INVISIBLE IN AMERICA offers a profile:
The man who washes cars does not own one. The clerk who files cancelled checks at the bank has $2.02 in her account. The woman who copyedits medical textbooks has not been to a dentist in a decade. This is the forgotten America. At the bottom of its working world, millions live in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being. Whether you're rich, poor, or middle-class, you encounter them every day . . . Those with luck or talent step onto career ladders toward better and better positions at higher and higher pay. Many more, however, are stuck at such low wages that their living standards are unchanged. They still cannot save, cannot get decent health care, cannot move to better neighborhoods, and cannot send their children to schools that offer a promise for a successful future. These are the forgotten Americans, who are noticed and counted as they leave welfare, but who disappear from the nation's radar as they struggle in their working lives. Breaking away and moving a comfortable distance from poverty seems to require a perfect lineup of favorable conditions. A set of skills, a good starting wage, and a job with the likelihood of promotion are prerequisites. But so are clarity of purpose, courageous self-esteem, a lack of substantial debt, the freedom from illness or addiction, a functional family, a network of upstanding friends, and the right help from private or governmental agencies. Any gap in that array is an entry point for trouble, because being poor means being unprotected. You might as well try playing quarterback with no helmet, no padding, no training, and no experience, behind a line of hundred-pound weaklings. With no cushion of money, no training in the ways of the wider world, and too little defense against the threats and temptations of decaying communities, a poor man or woman gets sacked again and again—buffeted and bruised and defeated. When an exception breaks this cycle of failure, it is called the fulfillment of the American Dream . . . The working individuals in this book are neither helpless nor omnipotent, but stand on various points along the spectrum between the polar opposites of personal and societal responsibility. Each person's life is the mixed product of bad choices and bad fortune, of roads not taken and roads cut off by the accident of birth or circumstance. It is difficult to find someone whose poverty is not somehow related to his or her unwise behavior—to drop out of school, to have a baby out of wedlock, to do drugs, to be chronically late to work. And it is difficult to find behavior that is not somehow related to the inherited conditions of being poorly parented, poorly educated, poorly housed in neighborhoods from which no distant horizon of possiblity can been seen . . . For practically every family, then, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause. A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child's asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother's punctuality at work, which limits her promotion and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing. If she or any other impoverished working parent added up all her individual problems, the whole would be equal to more than the sum of its parts.
Shipler wrote this in 2004 after spending time with people living in poverty. The people he wrote about were demographically representative, across gender and race. A more recent book provides the view specifically into the white working class who support Trump, and policies would not help them without knowing their problem, that their stresses cause them to dissociate from participation, that, for many, they cannot see it in themselves to improve. J.D. Vance writes of Appalachia’s despair in HILLBILLY ELEGY:
This isn't some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it's becoming more and more mainstream. We can't trust the evening news. We can't trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can't get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. When groups perceive that it's in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It's obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it's hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the 'Obama economy' and how it had affected his life. I don't doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he's made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day. Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. I have watched some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall victim to the worst of Middletown's temptations—premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you're a loser; it's the government's fault.
This feeling extends to the broader white working class. Arlie Russell Hochschild called this feeling STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND:
You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line . . . You've suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American Dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are—a badge of honor . . . Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You're following the rules. They aren't. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches . . . Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don't control or agree with . . . But it's people like you who have made this country great. You feel uneasy. It has to be said: the line cutters irritate you . . . You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored . . .[Y]ou are slipping backward.
It is this is feeling that found a voice in Trump in whom belated identification has become hope, in whom anger has been given an authorized outlet. What’s a possible solution? I’m not qualified to offer one.
But strangers—Shipler also wrote a book about them, though through a racial lens: A COUNTRY OF STRANGERS: BLACKS AND WHITES IN AMERICA. It was published when I was 4, and I can still remember clearly the night of December 3, 1997 when my celestial glory, newspaper and coffee in hand, sat down in front of the TV, eagerly waiting for him to appear on C-SPAN. Clinton, then president, was holding a town hall to discuss race, and a recording is now available online. The snippet I’m talking about is between 28:09 and 44:13, and this link defaults to its start. Shipler said:
I feel that we're in a different phase of race relations in this country than we used to be, and in some ways it's a more complicated phase. Bigotry, for the most part, is not as blatant and obvious and outrageous as it used to be. A lot of it has gone underground. It takes subtler forms, encrypted forms. Prejudice is a shapeshifter. It's very agile in taking forms that seem acceptable on the surface . . . I think for us as white Americans to understand some of this, we have to reflect on some of the differences in experiences we've had as opposed to those that Blacks and other minorities have had . . . I think in a dialogue of this kind, the key is to listen, not just to talk . . . I'm hoping that if we listen to each other, we can begin to diminish the size of that chasm and perhaps even make this society of ours into less and less of a country of strangers.
Clinton added, “I don’t think there is any legal policy answer to this. I think this is something we’ve really got to work our way through.” Beverly Daniel Tatum was present too and said, “There’s a lot of silence about these issues, and I think breaking this silence is something many people are afraid of doing. And as you pointed out we can’t really fix this problem or continue the improvement until we’re able to engage in honest dialogue about that.” On the opposing side, Abigail Thernstrom, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, spoke about how far we’ve come since the 1960s and how integrated the country had become. I think she meant well, but I think when you pick certain data points, you can paint a better picture than how things are, and relying on surveys for issues like race reveals less about outcomes and behaviors than the prevailing fashionable attitudes of the time. When it’s hot out, it won’t help to check the weather channel if your house is burning. Show me your data, and I can show you segregation on a map based on the 2010 Census, research that finds “differences in parental marital status, education, and wealth explain little of the black-white income gap conditional on parent income”, and a study that:
measured implicit and explicit attitudes about race using the Race Attitude Implicit Association Test (IAT) for a large sample of test takers (N = 404,277), including a sub-sample of medical doctors (MDs) (n = 2,535). Medical doctors, like the entire sample, showed an implicit preference for White Americans relative to Black Americans. We examined these effects among White, African American, Hispanic, and Asian MDs and by physician gender. Strength of implicit bias exceeded self-report among all test takers except African American MDs.
I can agree that by 1997 there had been progress compared to the 1960s, according to the data that Thernstrom mentioned, but the message she’s conveying is that much progress had already been made, which begs the question, “Why are people still worked up about this?”, which leads to a dangerous complacence. But an important thing to recognize is how in 1997 we can sit down and talk about these things, disagreement or not. Two decades later, how far have we come as a country? Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic the importance of openness to ideas, starting with a class I was vividly alive to be physically in:
Back in the 1980s, comparative-literature majors at my university had to take a required course in literary theory. This course—Lit 130, if memory serves—offered prospective scholars a series of frames and theories that could be applied to the reading of books . . . We suffered through a lot of turgid academic writing, but the class had its uses. I learned, among other things, that one can read the same text from multiple points of view and therefore see different themes in it. When a Marxist reads Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, he might become interested in the way in which wealth, power, and the determination to have both shapes the lives of all of the characters. When a feminist reads the same book, she might discover that patriarchal attitudes toward women, who are judged and valued for their marriageability, shape the lives of the characters too. The Freudians, as you might surmise, would notice a whole different set of motifs . . . In his congressional testimony last week, General Mark Milley endorsed the underlying philosophy of Lit 130, which also happens to be the underlying philosophy of a liberal education: Read widely; listen to everybody; make your own judgment about what's important. Here is how he put it: 'I do think it's important actually for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read.' The phrase widely read means that you can and should read things you disagree with. You can definitely read Marx without becoming a Marxist. You can read critical race theory without becoming a 'critical race theorist,' however you define that . . . You can also read American history in this same spirit, the way you would read a great piece of literature, seeking to understand the complexities and the nuances, the dark and the light, the good and the bad. You can be inspired by the Declaration of Independence, horrified by the expulsions of Native Americans, amazed by the energy of immigrants and frontier settlers. You can understand that the United States is a great and unique country whose values are worth defending—and realize simultaneously that this same country has made terrible mistakes and carried out horrific crimes. Is it so difficult to hold all of these disparate ideas in your head at the same time?
Applebaum then critiques those on both extremes, the rabid critical race theorists who can’t tolerate dissidents and the far right that refuses to deign even a nod to critical race theory:
Soldiers should know, Milley declared, that African Americans were counted as less than fully human until 'we had a civil war and Emancipation Proclamation to change it.' It took 'another 100 years,' he noted, to get to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. All of that should sound completely uncontroversial. It's just a recitation of facts about American history, things that most people learn in elementary school. But to Fox News's Tucker Carlson, the mere suggestion that you should seek to understand your own society, including its flaws, makes you a 'pig' and 'stupid.' Laura Ingraham, another Fox News host, called for defunding the military in response to Milley's statements, on the grounds that 'he's chosen to indulge the radical whims of Democrats.' The Carlsons, Ingrahams, and other culture warriors who now dominate the world of conservative infotainment seem now to believe that the study of American history—the knowledge of what actually happened on the territory that lies between the two shining seas—should be forbidden. The Republican-controlled state legislatures and school boards that are currently seeking to ban the teaching of 'critical race theory' have this same intention . . . But there is another kind of person who might dislike Milley's attitude. Critical race theory is not the same thing as Marxism, but some of its more facile popularizers share with Marxists the deep conviction that their way of seeing the world is the only way worth seeing the world. Moreover, some have encouraged people to behave as if this were the only way of seeing the world. The structural racism that they have identified is real, just as the class divisions once identified by the Marxists were real. But racism is not everywhere, in every institution, or in every person's heart at all times. More to the point, any analysis of American history or American society that sees only structural racism will misunderstand the country, and badly. It will not be able to explain why the U.S. did in fact have an Emancipation Proclamation, a Civil Rights Act, a Black president. This is a major stumbling block, not so much for the legal scholars (some of whom actually merit the title 'critical race theorist') but rather for the popularizers and the scholars-turned-activists who want to force everybody to recite the same mantras.
Listen to both sides! What a great idea that seems to come from common sense! But those who know too well how people are will immediately lapse into disappointment. Did Nietzsche not write HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN?
And what is the racialized experience like? Step back to 1992, when I, then -1 years old, frolicking in the ether and couldn’t wait to materialize, about thirty years before George Floyd’s murder drew national attention, Jane Elliott ran her brown eye/blue eye experiment, which reverses the direction of discrimination, on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The video is half an hour long. If you are white and are too uncomfortable to watch it to the end, how do you suppose you can understand the many for whom this experience is America’s reality that the country has decided not to see? For people of color, they would find in Jane the voice of grievance that working class whites have found in Trump. Indeed, the experience of watching this video breaks through the simple, naive, token emotions of one-dimensional happiness and joy of popular, commercialized entertainment and touches briefly something of the heights of literature, which is that humor and rage, truth and tragedy, mania and sanity, life and its passing, are all one and the same.
When working class whites have been positioned at the front line to combat others who have been historically oppressed, when neither group owns any significant share of the country’s wealth, is it not then obvious who is fanning the flames? I don’t think some mastermind is orchestrating some conspiracy, but that those who live in everyday insecurity, when aggravated, fall into a competition to get ahead of each other, and those who are more privileged stand guard over their own possessions as they watch the chaos unfold, laying out a narrative that even touching a fraction of the millions or billions in their portfolios which they do not use stifles progress and innovation or pushes the country towards socialism, when they clutch their purses and think, “What business is it of mine to step in?”
Even with Trump out of office, views on him have largely remained unchanged among Democrats and Republicans, and what we will have in coming elections is more of the same contention, polarization, and distrust across parties because the underlying issues of inequality remain, susceptible to dirty marketing tactics by unscrupulous politicans more interested in their lining their pockets than running a government. The trend, however, is that younger generations are more liberal according to this and this, more open to changing traditions, and the Congress that entered office this year is already more diverse in race, gender, and religion. A projection indicates that by 2039, Gen Z and Millenials will consist of nearly 70% self-identifying Democrats. Given these trends, it may not be too off the mark to claim: if the country manages to not descend into civil war, then politics in the next decades, whoever the next Trumpist demagogue is in 2024 and thereafter, will resemble the stock market, waves of short-term volatility as distractions to the inevitable trajectory towards progress when the younger generations, more open, more tolerant, more willing to fix problems and move forward, constitute growing shares of the electorate.
Yet progress of this kind poses another problem to a healthy democracy when it turns into a one-party monopoly. The victory at the top also comes with the isolation of not having a sparring partner of equal standing. What will become of the Republican Party? How will conservative populism evolve to confront the problems of modernity when it can no longer appeal to a declining constituency invigorated by toxic bravado, narrow-minded calls to a past era that is not returning, smokescreening actual issues by yelling, “Look at those evil people changing things!”, instead of constructive solutions. How will the new platform of the Republican party mitigate the dawn of a glamorous new serfdom at Apple Park, Zuckerberg Park, and Bezos Park with equitable job growth, balance the tax rate of less than 4% among the 25 richest Americans and a certain politician who has a history of avoiding taxes with HILLBILLY ELEGY, THE WORKING POOR, and HARVEST OF SHAME, while also addressing climate change instead of thinking it a hoax? How much is ExxonMobil paying you?
And what will happen to the Democratic Party once its principal opponent fades into something of the past? Will its coalition that put itself together, each group advancing its own interests by absorbing its neighbors’, held into one by intolerable, toxic fumes coming out of the other side’s pulpit, break into foolish fragments as predictable as human nature, white women prioritizing white women, Blacks voting for Blacks, Asians for Asians, Hispanics for Hispanics, and white men, caught between race and gender, choose race and side with white women? The results from last week’s NYC Democratic mayoral primary suggest just this kind of racial delineation. Putting the candidates’ proposed policies aside, a neighborhood’s voter preference strongly resembles its racial composition. The Times released an interactive district-level map of how the city voted, which can be compared with a map of the city’s racial distribution. Manhattan’s core, predominantly white, voted for Kathryn Garcia. The Asian neighborhoods, and oddly also the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, voted for Andrew Yang. And Harlem, the Bronx, and large swaths of Queens and Brooklyn, in the Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, voted for Eric Adams or Maya Wiley. I don’t think these results are a coincidence, and if this is a precursor to what will happen to the Democratic Party, then perhaps all one can do is shrug in disappointment. If you say race is not a problem and you are white, let me know again when I point out that the minorities of today will soon no longer be minorities and that Christianity, even considered as the sum of its denominations, may very well not be the predominant religion for much longer. This is the inconvenient problem of race, not as discriminatory racism which also needs to be addressed, but as the country’s identity shift. Perhaps fortunately, this is a problem of time, and the free solution is the passing of the decades, when the younger generations have already been slowly acclimating to the changing face of America which in a gradual shift will not seem out of the ordinary, like eyes seeing their reflection every morning but don’t notice the wrinkles accumulating on the face. If you say race is not a problem and you are not white, consider what will happen when white Hispanics start voting like whites, Blacks push for expanding affirmative action, Asians insist on maintaining policing. What will become of race then? Time will tell, but perhaps it’ll only be a problem when people remain walled up in self-interested isolation, but why not be spurred by the idea of trying something new? Why not? How many in the American heartland still conceive of New York as just the one in the past as sung by Sinatra without also realizing there’s also the modern ones by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys?
Back to the present. I’ll end this section on politics with comments of how each party feels about the other. It reads like a dysfunctional relationship. Their words, not mine, but the Republican views I disagree with are the ones that have no easy compromise and ones I’m not particularly interested in addressing because they existed even before the current hysterical polarization, distrust, cancel culture, and utter lack of communication between parties, and which are not the cause of the country’s intolerance towards the other side but which only seem exacerbated because of growing economic imbalance, when one side is naively scapegoating in a rapidly changing demographic and the other stings with unaddressed racial and gender inequalities. These issues are: abortion, gun rights, implementing religion values in the law, the extent of the government’s power and responsibility, and whether the Constitution should be adapted to the modern country and not remain catered to the one two hundred years ago. I’ll also take the liberty to add that two hundred years ago was when people weren’t able to buy assault rifles, when slavery was legal and the original text proclaimed, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”—until one century later when an amendment repealed such nonsense.
Twenty years ago, the Korean singer Lee Jung-hyun introduced techo music to her country’s music industry. In Lee Jung-hyun’s song WA, the brief spans of Eastern instrumentation evoke the sudden recollection of a culture’s past millenium before descending into spasmodic flailing that violently inverts it, and then she starts singing into a microphone attached to her pinkie. The performance is not as outlandish as Klaus Nomi but brings to mind the absurd humor of LADY SNOWBLOOD, an absolutely ridiculous cult classic whose eponymous lady, in her quest for vengeance, repeatedly fells squadrons of armed men who back away from her every step, just one woman in a kimono walking forward, who also sings her own theme song. The performance’s aesthetic has no meaning in the West, especially not in contemporary American pop music, where excess is the norm, and flamboyant, ostentatious, garish images are merely run-of-the-mill, and something far more provocative is never far away, an unfortunate state of the industry in which little is left to the imagination or contemplation and in which the outrageous can be met with perfunctory, unfazed nonchalance. It does, however, stand out in the East, in a conservative culture that mandates conformity and convention, in which anomaly does not have general appeal without official sanction. Contrast Lee Jung-hyun’s song with the typical sulker, this one in Cantonese, which is too prim, too proper, the colossal weight of the East’s ancient civilization bearing down on any born under its early-rising sun, too sweet and cute and tame and sanitized, utterly without an independent voice that contributes something to society that the culture would not otherwise have had. Or saccharine excess taken over the top, losing most of its reserve and inhibition in this Korean one that has the misfortune of being in a replaceable band in a music industry that’s productionized its pop star supply chain and learned to profit from the fickle, the vogue, and the trendy passing fads in modern consumerism, but perhaps I shouldn’t be complaining if it boosts Asian representation and alters the Pavlovian conditioning away from old stereotypes in mass culture, even if it becomes a continuous stream of robotic, soulless Candy Crush. Every band has its heyday, but I suppose we each have for us our own terminal time and place whose only mystery is as difficult as filling in two variables. I’m not privy to the details of Lee Jung-hyun’s work but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who envisioned the concept, convinced the producers on its viability, wrote the lyrics, choreographed the dance, and went onto the stage doing her thing, all 5’2” of her.
Needless to say, this sort of thing is possible only in the imprudent craze of youth, and Lee Jung-hyun was 19 when she came up with the song; now in her 40s, she has settled into staid comfort, having already done what she needed to do. Why is it that our best moments are gone in a flash? Our collective fate is expressed in the melancholic resignation of an Ozu or the inescapable transience of a Naruse, and we can merely hold on to snapshots of a specific space and its people in a bygone memory, flipping through a photo album to find our identity: the rugged American individual in the Wild West in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and its landscape in Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS, Patrick Modiano’s persistent and haunting German-occupied France, the intellectual sphere and Jewish paranoia in Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN. Or one from among the evolution of Jia Zhangke who has taken it upon himself and cinema to chart the experience of China’s decades post-reform via his characters and, through them, the zeitgeist of an entire generation hurtled, with all its angst, longings, and emptiness, into modernity. Often, flames that shine the brightest do not shine for long, and just as electrons jumping to higher orbitals soon collapse back, so, too, David Foster Wallace emitted his contribution to humanity in INFINITE JEST and then, while working on his next novel, about the mundanity of human life viewed through employees at the IRS, took his own life at 46. But, at least in my book, better a scintillating 40 years than 80 slowly bled dry.
The film THE HOURS properly captures the writer’s tortured inflection in Nicole Kidman’s wonderful portrayal of Virginia Woolf: private exasperation, breaths of pain, conscious agony. She narrates at the end: “To look life in the face. Always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is. At last, to know it, to love it, for what it is.” In her eyes is the sensation of bare feet walking on broken glass, nails dragged across the blackboard, claustrophobia under the skin, all silently suffocating as hushed secrets are heard from another room’s walls. Such too is the texture of Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS. Any authenticity does not involve dilution by someone else’s presence. George Steiner said: “If you can phrase what to you makes life worth living, the absolute center, it’s a lie because it’s nobody else’s business. It’s a self-deception. I think it probably lies lower than speech or on the other side of speech for many human beings. It is not articulable. It is certainly not publicly communicable . . . What makes life worth living is so private a thing, so intimate a thing, that articulacy conveys the constant danger of a rhetoric of self-delusion, of exhibitionism. We are in a society of unparalleled exhibitionism at every level.” As Laozi’s proverb goes, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”
The conventional story that has won the world over, with its excitement, adventure, passion, is just one formula. Create a character. Name him or her X1. Create a sidekick. Call him or her X2. Create a mentor. Name him or her Y. Set it in a place and a time. Call it Z. Create a problem. Call it P. Fill in the variables with whatever—what a bore. How refreshing it is, then, to know that there is a joy in watching films touched by surrealism like David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, or Seijun Suzuki’s BRANDED TO KILL, or Bergman’s PERSONA, which also embodies the sheer delight of pure cinema. To watch the edges of reality lapse is to feel again something of that unknowable mystery of first consciousness, before it all becomes as predictable as conversations already had, friends already made and gone, careers already climbed, all dull and dry until we can taste the distilled mana that once was—the singularity, the absurd, the sublime, that phase shift when wakefulness fades into sleep every night and then one last time—to sail towards the black hole and with the might of human hands wrest from it the makings of its innards.
Is not the only response to the fact of our eventual collective annihilation, when fully understood and embraced not as some abstract notion restrained to some distant future but as fate that can arrive even tonight, to resort to humor and the realization that this journey is nothing more than: life as illusion, life as a dream. Did Nietzsche not touch on this when he wrote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster . . . for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” The consequence of his eternal recurrence is that everything anyone can ever do or say or think has already been done, said, and thought. If life is understood as merely motions and physicality, then we are all just playing with legos. Time is space is space is time—we are at present, all at once, not yet born and living and dead. Beckett wrote: “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born and one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then its night once more.”
not a word until
the perfect thought
Paolo Sorrentino’s film THE GREAT BEAUTY ends in an eloquent reflection of what we are, set to John Tavener’s choral rendition of his countryman William Blake’s poem THE LAMB. The scene, narrated by the main character in a brief monologue, watches an aged nun whose purity in life has made her near sainthood as she reaches the top of the steps of a cathedral, choosing to pull herself up by hands and knees, the camera in front of her zooming towards her face as she finishes the ascent, bowing down to kiss her necklace, the holy cross, as it comes to a rest on the floor of the landing. While we watch this moment with its music surging towards the finality of tranquil divinity, the main character summarizes us. He, conscious of modern Italy’s culture of decadence in contrast to the country’s long history of beauty and triumph, its marble statuary forgotten in basements as its youth dance the night away, observes the decaying culture while immersing in it himself, who for many decades was unable to break free. In the ending scene, in his native Italian, his voice joins the choir as we watch ourselves in the nun: “This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter, the chatter, and the noise: silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty, and then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity, all buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world: blah, blah, blah, blah.” The film closes as the narrator at that moment realizes something and embraces the absurd, deciding to begin his novel. He is standing on a cliff by the ocean, facing the love of his youth, a woman on whom the film rests its last shot.
Rilke wrote, “Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances . . . But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing: they(who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment.” But even Rilke, champion of man as individual, believed in the possibility of love: “love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” The film director Wong Kar Wai meditates on this feeling of distance; his signature is unmistakable. In spite of every element in the film running at the full speed of life, his characters seem stuck in the eye of the tornado. Although the camera is pushed so close to the actor that the face takes up half the screen, although sugary pop music plays that evokes the high ebullience of the teenage years, although we enter the character’s head and hear the thoughts as voice-overs spoken as if to a friend, although the film is so rich in vibrant color, the shots so alive with active energy, although the film is so flush with life, although we are brought so physically close that we can touch their breath, this palpable fact remains: all his characters feel so far away. Whether his film is set in his home city’s modern metropolis, in a foreign country where he does not speak the language, in a technocratic future, or in a dystopian fantasy, Wong Kar Wai has been making just one film: the longing for romance and the impossibility of intimacy, and all we can have is timeless jazz, strobing lights, the rain outside, and moody puffs of smoke rising from our cigarette. Wong Kar Wai’s preoccupation with love tempts the important question: what does it mean to be alive? This is a question Abbas Kiarostami poses from another angle: should we bother to live? Abbas Kiarostami’s TASTE OF CHERRY takes as its style a stark austerity in which the camera sits in the passenger seat watching a man drive about the desert, looking for someone to bury him. The weight of the film is implicit, not in the overt, unignorable manner of Francis Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW in which the depths of consciousness is splayed in overbearing sweat and grime, or in Tarkovsky’s STALKER which forces upon us the texture of time and the dread of liquid consciousness. How to capture life in film? Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD is wonderful in concept but failed to deliver the punch. It followed its actors over 13 years as they moved through life’s stages, but the film’s delivery lacks the wonder and elevation of universality, its scenes reading as a series of facts so proud of its idea that it hasn’t bothered to put itself together into a vision, the film’s primary fault being that the director was not strong enough. At the other end, Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE attempted to encompass so much of life it loses itself in airy voice-overs in an unfocused daydream that overwhelms but leads nowhere. If the point is to watch one family interspersed with spectacularly shot moments of the sun, eclipses, and the skies above, why not just settle with Ron Fricke’s BARAKA and lose oneself in the drawn-out documentary of the many human cultures across the world and be drowned in detail?
We witnessed in John Conway’s GAME OF LIFE that from simplicity dawns complexity, that the workings of seeming causation and sentient life can come on a board of pixels from all of three rules:
Birth: A dead cell with three live neighbors comes to life.
Prolong: A live cell with two or three neighbors remains alive.
Death: A live cell with zero or one neighbors dies of underpopulation; a live cell with four or more neighbors dies of overcrowding.
From these three rules came life-forms, among them spaceships, gliders, clocks, frogs, flip-flops, and beehives, and from these three rules have sprung what have come to resemble civilization in the pixel. While the message from simplicity is clear, Conway, a mathematician, made the mathematician’s mistake in thinking that actual life is so simple. Perhaps a modification to the death rule should be made: a cell lasts the span of eighty breaths, but even this doesn’t convey the circumstance of the human condition in being aware of its eventual demise. What are the set of rules enabling us? Are we merely hamsters running on a wheel? Is consciousness real and not preordained as a set of inevitable chemical reactions? Is reality in fact real? Cao Xueqin wrote in DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER: “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true. Real becomes unreal when the unreal’s real.”
2021-04-04, 日. On Religion and Roger Scruton.
I’m an atheist, and today’s post situates my views in the context of religion, and why the religion question largely doesn’t matter.
First, I will state some of my doubts. To even begin to convince me to believe in God, you must answer this question of mine: why Jesus or Yahweh or Allah when I can also choose Zeus and Hera, Shiva and Brahma, Isis and Osiris, Odin and Ymir, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, Ababinili and Agu’gux, Hadad and Anu? Why one god and not four hundred? Would God have been the next titular character had Joseph Campbell extended his HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES? I can’t shake off the observation that those who are religious are religious because of a sense of community and not because they are wholly convinced from first principles in the existence of God. To convince me to be religious is to show me that faith is not just the happenstance religion of the society into which we are born, assigned at birth and immured as the sole option when we are too young to resist our parents and our friends, too young to think and doubt, too young to realize that by adulthood we will be too accustomed to holding on to faith out of nominal identification with that community and not out of true belief.
I’m not speaking of religion in the way Alan Watts did when he used a marketing ploy to slip God under the cover of mesmerizing rhetoric. The God he spoke of was not the omnipotent deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition but a god embedded in the personal and everyday, everywhere and needing no more worship than a spiritual awareness. What a great cheat! How he committed the intellectual laziness of conflating one god with another by using the same terminology! And the notion of God is too loosely defined. Do we agree with Maimonides when he explained that the Jewish God is such a perfect unity that he could not be described in any positive sense, and we cannot say God has arms or legs, or that God is omnipotent, or that God has thoughts, for any such statement limits the greatness of God? Surely one can follow this description as one can follow a thought experiment, but no one can persuade me away from my immediate thought: what a wonderful fiction!—though such a character is certainly too dull for my book.
To live motivated by the thought that disorderly conduct towards your fellow men earns you a one-way ticket to eternal condemnation seems to me immensely self-centered because such a guiding principle suggests we have an eye towards our own fates when we choose how to behave towards others, and that propriety is not a self-evident principle derivable from common sense and reason. How low does this suggest of us and our fellow men that we can’t be decent without fear of punishment? Bertrand Russell wrote, “Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear, and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad. I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about a man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanising myths, in the end the fresh air brings out vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.” One can enter the sublime by sitting in church in the front pew, enjoying Bach’s music playing under the towering apse just as one can enter it by lying back on the open grass, under the constellations of the night sky, all on one’s own, contemplating the stars whence one came; one can be spiritual without a god. Humanity’s pursuits—reaching for transcendence, enjoying music, living virtuously, seeking meaning and purpose—what does God have to do with them? Everything we’ve done, we’ve done without Him.
The most compelling argument for believing in God I’ve come across is Roger Scruton’s. Scruton did not dodge the hard questions, did not consider his views an obvious truth, was not intolerant to conflicting views, and was not so deluded in his own beliefs that he couldn’t accommodate cross-examination. During an interview he was asked, “God. We got rid of Him, finally. We finally recognized we are totally alone in the universe. Oceans of time before us, oceans of time after us—Schopenhauer—yeah? And amidst we are, giving meaning to our lives, just one little second in eternity. And now you’re coming up with God again. In three or four minutes you’re talking about a moral God.” The interviewer continued: “If we see our presence in the universe at this very moment in time for 60 or 70 or 80 years as one whisper, and we can’t give meaning to our own lives because there are no preconditions, there is no God, there is no moral statement in the universe itself, of the universe itself. Isn’t that more challenging than returning to the old idea of a moral God?” Taken aback for a second from so direct a question, Scruton replied: “If you want to live your live being challenged, that’s fine. There are lots of things more challenging than my worldview, but it doesn’t follow they’re for that reason more true. It’s possible for someone like Rilke to live with a kind of death of God feeling, to say to himself, ‘For God has been taken from the world, along with so much else. I will now remake everything according to my own inner light and find consolation there.’ And to some extent, that’s what I do, but not everybody is Rilke. Most people, deprived of this kind of consolation, don’t rise to the challenge at all. They sink a long way beneath it, and they live without that aspiration to be something better that they would otherwise have had. And so I’m very much opposed to taking this sort of thing away from people. If you lose it yourself, then of course that could be regarded as a misfortune, or you might regard it a great liberation, as Nietzsche tried to do. But that’s your problem. You deal with it. I have my own way of dealing with it, and I think I have dealt with it. I worked my way back to something, not really the God of organized religion, but I worked my way back to something like a God idea. I’m giving it a place in my life which enables me to stand to some extent in judgment of myself, as I think I should.” Fair enough. This answer satisfies me, and I can respect Scruton for it. The necessary consequence, of course, is that Scruton thinks we were both created in the image of God and that I have fallen from favor, while I think his belief in an unprovable deity ludicrous. No further word can be said that can change our minds, but this doesn’t matter because the thwarted conversation is postponed until the infinitude that comes after the day when both of us are dead, when, as far as we’re concerned, everything ceases to matter. I may not agree with Scruton’s views, but I can respect him for adequately examining his convictions and living by them to the very end.
I am not Richard Dawkins. I don’t impose atheism on anyone. Freedom of religion is one of the founding principles of the country. If you are religious, be satsfied in your community, and I mine, which proclaims: We have no god to love, and no god loves us, we do not believe in deities whose business it is to lord over our miniscule lives, for we believe not in gods but in humanity. I can find the religiously devout among those I consider at the pinnacle of humanity: Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, William Blake, just as I can find among them atheists. My gripe is not against religion itself but the lack of the necessary search and labor to convince oneself beyond, “It’s what everyone around me believes, and we fear those who don’t.”
In America, we have a party that knows it is losing power and instead of a graceful handover and adapting to the times, it resorts to pathetic measures like gerrymandering and restricting the voting rights of Americans who are not on their side, the whole party patently struggling to hold on to dear life. I can respect Scruton, but I can’t respect the whole line of Republican senators who ride on disinformation, sending the wrong message to working class Americans to vote against their interests so the rich can have lower taxes, those Republicans who sell religious and national purity like Mitch McConnell—whose wife happens to be Chinese and who is responsible for his wealth—and Ted Cruz, and their predecessor William Buckley Jr. who would have rather resorted to lies and elitism rather than accept progress. Why all the opposition to change? Martin Luther posting his NINETY-FIVE THESES on a church’s door sounds pretty radical. A group of 102 religious pilgrims seeking religious freedom sailing on the Mayflower to a new, largely unknown continent sounds pretty radical. The French Revolution sounds pretty radical. This is the pattern of human civilization: today’s radical is tomorrow’s past, as certain and unyieldable as the iron law of history. As Schopenhauer put it, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” For the logical among us, think of it this way: jump forward on the timeline and look back; today’s radicalism is already in the past. This is not to say all change is progress. Marxism, Nazism, Communism, Fascism, anarchy, populism, nuclear fallout, and nativism are not avenues of progress. Progress is determined by what works as a push forward for humanity, not by self-interest, power-mongering, greed, and blinkered nationalism.
The remainder of this post discusses Scruton. In considering my differences against Scruton, I can’t help but also notice the immense similarities, and I recall Schopenhauer’s world as illusion, world as appearance, reality as but a surface veneer. Schopenhauer took this idea from the ancient Vedic tradition, which also had so inspired Hesse that one of his recurring projects was an attempt to reconcile the West’s dilemma between rationality and the animal within against India’s amorphous nature of reality. Peel away our differences—he a conservative and I a liberal, his Christianity and my atheism, his British reserve, stiff upper lip, preoccupation with dignity, ever aspiring to serenity and order, and my fearless charge towards intensity, passion, flame, grabbing life by the horns, he who returns ever again to equilibrium when I say, “Why bother resting? After this brief stint, we have all eternity for equilibrium”—and there is more in Scruton that I can respect not only because of his unmitigated journey towards authenticity, but because the underlying ideas guiding the way he lived his life are also mine.
Scruton defended Heidegger’s notion of dwelling as “this attempt to reaffirm with your connection with a particular place at a particular time and a particular social web . . . Every serious idea is dangerous. In a civilized mind it is not. It is an instrument of peace. I’m talking about peaceful existence in a single place, an unthreatening form of being”—Scruton not only agrees with this as an intellectual idea but lived by it. Scruton expands on this idea with Hegel’s homecoming spirit: “In all of us there is a desire for homecoming, where we find ourselves having ventured out into all these dangerous experiments of individual living, at last coming back, swallowing all our pride, and humbly acquiesing in a social order which is bigger than ourselves.” In these words Scruton also captured the trajectory of his life, as he recounted his early years: “I was very fortunate in having an unhappy childhood so that my desire from the very beginning was to escape from it . . . I was very much aware of the difference between me and everybody else, that there was something in me that needed to be addressed. I had a question in my life. I didn’t know what the question was, but I knew that it needed an answer, and I had first to identify what the question was. So the things that my contemporaries took pleasure in, like football, cinema, whatever it might be, pop music, had very little significance for me, even though like all my contemporaries of course I played the guitar, a bit of bass guitar, and all the usual—things one had to do. But even while doing it I regarded myself just as ridiculous as the people around me.” It was only later that Scruton gradually came upon how to pose the question: “Someone like Heidegger would say it was the question of Being. What and why am I? What is this soul doing in this environment, and how can it possibly come to be in that environment in a way that will bring peace to itself?” In middle age, Scruton described his fear of choosing to abandon his position as a professor as “being afraid to give up a career that I thought to be certain and secure, but I knew that I should give it up because it was not me, my career as a teacher. I finally got the courage to give it up, but I left it very late.” And in describing the broader fear of living, Scruton said, “When you’re confronted with this sort of fear, you might run from it into false consolations, things which are not real consolations because they involve no overcoming . . . I can see what it would be to take refuge in wine completely, and allow that to soothe one through one’s day and to soothe one through one’s inadequacies, to enable one to put this fear to one side. That is not a consolation. A consolation to me comes from having confronted trouble, and eliciting from the heart of the trouble the resolution of it.” Scruton examines himself in the way of someone who has the habit of doing deep reflection: “I have always worked very hard at my literary gifts, but in every direction they’ve suggested, philosophical essays, fiction, anything that seems to come to my pen, but it’s always been enormous work, and I’ve always connected it deliberately with my subjectivity, the peculiar confusion which I inherited by being born the thing that I was. And I made them slaves, my literary works, of my need, and each of them had the task of unraveling this confusion . . . except for a few academic articles, all this has been a completely personal voyage of discovery . . . so this was a very personal thing, which had nothing to do with the normal Bildung of a normal academic philosopher. My life was a kind of Bildungsroman in which the academic part was a sort of continuous and enjoyable mistake. I shouldn’t have been a teacher, or I shouldn’t have been locked away in libraries. My heart and soul have always been in other things, I’ve always been involved in other things, which have always been more important to feeding what I really think.”
Scruton’s first marriage failed, but his second marriage, at 52, to Sophie Jeffreys, after a “slow, quiet, respectful courtship,” not in the searing passion of uninhibited romance but in the quaint charm, quiet serenity, coquettish allure, and mutual attraction hidden beneath preserved dignity so apt to the British manner, lasted until his death. Scruton composed a piece for the piano dedicated to his wife “which would convey something of her composure and orderliness.” He called it BOREAS BLOWS NOT, referencing Herodotus: “Boreas blows not through the young virgin who lives alone in the house with her mother. Because at the time, Sophie was living alone in her house with her mother. So it was a description of Boreas the north wind refusing to blow, or unable to blow, through this secure little cottage.” Scruton made for himself and his wife a version of this little cottage, with a yard in the front for the horses he kept for fox-hunting. In his cottage in the countryside of Wiltshire, on a plot of land he bought that he named Scrutopia, Scruton lived out his years with his wife among books lining the walls and a grand piano in the center of the living room. True to his word, Scruton dwelled, playing Bach in his village’s church every Sunday. Scruton dwelled, returning to the countryside into which he was born: “My childhood was in a semi-detached house by a railway line in which we were, you know, very poor, very much living in the old class resentment of the English . . . It has nothing to do with this. This here is created by books and music in the middle of a countryside which I love and among people doing innocent old-fashioned things with animals. That’s as far as one can get.” In Wiltshire, Scruton lived until his death in January 2020. May he rest in the peace of eternity that I too will one day join, hopefully having attained the same peace in human terms.
The great pessimist Emil Cioran once wrote, “Nothingness may well have been more convenient. How difficult it is to dissolve oneself in Being!” With that, he ended his essay, THE TEMPTATION TO EXIST. It is a revelation to read Cioran, who also wrote books whose titles convey his essence such as ON THE HEIGHTS OF DESPAIR and THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN, not to convert to nihilism, but to bear witness to the pits of the philosophical abyss of life taken to the extreme so that one no longer fears facing the dark unknown, for one has already seen it and knows it and can say, “Ah, is that all?” I’m not a nihilist, but I do think it is crucial to conceive the various avenues others have taken to grasp upwards towards meaning, perhaps especially so when it fails, perhaps because we will also recognize bits of nihilism in ourselves. Of course, the intellectual resolution to nihilism is simple: life should have meaning, even though it doesn’t and the meaning itself is meaningless; what’s the alternative? But what is such a meaning worth pursuing in spite of its emptiness known from the outset? What makes a life not just a toy put together on an assembly line, robot arms scheduled to add parts as the toy moves through its decades and phases, the script and social constructs mandating the school years, the working years, a family, retirement, and finally its end when the toy is completed, fully fabricated to specification as it is dropped off with its glorious splendor in the dumpster with every other toy that has come before and will come after, the toy smiling that it’s been carried along the mechanization’s selfsame routine as it croaks its last breath, smiling the whole way because that’s what the toy has imagined to be its purpose. What makes a life worthy? The fact is we all die one day. How hilarious! How lovely! But how disappointingly human. This is the game we’re playing, the time remaining on our turn ticking away, and when it all ends it will have been oh so meaningless. It is better to address the fundamental questions of life than to duck the head into the sand, ignoring the necessity of truth, and blasting music at full volume in a buoyed state of walking denial. How many times I’ve mused the question of life in a conversation, to be redirected to a sudden distraction cropped up in avoidance. Or a long book that spins itself in circles of words, occasionally reaching for the famous name in an effort in vain, so bedazzled by its own verbosity that I can’t help but notice that the author may be more lost than me, so bloated in conceit that he may no longer realize he’s driven himself into irrelevance. But: you’re not answering my question. It’s my most important one. I’ll give you all my time. Tell me something about life I don’t already know.
2021-03-25, 四. The Lifespan of Things, Or: The Duration of Memory.
Sustenance Years Website, average 3 Smartphone, average 3 Laptop, average 5 Hard disk 10 Acidic Paper 20 Oil painting, unpreserved 40 Life Expectancy, America 2021 79 Leather 100 Building, unmaintained 100 Acid-free paper 200 Plastic 500 High-grade acid-free paper 1,000 Parchment 1,000 Glass 1,000,000 Life on Earth 7,500,000,000 Earth 12,000,000,000
2021-03-20, 六. On Asian America's Awakening.
This post is long overdue and comes in response to this week’s shooting of six Asians in Atlanta and to the broader issue of rising anti-Asian hate since the start of the pandemic. Let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that racism is some unprehensile abstraction in which we Asian Americans are not victims. This very idea breeds illusions that, naively, it is largely a bygone evil, or, falsely, that it doesn’t exist, or, immaturely, that someone else will take care of it. There’s no reason to take it personally because these the symptoms of racism are the same everywhere and are just as transferable to the next person. They’re not willy-nilly, wishy-washy, but persistent, predictable, unvarying, systematic.
Degrees of racism
Murder and genocide
These symptoms come on top of a backdrop of media’s unilateral caricature and stereotype since the 1800’s when Asians first arrived to the country, none of which is helped by our small population that leads to scant exposure in the public consciousness. Like most things in life, these symptoms are sifted through the unignorable influence of class and play out differently depending on the stratum of the perpetrator. The struggling do not refrain from taking more extreme measures and the privileged express themselves in subtler forms, especially when they don’t need to do it themselves.
I’m going to preface the rest of this post by saying that there are genuinely decent folks whose only fault is simply that they have not been exposed to multiculturalism and diversity and so don’t have anything to form an opinion of other races other than prejudiced and outdated textbooks from school and exaggerated, distorted stereotypes gone unchecked. It is not them that I have in mind but those blockheads like some 21-year-old who, guilty over his sex addiction, turned his gun on someone else rather than the more obvious solution of turning it on himself. Or those inhuman cretins who would run in full speed up to a 91-year-old to push him to the ground. Or those blatant aggressors who in spite of ample anti-racist messaging from government, news outlets, and social media, in spite of common sense, in spite of any propriety or civility, continue to lash out in blind hate. Or closeted bigots who so fear justice that they keep their hysterical xenophobia to themselves, whatever their walk of life.
I am not surprised whatsoever that Asians are being targeted. I can’t help but exclaim: how banal and boring! Tell me something new! As soon as the news broke of COVID’s origins last year I immediately anticipated such a development. There is not the slightest indication in the racial history of this country that suggests otherwise. On the contrary I would be surprised if this shooting were the last. Count on it: discrimination and patent racism will continue once life returns to normal and people resume congregating in person, in forms subtle and explicit, verbal and behavioral, in school admissions, in job applications, in fewer appointments for doctor and lawyers, in everyday encounters. We do not have it worst; Blacks have had a far longer and bloodier march against racism. We Asians have piggy-backed on the civil rights movement and benefited from monumental progress towards true equality in the 1960s without bearing the brunt of the melee. What makes us think we can surmount racial boundaries if Blacks still have not? However, our problem is more akin to the Jewish one: a small successful minority that—who knows?—might be wealthier, more educated, and more cultured than our assaulters. And yet we do not have power, we do not have bite—why? I can’t be wrong in saying a large part of the reason is that Asian culture obeys authority and doesn’t stir trouble, overwhelmingly preferring comfort and stability over due process and justice. Perhaps a generation or two later, the offspring of this period’s doctors, academics, and engineers, comfortable enough in their social replication, will have the chutzpah to take up the risk of fighting back.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a Korean artist and writer, was raped and murdered in the Puck Building in New York in 1982 and received no more news coverage than one obituary in The Village Voice. When an Asian dies, the subtext is she was the stereotypical passive victim, quickly banished to the side, the details of the crime reduced to mere facts, leaving out any semblance of a relatable person. Her friend Sandy Flickerman-Lewis recounts, “People only say that she died young. The never indicate the horror.” She says later, “Theresa was not passive. She fought back.” And why did Theresa receive such little coverage? Flickerman-Lewis says, “She was just another Asian woman. If she were a young white artist from the Upper West Side, it would have been all over the news.” If she were white, all over the news indeed! Seven years later in the same city, Trisha Meili, who worked in corporate finance—but let me add the important detail—she’s white—was raped in Central Park, and what a public outcry! What investigations, what litigations, what media coverage that even two decades afterwards people were still talking about it! Here’s the reason: someone white is one of “us”. When asked to talk about Theresa’s death, curators and scholars reply with such numbing politeness that they come across not as complicit but innocent: “We have always tried to focus on Cha’s amazing work and not to sensationalize her story”, and refraining from mentioning her death “out of respect for her famly, not to overshadow the work.” Of course not. Asians are one-dimensional tokens who, as artists, are only artists known through their work and not actual humans who have lives outside their role. The record is not any better served by the fact that Theresa died and Trisha did not, and she went on to publish her memoir so that we the American public can relate to all the minutiae of her lovingly concretized life.
An Asian get murdered and no one cares. And still we appeal to someone else! How can we not laugh at ourselves! These are any number of the scenarios we may very well find ourselves in: someone with a rifle walks into a store and starts firing, someone sidles up behind you with a kitchen knife, or you’re walking and a car that passes by suddenly stops behind you and someone jumps out, charging at you with an axe. Where are our surgeons and professors then? History repeats itelf: the news flashes the breaking headlines, people signal the fashionable politics, and it is erased all too soon, we forgotten under a quiet headstone as the rest of the country returns to its unhassled business—let’s pay lip service, mope for two seconds, and continue about our ordinary day!—who cares about some Asian? To my fellow Asians who remain meek from the ancestral culture, unaccustomed to the reality, I have nothing to say but this: stop running and hiding. Your children will not thank you for leaving the world the way it was given to you. When someone throws rocks through your house’s windows, when a man forces himself through your doors, when a random kid runs up and pushes you to the ground, when someone opens fire on your family, you stand and reply in kind with the full force of rectified self-defense. We cannot remain handcuffed to bookish intellentsia but must pick up the proper tools for the challenge. Science communicates by theory and evidence. Writers communicate the human experience across time and age—the best ones tend to be dead. Painters communicate in exhibitions. Investors communicate with supply and demand. Entrepreneurs communicate with their products. And violence so singularly directed out of blind hatred demands its proper reply, in the only language that brutes understand. Korean cardiologist, how ludicrous you are to inform your assaulter you’re Korean and not Chinese. Let me help you realize: he, like most white Americans, doesn’t care. If our response to this surge of pandemic racism is simply overcoming personal inhibitions and deigning to share our encounters with racist incidents, then the inevitable outcome is this: next month people will forget because they simply can’t be bothered. Has racism gone away for our Black brothers and sisters who have been calling out racism in person, in politics, in film, in literature, online, in the history books for so much longer? Are you sure people care whether you’re a Vietnamese refugee or a Korean lawyer, a Japanese corporate expatriate or a Chinese software engineer? How do you talk reason to someone who pulls a gun on you? Are you serious when you try to teach empathy to a vandal in a mad frenzy to set your house on fire? Cry all you wish on TV, write as many articles asking people to share their stories, do your best to raise awareness, but nothing in the country’s history points to any help other than from yourself. Malcolm X said in 1963, “When we see our people being brutalized by white bigots, white racists, we think they are foolish to be beaten and brutalized and do nothing whatsoever to protect themselves. They are foolish. They should have the right to defend themselves against any attack made against them by anyone . . . There will come a time when Black people wake up and become intellectually independent enough to think for themselves . . . then the Black man will think like a Black man, and he will feel for other Black people, and this new thinking and feeling will cause Black people to stick together, and at that point you’ll have a situation where when you attack one Black man you are attacking all Black men.” Asian America, where is our Che Guevara, our Malcolm X? Our Martin Luther King, our Gandhi? How long can you still tolerate bigotry with docile appeals to justice and equality? Careers in medicine, law, academia, science, engineering, technology, finance, and business yield ample paychecks as you recede into your suburbs, gated communities, and bubbles of anonymia.
News articles are written on anything Asian that no one bothers to skim, Asian films are released that few watch, Asian books are published that even fewer read. Make it anyways. Our problem is our small population that doesn’t boast the power of market demand and the lack of a cultural identity beyond ethnic enclaves that do not command anything more than comfort food. How do we coalesce into an identity if we don’t create one worth rallying behind and if we won’t bother with it ourselves? Will we remain perpetually non-belonging? Is this our shared fate with the Jewish? Isaac Deutscher wrote, “Trees have roots. Jews have legs.” But let’s not forget that the Jews fought back too in World War II, the many resistors like Hannah Senesh who did not simply flee. Or Niuta Teitelbaum who stood up to three Nazis: “She blushed, smiled meekly and then pulled out a gun and shot each one. Two were killed, one wounded. Niuta, however, wasn’t satisfied. She found a physician’s coat, entered the hospital where the injured man was being treated, and killed both the Nazi and the police officer who had been guarding him.”
Asian America does not need more quants, engineers, software developers, mathematicians, research scientists, physicists, venture capitalists. Asian America cannot lift itself into a veritable tour de force if its members consistently pursue money and material comfort in finance, STEM, medicine, research. Asian America lacks a gravity uniting the community because there is no central culture, no film festivals, no great writers, directors, no proud achievement to pass on as cultural heritage. Few of us create, few of us consume serious art, few pay attention to what these few produce, and even fewer listen to our stories. For good reason: our art has not reached parity. To be taken seriously, we must be serious about art and not settle for bubble tea and K-pop, martial arts films and farcical comedies. The generation coming of age is paving the way, and doing so in earnest, able to hold their own without pulling the race card and decrying, “Please look at me, for I am unrepresented; pity me because I’m human too.” Even still, with this slew of modern artists from among us, the story arc is something along the lines of pain, echoing figments of immigration, family trauma, outsiderness. This is a necessary phase, to address in proper faith the sorrows and longings, the lost ancestral ties, the real, lived exerience of our parents and childhoods, to cement into the collective language a history of a people that this time shall not be forgotten. This phase is our current state and will continue for years to come. We must however come to a point where we change course and stop milking the trauma and claim the full richness of what it means to be an ordinary person like any other, to be human, unafraid to seize joy and wonder. Our stories must evolve beyond this initial reflecting mirror of reverberating helplessness and encompass comedy, elation, mischief, pride, community, poverty and wealth, failure and triumph, indeed happiness—all on our own terms, in our own channels, in accordance to our own morality, history, customs. Community therapy through stories are but half the battle when they only resolve the shame, guilt, regret, dissonance of growing up a minority and stop short of the statuary pointing towards a sustainable, bright future. We complain of the lack of media representation but where are our screenwriters behind the films representing our voice? Why do we expect a white writer to see our side when all he has are antiquated stereotypes? Correcting media representation is not something that can be given to us but something we must take up ourselves; no one but we ourselves is going to present our narratives, our artists and film directors and writers, and not just reaching parity in merit but exceeding. Where are those among us who will join those who’ve come of age—Cathy Park Hong, Ocean Vuong, Charles Yu, Lee Isaac Chung, Chloe Zhao? Where is the Asian American luminary? Who is the Asian American voice? Where is our Charlie Kaufman, Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, our Tarkovsky, our Bergman? our James Baldwin, our Toni Morrison, our fearless rallying architect, our central vision? Where are our art industries, our art magnates, our art instructors, our art market, our art attendance that isn’t just gimmick picture-taking, admittance into the gallery out of resigned ignorance? Asian America, upwardly mobile, lacks a body to call its own, its doctors, engineers, bankers disperse on their own, with no home culture. Where is our unique voice, our prose style, our cinematic direction, our elevated lyricism, our vision on our own terms, ideated, designed, implemented, propagated, and consumed all by ourselves? The rookie mistake is to produce what Jay Caspian Kang calls dignity porn: “The type of story that takes the life of a seemingly oppressed person, excavates all the differences compared with the dominant culture and then seeks to hold these up in a soft, humanizing light. Look, the dignity porno will say: ‘Kimchi isn’t weird. Ergo, we are as human as you.’” This is what the dominant culture expects of the race narrative, and it is precisely what we don’t do because such a paradigm reaches no higher than the fundamental limits inherent to the form, the subaltern deriving his value as a proposition against the hegemony. Just as the feminist Germaine Greer did not seek equality with men because she did not gauge the woman as a partial against the man, we expect more of ourselves. We do not create for the white audience, we do not invent for the dominant culture, we do not subject ourselves as targets of that repulsive brand of exoticized slapstick comedy relegated to foreigners, uncomprehending and incomprehensible in all ways except a clown’s incompetence, we do not plead for dignifiying humanity as a least common denominator, we do not withdraw into spineless anonymity, we do not dance for the white gaze. We create for ourselves, our community, our parents who’ve had no voice, our children who shall find their own among the highest culture. Whiteness is not our barometer. If the white audience takes notice, we will not turn anyone away because we do not discriminate, but what they encounter will be ours, on our own terms. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in the Garment District and a Supreme Court justice? One generation.”
I must be clear: I do not advocate segregation but instead an adequate substantiation of one part of the American experience. I’m on the same page as Obama when he said, “What makes America America is all the outsiders, the misfits, and the folks who try to make something out of nothing. Let me tell you about America. We’re Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. We’re the pioneers and the farmers and the miners and the entrepeneurs and the hucksters—thats our spirit. That’s who we are. We’re Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony who shook the system until the law reflected that truth—that is our character. We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South, the ranch hands and the cowboys. We’re the storytellers, writers, poets, artists, who abore unfairness and despise hypocrisy and give voice to the voiceless and tell truths that need to be told. We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues and bluegrass and country and hip-hop—and rock and roll—in our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom. We are Jackie Robinson enduring scorn in spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head and stealing home in the World Series anyway. We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, ‘who build our temples for tomorrow’s strong as we know how.’ We are the people Emerson wrote of, ‘who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long, who are never tired so long as we can see far enough’—that’s what America is, not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past but we do not pine for the past. We do not fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing—we are large—in the words of Whitman, ‘containing multitudes.’ We are boisterous, and diverse, and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march. We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary for we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”
How romantic an America! But oh, how so far away.
2021-03-11, 四. Excerpt from a departing missive, two years ago.
drifting in the clouds, continuing
these wandering years
wading our eternities
Even above the clouds, in the void of space, a comet used to glide gracefully across the night sky at the strike of dusk. On the wintry evening of November 13, 1877, a budding comet-chaser, convinced he was the first to lay eyes on the elusive cosmic jewel, named it Ewelina Hańska, no doubt after the Polish aristocrat whose intentional anonymity and sustained distance to a youthful admirer resembled the comet’s increasingly rare sightings. He wondered in frustration why, unlike all the other comets whose periods only shortened, she seemed to be defying the unbendable laws of gravity. After grappling at length with his formulas, his only conclusion was this: originally appearing with nightly certainty, she must have detected that her dances were being watched and, for this very reason, altered the course of her elliptical orbit, slightly delaying her next approach to earth each time she felt a pair of eyes on her scintillating ice, because, in truth, even comets have their moods. The earthly youth, condemned to his grounded fate, had no choice but to sit and wait patiently under the sea of motionless stars. Never missing a night, he watched in horror as the new interval of several days between her appearances not only did not abate in mercy but grew steadily as days became weeks, and weeks into months. Sitting by his telescope, he would look for her in the vastness of the cosmos, along previous trails long ingrained in his memory, in the varied constellations where she had never been, probing through misty nebulas and the shadows of blinding stars, searching without rest or reason, bargaining with the heavens that he would settle into bed if only he had one glimpse of her elongated tail of frozen dust. Eventually he had no choice but to give in to his desire, resorting to the comfort of rolling ice cubes on his tongue as he waited so that he could know the taste of Ewelina Hańska: astral mystery. A tenacious lad who had never known defeat, he followed his longing with discipline, discovering for himself what many ambitious men before him have had to learn, which is that sometimes victory is out of reach even when pursued by sheer force of will. A look of perpetual confusion gradually settled on his face, and more than once in the marketplace he heard someone describe his anxious expression as the bearing of someone who has known great sorrow, but the permanent ridges of incomprehension that resembled wrinkles on his cheeks and forehead never occurred to him as anything more than the spoils of war. When at last her absence had broken all astronomical records, he realized he did not need the excitement of an actual sighting or even the regimen of his nightly telescopy, for not a day had passed when something did not happen to remind him of her. How do I know this? Last week as I was enjoying myself at the library, I found among three others this comet-chaser’s name in the obituary section in that period’s premier newspaper, preserved in microfilm, dated five decades after Ewelina Hańska’s first sighting. It seems that after she stopped returning, he soon abandoned the profession. The last thing anyone heard of him was that he had left intact his workstation under the open stars, his telescope pointed at the direction from which she had always arrived, his folding chair still warm.
a blank page
a world in my head
I’m pulled away by work
it is evening
depleted after the day
I can’t write
am I getting old?
my writing exhausts
I don’t write innocent fiction
duties and peers
at least in school
I wanted to be simple
not different from my country of birth
I never feel
I’m not adrift
I remember a passage I first read years ago. I must’ve been on the subway on some odd afternoon when, seated at one end I saw myself in Mary Oliver’s words: “It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”
Last night I was in the Jordan Hall of Science scanning midterm exams to grade later when I was brought to a pause in the day’s motions. It was that time after classes had ended for the day and before what must commonly be dinnertime, when the lecture halls and lobbies are empty under the quiet cover of the dark night outside. I was standing in front of the scanner when I stopped for a second, noticing the music. It was one of those small moments of unexpected beauty, a spontaneous, joyful surprise. Someone downstairs was playing the piano. Music flowed undisturbed through the multiple floors of the open atrium, in that emptiness of an expansive space with high ceilings and a long hall but without footsteps, without chatter, without presence. I resumed scanning the pile of exams, deciding it was pleasant background music for a chore. Listening a bit more, I recognized it was HALLELUJAH. It must’ve been a student playing because of the intermittent missed note and brief halt, but these mishaps weren’t distracting enough to detract from the music. There is a rawness and honesty in live music that is lost when it becomes too practiced, too calculated, too professional, or when recorded to perfection and replayed until the cows come home. She played HALLELUJAH a few times and then switched to a few more with Pachelbel’s CANON IN D. Removing a staple from an exam, I thought, isn’t this nice? There is beauty and delight even in the unprovoked moments when I’m not seeking it. At that moment, I was content just being, to go about my day doing something as simple as plucking out staples from paper, placing the paper on a tray, and hitting two buttons on a screen. Why all my rages and resignations? I wondered whether I shouldn’t have done something like this instead from the start, undemanding, uneventful, so that I may have had more time and energy to cultivate inner peace. Maybe a librarian, an office clerk, a lab technician? Wittgenstein at one point decided to be a hospital porter, that monastic wanderer. A few years ago I planned a two-week trip to Kyoto, entertaining the idea of becoming a monk. Needless to say, I didn’t end up renouncing the world; the visits to the temple were enough of a reality check.
Driving home, the piano’s unexpected delight lingered, and I felt the vestiges of a scene from THE SOPRANOS. A.J., the grandson, who recently discovered existentialism through Nietzsche, visits his grandmother Livia in the hospital. Livia, in the wizened brevity of those in old age who know too well the futility of beating around the bush, tells the usual consequences of existential dread, as cliche and dull as they are true. She says, “Why does everything have to have a purpose? . . . If you want my advice, Anthony, don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it, people let you down . . . but in the end you die in your own arms.” Indeed, the usual boring riff of disillusionment with life. So? What’s new? And then she ends with a thought that doesn’t feel like the punch in the gut that it is because she doesn’t weigh down her delivery with the heavy tones of grand philosophy: “It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?”
Aye, Livia. You and me both.
2021-02-26, 五. On the Artist as Eccentric.
Why is it so common to find among creatives intolerable stubbornness, intractable visions, beings who not only create uncanny works but also live in aberration? The roaring litany of writers and artists, comedians and activists, philosphers and actors, all those whose independence demand they be uncompromisingly themselves, count among their ranks disproportionately tumultuous lives where madness, passion, obsession, ailment, and insanity correlate with ingenuity—so much so that this observation can be made: the more eccentric the artist, the more productive and outstanding. This is as it must be. The nature of art does not call for reason, health, normalcy, or sustainable living, but rather an open embrace of the vivacity of life, whether they be struck by calamity, malady, treason, failure, despair, subject entirely to factors beyond their control, and then having the wisdom to recognize it in the mirror and follow it.
The artist does not concern himself with the illusory promise of happiness and joy because his muse never appears when happy. Rather, the artist does not resist and even pursues the experimental, the new, the traces of suffering that lead further and further into himself. How do we explain this trait that artists take for granted as dearly as life’s motto? Others have written about this potent capacity. Keats called it negative capability. Martha Nussbaum said of Mahler’s KINDERTOTENLIEDER (tr. Songs on the Death of Children): “That music is consoling because it brings you to terms with the finality of loss in such an eloquent way. Now, I wouldn’t have said of the KINDERTOTELIEDER, that’s a beautiful work. I think most listeners wouldn’t use that word. It’s a harrowing work, but it’s precisely for that reason that it’s consoling . . . To me the greatness of Mahler is his getting to the depths of the inexorability of loss, and the real, deep pain that human life affords, and I think if you can’t get to the depth of that pain you also can’t get to the heights of the joy of human life.” The artist reeks in Nietzsche’s superman who said: “But you, also, my brethren, tell me: What does your body say about your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency? . . . What is the greatest thing you can experience? It is the hour of great contempt. The hour in which even your happiness becomes loathsome to you, and so also your reason and virtue. The hour when you say: ‘What good is my happiness? It is poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency.’” It is not without reason that Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA opens with, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. What story is there to tell that ends with smiles all around? It is finished at the full stop. The principal trouble isn’t that there is a lack of content but that any such story does not even intend to capture the human experience in any adequate form, real or imagined, but only a sorry fantasy. There is a reason no serious artist or critic concerns himself with happiness. To have a joyful, gregarious, harmonious life is to sedate those impulses of the self that embody the wonderful spectrum of humanity. Happiness is pleasing. Happiness fulfills. Happiness quenches. Happiness is indolent satisfaction. Happiness does not answer the call to meaning—happiness is boring. A happy story represents nothing. It says nothing, it expresses nothing—it is nothing. Not every artist can explain what drives him, but all have at least this in common, an instinctive understanding of what doesn’t work. To be clear, I need to add a disclaimer that I am not an elitist. Conventional happy stories have a time and place, and the market that caters to it, with public’s appetite for it, have the purpose of leisure and entertainment for normal people who have jobs in the day and families at home, and the producers for this market are bounds and away more influential than any avant-garde conception sequestered in exclusive circles. I enjoyed THE GAME OF THRONES too, but don’t expect me to take it seriously, or THE HUNGER GAMES, or any superhero amusement park like THE AVENGERS coming out of Hollywood. They were not made for the artist and do not expand human consciousness, they do not belong in the same category as Proust or Hugo, and so do not deserve the same consideration. Artists are eccentrics for a reason. One does not expect a scientist to be without his discipline and objectivity, so how can one expect an artist to live in conformity and produce mere replicas of what already exists? How can one critique in earnest the society in which he lives when he breathes in it, when behind his white lies he stands to lose the most from brutal honesty? But also, how does the artist know what he’s talking about unless he’s lived in it?
Difficult childhoods, agitation, disturbed thoughts, and uncommon life experiences are also what fuel stand-up comedians for whom reality and society as given do not give proper venue to adequate expression. How disaffected were Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Sarah Silverman that they could not look at life without also seeing its magnificent comedy, that which doesn’t even cross the minds of normal people? Such torment is also what strikes a comedian as intellectual as Stephen Fry. And it is not only creatives who are capable of an alternate view. Jane Goodall, who never planned on becoming a scientist but rather thought of herself as an artist who wanted to live among animals in Africa and write about them, spent who knows how long on her own in the forest, and she said, “Some people will pick out tiny things as beauty. Other people won’t even notice them. The shape of a wet leaf on the pavement, even in an ugly place. A footstep on the sand filling up with water. The whole picture you can get—a child’s footprint and a dog’s paw, and a tide coming in—can be very beautiful. Other people might just tramp over them and not see them at all.” She said too, “A simple fly landed on me—this one was shining green and gold, and it had little specks of red— beautiful fly, bristly fur on its abdomen. And I looked at it and thought, when a chimpanzee looks at something like this, he doesn’t have the word, the word ‘fly’. So he’s looking at it as it is. Now I’m imagining myself being in a situation of not having words, so if I can categorize it as a fly it takes away from something of the beauty of the moment—because it’s just a ‘fly’—so forget ‘fly’ and look at this being that’s there.” How can an artist be a reiteration of the cookie-cutter norm of conformity? Someone wholesome and functional is amenable and pleasant and may be unconditionally kind and deserving of kindness in return, yet these traits of rigid regularity are confining and sterile. Normal people, like anyone, are to be treated with customary courtesy but it would be a mistake to expect them to take the artist where he wishes to go. At the end of the day, an artist can speak his mind only with another artist, and separating him from everyone else is the unbridgeable gap between forever strangers. This notion is crucial, especially for the artist, whose value is his vision. The image of the artist as disturbed, reclusive, tormented, is the right one. Privacy and seclusion are essential to being oneself. Without his privacy, how could Sacha Baron Cohen have concocted his social and political vessel to become a ridiculous buffoon like BORAT? Frances McDormand, who shuns the usual Hollywood celebrity and lives away from the limelight, unencumbered by maintaining an image of propriety, not hidden behind seven layers of makeup, not draped in the season’s designer advertisement, could not but be genuine. She lives remotely, modestly, saying, “I get to live my more authentic self here, and I don’t have to pretend to be anybody else.” Why do we suppose hardly anyone has seen Thomas Pynchon? The idea is the same as when Thoreau sought to confront only “the essential facts of life.” Rousseau wrote REVERIES OF THE SOLITARY WALKER. And do we fault William Blake for his singular vision? Or Proust who retired from the world to write his novel, the man who, having lived life, sat down to write about it? Or Aaron Swartz for abhorring the white noise in the office? Rilke wrote, “We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization.”
The artist, accustomed to time alone, dedicated to communicating through his work, does not have the habit of doing so in person. When his interviewer expressed frustration at eliciting a response, Coetzee said, “The questions you have posed to me are, many of them, difficult questions, and it’s my habit of mind to reflect and revise and try to attain a certain completion and perfection in my responses, and that is incompatible with the interview medium. That’s why I’ve been so extremely uncomfortable.” Coetzee belongs to the category of artists who are not outwardly striking but instead modest and unassuming, who live largely uneventful lives outside of their work, as do I. I do believe that I speak for the artists in this category when I say our ideas come not from outside but from within, and any perturbance on our part only distracts us from seeing the vision. A painter expressed my experience of artistic creation when he said, “I wait till the inner lights to go on. The inner light means it’s the moment I start to paint. If the inner light goes on in me I start right away to paint, everything is there, the paint, the canvas. And I paint till the end, but there’s no end. I live in a lawless world. There is no law. The end is spiritual orgasm . . . You have to sit and wait until the inner light goes on. It is only by sitting and waiting, if you wait for the inner lights to go on, then you can talk. Now I have contact with the planet, the surroundings. It has nothing to do with logical or practical things. Speaking like practical, logical, philosophical people is not the real way. It is the wrong way. Clever, handy, routine is the wrong way. You have sit and wait until the inner lights go on in you and then we can talk.” I don’t think myself a kind person, or particularly humble, try as I may. When the moment strikes, I sit quietly and write wherever I happen to be, and the affair is entirely without spectacle. To watch me writing would be beside the point. It is entirely a solitary process and not one worth witnessing. What matters is what comes out as a result of subsuming all senses, imagination, experience, sentiment, an eye attentive to life, trusting an unwavering taste to channel what is worth writing into the written word. It would not be productive to ask me how I wrote it either because I myself do not know. Csikszentmihalyi called this experience “flow”, but there’s a distinction to be made between the rational and the creative processes. The throes of engagement when writing a computer program does not feel the same as the chaos and darkness of writing prose that’s at risk of slipping away. I can write comments about what I wish to code and come back later; I don’t have that luxury with prose that runs dry when I’ve lost how I wanted to write it. The ideas I hear from the inner voice in the passing moments that I deem worth writing are not easily reproducible and only seem they can after the fact because they sit on the page, outside my head. When I finish a coding session I emerge with a sense of completion in the head, the kind of lifeless, fading satisfaction that comes with overcoming an intellectual puzzle. But with prose, after long hours swimming in the night ocean, the weary soul attains a deep satiety that isn’t quite joy so much as a sense of meaning from having danced with life.
Elon Musk was right when he said that companies should “spend less time on finance, spend less time in conference rooms, less time on PowerPoint and more time just trying to make [their] product as amazing as possible.” But he stops short of the reason those in management refuse to do the obvious and innovate. He is asking MBAs, whose primary value proposition is to stand before an audience and sell fancy numbers tacked onto colorful pictures, to use skillsets they don’t have and be engineers and designers, thinkers and experimentalists, to give themselves over to late nights in the office, putting off family duties, placing the product above themselves. Erving Goffman called it “body glossing” when someone explicitly signals to others his activity that is otherwise indiscernible—checking our phone as we wait in a lobby to inform passersby that we’re waiting for someone. When an MBA stands in front of a slide deck, the entire body is glossing. Title and formality, power and position, capital and distance secure a comfort that resists change and new ideas. Who doesn’t want to be a visionary? But what does it cost? The flip side of this coin is that it is unreasonable to expect everyone to be a relentless innovator. Whether it is the changing priorities in life as we age, our divergent aspirations due to different backgrounds, our accustomed privilege, one cannot expect the bulk of the workforce to demand on themselves a rocketship’s takeoff protracted to a lifetime, exhilarating and glorious but also consuming and precarious. Innovators, radicals, and progressives are and will continue to remain a faint portion of society, loud and inspiring but few and precious. Most of us, indeed, are content being normal: a job is just a job. How dispiriting! and yet how true to human nature! and I too shall one day fall in place! A voice in me bares itself and screams: Have you sailed the seven seas, summited K2’s peak, unveiled the secrets of humanity, pried into the mysteries of the universe, have you become all that which you aspired to be, have you pushed the boulder up the mountain enough times, have you seen the apocalypse and returned to live your days knowing you’ve reached the end, that there was no more, have you tapped into the wavelength of what it means to be alive, a fragile collection of stardust that wonders its place among the stars? Writing’s music cannot express convulsive pangs as purely as music in the plain, heard over shut eyes—I am reminded of Michael Nyman’s TIME LAPSE. And so too I am reminded of Hesse: “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”
2021-02-20, 六. How it Ends and Elsewhere Begins Anew.
A daughter returns to Greece with her father who was born there. He is returning to exhume his mother. The country’s shortage of burial space means the dead lie in rented land, staying for three years before their family must come to retrieve their bones to make room for someone else. The uncle hadn’t left the small town with the father decades ago and is the one digging. He clears away the soil, pulling up bits of coffin and bone. The Greeks bury their dead facing west, where the sun sets and where life ends. The daughter is next to her father. First comes the skull with the hair still brown. Then a shoulder bone, a clavicle, and some ribs. The daughter takes a second to look at her father and then back to her uncle. More bones come up, and he reaches a femur and the feet. The uncle steps out. He and the father put the pieces together with their hands. When they are done, the daughter looks at her father who is looking at his mother assembled on the ground. The daughter feels guilty when the thought occurs to her that she might one day stand where her father is. The thought lingers for a second before she glances at the ground and thinks, that’s where life once was. Only the three of them are present, and the ceremony has no music or fanfare. Her father will box his mother’s remains and bring them to a room that also houses others she’d grown up with. A gentle breeze in the air. The daughter knows that when she returns to work next week, she will have to rejoin her colleagues in the usual office banter. The sun is heavy this afternoon but she knows too the sun does not shine for her.
at unexpected moments
those beautiful days
this longing may never end.
might we as parents
reading to our children
a book from our yore
reconcile first memories?
we, passing them down
this little person
half is me
is this what my mother saw in my blank eyes
looking at her mother
she as her
2021-02-11, 四. On Race, Diversity, and Immigration.
Today’s post is delicate for obvious reasons. Reader be warned, this may make
you more uncomfortable than my other posts, but this is an important issue to
Let’s cast aside the political polarization for a moment and have a mature conversation on race and the future identity of America. It’s not popular these days but I don’t think it’s inherently racist to talk about race and its practical consequences, from both perspectives: the white’s and the person of color’s. There are very real issues that have to be addressed. The recent rise of neo-Nazies, conspiracy theories, and white supremacism is not possible under a well-functioning democracy. It only happens when people are insecure and under threat, and this threat stems from 1) poor white folks who feel the country has forgotten them and 2) the rapid demographic changes are altering the country’s identity. I have nothing insightful to say about the first reason on top of the obvious need to address the problem. This post addresses the second reason.
Here are the facts. Estimates project that the country will become majority non-white in 2045. It’s very soon— I’ll likely still be alive when it happens. What do whites, who are losing representation, think of this? A survey found nearly as many view it positively (26%) as negatively (28%).
I’d like to first write a bit with the 28% in mind. At the extreme is the far-right. Richard Spencer, Lauren Southern, and Gavin McInnes are saying, “We built the wealthiest nation on Earth, we introduced democracy and defended it, we created a free state for all, we created the modern world, and who are these foreigners coming over and stealing our inheritance from us?” This is indeed the reality, and I have to say, they have a point. There’s a conversation to be had, certainly not one I can settle but let’s examine this further. My view in the end is that resources, opportunities, and equitable values should not be hoarded within lines as arbitrary as race.
It’s worth repeating: I don’t think it’s racist to talk about whites wishing to preserve Western civilization. It’s a matter of defensive self-conservation. The far right is the loudest but in today’s intolerance that’s the only venue to voice this defensive stance. Again I don’t think this is racist but their concern is they’re being pushed out. I read this from somewhere online—to my fellow liberals, this might be useful to see where the right is coming from—consider a white person moving to China and demanding that Chinese culture be moved aside, that the Chinese should lose rights for racial equality, and that the Chinese should be disarmed and have no option to push back. It’s not racist but such actions provoke self-defense even by a neutral bystander. The question is whether it’s fair to believe the dominant culture of the country (white culture) would be happy becoming just another minority group and losing the power it’s had since the country’s inception. I’d like to believe so because the way forward for the country is to accommodate all Americans but I suspect many white folks, openly or privately, don’t—specifically the 28% in the survey who didn’t even bother pretending. The question isn’t about equality. The country’s changing racial demographics is like saying: imagine a Britain that’s not predominantly British or a China that’s not predominantly Chinese. And no matter our skin color, if any of us takes a stroll along the Seine in Paris and see more Muslims in hijabs than the original French, does Paris feel French? This is the unsettling reality. Suppose for a moment that we lifted every poor white American out of poverty and secured their future prospects. Even then, would they be happy with no longer being able to identify with what the country is becoming? Conservatives feel their homeland is being hijacked even while we progressives see inequality at every turn. It’s a problem in Europe too with the Syrian refugee crisis. Whiteness, Christianity, and the European identity that built the country are being threatened and what we’re doing is blanket-blocking any mention of it as racist when there’s a valid point here.
This problem extends to academia. A very recent vanguard in the humanities has essentially been saying: “we” have been oppressed, colonialized, underrepresented, and now that we’re empowered we’re going to take what’s ours and air our dirty laundry. I’m not saying their push for equality is wrong but that they leave no room for the other side in a climate of cancel culture. Think of all the academics whose entire careers are based on what is now blatantly called imperialist and colonialist. The premise of the country as a free state where all are equal is not possible when we are separating ourselves into piecemeal subcultures defending our turf. America cannot be an either/or but has to be an inclusive both/and. Among many other adjustments, the required coursework reading may very well have to change from the exclusively white Western canon and the field may need some serious reflection on its context and history, but this doesn’t mean dissolving the discipline, as Dan-el Padilla Peralta is open to doing with the classics. Let’s recall that even ideas as radically departing from traditional Western perspective as those in Edward Said’s ORIENTALISM didn’t call for destroying the whole field.
What is happening is human nature: everyone pursues his interest, and it is the country that plays mediator for all citizens. Can we each stop demonizing the other side? It is useful to keep in mind John Rawls’ veil of ignorance and take a step back from our particular place in society to think larger. With America soon to become majority non-white, we have to make peace with that fact. Now, onto something more interesting.
Towards a Brighter Future
This is sobering: a study last year found that when people are forming teams and adding members, they deliberately reduce diversity when they are shown whether a potential member boosts or drops the team’s overall diversity. This behavior looms large. For all we tout diversity in our public relations messaging, for all the apparent diversity in cities, residential neighborhoods are largely segregated by race, even in our most diverse cities: New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. And this map shows the race distribution in the country using the 2010 census data, with one dot per person, each dot colored by race. This is the undeniable state of affairs: de facto segregation. Residential segregation translates to school segregation. These maps show segregation consistent with the country’s racialized geography, and this is over half a century after Brown v. Board of Education. Whatever image of a racially integrated country we may have in mind is not just overly optimistic but entirely wrong. PRRI surveyed racial compositions in 2013 of social networks within racial groups and revealed shocking homogenity. Among whites, 91% of friends are also white, among Blacks, 83% are Black, and among Hispanics, 64% are Hispanic. And Asians? No data for us. We’re invisible. But these numbers remind me of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS SITTING TOGETHER? because of its title and how it cuts at the core of the matter. What is disheartening is I have not even the slightest instinct to say these numbers are out of touch with reality. What about the entertainment we consume? A study found “[w]hite participants showed significantly less interest in seeing movies with mostly Black casts than in seeing movies with mostly [w]hite casts.” Another study found that whites and Blacks have few favorite TV shows in common. And books? I couldn’t find a study on this, but let’s be honest. If we can’t even bring ourselves to watch movies and TV across race, how many do we suppose have read James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, or Toni Morrison? Or Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Parmuk?
So we don’t live together, don’t go to the same schools, aren’t friends with each other, don’t watch the same movies or TV shows, and if we meet each other at work what guides our conversations is a societal restraint from broaching race that precludes any serious discussion and mingling. How then are we to make friends across racial lines if we don’t have much in common, can’t point out the obvious, and skirt about the issue by talking shop, and when we invite that friend to our circle of largely homogenous friends we are also transferring the burden of restraint to them? And what are we talking about when we say with such conviction that we understand the Black plight or that of other minorities who have been less abused and less disenfranchised over the course of the country’s history if the immensity of our unquestioned confidence comes from—indeed betrays—our own realities, our projected mythologies and imaginations exchanged among friends, cloistered in our communities where everyone looks and thinks like ourselves?
Racial inequality is something we can’t help but pick up on. We adults don’t talk about it because we’ve learned restraint, afraid of saying the wrong thing, and instead keep quiet or look away. Kids notice it too but are more open to speaking their minds. In the podcast NICE WHITE PARENTS, the host Chana Joffe-Walt describes this kind of situation when white students, who bring more funding power, started enrolling at a predominantly Black and Hispanic middle school: “These boys, even at 11 years old, they’ve absorbed the same messages that [the school] wasn’t so good before. It was a bad school. He and his friends, they’ve turned the school around. That’s what he’s learning.” This is what the boy in question said: “The kids wouldn’t pay attention. And they had, like–got to, like, zone out every little thing. And I bet they learned very little. And now this generation with us, I think we’re doing a lot better. And I think that we’re learning at a much faster pace.” This comment isn’t racist so much as it’s an innocent observation of a consequence of our education system and a history of suppression, and what he is saying is something we all notice when we come across it, but the current political and social climate casts over us a pall that mutes what we already know as wise silence.
Here I digress to put in a word on immigration. Like any proper New Yorker, I am a flaming liberal. I support the idea of equal opportunity for all whether in this country or in any other. In spite of this, I don’t think the answer to the immigration question is to throw open our doors and let everyone in. There is a limit to how many the country can tolerate without bankrupting the social system. David Frum notes the practical concerns of immigration, that immigrants cost the government more than they contribute in taxes. A part of me says this is the price of an egalitarianism, but this deficit also surfaces a brutal reality. How can we accommodate indefinitely more immigrants when our country is already steep in debt and millions of our own, those we look in the eye as our fellow Americans, are struggling? Frum advocates focusing our immigration policy to accept highly skilled immigrants—doctors and engineers—who earn their keep and help the country remain innovative. This, of course, means a continual brain drain from their home countries, which strangely enough has been found to increase wages and democratic values back home. I’m not convinced, however, that losing a nation’s best and brightest helps a developing country stand on its own and catch up rather than merely benefiting indirectly from Western progress. But this is the price of supplying American innovation, securing American well-being.
Diversity—why is it so difficult? I’m an atheist, yet I’ve sat with a Protestant as he prayed for me, I’ve linked hands with Catholics saying grace before a meal, I’ve attended Mass, I’ve sat in classes full of Catholics. I’ve joined the Muslim retreat at the Blue Mosque as the muezzin called and witnessed the hall’s worshipers kneeling on the floor in prayer. I put on a kippah in Jerusalem and stood face-to-face with the Wailing Wall. I sat among the local community in Mumbai at a Hindu engagement ceremony. So what that I’m an atheist? We should keep in mind that what feels foreign to one is home to another, and it was the arbitrary slight of chance that we ourselves were not born into another’s community.
Diversity is the country’s future, and it is a future when the landscape of writers and directors will have changed, along with the TV-watching and movie-going market whose preference commands what the entertainment industry produces. One day, this era’s fight for social justice, equal representation, true equality under law and its enforcement, will have been but one chapter in the transition to a more equitable world. And one day, we will not think it out of the ordinary that a lead actor is brown though we notice it and are aware of the long struggle that made such casting possible, and we will not be uncomfortable watching a person of color rejoice or sulk or have the full range of experiences of any ordinary human. One day, the unsightly practice will have passed when the camera deigns a moment for the diversity shot and then cuts away, returning to the default whiteness. The country’s future is mixed, and we have to accept this as a reality, not boil over with veiled resentment.
William Buckley Jr. wrote, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” What nonsense! How shortsighted is his view of history that for him, history extends no further than the past several hundred years since the Great Divergence that marked the West’s emergence as the world’s wealthiest and most advanced civilization, and he happened to have lived in the period when such self-flattery is possible. The one constant that endures time is change, and just as no individual lives forever in his youthful peak, no society is immune to its evolving fortunes. How many came before who met worse fates have had to accept change? Russians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Turks, Aztecs, Egyptians, and all those who belonged to once thriving civilizations: if it is any consolation, others have been here before, and the decline of white power in America is one peaceful tick of change in the ocean of our inflated self-importance. How many in those prior civilizations screamed that the end is nigh, yet the world has moved on, and they carry about themselves in it as routinely as the Earth revolves around the Sun? It’s always irked me how any mentioning the fall of the Roman Empire carries an air of puritanical nationalism, that it is with resignation that such greatness came to an end. It certainly was great, but we give the invaders who brought its fall the exceedingly flattering name of barbarians even though they too had families and lives, pursuing their interests just as the Romans theirs, and these barbaric tribes don’t seem barbarians any longer when we name them properly: the Franks settling in modern France, the Visigoths in modern Spain, the ancestors of the moderns. We sympathize so intensely with the Romans because we see only one side, and the fact that we continue to use the word barbarians descends from this lineage—it’s what the Romans called outsiders. It is worth reminding ourselves the truth Carl Sagan pointed out in COSMOS: “National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.” That blue crescent formed 4,500,000,000 years ago, of which we humans developed agriculture in the last 12,000 and began laying the foundation for civilization. It is outright foolish to think that human culture has peaked and should change no further. The future of the country is diversity and what must happen: acceptance and unity, not separation and exclusion. Why not imagine a future where we contain Whitman’s multitudes? Across canyons and valleys, lush green praries and eroded rock strewn over sand-blown desert, towering mesas and redwood forests, we find small towns and major metropolises decorating the land under the snow-capped mountains, for we are all of us American: brown and yellow and black and white and blue and red, bound not by prescriptions of the isolated echo chambers that came before but by a full forward march, hand in hand, towards a history that will bear our names in pioneering pride. When we were children we saw ourselves as adventurers and explorers, looking out at a world full of mystery, curious at everything, unafraid to learn, elated to be alive. Where has that sense of awe and wonder gone?
2021-02-09, 二. In Defense of Abstract Art.
Why view abstract art? When we stand before an abstract painting, what is it that we’re looking at in the indeterminate swirls that don’t even remotely resemble a person, a place, or anything familiar? I wish to address why I prefer abstraction.
If we can represent nature by reducing it into a set of equations, why not too visual expression into art’s purest form? And what is visual art on the canvas but the strokes of a brush painting in the four variables of color, shape, size, and space? Consider Mondrian, Rothko, and Kandinsky. They use these variables to their own vision, and even with such a small arsenal, how can we say their compositions are anything but wholly unlike each other? It is often mentioned that abstract paintings lack technical difficulty. To this I say that the difficulty of abstraction is in the conception which requires a certain maturity, not in the elitist sense, but in the capacity to grasp symbolism to its devastating potential. One way to conceive of the world is to view nature and the universe as the eternal constants in which we measly humans flicker by, but another, equally valid one is to place ourselves at the central vantage point because what will it all have mattered if we don’t exist? To appreciate abstraction is to take the leap from merely mimicking reality, scrupulously copying down its concretized distinctions and its various shades of light, to human expression, the crux of what it means to be alive.
I remember the first time I encountered Barnett Newman’s VIR HEROICUS SUBLIMIS. I was pulled to it as if by a magnet, drawn up close to the life-sized red canvas, the red consuming my entire field of vision, and I felt shivers running down my spine. Staring straight ahead, I felt transported to another realm, and what ran through me for a full minute was a whole world of sensory saturation. The canvas encased all passion, all desire, all rage, all triumph, and it was surging excitement, jubilation: the sublime. What I felt was nothing less than the chaos of the universe, human folly, birth and death, our meaningless motions, coming together in a form so simple. It is an overflowing power even though the painting does not laboriously enumerate all human mistakes under the sky, it does not have any semblance of a character or story, it doesn’t have any material substance other than color and size, for this impalpability mirrors what we have in the end: nothing. And this sensory experience is the meaning of the work, needing no other indication than the title: Man Heroic Sublime. Some attempt to approach the painting using traditional methods, examining its construction and the artist’s background. To do so is to have missed the point. They place undue emphasis on the vertical lines, the zips, and deconstruct the order in which Newman painted them—it’s a rather simple exercise of withholding some vertical space with tape and then either painting between a pair or painting around one. But this is not the right way to look at the painting, and we do not understand the painting through its technicalities any more than we get closer to understanding what enables life by analyzing the brain’s atomic makeup. The zips merely serve to provide a sense of size for a painting that stands taller than any viewer.
I am not suggesting that expression and meaning is limited to abstraction’s dominion. Consider Norman Rockwell’s undeniably political THE PROBLEM WE ALL LIVE WITH, or Caspar David Friedrich’s proud WANDERER ABOVE THE SEA OF FOG, or Giorgio de Chirico’s dreary THE MELANCHOLY OF DEPARTURE, or the contrast of human transience and the mountain’s unfazed apathy in Hokusai’s EJIRI IN THE SURUGA. Let’s not forget Yayoi Kusama’s more visceral infinity mirror installations that manifest her internal world, rife with obsessions, a black room illuminated by floating lights all around, all receding into the horizon, a world on fire from which there is no escape, a world into which the public voluntarily steps. Or the same concept rendered more explicit in Edvard Munch’s THE SCREAM, which unlike the former cannot be misinterpreted as just a pretty picture. What I am saying is abstraction’s poignance arises from its simplicity that is too often overlooked, a simplicity that not only enhances a painting’s lyric capacity but elevates the art by inflecting upon its very medium so that the artist, the process, the art meld into one. Why should a Ronnie Landfield stare at us less directly and speak to us from further away than Vermeer’s GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING? In one brush stroke dashing across the surface, one color reaching upwards, dancing among many in our human dynamism, we see not a landscape or a portrait but a visual ode singing the tune of our inner complexity.
To stay clear of art’s mystique, I must mention the regrettable reality is that any mention of art is preceded by its reputation. In this sense, art is like wine tasting. Wine tasting and, even more importantly, the acquired diction developed to describe it unfortunately connote class aspiration, class maintenance, and the whole system of media that reinforce wine’s continued esteem and consumption. We don’t dwell a second on wine’s unfermented cousin, the unremarkable grape juice, but we go to considerable lengths to distinguish between wines by variety, region, year, and color. Though we may sensibly separate a heavy malbec from a mild pinot noir, when we start throwing around phrases like “flavor of blackberry”, “notes of earthy vanilla”, “hints of seasoned red plum”, and “a rich dark chocolate lingering in the aftertaste”, all the while affecting a poker face as we swirl and sniff ourselves into high oblivion, should we not ask ourselves if there might not be a more productive use of time than making an impression? Any genuine appreciation for wine is quickly extinguished when artifice enters the conversation. So too is art when we chase the big name, attach a price tag, and enshroud it in undue mystery. The art market has not escaped the American variety of ruthless capitalism, and decades of rising economic inequality has permitted the rise of rogue billionaires who patronize rogue artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Why do some artists fetch handsome sums at Christie’s or Sotheby’s while many of their peers struggle, forced to sell their work on the street? There is a market whose taste is determined by an exclusive community, and the clients, keen on entertaining guests of similar standing, viewing a painting as an investment, patting themselves on the back for procuring a rarefied treasure for the spouse, transact in prestige which, too, can be bought. The truth is that the CEOs, the hedge fund managers, and those in the professional class whose wealth has passed the threshold where capital allocation alone suffices for comfortable living have not, over the course of their upward career trajectory, had the time to calibrate artistic taste. The real artist, dedicated to his craft as a parent to a child, for whom art is a means of living, is at the mercy of the tastemakers, the curators, the established critics. Such is the art market. But American capitalism, ever eager to place its hand on every exchange, bends the market to its own morality. This is not art for art’s sake but raw capitalism. Let us appreciate art on its own accord, art for all. As Jerry Saltz says, anyone can look at art—including abstract art.
writing fiction is like
doing pure math
simply pen and paper.
painting a world in abstract
color and shape
2019-10-19, 六. On Humility.
I came across some old archives from my college. In them, photos—I’ll provide the links at the end of this entry, but it is my hope that the reader resist the itch to scroll down. The plague of modernity, fragmented, interrupting, dispersed across screens, paper, devices, copies and versions, scrambled notes and secluded apps, cross-referencing links, bold images and billboard pizzazz, chaos and dementia all vying for attention, is not the lack of information but the senseless deluge of it. In these old archives, photos: a past era spread across decades, from the early to late 1900s. The exact dates, just one window among many, are not important. Age is apparent in the photos: black-and-white, the box desktop monitor, the oversized eyeglasses common in a bygone era. An image of the building facade I know so well, that entrance colonnade, the familiar study rooms and library stacks, the exposed brick in the background whose texture I can still feel on my fingertips, whose varying shades of deep tan at the front of a lecture hall I can still see from the back row. Photos of students and professors, angled over a book, gesturing against a blackboard, a chin resting on a palm. These are images of contemplation. I see my former professor too; he is young, the dawn of the present’s grey hair still on the unforeseeable horizon, and I am reminded of his soft-spoken, deliberate words, his liberal smiles. Here in these images is an ethos, a generation that has had its day. I ask: where has the time gone? A day will come when my own present, captured in its 4K ultra-high definition, its 60 FPS videos, its surround sound, will seem the same way the image my former professor does to me.
Why am I consistently struck by images like these? They check me and my obsessions, my principles and remorseless ventures, my defiances and rages, my deep subversion and antipathy, my irreverence and disregard, my high expectation, my absurdism which proclaims with all its bared conviction the active pursuit of personal meaning, hinged on individualism and suffering. Who can’t revel when resources abound, when surplus is assured? Who can’t lounge at the resort, the tropical vacation, under the canopy of a beach umbrella? How can you measure a man’s worth without plunging him into confusion, without testing his willpower, without questioning his premises, without first casting him into continual self-doubt, without subjecting him to arduous probing, without seeing what comes of him at the end, without the final analysis? How can you understand him if you only broach the surface? Does not our brittle sentience oblige us to something higher? Begin thus: shut the eyes, lock the world out, and create your own. There is naive happiness: contagiously distracting, wholly irrelevant, easy happiness. And yet is joy and elation not written in the eyes in those photos, snapshots of once-luminous years now laid to rest, encrusted in digitized stone? What justifies this morbid preoccupation, this pathological vexation? Who wanders on the distant shore? There is immortality, transcendence, a surge for meaning, the soaring spirit, and what but a mere few decades collapses a firestorm into flickering vestiges, a reality no longer ignorable, a whirling intensity and dire flame abated by universal inevitability? Push enough in one direction, and the path converges on the other end, the whole ordeal turning out to be nothing more than a simple circle. Is not man waking contradiction, lucid paradox? What lies in the periphery erodes, our own constructions crumbling away when we, at our silent, inconsequential ends, rejoin the dust clouds. I remember the broad strokes of an algorithm book’s preface I chanced upon some years ago, encapsulated in these words: “We are all born into this world grasping for comprehension. We leave it in much the same way.” As I gaze at these photos and am forced to confront the fate of our collective humanity, I cave in to the flash of overwhelming sympathy, inspired to the depths towards pure union, and am convinced that this is the veritable truth, but do I not soon regain the call to existence? Am I not at every moment of ease restless? And when among friends at an evening gathering, among companions enjoying company, am I not suspicious of communal comfort, and am I not asking myself whether I shouldn’t be doing something productive? Perhaps I do not see past youthful illusion, and I remain the perpetual sourpuss, the unyielding killjoy. Perhaps the matter of fact is this habit of mine is needless exertion, because—you, me, and everyone else—we’re all just wasting time. A part of me, down to its very blood and bones, its beating heart and spiritual core, longs for transcendence. Another, which surfaces infrequently, and always with cataclysmic delirium, crumbles down to earth, groveling on its knees, defeated and repenting. In me are disjoint visions, distal opposites, a fervent intensity which hardly anyone can detect beneath a serene appearance and pliable demeanor, much less for a people known far more for amenability than audacity, the orient’s deep-rooted harmony, because the strength of the outward thrust is paired with a stronger restraint, dimpled by over-sensitive nerves quickly overwhelmed from multiple commotion.
I had come across the archive photos a while ago but was reminded of them after I was, in the unpredicatable network of the internet, linked to the late Jack Schwartz’s In Memoriam site. Browsing the photos, I felt grounded, anchored. The fact that the camera is not as sharp as contemporary ones dates the photos, contextualizing them. Though I never met Jack, I saw in these images a life in retrospect, countries I’ve also visited, travels I can relate to, and which, as they appear in those images, seem to belong to Jack’s time. To linger over the past is an undiluted view—somber, yes—but it is a fate which not too far in the future will be our own and which should evoke in us not only relation to another time and how we are situated against it, but also emphasize what is at stake when we live ours. The greatest divides are the boundaries across generations, life experience locked away in the written word or the still photograph.
my campus footpath at the start of fall break
under the early evening sun
that eerie feeling
emptiness where people should be
like parts of the city, late at night
having reconciled with the dread
that I’d lost them with my move
I encounter the tribe again
in my cohort
staring down the years ahead
this morning’s decadence
peanut butter from the jar
expanding slowly on my bagel
absorbed in thought
I look up, recontextualizing myself
glancing down two seconds later
a blank mind
I’ve lost my place
walking in hurried strides
pause for a moment, let the rush subside
immerse in the anonymous
project your focus outside
view yourself from the sky
lost in the heaping crowd
that old city life
2019-09-30, 一. Towards Mundanity.
It seems to me that there is a misplaced importance in the glittery and special, the infrequent and towering. Consider for a minute what we deem noteworthy, the occasions, the people, the excursions we wish to record in some form so we may later remember the original instance. Imagine what tempts us to take a photo: family reunions, smiles at the museum next to Starry Night, a friend’s birthday party, a beached whale, scuba diving in the lagoon, gazing outwards at the dappled skyscraper lights in the twilight cityscape from the top of the Empire State Building. Imagine what we write about: intrigue, mystery, cataclysm, swashbuckling drama, romance, adventure, fantasy, conjured fiction. The objects and events which atract our remembrances are not those that embody our lived experience which bears the bulk of our hours and days but which are instead the rogue anomalies, sparkling and fanciful yet sparse and detached, unrealistic and unrepresentative. Why is it that we pay almost exclusive attention to those infrequent moments and overlook what occupies the bulk of our daily lives, the very things that go unnoticed for the simple fact that the evening commute, the season’s pantry selections, the foible during Wednesday’s thunderstorm, the arrangement of books, papers, furnishings in the apartment, the brittle morning quietude, are common and invariant? These elements of our present context, the details of our facticity, should be cherished and appreciated precisely because we tend not to see them, and we cannot see their value when we’ve acclimated to the certainty of their presence in the periphery because they acquire contrast and nostalgic meaning only in the years afterwards when the familiarity and habituated motions we had once taken for granted which had, without thought, colored our backgrounds are no longer accessible beyond vague and, by then, certainly distorted memory, in those moments when we long that time also flows backwards.
To each his own chosen delights and dissipation. What is revolting is when natural complexity is buried by a pacifying smile which disregards and invalidates these indispensible considerations, banishing them to nonexistence. Mundane and common, yes, though nothing less than an appetite for the taste of existence, melancholic and transient.
There is a pond outside, wavelings rippling across the surface, a soft, gentle, constant wind billowing over its still mass. Two adolescent geese are floating near the edge, wings folded, necks tall and curved like cranes, feathered chests thrust out like a hen sitting on her eggs, enticing to the hands like a pomeranian’s coat. It is a cloudy afternoon, a uniform grey pall, bleak and gloom looming in the skies above, time seemingly halted, the movements of the guiding lights in abeyance, left without an announcement when late afternoon becomes early evening. Perhaps it is the changing of the seasons. A mild chill this morning, headwind of the winter ahead.
I am sitting in the driver’s seat. My mind is frazzled, in disarray, inklings of flickering thoughts branching in remorseless rampance, so many, so variable, too disorganized to pursue. A sense of loss. I am driving down Douglas Road, stuck in unusual traffic, behind an SUV stopped by a red light. I pause, shut my eyes, take advantage of the sterile moment, hoping to quell my racing thoughts again, this time once and for all. I had been catching up with myself all day, tracing the lingering images, inspirations, encounters of the week which had not yet been given due time, the weekend a reprieve from the barbarous class schedule, being tossed between buildings and classrooms, littered with hectic meetings, to-do lists, chaos, fragmented attention. And I had been telling myself that even on the weekend I shouldn’t lapse into rest, letting myself loosen up and breathe, that instead I should be working. I am, after all, in graduate school. Isn’t that what I moved here for, the busyness, the urgently packed miscellanea of academic life, a new start? When the SUV starts moving, I realize why the road is crowded: it must be football weekend. I am on my way to J’s dinner which the day before I resolved not to attend, then considered, re-considered, settled, uprooted, a whole series of vacillations so typical of my character, demanding routine and predictability yet given to sudden whims and unexpected routs. My thoughts are unstable, and I am weary from the day’s brooding and pacing, the torrent unleashed by the weekend’s dam opening the floodgates of accumulated mental weight, and pursuing each trace is tiring, a private preoccupation, the weekend in the apartment a furnace of dilemma and quandary, sinking into contemplation after which there is no concretized proof of progress but which leaves me relieved and in touch with myself, a weekly rite of passage. I fret at a question that seems to come easily to others and which is answered just as readily, in what to them is a natural wave of the hand and which has never occurred to me as a simple inquiry, not because I do not wish to reply, but simply because I do not know how to answer in a way that satisfies me, much less in the immediacy of casual small-talk: how was my weekend? What may strike others as unfruitful, uneventful, wallowing, unhealthy, and invented difficulty are what permeate the time I have on my own, my home life, which is difficult not only because it does not lend itself to communication and relatability, but also because it is ethereal, lost even to myself unless I write these ruminations down. This is, I suppose, what defines my home life, my little adventures: unpalatable difficulty. But isn’t this my default state? To step outside and mingle is easy, comforting, relaxing, but I cannot help but be wary of its draws towards complacence, deceptive alleviation, able to stroll in contentment for it has side-stepped the obligatory uncertainty which, without the forces of disguising compliance, lies in the plain. Plagued by unfinished strands of thought, an octopus’ arms flailing about, unbeknownst to anyone as always behind my serene demeanor, I had forced myself to step out the apartment for dinner. I am driving down a road, half-baked in the head, half-delirious, precarious in my habits, not fully re-integrated with reality which I usually re-encounter on Monday but which I can cope with because I know it in advance as a matter of weekly routine. The laws of nature are difficult, but so is the human psyche. If this private, continual journey delves further and further inwards, it is in pursuit of eventual self-discovery. We are each of us, if given proper consideration, our own worlds waiting to be unveiled.
I’m not the only one buying them after all
none left at my supplier
my bagels ran out last night
2019-09-23, 一. Excerpt from the little black book.
Even the presence of company somehow siphons my energy. How can this be? It is enervating, debilitating, constraining, as if my creative latitude has contracted, my exploratory freedom diminished. A sense of companionship gives me at once the comfort of belonging to a group but also a group’s conforming tendencies and impulses in which my instincts are muted, not permitted to stretch. The conversations that come closest to satisfaction are with only one other, when I can probe deeply, one-on-one, free from a group’s desultory whims and intrusive, distracting, irrelevant itches and bouts, the inevitable trajectory of any social engagement, yet as I am walking to class with J, as I am sitting beside her in the lecture hall, I feel unable to be fully myself, to linger on my doubts and uncertainties, instead irremediably exuding a calm masquerade, putting off equanimity and poise, obeying societal prodding due to internal proclivities I’ve come to realize have not entirely eroded during the course of my asocial years but which have been lying dormant and are resurfacing beyond my will, when the state of affairs is that I am turbulent, restless, excitable, and in dire need of the independence availed by solitary work. After an accompanied episode, I have not only phased out of touch with my internal state, having lost track of my private compass, having left my cloistered ecosystem unattended for an interrupting duration, a black chasm gapingly torn open, almost an unknown void between the moment I was last aware of myself and my present disorientation, whose back-filling demands recalibration and reflection, but I am also fatigued, aghast that my redoubled effort at socialization competes with my very nature.
I like firm showerheads with delightful pressure, no-sugar-added cheesecake, unscented handsoap, pens that don’t smear my hand’s belly as it slides across the page, pleasant saxophonists lighting up the subway with jazzy melodies, dark humor, deep conversation, lightweight banter, naughter sarcasm, vulnerable confessions, playful teasing, spending time sharing strange stories, mistakes made, lingering and unresolved grievances, revealing and then laughing, remaining sincere and faithful to the layered nuances of living, breathing, and feeling.
I’ve been told on multiple occasions I look like a student. People notice it, though it’s not true. It seems that I give off the impression that I’m younger than my years. Recently at the post office I was asked, by a cashier with greying hair and a suspicious hesitation gleaming from his eyes, how old I was. Sometimes the waitress at the bar cards me, because my charming youth unsettles even the general appearance of maturity from amongst a group of exclusively older friends, none of them less than half a decade my senior, who had all already ordered and all without provoking the matron’s protective instinct. I was once reading diligently in the park when a woman, despite my ostensibly studious posture nonetheless insisted on striking up a conversation, promptly asked whether I’m a high school student, and I later had to convince myself that it was not my choice of reading, whose cover was conveniently hidden in its seated prostration on my lap, but whose hefty size could only have indicated otherwise, that suggested the question. Also in recent memory is a treasure hunt for the UPS drop box at the Presbyterian Hospital on 68th, the sole option at that time in the evening still open for services that was also reasonably close by, when I, in my youthful impatience, could not wait until the following day to ship a package. It seems those hospital folk don’t ship packages often because their directions to some secluded hallway in the basement must’ve been rooted in that UPS drop box’s heydays when it was formerly in demand, because it has since moved, and the basement folk, who must’ve been informed of the move of such a promising and cherished protégé which had proven, in time’s merciless onslaught, to not live up to anticipated popularity and had now been cast away in disappointment to some back corner, pointed to the nearby stairs back up to the first floor, across the corridor, down another hallway, and, in the course of navigating so ingeniously designed a hospital, I passed the entrance lobby from which I arrived, coming full circle, realizing that the two directions were hopelessly misaligned, and in the ensuing flurry in search of the holy land, the secret sanctum, the yogi’s peace, nirvana in a box, it slowly dawned on me that, really, no one knew where the UPS drop-off was. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were simply directing this little, uncomprehending youth in meandering circles, round and about, until he gave up on his own accord, the hospital masterminds acting as one, collectively and telepathically amusing themselves with their devious tricks and medical humor, because who but a malicious miscreant with hidden motives shows up at the hospital so late at night and with nothing better to do than to drop off a dainty cardboard box— who knows what’s in there and what he plans to do? Long story short, the UPS box is indeed in the basement, but cloistered at the flank of the cafeteria known as the Garden Cafe—maybe the eponymous garden is no measly, nameless garden of harmless shrubs and idle tulips, but rather a minefield of treacherous strife, a religious rite of passage, the Garden of Eden lost, corrupted, blighted, and man, searching for his return to bliss, must navigate its deadly swamps under the guise of heartwarming food that lull the senses with its lunchtime decor. I stood by the doors at the cafe’s entrance, evaluating the danger, thinking, this garden must be the last obstacle, the final precipice, the most trying test. Needless to say, this is where many a sailor who, weary and exhausted from sailing the unforgiving high seas, the mind-bogging and labyrinthine hospital, content themselves with an easy, filling meal, call it a day, and turn their backs on their original noble mission. But not this seasoned sailor. To reach the fabled treasure trove, I bolted into a Rocky-dash up a flight of stairs with exactly four steps, pummeled past twin doors with no comforting EXIT sign in red neon above—there’s no exit in this one—actually there might have been but at that moment I was at the height of my powers, a car on seventh gear, too focused to divert my attention on anything but the end goal, so let’s go with the story—and, as if by intuited scent, made an immediate sharp left, and there it was: the storied UPS box, hugging the wall, next to its second cousin the Fedex box, in a messy bed of cardboard dangling on the floor. I found myself in the middle of a dimly lit hall, and I glanced quickly both ways, left then right, then left again to eye my proper reward, the haloed UPS offshoot, and I saw in this hall a ghostly post-apocalyptic world just a door beyond, as silent and harrowing as the two abandoned blue-leathered stretchers standing in the background, with only each other for company in their dilapidated, forgotten, eternal melancholy, an early image of the end to come. Anyways, back to the reason I brought this story up: one of the security guards I inquired on my adventure was a young lass, late twenties at most, who at the end of our encounter made a note of appending the endearing label of “darling” to “have a good evening”, the sort of diminutive affection that one adult would not share with another, particularly with a stranger, particularly from a lady when the stranger is a grown man, but only with someone deemed juvenile and adolescent, and I, walking away, wondered if it was my demure, solicitous earnesty that reminded her of a child holding out his hands, pleading for his allowance, and provoked her to reveal, as she saw it, the state of affairs. I deserve the credit of my years! I’ve weathered a quarter of a century! That’s hard work!
In my field, there’s a concentration of analytical, rational, and fiercely logical types, which I supposes in only fitting, considering this line of work, and though I can spar toe-to-toe with my coworkers, I frequently find myself left unsatisfied with the interactions, that though tasks a, b, and c may be completed double-quick, I have a lingering malaise nudging at my insides, as if I’m missing something I can’t exactly pinpoint, as if moving rapidly through to-do lists and completing the day’s tasks is not quite enough. So while my colleagues may no sooner remove the last item off their stack than they fling themselves wholly to another concrete pursuit, I am almost always dawdling behind, wondering in a trance about this strange incompleteness and, in brief intervals, why I feel this way. I’ve grown fairly accustomed to this feeling by now, and I think I know the reason: deep down I have a yearning that life is not simply a procession of successive objectives, bullet points, and graspable actions, because there’s a greater satisfaction in touching a dimension beyond the fabric of physical existence. I get this feeling sometimes too at the movie theatre when the credits roll, and you hear the sound of those cinema seats springing back to their upright positions, the audience emptying out, and I remain seated, gazing at the twilight finale. I used to get it too in school, when class ends and everyone is rushing to depart, and I’d think, isn’t it a wonder that just a minute ago the room was filled with eager youth, that only a moment’s passing as quick as the flip of a coin can so transform a room from brimming, untamable energy to nostalgic quietude, that even now the chairs are still warm. I don’t think many of my colleagues will appreciate one of my strange ruminations—listen: water droplets at the faucet are slowly dripping into the wash basin!
Maybe I’m just coming up with excuses for my habitual daydreaming, though I insist that I have a preoccupation with transcendence. You’ll understand if the following excerpt from Pablo Neruda’s CON ELLA (WITH HER) unsuspectingly disarms you, sends you to the clouds for the brief moments you’re reading it, and you stop in your tracks, seized by its beckoning call:
-In the original Spanish:
Como es duro este tiempo, espérame:
vamos a vivirlo con ganas
Dame tu pequeña mano:
vamos a subir y sufrir
vamos a sentir y saltar
This time is difficult. Wait for me.
We will live it out vividly.
Give me your small hand:
we will rise and suffer
we will feel, we will fly