Friday, December 13, 2013

An ordinary blue Monday morning by Ronelda Kamfer

Note: This is my English translation of the wonderful and startling poem 'n gewone blou Maandagoggend by Ronelda S. Kamfer.

An ordinary blue Monday morning

it was an ordinary blue Monday morning
somewhere a mom was off to identify her child's body
i washed myself, brushed my teeth, and finished my science project
against the fridge was a note from mom
asking me please do not make the breyani too spicy tonight
my sis was searching for socks and by half seven i had the front door
and then i hid the key in the old place
at the house shop i bought two loose cigarettes
and slid them into my sock
on the corner of Wildflower and Rose Street
a girl was joking with her future murderers
in my head Dylan Thomas was screaming
do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light
in sex ed my heavily pregnant best friend started bleeding
outside on the street there were a couple of gunshots

by first break there was a corpse on School Street
a miscarriage in my class
a delay to the science project
and a woman running down the street shrieking
asking the Lord
"where was Joseph when Jesus was crucified!"

Monday, December 09, 2013

Bulela Madiba

here in my little place   suddenly 8 thousand miles      from home
the news came                  just half a sentence                  R.I.P.
always had that smile           even             ensconced in a fur hat
on a cold July               in stadium lights        what a happy night
waving at crowds       at us, can it be us now      waving goodbye
Bulela Madiba
                                            even my childhood is not the same
without your courage           casting light                     backwards
saving my innocence        from ignorance                      & shame   
Bulela Tata Madiba
for the years you spent away                  from your home in Qunu
& your happiest days               look         now we all come to you

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Instructions on How to Understand Words Written by Julio Cortazar

The first part of Paul Blackburn's translation of Cronopios and Famas that I have in my hand consists of a set of absurd instructions collectively called The Instruction Manual. There are various unusual instructions, advisories and strategies, most of which appear completely redundant on account of their dubious usefulness. What they are often instructive for, other than being rather entertaining, is as a nimble survey of the limits of language.

Take for instance "Instructions on how to kill ants in Rome". If the title itself doesn't raise an eyebrow it can only be because we thought this might be a traveller's guide on how to avoid the annoyance of ants while spending a weekend in Rome.

Think again.

"Ants, it is said, will eat Rome", we are told in the very first sentence. The narrator promptly exhibits a melodramatic overreaction that can only mean his statement was taken somewhat too literally: "They scurry between the flagstones: O she-wolf, what highway of precious stones slices your throat?"

The somewhat suspect deduction is then made that the hidden waterways of the city, connecting fountain to fountain, are the prime highways for the ants - a secret bit of knowledge revealed in a suitably conspiratorial tone for the benefit of the reader - and that finding the heart of all fountains should be our main goal.

The absurdities come thick and fast, all in support of an urgent need to instruct us in the mysterious ways of divining the complex myriad of "imperial vessels" :

"go by way of the Quirinal, climb to the Campidoglio, run shouting through the Pincio, land with a motionless apparition like a ball of fire on the orderly walks of the Piazza della Essedra, this is how to extract from the ground's silent metals the catalogue of subterranean rivers", (p. 19)

At last when the place where "the heart of the water hammers out its time" is found "we shall kill the ants by arriving before them at the central fountain".

Part of the comedy relies on the narrator's obsessive eccentricity. We want to say "how come you know so much about this, and haven't eradicated the ants yourself?". This is in effect a clue to the fissure at the heart of the instructions. Metaphors and expressions are, erroneously, taken for the real thing, constituting a break between language and reality.

A related theme, that of using words inappropriately, is evident in the next set of instructions: "Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase".

Based on its title we could conjecture that there are, after all, people who may not know how to climb a staircase, and therefore the instructions are not entirely redundant - just not applicable in the case of most readers. But that soon turns out to be a false supposition.

The instructions start out by describing a stair - a single stair - in the most obtuse, even confusing fashion to those already familiar with stairs.

"No one will have failed to observe that frequently the floor bends in such a way that one part rises at a right angle to the plane formed by the floor and then the following section arranges itself parallel to the flatness", (p. 21)

There is something dreamlike about this description, as if the discovery of a stair is possible even after we have lived in a house for a long time ("No one will have failed to observe").

This deliberately imposed cerebral distance between the words and the reality makes us realise that words can be discovered just as reality is discovered. We are not merely discovering a stair in reality, we are discovering a stair in language. The narrator's pedantic scientia absurdum is "helping" us to discover the stair in language.

"Ducking down and placing the left hand on one of the vertical parts and the right hand upon the corresponding horizontal, one is in momentary possession of a step or stair", (p. 21)

Despite this wonderful novelty, we soon sense that it may not be such a useful discovery after all, and that words may not be the most appropriate form in which to explain these instructions. Just as we commonly say that a picture is worth a thousand words, we come to see that these words are not a very good way to explain the problem at hand. In fact, they are not even likely to succeed - indeed are more likely to confuse - someone who does not know how to climb stairs.

This point hits home with the confusing use of "foot" as a technical term in the instructions:

"(The first steps are always the most difficult, until you acquire the necessary coordination. The coincidence of names between the foot and 'the foot' makes the explanation more difficult. Be especially careful not to raise, at the same time, the foot and 'the foot')", (p. 22)

Cortazar's Instructions reward several readings. They are surprisingly dense, usually no more than two or three pages long, but full of absurdities and little surprises at the edge of language.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Luciano Floridi and a Short Introduction to Information : Part 2

Semantic information as presented by Luciano Floridi deserves a discussion all on its own. He not only describes how it differs from MTC, which we talked about in Part 1, but also introduces two logical paradoxes that each require some explanation. To prepare ourselves let's take a look at the following formal definition of semantic information:

"p qualifies as factual semantic information if and only if p is (constituted by) well-formed, meaningful and veridical data." (p. 50)

Note the veridical aspect in this definition. Information that is not true is not considered factual semantic information. Floridi explains that there is a difference between semantic content and semantic information, which the definition tries to express. Instances of the former can be either true or false, but instances of the latter are always true.

Take for example the case of John, who tells a mechanic that the car's battery is flat because his wife forgot to switch off the car's lights. In actual fact it was John who forgot to switch off the lights, but he does not want to own up to it. The fact that the car's battery is flat is a case of semantic information, because it is true, but what he told the mechanic about the cause, namely that it was his wife's carelessness, is semantic content because it is not true.

Advantages of the definition

There are several advantages to the definition, of which three are highlighted by Floridi:

1. False information is not genuine information
2. Knowledge and information are directly related
3. It solves the Bar-Hillel Carnap paradox

We've already discussed the first point on the list, but the second point is equally important. Knowledge and information are closely related, and of the same conceptual family. Any epistemic project, for instance a subject like biology, is made up of bits of information related to one another. These bits of information account for one another to provide a coherent view of the subject. Semantic information forms the correct starting point for any scientific investigation.

Before proceeding to the paradoxes, including the relevance of the third advantage, it is worth clarifying the relationship between MTC and semantic information.

Relationship to MTC and IRP

At its inception MTC generated much excitement for its theoretical potential in the emerging field of information. Unfortunately, as time passed it became clear that many of the semantic concerns of information could not be explained by MTC. For instance, it could not clarify inquiries into semantic questions surrounding truth and error, explain the relation between one piece of information and another, or assist investigations into more complicated forms of epistemic and psychological phenomena.

While there continues to be debate about the degree to which semantic information is constrained by MTC, there is nevertheless a general acknowledgement that the constraints have loosened over time. Despite this, some connections between the two have remained stable. Of these the communication model (previously explained in part 1) and the Inverse Relationship Principle (IRP) have remained the most stable.

As IRP is important in order to understand the paradoxes let's take a quick look at it. Remember that MTC describes information in terms of probability. For instance a unary source provides 100% probability (and hence no new information).

In the light of this IRP can be understood as:

"the inverse relation between the probability of p - where p may be a proposition, a sentence of a given language, an event, a situation, or a possible world - and the amount of semantic information carried by p"

The scandal of deduction

This is brings us to the first of the two paradoxes, namely the scandal of deduction. As per IRP, the higher the probability of p, the less informative it is. At the extreme end, when P(p) = 1, it is at its least informative because it is always true.

Since it is always true it is also a tautology. Tautologies are generally known for being non-informative, such as if John was told that the mechanic "will or will not" fix the car's battery. Although it is reasonable, it provides no new information.

The problem arises when we compare this with classical logic. As Floridi notes, "in any valid deduction, the information carried by the conclusion must already be contained in the information carried by the (conjunction of) the premises" (p. 55). In other words, a conclusion is possible only if the conditional is a tautology.

As has already been noted, a tautology is non-informative, and therefore a logical conclusion is by implication non-informative. This counter-intuitive outcome is called the scandal of deduction. It suggests that our logical and mathematical endeavours provide no new information, whereas we would certainly want to disagree.

One way to try and solve the issue is by appealing to the psychological value of informativeness. In this respect, logical reasoning elicits the meanings contained in the premises, highlighting them in a way that makes them clearer to our human brains. This approach does not explain how and why deductive reasoning is such an essential component in science, instead suggesting that it is optional for the sake of clarification.

A more successful way of resolving the dilemma involves the introduction of "virtual information" that assists the reasoning process and is then released by the time the conclusion is reached, leaving no traces.

To understand this, consider the hypothetical act of deciding what to do given two situations. Suppose you have an exam tomorrow and you are deciding whether to study for it or instead go to a party. Although you do not actually have foreknowledge you can reason that if you study then you might pass, but if you do not study you will definitely fail. After considering these hypothetical courses of action you realise that the first course of action could help you to attain the degree you've always desired. Thanks to logic, you decide to forego the party and study hard.

This process of reasoning involves "virtual information". The real outcome (studying) is only arrived at after you stepped outside the real situation in which the information applied, and reasoned hypothetically about the information at your disposal. Once you concluded and made your decision, you stepped back into the real situation.

This demonstrates that logical deductions are indeed valuable and informative.

The Bar-Hillel Carnap Paradox

As an exact opposite to the previous case, consider p becoming less and less probable. As it becomes less probable it should also become more informative. When p reaches zero it should logically be at its most informative. Yet when p is zero it is effectively a contradiction. An example would be "the car's battery is and is not flat". We should be receiving the most semantic information in this case, but instead we are faced with a contradiction.

This unexpected outcome is called the Bar-Hillel-Carnap paradox, after the two philosophers who first described and popularised it. The paradox is now considered a valid property of weakly semantic information, albeit a somewhat unfortunate one.

Nevertheless there is a simple way to avoid the paradox, namely by strengthening the semantic information with veridicality. As Floridi says, "if something qualifies as factual semantic information only when it satisfies the truthfulness condition, contradictions and indeed falsehoods are excluded a priori" (p. 59).

Contradiction is thereby a form of misinformation. The statement "the car's battery is and is not flat" would be incorrect in the strongly semantically informative sense, and should be "the car's battery is flat".

This concludes our discussion of semantic of information.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Why You Should Read Alice Munro's "Dear Life"

After this year's Nobel Prize for Literature was announced I promptly went onto Amazon and ordered the first best title by Alice Munro ("Dear Life").  Much like I did last year when Mo Yan was announced to be the winner.

Whereas I'd heard of Alice Munro before, I'd never actually read anything by her. I wasn't even aware that she wrote a type of fiction I rather enjoy: short stories about the complications of ordinary human life. If this happy outcome appears to justify a process as arbitrary as blindly choosing a Nobel Prize Winner as my reading matter, I nevertheless think it requires a bit of explanation.

I think of it as a question: Why would I be so willing to buy and then spend my often limited reading time engaged in a title without knowing anything about either the author or the themes she explores? To say that it is because the Nobel Prize committee bestowed its highest honour on her would be only half the answer. The other half is down to my own evolution as a reader.

As a reader I have often willingly explored obscure titles and unknown writers in the hope of finding a hidden gem, picking up (so I told myself) the trail of thoughts and experiences spurned by the mainstream. Gems I did find, but the trouble, as many readers will know, is that the road less traveled does not always equate quality. Just as travel marketers can turn a little known coastline into the Next Big Holiday Destination, our minds ramp up the significance of the unusual into real outliers. It's our love of the exotic, the novel, and the counter-cultural that is being appealed to.

This is not to diss the inclination to find those diamonds in the rough. Not at all. It's just that I noticed that what I gained in novel perspectives I was beginning to sacrifice in an appreciation of rigorous formal quality. I was taking my eye off the ability to express and communicate clearly. I had discovered unique thoughts and experiences, but not always masters of the craft.

It was time to bring these two sides together so they could learn from each other. First, I had to realise the obvious: before me, others came, read, enjoyed, and delivered judgment. There are numerous reasons why Jane Austen is still sitting pretty, not least of which is that her works still have plenty to say to contemporary audiences. The depth provided by their historical perspective are a bonus, and her writing style, slick and sharp, continues to appear fresh and modern. Or Checkhov, one of the grandaddies of the modern short story, whose respected influence has him mentioned frequently in comparison to big names writing in that genre today. None more so than Alice Munro herself.

Secondly, I had to find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff in contemporary writing. This is a difficult undertaking when (a) I lack the time to read even a significant subset of eligible titles and (b) lack a coherent strategy when it comes to selecting from the titles touted by various online resources. It is difficult to discern commercial interests and twitter-friendly soundbites from personal taste, a fact made even more difficult when reviews tend to be on the shallow side despite using big words in bold strokes. How I long for the "close reading" espoused by my English Literature lecturers sometimes ...

Which inevitably loops back to the fact that outliers are usually ignored in the academic community - at least at first - so that those who are likely to provide serious commentary tend to pick better established titles and writers. With this admittedly simple logic in mind the big literary competitions like the Booker, the Nobel, the Pulitzer etc. offer very reasonable - if not guaranteed exciting - starting points. What they might lack in novelty they will almost certainly make up for in mastery of the craft and - or so I like to think - the writer's ability to tell a story. Plus, at least some serious analysts are likely to have provided their insights for the rest of us to ponder.

In short, as a writer, reading a Nobel Prize Winner offers the opportunity to learn from a master.

"Dear Life", the most recent published work by Alice Munro, turns out to be wonderfully instructive. There is much more to appreciate than "mere" good storytelling. Her stories are also explorations of consciousness and of memory, told with wistful sympathy and wisdom. If Chekhov comes to mind in the pristine and unsentimental crispness of her writing, Raymond Carver's influence can be found in her sympathetic treatment of a diverse array of characters.

There is also a cinematic quality to various childhood memories - never more so than in the autobiographical quartet of stories at the end - that reminded me of Andrei Tarkovski's evocative "Mirror". We know the memories are not always complete and trustworthy - the narrator often indicates her uncertainty about specific facts - but they have the authenticity of old photographs and reels of silent film.

What amazed me is the ease with which Munro weaves strands of memory and consciousness into a single thread. Other reviewers have already observed how these stories are mini-novels deserving of individual attention and reflection. The apparent effortlessness of the prose belies the complexity of the process.

And I've learned a lot. From the narrator's tone (reflective without judgment) to the writer's uncanny ability to bring those disparate memories into the same space of consciousness. How does she do it?

One of the techniques she employs so well is merging past and present. The past is present, as when she reminisces about a dance her mother took her to in Voices. She achieves the fusion with a beautiful sleight of hand. One moment we are in the past:

"I don't mean that she [my mother] spent all her time wishing that things weren't as they were [..] She couldn't even devise as much times as she otherwise would have done in being disappointed with me, wondering why I wasn't bringing the right kind of friends, or any friends at all, home from the town school [..] Or indeed why I had learned to blank out even the prodigious memory I once had for reciting poetry, refusing to use it ever again for showing off." - p.287
Then in the next sentence an incredible deftness brings a disparate consciousness into the same set of thoughts:
"But I am not always full of sulks and disputes. Not yet. Here I am when about ten years old, all eager to dress up and accompany my mother to a dance. 
The dance was being held in one of the altogether decent but not prosperous-looking houses on our road."

Notice the switch from past tense to present tense to past tense. Not a tense structure your English teacher is likely to have taught you! But in the hands of a master it is like a surgical incision that leaves no scars. I'm sure Anton Chekhov would be pleased.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Luciano Floridi and a Short Introduction to Information : Part 1

I have in at least two past instances found titles in the Very Short Introductions series most useful guides. Information Technology being a familiar subject to me I was curious how Luciano Floridi, one of the foremost thinkers in the Philosophy of Information, would introduce it to the reader. 

As it turns out the introduction is very clear, on the one hand with regards to information as a field of study, and on the other hand in relation to its claims as a philosophical field of study. It is at the same time evident that the Philosophy of Information is still a young field, which makes it an exciting time to get on board.
In this blog post and those that follow I will survey the topics discussed in the title called "Information : A Very Short Introduction" by Luciano Floridi.


As I write this in October 2013 information technology has come to pervade our lives to such an extent that many of us find it hard to imagine a life without it. In just a few decades it has reprogrammed the way we relate to others and how we see the world. Luciano Floridi calls this transformation the Fourth Revolution.

Floridi suggests that three prior revolutions have changed the way we look at ourselves: the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian revolutions. Whether we agree with the significance of these three milestones in Western thinking (the last in particular is perhaps questionable), we cannot but agree with the thrust of his suggestion. In each case, what it means to be human was radically problematised. Indeed, each revolution irreversibly altered our self-perception and identity.

That humanity is greatly influenced by technological advances in the Information Age is hardly news. Anyone born before the 1990s remembers how different the analog age was. What Floridi proposes is more radical. Technology does not merely affect us externally, via our bodies and senses, but effects "a radical transformation of our understanding of reality and ourselves" (p. 10). 

To guide our understanding he references two well-known films, The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell. The matrix of The Matrix has a material basis in the "real" world. In other words, the correct way of looking at the world is from the material and biological view represented by Zion. In Ghost in the Shell, on the other hand, information is primary. Information becomes the lense through which the world is perceived. Floridi suggests that it is information in the latter sense that will come to be the default, rather than The Matrix's version of information, which is ultimately based on an analog view. 

"the infosphere will not be a virtual environment supported by a genuinely 'material' world behind; rather, it will be the world itself that will be increasingly interpreted and understood informationally, as part of the infosphere" (p. 17).

This turns out to be one of the most interesting of the early ideas explored in the book. The guide then detours through territory that will sound all too familiar to students of Computer Science: data vs. information, analog vs digital data, binary data, types of data.

But what is information? It is common to distinguish between data and information, and the data-based General Definition of Information (GDI) that information, or semantic content:
  1. consists of data (one, or more than one datum); 
  2. which is well formed;
  3. and is meaningful.
This definition helps us to understand the distinction between the quantitative and semantic view of information. The implications of this distinction is clear once we understand that for Floridi, semantic content is but one step away from the crowning glory of information theory. By adding truth or falsity to it, it turns into semantic information.

"When semantic content is also true, it qualifies as semantic information. This is the queen of all concepts discussed in this book." (p. 47)

But before we reach this premium destination we must grapple with the quantitative view of information. Although there are several models that attempt to define such a quantitative view, Claude Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication (MTC) is the stalwart horse in the stable. Shannon is often referred to as the "father of information theory”. Whereas his influence is indisputable, reference to MTC as information theory has created much misunderstanding and Shannon himself regretted it. The reason is that MTC is indifferent to meaning, and deals mainly with data communication, including encoding and transmission. Floridi suggests that mathematical theory of data communication would have been a more meaningful title.

To begin with we need to understand the concept of data deficit (Shannon used the more psyhologistic term “uncertainty”). If we have a coin with two sides, heads and tails, and we are about to throw it, we are in a state of data deficit about the outcome. The deficit is two units, because there are two possible outcomes: heads, or tails: {h} {t}. A coin is therefore a binary device, producing one bit of information. If we had two coins to throw, the size of the data deficit is four (i.e. there are four possible outcomes: {h , t} {t , h} {h , h} {t , t}).

For those who study or practise computing the notion of a binary digit, or bit, will be more than familiar. However there is another sense in which MTC is highly amenable to computing. As it deals with uninterpreted symbols MTC can be described as “a study of information at the syntactic level” (p. 45).

John von Neumann, one of the colossuses of 20th century mathematics, also had an influence on MTC. He suggested that Shannon call information (in the MTC sense) entropy. This was already a well-known concept (albeit less widely understood) concept in the natural sciences. Information entropy is a measure, as it is in the natural sciences. In particular it measures any of three equivalent quantities:
  1. the quantity of data on the side of the informer;
  2. the quantity of data deficit (prior to inspection) on the side of the informee;
  3. the informational potentiality of the source.
It is easy to see how 1 and 2 are two sides of the same coin (so to speak). If I have one bit of data and send it to you, your data deficit is one bit (prior to you receiving the data). The third point is a little more complicated to understand. The best way is to think of it as the amount of randomness in a message. For instance a phrase such as “The dog is black” has very little entropy because it is highly structured and organised. On the other hand, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land has high entropy because it is open to various and indeterminate interpretations, and can be said to contain much greater data deficit.
The phrase “the dog is black” can also be viewed as semantic content, because it is meaningful. If we change it into a query, eg. “Is the dog black?” and provide the answer: “yes”, then we have semantic information.

This important part of Floridi's discussion of information will be dealt with in part 2.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Through the Maelstrom: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Why is it counterintuitive to point out the differences between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, for instance, Naked Lunch, while trying to understand the latter? Avid consumers of literature on the far side of consciousness will know that both purport to navigate us through a junky's rugged mountain high. Fear and Loathing sells itself on the strength of an experience its audience can only obtain at the cost of a disposable party brain.

For instance, when the narrator states:

How long can we maintain? I wondered. How long before one of us starts raving and jabbering at this boy? What will he think then? This same lonely desert was the last aknown home of the Manson family. Will he make that rim connection when my attorney starts screaming about bats and huge manta rays coming down on the car? If so-well, we'll just have to cut his head off and bury him somewhere. Because it goes without saying that we can't turn him loose. He'll report us at once to some kind of outback nazi law enforcement agency, and they'll run us down like dogs.

it's all about context. We know that the two car buddies, Hunter Thumpson (aka Raoul Duke) and his attorney, have loaded their trunk with mescaline, acid, cocaine, and just about any drug their manically covetous claws could clutch, and they are themselves already in the grip of a wicked road-sampled chemical mash-up of the Periodic Table of Drugs: almost everything except the ether, which we are told is particularly treacherous and could push them right off that mountain top and tumbling down a ravine. 

Of course, this kind of fearful melodrama is precisely what makes Fear and Loathing
 work so well and keeps you, dear reader, turning the pages even when the paranoia and disgust run as thick as a sticky tumbler-full of cola syrup. The disco and the lights change even if the tune doesn't, and once you know how to dance you're in for one hell of a high. What's more, you didn't have to fork out a year's salary to get your kicks, nor did you have to draw on shady contacts that'd make a drug cartel chief envious in order to acquire them. 

If our narrator is to be believed - and with every corner taken madly at accelerating speeds his bizarre inclinations become more credible - this is all for a deadly serious trip into the dark heart of the American Dream. What fearful monster lies there in wait, and why would we want to meet him at our own expense? We suppress a shudder and are only too happy that our brave narrator has offered to do it on our behalf, even though we know who we are rooting for, if only because we have been suspecting the American Dream to be mixed with a hatful of hogwash anyway, and all that rejected karma from the lower dominions is bound to be some seriously vile shit. 

What we get is both a descent into the maelstrom, and a simulation of what it would be like to get dragged through the funnel. This phased distinction is crucial. When things rocket completely out of control and potentially incoherent, we are given a transcript of Raoul Duke's conversations ("Breakdown on Paradise Blvd"), rather than an attempt to restructure the medium of writing itself through the grainy sieve of a fragmented consciousness. The high is infused in the writing, and Hunter S. Thompson's hyperbolic juxtapositions of incongruous matter remind us that it requires a certain sanity to write so exhiliratingly well: 

I was slumped on my bed in the Flamingo, feeling dangerously out of phase with my surroundings. Something ugly was about to happen. I was sure of it. The room looked like the site of some disastrous zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas. The ten-foot mirror was shattered, but still hanging together - bad evidence of that afternoon when my attorney ran amok with the coconut hammer, smashing the mirror and all the lightbulbs. (p. 180) 

Compared to William Burroughs' sordid ramblings so pregnant with mental dissolution and an impenetrable thin white light beaming with the dripping regularity of water torture and which - surely - would get snuffed out instantly if only, if only we could find the light switch; Fear and Loathing is a work of dark romantic fiction whose rhetoric is powerful enough to turn its grimy capsule-lined subject matter into a thrill ride, a road trip on a desire-fuelled freeway of fear and loathing - but within the secure comfines of an understandable narrative. Burroughs' strength, on the other hand, lies in his unconventional adherence to a true punk ethic. He doesn't care if the reader is a little alienated and disoriented, because he knows that after shocking him into a vulnerable state he will be ready to get mashed up properly, via the medium itself, and then the reader will never be quite the same again. It is, ultimately, a rather more hardcore binge, and one that offers altogether a different set of rewards, somewhat removed from the glamour and Poe-esque grandeur that Thompson continuously invokes with his rhetoric full of here-comes-trouble-but-fuck-it attitude and seat-of-the-pants confidence. Instead, Burroughs' narrators have long since handed over their self-assurance and control for a dreamy submission and childlike acceptance of bizarre humanoids inhabiting suspended realities that would persuade even David Lynch that sci-fi is the new surrealism.
So here I am in the Land of the Dead with Mikey Portman....
No use. Death hasn't changed him a bit; the same selfish, self-centred, spoiled, petulant, weak Mikey Portman.
For years I wondered why dreams are so often dull when related, and this morning I find the answer, which is very simple - like most answers, you have always known it.              
- Burroughs, My Education: A Book of Dreams

Speaking of Poe, it is interesting to note how Thompson reinvents him for the 20th century. Thompson's dramatic adjectives swing in and out of sentences like a criminal in a high speed chase on a busy highway,  while Poe's more archaic style is a horse carriage with the Grim Reaper at the reins of gothic stallions foaming fire and blood at the mouths. But Poe loves doubling, tripling and quadrupling for effect, much like Thompson does. Poe's hyperbole is a baroque obfuscation that, through his disciplined focus on the trajectory of each story, leaves the reader in no doubt about the  mystery and the horror. The central theme is always enhanced, rather than diminished, through this method. It is like a magician's use of smoke that renders the magic object's materialisation more effective. 

In The Masque of the Red Death
, the very first paragraph offers plenty of examples. "No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous", it starts, before ramping up. "Blood was its Avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood." And as if that isn't enough, "there were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution." In this example it is not necessary for there to be any scientific correlation to the progressive phases - because in effect they are all one and the same, the Red Death - but rather it is the cadence, and the continuous embroidery on the central theme, that carry the descriptions forward. The Red Death is nothing other than the emotional storm created by this continuous dramatic rhetoric, a swirl of imagery enveloping a hazy crescending horror of blood, trauma, and melancholy.

With Poe we fall as if by gravity to the natural end of the arc, namely death. It is almost merciful compared to the hangover Raoul Duke wakes up with when the party is finally over.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The devil you know

As I sat down at Pret for my lunch I couldn't help but read the notice staring at me from the eating bench. It candidly informed me that my money spent at Pret is for a good cause. It is going to help the homeless.

It was perhaps surprising how, after reading that, I wasn't more excited about my jalapeño chicken hot wrap. Instead I just felt vaguely guilty. Here I am, enjoying my instant gratification lunch, while others have to go hungry and sleep in the dirt.

But it got me thinking about business. There was a time when businesses were into making money, and had no qualms about it. Having the moral upper hand was easy when they were so obviously evil, money grabbing monsters. Now they do charity, philanthropy, and even save the environment. All while showing me up for the gluttonous fraud that I am. Surely that's no way to treat your customers!

So I dutifully had a google to see what Pret gets up to and there it was, they partner with plenty of charities and support worthy causes. Maybe it's my viewpoint that needed to change. If I imagined that Pret is working on my behalf, making donations like a benevolent angel, I would become a moral agent by proxy and will feel inner peace.

Unfortunately, I felt more confused than enlightened (as my participation is so ephemeral, it was perhaps more of an impression than a feeling). My moral compass started spinning while searching for the magnetic North of modern business ethics. Was this company a devil in monk's robes, or were they the saints they want to appear as? Or merely loveable rogues?

To be honest, I hardly know, and probably don't even care. The fact that Pret appears to care, when all I wanted was a hot wrap and somewhere to escape the office for a few minutes, did little for my self esteem. It is just a bit too neat. If I spend my money at Pret the world becomes a better place... seriously?

Pret targets the middle class business crowd, and by implication endorses its values. That, ultimately, may have been the real source of my uneasiness. It is not entirely Pret's fault. But by making us feel we are contributing to solutions for the world's problems, we have even more reason to be complacent. We have even less incentive to make a change in our own lives.

Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't, even if it is doing an angel's work.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A look at Wang Meng's short stories

My favourite cafe near the office also happens to be a bookshop serving divine home made cakes. It is here that I picked up a Panda Books copy of "The Butterfly and Other Stories" by Wang Meng a few weeks ago. It is an old school paperback printed in 1989. A slightly grainy and faded front cover - just the way we like our old school paperbacks - shows a printed painting of a butterfly with flowers. The back cover, in turn, sports a black and white photo of the author wearing horn-rimmed glasses while looking somewhat serious and rather distinguished, his mouth half-open as if he is about to say something.

A description of the author's works pronounces him "one of China's major contemporary writers". The preface further introduces Wang Meng's controversial early story "The Newcomer in the Organization Department", which "became the subject of an intense criticism campaign .. [which] produced a nation-wide debate"

With such a reputation I was sure to find something exciting inside the covers. Indeed, I was imagining a modern literary treasure barely known about outside China!

This compilation focuses on stories written more than 20 years after the controversial "The Newcomer in the Organization Department". Wang Meng was "rehabilitated" through labour for 8 years (from 1963), and did not publish his writings again until after a change in the political climate. It is against this backdrop of information that I plunged headlong into the first story, "A Spate of Visitors". It was followed by "The Butterfly" - without a doubt the best of the later bunch, and in some respects on a par with the early work “The Newcomer in the Organization Department”.

The first thing the reader realises is the extent to which Party ideology (of the communist party) and social life in China go hand in hand. It is a fact that's impossible to ignore in these stories. Politics and ideology suffuse the thoughts of characters and guide their actions. For instance in "The Young Newcomer" the main character is preoccupied by the slack application of Party principles at the sack factory. It disturbs him deeply and he is determined to put this right. He talks to his superiors about it, expecting them to act. To his surprise they are reluctant to do anything and their approach, which sounds reasonable and pragmatic, is mostly self-serving smoke and mirrors. After listening to one of his superiors explanation he comes away perturbed.

"This statement, so much at variance with the Party lectures he had attended at the primary school, astounded Lin." (p. 210)

Wordy facades are a smoke screen to mask characters' inertia and self-serving attitudes. In “A Spate of Visitors”  the main character, Ding Yi, decides to stop the rot at his factory and starts his initiative by firing a particularly lazy worker. Unbeknownst to him the worker – Gong Ding – is a distant relation of the county' first secretary. People from near and far suddenly come to visit Ding Yi in an attempt to persuade him to be less harsh on Gong Ding. Cronyism is rife and those in power protect their kin even when it is detrimental to business (and, by extension, the Party). This attitude is clear in one of his visitors' advice:

'So we say, leaders' power, their likes and dislikes, their impressions, are of vital importance. They cannot be overlooked and very often play the decisive role. We are realists, not utopian socialists like Owen and Fourier.' (Ding Yi thought: Am I a utopian socialist? This label doesn't sound too bad.) … 'Don't make a gross error, brother. Be statesmanlike. Cancel your decision and invite Gong Ding back.” (p. 29)

Before firing him, Ding Yi observes Gong Ding's ineptitude with a simple matter-of-factness. He follows through with action almost immediately.

For one thing, this young man had stayed away from work for four months without asking for leave. For another, he came bold as brass to the factory to demand gluten, and if given none cursed or beat the man in charge […]

Ding Yi asked the Party branch committee, Youth League committee, trade union, personnel office and all the other departments to discuss Gong Ding's case. Though he prodded them three times a day, it took them a month and a half to agree to his proposal that this recalcitrant worker should be dismissed." (p. 24)

Ding Yi's success in this regard stands in contrast to “The Newcomer”'s Lin who, being a newcomer and without authority, has to go around the houses to be taken seriously. Nevertheless they both address a similar issue, namely corruption. From this we infer that the author's concern has remained steadfast through the years.

In "The Newcomer" the young Lin's idealism manifests as a puritan adherence to Party line. He is clearminded and conscientious. His lack of experience does not mean he loses sight of his ideals, and he is not entirely disillusioned when at first he does not succeed. Instead it tempers his expectations and he becomes more realistic as time goes by. Once he achieves some success, however, his confidence begins to soar. He wants to go all the way, and when an opportunity finally presents itself to speak to the leading cadre, he is eager to take it. The story ends with him knocking on the cadre's door.

"With determination, he knocked impatiently at the door of the leading comrade's office." (p. 239)

In Ding Yi's case the confidence is there from the start. We are left in no doubt as to the correct moral position. It is the other characters who are portrayed as colluding to uphold the status quo of corruption. This is a sign of a mature writer who is confident of his aim. In this respect the story achieves a beautiful simplicity. More and more people come knocking on Ding Yi's door to advise him on the matter, but he holds firm. In the end, it is to his credit.

By December, the fame of the paste factory really had the fragrance of roses. It had become a model for all the small enterprises in the province.” (p. 29)

When he addresses a room full of comrades to report his experience at the paste factory his speech is met with "thunderous applause".

The book is aptly bookended by these two stories, “A Spate of Visitors” and “The Newcomer in the Organisation Department.” Whereas the latter reveals the optimism and ambition of youth, the former is a more assertive, mature statement. However “The Newcomer's” willingness to challenge those in power was a more audacious statement in its day. On the one hand one could commend the author for remaining steadfast in his values, but where is the spirit that made him an exciting voice when he started out? That independence of vision is not particularly evident in the later works.

The introduction mentioned innovation in these short stories and even compared them to Chekhov's writing. Perhaps it is a question of the untranslatable, but I could not see much evidence of innovative writing. This is not to say the stories are lacking in merit. Not at all. I found them a clear portrait of a period in 20th century Chinese history that lives up to some of the stereotypes Westerners have encountered about towing the party line, the hard life of the peasants, and solidarity with the proletariat. But towards the end I was feeling that sense of disappointment when something promised more than it delivered.

Wang Meng's characters are sensitive to those who work hard and endure difficult lives. But because it is often stated in a way that glorifies the party ideology it does appear to ring a little hollow after a while. The pattern is predictable, and in political terms Wang Meng's writing seems of the revisionist type. As already pointed out, one also has to question whether his later writing is still revisionist and not merely upholding the status quo. In that respect one might even, with irony, say that it is self-serving due to his own political status (self-serving characters are often criticised in the stories).

After “The Newcomer in the Organisation Department”, “The Butterfly” is probably the best story. It moves backwards and forwards in time in a sequence that is occasionally disconcerting but ultimately weaves a memorable portrait of a man who – again – was once in power, then fell from favour and had to be rehabilitated, and finally was reinstated to a high rank.

The main character, Old Zhang, is clearsighted about his (former) failings. One gets a clear sense of the naïve optimism of his youthful self; his inability to keep his wife happy despite being an important official; the tragic loss of his first child partly due to his own continuing absence at home; and his inability to foresee his own political fall from grace.

I ask to be tried.

You are innocent.

No. That train's clattering is a dirge for Haiyun. …

She sought you out. She loved you. You gave her happiness.

I ruined her. I neglected our first son. I can't even remember his features. I wounded Dongdong, I understand that now.” (p. 61)

Old Zhang makes a trip to the countryside to visit his son Dongdong from his first wife Haiyun. However he is also making the trip to see if he can persuade the woman in his heart – Qiuwen – to marry him. She took care of him when he was sick during rehabilitation. Although he can go in style as an official, he decides to go as a common man – as Old Zhang. On the way he rediscovers all the old discomforts - and a few new ones, owing to his expectations as an important official. At the same time it affords him the space to reminisce. 

This impersonation intermingled with the flashbacks is stylistically the most innovative aspect of any of the stories. It also has a semantic purpose. By playing the role of the common everyman in the countryside, Old Zhang provides us with a window into their world while embodying the virtue of humility. The lesson we are meant to draw is that a person in power should not lose touch with his roots, even if they are humble; while at the same time power is nevertheless a responsibility that one should take seriously. He does not give up his status, but he is willing to forgo his privileges – at least for a while.

However sensitively it is meant, the subtle moralising in favour of Party ideals and the proletarians in the countryside merely reinforces the ideological undertones. In his later work Wang Meng appears to frame societal problems within the same ideological framework as their solutions. The impulse of freedom, for instance as seen in the young love of "Kite Streamers", resolves when the community recognises the lovers as one of their own. One ultimately feels that the stories uphold the status quo, and any potential dark side is already rehabilitated and included

The moralising tone – sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle – is likely to feel patronising to many Western readers not used to this style. When Old Zhang thinks back on his first love, Haiyun, he likens her to a white flower. In that gently patronising way she is considered innocent and too young.

You were crushed like this, weren't you, Haiyun? Love, hate, joy and disillusionment kept you trembling. You were always as transparent, as fragile as a child.” (p. 36)

In his old age, “Qiuwen had been the sun in the evening of his life.” He hoped to secure her hand in marriage, but she turned him down during his visit to the village. When he returns to his official life he feels both familiar and out of place. There is a distance between him and other people that his rank cannot fulfill.

He was back in a place where all who knew his rank would smile at him […] He put on the lights. The walls and floor were spotless as usual, as if polished every day. He was back. He sat down on a sofa.” (p. 40).

This is near the beginning of the story, but chronologically it is at the end. When we read to the end we pick up the thread again, but this time we are much wiser to his thoughts and feelings. At the end he thinks of his responsibilities more than his disappointment with Qiuwen. Indeed, one is left with the impression that love – again – takes second place to the responsibilities of an official. 

How well I'm being looked after. Isn't it my duty to see to it that everybody has a better life?” (p. 99)

With love not taking up his energy any further, his appetite is equal to the task that awaits him.

There was a list of problems requiring immediate attention. He picked up a pencil to go through this material, immersing himself in it. It seemed many people were watching him, supporting him, hoping great things of him.

Tomorrow the pressure of work would be even greater.” (p. 101)

The outcome suggests that love was a sacrifice worth making in favour of official responsibilities.