Monday, June 09, 2008

Ebay Jesus, WTF!

Richard May headshot by Richard May

God was an agnostic with lots of self-doubt.
God sent a dude, Jesus, to straighten out the fundies on Earth,
hoping that the fundies would become atheists or even devil
worshipers. God heard Jesus praying and said, "WTF!"
The Israelites heard Jesus praying and said, "WTF!"
The Romans heard Jesus praying and said, "WTF!"
Jesus' prayers were completely dyslexic and unintelligible;
No one understood what he was praying about.

The Romans were pragmatic centrists.
At first the Romans wanted to sell Jesus on e-Bay,
with some Tibetans thrown in to sweeten the deal.
But when wood futures declined in the 2nd quarter,
they decided upon crucifiction,
as preferable to hearing Jesus' dyslexic litanies
or eating cruciform vegetables.



Friday, June 06, 2008

Proust and me

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz


It was the summer of 19__. I was at Oxford. I was sixteen. Now Oxford is a big industrial town, a bit gritty, but my college was on the fringes, and out there it was countryside. There were even a few gas lamps by the roadside, and when you walked out beyond, the woods and flowers were far older even than those antiquated lamps, and you got the feeling that you'd escaped from time. When I think of that summer, I think of the sun, pouring down like a blessing, dappling the grassy meadows, setting leaves aglow on a long hedge by whose side a dirt path meandered. I liked to walk that path, and I remember a girl who went with me from time to time. We boated down the narrow stream they call a river, through the fields, through the woodland hugging the water, out past farmhouses and sleeping villages, and I used to row even though you're supposed to use the punt pole, and I remember the splash of the oar and the little band of water droplets gleaming like transitory diamonds.

Now there was a whole band of older boys I tried to join. They would come trooping in to tea, all in a group, and since I was young and naive and American, they seemed impossibly elegant, their friendship unattainable, bathed in sunlight, golden. And that summer all they seemed to talk about was Proust. They were all reading it, and from what I could see it deeply moved them. So that was my first impression of Proust, and the name became a sort of magic totem to me, and whenever I think of it, even now, so many years later, it is inextricably tied up with that band of laughing jeunesse dore, and with sunlight on the hedges.


Shortly after the Great War ended, Proust locked himself in a soundproof room, and there he spent the rest of his life, writing. I don't know if the room had any windows, but I think it didn't. Proust was far away, drifting among sights, smells, sensations, vanished worlds of long ago. I once heard that on one occasion he left his room and traveled halfway across Paris to see a hat which a woman had worn to a party twenty years before. Often, a trivial thing, the sight of a hat, the taste of that famous madeleine, would without warning immerse Proust in a flood of sensation, all the thoughts and feelings he'd had when he had first seen that hat, the way things were for that person who, many years before, had been Proust. For Proust, like all of us, had been many people, his passions and dreams as a child so different from today that his resurrected glimpse into that child's world was like a view into an alien mind. And, like a master quilter stitching a work of art out of rags and snippets, out of those tastes, those glimpses, those fears and passions recalled, he built his novel.

For "Remembrance of Things Past" is indeed a novel, fiction, though it is easy enough to forget this. For one thing, Proust was homosexual, so there was no Albertine. Or in a way there was, there were a thousand Albertines, a thousand people in each of whom he found a bit of Albertine. And this is true of all the characters that inhabit the humdrum yet bizarre, generic (in the sense in which truths about it are applicable to any group of people) yet unforgettable world that springs to being in these pages.

Reading this novel, unlike any other, we demand that there be some link with Proust's actual life. The characters are fiction, the events are fiction, more or less, but the sensations must be real. Proust actually felt them, all those incessant longings and anger and fear. This link to reality is necessary because Proust claims to have written, not merely a novel, but a treatise of psychology, a guide to, if not understanding the world, at the very least a hint on how to view it.

Or showing that other views are possible... by allowing us a glimpse into another person's world (or into his world as a ten-year-old, which he considers that of another person than his adult self), he also allows us to see the laws and processes common to both. He wrote this in the midst of a discussion on the goal (or, better, Holy Grail) of art:

"To grasp again our life -- and also the life of others; for style is for the writer, as for the painter, a question, not of technique but of vision. It is the revelation -- impossible by direct and conscious means -- of the qualitative differences in the way the world appears to us, differences which, but for art, would remain the eternal secret of each of us. Only by art can we get outside ourselves, know what another sees of his universe, which is not the same as ours and the different views of which would otherwise have remained as unknown to us as those there may be on the moon."

I've written elsewhere that sometimes it seems as if as if Proust and Wittgenstein (who after all was his comtemporary and in some ways grew up in the same milieu) were covering the same territory. The limits of language, the existence yet utter unknowability of the other, the tragedy of longing and yearning and loving that which must always elude our grasp. Wittgenstein seems to map the boundary, Proust strives to push and struggle and expand it every way he can, using music and art as another, more basic language to describe or at least indicate entities whose essence we cannot fathom. And the composer Vinteuil and painter Elstir, who make their appearance in the novel, are not based on real artists at all. Rather, they are fictional creations invented by Proust because in his long descriptions of their fictional compositions, he can expound his view of the world. The long description of Vinteuil's sonata uses the music to hint at other worlds which are infinitely precious and totally, except as glimpsed in art, beyond our ken... glimmering dings an sich which we cannot hope to know but which give life its value.

And in the end, the fictional, as well as the real, Proust remains a hazy enigma. Thousands and thousands of pages, and so much is left out. Years and years skipped over, the most important events barely alluded to, or left out for the reader to deduce. And yet, we grasp the essence. And what a tragedy it is! "The heart changes," wrote Proust, "and that is our worst misfortune." Yet for Proust it was not so much change as an endless, painful cycle, which he fully perceived but was powerless to escape. An intense fear of abandonment pervades his earliest memories, and whenever he met a girl whom he feared would cuckold him, this fear was triggered and its intensity would make him fall in love with her. Of course, his fear was a prudent instinct and would be triggered only by the sort of girl who would betray him repeatedly, incurably. But without this jealousy, for Proust there was no love. Quite literally, love -- the thing for which he lived his life -- was pain.

For Proust, the things which give most of us life's joy and meaning -- friendship and helping others -- were a waste of time. And so he spent his life being blown about by his twisted love, searching love's unattainable happiness. And yet, as his book proved, it was not really love, or happiness, or gratification he was after. It was a search for the reality of things, pursued with such zeal and devotion that he gave up all for it, became a hermit with more rigor than the most religious monk for it, and ultimately died for it. I've always thought that the gap from qualia, from sense-perception, to a deeper reality was unbridgeable. But somehow Proust leapt across it, carried perhaps on wings of angels.


Monday, December 31, 2007


by Neha Nambiar

The man sat at the table, his steady gaze never leaving the door… did it really happen? Was it all over? Hadn’t his life just begun? What was it? He couldn’t tell anymore, he didn’t know. "Am I even alive!” he shouted out. He always knew things would go wrong… they were bound to, but this?

As a child he always 'knew' he would be famous. Or rather was supposed to, he saw himself giving interviews and answering questions. He saw himself inspiring the youth. "19 and already there! Susheel Sain does it all…" Susheel Sain does it… yes, that’s what he did. Everything. Everything wrong? But was doing nothing at all, doing everything wrong? What was he thinking, what was he saying? Every sound, movement was just a blur, the world seemed surreal now…he didn’t even know he was breathing… didn’t remember he was supposed to. All he could think of now was the fact that he was supposed to be famous. Ha! WAS GOD MOCKING HIM RIGHT NOW? “GOD! WHERE ARE MY PRAYERS NOW, WHAT HAPPENED TO MY FAITH LORD... WHAT?” HE’S 30 NOW….Susheel Sain -- his name, Susheel... The sound of his name kept repeating inside… That voice! Who was it! His mother flashed in front of him. His heart took a giant leap…ma….a huge thump caught hold of all his emotions he wanted his ma…"Ma”... “Ma” is all he said….ma. "You didn’t do anything wrong ma… don’t worry"

Over protective perhaps, but just another mother? Nah! His mom was the best ever! A woman so self sacrificing, he had never seen… pa was a good man too, a little disconnected but pa was good… “My idol” as he wrote in his journals. He always felt a little guilty, writing in a journal, he didn’t need one -- Ma and pa were the best. He had no issues… women. Yeah well growing up, those alien creatures always gave him the jitters. “How can men be expected to talk to women? They were scary!” But he found his woman, it was the first time he wasn’t afraid… the first time he lost his virginity. The first time he felt like there was someone, a woman. If not better, as divine as his ma. For the first time. “Paro! What’ll they do! What’ll I do!? Ma help! Paro help!” he spoke. The sound of sirens magnified to a thousand times more, made the hair on his skin stand. He was freezing, his fingers numb. He was now aware of the world around him. Where was he? He began to rub his hands together for some warmth...his hand! He shrieked. He jumped and hid under a broken table in the dusty room… shivers went down his spine. He started to look around now…broken windows, a leaking ceiling; a drop of water, or whatever it was fell on the table, must have been a heavy drop, he thought he heard it fall. That minuscule drop found its way down a crack on the top of the table and trickled down the diminutive crack, he could hear it travel…dab! It fell on the floor; he looked down at the drop of liquid, squashed. Blood, guns, a face crying with an expression of shock beyond understanding, then a look of disgust flashed in front of his mind's eye, as he stared at the insignificant drop. At first, the images zoomed -- fast like the cameras of a photographer… Click, click, click, click… And then a silent slow movement of the images. A slow click. The slowest ever. C…l…i…c…k, and he was back... “Ma”! He cried softly… and then chuckled… chuckled like a baby… "she’d never let the floor be so dirty”. He cried again.

Ma was always clean, he guessed that was how she kept herself from crying and being sad… ma was sad wasn’t she? Paro and she always got along... Life was so perfect. Perfectly sad.

Growing up ‘his world’ was always sad. “Why am I so unhappy? Why can’t I laugh or smile freely without feeling this lump of sadness in me?” Words form his journal. "Ma and pa are the best, I love them, then why do 'they' tell me to hate them? I don’t like being in their company you know, but they’re just always there. I think the only time I‘m free is when I’m asleep: and ma and pa and Paro are all with me, laughter everywhere, and Paro looks angelic... And ma… oh... so beautiful!” “Ma was so beautiful” he whispered.

Was -- ma was. The sirens kept getting louder and disappearing. “Where am I? SHUT UP!” he screamed. “I WANT TO GO HOME! I WANT TO GO TO MA!” screamed Susheel of thirty… whose life long dream was about to come true -- he was going to be famous now. Going to. "SHUT UP!” he screamed again. "Leave me alone. Leave me alone, PARO!” HE CRIED, CRIED LIKE PARO WAS DEAD IN FRONT OF HIM. “PARO!” HE BEGAN TO SWAY HIS BODY ROUGHLY… LEFT…. RIGHT… "PARO!” this man wept... Wept like a teenager… a rebelling teenager realising all the rebellion was just for no cause… "Paro, how could ma cheat me like this? Treat me like... how could she hurt me, the one woman I loved, perhaps more than Paro, how could ma hurt me?”

“Paro, beautiful, intelligent Paro. The woman who made him feel free. After 25 years of the 'crazy' life he led, Paro was his answer from god. His angel, his muse. Paro was his heart and soul. “She was! She was there with me, I held her, I made love to her for Christ’s sake! Paro was there, and Paro is there! My life! I felt her soul, and she felt mine, Paro!” He had stopped crying now but was still shaking. His knees pointed up, with his arms around them to ‘shelter’ him from 'them'. His bloodshot eyes, now widened, his face for the first time not afraid, but defiant. Not hidden behind the cover of his knees, he looked ahead, as if at someone and screamed, “HOW COULD SHE TELL ME SHE NEVER WAS THERE? NEVER EXISTED? MY IMAGINATION? MY PARO! A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION! MA TELLING ME THIS! MY MA! AFTER MISSING THE DAY MY WEDDING WAS TO BE..! TODAY...” He seemed to calm down now... "She was to be my wife today. MY WIFE! AND MA MISSED IT! And she tells me PARO WAS NEVER THERE!” Tears crawled down his burnt cheek. An hour had passed now since he was where he was, crying for almost the entire hour, his cheeks burnt, but he cried anyway. His jaws hurt, but he spoke to 'them' anyway, because in a way, they knew everything. He spoke with tears and a shaky voice to them, about his mother trying to convince him that Paro was his imagination, a girl he’d created because he could never 'really’ speak to someone of the opposite sex. He made her up to complete his “inadequacy” as she had put it. To make up for the void in his life through his imagination! His ma, his very own ma told him this. He’d never hurt her, always been her boy, then why would ma hurt him that way? He couldn’t understand. Nothing made sense anymore.

He looked down at the spot where the liquid had dropped, the dust around had soaked it all, and a small brown patch was all that was left in its place. Gone, just like that. Just like his Paro. His head hurt like a million volts of electricity had just been sent through it, only it wasn’t going anywhere. It just stayed there, inside his head and fed on it, chewed on his flesh from within. They want him gone. Flashes had begun again, only more clear this time: the face -- it was ma! That look! Why was she looking so horrified, who was she looking at? Those were the clothes she wore when he was talking to her, fighting with her, asking her why she had missed his wedding, why she hadn’t blessed them. Didn’t she love Paro as much as he did? She had loved her before, what happened? Yes! Ma was talking to him, crying to him, trying to hold him and all of a sudden she was. SHE WAS LOOKING AT HIM THAT WAY! THE GUN! WHERE’S THE GUN! BLOOD WAS ALL OVER THE FLOOR; THE WORLD WAS GETTING BRIGHTER, yet coming to an end. HE WAS GOING TO BE FAMOUS. “I did it! Ha, ha, I did it!” he laughed his eyes so red it seemed like blood would drip out of them if he kept them open any longer, or didn’t calm himself down. Anyway, blood would spill. Blood had already been spilled. "I DID IT," he screamed. "I KILLED MY MA! I KILLED HER!“ Crying, calming down, HE WAS CRAZY! “She looked at me that way," he said. "I had the gun, Paro, Paro never… their, ma don’t say that. ma, please don’t say that. Paro will be my wife whether… whether you like it or not.” He was running around, talking to himself, looking at his ma on the floor -- blood spewed everywhere, wounds in her head, her heart her stomach: a bullet for everything he despised in her. Her mind -- so sick that she would say something so unimaginable to him. Her heart -- she could never have loved him. Her stomach -- that she gave birth to him, made him want to tear his skin off and watch himself bleed to clean himself of the dirt. He spoke now: ”I had to kill you ma, you became sick in the head. The world would never accept you. I had to kill you ma. I had to.”

Early morning, the sun as bright and uninteresting as ever. The grass its usual green… and the birds? Well they just flew innocently like the world was a happy place. And Susheel Sain woke up to a beautiful day, not the weather, not the innocence, just Paro -- she was with him, sleeping while he looked out the barred windows of the National Institute for the Mentally Ill. All was fine. Paro was pregnant. Susheel smiled, life couldn’t get better.

A car rolled in the driveway -- ma, on her daily routine now, for the past ten years. She came to feed her son of 30. God really worked things out didn’t he?


Saving the Earth for Artificial Transnational-Corporate Life Forms

Richard May headshot by Richard May

Maybe lemming genes could be inserted into human DNA, in order to save the planet for cybernetic corporations staffed by artificial life forms. But it's important that big corporations, the highest form of sentient entities generated by evolution, live on. Can corporations exist and thrive without humans, as totally roboticized entities to carry the global economy to the stars? But man must serve the economy in the end times of profit taking.

This corporate upgrade will initially be opposed by socialist Luddites, who wish to preserve human DNA, perhaps using messy wetware cyborgs, and by the traditional bioform religious. So a new religion ought to be designed to facilitate the transition to advanced-corporate life forms and the long overdue phasing out of humanity as primitive, inefficient and low-profit. "God" can be replaced by the myth of a celestial CEO, good and evil equated to profit and loss and the afterlife redefined as service on a vast corporate board. Without low-profit eaters the transnational corporate economy can expand endlessly to the stars.



Thursday, December 20, 2007

My Father, the Talker

Jolanda Dubbeldam by Jolanda Dubbeldam

I push open the front door, dragging a swoosh of cold air in with me.

“I’m home!”

I walk towards the living room, breathing in the smell of fresh coffee and vanilla candles. Warmth envelopes me as I peel off my coat, damp with late fall drizzle - thank goodness we fixed that heater before temperatures dropped to these goosebump levels. My parents are sitting where I left them. My mother in the middle of the sofa with plenty of elbow room for her knitting. Row by row a small sweater grows beneath her hands, alternating bands of green, orange and brown wool, a sweater for an anonymous Afghani child who may be a little less chilly this winter, may feel a little more hopeful. My father sits across from her in the light armchair that seems too snug for his tall frame. I guess he adjusted the floor lamp to shine directly overhead onto the book he is reading, compensating for diminishing eyesight; he is bathed in light. He peers over his reading glasses as I enter the room.

“So, how did it go? What was the lesson about?"

“No lesson tonight, some of us got together and spent a couple of quiet hours working in the library.”

“Ah, not a class then. Like a workgroup. How many of you were there?”

“Just the four of us.”

“What are you working on?"

My father, always the talker. That thirst for conversation, though questions are often just a precursor for the role he really revels in, that of orator. A one-man discussion of information, opinions, presentation of pros and cons - second speaker not required. My father the talker likes to do his thinking out loud.

“Dad, do you remember when I asked you and mom to write down your experiences as children during the war?"

My father has forgotten. I suppose that makes sense, even though his childhood in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation is a subject he often returns to, its weight heavy on his memory and the shape it gave to his life. A few years ago it occurred to me that these stories might one day be lost to the family forever if someone did not record them. So I asked my parents and in-laws to write down what they remembered of those times. I described my somewhat unspecific vision of processing their memories into an accessible, comprehensive story. Not looking so much for the history of it, but for the emotions, the childhood human experience.

What I got was a different kind of thing. The two omas were initially unsure what to write about, feeling their memories were perhaps too small, not riveting enough. Untrue, of course. Daily life, fears very relatable, anecdotes that opened a window to those days. My mother described a world of small houses, stern Catholicism, fear of omnipresent soldiers, yet at the same time remembered herself skipping through much of it, being just a little girl. Then the opas. I was familiar with parts of my father’s story, yet he too lifted up the veil just a little higher to show more intimate aspects of his youth. He steered clear of emotion, though. Descriptions of the facts were enough. Some things even he cannot express, it seems. My husband's father, the academic, the college professor, also stayed true to his character. He submitted a thesis-like document, full of technical background information about the war, bombs, and precisely which neighborhoods were demolished. He is an introvert, this opa. He is not a talker.

Initially I felt somewhat at a loss, having expected something else, until I realized that they were simply responding to my request: a description of events as each had experienced them, in whatever form they chose. Write about what was most important to you, I said. It doesn't matter how. Do what feels right. And so they did.

Now that I had the stories, I did not know what to do with them - how to do them justice. They were written in Dutch, and I thought to translate them to English, making them more accessible to our increasingly global extended family. Also because English is the language I write in. But should I translate them as they were, and so preserve each individual voice? Or should I translate the essence of them into a single, more flowing story, cutting out repetition and ambiguity? How could I best meld these diverse testaments into a unity of some sort? I was intimidated by the responsibility of it. Finally, I put it aside, and in time, forgot about it.

Now something about having my parents here in my living room has triggered my memory, and I resolve to blow the dust off the project, and finally find a way to move forward.

My mother does remember.

“Ja, opa, a few years ago she asked us and we wrote about the war and we sent it to America in an email.”

“Well, it is always better to do these things with talking," my father turns to me. "You should have an interview, and prepare questions, and then record everything on one of those little tape machines. Did I tell you about that time I was interviewed for a book about my old friend Karel, the one who became quite a famous writer?"

My father tells me. Perhaps he is right about the interview. But the fact that my parents will be returning home to the Netherlands in two weeks while I stay indefinitely in my new home across the ocean makes this an untenable approach. I recoil from the prospect of another never-ending project resting in my computer, waiting for the right moment to proceed.

“Today I started working on your stories. I am translating them, and afterwards we can work together on any blanks that turn up until the stories are complete. We will keep them for the family.”

It is a start. And I am, at heart, a writer, not a talker.