Leaves, Like the Lives of Mortal Men

February 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Throughout antiquity, we are reminded of the brevity of life, the temporal, but also the renewal aspect of Nature’s actions.

In the Iliad, men die in battle at such a horrifying pace.

Glaucus, a lieutenant of the Trojan side of the conflict, has this to say when confronted with the opposing Achean general Diomedes:

“Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.”

Iliad, Homer
(trans. Robert Fagles)

In De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things), Lucretius’s magnum opus to Epicurean philosophy draws our attention to the cyclical and interrelatedness  of all living things, but also the indestructability of our core elements: atoms.

“While some species are ascendant, some recede,
And generations are renewed again in a brief space,
Passing on life’s torch, like relay runners in a race.”

(trans. A.E. Stallings)

In his writings, Marcus Aurelius was probably pondering about the lives of eminent men who have come before him, or probably a self-consolation after the death of the closest to him.

“Many grains of incense upon the same altar; one falls first, another later, but difference there is none.”

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (trans. Farquharson)


What Philosophy is, and used to be

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

If there is ever a good reason why I would not further my education in the field of Philosophy, it would probably be because the field is no longer taught nor practiced the way it was meant to be, in its original conception. Academia seem to be more preoccupied with the history of philosophy, than Philosophy itself.

The late Pierre Hadot, who was a French Professor Emeritus, College de France, compares Philosophy during the Classical period with what it is today, and puts it this way:

“…the conditions of the teaching of philosophy were very different from what they are now. Modern students study philosophy only because it is a required course; at the most a student may become interested by an initial contact with the discipline and may wish to take exams on the subject. In any case it is chance that will decide whether the student will encounter a professor who belongs to a particular “school”, be it phenomenological, existentialist, deconstructionist, structuralist, or Marxist. Perhaps, someday, he will pledge alliegeance to one of these “isms”; in any case, his adherence will be intellectual and will not engage his way of life, with the possible exception of Marxism. For us moderns, the notion of a philosophical school evokes only the idea of a doctrinal tendency or theoretical position.

Things were very different in antiquity. No university obligations oriented the future philosopher toward a specific school; instead, the future philosopher came to attend classes in the school of his choice as a function of the way of life practiced there. Once led into a classroom by chance, however, the student might unexpectedly become converted as he heard a master speak.

This was the story of Polemo, after a night of debauchery, entered Xenocrates school one morning on a dare with a band of drunken comrades. Seduced by the master’s discourse, Polemo decided to become a philosopher, and later became head of the school. No doubt this is an edifying fiction; nevertheless, it could appear to be completely believable.”

Pierre Hadot “What is Ancient Philosophy?” (Translated by Michael Chase)

photo by Samantha Decker

Xenophon’s Socrates

June 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Xenophon’s description of Socrates in his Memorabilia is most interesting. Often regarded as ‘inferior’ compared to Plato’s accounts, there are moments when the prose (or at least what is translated) comes across as lively.

In fact Xenophon gives us a humble view of Plato’s brother, Glaucon. During a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon (in which the latter was aspiring to become a head of state) A series of questions by Socrates leaves makes him realize that he really isn’t prepared for the top position, his vain ego in danger of crumbling.

Socrates gives a most humbling remark to the elder brother of Plato.

“If a man can’t carry one talent in weight, surely it’s obvious he shouldn’t even try to carry more than one.”

Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock”

February 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

photo by scatterkeir

The world described in Greene’s “Brighton Rock” is the furthest from my own. I have no memories or experiences to draw upon, to identify with. From The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, to The Heart of the Matter, I’ve found Greene’s novels having a natural magneticism: musings on the human condition, the multifaceted nature of man, and of course, exotic travels.

Gangsters, a British seaport town, 1930’s England, Catholic themes. What would a young, decidedly agnostic Singaporean man identify with? That was one of the reasons I was hesitant to pick it up, even though it was known to be one of Greene’s best and most well known novels.

As the title hints, the novel focuses on the city of Brighton in the 1930’s, which was when Greene published the novel.
Brighton, specifically the town in the south east of England, is famous for its promenade, funfair and restaurants, amongst other things. In this setting of pleasure and relaxation, Greene chose to set his story of murder, seduction, and fall from grace.

Pinkie Brown is a boy gangster with ambitious plans, finding himself fighting to step into the shoes of his gang’s recently-murdered chief, Kite. To avenge him and claim his rightful place on the top of Kite’s pack, Pinkie  murders the newspaperman (Fred) responsible for Kite’s downfall.

Under uncertain circumstances, Fred’s murder is picked up by local police as a natural death. Only a teenage café waitress, Rose, holds the evidence that reveals the murder. To silence the witness, the Catholic born Pinkie, who believes himself already damned, seduces Rose as part of his plans: the beginning of a series of damning evil acts.

Fred’s dubious death is picked up by a friend, and the only true heroine of this novel: the righteous Ida Arnold.
A woman slightly past her prime, but nevertheless charming and seductive, she deigns herself an experienced, worldly woman, nonreligious, and the purveyor of good from evil. You could think of her as an avenging angel of justice that knows how to appreciate the finer bourgeois pleasures of life.

It is Ida who ultimately catches on to Pinkie’s crime and is determined to bring him to justice whatever it takes, and to rescue Rose from the damned boy’s clutches. This deadly cat-and-mouse leads Pinkie into a series of actions that leaves him with no chance of turning back.

Greene’s literary mastery in Brighton Rock is his ability to craft a heart-stopping murder mystery, while weaving in existential themes of the nature of good and evil, and the role of religion in an individual’s life.

Pinkie Brown is Graham Greene’s characterization of pure evil: born of unloving circumstances, he grows up unfeeling and equally unable to feel love, much less give any. His memories of are filled with a disdain for his childhood home, and shunning his recollections of his parents in the act of sex. The latter leaves such a stain on him that he is unable to contemplate himself making love to any woman.

“She was good, he’d discovered that, and he was damned: they were made for each other”

The obvious contrast to Pinkie’s evil is his would be lover/victim Rose. A young inexperienced girl of 16, she falls for Pinkie’s advances, and colors her judgment of him. Everything he does is justified in her eyes. She will follow him anywhere he goes, she says, even unto the great sin of committing suicide

But perhaps a better contrast to Pinkie’s evil would be Ida Arnold as the representation of supposed justice and good. Besides Pinkie, Ida is the next strongest character in the novel; probably the strongest female character I’ve come across in Greene’s novels. She has the cynical streak of Fowler (The Quiet American) and the haughtiness of Aunt Augusta (Travels With My Aunt), well heeled in middle aged pleasures.

“It’s only fun after all”
-Ida Arnold

Ida’s judgmental view of life lacks any grey areas. In a conversation with young Rose, she spells out exactly what she thinks of her relationship with Pinkie:

“Listen, I’m human. You can take my word I’ve loved a boy or two in my time. Why, its natural. It’s like breathing. Only you don’t want to get all worked up about it. There’s not one who’s worth it- let alone him. He’s wicked. I’m not Puritan. I’ve done a thing or two in my time- that’s natural.”
“Why”, she said, extending towards the child her plump and patronizing paw, “its in my hand; the girdle of Venus.

But I’ve always been on the side of Right. You’re young. You’ll have plenty of boys before you’ve finished. You’ll have plenty of fun- if you don’t let them get a grip on you. It’s natural. Like breathing. Don’t take away the notion I’m against Love. I should say not. Me. Ida Arnold. They’d laugh.”

-Ida Arnold

I did find a few things that called out to me in this particular Greene novel. Boy gangster Pinkie Brown’s ambitious moves in underworld Brighton is marked by much youthful inexperience, and struggle against the critical (and older) eyes of those around him. I suppose much of it came from the author’s own difficult time growing up, often quoted from his biography. As a young man who still has fresh memories of his teenage years, these were easy to identify with.

“He had to show someone he was – a man… It was as if they doubted whether he had the money to pay for his meal.”
“He knew everything in theory, nothng in practice; he was only old with the knowledge of other people’s lusts, those of strangers who wrote their desires on the walls in public lavatories. He knew the moves, he’d never played the game.”

Ultimately, Greene’s final say in the book hints on the writer’s own beliefs on religion in his life: that even those seemingly damned and evil have the opportunity to redeem themselves. Reccuring themes from Greene’s other novels appear here too:
Can a person be truly good if she has never known or experienced evil?

Can a person be truly evil if circumstances force him to know of no other existence and habit?

And after a multitude of sins, can she be redeemed in the eyes of God?

It seems a young Singaporean man can have much to take away from a British seaport town, underworld violence in the 1930’s.

Greene’s answer to this last question, is a resounding yes.

Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton

-Ida Arnold

Remarkable Prose: An Amoral Woman’s “Dangerous Liasons”

October 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

photo by johnathan229

Marie Antoinette had an umarked copy in her collection, discovered after her execution.

French society was horrified at its publication. It was declared by the cour de Royale in 1824 as ‘dangerous’

Baudelaire applauded the piece of work.

Some however, have decided it as an ideal wedding gift to the bride on her wedding night.

Choderlos Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses , or Dangerous Liasons, was an extremely controversial novel published in its time.

“I resolved to write a book which would create some stir in the world and continue to do so after I had gone from it”.
-Pierre Choderlos Laclos

Its two main protagonists, the ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, see seduction as a game which they play on their preys.

There were times I did find much of it both intriguing and disturbing: the depths and complexities of human psychology, as revealed by Valmont and Merteuil, even if these so called letters are largely fictional creations by Laclos himself. A reading of the novel will make you realize that the existence of modern day Merteuils and Valmonts isn’t too unimaginable.

The main question the book seems to be throwing, at least at me, is

“Is virtue alone a guarantee for a man, or woman to have a successful and happy life?”

Here is an excerpt of a letter written by the Marquise de Merteuil in reply to Vicomte de Valmont, after he had warned him of a notorious rake’s intentions to seduce her for the sake of ruining her character. The Marquise chides Valmont by reminding him of her vast experience in these cruel games, and how she can have any man she wants.

I have chosen this passage for Laclos’ remarkable description of the inner beliefs of a woman such as the Marquise de Merteuil. Please be reminded again this is a work of fiction, and there are consequences, should one decide to adopt the beliefs and attitudes of the character!

Excerpt from Letter  81, The Marquise Merteuil to the Vicomte de Valmont, from Les  Liasons Dangereuses

“Believe me, Vicomte, unnecessary virtues are rarely acquired. Since you risk nothing in your battles, you take no precautions. For you men, defeat means only one victory the less. In this unequal contest we are lucky not to lose, you unlucky when you do not win. Were I to grant you as many talents as we possess, how far we should still surpass you in the exercise by reason of the continual necessity we are under of putting them to use!

I am willing to suppose that you employ as much skill in conquest as we do in defence or surrender, but you will at least agree that, once you have achieved success, skill is immaterial to you. Entirely absorbed in your new pleasure, you give yourself up to it without constraint or reserve: it is of no importance to you how long it lasts.

After all, to talk the jargon of love, promises reciprocally given and received can be made and broken at will by you alone: we are lucky if upon an impulse you prefer secrecy to scandal, if, content with a humiliating submission, you stop short of making yesterday’s idol the victim of tomorrow’s sacrifice.

But when it is the unfortunate woman who first feels the weight of the chain, what risks she has to run if she tries to escape from it, or even to lighten it! Only in fear and trembling can she attempt to be rid of the man her heart so violently rejects. If he is determined to remain, that which once she granted to love must be given up to fear.

“Her arms are open still although her heart refuse.”

Her prudence must be skillfully employed in undoing the same bonds which you would simply have broken. At the mercy of her enemy, she is without resource if he is without generosity; and how can generosity be expected of him when, although men are sometimes commended for showing it, they are, notwithstanding, never thought the less of for lacking it?
You will not of course deny truths which are so evident as to be trivial. Since, then, you have seen me controlling events and opinions; turning the formidable male into the plaything of my whims and fancies; depriving some of the will, others of the power to hurt me; since I have been capable, according to the impulse of the moment, of attaching to or banishing from my train

“These tyrants that I have unseated and enslaved”

since amidst a great many vicissitudes, I have kept my reputation untarnished; should you not therefore have concluded that I, who was born to revenge my sex and master yours, have been able to discover the methods of doing so unknown even to myself?

Oh, keep your warnings and your fears for those giddy women who call themselves women of feeling, whose heated imaginations persuade them that nature has placed their senses in their heads; who; having never thought about it, invariably confuse love with a lover who, with their stupid delusions, imagine that the man with whom they have found pleasure is pleasure’s only source; and, like all the superstitious, accord that faith and respect to the priest which is due to only the divinity.

Keep your fears, too, for those who are more vain than prudent and cannot, when the time comes, bear to consider being abandoned.

Tremble above all for those women whose minds are active while their bodies are idle, whom you call sensitive; who are always so easily and so powerfully moved to love; who feel they must think about it even though they don’t enjoy it; who, surrendering themselves completely to the fermentation in their minds, give birth as a result to letters full of tenderness but fraught with danger; and who are not afraid to confide these proofs of their weakness to the person responsible for them: imprudent creatures, who cannot see in the lover of today the enemy of tomorrow.

But I, what have I in common with these empty-headed women? When have you known me break the rules I have laid down for myself or betray my principles? I say ‘my principles’ intentionally. They are not, like those of other women, found by chance, accepted unthinkingly, and followed out of habit. They are the fruit of profound reflection. I have created them: I might say I have created myself.

At my entrance into society I was still a girl, condemned by my status to silence and inaction, and I made the most of my opportunities to observe and reflect. I was thought scatter-brained and absent-minded: I paid little attention, inf act, to what everyone was anxious to tell me, but was careful to ponder what they attempted to hide. This useful curiosity, while it increased my knowledge, taught me to dissemble. Since I was often obliged to conceal the objects of my attention from the eyes of those around me, I tried to be able to turn my own wherever I pleased; from that time I have been able at will to assume the air of detachment you have so often admired.

Encouraged by my first success, I tried in the same way to control the different expressions on my face. When I felt annoyed I practised looking serene, even cheerful; in my enthusiasm, I went so far as to suffer pain voluntarily so as to achieve a simultaneous expression of pleasure. I laboured with the same care, and even more difficulty, to repress symptoms of unexpected joy. In this way I was able to acquire the power over my features at which I have sometimes seen you so astonished.

My studies soon became a delight. But, faithful to my principles and aware, perhaps by instinct, that no one should be further from my confidence than my husband, I decided, for the very reason that I had become susceptible to pleasure, to appear in his eyes as impassive. This apparent frigidity proved later to be the unshakable foundation of his blind trust in me. I decided in addition, after careful thought, to indulge the giddy airs my age permitted me: never did he think me more than a child than when I was most flagrantly deceiving him.

Old Age, Life, Love, and Death: Travels With My Aunt

September 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Travels With My Aunt is Graham Greene’s first person narration of Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager who  meets his 70-ish year old Aunt Augusta for the first time, at his mother’s funeral. A sequence of events leads Henry’s bland, distilled water life to be intertwined with his Aunt’s somewhat eccentric and from his view, amoral lifestyle. This fateful reunion with his aunt causes Henry to reconsider the life he had been living for the past fifty odd years.

And then the reader is thrown a plot twist, which honestly does not come at the very end…

Of Graham Greene’s numerous works, I do believe Travels With My Aunt is underrated. Most have passed off Travels as mere light entertainment, or does not carry enough weight to be taken into serious consideration.

Greene believed that each successful novel he wrote seemed to only set him up for an even greater disappointment through failure of his next.

He categorized his works early on into “novels” and “entertainments”. Novels tended to carry serious weight on philosophical, religious, and moral issues, while the later satiated his readers desire for thrillers and a good laugh. And Greene was one heck of a thriller writer, what with his experiences in the MI6, travels, his brushes with death, and somewhat lurid lifestyle. Stamboul Train (The Orient Express) and Our Man in Havana are some of his best entertainments.

As if a novel had to be “serious” to be given critical merit! I’ll be honest to say that this novel has the depth equivalent of The Power and The Glory (of which has been considered one of his most important works, amongst his “Catholic” novels), even if it is told in a much lighter tone than “Power”.

Greene’s writing progressed, and eventually he stopped labeling his novels into the two categories. This was where we got novels like The Quiet American , and yes, Travels With My Aunt, which was often a blend of edge-of-your-seat entertainment that got you stirred on questions on morality, the human condition, and the consequences of an individual’s decisions.

Here are some of the more interesting lines from this book:

“Age, Henry, may a little modify our emotions, -it does not destroy them.”

“A long life is not a question of ears. A man without memories might reach the age of a hundred and feel that his life had been a very brief one.”


“I made many economies in my youth and they were fairly painless because the young do not particularly care for luxury. They have other interests other than spending and can make love satisfactorily on a Coca-Cola, a drink which is nauseating in age. They have little idea of real pleasure: even their love-making is apt to be hurried and incomplete. Luckily in middle age pleasure begins, pleasure in love, in wine, in food.”

“One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father’s library had not contained the right books.”

“You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it ever night while you try to sleep…”


What I Think About, When I Think About “The Brothers Karamazov”

September 12, 2010 § 3 Comments

Alyosha, Ivan, and Mitya

Having finished reading The Brothers Karamazov recently, I find that writing a “book review” of it seems absurd, when luminaries such as Sigmund “Best novel ever written” Freud , Albert Einstein, and James Joyce sing praises of it. For the past week I’ve been filling out blog posts with portions I found incredibly interesting and worth many thoughts. So in summary, and possibly in jest, I’d like to round it off with a few more. Specifically those that will immediately come to mind when I think back about this novel, or start a conversation about it with someone (Anyone?).

1. The Depth of the Human Soul

From Dmitri Karamazov to Alexei Karamazov:

“A man with a noble heart and a superior intelligence may start out with the Madonna as his ideal and end up with Sodom as his ideal… Yes sir, a man’s range of feelings is wide, too wide even, and if I had my way I’d narrow it quite a bit. Its a hell of a situation, you know: what the head brands as shameful may appear as sheer beauty to the heart…

Weren’t you aware of that secret? The terrible thing is that beauty is not only frightening but a mystery as well. That’s where God and the devil join battle, and their battlefield is the heart of man.”

My comment: A man who gives in to his vices is of the breadth to remain pious to his beliefs but also disgusted by his erroneous ways. The best writers can show this trait in characters in their work.

2. The Karamazov Trait

The Defense Counsel’s Speech:

“…the Karamazov nature, that can accomodate simultaneously the most contradictory traits and two infinities, the infinite heights of the most noblest ideals and the infinite depths of the longest festering degredation.”

“…The feeling of degradation is as indispensable to those unbridled and unrestrained nerves as the sense of supreme nobility.” And this is very true; what they need is that unnatural combination, and they need it all the time unceasingly. The two infinities, gentlemen, they need the two infinities at the very same moment, and without them they are unhappy and frustrated, they feel that their life is not complete. Ah, the breadth of our natures is as wide as our mother Russia, and it can contain everything; everything can coexist within us!”

My comment: Here the Defense counsel is talking about the Karamazov trait to be noble, kind and loving, but at the same time contain the greed, lust, and other debauchery that the Karamazovs are supposedly notorious for. This trait really is the human condition, or “what it means to be a fucking human being.” Because it all comes from the heart, and the heart, as mentioned above, is the battleground.

3. Religion/ Atheism, Faith/Doubt, and the Immortality of the Soul

From The Grand Inquisitor:

“For the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding everything to live for. Without a concrete idea of what he’s living for, man would refuse to live, would rather exterminate himself than remain on this earth, even if bread were scattered all around him”

My comment:

Ivan Karamazov recites a poem in prose he created to his brother Alyosha. The parable tells of Christ returning to the world in Seville during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs miracles and is recognized by the people, but is captured by the Inquisition and sentenced to be burned the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell and explains how he is useless to the church and will only be an interference with their plans.

Ivan’s narration of The Grand Inquisitor is the story’s centerpiece. While it is about Ivan’s doubt of a benevolent God , it strangely has cast some doubts over the atheist beliefs I have. Not of the belief in Christianity, but the plausibility of Religion in general.

This masterpiece can be read and appreciated on its own. If you care to, here’s the free text online. Once done, you can have a visualization of it by watching the recent Russian television production of the portion, even if you don’t speak Russian.

I find myself readily identifying with Ivan’s character at times:

“His mind is not in harmony with his heart”

Reason proves the impossibility and baselessness of religion and God, but the heart craves and believes in the good of man and the immortality of the soul.


On Grushenka:

“But her magnificent, abundant, dark brown hair, her sable eyebrows, and her beautiful blue-grey eyes with their long lashes were certain to stop even the least interested, most absentminded man who met her in the street or saw her in a crowd, even if he was in a hurry- he would not be able to help stare at her at remember her for a long time…

For under the cashmere shawl, he could see her broad shoulders and her full young bosom. The curves under her dress suggested the proportions of a Venus de Milo although already somewhat exaggerated. Those who know the beauty of Russian women could have told by looking at Grushenka that, by the time this young beauty was thirty, her body would lose its harmony, her face would grow flabby, wrinkles would appear around her eyes and forehead, her complexion would coarsen, perhaps turn ruddy- in a word, Grushenka had the “beauty of an hour”, a fleeting beauty that one so often meets among Russian women”

My comment: I think of WTA pro Maria Kirilenko when I read this portion of text.

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