Friday, 26 October 2012


"And this, Lily thought, this making up scenes about people, is what we call "knowing" people, "thinking" of them, "being fond of" them!"
– Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

Our story is noble and tragic
As the face of a tyrant not fun not for everyone
No drama or magic
No detail of what we’ve done
Can make our love pathetic

And Thomas De Quincey drinking
Opium poison sweet and chaste
Went dreaming to his poor Anne and listened to his eyelids blinking
Let it pass let it pass because everything will pass and be effaced
I will be back not yet erased

Are hunting horns whose sound dies in the breeze 
Guillaume Apollinaire, Cors De Chasse (Hunting Horns). This translation is from The Paris Review No. 202 Fall 2012

You may have heard of a cognitive bias called frequency illusion– the illusion in which a word, a name or other thing that has recently come to one's attention suddenly appears "everywhere" with improbable frequency*. Even if you haven't heard of it, I am sure you must have experienced it a number of times. 

Considering that the human brain seeks patterns everywhere, this isn't much of a surprise. After all most human learning depends upon it. Whether all human brains seek the same pattern is a completely different issue. When coupled with the recency effect, a cognitive bias that inflates the importance of recent stimuli or observations, this illusion gets magnified. We end up becoming more aware of things we heard most recently when they come within our sphere of attention again. Coincidentally.

Well. I have been working on an essay for some time and now everywhere I go (and by that I mean in the virtual world) words seem to appear calling out to me, "Look at us. We can be of help." It is slightly unnerving, though mostly thrilling. But most importantly reassuring that my brain is active.

However, the world of words is also an illusion of sorts. One can get trapped in it. Look at all the people in India  (they like to 'think' of themselves as the intelligentsia I am sure) who wrote reams upon reams against the recent people's movement against corruption– they were appalled that all people weren't like them and the revolution appeared to be nothing like what they had read in some books in college. Imagine! Many of the protesting, unwashed masses had never read a word and could articulate their anger only in coarse, pithy slogans. And still they were angry enough to take to the streets.

Real life has a knack for mercilessly crushing all illusions.

It reminded me of a segment from 'The Daily Show' in which Jon Stewart talked about how people keep mentioning the importance of satire, for example during Nazi Germany and he ended the segment with the words, "Yeah! They really showed Hitler, didn't they?" Words for all the power we bestow on them, for all our illusions about them, are simply squiggles on paper– transcribed guttural sounds.

And just when seekers of immortality look at words– that they have read or that they think they'll leave behind for perpetuity– death clears its throat and with a small poof blows all illusions and biases away. At such times the first thing that we lose, no matter how beautifully people have written about death in countless books, is our ability to come up with adequate words.

Afterword: What about the essay? As Mavis Gallant said in the introduction to her short story collection, "Stories can wait." And I'd like to add, even if some of them end up never getting told, lets for once dispel with this false pretense, life will still go on. Regardless.

*Wikipedia. Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

No comments: