(Since the past week has been one of cognitive biases and illusions– mirrors and ink– it was but natural that when I would open the book of the master's poem it would simply place in front of me a yellow rose.)
The great Giambattista Marino did not die that afternoon, nor the next– he whom the combined spokesmen of Fame (to borrow an image dear to him) had proclaimed the new Homer and the new Dante. The silent and unalterable event that was now taking place was truly the last of his life. Crowned in glory and long life, the man was dying…A woman has placed a yellow rose in a vase. The man mutters to himself the inevitable lines that at this point, to tell the truth, he finds a little boring:
Garden’s purple, prairie’s pomp Yellow yolks of spring and eye of April…
It was at that moment that the revelation took place: Marino saw the rose, the way Adam must have seen it in Paradise. He sensed that it existed not in his words but in its own timelessness. He understood that we can utter and allude to things but not give them expression, that the proud tall volumes that made a golden shadow in the corner of his room were not the world’s mirrors, as his vanity figured, but simply other objects that had been added to the world.
This realization came to Marino on the eve of his death, as it had perhaps also come to Homer and Dante. – A Yellow Rose by Jorge Luis Borges, from 'The Maker'. Translated by Kenneth Krabbenhoft.
"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 Memories Are hunting horns whose sound dies in the breeze
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.
What it looked like a few weeks back. One can see not just Greenwich Park and the Observatory in the background but much beyond almost to the outskirts of London (yes, if only I had posted a high res picture).
Looking towards the City that is the one square mile that has been the financial centre of London since Medieval times.
Looking towards the City on a clear day (10 days back). Seen here are not just the iconic buildings (Gherkin et.al) but also the red train waiting at the station.
This is Canary Wharf. Home to all the big, bad financial institutions– banks, trading companies, rating agencies– you name it– they are all there.
Canary Wharf and the City and everything else on a clearer day.
London fog also known as the pea souper was a mixture of smoke from millions of chimneys and the mists and fogs of the Thames valley. These days the fog is predominantly mist, it still has traces of smog though nothing compared to what it was like in the late 19th century, for chimneys and chimney sweeps have long since been consigned to the pages of history. Though considering that they have been replaced by millions of cars I wonder how much has the air quality changed?
Here's Charles Dickens describing what it must have been like in the days when soot and sulphur dioxide filled mist descended upon London.
"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows
among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled
among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great
(and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.
Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the
yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the
gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of
ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards;
fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper,
down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of
his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges
peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round
them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the
sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and
ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as
the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look."
Bleak House (chapter 3)
And here is Dickens Jr. (son of Charles Dickens also known as Charles Dickens) defining the fog in 'Dickens’s dictionary of London, 1892-1893 (fourteenth year): an unconventional handbook.' for any and all enthusiasts of Victorian London.
“Fogs are, no doubt, not peculiar to London. Even
Paris itself can occasionally turn out very respectable work in this
way, and the American visitor to England will very probably think, in
passing the banks of Newfoundland, that he has very little to learn on
the subject of fog. But what Mr. Guppy called “a London
particular,” and what is more usually known to the natives as “a
pea-souper,” will very speedily dispel any little hallucination of this
sort. As the east wind brings up the exhalations of the
Essex and Kentish marshes, and as the damp-laden winter air prevents the
dispersion of the partly consumed carbon from hundreds of thousands of
chimneys, the strangest atmospheric compound known to science fills the
valley of the Thames. At such times almost all the senses have their share of trouble. Not
only does a strange and worse than Cimmerian darkness hide familiar
landmarks from sight, but the taste and smell are offended by an
unhallowed compound of flavours, and all things become greasy and clammy
to the touch. During the continuance of a real London fog –
which may be black, or grey, or more probably orange-coloured – the
happiest man is he who can stay at home."
Behind the Beautiful
Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
For me, this is the book of
the year, and undoubtedly the best book written about contemporary India. If I
were still in the habit of recommending books I would say read this book. If
you’ve ever read the words India’s growth story then this is the story of the
people who are fueling India’s growth: The sweat and bones on which India’s
growth pyramid will be built.
A couple of days back, a
young Indian journalist, on twitter: Finally read Katherine Boo's Behind the
Beautiful Forevers. So well written but its just another 'life in an indian
slum' plot. What next?
That in a way encapsulates
the popular attitude towards not just the people living in the slums, but also
good writing. Both are transient. We need to quickly move away and onto
Two reasons (for sake of
brevity) why this tweet caught my attention.
Firstly, “the plot” is the
real life of people (some living, some now dead) of Annawadi, the slum that
everyone who flies into Mumbai can see from the airplane window. It maybe
far-removed from what we’d like to consider reality, but it isn’t make-belief.
All the events, people and their names in the book are real.
Secondly, what next? Well,
how about instead of tweeting inanities spend time on a ‘story’ with dedication
and tremendous humanity as exemplified by Katherine Boo. Or, perhaps show a
little empathy, if humility and kindness are hard to muster.
In passing, I’d like to quote
the last few lines from the Author’s note:
“In places where government
priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a
neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your
own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished.
The poor blame one another for the choices of the governments and market, and
we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.
It is easy, from a safe
distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption,
where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blistering
hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many
people try to be–…
If the house is crooked and
crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make
anything lie straight?”
That’s a question we need to
ask more often. Read the book, not just for the people in it but also for the
person who wrote it.
Firstly, I am grateful to be
in a city with great public libraries. In a perfect world books would be freely
available to anyone who desires to read them and one would never need to buy a
book, until and unless, one really loves it or wants too. Also the books that
get over-hyped in the media are generally not worth their attention or our
money. If you combine the two facts you’ll understand why governments are so
eager to shut down public libraries.
Secondly, now it’s crystal
clear why American adaptations of ‘great British novels’ are, as they’d say in
this part of the world, a complete cock-up.
Thirdly, were Jane Austen’s
books simply about the ‘marriage plot’? W.H. Auden in his “Letters to Lord
Byron” summed it up the best:
"You could not shock her
more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems
innocent as grass.
It makes me most
uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the
Describe the amorous effects
Reveal so frankly and with
The economic basis of
How much has the economic
basis of society changed since the times of Auden and Austen? Even in this age
of feminist-era heroines, despite the availability of separation and divorce as
an option, have our expectations from relationships or basic desires undergone
seismic transformation? For many women, in many parts of the world, marriage
still remains a high-stakes game.
Most importantly, Jane
Austen's heroines, for example, are such well articulated characters, they
display real emotional and moral depth that makes us care about what happens to them,
despite the differences in our circumstance. That's something Jeffery
Eugenides seems to have overlooked in his limited reading of 19th century
(Re-)Read Austen or Auden
instead. Their complete works are available in a library near you. Did I tell
you I am so grateful for public libraries?
these words, presented in this sequence mean to you? Over the past few
months I have seen these words appear and then re-appear in various
contexts but almost never in the context that T. S. Eliot was alluding
to in his poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'. In the majority of cases these words were used to denote
a feeling of contentment, even camaraderie– moments spent with friends and
coffee; an image of happiness that our generation has inherited from
what many consider the epitome of friendship, the TV series
‘Friends’. I’d like to reserve my opinions on the dysfunctional people
who were ‘Friends', or the absurdity that was their friendship, and keep
them to myself. Though the line being discussed in its original
context, now that I think of it, could be argued is quite an apt
description of the facile nature of human relationships that the TV series depicted.
But it is Eliot and his words that I often come across and thus often think about.
A lot about the poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
is and can and must be debated and disputed and discussed, but this is
one of the lines in the poem that, in my opinion, there can be no
ambiguity about. Especially, given the context in which it is uttered.
For I have known them all already, known them all— Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
And if I were to quote the
entire poem then only one wordy question would remain: Has ever such a
direct and unambiguous reference been made to the sense of ennui that
results from the disillusionment that is modern society? To the abysmal
emptiness that underlies most social interaction. I have known them all–
the listless conversations, the bland coffee, the dull gestures, the
fake smiles– the mere consideration fills one up with a sense of, well,
But in the past few months whenever I have read these lines they
were being used to connote something quite the exact opposite of ennui. I
am quite positive if I’d have put the question to them not one would
have said that the line had been used to indicate that they were bored.
Or prove how banal their daily existence was. Or how dreary social
Isn’t it incredible how when a set of words is removed from their
intended context then they can come to mean almost anything? They can justify any belief, falsify any fact, and muddle even the simplest, clearest of all logical premises.
you’ll argue, using Eliot out of context isn’t such a big deal. We liked
the line, remembered it from college days. And heck! We like to toss it
around when we want to feel all literary and cool and young– Oh the
*If at one level (considering that time and space and narrative isn't always linear in Eliot's poems) J. Alfred Prufork isn’t a middle-aged man confronting his mortality– the poem even begins with a quote from Dante’s 'Inferno'– then I am afraid I too may have misconstrued Eliot.
The cities of the world are concentric, isomorphic, synchronic. Only one exists and you are always in the same one. It’s the effect of their permanent revolution, their intense circulation, is their instantaneous magnetism. –Jean Baudrillard
It's life and life only
Birds on the Blog
Great Crested Grebe. Caught at a rare moment sitting on its nest in some cold part of NW India. Unlike the Grebe outside my window that vanishes in a flash as it dives in search of fish.