Monday, August 24, 2009

"It was true that a person of great faith could with impunity have acted boldly: It was only that Michael was not that person. What he failed to do was accurately to estimate his own resources, his own spiritual level: and it was indeed from his later reflections on this matter that he had, with a certain bitterness, drawn the text for his sermon. One must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles." Iris Murdoch, the Bell, page 207.

"'We are both boulder-pushers.' This is his phrase for what he sees as his own failure. His fight to get out of his poor background, to win scholarships, to get the highest medical degrees, came out of an ambition to be a creative scientist. But he knows now he will never be this original scientist. And this defect has been partly caused by what is best in him, his abiding, tireless compassion for the poor, the ignorant, the sick. He has always, at a point when he should have chosen the library or the laboratory, chosen the weak instead. He will never now be a discoverer or a blazer of new paths. He has become a man who fights a middle-class, reactionary medical superintendent who wants to keep his wards locked and his patients in straitjackets. 'You and I, Ella, we are the failures. We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept the truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonize Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we'll put all our energies, all our talents, into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.'" Doris Lessing, the Golden Notebook, page 195-196.

"What is terrible is that after every one of the phases of my life is finished, I am left with no more than some banal commonplace that everyone knows: in this case, that women's emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists. My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man. But I don't live that kind of life, and I know few women who do. So what I feel is irrelevant and silly... I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out. I ought to be like a man, caring more for my work than for people; I ought to put my work first, and take men as they come, or find an ordinary comfortable man for bread and butter reasons - but I won't do it, I can't be like that..." Doris Lessing, the Golden Notebook, page 283.

Ideas and actions

My friends were over for dinner and we were discussing whether we have a moral duty to help others, others who are less fortunate than ourselves. One of them suggested that big principles won't translate into action. Actions spring not from ideas or opinions but somewhere else, from a well of emotion. It may be years before grand theories spark up emotions. Everybody likes the idea of performing noble acts. How many of us are actually pushing the boulder?

That is why religions manipulated fear and guilt to motivate people into doing the "right thing". That's how magnificent churches were built. Aren't most of our actions (and inactions) still driven by fear and guilt? Maybe that is why it is so difficult to create a secular morality, it is so difficult to get people to feel and do anything. They tell us people are suffering, women are being trafficked, climate change will bring disaster if we don't care - they sound like a false alarm, we just look at them and wonder what's in all this for them. Are we supposed to respect them for their grasp of the truth and high moral sense? And mind you, if there's anything in it for them, we will feel much better because we won't have to question ourselves and change our behavior.

One of my friends says how important it is to live up to your principles, matching action with ideas. But are we those people, do we possess the emotional energy to back up our ideals?

So maybe the only way to understand who we are is to look at what we do, and what we don't.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not done

Apparently, once Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi described his life story with the simple line, “I was raw, I cooked, I burned.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I don’t have any claim on the spiritual connotations, obviously. I simply feel like some truth is escaping me, but I have no idea what it is. Sometimes writing really is like walking in the dark.

A good friend of mine got quite disappointed in me for not speaking openly about my disappointment in her. I gave her these long-winded explanations, bitter that she got the upper hand in our little philosophical debate: She was accusing me of being insincere, me, “the defender of sincerity and truth”! She was confident that my action was flawed at a much deeper, more fundamental level than hers, everything I was saying was obvious and beside the point, and I lacked the appreciation of a fundamental, common value... but what?

Then this morning I remembered something I wrote to another friend a few months ago. I wrote, “if I’m telling the feelings and thoughts you spark in me not to you, but to others – then no, we are not close.” And I remembered that I felt really strongly about it. So I did have this notion buried somewhere, I just forgot… I guess this is not a good enough answer.

The question then is; why am I not telling what I should to these people? People have their reasons for keeping quiet. There are different levels of relationships. Sometimes we foresake a higher, closer, more fulfilling relationship for security, peace and quiet, and just stay at that lower, “civil” level. We don’t rock the boat. The same can be said for foresaking dreams, principles, the truth. And when we don’t face and speak the truth, we are insincere. Sincerity is not just about sharing the most mundane details of your life and feelings. Ayca Sen wrote a beautiful
piece about this yesterday.

And the reason I do this is simply my insecurity. If I don’t try for something better, I will never have to face my true worth.

Last night I also remembered something I wrote when I was
sixteen. The girl I was then doesn’t like the person I turned out to be. Perhaps I am living a Benjamin Button lifestyle, turning raw as years go by.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Recipe for writing

In one of my posts I asked, "So far I've only seen feelings and ideas in the world. Will I be able to create worlds out of feelings and ideas?"

Now I realize even more clearly that this is how people write. There are concepts behind the stuff of every day life. Emotions and opinions trigger our deeds and words, they are the gist of the story. But one can't give them away just like that, that would be too obvious. First pick an emotion, a thought that moves you. Then work outwards, create a world out of that concept. Serve it to the reader and let them explore and think for themselves, let them recognize the gist, the truth. Let them unwrap the story. Because true joy lies in discovery. You just tell the reader to "look!" but don't tell them what it is they should see.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

parallel currents

I've been in this town for a while
and I'm not going away just yet
we have history
we laugh and chat away
we stay in here, now

it's in the silence
it's in our eyes
common knowledge
common understanding
we won't refer to it
although this seems
shrewd and shallow
we won't mention it

below the surface
a strong undercurrent
background noise
of lower frequency
words can't break into it
don't listen to it

stay in here, now

we have history
it's better with it-
better to leave it

Monday, August 03, 2009

anything goes

I realized something only today - I wrote before that in East London I feel like myself, just like I do in Galata/Tünel. Without really thinking about it, I assumed that it was because these places had an atmosphere that somehow suited my personality. But today I realized that it is not that they have a personality - it is their lack of personality, their heterogeneity that is so accepting and liberating. Nobody is like one another - everybody can be like themselves.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

animal spirits

It's been a long time since a book inspired me not to quote it, but write about it. I got Iris Murdoch's Bell from the second-hand book stalls under the Waterloo bridge. The themes it was addressing, I have been thinking about myself recently. More than talking about the book per se, I would like to explore these themes.

The book follows the thoughts and feelings of three members of a layman's religious community in West England. It primarily deals with the dichotomy between relativism vs. absolutism, as the characters search for the absolute truth, only to find that it is unattainable. Just like the enclosed grounds of the abbey across the lake, which is home to an order of nuns, truth and purity are there, theoretically possible, but out of reach.

Michael, the leader of the community, cannot find the strength in himself to live up to absolute moral standards in the face of love and desire. Dora, the erring wife, finds it impossible to grasp herself and the people around her as they really are; only the paintings in the National Gallery are able to comfort her with their absolute beauty - true beyond her interpretation. Toby, the young and wholesome boy, loses his carefree innocence with a simple kiss, falling into desperate confusion.

And all this seems to stem from one simple fact: The human condition, the mess we find ourselves in. Our minds sitting on top of an elephant of emotion, struggling to ride it. Sometimes it fails. And our curse is precisely this: We are aware of having lost control of the elephant, and we are aware that the elephant is taking us to the gutter. We are aware that nobody in their right minds would be doing what we are doing. We are aware that we are not interpreting people, situations correctly. But we simply don't know how to interpret them, what the truth is. Only if we had a manual to describe how people actually are. The whole thing has the urgency and inevitability of a disaster, and we are as helpless as in a dream.

That's why we worship and seek the absolute - wisdom, love, rules to live by. Only because we know we are unable to attain them. They are just ideas in the poor rider's head, the residue of a lost day and age, when people weren't as free to so visibly succumb to their weaknesses. But ideas and expectations remain; they continue to fool us into believing that something better is possible. We don't fail to be caught off guard every time reality falls short of what ought to be.

I should give the last word to poor Michael, who so eloquently explains that we are only entitled to the compass that is within us, and nothing else:

"In each of us there are different talents, different propensities, many of them capable of good or evil use. We must endeavour to know our possibilities and use what energy we really possess in the doing of God's will. As spiritual beings, in our imperfections and also in the possibility of our perfection, we differ profoundly one from another. How different we are from each other is something which it may take a long time to find out; and certain differences may never appear at all. Each one of us has his own way of apprehending God. I am sure you will know what I mean when I say that one finds God, as it were, in certain places; one has, where God is concerned, a sense of direction, a sense that here is what is most real, most good, most true. This sense of reality and weight attaches itself to certain experiences in our lives - and for different people these experiences may be different. God speaks to us in various tongues. To this, we must be attentive." pg. 209-210.