Who Am I?

You leave an ephemeral trace that I use to form myself. Even though you left too soon.

“I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.” – Jorges Luis Borges.

Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing

Cover of "Surfacing"

Cover of Surfacing

I am not sure what to make out of Margaret Atwood’s books. In The Handmaid’s Tale, I like her. Other times, in The Cat’s Eye, she scares me.

Surfacing was a long, introspective narrative that made me feel as if I was getting into the protagonist’s head and then my own. Because a book is a reflection of the mirror. Whatever letters that I tongue, inhale and breathe out as words, I do so with my entire being, my entire existence weighing upon it. Our words are not light, contrary to what you may think. Our history gets in the way of each reading (and therefore, an ahistorical reading is, I think, impossible to achieve).

When the female protagonist had mood swings, I got swung around as well. Up and down. It’s never a pretty sight. I thought I left that part behind me when I was still in university, the part that’s unnecessarily deep and dysfunctional. Or did I never possess it in the first place? Reading does that to you: it turns the screw in your mind. The turn of the screw, tightening.

The book’s title may be Surfacing, instantly conjuring an image of one coming out from below the water, breaking the surface, gasping for air? but I found myself surfacing on the other side – within myself. I felt like there was a worm in my head, together with the screw. And I would never be able to get them out until I’ve come to the end of the book. Last page.

Surfacing is no narrative about a lady, a twenty-year-old who forgot her history, who denied and repressed it. Her story. History. Puns are so easy. So easy to read Surfacing as a feminist book because that was probably what it was back in 1979, when it was first written. But never mind authorial intention. Never mind that I read a book that exhibited similar themes (language, silence, returning to the animal state) before I came across Surfacing. For all I know, that author may have read Atwood and was predisposed to carry the theme forward.

But because I already have, so it became too tempting for me to not treat the book as such. It’s too easy a way out of the forking gardens. No. It’s a manual on how to fish that worm out of you. It’s catharsis.

Going through the book was, for me, tough, and in the end, the narrative becomes her story instead as all rationality break down. Near the end, I couldn’t help but fall asleep because I was so worn out from work. And on the cusp of sleep, that half-awaken state between rationality and irrationality where nightmares troll, I wrote this post.

P.S.: I’m straddling two URLs now, this and wordsbytony.wordpress.com. Thought I should let you know.

Inception Is Disappointing

You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened. – Jorges Luis Borges

Many people said that Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception, was brilliant and perhaps the best mind-blowing film they’ve ever seen.

Caught by the public hysteria about the film – there were tweets that wowed over the film every so often when it opened – I decided to catch it at the cinema. And was disappointed.

It was a wonderful exercise in film techniques but otherwise, in terms of plot material and originality. Just like Shutter Island, I’ve seen the plot before. As opposed to popular opinion it was pretty easy to follow as well. How can cross-cutting of scenes be confusing? I’m referring to the second and third layers of the dream.

Granted there are a few details I’ve missed out but a second viewing of the film will surely reveal more. Nothing about it.

You’ll only have to peruse the books that belong to the metafiction genre in order to be able to experience the same “labyrinthesque”  experience. And none more so than in the works of Jorges Luis Borges.

Conclusion? I’m getting old. Nothing is difficult anymore if I can get through Foucault’s Pendulum.

Read: Foucault’s Pendulum

Title: Foucault’s Pendulum
Umberto Eco, translated from Italian by William Weaver
Ballantine Books, 1997, 642 pages

On Metafiction

Colonel Ardenti: “Gentlemen, I will now show you this text. Forgive me for using a photocopy. It’s not distrust. I don’t want to subject the original to further wear.”

“No,” Belbo said. “I hate that. Let’s see your original copy.”

“But Ingolf’s copy wasn’t the original,” I said. “The parchment was the original.”

“Casaubon, when originals no longer exist, the last copy is the original.”

“But Ingolf may have made errors in transcription.”

“You don’t know that he did. Whereas I know Ingolf’s transcription is true, because I see no way the truth could be otherwise. Therefore Ingolf’s copy is the original. Do we agree on this point, or do we sit and split hairs?”

– p131

As people we are all copies of one another. Some call it inspiration, others call it imitation. Is there originality? Perhaps it is banal to even seek such a concept but since young, I’ve strove for it. Thinking back, I realised I never succeeded. I only managed to copy the coolest person in our class – no more. And became a simulacra of him (am I abusing the term? I cannot remember). I’ve merged his characteristics with other pop idols.  Thinking back, it is only upon adulthood, perhaps upon receiving a job, that I’ve come into my own. Granted, I still take the best characteristics of others (what was it that Confucius said about taking the best points from your friends?) but I’ve melted them down and reforged the sword.

Another quote from our protagonist:

“But most of this stuff”, I aruged, “repeats things you can find on any station newsstand. Even published authors copy from one another, and cite one another as authorities, and all base their proofs on a sentence of Iamblicus, so to speak.”

The book so reminds me of my ache for the quest of knowledge, to fill the empty vessel that is me. I am afraid of old age. I don’t want to give up my autonomy of all my senses, my bodily functions., of my knowledge. Senility…

Even as I flip the yellowed pages, the book a hand-me-down from a literature professor to her students, I realise a common denominator of all things, of all resources in the world: Time.

Everything in the world requires Time: money yet to be earned, gold yet to be mined, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, jobs, knowledge, pleasure, hate, feelings. Only with Time can these events occur. Sadly we’ve limited ourselves to twenty-fours a day. And out of those twenty-four, we willingly give up eight to ten hours for work, another eight to ten for sleep. And what do we have left?

On Cars

Belbo: “Suppose the automobile existed only to serve as the metaphor of creation? And we mustn’t confine ourselves to the exterior, or to the surface reality of the dashboard; we must learn to see what only the Maker sees, what lies beneath. What lies beneath and what lies above. It is the Tree of the Sefirot.”

pg 378

After two or three sittings, I am finally done with the book. In the end, Dr Wagner’s words for Causabon sums up an angle of the book’s narrative:

Monsieur, vous êtes fou.

N.B.: This is a sandbox for my thoughts that arise from my reading of Foucault’s Pendulum. It will be continually bumped up as my thoughts trace through the sands.

Philosophising from the machine

I will repeat here the material from Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum for it may have a bearing on my labours during the day.

The problem is to find occult links between, for example, cabala and the spark plugs of a car. –Causabon, pg 377

Suppose the automobile existed only to serve as the metaphor of creation? And we mustn’t confine ourselves to the exterior, or to the surface reality of the dashboard; we must learn to see what only the Maker sees, what lies beneath. What lies beneath and what lies above. It is the Tree of the Sefirot. –Belbo, pg 378.

…it is the thing itself that says. The drive shaft is the trunk of the tree. Count the parts: engine, two front wheels, clutch, transmission, two axles, differential, and two rear wheels. Ten parts, ten Sefirot.

…let’s pursue the dialectic of the tree. At the summit is the engine, Omnia Movens, of which more later: this is the Creative Source. The engine communicates its creative energy to the two front or higher wheels: the Wheels of Intelligence and the Wheel of Knowledge.”

[Causaubon replies] “If the car has front-wheel drive.”

“The good thing about the Belboth tree is that it allows metaphysical alternatives. So we have the image of a spiritual cosmos with front-wheel drive, where the engine, in front, transmits its wishes to the higher wheels, whereas in the materialistic version we have a degenerate cosmos in which motion is imparted by the engine to the two lower wheels: from the depths, the cosmic emanation releases the base forces of matter.

Maybe I will begin to philosophise from the cosmos.

Review: Freakonomics: What Levitt really didn’t say

“There’s no question I have written some ridiculous papers.”

“Sometimes you write papers and they’re less about the actual result, more about your vision of how you think your profession should be. And so I think some of my most ridiculous papers actually fall into the high-fashion category.”

Stephen Levitt in “How Freakonomics is ruining the dismal science” drawing an analogy to the fashion industry: haute couture versus pret-a-porter.

UNIVERSITY of Chicago economist Steven Levitt’s  and New York Times journalist and (somewhat sidelined) author Stephen Dubner’s book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, has fascinated the public for a long time.

If memory serves me right, it stayed on many an international bestseller lists, including the New York Times and our local list, Straits Times Bestsellers.

Two quotes on the book cover jump out at the reader immediately, if you’re reading the same version as mine. One quote strikes hard.

Prepare to be dazzled.

Malcolm Gladwell, Freakonomics, 2005

Freakonomics is a good book in the sense that it entertains and sheds some information on the causality of certain events but you’ll have to take his information with a pinch of salt too.

Continue reading

On writing to someone

If this story is written only for myself, then so be it. But it doesn’t feel that way. I feel you out there, reader. This is the only kind of intimacy I’m comfortable with. Just the two of us, here in the dark. (Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides, p319)

What’s there then, if we’re not writing for our readers. Writing for s/he who will understand in time to come. Writing to leave our posterity in time, all those words capturing the essence of us so that we won’t be merely dust. Writing to someone so that we can keep on writing, keep on talking and remain self-absorbed and we don’t even need to be bothered with your thoughts, silent reader, because we cannot hear them. Some good authors probably can anticipate what you might ask, what you might question. Why is there a loophole here? But even better authors won’t really give a care. They’re self-absorbed and nasty. But they also make one of the best reads in the world.

They have something to say and if you won’t listen, they’ll find somewhere else who will. It better be a person who likes the dark though. Because only in the dark do stories get told.

That’s authorial power.