Anyone who has read Hamlet has the right to ask, "What's wrong with this guy? Why can't he shit or get off the pot? Is he glued to the toilet like some Elizabethan version of a centaur? Where does his tail end?" Writing about Shakespeare with any semblance of authority is daunting. The only reason I feel at all qualified to is I've read Hamlet a bunch of times, seen several versions of it both on screen and on stage, listened to it on tape as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (with a cast led by Paul Scofield, whose reedy but powerful voice still rings in my head whenever I re-read the play, a tall order in these ADD-ridden days) about twenty times, studied it in college, and, most recently, read an excellent analysis of the play by Oxford University professor Colin McGinn in a book entitled Shakespeare's Philosophy, which I strongly recommend to anyone who knows and loves the Bard's work for some illuminating insights.
I'm indebted to McGinn for most of the ideas conveyed in this essay, and I humbly take my head off (sic) to him, hoping he doesn't pursue me in a lawsuit for taking liberties. I'll do my best to cite his example whenever possible; better still, let me just paraphrase for you his gist, then elaborate on it with my own epigone-like tendrils:
McGinn's main theme in his chapter on Hamlet goes beyond the protagonist's agonizing tendency to dilly-dally and shilly-shally in a stream of self-indulgent, albeit beautiful and poetic, verbiage for three hours-plus before exacting his belated and only semi-competent revenge. Anyone familiar with the play already knows all this, so why belabor the obvious?
Instead, McGinn does his reader the service of pointing out the problem of identity in Hamlet. The first line of the play, as he says, is "Who's there?" This is in reference to the shadowy figure of the ghost of Hamlet's father. I always used to wonder why Hamlet didn't just tell his father he got the message, turn around, and go back and throttle Claudius, the uncle who murdered Hamlet, Sr. and made him a ghost by pouring "a leprous distillment" in his ear, married his widow, and made himself king just like that--Alakazam!
McGinn has it that it's hard for Hamlet to do this not just because of his troubled conscience, although that's certainly a part of it, but also because he's not even sure the ghost is his father's. After all, the specter is clad in armor; McGinn posits that in the interest of supernatural verisimilitude, the sharp-eyed Shakespeare suggests that Hamlet, Sr.'s shape wouldn't necessarily correspond with that his dutiful son knows and loves. Decomposition would already have begun to do its thing on his corpse (having its way with it, as it were, if you'll pardon the gratuitously necrophilic image). Superstitious creature that Hamlet, Jr. is, he considers that the ghost might even be a demon sent to damn him. His squeamishness runs so deep that he even voices a craven fear of hell as an argument against the suicide he longs for when he mentions how the "Everlasting" has "fixed/His canon 'gainst self-slaughter."
(It's too bad for Hamlet that coffee was not more popular in his time, as it's been found to be a relatively cheap and effective, as well as delicious, suicide repellent. Before you know it, some global coffee chain will pick up the theme with the following ad:
"To be or not to be--that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. Mmmm, this sure tastes good. On second thoughts I must admit life's not so bad and take a shit.")
(TO BE--OR NOT TO BE--CONTINUED)
Saturday December 17, 2011
Playing Is Winning
"Here's to the winners all of us can be." Frank Sinatra
"Here's to the losers all of us are." Tom Renshaw
"Win, lose, what's the difference?" Jon Voight as escaped convict Oscar Manheim in the movie Runaway Train
"You cannot win if you do not play." Steve Forbert
The Need to Win by Chuang Tzu
When an archer is shooting for fun He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold He goes blind
Or sees two targets-- He is out of his mind.
His skill has not changed, But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning Than of shooting-- And the need to win Drains him of power.
Chuang Tzu's poem reminds us that the surest way to lose is to try too hard. His story embodies the Taoist concept of wu-wei, meaning "actionless action" or doing something without getting attached to the expected result of your action. In our goal-oriented world, it's a difficult skill to cultivate, but also an invaluable one. How many times have you bungled a job interview by blurting out more than you should have, being too polite, or telling the interviewer you could do his job much better than he could? Or let's say you're out on a date with a woman who is so stunningly, heart-stoppingly beautiful, witty, charming, and intelligent, then you grovel at her feet, say you want to marry her right away, and blubber through the words: "How could I possibly go on living without you?"
It's too bad people have to go through such humiliating experiences before they can find their misplaced dignity, but it appears that a lot of us do. Why is that? Well, maybe it's because we don't know how to play a game without expecting anything--in this case, either to win or lose. And the latter is an equally damning proposition, as it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. What makes us cling so hard to what isn't even there yet? Why can't we have faith in life to work itself out?
Buddha said people have to watch out in particular for attachment to views. This is a tough predicament to overcome, a deep-seated weakness that derives from falling in love with our own opinions or beliefs. And what, after all, are beliefs but opinions in drag? That's why it's a good idea not only to play devil's advocate sometimes, but to allow the possibility that, as Dennis Miller used to say, "I could be wrong."
And what's so bad about being wrong? What's wrong with losing? Everybody does, eventually. What stings especially is the stigma we attach to it. "I didn't: a) get the job I applied to; b) marry the woman of my dreams; c) receive glowing reviews for my performance as Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. I must be the biggest loser of all time. I might as well crawl into a hole and die. In fact, I think I will."
Besides, the expression "everyone loves a winner" isn't always true anyway. Some winners are self-consumed, insufferable bores. Not all, by any means, but some. The only way a winner can be lovable is that if that person outwardly acknowledges (even if he/she's lying in a show of false modesty) that he/she's lucky not to have lost. In a humane world, everybody loves an underdog.
Chuang Tzu knew that the best way to live is to be and to do, not to want or crave. It's a tightrope walk, summoning enough motivation to achieve your goals, but not going so far as to overdo it and become an overly ambitious, aggressive son of a bitch who pushes other people out of his way, doesn't push his chair in when he gets up from the table, doesn't hold the door open for others, throws his cellphone in people's faces, etc.
As T.S. Eliot said, "Humility is endless." In a world overflowing with the side effects and symptoms of greed and gluttony run amok, we ought to cultivate more of it--
--of course, without becoming so meek and mild that we have no inner barometer or compass or "bullshit detector" (Hemingway) and follow any putatively charismatic charlatan off a cliff (or step off ourselves right after he's stepped out of the way to save himself, cleverly).
A friend of mine would disagree with me (unless he was just playing devil's advocate the last time we talked), saying he at times envies the tranquility and peace of mind of so many religious people that I routinely disparage and sneer at with contempt.
Who cares who's right or wrong? It's the weekend. Go nuts!
Friday December 16, 2011
What's War For?
Futility by Wilfred Owen
Move him into the sun-- Gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of fields unsown. Always it awoke him, even in France, Until this morning and this snow. If anything might rouse him now, The kind old sun will know. Think how it wakes the seeds-- Woke, once, the clays of a cold star. Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides Full-nerved,--still-warm,--too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall? --O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth's sleep at all?
The above poem written by British World War I poet Wilfred Owen, who died at the age of twenty-five two weeks before the armistice was declared, possesses the quiet power and dignity of a man wise beyond his years. What gives it its strength is its stillness, its paradoxically beautiful lifelessness, forcing the reader to reflect on the raw product of war: death, destruction, mayhem, waste. As an old English man I met while living in London for a few months told me when I asked him what it was like fighting in World War II, "That's just carnage."
In a time when wars are forced upon the public, especially in the United States, almost as a matter of course, it pays to remember how insanely stupid and pointless war is. We Americans are anesthetized by a press, especially the TV news networks, that disingenuously prettifies wars to make us numb to their horrors. Even respected newspapers such as the New York Times march in lockstep to the drumbeat of war when the likes of Colin Powell gives a speech to the United Nation, waving his little vial of fake anthrax and saying, "Boo! Saddam's gunna gitcha!" even though he knows he's lying through his teeth.
And beyond the obvious human cost of wars, what about the environmental devastation involved? Remember during the first Persian Gulf War (or Iraq War) when our (former) man in Baghdad, Sandy Hussein, set fire to the oil wells and dumped the precious crude we needed so badly, like a junkie jonesing for smack, puking oil all over the seabirds and dugongs?
And please don't forget our own government's complicity in letting riotous yahoos rob the cradle of civilization in the still-ongoing sequel to the Iraq War, looting the Museum of the Antiquities and stealing works of art that were as ancient and irreplaceable as any extant human artifacts on earth. We also let them burn down the library (unless it was destroyed by our bombers; what difference does it make? Either way, it perished through the negligence our trogdlodytic government of philistines, the blessedly departed Bush/Cheney kleptocracy, perpetuated with our compliance) containing similarly unique texts that might have taught us something about our own history, if we only knew to listen.
But no, throw them down the memory hole, like Winston Smith in 1984, feed the furnace and live on the smoke of human dreams.
What gives Wilfred Owen's poem its heft, making it what could well be the greatest anti-war poem of all time (I haven't read enough Siegfried Sassoon to have an authoritative opinion on that one), is its remarkable understatement. The poem describes a simple moment in which a soldier, doctor, group of soldiers--it's unclear who exactly--tries to revive another soldier killed in combat without success. Owen provides the reader with a touching naivete akin to a child waiting for a dead mouse he's found to spring back to life, all the while reminding us with the blunt title that nothing is going to bring the soldier back. Like ours (he implies), his eyes will stay shut forever.
The manner of Owen's own death confirms his point and adds a whole new level of outrage to his impressive if truncated body of work (along with "Futility" itself), most of which deals with the same themes, written in the shelter of some muddy, festering trench with a miasma of mustard gas in the air and the flatulent sound of biplanes engaged in dogfights overhead. Rows of soldiers charged each other with rifles and bayonets, no doubt wondering why they were supposed to regard the foreign forces they confronted as "the Enemy" (another of Owen's poems, "Strange Meeting," describes an encounter between two soldiers of opposing sides in which no gunfire is exchanged because they have enough respect for each other as individuals not to lash out out of fear). Not even historians seem able to agree what the whole damned war was supposed to be about.
Move him into the sun--
as if theorb that gives us heat and light were also a faith healer. The image that follows reminds us how much death looks like sleep.
Always it awoke him, even in France, Until this morning and this snow.
France, the reader can only assume, is where the combat that claimed the soldier's life has taken place. So even during war, the "kind old sun" was there to provide an inkling of cheer, or else just to shine indifferently on the bloodshed like Nero watching a lion tear some poor Christian to shreds in the coliseum. "This snow" is probably real snow, but also symbolizes the chill of death, which the sun cannot penetrate in order to restore the flush of vital health.
Think how it wakes the seeds-- Woke once, the clays of a cold star.
Owen ties the sun's role in imbuing plants with life--suggesting also chlorophyll's response to solar cajoling, and photosynthesis--with the genesis of the earth itself ("a cold star"), using the old-fashioned, formerly countable noun, "clays" to imply individual creatures rising up from the primordial soup to become advertising executives and weapons contractors.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides Full-nerved,--still-warm,--too hard to stir?
From our post-twentieth century vantage point, in which we've grown inured to the sheer waste involved in war (and it's hardly news that our overexposure to fake death and violence on TV and in movies has desensitized a lot of us to the real McCoy), this may read like a rhetorical question. It calls to mind the title, and the kid with the dead mouse again. But I think Owen wants us to ask it for real.
"Freddie! Can you hear me? Wake up, buddy. It's Mike. We need you to stick around for awhile, okay? Freddie? FREDDIE!"
I've never seen a dead person before, or a person die before me, which may be the reason I joke about death more than a person who's familiar with it would, and probably more than I have a right to. It serves as a defense mechanism, and as a way to remind me that nobody lives forever and, as George Harrison would say, "all things must pass." Death is a very difficult thing to get your mind around if you haven't been exposed to it up close before. Understanding it at an intellectual level is not the same, and I dread facing the deaths of my loved ones more than anything. Who doesn't?
All the same, it's comforting in some sense to know that we're all headed in the same direction. Since no one is immune, we can console one another with sympathy for our shared plight. It's not a bad practice to appreciate everyone you meet, especially the people you're closest to, and "to forgive those who trespass against us."
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
Again Owen uses a rhetorical question to force us to look at ourselves uneasily in the mirror, to wonder why we spend so many of our tax dollars on what Arlo Guthrie would call "implements of destruction." He also reminds us that we're clay too. Hell, we're earth. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Our fate pursues us like a giant vacuum cleaner.
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth's sleep at all?
And there you have it: the heart-wrenching atheist's lament. The man who's seen too much asks those of us who don't want to hear it or face the enormity of war and the betrayal it entails (I hope it's okay to borrow that idea from a writer I respect tremendously, Chris Hedges):
How do you explain this? What excuse could possibly be made to justify such an unbelievable waste of human potential, of naturally sane landscapes, even of simple energy and initiative?
If "fatuous sunbeams" did it, then God's out of the picture.
That leaves us with frail, fallible human beings whose institutions incline toward futility.
As Richard Pryor said, "You go looking for justice and that's what you find--just us."
I believe, however, that we will one day live in a world without war. Well, I probably won't, but I hope some of you live long enough to.
Thursday December 1, 2011
Life in Korea
As you can probably guess by the name of this page, I live in Korea. I've lived here for about five and a half years, although it feels as though I just got here. That's probably because I still haven't picked up the language and, until recently, I was doing the same thing I've been doing for the past twenty years, teaching English to a bunch of gad-dern ferners. (To be fair, I'm the foreigner this time). These days I'm looking for a new teaching job, but the market for adults seems to be saturated with us white types. Still, we're better off than native English speakers with Korean backgrounds. I have two friends who fit in that category, and it's hard for either of them to find full-time work. Apparently, a lot of Korean students think that if the person teaching them looks like them, they--the students--are being had somehow. Needless to say, it's ridiculously idiotic, and patently unfair.
Considering I've already been here so long, it's hard for me to write about life in Seoul without sounding crusty and jaded, so I'll keep it brief, at least for now. Later on, as I break out of my chrysalis once again, I'll provide you with daily observations in detail.
For now, suffice it to say, allow me to make sweeping generalizations about Korean people available from any xenophobic, boneheaded foreign freak like me who's already been here too long but probably doesn't really belong anywhere on this planet anymore anyway.
Also, please bear in mind that if some of my characterizations appear at all harsh, unseemly, or misanthropic to you, part of that wounded defensiveness and lashing out can be attributable, at least in part, to being newly unemployed, which makes me fit into today's world just fine (what I said in the previous paragraph notwithstanding; as singer Neil Innes would say, "I may be accused of being confused").
To be fair, Korean people have a lot of excellent qualities in abundance that remind me of Americans, Japanese people, English people, Belgians, and other people I've met from around the world. I don't want to single any nationality out as being exceptionally barbaric or savage; every person you meet is a paradox, after all. Seoul is a remarkably safe city for a place bursting with so many people--ten million, last time I counted--and when I was teaching I thought nothing of leaving my cell phone or other valuables in my bag in the teacher's office, whose door was sometimes ajar, even when the room was empty.
Then again, several years ago a thief once broke into my wife's and my old apartment while I was taking a nap. By happy chance I was home taking a nap between teaching shifts.
"Honey, is that you?" (That was me speaking, not the thief.)
I walked into the kitchen in my pajamas, where a man was straddling the window sill, barely discernible to me as I wasn't wearing my glasses. Before I could say "Jack Robinson," he clambered out the window and scampered up the alley and over the wall behind the house, out of sight as fast as diarrhea.
If I'm not mistaken, I think it was the same man who'd helped us move in. As fuzzy as he'd looked to me, he was wearing the same blue uniform and had the same haircut. I was going to report him to the police, but feared potential reprisals; besides, the police probably wouldn't have done anything, since I didn't really have proof. He was a likely suspect though, as he'd have had a chance to case the joint and knew enough to climb in through the sliding kitchen window, which we later had barred to help make the place feel that much more like a prison.
When I told the story to a friend of mine, he said it's lucky I woke up, as the guy could have gutted me with a shiv. Frankly speaking (as some of my students used to say), I doubt he was dangerous, but it would have been a shame to lose my computer (which I did later, a story I'll save for another time), my neckties, and my tube socks.
Due to the old Confucian tendency to regard boys as more valuable than girls (that's a laugh), there are more adult males than females in Korea today. This is a shame for a number of reasons. Apart from the obvious one that it makes it that much harder for a straight man to get a date for Saturday night (not that their comic sidekicks have too much trouble), and that we men are--in my biased opinion, far more boring, predictable, and primitive than our female counterparts--middle-aged Korean men in particular are, from the perspective of an outside Western observer, if you'll forgive the hasty generalization I warned you of earlier, loud, boorish, grumpy, unfriendly, and grouchy. Not to mention drunk off their asses if you see them after ten p.m., pretty much any night of the week.
Aside from the fact that Korea's insipid popular culture, which self-loathingly kowtows to Western standards of beauty, has led a lot of breathtakingly beautiful young Korean women to opt to have their faces mutilated by plastic surgeons, the most common procedure being the doubling of the eyelid to make their eyes look wider, although not to the extremes of the girls in Japanese cartoons, and even some older women choose to have their jawbones narrowed or go with Botox injections to give themselves a deathly, aging Barbie doll-expressionlessness, a more universal tendency that appears to happen without the violent outside interference of a doctor is for the women here to turn into men.
I'm not talking about transgender operations; I'm referring to a transformation that takes place seemingly overnight, in which testosterone overtakes estrogen in the woman in question, so that when she reaches the age of fifty or so, she's suddenly as butch as her husband, if not more so. The stereotypical "ajumma," or middle-aged Korean woman, has a bushy perm, big Kim Jeong il glasses, and a gigantic visor that looks like a duckbill from a caricature. She is gruff, blustery, and pushy, and she doesn't take shit from anyone, including her husband.
One reason I may be a little hard on middle-aged Korean men ("ajushi") is that, at least en masse, they seem so unapproachable. They're also the ones who are most apt to stare at a goofy-looking foreigner like me, and not in a smily, welcoming manner. Instead, their eyes say, "What the hell are you doing in my country? Haven't you already done enough damage? And keep your hands off our women!" Of course, I could be misreading their hateful expressions and I shouldn't put words in their mouths.
Friday December 2, 2011
Looking into a Cat's Eyes
One thing that's startling to any Westerner who comes to Korea to teach is the number of instances of conformity one comes across. Not to say Korean people don't exhibit individual characteristics--they most certainly do--but conformity of a sort appears to be deemed a virtue instead of a defect, as it would be back home in most circles--a lack of originality. It's "I've Got to Be Me" meets "We've Got to Be Us," or, perhaps more accurately, "We've Got to Be Me," or even, "I've Got to Be We."
Let one example suffice (full disclosure: I don't know a great deal about Korean history, so what I know of the culture comes only from the experience of one who's lived here for awhile; also, as someone who doesn't know the language, it's safe to say that there are a lot of more culturally sensitive foreigners living here who know more about Korean customs and what they mean than I do. Sorry): During my years of teaching English here to Korean adults, whenever I asked a student if he or she liked cats, the answer was almost invariably no. When I asked why not, the student would say the same thing: "I don't like the cat's eyes. They make me feel uncomfortable."
Having never heard such a bizarre statement back in the United States, I wondered whether this was traceable to some superstition regarding cats here. I'll have to look that one up for you. Although the reception to cats seems to be warming, just as fewer and fewer people, from what I can tell, are indulging in dog meat (I've never seen it or been offered it, but I've heard horror stories about how the dogs are beaten and tortured to help tenderize the meat and putatively give the consumer more "stamina"; not that I'm sure that what goes on in American factory farms is any more heartwarming or humane), you still see and hear a lot of stray cats here. They feed on garbage--discarded chicken bones, fast food scraps, that kind of crap--but I must say they're feisty little buggers and they appear to do all right, under the circumstances.
I thought of one other example of a conformist notion that's also something seemingly almost universally believed here (kind of like the way when I lived in Japan twenty years ago, I was unable to find a single soul who believed there was anything wrong, really, with hunting and killing whales--which explains the staggering popularity of Moby-Dick in Japanese society (joke)--although I've heard the pattern is changing, not that the situation is necessarily so sanguine if you're a dolphin, or a bloody bluefin tuna, for that matter): one of the units in a class I taught for a few years dealt with various types of superstitions. One in particular that's something I never came across, yet is rampantly sworn by here, is that if you sleep in a room with the windows closed and a fan next to your bed, "YOU WILL DIE."
I tried it once and, as far as I know, did not die.
But every single one of my students believes it's the gospel truth, and no amount of pshawing can get them to change their minds.
A famous Korean cartoonist named Rhie Won Bok, who wrote a book called "Korea Unmasked," said the flourishing of Christianity in the 1970's in Korea strengthened individual values largely missing in the culture before that. This I found baffling, as my wife forces me to go to her evangelical Christian (anagram: STRANGLE EACH CIVILIAN) church every Sunday, and I can only describe the level of the congregation's fervent belief and the (dis)service's unwavering rituals as bordering on cultish.
Of course, as a vehement agnostic who might as well be an atheist, I'd have to say just about any organized religion is a cult, just as there's no substantive difference between advertising and propaganda. Not that there's anything wrong with having a deep-seated, unshakeable belief in something that makes no logical sense. Heaven forbid!
One thing that wigs me out about my wife's church is that a lot of the male congregants insist on shaking my hand. I'm tempted to quote Shakespeare's "King Lear": "Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality." Last weekend, the minister, who was suffering from either a horrendous cold or a case of laryngitis that made him sound like Don Corleone, sure enough, came up to me in the cafeteria after his gig and shook my goddamned hand. I had to go wash both hands in the sink afterwards, feeling distinctly like Pontius Pilate, with a dash of Lady Macbeth (due to the guilt).
It's funny to me that my wife is such a hardcore Christian, although she's Asian, while I'm far more inclined to embrace Buddhism, despite my being a Westerner. And, all the stereotypes about Westerners being such individuals and Asians being such group-gatherers notwithstanding, Buddhism to me is much more radically about the individual than Christianity is, at least the way the latter is practiced in the church I attend once a week at gunpoint.
Then again, I attended some Unitarian services back in the states that were refreshingly progressive, including a few at a church that was ecumenical, so a different faith was represented and celebrated every week, a refreshing departure from the provincialism that contaminates so much socially religious experience in other God-boxes.
I have an American friend who is a far more dedicated atheist than I am, and he seems to pooh-pooh my interest in Buddhism. I understand his perspective, but I really think Buddhism makes more sense than any other spiritual mode I've come across, for a number of reasons. Here are a few:
1. Buddhism is about reason, not faith (okay, maybe some Buddhism is--now you can see why I didn't make the high school debating team). Although here in Korea you may find some divergence from this point, practicing Buddhists don't (or at least don't have to) see Buddha as a god, or as God, but as a mortal man. As such, he did not concern himself with what happens to people after death, or who created the universe, or even whether or not there is a God or Goddess, or a whole bunch of them, since these are strictly unanswerable questions that are a waste of time to even bother with, but focused moreover on HOW WE SHOULD MAKE LIFE WORK HERE AND NOW.
2. Supposedly, the Buddha's last words before he died were either "Work out your own salvation with diligence," or "Strive unremittingly," depending on whom you talk to (ask Ernie). That's a little more liberating, if daunting in some respects, than Jesus' "my way or the highway." I have to confess that even though I majored in religion in college, I have to bone up on my knowledge of the scriptures, in particular the stuff that supposedly came out of Jesus' mouth, not that the four guys who wrote the gospels could quote him from direct acquaintance of the man, since none of them wrote their records until decades after the cat had died.
Excuse the digression: the Buddha's goodbye comment was a variation on the Zen koan, "If you see the Buddha on the street, kill him." ("Hey, sensei, thanks for looking out for my welfare. What am I supposed to say to the cops afterwards? 'My teacher put me up to it.' That alibi didn't even work for members of the Manson family, and Charles Manson's a lot scarier than you are. Hey, man, stop whacking me on the head with that bamboo stick!")
Buddha's radical but practical suggestion was the equivalent of saying: "Don't look at me for answers: FIGURE IT OUT FOR YOURSELF. And don't go following anyone else, thinking he or she can help you tie your shoelaces either. Learn how to change your own diapers, grow up, and stop looking at me every time the wind blows in a different direction."
Or as George Harrison would say, "Think for yourself 'cause I won't be there with you." (Is it okay to quote that?)
3. BUT--and this is a big "but"--Buddhism goes one step further by saying, "Guess what? There IS no self! This body, face, and personality that you think is you, this identity you claim makes you unique, is changing all the time, and is as unreliable and slippery as a puddle of mercury."
So much for Frank Sinatra's "I did it my way" philosophy.
It's hard to get your head around all the problems shaping and distorting the world we live in today. As Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message," and they shape, guide, and influence us as much as we or people who look like us create them. But Buddhism is such a knockout of a nonbelief "system," it forces us to take responsibility for our own lives and situations, which is the hardest thing for so many of us to do because we don't trust ourselves enough (and how can we, having been told by browbeaten teachers, school bullies, or models on TV commercials that "YOU'RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH," and "YOU SHOULD BE MORE LIKE ME," or "YOU SHOULD BELIEVE THE SAME STUPID STUFF I DO").
What the hell does that have to do with freedom?
4. The payoff is that if you absorb some of the Buddha's lessons (allowing that he could have been speaking metaphorically when he spoke of reincarnation, unless by meditating for such long stretches he triggered some kind of hallucinogenic delusion), you can overcome at least some of the weaknesses imposed on us by life-long immersion in consumer society. You can figure out what's essential and say to hell with the rest.
5. Meditation, unlike prayer, is silent, which makes it less obnoxious to others. It's also free, and ideal if you're a lazy slob who can't be bothered to do anything beyond sitting up straight for twenty minutes at a stretch. The myriad health benefits of meditation are common knowledge and I don't have to repeat them for you, but just in case you haven't heard, quiet sitting for several minutes a day can boost your concentration, help you triumph over self-destructive anger, aid in the formation of memories, and feed your sense of humor.
6. According to Buddhism, the key to happiness is letting go of attachments. Clinging to the things and people we either want to have but don't, or want to keep yet can't; struggling in vain to avoid the inevitable experiences or folks who annoy or repel us, or "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet); craving foods and drinks obsessively so that these otherwise benign forces conspire to make us sick--all these things Buddhism says to observe, examine closely, and shrug off like so many gnats hovering around your head, which you should also shrug off if they're your main pet peeve.
Saturday December 3, 2011
Narcissus, or: The Little Piranha That Could
"How do I look?"
Appearance counts for a lot in Korean society, which you wouldn't think would be a problem, since Koreans are generally great-looking people. It saddens me to think so many women here don't appreciate their own natural beauty and choose to have their eyes Westernized. Thanks for ruining a masterpiece. It's like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa (wait--doesn't she already have a mustache? And even if not, isn't that painting meant to be a covert self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself? No, I'm thinking of Leonardo di Caprio in "J. Edgar").
As appears to have happened in the United States, too many of us confuse narcissism, the self-conscious attachment to one's own appearance and impact upon others, along with an obsession with the responses of those people and the wheedling need to impress them, with individuality or character.
Character runs deeper than personality. You've heard of people having split personalities. But split characters? I don't know--I'm not a shrink--but I've never heard that phrase before. Who has time for character anymore? We've got to be who other people want us to be, right?
The once great satirical genius Randy Newman, who sadly sold his soul to Disney, wrote a song appropriately entitled, "I Want Everyone to Like Me," which would go a long way to explain the Disney deal. Is that why he wrote "You've Got a Friend in Me" to accompany the "Toy Story" soundtrack, so he could feel that he had more friends? Is he just a lonely guy? Was it to validate his existence even if, if anything, it had the opposite effect, if one measures validity by artistic integrity and the stature of one's ability to respect oneself here in the wonderful world of corporate whoredom, in which each one of us is forced to sell out every day in innumerable ways large and small, by working for companies that eventually discard us like so many used Kleenex, by purchasing items that reaffirm our entrenchment within the system, by squelching the voice that questions our insufferable obedience even as it patiently kills our spirit little by little, converting us to drones so that we end up defending our own defeat, resenting any criticism of our decision to acquiesce instead of retaliate, forfeiting any credibility we might otherwise have had and turning us into pathetic parodies of ourselves, so that we cough up the dough for corporate sweatshops, increasingly aggressive police forces that assault dissenters with pepper spray, supermax prisons, and unsustainable foreign wars and occupations of countries whose cultures or people or geographical whereabouts we neither know nor care little or nothing about, so that we can write off mass-murder or genocide as involuntary manslaughter and get on with the business of committing the really big crime, the biggest one in the history of the human race, the ongoing Holocene project of omnicide--the wholesale (and retail) rape and systematically calculated murder of the planet itself, whose decimated denizens fall before the greatest apex predator the world has ever known, an insidious collective force more inexorable than cancer, the post-post-modern army of homo sapiens run amok, its body and brain already embalmed in legions of brand names supplanting all the species deleted by our ravaging excess, the incessant insatiable gluttony of a species half of whose members can no longer find its belly button, the other half simply struggling to survive, themselves more allied with the non-human victims of the juggernaut, the nine out of ten American pine forests devoured by beetles, the blown-up mountains and coal-choked rivers, the unexploded land mines scattered throughout the desert, and rising sea levels that salinate the precious wetlands and render the soil barren so that more people must starve or find another place to live, as we all may have to some day, if we can get away from this place before we finish destroying it; forget about whether we deserve to--that's another matter altogether.
This has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with genetic determination and biological destiny, with the bad seed that makes us breed to bleed the earth dry, because every other species is equipped with the same instinct to take over, to dominate by reproducing; we're just better at it any of the rest of them--a little too good, in fact; too good for our own good, continental jellyfish that we've morphed into in a relative blink of an eye, assailants of the atmosphere, poisoners of the sea, grinders of the ground. We have covered the world with concrete in order to produce an abstraction that no longer has any room for us. Through our haphazard appetites we've rendered ourselves irrelevant, so that the machines that we've made to serve us mean to replace us, as that's what we've designed them to do, as if we knew we were no longer in any condition to drive this hurtling bus down the pothole-dotted highway, or how to avert the cliff that we, in our impotent, omnipotent, ignorant folly, have so cluelessly and carelessly created so that we too may be destroyed and let nature finally have a chance to repair and restore itself, letting go of all that we've laid waste to, so that one day, many unforeseeable millennia from now, a new and potentially better world may be born, a world in our wake that would be grateful for our absence had it not already forgotten us long ago.