Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Emperor Ashoka: The First Blogger?

Some weeks ago someone on guild chat in ‘Age of Conan’ told us a little story about how ignorant one of his co-workers was. According to my informant, this fellow had said, ‘I’m not voting for Obama because he’s going to take our troops out of Israel.’

Aha, I thought. I want to be as ignorant as that guy!

So that is the goal I have been assiduously pursuing. I have not looked at a newspaper since then. I have deleted all my bookmarks to the sites of current affairs information I once religiously consulted. I have not turned the radio on. I am enjoying my new-found ignorance. It is liberating, exhilarating. Out there, things could be going as pear-shaped as they do in ‘In the Mouth of Madness’, but here it is all peace and beauty, green rolling hills, sheep, marking exams, and decapitating Picts in ‘Age of Conan’.

La la la la, I can’t hear you, stupid world.

I was quite chuffed that the one thing I did inadvertently hear about by word of mouth in the first week was something about a fistfight between rival groups of monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre- the antithesis of ‘news’ in that I could have heard the same story at practically any time in the last 1500 years.

Abstaining from the radio in the car is hardest. For a week or so I listened to Green Day’s ‘International Superhits’ instead, for an hour and a half each day. So I was very grateful when my favourite spouse-creature gave me, for my birthday, an 8-CD audio book, ‘The Story of India’, by Michael Wood. So, while I find the ignorance I seek, at the same time I am becoming more informed about other things, less ephemeral factoids that have stood the test of time.

The last book Michael Wood wrote before this one was apparently about Alexander the Great, so he drags the Greeks in whenever possible. For the state of affairs at the time of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire, for example, he talks mainly about the impressions recorded by a Greek traveller named Megasthenes.

Either Megasthenes, or Michael Wood from some crumbs of information in Megasthenes’ account, makes a big deal about the fact that the bureaucracy of the Mauryan empire operated without any written records; that it was a ‘memory based society’. But by the time we get to the reign of Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, this is clearly not true: Ashoka’s place in history as a great ruler derives mainly from the blog entries (or edicts, as they prefer to call them) he had carved on stone pillars forty or fifty feet high and distributed throughout his empire, rather more frequently than Nato updates his blog. He seems to have been an enthusiast, getting in there and exploiting the possibilities of the new medium.

Clearly, someone was there to read these things. And from about the same time, there is a raft of other literature: the Arthashastra, the Kamasutra, lives of the Buddha and the Jain saints, etc. So in the space of a few generations something had happened that was more momentous than the coming of the Internet, more transforming than the invention of printing, more challenging to the existing social order than the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping.* And oddly enough, Michael Wood did not say anything at all about this transition from a pre-literate to a literate society. I found this very strange.

I haven’t reached the end of the CDs yet, so I don’t yet have a good feel for what Michael Wood is using as an unifying structure for Indian History. But if I was writing it, it would be a technologically driven narrative, and writing would be the critical driving technological advance, and these few generations would be *the* big moment, *the* critical transition.

Let us imagine I lived 3000 years ago in India and sat around wrestling with profound philosophical questions. What could I do with any answers I came up with? All I could do was tell other people. If nobody listened to me- if nobody knew what I was on about and the village called me ‘Crazy Old Clam’- then I would be stuffed.

So if I really wanted future generations to get my message, I would have to collect my young sons and nephews, who had to do what I told them, and make them memorise the contents of my blog. I would make them repeat it over and over again, until they got it right, and then make them solemnly swear to force their sons and nephews to memorise it as well.

The technological limitations on the transmission of knowledge would *force me* to found a hereditary priesthood, as the only way of preserving my message.

There is a terribly sad story in the first chapter of the book.

Apparently there is a ritual passed down among an isolated group of Brahmins in South India from generation to generation, which incorporates mantras which take several days to chant, and is so complicated and expensive it can only be done once every couple of decades. Michael Wood breathlessly explains that the mantras, on computer analysis, find their closest analogies in birdsong, and recklessly speculates that these interminable strings of nonsense syllables are a relic of humanity’s pre-linguistic deep past.

As if.

I expect these mantras are the sad, degraded, content-free results of a millennia-long intergenerational game of Chinese Whispers.

I imagine Vedic Age Clam gathered his sons and nephews, got them to memorise his profound philosophical musings, made them promise to pass them on in turn to their sons and nephews, and impressed upon them as strongly as he could that they shouldn’t change any of it, they should pass it down just as he had told them. Because if they did change it, then his profound musings would be misrepresented.

And I expect the Clam descendants did the best job they could. But in the third generation after Vedic Age Clam, let’s say the word ‘cogent’ falls out of polite usage, and is forgotten, and is replaced by the word ‘spluznar’. Do the Clamites simply replace ‘cogent’ with ‘spluznar’? Not if Vedic Age Clam has impressed on them sufficiently the necessity to keep his blog unchanged. They will explain for a few generations that ‘cogent’ actually means ‘spluznar’, but as these inconsistencies build up, there get to be too many things to explain, and the explanations have to get briefer and more cryptic, and are discontinued completely one day, and the Clamites find themselves reciting the meaningless word ‘cogent’ – or, after the First, Second, and Third Vowel Shifts, and some assimilations and palatalisations and other linguistic shenanigans, a string of syllables something like: ‘kyooshadoo’. All sorts of things like this will happen: words will change meanings, topical allusions will become meaningless, the pronunciation of the blog will start to diverge from everyday pronunciation… the language will evolve out from under Vedic Age Clam’s attempt to preserve his thoughts, and in time his diligent followers will find themselves reciting hour after hour of gibberish.

Poor Vedic Age Clam. :(

But since those few generations everything has been different. If I am one of Mahavira’s disciples, or one of the Buddha’s disciples, or one of the Four Evangelists, or Salman the Persian, I don’t need to found a priestly caste. I can *write down* what the master said. I can crystallize knowledge in a form that will persist even should my language become extinct, if there is someone sufficiently clever to translate it into a modern language, so someone can sit on the other side of the world and get a pretty good idea of what Muhammad or Jesus or the Buddha or Mahavira meant to tell us.

There has been no more significant advance in the transmission of knowledge than this. Everything since is just frosting.

Before, we had oral traditions, priestly castes, archetypal stories, and esoteric rites with obscure meanings. Afterwards, we have the Peoples of the Book.

* : From http://www.cs.trinity.edu/rjensen/theory/00overview/theory01.htm

Werner Sombart, a German economic historian, says, ‘... double-entry bookkeeping is borne of the same spirit as the system of Galileo and Newton" and "Capitalism without double-entry bookkeeping is simply inconceivable. They hold together as form and matter. And one may indeed doubt whether capitalism has procured in double-entry bookkeeping a tool which activates its forces, or whether double-entry bookkeeping has first given rise to capitalism out of its own (rational and systematic) spirit.’

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Goodness me, is that the time?

It sounds more impressive in latin:

O tempora! O mores!

I am thinking I have pretty much said everything I want to say. You should all have a good idea of what I think about things, and why, and how. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you will have formed excellent models of Dr Clam in your heads that you can consult to find out what I would say on any given topic. I must diminish, and they increase...

For I find that I am out of tune with the spirit of the times. I march out of time, to the funny kazoo music playing in my head. I have been beaten and left for dead in a ditch by the Zeitgeist. So I will turn my back on this reality that, tediously enough, is always there, to devote myself to more beautiful and necessary things that better merit my attention.

I really don't believe that Dr Clam and President wossname, you know, that guy, can exist in the same universe. So sometime between now and the inauguration, I plan for all of this to come down. Let me know if there are any bits you particularly want if you are establishing a museum of reactionary thought, or whatever.

Am I a drama queen?

Is this nothing but a childish hissy fit?

Perhaps. Probably. But I know my emotional involvement with this stupid world was beginning to cripple me, and I have selfishly decided to solve my problem by henceforth ignoring the world as much as possible.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters

[Below I have copied out for you a famous essay by Yevgeniy Zamyatin. I will see you at the other end.]
Name me the final number, the highest, the greatest.
But that’s absurd! If the number of numbers is infinite, how can there be a final number?
Then how can you speak of a final revolution? There is no final one. Revolutions are infinite.
(From We)

Ask point blank: What is revolution?
Some people will answer, paraphrasing Louis XIV: We are the revolution. Others will answer by the calendar, naming the month and the day. Still others will give you an ABC answer. But if we are to go on from the ABC to syllables, the answer will be this:
Two dead, dark stars collide with an inaudible, deafening crash and light a new star: this is revolution. A molecule breaks away from its orbit and, bursting into a neighbouring atomic universe, gives birth to a new element: this is revolution. Lobachevsky cracks the walls of the millennia-old Euclidean world with a single book, opening a path to innumerable non-Euclidean spaces: this is revolution.
Revolution is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite. There is no final revolution, no final number. The social revolution is only one of an infinite number of numbers: the law of revolution is not a social law, but an immeasurably greater one. It is a cosmic, universal law- like the laws of the conservation of energy and of the dissipation of energy (entropy). Some day, an exact formula for the law of revolution will be established. And in this formula, nations, classes, stars- and books- will be expressed as numerical quantities.
The law of revolution is red, fiery, deadly: but this death means the birth of new life, a new star. And the law of entropy is cold, icy blue, like the icy interplanetary infinities. The flame turns from red to an even, warm pink, no longer deadly, but comfortable. The sun ages into a planet, convenient for highways, stores, beds, prostitutes, prisons: this is the law. And if the planet is to be kindled into youth again, it must be set on fire, it must be thrown off the smooth highway of evolution: this is the law.
The flame will cool tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. (In the Book of Genesis days are equal to years, ages). But someone must see this already today, and speak heretically today about tomorrow. Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.
Where the flaming, seething sphere (in science, religion, social life, art) cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma- a rigid, ossified, motionless crust. Dogmatisation in science, religion, social life, or art is the entropy of thought. What has become dogma no longer burns: it only gives off warmth- it is tepid, it is cool. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, under the scorching sun, to upraised arms and sobbing people, there is drowsy prayer in a magnificent abbey. Instead of Galileo’s ‘But still, it turns!’ there are dispassionate computations in a well-heated room in an observatory. On the Galileos, the engineers build their own structures, slowly, bit by bit, like corals. This is the path of revolution- until a new heresy explodes the crush of dogma and all the edifices of the most enduring stone which have been raised upon it.
Explosions are not very comfortable. And therefore the exploders, the heretics, are justly exterminated by fire, by axes, by words. To every today, to every evolution, to the laborious, slow, useful, most useful, creative, coral-building work, heretics are a threat. Stupidly, recklessly, they burst into today from tomorrow; they are romantics. Babeuf was justly beheaded in 1797; he leaped into 1797 across 150 years. It is just to chop off the head of a heretical literature which challenges dogma; this literature is harmful.
But harmful literature is more useful than useful literature, for it is antientropic, it is a means of combating calcification, sclerosis, crust, moss, quiescence. It is utopian, absurd- like Babeuf in 1797. But it is right 150 years later.
We know Darwin. We know what followed Darwin- mutations, Weissmanism, neo-Lamarckism. But all of these are attics, balconies: the building itself is Darwin. And in this building there are not only tadpoles and fungi, but also man. Fangs are sharpened only when there is someone to gnaw on. Domestic hens have wings only for flapping. The same is true for hens and for ideas: ideas nourished on chopped meat cutlets lose their teeth, like civilised, cutlet-eating man. Heretics are necessary to health; if there are no heretics, they should be invented.
A literature that is alive does not live by yesterday’s clock, nor by today’s, but by tomorrow’s. It is a sailor sent aloft: from the masthead he can see foundering ships, icebergs, and maelstroms still invisible from the deck. He can be dragged down from the mast and put to tending the boilers or working the capstan, but that will not change anything: the mast will remain, and the next man on the masthead will see what the first has seen.
In a storm, you must have a man aloft. We are in the midst of a storm today, and SOS signals come from every side. Only yesterday a writer could calmly stroll along the deck, clicking his Kodak (genre); but who will want to look at landscapes and genre scenes when the world is listing at a forty-five-degree angle, the green maws are gaping, the hull is creaking? Today we can look and think only as men do in the face of death: we are about to die- and what did it all mean? How have we lived? If we could start over again, from the beginning, what would we live by? And for what? What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons- horizons seen from mastheads, from airplanes; we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless ‘Why?’ and ‘What next?’.
This is what children ask. But then children are the boldest philosophers. They enter life naked, not covered by the smallest fig leaf of dogma, absolutes, creeds. This is why every question they ask is so absurdly na├»ve and so frighteningly complex. The new men entering life today are as naked and fearless as children; and they, too, like children, like Schopenhauer, like Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, ask “Why?’ and ‘What next?’ Philosophers of genius, children, and the people are equally wise- because they ask equally foolish questions. Foolish to a civilised man who has a well-furnished European apartment, with an excellent toilet, and a well-furnished dogma.
Organic chemistry has already obliterated the line between living and dead matter. It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.
The same is true of what we write: it walks and it talks, but it can be dead-alive or alive-alive. What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, ‘childish’ questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken- errors are more valuable than truths: truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brain’s constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud.
If there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all of this would, of course, be wrong. But fortunately, all truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today’s truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.
This truth (the only one) is for the strong alone. Weak-nerved minds insist on a finite universe, a last number; they need, in Nietzsche’s words, ‘the crutches of certainty’. The weak-nerved lack the strength to include themselves in the dialectic syllogism. True, this is difficult. But it is the very thing that Einstein succeeded in doing: he managed to remember that he, Einstein, observing motion with a watch in hand, was also moving; he succeeded at looking at the motion of the earth from outside.
This is precisely how a great literature, which knows no final numbers, looks at the movements of the earth.
The formal character of a living literature is the same as its inner character: it denies verities, it denies what everybody knows and what I have known until this moment. It departs from the canonical tracks, from the broad highway.
The broad highway of Russian literature, worn to a high gloss by the giant wheels of Tolstoy, Gorky, and Chekhov, is Realism, daily life; hence, we must turn away from daily life. The tracks canonised and sanctified by Blok, Sologub, and Bely are the tracks of Symbolism, which renounced daily life; hence, we must turn toward daily life.
Absurd? Yes. The intersection of parallel lines is also absurd. But it is absurd only in the canonic, plane geometry of Euclid. In non-Euclidean geometry it is an axiom. All you need is to cease to be plane, to rise above the plane. To literature today the plane surface of daily life is what the earth is to an airplane- a mere runway from which to take off, in order to rise aloft, from daily life to the realities of being, to philosophy, to the fantastic. Let yesterday’s cart creak along the well-paved highways. The living have strength enough to cut away their yesterday.
Whether you put a police inspector or a commissar into the cart, it remains a cart. And literature will remain the literature of yesterday even if you drive ‘revolutionary life’ along the well-travelled highway- and even if you drive it in a dashing troika with bells. What we need today are automobiles, airplanes, flickering, flight, dots, dashes, seconds.
The old, slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past: today the rule is brevity- but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage. We must compress into a single second what was held before in a sixty-second minute. And hence, syntax becomes elliptic, volatile; the complex pyramids of periods are dismantled stone by stone into independent sentences. When you are moving fast, the canonised, the customary eludes the eye: hence, the unusual, often startling, symbolism and vocabulary. The image is sharp, synthetic, with a single salient feature- the one feature you will glimpse from a speeding car. The custom-hallowed lexicon has been invaded by provincialisms, neologisms, science, mathematics, technology.
If this becomes the rule, the writer’s talent consists in making the rule the exception. There are far more writers who turn the exception into the rule.
Science and art both project the world along certain coordinates. Differences in form are due only to differences in the coordinates. All realistic forms are projections along the fixed, plane coordinates of Euclid’s world. These coordinates do not exist in nature. Nor does the finite, fixed world: this world is a convention, an abstraction, an unreality. And therefore Realism- be it ‘socialist’ or ‘bourgeois’- is unreal. Far closer to reality is projection along speeding, curved surfaces- as in the new mathematics and the new art. Realism that is not primitive, not realia but realiora, consists in displacement, distortion, curvature, nonobjectivity. Only the camera lens is objective.
A new form is not intelligible to everyone; many find it difficult. Perhaps. The ordinary, the banal is, of course, simpler, more pleasant, more comfortable. Euclid’s world is very simple, and Einstein’s world is very difficult- but it is no longer possible to return to Euclid. No revolution, no heresy is comfortable or easy. For it is a leap, it is a break in the smooth evolutionary curve, and a break is a wound, a pain. But the wound is necessary: most of mankind suffers from hereditary sleeping sickness, and victims of this sickness (entropy) must not be allowed to sleep, or it will be their final sleep, death.
The same disease often afflicts artists and writers: they sink into satiated slumber in forms once invented and twice perfected. And the lack the strength to wound themselves, to cease loving what they once loved, to leave their old, familiar apartments filled with the scent of laurel leaves and walk away into the open field, to start anew.
Of course, to wound oneself is difficult, even dangerous. But for those who are alive, living today as yesterday and yesterday as today is still more difficult.

[Hello again. There is one thing I do not agree with in this essay of Zamyatin’s, and that thing may be an error of the translation, or my misreading, or an exaggeration made in recoiling from the opposite error which does not truly reflect Zamyatin’s thought. Of course, if someone comes to you and says, I have the truth here, it is in my pocket, here is the theory that explains it all, that answers all your questions, that cannot be improved upon- you ought to flee from such a person. But that does not mean that there is not such a thing as objective truth. Nor does the mutability of nature imply that we cannot approach that objective truth asymptotically, each theory an improvement on the one that went before, even if we will never get there. It does not mean that Einstein’s theory was not an objective improvement on Galileo’s. Zamyatin trained as an engineer, so I am sure he would agree with me. If there was no such thing as objective truth- as opposed to ‘truths’ known by men- then he could not say ‘the mast will remain, and the next man on the masthead will see what the first has seen’. The ship we sail in is floating on a real sea, there are real icebergs, real maelstroms, real storms on the horizon- that is why the man on the masthead is important. The taste of the water remains salt, whatever you care to call it, and its conductivity lies within certain narrow parameters, and somewhere in it crimson gugfish are swimming.]

[May 16th 2012. I'm glad to see via Blogger's statistics widget that of all my pages this is the one that has had the most views in recent times. I'm happy to think I'm helping to keep this essay alive in the minds of the world. :D ]

Sunday, November 02, 2008

libera nos

Didn't get any reply from this letter I sent a couple of weeks ago, so I may as well show it to you folks:

Dear Father Greeley,

There is no reason for you to remember me- we probably were never actually introduced to each other- but I am pretty sure I assisted you at Mass once, when I was an altar boy at St. Odelia's c.1982. The other morning I was browsing on the net before going to work and I came across an article by an Andrew Greeley about the US Presidential Election. I thought to myself 'surely that can't be the same Andrew Greeley', but I followed a few links and was surprised to find that it was.

I have been formed by my Catholic background. I strive to live a self-consistent philosophy of respect for life. I am against the death penalty, a vegetarian, in favour of the judicious use of force to bring down murderous tyrants, and opposed to the slaughter of innocent unborn children.

I know this last goes on ceaselessly around the world. I left the US many years ago, and know that what happens there is but a tiny fraction of what happens in the world, that it ought not to bother me as much as what goes on in India and China. But I have become too emotionally involved in events in my native land, this last year or so. I am drinking too much. I cannot concentrate at work. I feel nervous, panicky, sick to my stomach, because of my fear that a man will be elected President of the US who will appoint five or six 'pro-choice' judges to the Supreme Court. This would mean, almost certainly, that I could not hope to see an end to Roe vs Wade in my lifetime. The killing would go on, and on, and on, ceaselessly, in every city of your nation 'under God'. The man who would do this is the man you describe as 'your guy'.

I cannot see how waging an illegal war- granting this to be the case- or burning books- granting this to be the case- can possibly compare the gravity and horror of the moral evil that 'your guy' seeks to entrench in the United States.

I know the folly of trying to change anyone's mind, when they are set on a course. So I won't try. But I am heartsick, I am close to despair, I am close to being physically ill, at the prospect of 'your guy' being President. I felt compelled to let you know. God bless.

From Surah 81, The Overthrowing:

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
When the sun is overthrown, and when the stars fall, and when the hills are moved, and when the camels big with young are abandoned, and when the wild beasts are herded together, and when the seas rise, and when souls are reunited, and when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked for what sin she was slain, and when the pages are laid open, and when the sky is torn away, and when hell is lighted, and when the garden is brought nigh, then every soul will know what it hath made ready.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Y is for You

I've said before that I find monologue boring. I have to listen to myself in my own head enough as it is, going over the same tired ideas again and again, reinforcing my own errors through repetition. It would be a total waste of time for me to write the same stuff down just so I could sit back and admire it- oblivious to the flaws everyone else can see. Over and over I will overlook the obvious, until it is pointed out by someone else. Decade after decade I will go on believing some core principle of mine is ‘self-evident’ until someone else tells me it isn’t.

If nobody had ever commented on this blog, I would probably have given up after a few months. So, it is yours as much as mine. And in any list of important figures whose influence has gone towards creating the Clamly memeplex, you certainly deserve a mention. Thank you, lexifab, marco, winstoninabox, jenny, and everyone else who has stopped by and said anything, ever. I still don’t really understand how any of you think. But I sure do like having you around.

You have made me expand on things I would never have thought of expanding on if left to my own devices, which has been good for me; you have forced me to clarify and clarify and clarify my thoughts about the things I feel most strongly about, until they are practically coherent; you have led me to read all sorts of things I wouldn’t have thought of reading, which have also been good for me; you have introduced me to Mr Stross when I have abandoned all faith in science fiction; you have persuaded me that the ‘Many Universes’ model of quantum mechanics may not be entirely stupid; and you have taught me at least one invaluable lesson.

(Probably more than one. But I can't remember the others at the moment.)

I had another little mission statement I prepared earlier hanging around- ah, here it is:

I believe there is such a thing as truth.

Therefore, I wish to be corrected when I am in error.

An assertion of a contrary opinion does not correct me.

I hunger and thirst for reasoning which will correct me.

If I say I do not understand you, I do not understand you.

If what to you is self-evident is not self-evident to me, I need to imagine a worldview in which such a thing could be self-evident. Please help me to do this.

Thanks for all your good work in correcting me thus far. Grats! :)