Archive for July, 2006

Confucius say: “Shit happen in alleyway sometime” (or at least it smells that way)

Some thoughts after a couple of days in China:

  1. I don’t know why military people (or at least those designing their uniforms) seem to love hats that are too big for them, whether it is to make their skulls look smaller, or their bodies thinner, or simply to conceal their identity, but I’m pretty sure that with some of them you could catch a nap in bright sunlight without anyone noticing for a while or have them serve in lieu of an umbrella.

  2. There’s something about the gigantism of Shanghai that remains startling even if you have been advised of it in advance. It’s not quite reminiscent of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element (not boron), but it’s close. Pretty much every building you can imagine seems to be twice as tall there as elsewhere. Even the elevated highways seem to go up to 70 or 80 feet in the air instead of 20 or 30.

  3. Speaking of which, when visiting the Oriental Pearl Tower yesterday and joking about its form, especially our Mandarin teacher’s exact words that she was going to take us “up to the second ball” for the view, one of the girls was asking me if Chinese people are even aware of concepts like Freudian imagery. Maybe not, but that is exactly when, if you believe Freud, that kind of thing is most potent, no?  This would actually explain a lot.

  4. It’s kind of disorienting to see almost 100% racial homogeneity in any urban tableau, and it’s particularly disorienting to see poor areas of a city filled with Asians. Just throwing that out there.

  5. I don’t know if the day will ever come when I will not have the urge to use chopsticks as a stabbing instrument for food.

  6. People talk about China as being an area of economic boom like the Internet, and if I can extrapolate from my fellow teacher trainees and the Americans I’ve seen in Shanghai so far, I would agree with that in one regard in particular: the subject is currently considered trendy and cool, but the same cannot be said of most of those pioneering the taking advantage of it.

Anyway, more words of less-than-Confucius-like wisdom later.

Dear anonymous person who lives in my building

Next time you do your laundry, how about cleaning the lint filter in the dryer after removing your clothes? It’s not that I have any problem with lint per se, but lint isn’t all that the lint filter catches. For example, a quick glance at the lint you left behind for me to clean from the filter before loading my own clothes makes it clear, based on the pubic hair content, that you were washing your sheets and/or underwear this morning.

Now, I’m not paranoid enough to think there’s a significant associated health risk and I certainly don’t want to discourage you from washing your sheets and underwear, but being forced to handle a total stranger’s pubes is, in the famous words of a good friend of mine, fucking repugnant.

Thank you.

From the middle class to the Middle Kingdom

I would like to mention to anyone interested that, starting a week from tomorrow, I will be going to Shanghai and thence, after three weeks of TOEFL training, to Tianjin (the third-largest city in China, about an hour away from Beijing) in order to teach English literature at Nankai University, the alma mater of none other than Mr. Zhou Enlai, as well as Chen Xingshen, one of my brother’s personal heroes (well, that may be an exaggeration, but a guy whose work he admires). Maybe this will not make much of a difference with regards to this site except for a few more pretty pictures, but I feel, in the interest of sincerity, that I should warn everyone that, for reasons which I am sure most of you will well understand, I may not be entirely at liberty to speak unreservedly about various sensitive political topics, at least until I get back home. I really don’t anticipate any problems, but just so that you know, I will doubtless be ready at that time to divulge any impressions of my experience that I don’t feel it prudent to mention during the course of my stay, though if any such situations arise I will try to at least give some indication of that fact. As I say, I honestly don’t anticipate this being a problem, especially as I have heard that China has opened up considerably intellectually and is now a much freer environment for discussion than, say, Singapore, but nevertheless it is something that should be mentioned, as it may possibly affect my own way of approaching various topics, even if there are no concrete reprecussions of any sort. So if those words are sufficiently cryptic for everyone, I am greatly looking forward to the whole experience, my first in Asia, and fully expect to be enamored by the adventure. Anyway, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves, and everyone else.

Past perfect

The most distinctive quality of history is that we know how everything turns out. In one sense this is obviously untrue, since many events or sequences of events begun in the past have yet to be completed, and in any case the division between an event and its consequences that lead one after another up the present and will surely trail on into the future is always to some extent arbitrary. But the sense of the finality of history does not depend upon actual knowledge of the events of the past; even someone living in profound ignorance of all that has gone before must sense in some instinctive way that everything that has happened has somehow led up to the present moment. In this way memory flattens both the anxieties and fears and hopes and ideals that normally animate our minds. One can look back to a gentle landscape of memory now blessed, through hindsight, with an absence of all fear, only to be remonstrated a moment later by the realization that the cloudy utopia of hopes for the future has hardened into the persistently ideal-resistent present (pace Hegel).

There is, in short, nothing in history that can redeem us from the suspicion that our lives are perhaps entirely mechanical affairs, a simple matter of robotic cause and effect. This is the peculiar fatalism of history, propogated upon the absolute necessity that, under certain circumstances, one thing leads to another. Thus it is not just that things happened a certain way but that, really, conditions being as they were they had to. This is the inviolable hand of sufficient cause. David K. Lewis had to defend the notion of alternate universes totally bereft of contact with our own simply to justify the validity of the counter-factual, the notion of “alternative history.” But the sheer counterintuitiveness of this suggests that imagining an alternate present, as opposed to alternate futures, is always bound to be a travesty of the facts.

Yet what redeems history is its connection to the present, to the seeming possibility of exerting some influence upon the workings of the world in the act of passing through time. Everything has its sufficient cause, even personal motives, but it is in no way demonstrated that human actions are rigidly dependent upon the totally predictable, insensate causality of other objects. It is, in fact, the very quality of life that they do not seem to be.

But history still impresses us, not just by the seeming inevitability of the progression of things but also of their ending. It seems to be the universal experience of ideas that they originate in the long distance of anticipation, perhaps fleet briefly into a physical existence in a passing present and then recede from view as they are done away with, even as the totality of creation renews itself. And even in existence one seems to encounter what Joseph Conrad called the inevitable degradation of the ideal through its realization. And even anticipation is really a vision of the past reconstructed and rearranged. The study of history, then, is bound to lead to suspiciousness of any ambition to transcend the progression from future to past through the very thin barrier of living moments. This is why the heroes of a Walter Scott novel, such as one I have just completed, Old Mortality , are never the idealists, who are fanatics in their belief in the absurd notion of being able to find a refuge from time in some imagined living eternity after death. His heroes are rather the stoics who attempt to impress some personal mark of honor or virtue onto the passing moments. For any attempt to found an ideal upon the hope of actually living wholly enveloped within a continuing and undiminishing present, safe from decay or decline, is bound to failure. It is only by focusing on the quality of individual moments, on rendering them valuable in retrospect, rather than on their doubtful perseverence, that life is rendered equanimious, the past satisfying for having been well used rather than discomfiting for being gone.