Monday, November 30, 2009

The Good Bribe

The Prime Minister was striving to be a morally conscious politician, however oxymoronic the ambition may sound. A certain businessman who was known for his corruption and sleaze but who had successfully wriggled out of all criminal and civil convictions desired to be hailed and respected by the whole world. He approached the PM with an offer that he would donate 10 million pounds to help provide clean drinking water in scores of villages in Africa, provided the PM guarantees that he will be knighted in the upcoming New Year's honors list. If the PM were to disagree to this "offer", the businessman assured that he would surely squander his money, rather than put it to good use. Does it make any moral sense for the PM to sell one of his country's highest honors for a bribe that would be overwhelmingly beneficial to thousands of people? (Original Source: "The Pig That Wants to be Eaten", Julian Baggini)

One the one hand this scenario seems to be a little more straightforward because the stakes don't seem to be high on either sides. Well, of course thousands would be deprived of clean drinking water, but it is clear that the means by which clean water could be provided is, by Kantian terms, categorically wrong. But from a Utilitarian perspective, does it seem like moral pretentiousness to satisfy one's moral principle at the cost of such an opportunity wherein the consequences reduce to: 10 million pounds being prodigally spent versus being judiciously spent to save thousands and establish a future for many more thousands. And is it even realistic for a political leader to persevere to be so ethically clean?

In the short term, it might seem like honoring the businessman with a Knighthood has very minimal adverse effects to society at large. A businessman with as much clout and wealth would only get the ego-pampering of being addressed as "Sir", which seems harmless enough. But in the long term, the honorable title will slowly be tarnished and lose its honor and distinguished reputation, especially if such a trend continues. Apart from insulting other merit-worthy members of the Knighthood, it sets a universally unacceptable rule that money can buy reputation and honor. Rather than stand as inspirational role-models, unscrupulous men who weasel their way into being honored, set a horrendous example to young adults. Once morally wrong exceptions of this kind are begun to be made by each political leader, the values in the society will surely start degrading. The consequences of such moral degradation may not be apparent in the short term, but will start to show its ugly face in the long term.

Perhaps my evaluation is unrealistic to a political leader who faces corruption and morally challenging issues of much greater magnitude which threaten to incur extreme consequences, that something as seemingly "simple" as this case requires just a brush off the shoulder, rather than invest any deeper thought. Rigid straightforwardness without the ability to be diplomatic and smart enough to tweak and prune a few things and people along the way, seems a rather unsuccessful and unrealistic strategy for a PM to employ. Therefore, if the PM did consider to take the money in this case, I guess I can be tolerant and understanding of the decision from a practical standpoint, since the consequences are not too severe. But if he were to repeat this too often, I wouldn't be able to excuse his decision, for he starts to jeopardize the moral sanctity of the society, which is far more difficult to re-establish than provide proper infrastructure to a developing nation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reflections: The Prophet

Over dinner a couple of nights back, I was asked if I'd read "The Prophet". I shook my head casually, causing my friend to almost choke on her food, stutter in disbelief and immediately instigate a dire book-worm-emergency. I was promptly rushed to the nearest Barnes & Noble, was made to procure the book and was sent back home with an earnest plea to read it the very same night. And here I am, fully cursing myself to have gone past all these years without reading this! And I can't thank my friend enough for her supreme presence of mind to get this book to me right away!

I've heard people who are averse to reading ask me (sarcastically, of course) if I could prescribe one book to them that would answer all questions and spew all the knowledge there is to acquire. I usually evade the question with a smirk, but NOW I can smugly thrust this book into their hands. Through the voice of a Prophet, Gibran succinctly and most exquisitely conveys his views and philosophy concerning the most fundamental themes of our lives - on love, marriage, children, creating our abode, philanthropy, eating, drinking, talking, working, dealing with joys and sorrows, pain, buying and selling, crime and punishment, good and evil, legal systems, freedom, reason, passion, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, perception of time, beauty, pleasure, religion, prayers and on death. In addition to these broad and all-encompassing themes, his verses espouse so many other deep and wise tenets.

After reading Gibran's poetry, one is surely at a loss for words to describe its beauty and astounding metaphors. I'm positive there is not a single adjective in his verses that can be substituted with any other word from our ever-expanding dictionary. It was humbling and gave me goosebumps all the way through. The words inspired me, comforted me, awed me, stirred me to the brink of tears and above all enriched me. Despite having come across many of the verses at some point in my life, the process of going through a 96-paged-Gibran marathon of soaking in his impeccable verses, was immensely gratifying.

The one theme that really surprised me and helped me re-evaluate my perspective was Gibran's philosophy on freedom:

You can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you,
and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and fulfillment.
You shall be free when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,
But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.
And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains,
which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?
In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.

Of course, I want to share every other verse and fill up this whole space, but I've gone through a laborious process to pick just a couple more verses.
If any of you would punish in the name of righteousness and lay the ax unto the evil tree,
Let him see to its roots;
And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless,
All entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.
And you judges who would be just,
What judgment pronounce you upon him who though honest in the flesh yet is a thief in spirit?
What penalty lay you upon him who slays in the flesh yet is himself slain in the spirit?

I was very impressed with such balanced and wholesome wisdom that Gibran portrays.
You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.
This book is surely one of my most precious possessions, and probably the one book that I would take with me if I were cast on a lonely island.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Everyone knows that empty vessels always make a lot of noise. But the world needs them. It needs to drown itself in the din and be surrounded by their sheer vapidness. There is a queer comfort in being drenched in such emptiness. It gives the freedom such as dancing like a silly ninny amid glaring psychedelic lights; identities are lost, thoughts are expunged and the mind revels in numb pleasure.

The art of such noise making requires a special talent. One needs to be totally empty, but at the same time should also be positively confident of completely brimming with ambrosia. It follows that one shouldn't care about humility. Yet, how does one showcase their nothingness in a package of imagined ambrosia just through confident noise? Ah, there comes the next important quality; to possess the art of being "bubbly". It sort of reminds me of a child filling a glass with Coke; the bubbly effervescence froths up so joyously to the brim cascading rapidly down to the sides, that the child thinks that the glass is more than full and stares with amazement at the sparkly bubbles. Of course, less than 30 seconds later he realizes that the glass is barely filled and the bubbles dwindle to fizz and then to nothingness. But what he remembers are the bubbles... the empty little pockets of air, and he craves to see them again. The charm that the bubbles wield is incomparable to some mundane-pulp full-nutritious juice. Blurghhh....

In today's information-overloaded, Internet-crazed world, the two qualities are alluded as PR and promotion. With information being thrust on our face every single minute, it makes sense that one needs to sell themselves with much more vigor...attracting mindless attention through tooting and blaring horns in a dance of "bubbles". This translates to 90% bubbles, 10% drink. Well, one gets carried away with the deceptive and bubbly entertainment that one hardly stares down at the cup to notice its sparse content. This of course means that the genuine, albeit boring orange juice needs to do something to get noticed! After all, it is surely unrealistic to expect people to hunt down for a plain cup of juice. So, well, aren't carbonated orange juice much popular? Of course! Even sparkling water exudes more panache! Add a hint of artificial flavor to the same sparkling cup, viola... pure water is officially out of the competition. No wonder zero-caloried-zero nutrition-artificial drinks make so much money!

That's the future of our world. Empty bubble makers who can make hypnotic noise to perpetuate mediocrity. Is it wrong that I'm disgusted with such conniving superficiality? Well I better not be. The old ladies in my family often drawl when there is a new-born, "Doesn't matter if the child is fair or dark. A child who can talk his way through the world, will be a successful survivor". Amen to that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Evil Genius

All critics were floored by the cinematography, the acting, screenplay, and the original score of the movie... all these elements were so brilliantly rendered. But they also had to concede that the movie was morally repulsive. It presented a worldview that one race was the most superior, and that the members had the right to deride and mistreat humanity. Cruelty to the old was shown as necessary, and childless women were justified to be abused by men. Despite the movie perpetuating such horrendous injustices, some critics argued that it was a great work of art from the perspective of technological artistic rendition. Such innovative, praiseworthy techniques were employed that they felt that the movie should be released from a cinematic art standpoint. However to many, the message that the movie conveyed couldn't be separated from the medium through which it was conveyed, that they couldn't appreciate one aspect while utterly loathing many other aspects. Should the movie be exempted from being banned purely due to its artistic merits? Are the art enthusiasts right in citing freedom of expression of art? (Original Source: "The Pig that wants to be Eaten", Julian Baggini)

I have been mulling over this for the last few days, trying quite hard to step away from the apparent, nagging practicality of the issue. My greatest difficulty (as faced by the critics in the excerpt) is to tease apart the medium and the message. To me, it just doesn't make sense to call something a work of art unless both the concept and the technique come together holistically. The greatest artists of our times are lauded for not merely their technical merit... if so, there are tens of thousands of art students in accomplished universities who are flawless in their technical adroitness; artistic genius comes together through conception, and rendition of a concept that is clothed with technical brilliance.

However, on my recent pondering, I was reminded of a particular challenge in Food Network's Challenge series. The competition was to design and put together a crystallized sugar display that artistically depicted the theme of a literary classic. I love watching such challenges, and this particular competition really piqued my interest. However the results were a little disappointing to me. This is probably the only instance when I could differentiate the technical and artistic components from the theme/concept depicted. Of the 4 groups, there was one team whose display exhibited expert technical skills and was visually very aesthetic; however their depiction of the book's theme was not up to mark, and in fact I couldn't find much correlation in their design to the actual story of the classic... but the piece by itself was a beautiful abstract piece of art. On the other hand, there was another team whose depiction of the classic was expertly done, but they lacked in technical expertise and their piece did not come together with much visual appeal. The judges seemed to be in much deliberation, but finally the team with expert technical and visual representation won. I would have probably awarded another team which did reasonably well in both components, in spite of their not greatly excelling in each component.

Another example of a movie that faced a similar fate is the Hindi movie Khaagaz Ke Phool, directed by Guru Dutt. It has been documented that when the movie was initially released it was met with cold disapproval, for the concepts it explored seemed to be too revolutionary in the 1950s of Indian society. Many were deeply offended by its open exploration of "morally depraving" ideas such as infidelity. Despite its great artistic value from a technical, cinematic point of view, the movie failed to appeal. But in recent times, Guru Dutt has been posthumously acclaimed for the movie, and the movie is still hailed as a memorable work of art.

However, in contrast to Guru Dutt's movie, the one in the excerpt doesn't deal with merely revolutionary concepts that are currently hard for society to digest; neither does it offer much intellectual speculation on progressive changes in society. I doubt that in the coming hundreds of years, humanity would ever rationalize to go back on certain very basic virtues, such as treating women, elderly and the whole of humanity with respect and consideration. In all these thousands of years, humanity still abides by some very basic principles of living that have remained untouched by all our numerous societal revolutions. Putting aside the debates on artistic merits, it's obvious that the welfare and harmony of society come first. Any work of expression that vilifies human instincts in such negative ways should not be allowed to perpetuate. Such thoughts and ideas pander to extremely inhumane instincts, that the argument on freedom of expression of art is very trivial to me. And the elite art enthusiasts form such a very slim percentage that the movie is bound to reach a majority of audiences on whom the message will leave a stronger impact, than the artistic splendour. Finally, my definition of art is a representation which integrates a delicately beautiful thought in an aesthetically appealing manner; one without the other cannot be suitably called as art. I think the movie should be banned.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Evolved Promises

The Senator was surprised to see Drew, his friend from college, enter his office at so late an hour. His surprise turned to confusion when he saw Drew holding a gun. "I've come to kill you", said Drew. The senator was aghast. "Well, don't you remember. You told me several times that if you ever vote Republican, then you should be shot! Now you're a Republican Senator, so I must fulfill my promise, carry out your instruction and shoot you." "Are you out of your mind? I said that as a figure of speech twenty years ago!", cried the Senator. "Well, it was no casual remark. Here I have proof of your writing and signature, authorizing me to kill you if you turned Republican. It was also witnessed by several of our friends. Don't tell me not to take this contract seriously. If so, living wills will be meaningless. And the issues surrounding euthanasia will be made more complicated if the decision made by terminally ill patients prior to their vegetative state, cannot be executed. A contract such as this has to be binding!" (Original Source: "The Pig That Wants to be Eaten", by Julian Baggini)

Perhaps an example of following the letter of the law, instead of its spirit. But what cranked my circuit was Drew's argument pertaining to other contracts such as wills and those made by terminally ill patients. All of us progressively change or evolve with every passing year and with life's experiences. Does it then make sense for us to commit to something and make a decision for our future-selves who may probably disagree with our past judgments? Are we being unrealistic to expect people not to change their thoughts/decisions? Being aware of this dilemma, is it reasonable to provide some leeway to wriggle out of the contract, without incurring consequences such as what the Senator faces? I'm sure warning bells are ringing all over the place with such a suggestion; those with commitment related fears, and charlatans will have a ball.... there would now be a universal rule excusing betrayal. And the worst part is, every decision and promise will become evanescent if we can't hold anybody's words down to anything concrete, thus destroying the very meaning of trust and promise.

If the prospect of disrespecting contracts/promises is so unpalatable, why shouldn't the Senator be killed in this scenario? I think it all adds up to the implications of the contract. Contracts such as mortgage payments or even marriages involve at least two people being tightly wound in the ramifications of the decision. Backing out of such contracts negatively affects those with whom the contract was drawn. But in this case, the Senator's decision is personal and Drew's breach of "promise" by sparing his life, doesn't adversely affect anybody, and in fact only saves a life. Changing one's political view can probably be argued as being not so innocuous, for it can adversely affect society in the long term due to the kinds of decisions a Senator can take. But in this particular context, there are surely no such severe indications.

What about euthanasia? Can a person's decision to be taken off the ventilator if at all he goes into coma be taken seriously at a later point in the patient's condition, for this decision also involves the patient's family and friends. I think it is reasonable to make a decision for the future when we are sure that our future-self will not have adequate cognitive capacity to make an informed decision at that point. And I think it's fair to respect such a decision, however early it was made relative to the patient's condition.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Reflections: The Summing Up

It's a bit of a challenge to categorize this book with an overarching label. Many might argue (including Maugham himself) if I called it a memoir. Simply put, the book is Somerset Maugham's wise reflections and thoughts on what he calls as - the pattern of his life. He sums up 60 years of his professional life with interesting interludes on his insights on life, the art of writing, philosophy, religion and human psychology.

I really looked forward to Maugham's revelations about himself for it's always interesting to learn about the person behind the creative mind. And I wasn't disappointed. While some critics might be disappointed at the absence of entertaining or controversial anecdotal personal details about Maugham, I readily welcomed this approach. I'm not exactly curious about overly personal details about anybody, and this is one of the first books that steps away from baring out one's personal life through sensational revelations, which somehow create the impression of more emotional connection with the reader (and ends up as a best seller). Instead Maugham bares out his entire mind, every nook and cranny of it, and to me that is far more of a revealing endeavor than through dramatic secrets from one's personal life. But that is not to say that he completely shies away from his personal life. Personal experiences do shape thoughts, and Maugham does divulge a few details, if only to further buttress his arguments.

Having lost his mother at a very early age and being in the custody of his rather unkind uncle, Maugham struggled through childhood. Added to this grim atmosphere, his severe stammering worsened his self-esteem. He entered medical school, for that was the most honorary educational pursuit for a young English gentleman at that time. With his keen observational perspicacity, his experience as a medical student and later as a doctor, helped him immensely in being a part of and in understanding the whole range of emotions humans are capable of. It was like peering into a kaleidoscope straight into the human psyche/soul. Having witnessed intense rejoice and love at the beginning of life, and finally the sheer despair, helplessness, suffering, fortitude, fear, pain and peace when life ends, Maugham sharpened his ability to understand human psychology and give life to his characters. In essence, he says that a writer can never create a character anywhere close to reality, unless the writer himself realizes those emotions and translates them into words. It's reasonable to say that the characters developed by a writer are just collages pasted from fragments of the writer's own personality, sometimes magnified in their dimension. He does acknowledge that his popular work, Of Human Bondage, is semi-autobiographical, for the exercise of writing was therapeutic in venting out his pain, resolving his haunting issues and moving on with his life.

Maugham calls his passion to write and read to be almost compulsive. He alludes to himself as an introvert, always restless to get to his books rather than be encumbered by the company of people. He wrote with an unstoppable force; yet he humbly shares the frustration and relentless rigor that he went through to perfect his skill. It's hard to imagine that a revered writer like him could ever go through such a period of meticulous learning and revision. One of the marks of a great man is this simple humility. He goes on to define the art of writing, drawing in examples of good writers, and the criteria that define stellar writing. In his sardonic manner, Maugham distinguishes good writing from pompous writing, wherein the writer merely tries to obscure their writing through convoluted sentences and fails at communicating. This discourse was extremely enlightening to me. He later shares his professional journey as a writer, starting from his simple plays to his major works. In all honesty, his opinions and dissecting arguments about the art of play-writing and the intricacies of the theater went right above my head. Still, I was able to gather a few interesting tid-bits.

Finally towards the end, Maugham sheds his insights on the philosophical and spiritual questions that he grappled with all through his life. Having been a doctor and seen so much pain and suffering, especially in the eyes of young children, Maugham resigned his faith in an all-merciful God who helps us move mountains just through our faith. He makes a balanced argument on faith, determinism, free-will, immortality, and Karma, and as the reader waits for his final concluding remarks, he makes a characteristic cynical statement to dismiss each argument as being unconvincing to him. Perhaps another mark of a wizened mind is knowing that we know very little about the mystic universe. He attributes our beliefs and quest to find meaning in our lives, to our ego. We humans engage in a search for understanding three basic elements in our lives - Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Maugham analytically puts forth his arguments on the intrinsic value (if at all) of these basic elements. He concludes that the beauty of life is that -"each should act according to his nature and his business". Very simple words, yet this was his philosophy in setting a pattern to his life.

Needless to say, Maugham's writing shines with his mastery over the language. His writing does get tedious and verbose at times, but perhaps I'm just a philistine coping with his superior writing style. The book is a huge learning experience on the art of writing, on how to craft expert sentences to convey one's thoughts, aside all the wonderful wisdom it holds.