Friday, August 06, 2010

Reflections: Metamorphosis

My imagination has taken me down several weird roads. I can’t help it. I vividly indulge in thoughts that are absolutely useless, and sometimes frighteningly weird. I have woken up to face several mornings with a sinking feeling that I have to get up to another monotonous day when the birds and the squirrels scurrying and chirping away near my window have such a free and happy life, filled with sunshine. Of course, this is primarily just my early morning grogginess, but I would still drift off in sleep and imagine how life would be if I were a little bird - the ecstasy of flying and sailing in the wind, of being above the clouds and the tips of trees, looking down upon the earth, and leading a simple and delicate life. But then, would I also look forward to eating worms, and no longer have any appetite for foods I currently love? Would I still be the same person inside - with thoughts, feelings and ideas that were part of me as a human? How much will I be a bird, and how much will I still be “me”? And other such round-about questions on the distinction between the mind and body, soul and consciousness.

Honest to God, I didn’t know about Kafka’s Metamorphosis then. In his story, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning and is jolted by a rude shock - his body is turned into a revolting cockroach-like-beetle-like insect. While I dreamed of turning into a cute little bird, Gregor Samsa lived the nightmare of being an unsightly insect. Kafka discusses the changes this transformation brings about in Gregor’s behavior, and in his family’s consideration and treatment of him. Gregor’s family struggles to accept their son’s fate, but revulsion keeps winning over affection. We are strongly programmed to associate physical appearances to the person inside. We have been wired to be repelled by pesky insects, to act on the impulse to drive them away from us. However, if we are forced to acknowledge that the despicable being is indeed the person whom we love, would we still treat it with the same sentiments?

As a nice test to this question, I tried to imagine how I would react, if, by some cruel spell, my loved ones were turned into giant lizards (frogs are more bearable on my scale). And I screamed inside. As shallow as it might sound, it would take me concerted efforts to get over my revulsion. It would be even more difficult if I started to see their human traits erode in their new body form. Then what could be/should be left of their identity that still made them the being I loved in human form?

This is the fundamental question of our existence. We are pulled by so many deterministic forces, that when it comes down to defining that little unchanging, unique speck in us, it elusively keeps breaking down and slips away. Inside a bird, I may be dominated by the instinct to peck at worms and relish it, but then what part of me would remain the same no matter what I was turned into, regardless of the instincts I’m plugged into? Is there even such a part of me that’s so resilient and unique?

I have always believed in dualist philosophy of our mind and body. I view the mind to be independent of the body, although both interact with each other. However, I’m slowly reconsidering such a sharp distinction. I still can’t reconcile to the reductionist idea of relating all aspects of our mind and body to the physical being. But some parts of the mind/personality seem to be reducible to the physical states - down to chemicals and ions.

I am reminded of Somerset Maugham’s view on the mind-body philosophy, which I am just paraphrasing - Imagine a scenery amongst the woods. A little brook runs through the trees. The brook could be the mind, and the trees, the body. The brook sure has properties of its own, independent of the trees and the forest, while the forest stands on its own, independent of the brook. However, the two merge in ways that make the scene unique. And over time, the brook flows in a certain path, in a certain pace and rhythm, because of the nature of the undulations and terrain of the forest. And the forest slowly erodes to accommodate the brook. Viewed thus, the brook and the forest coalesce neatly with one another that they cease to exist separately. This is perhaps the most reasonable explanation of the mind-body dilemma at this point. The body and the mind are each theoretically independent, but they interact so closely with one another, that the harsh boundaries blur and they bleed into each other, creating a personality and a mind that can only be utterly unique in a certain body.

I’m not sure if this is one of the subjects that Kafka tried to explore, but these are my reflections on the story. Apparently, Gregor’s transformation is literally a “negative transfiguration, the inversion of the Transfiguration of Christ..”, and is supposed to hold religious connotations and symbolism. But, they all go over my head.

This slip of a book conveys an interesting thought experiment on our mind-body interaction.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Reflections: Imperfect Birds

Rosie Ferguson is a typical American teenager. She is reckless, rebellious and emotionally distraught in her quest to find herself. Drugs and alcohol are hence her resorts to escape reality and float to a place where she doesn’t have to confront or resolve her problems. This tears apart Rosie’s mom, Elizabeth, and her stepfather. The more her parents reach out to help and curtail her derailed streak, the more she retaliates in the name of freedom. The fever pitch is intensified as Rosie’s mom battles her own psychiatric issues of depression, paranoia, and alcoholism. Parent and child feed fire to each other’s issues, resulting in a vicious cycle of emotional trauma. Lamott gives us a poignant vignette of these troubled lives. The book captures a few leaves out of their emotional journals, and the journeys they undertake to find peaceful, emotional stability.

Anne Lamott is surely one of the most sensitive writers I have come across. She precisely touches on the deepest roots of an emotional problem and expresses them beautifully. So much so, that despite the seeming heaviness of the topics discussed in the book, she doesn’t bring out despair or revulsion, but only channels ways by which we can understand, empathize and exude compassion. She manages this by realistically portraying the characters and their lives, without adding any miraculous revelations and endings as stories are wont to be. She objectively brings out both the parents’ thought processes, anxiety and love, as well as the teenagers’ confusions and compulsion to defy and break out of their parent’s control. Grounded in psychological realism, she addresses only those aspects of a character’s personality and psyche that are malleable to change, while holding constant those that are beyond much transformation. Some characteristics, however problematic, are to be endured. This balance is beautifully established.

I could connect well with all the characters, and relate to each of their angst, their deepest fears and insecurities. The helplessness and emotional trauma of both the mother and daughter were quite palpable. And as always, it pained me that two people who cared and loved each other so much, could also hurt one another deeply. So much of our happiness is reliant upon the bridge we can build between two minds. Yet how excruciatingly difficult it is for us to build such a bridge and sort out our issues. Under such circumstances, the love between parent and child, unfortunately only clouds and suffocates things more than clarify.

The repeated cycle of betrayals that Rosie’s mom had to suffer really tugged at my heart. Ironically, I related to her better than I did with the daughter - especially to her fear of losing her daughter’s love, her dread of facing her wrath, and her constant rationalization to defend her daughter and hope for change. However, it is difficult to take sides, as obvious as it may seem in the beginning to censure the daughter. Just as in reality, no person is clearly “bad” or strictly wrong. The characters have a mix of black and white. Each has their problems, but their stash of underlying goodness and love keeps shining through in specks, even in the most bleakest of times. These are the specks to hold on to - to glean hope and faith that change and resolution can be brought about.

The book is a psychologically perspicacious and sensitive discussion of the problems faced by most middle-aged parents with their difficult teenagers. The realism of the characters’ lives, and the insightful writing, help the reader garner empathy and hope.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Reflections: Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo is a formidable warrior in Nigeria’s Igbo clan. He grooms himself to be tough and ruthless to erase his shame of a father who wasted his life in idleness and disgrace. Although deep down Okonkwo is a tender-hearted person, he forces himself to wear a prickly, hard facade. He is so fearful of being termed weak-hearted that he overcompensates it by externally portraying himself as a brutal, fearsome person. This characteristic of his leads to impulsive acts of violence and accidents, causing him to be temporarily banished from his village. When Okonkwo returns to his village after his exile, he grapples with the loss of his status. To add to his misery, Christian missionaries had started to slowly dissolve his village’s way of life in the name of civilization and spiritual evangelism. This is a story of the clash between two starkly different ways of living, causing us to question if the meaning of civilization is objective enough for one culture to bulldoze itself on another culture.

Achebe takes his time to introduce the culture of the Igbo tribe - their ways of living, their superstitions and Gods, and their sense of justice and morality. As barbaric and crass as some customs may sound to us, Achebe shows that underneath it all lies the same fundamental elements of human nature - feelings of camaraderie, love, affection, fear, insecurity, jealousy, anger etc. Yet, it is unequivocally apparent to us that the tribe’s ignorance is perpetuating mindless cruelty and misery among its own members. But those like Okonkwo, who are threatened by change, resist coming out of their rigid perspectives. However, the point that Achebe makes is, how much authority do we have to force a change? To us, the tribe’s culture is rudimentary and barbaric, and to them, our culture and views on morality are foolish and incomprehensibly weird. Can there be an objective ruling that one culture is more “civilized” than the other?

Since we are armed with Science and rationality, it’s easier for us to make a solid argument of being on the “right” side. Major civilizations have already traveled the path of medieval barbarism, the renaissance and revolutions to get to this point. It indeed is hard for us to sympathize with a culture teeming with inane superstitions that result in heinous crimes. But the story gives a humane face to such a culture, so that we can look beyond the surface barbarism to connect with a common thread. They too deserve some respect and dignified treatment. And in the end, the choice lies with the individual. It is contradictory if the evangelists themselves resort to aggressive and disruptive means to bring about betterment.

The story vividly captures the essence of African villages. It is a tragic, yet honest depiction of the hypocrisies of colonialism.