Sunday, May 18, 2008

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

This is a brilliant read I have just finished. It is philosophy written to the bone in a light language that endears the author to the reader. Its very delicately crafted both in terms of structure of the book and the flow of narrative from chapter to chapter. Its like watching a tarantino movie with words. Whats more, its pace is as diverse to give it a true metaphor to mimic the historical studies that we have known so far.

It explodes with the first chapter where a woodworm's view on Noah's Ark mercurially begs us to take a different perspective of the world. The second chapter abruptly flows into current day world view (current here being 1990) and offers some insight into the Marxian quote  "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

The author takes to heart that quote and presents us with a deepening emotion of the same theme but without the same vigor just to tell us that, yes, we do indeed consider it a farce. While that's the local theme, the global one seems like to affirm Joyce's quote  "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake". 

On a parallel track, he ascertains what does it mean to be human and how do we rationalise something ghoulish as equally human. The attached picture is called Scene at Shipwreck is very analytically analyzed in a single chapter with such finesse that you'll never look at other paintings casually. It also was buttressing his case that we as humans turn catastrophe into art.

There's this wildly imaginative but based on reality court case where the legal rights of animals/insects before law are discussed and it makes excellent points on human jurisdiction.
Finally as a verdict the termites are excommunicated for eating away the chair of a bishop in a cathedral and taking up illegal residence in the house of god. Go figure that out..

If you are wondering about the fraction (half) in the title it is dedicated to love albeit all the loose ends of history,truth and art are connected in this chapter (they were disjoint before) This half-chapter is one of the best ever written on the subject and the entire book's price might be justified purely on this chapter alone. Consider this:

Love is anti-mechanical,anti-materialist:thats why bad love is still good love. It may make us unhappy, but it insists that the mechanical and the material neednt be in charge. Religion has become either wimpishly workaday, or terminally crazy,or mere businesslike - confusing spirituality with charitable donations. Art, picking up confidence from the decline of religion,announces its transcendence of the world(and it lasts! it lasts! art beats death) but this announcement isnt accesible to all, where accessible isnt always inspiring or welcome. So religion and art must yield to love. It gives us our humanity and also our mysticism. There is more to us than us.

The materialist argument attacks love,of course; it attacks everything. Love boils down to pheromones,it says. This bounding of heart, this clarity of vision, this energizing, this moral certainity, this civic virtue, this murmered I love you, are all caused by a lowl level smell emitted by one partner and subconsciously nosed by the other. We are just a grander version of that beetle bashing its head in a box at the sound of a tapped pencil. Do we believe this? Well, let's believe it for the moment,because it makes love's triumph the greater. What is a Violin made of? Bits of wood and bits of sheep intestine and horse hair.Does its construction deman and banalize the music? On the contrary, it exalts the music further

And I'm not saying love will make you happy - above all, I'm not saying that. If anything, I tend to believe that it will make you unhappy: either immediately unhappy,as you are paled by incompatibility, or unhappy later, when the woodworm has quietly been gnawing away for years and the bishop's throne collapses. But you can believe this and still insist that love is our only hope.

It is our only hope even if it fails us, although it fails us, because it fails us. Am I losing precision? What I'm searching for is the right comparison. Love and truth,yes, thats the prime connection. We all know objective truth is not obtainable,that when some event occurs we shall have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess and then fabulate into history, into some God-eyed version of what 'really' happened. This God-eyed version is a fake - a charming,impossible fake, like those medieval paintings which show all the stages of Christ's Passion happening simultaneously in different parts of the picture. But while we know this, we must still believe that objective truth is obtainable; or we must believe that it is 99 percent obtainable; or if we cant believe this we must believe that 43 percent objective is better than 41 percent. We must do so, because if we don't we are lost, we fall into beguiling relativity, we value one liar's version as much as another liar's, we throw up our hands at the puzzle of it all, we admit that the victor has the right not just to the spoils but also to the truth.
 (Whose truth do we prefer,by the way, the victor's or the victim's? Are pride and compassion greater distorters than shame and fear?)

And so it is with love. We must believe in it, or we're lost. We may not obtain it, or we may obtain it and find it renders us unhappy; we must still believe in it. If we don't,then we merely surrender to the history of the world and to someone else's truth."

For those who skipped the above passages: Love gives us a chance to stand up to the weight of the history.

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