peteg's blog

Pankaj Mishra: An End to Suffering: The Budda in the World.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. I figured I should assign some attention over Christmas to Mishra's attempt to explain the Buddha to us Westerners. What I actually got was a bitzer: part memoir, part travelogue, much book-learnt philosophy, some religion, history. That it didn't know what it wanted to be meant that the best bits were mostly the ancillaries. It was written before, during, and after The Romantics, and so contains some of the raw material that went into that novel. The game is classical: to map the search for inner meaning onto a traversal of geography, in this case the lower reaches of the Himalayas, and later, London and the U.S.A. (Similar structures can be seen in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road, Kaag's American Philosophy and countless others.) Mishra is, of course, very forward about being Indian and skeptical of Western pretensions to having solved the condition of Man.

My major beefs are with Mishra's discussion of Western philosophy and his inadequate presentation of the Buddha's thinking, which is to say that it doesn't fulfill the promise of its title. For starters, his take on David Hume is misleading (60%):

Consciousness is a flow of tiny instants that have no separate existence or essence; they are constantly being triggered by each of the tiny changes in the world outside — the process creating the impression of what we call reality. When broken up into its aggregate parts, consciousness reveals itself as profoundly conditioned, ever changing and relative, and far from the substantial entity we believe the individual self to be.

David Hume among western philosophers had a view of the self closest to that of the Buddha:

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

Be that as it may (Hume was championing empirical materialism over Cartesian dualism), there is still the question of how the self perceives itself; at times there seems to be something reflective going on that does not necessarily involve the external world. Hume wasn't satisfied with his own story, and it took Kant significant transcendental complexity to take it further. It's difficult to link any of this to the Buddha's proposition that the self is an illusion, given the presupposition that there's something doing the perceiving.

Mishra says that the Buddha would have us be mindfully present in every situation, to be in the now. I found this hard to square with the idea of meditation, which if nothing else involves being mentally absent. This state is attractive to Westerners as the modern world is all about being elsewhere, and meditation comes at all price points. The assertion he attributes to Einstein, that science and Buddhism are compatible, is apparently apocryphal. Science offers the most reliable way out of the "jungle of opinions" just now, if not when the Buddha was philosophizing.

My central problem with Buddhism is its obscurantism, that its practictioners present it as a body of arcane knowledge that resists modernization. (The Mind Illuminated, for instance, is long on promise but expends much effort early on in constructing a lexicon rather than basic practices, and therefore lost me.) Around the 59% mark Mishra struggles with the idea that this knowledge is somehow beyond language:

I was full of wonder at the immensity and complexity of Buddhist literature, the work of thinkers and scholars now almost lost to memory. But I couldn't understand much of what these philosophers had written. The most fascinating among them was Nagarjuna, who had challenged even the Buddha by asserting that there could be no such thing as a Right View since all intellectual constructs had no essence. But how did one understand the concept of Emptiness, not to mention the assertion that Emptiness itself was empty?

I guess Wittgenstein would (impolitely) ask them all to be quiet. This move strikes me as deeply problematic: while the meditative states may be transcendent (non-empirical) there are still linguistic means of describing how to get there and roughly what it's like. I mean, they do that anyway, and even to assert the emptiness of language requires language. This is all a bit hard to square with the existence of ancient Sanskrit linguistics which surely must have exposed some of these issues around the time of the Buddha.

Mishra contends that Buddhism has no political prescriptions, and says that the Buddha himself suggested that small groups of people make decisions by consensus, and those who can't abide with those go off and form their own groups; "if you don't like it then leave" is a common refrain these days, and clearly it doesn't scale. At 65% we're told that the Buddha didn't expect his guidelines to last too long, perhaps 500 or 1000 years, which to me suggests he expected them to be improved, possibly by a successor. By 71% we're told that Buddhism can be sometimes violent but there have been no wars between Buddhist groupings; Westerns are said to hold the same true of liberal democracies, which until recently was thought to scale.

Like Kaag feels in his American Philosophy, apparently "there [is] no private salvation waiting for [us]," where salvation/liberation is from karmic reincarnation (67%). We're supposed to "[feel] the conditional and interdependent nature of all beings," which makes it sound like enlightenment leads to feeling all suffering everywhere; hardly a desirable state in itself, and Mishra observes (93%) that vanquishing desire is prima facie more scary than liberating. It does square nicely with conservative dogma however, redemption being individually achieved and not collectively organised.

Despite targetting a Western audience, Mishra does not really help flush Christian priors; for instance, karma is harsh and there's no forgiveness. The proposed alleviation of suffering sounds more like "suck it up" than a mechanism for real change, which we might idly call progress. I never understood why a Buddhist ever had to act; in contrast the Ten Commandments do not allow one to be entirely passive. Will Self could probably have developed a quantity theory of suffering and tried to square the idea of reincarnation with a growing population, and how much we should discount the suffering of future generations. I wonder how Buddhists think about climate change.

The book was widely reviewed at its time, mostly by people who nodded along and accepted Mishra's erudition at face value. I mean, they're all busy people, right? — and just for them, Mishra slipped in a chapter on how dubious a reconciliation between U.S. values and Buddhism conceptually is, all the time stroking his beard in erudite skepticism. I'll leave those to Google.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Ben near Museum Station and got the L94 down to Little Bay. We snorkelled from the southern beach along the rocks and back around via the northern beach. Quite a few people, and a bit cold in some patches. Nothing but the usual fish species to be seen. We had some lunch up at the cafe on Anzac Parade.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Walter at Coogee for some brunch and a long chat. Read some more of my book on the headland north of the beach, and had a mid-afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay. There were so many people that I got in off the beach, which is slightly tricky due to the rocks underneath some murky water. Quite pleasant and clean once I got far enough out.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Bussed it over to Coogee in the mid-afternoon, read my book on the northern headland, and had a paddle at Gordons Bay. There are lots of people collecting shellfish (abalone?) from near where I get in on the south side. Still a little cold in despite reports of it being 21C. Not too many people around. Dinner at Yen's afterwards and a pleasant walk from there back to Glebe.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

/noise/movies | Link

This one is for the fans. As a very part-time fan I struggled to get into much of it; I think of Zappa as funk/jazz with a side of weird, and that doesn't really get a go until past the halfway mark. (There's no Muffin Man, for instance, or Valley Girl either.) Zappa's philosophy strikes me as coherent, or at least consistent: he's partial to the notion of ownership, which is mildly incompatible with spreading one's creations as far as possible. There was plenty of opportunity for things to get interesting, if only someone took him seriously. The whole thing might have benefited from alternative viewpoints, though I am thankful it steered me towards his 1986 Jazz in Hell album: it's a tad too frenetic take on Vangelis-style synth-pop.

Neil Genzlinger.

Eastern Promises

/noise/movies | Link

On Dave's recommendation, for Viggo Mortensen, who is indeed quite solid playing a Russian gangster in London. Cronenberg loves his graphic violence, and by clearly intending to turn stomachs and not titillate I guess he escapes accusations of promoting such. The settings and some of the plot echo The Godfather and other Cronenbergs. Naomi Watts is all wide-eyed righteousness on a Ural boxer motorcycle. (A cursory bit of googling suggests that these typically have sidecars, which hers does not, and are clones of early BMW designs.) Armin Mueller-Stahl nails the cool-eyed urban mobster.

A. O. Scott makes it sound like more of a chore than it is. Dana Stevens.

Super 8

/noise/movies | Link

On Dave's recommendation. A J. J. Abrams effort from 2011. I remember reading Dana Stevens's review at the time and deciding to give it a miss; she sharply concludes with:

As a director, Abrams has at least one lesson to learn from the film crew of middle-schoolers which he created: Keep it simple. The Case, their no-budget zombie flick that plays out in its entirety over the closing credits, is so funny and sharply observed, it makes the multi-million-dollar spectacle that came before look like amateur hour.

The story arc focussing on the kids is fun, the adult stuff less so as it amounts to little more than generic menance.

A. O. Scott.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Another interminable late-afternoon ride on the 370 to Coogee, from which I hoofed it to Gordons Bay. Not too many people about, and I don't know why as it was quite pleasant in, and not too filthy.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Morning paddle with Ben at Gordons Bay. (The bracket that holds my snorkel upright broke, otherwise we would probably have been looking at the fish.) A beautiful sunny day after several murky ones. Quite crowded on the rocks, quite pleasant in.

Arrival

/noise/movies | Link

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can - even if it's only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse - or the man who always came to save America at the last moment - someone always came to save America at the last moment - especially in "B" movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at - like a "B" movie.
Gil Scott-Heron, B-Movie, about better days than these.

The Ritz, $10 cheap Tuesday, 2.40pm session, theatre 6 was chockers: a row of giggling, chatting young ladies showed up late and sat in front of me, and this movie wasn't good enough to shut them up.

I'd seen the short enough times to expect a nice sci-fi premise and some exploration of what it means to be a single white female linguist romancing aliens in the twenty-first century. I was hoping they'd avoid lurv as powerful as that in Interstellar, and tiresome deus ex solutions to humanity's problems. Unfortunately we get a completely implausible plot, and active misdirection of the Sixth Sense kind. The science is of the Portal genre, but here there's no Cave Johnson (J. K. Simmons) to remind us why we're doing it. China is now the militaristic inscrutable whipping/bad boy of geopolitics. That's a bit tiresome, as is the panicky greater American public's demand for violence against the mostly-passive aliens. Forest Whitaker is OK, Amy Adams is OK, Jeremy Renner is OK but he doesn't get to do any science; she's a bit of a hog that way. The earnest sincerity is unflagging.

The central plot hole is bleedingly obvious: the aliens have all this awesome technology, and their purpose is to share their mad language skillz with people, but they do not come prepared to explain themselves: it's entirely up to the humans to figure it all out! Remind me to try that in my next job interview. And why don't the humans datamine the hell out of those sounds and circles? Come on guys, it's the twenty-first century: stick it on Kaggle already! And while I'm sure the type theorists are soaked to think that language is the key to time travel, the benefit of this device accrues purely to the scriptwriters, who use it to lazily resolve all plot points except how we're supposed to aid the aliens in 3000 years. If I was an alien who had just seen this movie, I'd be looking for sapient helpers somewhere else quick smart.

Manohla Dargis indulged this tosh. She points to Ted Chiang's original material, which I guess I won't be in a hurry to read now.

Paul Murray: The Mark and the Void.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Antoine Wilson's negative review in the New York Times did not attract me initially, perhaps because he got it totally right, but its recent release as a paperback caught my attention. The first third is very funny and not so totally incoherent that it mostly sort-of works. The rest is dreck. Pretty much every scene with Paul in it is quite bad, and unfortunately that's most of them. The analyst/waitress romance is icky and Murray somehow felt it wise to share a lot of misogyny that he'd clearly been saving up over the years; none of it freshens the finance/trader stereotypes. His understanding of the space is mostly sound but he hurries to both pile up and evade far too many implausibilities.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

/noise/movies | Link

With Dave, 3:30pm session at Hoyts Broadway, $25 each for the "extreme screen" as the cheaper one for the same time had already sold out. I was there mainly for Riz Ahmed, and Forest Whitaker, both of whom were solid but didn't have much time to do anything particularly awesome. The story makes little sense. Felicity Jones is aggressively resolute in the lead. Alan Tudyk voicing droid K-2SO has the best lines, and this was perhaps the first genuinely amusing Star Wars movie. Mads Mikkelsen is always the bad guy in Casino Royal, and I'm always waiting for him to cry blood again. The CGI revivals are horrible, though I'm sure they'll be improved as this gets endlessly re-released.

Richard Brody is scathing, A. O. Scott likewise.

Peter Ho Davies: Equal Love.

/noise/books | Link

More Davies completism: his second collection of shorts, once again on paper. None really pressed my buttons; some sharp observations made me laugh, but mostly out of recognition and not novelty. The Next Life read like an ethnography of Chinese funeral customs, but doesn't get past what everyone (now) knows. How to be an Expatriate parks itself uncomfortably just shy of satire: compare it with Trainspotting's classic opening screed, for instance. The rest are ruminations on the faultlines in family lives, and somewhat tiring therefore.

Jacqueline Carey reviewed it thoughtfully for the New York Times back in 2000.

Peter Ho Davies: The Ugliest House in the World.

/noise/books | Link

Davies's first collection of shorts, from 1998, and therefore only available on paper. All his later concerns are on show here: slate mining, farming and provincialism in Wales (The Ugliest House in the World, A Union), war (Relief, A Union), Chinese clannishness, kookiness and pragmatism (Buoyancy, The Silver Screen), and perhaps most interesting to me, social justice (Coventry, I don't know, what do you think?). The last is a first-person account of manning the phones for Lifeline. (Lifeline seems to be an Australian innovation that went global.) The writing is as solid as ever, and my only beef is that the stories are planned a little too tightly; too many Chekhovian guns, so to speak.

The Brand New Testament

/noise/movies | Link

Stephen Holden at the New York Times sold me on this notionally zany take on God and his family. It's nowhere as imaginative as he says, and owes more to Jean-Pierre Jeunet than it could ever repay. (This crew is Belgian, the cast speak French.) Pili Groyne is trying to be the next Chloë Grace Moretz. One could try to read all sorts of things into this vacuous mess, but at its core it's just telling you to stay on the couch and wait for a saviour.

Jarett Kobek: If You Won't Read, Then Why Should I Write?.

/noise/books | Link

In dead-tree format as Jarett Kobek does not seem to like ebooks very much. This one is slight: a survey of B-list celebrities who've gotten very light penalties for serious antisocial behaviour. It is of its time (2012) and hasn't aged well, at least if you weren't paying attention then. It's more an art project than something to actually read, but some seem to find a close parsing worthwhile.

John Kaag: American Philosophy: A Love Story.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. The promising premise of this book is an examination of the roots of American pragmatic philosophy, which attempted to grapple directly with the classic problem of how we should live and what it means to be free. Kaag leads me to believe it's a bit dead now, killed by too much analysis, though it may just be resting.

Yes, this is a love story. I expected twists and turns, some mystery, but it seems that Kaag perfected his romantic skills on the second time around. The first parts canvas failure (perhaps underserved in American letters) and expresses his general dissatisfaction in spite of his success. Within the quotidian frame of putting William Ernest Hocking's library in order, Kaag smuggles capsule accounts of classical philosophies, which to my mind is the major weakness: these accounts, stripped of their argumentation and historical context, read as strong, unsupportable and occasionally ridiculous assertions. This evokes the current political climate, where my truth is at least as good as yours, and demonstrates what analytic philosophy had the knives out for.

Kaag is keen on joint works, on connections between people, on lauding women who were suppressed in their time and in history. He concludes that salvation (from what I don't know) is a social process, impossible to achieve alone, but doesn't pause to reflect on the selection bias that quietens those who might argue otherwise. I wasn't at all familiar with any of the American philosophers he mentioned; C. S. Peirce was previously just one of many names attached to the prehistory of modal logic to me, and Thoreau is pure epigram. There's some fun had with the idea of necessity, especially amongst the unattractive.

So, what is this? Confessions ala Henry Fool? A book length rumination on Bird on a Wire? At times it veered into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance territory, especially as Thoreau et al's old-timey self-reliance is ploddingly recast into modern-day self-improvement. Annoyingly it seems likely that the original sources, for instance on Absurdism, succeed more thoroughly as both literature and philosophy than this text.

Mark Greif of n+1 fame reviewed it for the New York Times. He is right at home with too much affirmatory jargon.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Late afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay after lunch at the ATP. The heat predictions flooded the place with people, many standing/sitting/drinking on the rocks in places that block the foot traffic. The tide was on the way out. Pleasant in. Getting the bus back is becoming a nuisance.

The Handmaiden

/noise/movies | Link

Another visual feast by Park Chan-wook. In the mood for ... Gone Girl? Apparently the BBC has filmed the same story.

Manohla Dargis.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Late afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay. Caught the 374 from Eddy Avenue. Read more of my book on the headlands above the old gym. Loads of people at Gordons, but hardly anyone in the water, and almost no one on the shadowy south side. Pleasant in. Some seaweed and foam. Afterwards I hoofed it up to Taste of Thai in Randwick for a laksa. The 372 back was full of drunk and sunburnt Irish.

Greg Egan: The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Being done with Tim Winton for now, I chowed on this novella by another of Western Australia's men of letters, from about a year ago. A cursory skim of N. K. Meisin's review at the New York Times led me to believe it'd be ... awesome? ... but I now see she was skeptical and pointed out many of its flaws. I guess this is the problem with not reading reviews before the book: I stopped with hers at the mention of awards as I figured Egan has a safe pair of hands, and didn't want to spoil my dinner.

The premise is cute, the politics banal, the dialogue flat (yes, everyone has the same voice), and I don't see that it adds up to much. Perhaps he set the libertarian / utilitarian set aflutter by mildly dressing-up their moral calculus. This may have worked for Spock in the 1960s for many reasons (he's not totally human, for staters, and had two strong characters to clash with), but not here. I did like where he was going with the mechanics of exchanging rock and ice, and had some vague expectation of a trade war or a foreshadowing of a Trump-like demagogue who wasn't going to exchange his precious bodily fluids for anything, costs be damned. Egan had enough words to do something.

2001

/noise/movies | Link

Tim Winton prompted me to revisit this classic. I found the pacing really weird this time around. It didn't inspire me to think about the big questions either; HAL's misbehavior seems undercooked. There's more fun to be had in thinking about how they made it.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Once again set off for Gordons Bay from Glebe, early afternoon. I got a so-so ba mee lunch at the Thai place that used to be a theatre, next to the old Brendan Behan, and a so-so coffee at a Campos place on Baptist St opposite the mall. Just like old times. After burning perhaps a bit too much time on Tim Winton's latest in Centennial Park, I caught the bus from Darley Rd. Things were a bit too rough for comfort at the scuba ramp; getting in would have been OK but getting out is another thing, without a mask or fins. Clovelly wasn't much calmer but it was OK at the beach end. I didn't swim far. Beautiful day for it anyway.

Tim Winton: The Boy Behind the Curtain.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Another autobiographical work, and one that I felt I had already read a solid chunk of — perhaps in his previous personal outings Island Home or Land's Edge. Now that I am home, and the Australian Federal Government is at historically extreme levels of uselessness, I can see how he's changed with the times, lost his reclusiveness, become corporate, learnt to leverage his image, which is not to say he's sold out, despite Beatty's erudite advice, which I hope he is aware of. Sydney still has some of that littoral feel, being on the margins of the sea and the edge of Asia, and now with the experiment in extreme density, at the limits of livability. It's strange walking through the old inner-city working class suburbs and seeing the pubs so empty during the day, the few people on the street typically young ladies out buying coffee for their offices, the dwindling freaks quarantined to a few benches on Oxford St and the parks. I'm sure there's life in Marrickville and further out, but surely car dependence robs it of something essential. (The Bower is one such locus.)

This is essentially a collection of previously published work, and we occasionally get the same event described in different ways at different times in Winton's life. I wish they'd had dates stuck on them so we could more easily track the evolution of his thought. The most successful bang on about his connection with nature, when his effortless unabashed sincerity brings the moment, the transcendence, to us. It's magic. The less successful include his time in Ireland, where the writing is as listless as the weather. I enjoyed parts of his account of growing up in an evangelical Christian community but the main article needed a good edit; at times it was the most tedious of the Sundays of memory. His other accounts of family life are far stronger. He prompted me to go watch 2001 again. His conception of class left me cold; when I hear "cashed up bogan" I think of the vacuous culture he railed against in Eyrie. I remain fascinated by his ability to balance his need for solitude with his commitment to family and sociability; the account of running for the border after completing a novel gave some insight into how he copes. He doesn't seem to seek out company however.

I wonder at his championing of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which is trying to use the very same private-interests mechanisms that have trashed the place to save it. Cute, sure, maybe even ironic, but it signals a disengagement from politics that may eventually prove lethal. Winton knows this from the stalled Commonwealth marine reserves processes, perhaps soon to be wound back, and expresses no constructive political sentiments. I wonder if private reserves are good neighbours, and how they will be managed long-term.

So not his finest outing, and more of a suggestion to go (re-)read the best of his novels.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Walked over to Gordons Bay from Glebe in the early afternoon, stopping off for some lunch, a coffee, and to read my book in Centennial Park. Oxford St appears to have revived, with loads of boutiques. The Max Brenner's there has died though. I got in from the rocks on the south side around 5:30pm with plenty of sun left. The water is still a bit cool, but plenty clean. Quite a few people about, not so many in. A couple brought their dogs for a paddle. I see they've stuck some concrete supports in to hold up the sandstone. Afterwards I walked back to Coogee for a vats-out-the-front Indian and caught the 372 back to Central in a pleasant haze.

The Founder

/noise/movies | Link

Hoyts Broadway, 4pm session, tight Tuesday $13. I got suckered by the poster featuring Michael Keaton, who was having a bit of a renaissance with Birdman. Here, the short is pretty much the movie, and it doesn't add anything to Ray Kroc's story that isn't on his Wikipedia page. I guess I was expecting Kroc to be somehow flamboyant, for the propaganda to be more offensive or more subtle, for some skewering of the McBeast. This isn't Supersize Me but more nostalgia for a simpler world, where simple explanations cut through, where progress was more obvious. Kroc is rapacious in business, as one would expect, and his wife's philanthropy is held up in tepid defence. The McDonalds brothers are solid, tending to stodgy.

Francine Prose: Mister Monkey.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Its presence in the New York Times list of 100 notable books for the year prompted me to give it a go; Cathleen Schine's earlier review did not, even though she got it mostly right. The book is structured around various participants in a fiasco of a production of the fictional children's musical Mister Monkey, spiralling outward to embrace current-day New York City. I am not convinced that the Monkey God/Hanuman would deign to be reincarnated as a bratty twelve-year-old boy living in Battery Park, but leaving that aside, Prose does a fantastic job with the structure and tales of unquiet desperation. I enjoyed the theatrical setting.

Aravind Adiga: Between the Assassinations.

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. I guess I had some vague hope that this second book by Adiga would be some chop. It isn't. I wouldn't have bothered if I'd known beforehand that he wrote these shorts about the imaginary south-west Indian coastal town of Kittur before the celebrated The White Tiger, and presumably got it published afterwards as a cash-in. Again things tend to be brutal and the imagination is weak; it seems beyond Adiga to put a twist into tales of poverty and exploitation, of anyone getting anything over anyone they shouldn't. The assassinations (and not assignations! — which would have made for a better book) were, of course, Indira Gandhi's in 1984 and her son Rajiv's in 1991.

/noise/beach/2016-2017 | Link

Met up with Ben at 10am-ish at Coogee, and wandered up to Gordons Bay. It was a perfect day for a snorkel with good visibility. The water was slightly cold but OK once in. This was my first snorkel in about three years; the last beach I'd been to was Mũi Né for last Christmas. No squid. A (new?) big blue groper was hanging around just near the scuba ramp. (The old one had a hook or something hanging out of him and looked a bit ragged.) There weren't too many people but the crowds are definitely in the post.