Wednesday 28 May 2008

Re-reading GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, it is incredible how little like genuine detective stories and how much like Roman Catholic fan fiction they sometimes seem like. The rationalist who kills a wealthy man who is planning to donate millions to the Roman Catholic church, instead of a dozen frivolous, trendy cults that pose no real challenge to rationalism, the daring crook who is brought to repentance by the humble priest who speaks to him of his soul. And the priest himself, Father Brown, who, despite all his bumbling and apparent harmlessness, possesses a shrewd understanding and deep knowledge of the ways of human wickedness – it’s all so much manipulation. Taking refuge in fiction and characterization, Chesterton places a number of time-bombs in his stories, stuff that might manipulate a vulnerable mind towards the Catholic creed, and away from doubt. Things like this remarkable statement by Father Brown:

"Sleep!" cried Father Brown. "Sleep. We have come to the end

of the ways. Do you know what sleep is? Do you know that every

man who sleeps believes in God? It is a sacrament; for it is an

act of faith and it is a food."

What, if anything does that even mean? By creating a false identification between faith and a natural physiological process common to humans and animals alike, Chesterton is attempting to make the believer, or wannabe- believer, liken the lowering of guard to find refreshment involved in falling asleep to the similar lowering of pride to accept spiritual reinforcement associated with the sacraments of his church. I call bullshit. Sleep is just a fact of life like farting and sweating, and only sacred in the sense that everything in creation is sacred to the true believer, which is circular reasoning at best.

GK doesn’t resist the easy canard of the apologist either, the old accusation that the atheist point of view somehow makes the world empty and mechanistic:

A vast heave went over Flambeau's huge figure. "And now I

come to think of it," he cried, "why in the name of madness

shouldn't he be all right? What is it gets hold of a man on these

cursed cold mountains? I think it's the black, brainless

repetition; all these forests, and over all an ancient horror of

unconsciousness. It's like the dream of an atheist. Pine-trees

and more pine-trees and millions more pine-trees--"

Well, of course, the atheist’s universe is empty - empty of the sort of meaning a theist wants to find in it. That hardly means it has no room for wonder, diversity and even the secular magic of natural selection.

There is a certain sympathy with socialism in some of these stories, but it is with those aspects of socialism that are in tune with Christian ideals, and hence a sympathy that again glorifies the church that GK has this great hard-on for:

"I won't have you talking like that," cried the girl, who was

in a curious glow. "You've only talked like that since you became

a horrid what's-his-name. You know what I mean. What do you call

a man who wants to embrace the chimney-sweep?"

"A saint," said Father Brown.

"I think," said Sir Leopold, with a supercilious smile, "that

Ruby means a Socialist."

Ultimately, though, the only source of revelation in these stories is Father Brown, and, similarly, the only source of meaning in GK Chesterton’s world is the church. All his brilliance, style and wit cannot change the fact that he began each story with this pre-ordained conclusion in mind and went on to create a loaded game where his side could win each time without examining anything but a caricatured version of the other side.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

against nature, against the gods: juices

In case you can'r read it, the line in the white glowing space is: Flavours God Never Intended!!

I have no idea why they didn't go for that third exclamation mark.

Friday 16 May 2008

'My library is not a single beast but a composite of many others, a fantastic animal made up of the several libraries built and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life.'

This is from a New York Times article by Alberto Manguel about his book collection. There's quite a bit there I can identify with.

My first library grew from Ladybird and Gold Key books to embrace comics (Tinkle, Target, Amar Chitra Katha, Mad, Disney World, various superhero comics), what I like to call investigative juvenilia (The Famous Five, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and so on), informative books from publishers like Methuen and Usborne, illustrated classics. Gradually I began to supplement it myself with books dragged from my parents' shelves, my paternal grandfather's collection in Madras, and books acquired from the bookshop my father used to run.

I'd always have a group of books arranged on my bedside windowsill - books I was reading, of course, but more. There were favourites that I'd read time and again and wanted to have close at hand, like trusted old friends, and also books I meant to read, and kept beside me as promises of the joys ahead, even if I didn't always get around to reading them all. In this respect, I haven't changed much over the years.

Some books have always had to form the core of my library: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, four battered old Penguin paperbacks that I never tire of reading, A History Of The World In 10 1/2 CHapters by Julian Barnes, a book that fulfills its promise by circumventing it in the most brilliant ways possible, at least one collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft, something by Michael Moorcock, some Wilde, some Poe, Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, some European depressives (Kafka, Camus, Sartre), Cosmos by Carl Sagan and Do What You Will, a collection of essays by Aldous Huxley, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. These books are like the germ culture from which I can grow a new library once again, unpredictably different, yet similar, to all the ones that preceded it.

When I began living away from my family, in college, I didn't always have much of a library with me. There was rarely much space for more than the basics in the boarding houses where I stayed, so I'd only have a couple of paperbacks and comics that I was actually reading at the time. It would only be after starting work and moving into a shared house that I would begin to seriously amass a private library again. Naturally, much of the initial core of books came from my previous library, whatever wasn't tied down in my father's house, which my parents' divorce made inaccesible to me, or given away to a school library in a fit of philanthropy at the age of 11.

At first, I displayed my books and CDs in shelves in the living room. However, I soon found that living with a room mate means you have little control over who spends time in your living room - CDs and books started going missing, CDs more than books, of course. After this I kept my library in my own bedroom, which soon took on a rather crowded, chaotic aspect. Once I'd filled up my cupboard, I started stacking books in the lofts, in boxes under the bed and finally in free-standing piles all over the room. Things were a bit better once I shifted to my own flat. In all this time, my collection had begun to reach truly epic proportions, and I despaired of ever being able to find enough shelf space for it all - entire sections of my collection were permanently stored in cardboard boxes in a spare room, boxes which I would pore through at regular intervals, fetching back books I needed to have around to read, or to plan to read, or for comfort.

Now that I'm married, one of the remarkable things that I've realised is that this has also been the merging of two rather substantial collections. Her books and mine mingle freely on the various shelves at home, and there are a reasonable number of repeats, although there'd have been more if I had back all the books that are marooned in my father's house. I've tried to impose some order on it all - non fiction here, graphic novels there, science fiction all together, classics in the room on top, and so on, but it never works. And the collection seems to grow daily. I haven't bothered counting, but I'm certain we're well on our way to our first 10,000.

As before, all these books are a substantial presence both physically and mentally. They furnish both a room and a mind like nothing else. The comfort of favourites and classics, canonical or self-ordained, at hand to be dipped into again and again, the promise of unread books hiding worlds as yet undiscovered between their covers, or even of utter rubbish safely shelved where it need never be read again, is a feeling mere upholstery cannot give.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Shop of wonders...or just needful things?

Searching for old LPs, or anything old, used or unusual is the perfect way to let one thing lead to another. Yasmine and I followed the LP trail down Avenue Road, and we found this fantastic shop, down a narrow lane, and up dingy old stairs, nothing much to look at from outside, but an Ali Baba's cave within. Here are some pictures from our first visit to Balaji & Govardhan's antique shop (we prefer to think of it as The Junk Shop, but perhaps we're just being affected):

Monday 12 May 2008

100 Meter Dash

On election day, campaigning is prohibited within 100 meters of a polling station. In my area, the Congress were the first to the 'finishing line', at 7:30 AM.

Yes, I voted

Friday 9 May 2008

The Slimes Of India in sociological perspective:

Under contemporary economic conditions, it is often futile to look for "corruption", because people are compelled to behave voluntarily in ways one expected them to behave in only when they were paid for it. The journalists who take part in the promotion of a Hollywood "oomph-girl" need not be bribed at all by the motion picture industry. The publicity given to the girl by the industry itself is in complete accord with the ideology pervading the journalism which takes it up. And this ideology has become the audience's. The match appears to have been made in heaven.

- Theodor Adorno, On Popular Music

Look Always New

Not just a shop but a whole fashion philosophy.

At some point, a brick wall became part of this tree. The wall has been broken down, but the tree remains. I like to think that it's the first awakening of the Ents, back in action and ready to eat some serious masonry.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Seen a few days back, a hoarding bearing an advertisement for a brand of casual menswear, with the headline ‘I’m the 4th model they looked at. The other 3 were too pretty’ and a picture of a young man of the usual bland, westernized above-average good looks, slightly unshaven, in said casual menswear.

What a remarkable concoction. Should I remark on the casual misogyny implied in the dismissal of prettiness, the dissonance between this nominal swimming-against-the-tide of fashionable standards of appearance, while offering up an alternative standard, in the form of a model barely different from any other menswear he-mannequin?

Most fascinating, though, is the new (to me) development in the ongoing monologue of advertising. Ads used to be about products – in some mythical era no one alive has seen – and then they became about prestige, power, pleasure. Lately, they’re usually about sex. Here is an ad where the virtues of the brand are being promoted by pointing out the care with which the advertisers have chosen a model who reflects the aspirations of the chosen target group. Here is an ad where the process of advertising itself has become the subject matter of advertising.

Now that advertising has become self-aware perhaps the time will come when it forms a completely self-contained ecosystem of its own, and we can get on with our lives ignoring it altogether.

Friday 2 May 2008

Formerly, like Kant and Hume, they signed their letters “Your most humble and obedient servant,” and undermined the foundations of throne and altar. Today they address heads of government by their first names, yet in every artistic activity they are subject to their illiterate masters.

- Theodor Adorno - The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception