Bierce the Piercing

Monday, 05 December 2016 14:53

Satire is the antidote to the world’s greatest ego-related epidemics that manifest as self-righteousness and egotism at best. I’ve always admired those few who come with a natural sense of humor and I consider it not only a skill but a direct indication of higher intelligence. Personally, I’m still trying to infuse some into my cynicism and hopefully one day I’ll manage to actually laugh off without the help of bitter sarcasm what now frightens and saddens me. Good satire is hard to come by but when it does it lights your way and, since it deals with universal constants regarding the individual and society, it is or is sure to become classic stuff. Satire has a few sub-genres and the Juvenalian is probably the most popular today, as it appears in exaggerated fictional worlds with a pleasantly toxic mixture of cynicism, sarcasm and irony. The Horatian satire is less sarcastic and doesn’t cry out for social change in the way the Juvenalian satire does. Instead it distances itself, as it wittingly reports and clarifies the often hazy truth. One of the greatest examples of Horatian satire is Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary and I can only advise you to go on and read it (there are numerous publications and some are free, as for example this one from Project Gutenberg).


And here is a link to The Literary Field Kaleidoscope, where you can listen to my reading of “Abracadabra,” which is one of the Dictionary’s entries.

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VALIS and the Stupid Universe Theorem

Thursday, 23 June 2016 13:17

If I believed in the Law of Attraction, today would have been a great day. Two evenings ago I was sitting on the couch thinking intently that the windows needed cleaning, and how great it would be if somehow a window cleaner heard my wish and appeared at the door. So, today at 10:15 the bell rang. There was the professional window cleaner, with van and hose and ladder and brush, asking if our windows needed cleaning, because a woman with a bike and a child seat asked for his services on No68. Now, as a rational being trained to examine occurrences scientifically, what should I suppose? This was obviously a mistake, albeit a cunning one. Otherwise, there’s the paranoid version: He could have been lying. He saw with his professional eye the dirty window, assumed the bike was mine, or, even worse, stalked me, and made his attempt to gain another customer. There are more scenarios concerning his ultimate motive, but we don’t really want to go down that rabbit hole, now do we?

Anyway, whether he made a mistake or made it up, there are only two possible explanations to the connection of this event with me recently thinking about it: They are either not connected at all, which leaves us with a perhaps not so striking coincidence, or they have a causative relationship, meaning that the action happened because I thought about it. By the way, this is called magical thinking and is considered a sign of mental illness.

    However, I am equally suspicious of chance as the underlying cause for such strange coincidences, especially as I recognize the same pattern in a number of other people’s stories I can personally verify. Easy desire realization is a very common fantasy, and a look at popular literature tells me that most people have at least one relevant experience. I admit I had to consider the option of the universe conspiring to give me what I wanted, as the countless fans of The Alchemist, The Secret and various gods have done. So, if these weren’t two random events where my mind got hinged at to play its tricks, I concluded, this must be a really stupid universe. No other kind of universe would assume that, from all the things it could have given me, a window cleaner is what I needed the most. But, perhaps, “stupid” wasn’t exactly the right word.

And that was the thought that led me back to VALIS. When I had started reading VALIS, I had found it amusing, having no idea what it was about. As the story evolved and started losing its coherence and literary character, I realized this wasn’t just a mix of humorous sci-fi with streaks of philosophical truth and rambling, but that the author actually believed to a certain extend, if not fully, the things he wrote about. Philip K. Dick was trying to share some of his wisdom – or madness – as was attested in numerous accounts of his life that I read afterwards.

There are many progressive ideas in the book, such as the sense that mental illness is a matter of perspective, as, in a world ruled by madness, the deranged majority deems the rational ones crazy. The ancestral battle of good and evil, with the edges of the two much more blurry than western philosophy and religion allow, is thus transferred to the realm of logic vs madness and to the plane of universal clashing forces. In the book, the rational is represented by VALIS – a system we may call God – which is set up by the Albemuthians in an attempt to impose logic into madness, or order into chaos, and help us, their kin, to break out of the Black Iron Prison.

Principally, I think that VALIS is an excellent example of how our personal fears build our stories: In this case, it’s the fear of the irrational – of losing one’s mind, to put it simply – that led Dick to paint irrationality and chaos with dark colors, while he envisioned logic and order as inherently good. From all the ideas in the book – yes, more than the idea of the benevolent extraterrestrials trying to save us – there was one I had found ground-breaking and worth exploring as a concept. According to the leading character, Horselover Fat, the universe was irrational and merciless: As he put it so poetically, “from loss and grief the Mind has become deranged.”

For the record, my husband, who opened the door, skipped the whole train of thought and sent the cleaner away, certain that this was a mistake. The windows are still dirty.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2015 21:57


“I begin to draw a figure and the world is looped in it, and I myself am outside the loop; which I now join – so – and I seal up, and make entire. The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying, ‘Oh save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!’”

                          — Virginia Woolf, The Waves

I’ve been trying for a while to pinpoint what makes Virginia Woolf’s work so engaging for me. Engaging and refreshing. Her language is poetic and experimental – obviously deriving from, and to an extend shaping, the modernist tradition – but while some of her passages have an almost epiphanic effect – due to the startling clarity and progressiveness by which she approaches her themes and characters – I find much of her diction too stylized. Moreover, her settings are pastoral in a way she didn’t mean to – in the general manner of the big houses and big families of the early 20th century middle class: So far from our urban experience of almost a hundred years later.

Still, her work is exceptional, and what makes it so is her manipulation of time. It’s how a book’s-length dive into the characters’ minds (Mrs. Dalloway) covers only a day of ‘real’ time – and how this short ‘real’ time isn’t mere background, but skillfully interwoven into the story; it’s in the way distant periods of time become seamlessly connected (To the Lighthouse); or in the perpetual present of The Waves.

Virginia Woolf smashes my notion of time, which is the most conditioning and compulsion-inducing aspect of my life. When I read her prose, I get in bubbles of extended, far-stretching, plastic time, granted immunity by her work. Combined with striking sensitivity and sincerity, her mastery offers a transcendental experience, closer to the truth of the feeling she was so rigorously after.

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I did not pick up the phone. I already knew the “who” and the “why.” I knew, because an insider had told me. In this line of work you have to know people. Otherwise, you simply can't do it. So, the chief editor thought my translation wasn’t bad at all, no, but the style – the style was too – stiff. Yes, that's what she said, “too stiff” – like a dead body, if I may add – and it would need lots of editing to become what they wanted it to become. However, if I could change the style, perhaps have another try at the sample...

I could have done it. And perhaps I should have. Besides, this is what being professional is all about: Being able to adjust to the demands of the client. But the thing is, I'd rather starve. First of all, it was the book itself: Perhaps they would have wanted it to be more consumer-friendly, easier to digest – but the fact is that it wasn't. It was “stiffly” written in the first place, crammed with the unimportant details of any mediocre detective novel. So, what I was basically asked to do was rewrite the book in a different language. I wouldn't succumb to that. Oh, yes, I was too arrogant for this job. Probably for any job.

The problem was that I needed the damn money. I would starve. I wouldn't be able to afford my social security fees, nor my medication. So, I was a wreck, thinking about my zero options, knowing that I couldn't just swallow my pride and tell her “yeah, alright, I'll just mash the book like a potato for your toothless readers, no problem” or “yeah, you're right, I know my style is lousy, I'll improve” and just get the stupid job done. Ego makes you suffer – Freud had that intuition.

I was expecting her phone call and I was praying about the end of all civilization, but in the meantime I went to the bathroom. Now, there are a few things I must explain: Bathroom reading is not a habit I used to have. I had just acquired it recently, and for a good reason. During that time, I was working so much that I didn't have time to read. I'd been working with books, but I wasn't reading for pleasure, and this was something I honestly missed. I pretty much enjoy reading myself to sleep at night, but at that time I was too exhausted for such sports. Practically, the only time of the day I could squeeze in some pleasure reading was bathroom time. I used to enjoy some comic book or magazine in the bathrooms of friends, and I knew people – e.g. my grandpa – who always carried crosswords, or even the newspaper, with them in the bathroom. So, that was when and where I would do it.

I knew the Tropic of Cancer as one knows Withering Heights or The Grapes of Wrath. I knew it as a classic with a movie adaptation – the kind my mother enjoyed watching and always tried to get me to watch with her on TV in my dark, teenage years. So it had all the prerequisites that made it smell like boring. The title brought in mind some Marguerite-Duras type, post-colonial literature, and I was really not into Occidentalism, orientalism or any type of palm-tree fantasy. I was experiencing enough of the East already.

I had first come across the book a couple of years before, when a friend had insisted I read a paragraph from the first page that he was really fond of and that “talked to his soul,” as he put it. I quote:

Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.

My friend was clinically depressed, by the way. I hadn’t been impressed, back then, as I'm generally not easily impressed and, more importantly, as I was going through my optimistic phase. However, five years later, when the time came to choose a book for my bathroom reading and I saw the Tropic of Cancer on the bookshelf, I thought I could give it a try – that paragraph wasn't so bad after all. Besides, my friend had assured me that the story didn't take place in some desert, but in Paris.

Thus, I began reading the Tropic of Cancer in the bathroom. At first, there were moments that I was outraged and even thought of stopping reading it, tired by what I perceived to be aggressive and derogatory attitude towards women mixed with wannabe intellectual considerations. There even was a big picture of Henry Miller on the dust jacket flap, which made me think as I looked at it, “yeah, he's slime.” In short, I felt that the book was immature and even offensive, in a humanly and not a womanly way. However, I kept on reading – it was bathroom reading after all. And then it got me.

I soon realized the whole metaphor, the thing that Miller was describing, the clear eye which peered through the perfumes and laces with no aversion. He had managed to shake off all the fake morality that dresses and burdens the world, and there was a free man – and it actually takes a free man to truly love human nature, what if he uses the word “cunt” in every second sentence. The guy was spilling his guts out in that book. And it touched me. I connected, in a parallel universe type of story, where I myself had experienced the things he was describing, and he was guiding me through this hard life in a manner that no one, not even my parents – especially not my parents – had done. And no, I don't have the clap.

So, I was waiting for the editor’s phone call and went to the bathroom, looking forward to shutting the world outside and reading a page or two in a casual manner. I felt sad and frustrated and hopeless. But no: In truth, I felt “so goddamned sore and miserable, so dejected, so lousy.” That was a so much more fulfilling description of how I felt “after being whacked over the ass by that half-witted bastard,” so goddamned sore and miserable, so dejected, so lousy, “that I could have blown up the City Hall.” I was cheered instantly. It was the kind of soul-lifting that one experiences when they suddenly grasp that someone truly understands. It was enough. Many more sentences came afterwards to strengthen the point and the connection, but I had already made my decision. I did not pick up the phone. I‘d better starve. Henry Miller did it too.

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beyond good and evil

Thursday, 28 August 2014 22:18

Europe is either sinking into a new conservatism or it was sunken there all along and I think of it as new due to some misconception regarding the past. Anyhow, if the western world would like to progress in terms of thought, all school students should be taught Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” at the tender age of seventeen or so. It is crucial for our civilization to realize how the culture of blame and guilt has infiltrated into our lives. You see, Nietzsche – certainly susceptible to the personal flaws he blames others for, but perhaps exactly because of them – doesn’t beautify human nature. Or rather, he sees its beauty for what it is, through good and bad, beyond good and evil.

Certainly, there are perfectly good reasons to consciously choose and strive for the good, but isn’t it true that lying, cheating, deceiving, wanting and exerting power have all played their part in the, so called, advancement of the species? One should embrace human nature as a whole instead of detesting certain aspects of it and glorifying others. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try for the better or that we shouldn’t be conscious of our choices, our actions and their consequences. However, burdening ourselves or our society with guilt leads to denial and therefore far from the purpose of understanding who we are and why we act as we do, which in turn hinders advancement. The seasoning of our lives with hedonistic accusation and guilt is an immediate impact of the western culture as a whole being constructed on foundations laid by the church, whose pull is still strong.

In fact, the church’s sickening doctrine has developed into a Frankenstein’s monster of its own accord, and Christianity’s venomous sting is now reproduced randomly into society. This is why we are faced with the interesting phenomenon of backward ethics and pretense morality being present even in the minds of people who call themselves atheists or agnostics. Besides, isn’t it a luminous point that Nietzsche makes that man, after having sacrificed everything in the name of god, including his own nature, had nothing left to sacrifice but god himself? The new morality of our era reminds me of dark, perhaps imagined, medieval times, and getting rid of it is imperative for a truly free humanity.

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