Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Bohemianism

I recently moved house, to an apartment with high ceilings and teak floors, with a patio leading down, through a curtain of potted palms, to an antique swimming pool, where, on sunny Sunday afternoons, sirenic French and Japanese women lie out on wooden deck chairs.

I know. C'est très décadent, n'est-ce pas?

But, not long after, the anxieties took over. I can hang out poolside, but I'm possessed by the sort of self-loathing that define the American relationship to our own bodies, and, what's worse, the immense phobia, that, stubbly and hairy, half-concealed by the palm fronds, that I'm perceived as a creep and a weirdo, the lone masturbator in the bushes.

And the pool-- a tropical pool set in a garden, as perfect a symbol of idyllic living as one can imagine!-- is mainly a source of exercise for me. It's not for playing in, now is it? It is for a dutiful 20 laps after a day's work.

Or I sit out as the sun dips below the Indian Ocean, my feet washed in the froth of the sea, a cold gin and tonic in my hand, and think “well, that was fun, I'll feel so much better when I go in on Monday.”

An uneasy relationship to the flesh and a suspicion of indolence. Two of the strongest marks of the frigid Northern culture of the land I come from. The term “Protestant work ethic” has been much-abused and overapplied and overanalyzed and mangled since Max Weber first unleashed it on us over 100 years ago.

This isn't to say that I had some kind of horrible Calvinist-Oedipal childhood marked by austere diets and grim penitence in a rough-hewn prairie church. And yet the attitude that marked the Midwestern spirit was always that labor is the essence of being.

Now, I'm glad that I developed a work ethic early-- I hated and resisted my chores, as all children do-- but it's a work ethic is something I've learned is a great strength, and something I've very consciously tried to cultivate. And married to a political leftism, it becomes a remarkably virtuous worldview, fostering a militant egalitarianism, a deep respect for workers, and a suspicion of the showiness and flash of the capitalist class.

As I've gotten older, I have-- like countless other arty Yanks-- consciously sought out cultures that do it differently. The sensuousness and emotion and otherworldliness that mark the American images of Asia and Latin America and the Mediterranean draw me in. In college I fell in love, in turn with Fellini, Rushdie, Mishima, Almodóvar. I read Italo Calvino on a stairwell on a sunny June evening in Montmartre. I got blessed by an old woman in a Cambodian temple ruin. I smoked a lot of weed on a lot of beaches.

But, try as I might to escape from the lens of work, I viewed all of these through the lens of productivity. Introspection and adventure and culture were means of self-improvement, and I didn't necessarily opt to take these experiences out of sheer delight and wonder. And furthermore, as someone who had a comfortably middle class two-Toyotas-and-a-mortgage American upbringing, I felt that I had a responsibility to experience things because so many people lacked the socioeconomic freedom to do so.

It's an odd variation on the Protestant work ethic. Traditionally-- and, as seems borne out on my Facebook news feed, seems to be the case for a lot of folks today-- I should have gotten the career-track job, had the kids, gotten the Toyota and the mortgage, things I absolutely ran screaming from. But in my ostensibly bohemian sort of life, I've found a similar one-directionality both in myself and in my peers, and oftentimes a conformity as rigid and unforgiving as that of a salaried manager in a Richard Yates story.

Because no matter how hard we try, our early conceptions of things will eternally nag us. It's often said that we can't escape our roots. What's not often said is that we never know when they will remind us of that fact.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Celebrity Suicide

The Internet announced it was in mourning. It was in mourning for a comedian and actor whose work I honestly didn't appreciate for a long time, until I recently, within the past couple weeks, really, discovered his early stand-up career, before he became associated with a long string of what I always considered to be dreadfully sentimental films.

And I have to wonder why and how the hive mind mourns. It has always bothered me how people's lives become metaphor, and in the case of a suicide, the suicide becomes the central metaphor. If the person has enjoyed some level of fame, the media coverage of their death turns a complex and remote experience into something “personal” and “sincere” for the general public, a tidy little pill we can swallow. Take two after dinner to feel pathos.

In this case the central metaphor of his personality-- in public, that of the clown, privately maybe not so much, as intimated in the now-famous Marc Maron interview-- is hijacked and transformed into a Pagliaccio figure, the clown carrying inner pain, which, of all tropes in the media, is one of the laziest and most played out.

The notion of comedians as being funny on stage, but also depressed, addicted, or just generally fucked up should be a notion we're used to by now, 40 plus years after Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce made their mark. And it becomes too easy to construe comedians as inherently fucked up, or conversely, to view damage and darkness as a natural and necessary conduit for humor. This is a variation of the old conflation of personal disaster and creative genius, the fetish of countless teenage boys (self included) and a plotline that has somehow retained its mystique since Goethe and Keats introduced it.

Other sectors of the Internet mourning community have taken the opportunity to claim that depression is a disease like any other. Now, there is a certain truth to it (yes, it fits our definition of a disease) and a pragmatism to it (it's good to demystify mental illness, and to treat it as something that can be handled clinically). But it becomes too easy to medicalize our problems, to reduce thorny and difficult problems to something easily treatable with pharmaceuticals, which in empirical practice seems to only be sometimes useful, but is deeply in line with the American desire for quick fixes. And yet this line of thought, which should be more productive and more empirical, winds up leading to another form of mystification in the public consciousness. We take something difficult, and relegate it to the realm of expert knowledge, beyond comprehension. Which is perhaps, why, in eternally unsmiling and practically minded Hong Kong, the falling suicide of megastar Leslie Cheung was reported as “due to chemical imbalance.”

We don't want to confront the fact that at the end of the day, we are merely speculating, merely projecting fears and worldviews onto the unknowable and scary when it is suddenly thrust into the public spotlight. Instead of asking deep, serious questions, we impose our narrative on the material event, and damn the places where they don't synchronize.

I know that by writing about it, I am imposing my own narrative, taking this sort of cagey, oblique, postmodernist approach, out of my morbid curiosity about everyone else's morbid curiosity.

Which, like so many meta-approaches, leaves me with a sense of cold disconnectedness, of being trapped in an infinite mirror maze of language and sign and discourse. And I'll leave it there. I could extrapolate that to what the point of writing is at all, to what the world is, but I know well enough to leave those issues alone. I simply arrive at this point in said mirror maze. I feel like I'm somewhere important, but everyone probably does.

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Corpse

An industry of sorts has grown up around the memory of David Foster Wallace. There are the books of interviews, of B-side essays, the (rather dull) biography, the (repugnant and cloying) blank-page art book version of his Kenyon College commencement speech, the hundreds of thousands of views of his Youtube interviews, the accompanying comment threads.

Of course, I'm guilty of having consumed a great deal of it. As for so many of my generation, he has become transfigured as Saint David of Illinois, the secular beacon for the mopey and literary, someone we can project our angst and desire for sincerity onto, a figure-- as with all secular saints-- we can use to embody our perceptions of certain elements of ourselves.

However, he is by no means alone. All of us, anyone who makes some kind of impact on the world through having children, through art, etc., has to face the reality that, ultimately, other people will invest our death and a full-scope view of our life as a metaphor, and for all intents and purposes, use our corpses as puppets for their own egos.

A nightmare: from above, I see an open-casket funeral. I cannot see a face on the body, but I'm certain that it's me, embalmed and half-transformed into plastic, my body cavity stuffed with cotton, fluids replaced with formaldehyde and methanol, a doll version of myself. Some people look sad, most look bored. People who brought their kids who'd rather be at home playing Xbox.

Of course, there are also the more modern traditions. The modern funeral is supposed to be about life and the all-pervasive word “dignity,” not about death per se, I'm told, which strikes me as truly gruesome. In logical extension of the Protestant work ethic, my countrymen have turned catharsis into productivity.

The violation of one's own body and memory are, for oneself, completely hypothetical circumstances. By definition, you will never consciously experience either. And yet they produce this deep-seated primal nausea, something ancient and atavistic.

Much is made of the human desire for immortality, and this feeling seems to be a sort of variation on that. The notion of immortality, exclusively through the terms of others, seems like a long-term postmortem slavery. So we try, in life, to align how we will be remembered with the value systems we hold dear, whether that's through religious ritual, organ donation, or leaving one's assets to beloved children or worthy charities or what have you.

But why should I expect anything more from death than I have in life? It's not like I live my life on my terms and mine alone, or that anyone does. If none of us have a monopoly on how we are perceived in our lives-- try as we might-- why can we expect the same in death?

Alternatively, we can take the opposite route, to try to be forgotten-- common courtesy in certain Amazonian societies which forbid even saying the names of the dead, but harder in the contemporary Western world. A less extreme example is found in the funeral practice of Mongolian lamas, who, in a final act of compassion, have their corpses dragged to mountaintops to feed the birds of the steppe.

All of this being said, death is by its very nature an abstraction, something we can come close to, but never touch until the absolute moment. Try as we might, we can never control it-- even suicides rarely go as planned. And the people who have the healthiest relationships to death probably recognize this, whether consciously or not, and accept its abstract nature.

And so my line of analysis leaves me back where I started, with a void. Which, in turn, is all I can ask for. An emptiness that I have to learn to be comfortable with.

Monday, July 14, 2014


There has been barely a day in the past few months that I haven't, for some brief moment, thought of the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's foray into nonfiction, In Praise of Shadows, a 50-page meditation on aesthetics written in Japan's dark days of the early 1930s, as the nation stood on the verge of political and economic collapse. It haunts me especially in the early evening, as I walk home to my empty apartment and I can see the fading light of the sun through my grimy window, the tired, red sun of East Asia that bears so little in common with the sun I grew up with, regardless of whether it's the same star.

If I was to reduce Tanizaki's essay, I would say it is an ode to a traditional aesthetic system full of darkness and shade, and against the neon-ization of the country already well underfoot by then. But to say that is to suggest that it's a coherent and ascertainable aesthetic system. Rather, it's everything that Tanizaki conceived of as associated with shadows and candlelight, from gold-flecked cups in the half-light to old styles of sushi made with persimmon leaves to the blackened teeth of Meiji concubines to his own skin tone.

And while there's nothing to pinpoint-- cultures always change, old nations die as new nations are born, traditions are little more than ideological expressions-- I can see how his analogies hang together, difficult to perceive but not impossible, like a massive spiderweb in the dark. His perceptions come to the surface as I lie in bed in the summer heat, with the air conditioning off, a thin layer of sweat on my brow, as I press the fruit as I'm making a thick liqueur from ripe lychees, as indirect sun hits my writing paper, as I make a pot of black tea, thick and dark, the leaves blended with smoked camphor.

Two or three weeks ago, my power went out at about 9:00, and I lit a couple of candles. Reflected in my bedroom mirror, they produced much more light than I would have expected, and yet it was of a totally different character. The veneer on my wooden bedframe. The green bottle on my desk. It extended beyond light into all senses. The air took on a new warmth and velvety thickness, and my apartment was as still and silent as the first snowfall of the winter.

And it occurred to me that the same sensibility Tanizaki described was equally present in Flemish still lives. Never mind that the symbolism was different-- Calvinism instead of Shinto, splayed rabbits and peeled lemons instead of tea bowls and sakuras. It is the interplay of light and dark that is the same, the same focus on the odd little artifacts.

 The unnameable aesthetic forces that dance around the edges of our consciousness are by no means spiritual or universal, as a Jung would have it, but the effect of countless images, compositions, natural patterns. What I see and feel in the writings of Junichiro Tanizaki, in these paintings of the breakfast tables of long-dead Dutchmen, in the taste of the camphorous tea, is the residue of old perceptions.

It's like this. You come to an unfamiliar place, and you don't know why, but it reminds you of someplace else, someplace familiar. What is it that ties you back to your reference point? Is it the way the leaves shine silvery in the afternoon light? The leap of a cat from a roof onto a garbage heap?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

I recently reread Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, a meditation on an archaeological site published by the sadly rarely read, but always revered Thomas Browne in 1658. I don't reread books often-- there seem to be too many things I haven't read once to get around to reading something twice-- but it's quite short, and things were slow. The clouds were gathering over the city, in more ways than one, and it seemed the perfect time to read something dark and quiet and half-remembered.

I can remember so distinctly when I first read Thomas Browne, when I was staying for a week at a couple of friends' apartment on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. And I can remember the way the light cast down on the paper, the Italic headings in an old 19th Century copy of Browne's complete works from the library. The recurring mental image was of two men, with pointed beards and black cloaks, on a chilly autumn morning, with ravens in naked trees on the flat plains of Norfolk, standing before an open pit in the black earth, a broken ceramic jar at the bottom lying in a pool of stagnant water, maybe a workman with a rough country accent digging through the sandy soil. Browne-- or at least the face engraved on the frontispiece-- staring up at a gray English sky, watching the birds fly upwards. His melancholy, his facing the tombs of dead pagans, immediately confronting his faith in the Protestant God and the emerging scientific practice that marked the dawning Age of Reason, which he believed to be symbolized in the eternal quincunx, the latticed form that he believed marked the soul of all things.

It was about a year after that cold day in Seattle that I stood in a field on the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, with the first burial urns I recognized as such, or rather things generally figured by the archaeologists to be burial urns-- the local people believed them to be where the gods and giants kept their lao khao, the harsh, grainy rice wine of Laos and Thailand, which I'd drank that morning, scalding hot from a still.

Did I think of my image of Thomas Browne in his field on that day? Or was the sunlight, the clang of cowbells on high mountain meadows, the high spirits of a holiday, even in a necropolis, strong enough to dissuade me?

And when I think, now, of Thomas Browne, I am not thinking of him amid ancient ruins. My thoughts wander in that direction on days when the sunset seems sickly, when there's a sourness in the pit of my stomach, when my apartment seems a sepulcher.

And was that image based on anything? For all I know, Browne could have visited his urns on a bright summer day, with skylarks instead of ravens and trees full of flowers. My image of Thomas Browne is more informed by his followers-- the morose wanderer W.G. Sebald, the blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, the sensitive suicide Virginia Woolf. And on the whole, images of death, such as this, are probably more at home in Hollywood than in our lives.

I did feel a distinct sense of death in the jars, as I walked delicately along the margins of rice paddies. This area, a plateau in the Lao highlands was made briefly infamous by Lyndon Johnson's clandestine use of the local Hmong people as a proxy army as part of America's decade-long folly in Southeast Asia. The burial urns now share space with minefields and caved-in Pathet Lao trenches. Missile casings are turned into fenceposts, hotels keep rusty Kalashnikovs as souvenirs. The death I felt there was not cosmic, but immediate, the very real possibility that I would meet a sudden, violent end if I strayed from the marked path.

Which tells me how separate death is from its avatars. We dress up death in images, turn it into mossy churchyards and widows in black crepe. Death is irrational, unbounded by human metaphor. It is the full catheter and labored breathing of a much-loved relative in a chilly hospital room, the idiotic expression of a corpse by a roadside, half-seen through a car window.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An Overheard Conversation

When you live in Asia and suddenly hear people speaking English, it's odd, but it's not really possible to do anything other than listen in. It doesn't matter how interesting or obnoxious or even boring the conversation is. It's a bit like when you go to the doctor's office, and there's an old man with a weeping sore on his leg.

Two women have sat down at the table next to me, two nice enough seeming middle-aged Australian women who drink vodka tonics and smoke narrow cigarettes, and their conversation drowns out everything else.

You don't overhear people showing the best of themselves. They're not on a date or a job interview. They're two old friends, with all the banal shit that implies. They're talking about the lovely hotel they stayed at in Krabi, the impossibility of finding decent boyfriends as middle-aged women in Southeast Asia. And they're using the same phrases again and again, and laughing at their own jokes. And this banality, and the fact that it's been thrust into my earshot, breeds a sudden contempt. Who are these people? And why did they have to sit next to me? Which is completely irrational, never mind the ethics of it, or what it says about my relationship to the human species, or the level of comfort I have with my own place in the world.

Especially since part of the reason I sat at this sidewalk cafe was because it was on a busy corner, and I've always loved sitting there with my notepad, writing asides, making pencil sketches of fans and streetlights, watching the processions of every walk of life, locals and tourists, parents walking their children home from school, elderly street vendors, framed in a lovely sunset.

And I sit back, make their stories up, where they sleep, what they had for lunch that day, the way they look into their bathroom mirrors, the last thing they said to their dead grandparents. The Eurasian guy about my age with the goatee who looks a little like David Duchovny. The transsexual who works behind a makeup counter in a department store in a provincial town. The two blind women who help each other through invisible streets.

In other words, I liked being around other people, but only people in the abstract. People as fixed as butterflies in museum cases. And so I project my own feelings and narratives onto their lives. Which is probably why I rarely write anything nonfictional about people, because it seems impossible to actually realize their stories, to narrow their subjective experience into 1000 words.

Yet the unknowing is something that we rarely admit to ourselves. We go beyond the most superficial interactions, and find how little we understand anything at all about that person we've worked next to for over a year.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Banality of Coups

Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking... Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer” -Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, the 22nd of May 2014 was looking to be another uneventful day. Martial law had been declared a couple of days earlier, but the effects had been minimal. A few military vehicles on the expressways, a few bored-looking soldiers, by and large 18 and 19 year old farm kids with guns and cheap cigarettes, milling around strategic points.

I got home, reheated some Indian food, turned on my computer, and discovered that the government of Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, having been in power for a mere 15 days (and whom my 500 baht says most Westerners in Bangkok never even bothered to learn the name of), had been deposed by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a man who always reminds me on television of Imelda Marcos with a combover.

Media are seized. A military curfew is called in. Government and opposition ministers are called in, rather like a high school principal trying to ferret out who spraypainted a penis on the wall of the gym.

The Bangkok Post and Nation websites fall eerily silent. Banner ads move back and forth noiselessly, advertising luxury watches and condos in dull, suburban neighborhoods.

A few anti-coup editorials appear. Commenting is briefly disabled (no tragedy there, the Post's comment threads are the lowliest form of expat bottom-feeding). The head of Thai PBS, when ordered to stop broadcasting, moved over to Youtube, before being called in for a talking to as well.

The television broadcasts military music. The beautifully Orwellian phrase “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council” appears on the screen. The song they're playing sounds like the Horst Wessel Lied as sang by the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp.

This is all, of course, to “prevent misinformation.” And so the people of Thailand can “love each other again.” Love and honesty, are of course, best assisted by keeping people in their homes, in the dark, with opaque processes happening behind locked doors with multiple security gateways.

Matichon, it turns out, had a man in on the talks leading up to the takeover. Niwatthamrong, it turns out, refused to resign. So General Prayuth decided that power needed to be seized. Much like a child who won't hand over his milk money to the playground bully peacefully, so he gets punched in the gut.

Notice the second comparison to schoolyard behavior in less than 400 words. That should tell you something about the intellectual and ethical standards of the halls of power in Thailand at the present juncture.

On Sunday, the ruling junta released a statement to be submitted to foreign embassies and international organizations, listing its three reasons for its coup. I present them all in their delightfully oblique, unedited, really shit English below. You'd think they could at least afford a copy editor.

  1. Thailand has different situation and political environment to other countries.
  2. The military has clear evidences and reasons to seize power. The evidences and reasons will later be shown to the international community.
  3. Democratic ruling in Thailand has caused a lot of lives.

Did you see any argument there, or anything approaching reason? I'm especially fond of number 2. We have clear evidence, but we're not telling you. But we'll tell you later. Pinky swear!

Back in 1961, when covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann-- a man with a knack for bowling and vacuum cleaner sales, among other things-- for the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt deployed the wonderful German word sprachregelung. An affliction in Germany during the nation's dalliances with Bismarck, Hitler, and Honecker, this is the reliance on euphemism and talking points to cover up the truth of the situation.

Monday arrives. I can't get home. Every metro stop between Ratchathewi and Aree is shut down. “Overcrowding,” the announcer says in English. “Maintenance,” the sign says in Thai. The reality of it is a vista of riot shields and sirens below in the vicinity of the Victory Monument.

They called in journalists from the Bangkok Post and Thai Rath to stop asking “aggressive questions” and asking why they weren't showing unqualified support. The more of a rhetorical wall they build, the more insecure at heart the generals seem.

To use a phrase from Arendt again, the critical word in describing the whole coup process is banality. The banality of military officers who rely on nationalist blunderbuss. The banality of a city turning inside at 9:00 p.m. The banality of a governmental organization that shields criticism with vague notions of love and unity, as if it's writing Christmas cards. The banality of a desire to return to a previous, idealized Thailand that never existed outside a television screen. And it's a banality engendered by men whose professional lives revolve around obedience, authority, and hollow ritual. Without evidence, without program, politics becomes a simpering sentimentality made all the more repulsive by its degraded claims to masculinity.

And to that end, it is my "sad duty," as Borges would have it, to raise my middle finger.