Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The mismeasuring of Man – Thoughts on NY Prison team’s great run in debating.

The mismeasuring of Man – Thoughts on NY Prison team’s great run in debating.
By this time, it is common news that one of the finest debating teams in this country (Harvard Univ) lost to a bunch of inmates from the New York correctional facility, on a topic that is not merely controversial in present circumstances, but highly relevant and topical as well. Do we continue providing free education to illegal immigrants to the detriment of quality in public schools? The team from NY East side prison, students of highly esteemed Bard University, who have been running this Prison initiative for several years now with great success, argued in the affirmative. A position they were hardly be expected to take; but they did, and defended it with brilliant arguments presented with aplomb and conviction. This team is not a rookie any more. They have been tearing down opponents in last two years, notably their stunning defeat of teams from West point and University of Vernon in quick succession vindicates their caliber, intellectual poise and commitment to academic discipline.
Well, the point of my essay is different though. While there has been a lot of brouhaha over this victory on social media, news and television, I have a slightly different take on this. Not in the sense of belittling this tremendous achievement, but merely looking at this episode from another vantage point. Frankly, all this adulation is being heaped on the underdogs, not because they are truly “underdogs”, in the sense of the term as someone who has no proven talent, but only because they are from a correctional facility; and our popular ingrained prejudice or opinion that those who are in prison are not capable of intellectual cogitation or doing well academically. And I challenge this notion. For starters, historically, the concepts of incarcerating individuals in prisons for social crimes is relatively new in recorded history. Probably, it’s started around the 15th century, and not surprisingly one of the first known prison houses was established in Britain. That is not to say that there were no Jails before. They have been very much a part of civilization, but only for those who were grave threats to kingdoms, religious orders and personally offensive to reigning aristocracy. Common man paid for nominal crimes right there on the streets. Flogging, eviction from community, strict social injunctions preventing any form of social intercourse for a period of time, servility - these were the penances aka punishments for deviations from established rules and laws in any given society; and once administered they were free to join the world. There was no stigma attached to it. It was a collective act, and once all members were convinced that an offender has paid for his deviation; they held no malice in their hearts and gave the victim every opportunity to grow. The modern democratic age spawned by Renaissance, however changed the face of crime and punishments. The all-powerful state became the arbiter of Law and justice, and essential human element, which was a predominant factor in maintaining order in earlier times was replaced by abstract laws and injunctions that took their own course with utter disregard to nature of a crime or circumstances that gave rise to it. A prison, under these new circumstances, now became not a place only for proven offenders, but for anyone suspected of minor violation as well. All kinds of acts -economic, social, political, and racial - were now categorized under crimes, and correction facilities began swelling in numbers. Modern Governments spend billions of dollars maintaining and running these facilities. Last year alone US spent 37 Billion on prisons, hosting nearly 40% of total prisoners held worldwide. Drugs, terrorism, poverty, abuse – common causes of crime has pushed the system to a point of break down. The most important effect of this is on the prisoners themselves, once they come out of their sentences. The kind of socio-economic ethos we have created leaves them no opportunity to integrate with normal life. Nearly half of them return to prisons within three years on a similar of different offence; and those who fortunately don’t, find themselves ostracized and delegated to the lowest rungs of society where it would seem a better choice to return to prison than stay out of it.
In a highly opinionated and dehumanized society that we live in, it is easy for us to think that prisoners cannot be intellectually vibrant; if they were, why did they go to prison in the first place? Well, there could be multiple debatable answers to this question, and the only point I want to make is that it has nothing to do with their intellectual apparatus. Given the right circumstances, persistence and guidance – formal education is accessible to everybody. One of the raging debates of the twentieth century was the relationship between measured intelligence (IQ) and racial differences. Darwinian Theory had many repercussions, some tremendously important for Human progress and others quite the opposite; and one of it was the use to which it was put for nearly two hundred years to prove superiority of the white race. Enough literature abounds in science, fiction and literature that is testament enough to this unwarranted bias. In his most poignant and socially relevant work “The mismeasure of Man”, the legendary Evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould tore ripped apart the fallacious argument and interpretation of Intelligence in purely Darwinian terms. The book went on to win the Pulitzer. I request my readers to read that book for more details. The fact that all three members of the New York prison debating team come from a racially different background and have gone through the academic rigor with more than enough diligence and care only goes to prove my point. The Bard Initiative, probably one of the few functional educational programs for Corrections, still available in this country made sure that all its students are strictly evaluated and trained. The only way to get convicts adjusted and tuned to world outside is to get to start believing and respecting themselves, and that will not happen by treating them with sympathy. They must be made to realize that when they go out, they meet with highly stratified world ready to judge and deride, and they must pushed to their limits to achieve academic excellence like all others. And that has been the real success of Bard. The rate of crime amongst its graduates is almost nil. They don’t come back to prison like others do. But unfortunately, such programs are costly and governments don’t have the budget to spend on them. Bard initiative is supported entirely by private donors. To me, the achievement of this team is not so much about the irrefutable and novel arguments they presented during the debate; but the fact that they worked their way through system with great confidence in themselves. No mentoring, No Googling - but by sheer exercise of their tenacious commitment to carve a new life for themselves; they have broken a taboo. Modern states must realize that they cannot afford to fill up their correction facilities with recurring criminals; and education is the only way out. In a country like Sweden, Prisons are being closed down as crimes rates plummet because of re-integration programs designed to brings social deviant personalities into the fold; but In USA, there is a growing demand for Correction facilities. Their jails are filled with people, who should ideally be out there in the world trying to make a life. The penalty we pay for being a litigious society is that only a few can break through the stigma of being branded a criminal once. And Bard’s initiative is perhaps the best way of out this predicament. Divert and absorb energies into a positive channel of inner growth and responsivity. It is to that end this victory of the NY east side prisons debating team sets a new bench mark. What such debates bring to the table is an awareness of what needs to be done to purge society of unsolicited crime. Definitely, good competitive education is one way; and the other is social acceptance of rehabilitated convicts.
In the Gym today, one fellow member made a comment “Hey, you know what, I think the judges were moved by the effort and declared them winners; not so much for what they spoke...” Well, it may be true. But in an event like a debate, there is always a little subjectivity that creeps in. My point is: If we can accept judge’s vote in Miss World contest on its merit, then we give the judgement in this debate its due as well. It is an age old adage that Criminals are not born, they are molded by circumstances. Which means, it is within our grasp to change circumstances to allow offenders a chance to organically outgrow their violent tendencies. That is the promise of Democracy.
God Bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Friday, October 9, 2015

Iris Murdoch - an enigma, brilliant writer and existential thinker.

Iris Murdoch - an enigma, brilliant writer and existential thinker.
There are few authors in the twentieth century who could write with the precision of a Trollope, intensity of Dostoevsky, flair and peerless prose of Dickens, eye for detail as Proust, philosophic temper of a Camus and with an authoritative feminine voice of Austen - as Dame Jean Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), the grand lady of Literary fiction. She along with Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have remained on the top of my list of great female writers. I have read and reread all their books many times over; and like scripture, each time I read they bring forth a fresh interpretation, a delectable new angle to writing and a deep ever renewing undercurrent of social, moral and individual issues that any story about human predicament and its paradoxes should sustain and project. This essay and review is about the Iris Murdoch and her extraordinary literary and personal life.
Iris, an Irish by birth, grew up during a time of tremendous change. As a young girl the after effects of First World War were reshaping political and moral landscapes, and during her youth, the shadows of even more terrible moral catastrophe cast its darkness over civilized society. She was the only child of her parents, and the resulting loneliness and solitude gave her necessary space to develop that acute sense of introspection that was to become so typical in her work. Her education in Philosophy and literature, apart from preparing her to become a stylist and thinker, helped raise important questions as well. Themes such as the inner life of an individual versus the collective conscience of humanity; the irony of deception, falsehood and pretensions; the authority of the individual as exemplified in the writings of Satre, Camus, Simone veil and Kierkegaard – who insisted on integrity of “being” against becoming - affected Iris rather deeply. She also developed into a libertine in the true sense of the word. Her free life style, unabashed promiscuity and unrelenting frankness marked her as a woman who had broken away from traditional archetypes of Womanhood, and to stride boldly into areas of thinking and action that was predominantly a Men’s prerogative till then. She was a naturally gifted writer, and from 1954, when her first novel “under the net” was published to “Jacksons Dilemma” which was written under the debilitating grip of Alzheimer’s in 1996 – her works presents a persistent thread of inquiry into human condition and idiosyncrasies. Her exploration into free love, unconventional relationships and forbidden intimacies and social awkwardness opened up vistas of nuanced writing that only few writers like Flaubert, Nabokov or Lawrence were able to achieve.
It was in 1954, during her time in Oxford that she met the humble, stuttering and self-effacing literary critic named John Bayley. They made strange couple. While Iris was outspoken, diffident and fiercely candid about her freedom; Bailey was her antithesis – He believed in the sanctity of marriage, the inviolable privacy and commitment of sexual relationships and a more sober approach to life. He was however enamored by her wildness, and she tolerated him for his docility and accommodation. Oddly enough, they fell in love. Iris depended on Bayley for his unconditional acceptance of her, protecting and him against her more belligerent intellectual circle; but she continued her illicit relationships and sexual adventures right under his very nose; and all the Bailey could do was to cringe, hide and acknowledge the wild life style of his mercurial and gifted fiancée. There were no pretenses between them. Iris was open about her life style, and John was equally candid in letting it pass. He was the harbor that Iris could sail into, when she needed the emotional and intellectual freedom of not being judged or used. He was the steadying influence in a life style that drew her into wild directions. And in that atmosphere of trust and faith, the genius of Iris blossomed forth into rich prose and vivid exploration into human mind. We, as readers, are indebted to this relationship.
In all Iris wrote twenty six works of fiction, five plays, two collections of Poems and five full length books on Philosophy. Quite a prodigious output by any standards. Each one of them remains a study in literary art. Critics (Mainly Men) have been ambivalent about her work and thought, but that is understandable given the fact the many of them tend to mix her personal life style with her books. And that’s not always a right measure of literary criticism.
John Bayley and Iris Murdoch lived together as Husband and wife for over forty years, until she died of Alzheimer’s in 1999. In the late eighties, when Iris was visibly losing her mental edge and physical control, Bayley stood by her through all difficult times. For a relationship that never had a chance of blossoming in first place, this was indeed a testimony to what love can mean and endure. In 1999, shortly after Iris’s death, Bayley published two short memoirs titled “Elegy for Iris” and “Iris and friends”. Beautiful books! They were personal stories of Iris and her varied relationships, and not once can one spot an accusing, condescending or deriding note in Bayley’s voice. Such is the power of love, marriage and sanctity. Both these books became the subject of 2001 film featuring Kate winslet as young Iris and Judy Dench as the elder version suffering from Alzheimer’s. No two better actors could have been found to play Iris’s role. They bought to life the vivacity and joy followed by terrible pain and anguish of a writer losing her grip on her trade, and the silent, intense tears of a Man (played wonderfully by Jim Broadbent) who is unwilling to lose his faith in his gifted wife and watch her disintegrate psychologically in front of his eyes. It won Broadbent an academy award.
I was watching this movie on Netflix over last weekend, and that is when I decided to pen this short essay. I read “under the net”, about fifteen years ago, and ever since Iris’s books have been my constant companion when it comes to style, ease of narration and innovative use of language. Her strength (like Margaret Atwood) lies in her ability to write with startling clarity without laboring too much. For those of us, who wish to taste the sweetness, depth and richness of her prose, the beautiful confluence of style and matter - I would suggest “The Sea, The Sea”, 1978 book that got her a Booker prize, or the “Black Prince”. Both of them are masterpieces of her artistry.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Musings on a Saturday morning

Musings on a Saturday morning:
Many months ago I read an essay, a pretty lengthy one at that, which described rather emotionally the last day of ten different individuals before 9/11. How they got up in the morning, carried their daily chores, whom they spoke to and in some cases what they spoke about, the reminiscences of friends, relatives and family members who were perhaps the last ones they interacted with - so on and so forth. The tenor of that article, it seemed to me was to find some kind of meaning or premonition or cause during that penultimate day that could justify their brutal and calamitous death that followed. While it was a very well written piece of essay, but as I was reading it, I remember being stuck by a sudden strange uneasiness over the thought process behind it. It stuck me with full force that the author was attempting to rationalize and find some meaning or cause that could possibly explain what happened on 9/11. It is always a mystery to me that the Human mind simply cannot accept a happening as unpredidated, or without cause. Or in other words, our assumption is that any event negating or modifying our “known” world has to in some way be a continuation of what we already know. If the reason is not apparent just then, we try our best to prove it in hindsight. Whatever may be the case, we believe there must something in the past which must have led up to this event. How naïve or ignorant can we get? Even a casual study of Human history – political, scientific, social, and artistic - will yield some many events that landed upon us so suddenly “out of the blue” – so to speak, that later historians and social documentarians had to strive hard to find bits and pieces of evidence to tie them into a coherent stream of cause and effect.
Uncertainty and unpredictability is woven into the very fabric of our lives. And no matter how much we know (progress is all about knowing) there is never a guarantee that the next moment will not negate all that we know. There is an old Latin expression called “The black swan” – which meant precisely this predicament. For a long time, all swans that were spotted, observed, documented and studied were only white in color. Having not seen a Black swan, it was considered an impossibility that a Black swan even exists, until a Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh spotted one in Western Australia in the seventeenth century. And since then, sudden, improbable and unpredicted events began to be termed as Black swans. 9/11 was a typical example of Black swan. None believed that it could happen until it happened, and since then there have been a multiple theories and explanations on why it happened. This is very typical of Human thought- the act of rationalizing, after an event has occurred.
The principle that every event should have a cause is something that is deeply engrained in Human brain. Not surprising considering everything that we have ever been taught follows a pattern of “cause and effect”. And to be fair, nothing in our day to day living seem to be negating that assumption. For most part it is true at a one level, and based on its success at that stage we end up planning our lives with an aim to almost absolute uncertainty (even Insurance premiums in many cases is only considered a form of investment and not an act of insuring against unpredictability), and if one fine morning we get up to find things topsy turvy, we are perplexed and jolted out of comfort zones.
The other day, I was reading Shankara’s commentary of Bhagavad gita. Interestingly his interpretative commentary begins only from Verse 11 of Chapter 2, which is
Śrī-bhagavān uvāca:
aśocyān anvaśocas tvaḿ
prajñā-vādāḿś ca bhāṣase
gatāsūn agatāsūḿś ca
nānuśocanti paṇḍitāḥ
Roughly translated in the light of Shankara’s commentary - it reads thus:
“Thinking about things that cannot be thought about, you seem to expounding very knowledgeably with your limited assessment of reality. The wise man does not care about cause and effect, he sees them as limitations of Human understanding, and does what he needs to do at the moment and moves on”
Now, critics may argue on how there cannot be causation. After all the physical world as we know it is built on it. I aim a missile, and I know exactly where it should land. I flip a switch, and light burns; I water a plant, it grows. So where is the negation in all this? As I said in a earlier paragraph : cause and effect is operative only in a relative field of observation. It would be stupid not to acknowledge its infallibility in that sphere; but the problem arises when we extrapolate it to regions beyond our grasp. Our limited sense of “progress” on this tiny speck of a planet on the outermost reaches of a galaxy should not make us think that we are in control. Black swans are a way of humbling us.
The state of “Not Knowing” and the ability to accept it as a fact in life is the only liberating experience. Not that we shouldn’t strive to increase our understanding or try to know more. After all that is only truly human prerogative that we have, all the rest like eating, sleeping, sex, reproduction - we share with our fellow animal kingdom. What is needed though is a deep affirmation that our thought structure put together over millennia is but a tip of an iceberg, and there are many things that can surprise us anytime. Therefore, let us not act as though we shouldn’t be surprised.
The bibliophile and great writer Umberto eco (most of you will know “Name of the rose”) has a huge collection of books, around 30,000 volumes on diverse subjects at his home in Italy. One of the first questions any visitor asks him is this: “Have you really read these many books?” to which Eco’s invariable answer is “No, they are reminders on how much more there is to know”.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

"About Elly" - a sensitive and realistic exploration of Human psyche

"About Elly" - a sensitive and realistic exploration of Human psyche
There are two ways of looking at Art. It could either be an aspiration that reaches out to an ideal, or it could represent itself as close to reality as possible. In both cases, an audience undergoes a catharsis, a non-verbal tingle that courses through one’s body causing suspension of opinion and merging into the piece of art itself. All of us have had such moments: When one sees the Taj from a distance, or stand in awe of Michalengo’s tapestry at Sistine chapel, or puzzled by Picasso’s stark realism, or dissolve into Mozart sublime harmonics, or soar along with pure tonal notes of Lata Mangaeskar, or stand mesmerized in the magnificence of Ten commandments; or meditate over Akira Kurosowa’s philosophic ruminations on screen, or mingle with the sublimity of Shakespearean prose and wordsworthian poetry, or humbled by the majesty of Gibbon’s history or Durant’s narration - all these are examples of moments that transport Man to an higher state of intellectual and emotional living that makes Art what it is – an undefinable entity, yet so real and fulfilling..
As an avid student of Films, nothing gives me more pleasure than coming across, every now and then, a gem that defies all conventional rules and boundaries of movie making and the ability to sustain viewer’s unconditional interest for two hours. I don’t care what language the movie is made in, or whether I know the actors and artists involved. In fact, I prefer not to know anything before I see a movie, or read a book or listen to a piece of music. Unlike many who wouldn’t care to do anything without a positive review on the internet, I believe in reaching my own judgments on matters of art and literature. It was with this attitude that I sat down to watch “About Elly”, an Iranian movie on Netflix last Sunday. It was recently added to Netflix, and I knew Asghar Farhadi, the director by name. He had won an Academy award and a Golden globe in 2012 for his film “A separation”. Beyond this, this movie was a mystery to me.
The films opens with three families and a male friend (Ahmad), who has just returned from Germany after a messy divorce, driving out to a beach (on the Caspian Sea) for a weekend break. Sepideh, one of the married ladies in the group brings along a lady friend (Elly) with the idea of getting Ahmad interested in her. She is a teacher at the school in Tehran where her young boy studies, and seems a pleasant, good looking girl. The first forty five minutes of the movie is stark realism, with nothing more than fun, laughter, and innocent games within the group. There is a sense of superficial happiness and loose talk, innuendoes captured beautifully by Farhadi. The constant din of the Caspian Sea in the background, the chilly winds that waft through broken windows of the house create an atmosphere of warm coziness mingled with a foreboding sense of impending mishap. And very soon, tragedy follows. Elly disappears in an effort to save a child from drowning, and the natural conclusion reached by the group is that she has drowned in the turbulent waters of the sea( Whether this is true or not, the movie unravels as it rolls). At this point, the story takes a turn as new facts about Elly come to light. Nothing extraordinary, but ordinary revelations that would seem commonplace in the lives of almost anyone. Clash of emotions, opinions, judgments and an effort to make sense and reason of an unfortunate incident that nobody really masterminded, sends the movie into a vortex of debate over ethics, morality and justice. The end is shocking. Not in the sense of a Hitchcockian murder mystery, but shocking in terms of conclusion reached by the protagonists in the drama. Does murder need always to be a physical act, or is it enough that a momentary lapse of decency can be tantamount to murder? Possibly not in the tunneled eyes of law; but debatable if weighed in the moral scales of civilized Human beings.
“About Elly” is an intense drama. It is a movie that one cannot causally watch. Like reading a book of literary fiction written in a stream of consciousness style, every nuance, every gesture needs participation from the viewer, and very soon they find themselves in the thick of things. Shot in single location with disregard to exaggerated histrionics, Farhadi manages to bring in vivid sense of realism into this work. Would I want to classify this as an “Art” film? The answer would have to be No. The film definitely kicks off at a slow pace, but very quickly gathers inner momentum like a stream that becomes suddenly becomes turbulent as it reaches the end of its journey. And what is so striking and philosophically deep for me is the backdrop of the sea with its rough undulating waves constantly washing the shores; relentless in its onslaught; unmindful of the pitiful little human drama of innocuous social conventions being played out nearby – almost mocking the needless complexities of civilized Human life.
Middles eastern films are like French movies. They are artistic, and tend to explore Human psyche in all its dimensions, and like many other niceties they are for those who desire their entertainment to be sublime and at the same time aesthetically consummating. I wouldn’t recommend this anyone who wishes to sit in front of a television or a screen only to allow images flit by without any self-conscious participation. They would either get bored in the first ten minutes, or walk away watching the film without an iota of appreciation. After I finished watching, I read up on this movie; and I was overwhelmed by the kind of response true movie enthusiasts have given this work. Rightfully so, in an age when literary merit is fast becoming a rare commodity, such gems are to be nourished and nurtured. Roger Ebert - one of the finest critics in the business gives this a 4/4. I have never seen him rate many works as high as this. And in his review, Ebert quotes Farhadi vision of Film making, and I cannot agree with him more. He says
“…Rather than asserting a world vision, a film must open a space in which the public can involve themselves in a personal reflection, and evolve from consumers to independent thinkers.”
Independent thinkers - that is the key phrase. The modern world has made us into mechanical consumers from everything from a pen to a car to a spouse. We walk as robots dashing against one contrivance to another without pausing to independently think, decide and act on choices. We are, whether we like it or not, consumers of emotions for self-gratification; and when our sacred cocoon of happiness and decency is threatened we wouldn’t mind trading our entire value system for something that is antithetical to what we believed in before. And that is the inner space Farhadi explores in this fascinating drama.
Pls watch it, if movies mean anything at all beyond sensory titillation and mind numbing extravaganzas.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala