Friday, November 30, 2012

Escape. Such is dignity and grace.

Lin Huiyin devoted herself to the study of traditional Chinese architecture, as part of her generation's mission of social reform and renewal. She recognized “the necessity to winnow the past and discriminate among things foreign," while thinking with great care about "what to preserve and what to borrow.” It was a great loss that she died young, of tuberculosis in 1955; but perhaps there was some element of grace, for Lin was spared the nightmares that were to come. The horrors soon to engulf her husband Liang Sicheng, and their circle of friends and colleagues, would not have left her untouched.

Though her early death was tragic, some solace might be found in the idea that she was spared the descent into hell on earth: chaotic, tempestuous, murderous times, with punishments and executions levied for categorical faults, for free speech and thought crimes. Such was the country under Socialism, characterized by the onslaught of enormous political campaigns that consumed countless innocents.

We can weep for China, but I wonder if we should be glad that Huiyin escaped.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Modern Viennese Dance

For Thursday's Viennese Ball rehearsal, the choreographers declared, "All follows should wear white. And all the leads must wear a black-colored top." So the men of Opening obliged:

Here's how the choreographer reacted ...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Origin and Future

I've been reading a variety of articles about the leadership transition in China (the 18th Party Congress of the CCP is underway) and the positions of different leaders, including their support for liberalization/resistance to reform. In particular, this essay by Paul Monk, which makes some insightful historical allusions and references key Chinese intellectuals at the turn of the last century, provoked a reaction in me. I jotted these lines in response, as we await the ascendance of the new leadership:

A wellspring is memorial

Democrats hail from Thomas Jefferson,
the Republicans are the party of Lincoln.
You, leaders and adherents: whence came your Party?
Whose portrait hangs above your colonnades of gold and crimson?

Can you disavow the crimes of the past to begin anew?
Have courage! What pride is there in poisoned roots?
Or do you slink along with eyes firmly closed --
Set mute all tragedy! Dampen the truth!

Surrounded by memories in the streets assembling,
flooding the steps, the square is swelling.
With phantoms trailing in your wake,
pulse swiftly racing, you dash up the staircase 
-- and slam the door behind you.
Such is the portal to high office!

The ghosts do not disappear, but gather below
handfuls and hundreds outside your window.
Ones tens ten-thousands, deepen, upwell, 
the severals and scores become concerts and choruses.
It's an ocean of hope -- a broad, smooth sea
a wide river delta joined by many streams.

They lift misty eyes bright with
the iridescence of June morning, still shimmering from promises of May.
There once was spring ... 

They are not vengeful spirits, but martyred sons and daughters,
a stillborn dream, a dream still borne;
they will yet set you free!

They carry no hatchets in their sleeves,
they hide no garrotes in their pockets;
No sickles, no daggers,
no bullets or hammers;
only bright blossoms and streaming pens:
the poetry of lofted banners, the symphony of chained hands.

Take heart, for the streets do not run red.
They are filled with warbles of ev'ning song instead.
Beneath the gentle chatter, the shuffling gait of citizens on stroll,
the cobbles radiate the living patience -- the lifelong forbearance! -- of a gentle people.

Step down from such high places!
Open your heart to the melodies of day and night.
Prick your ears for a tune of utter freedom,
Hear our sacral song take flight.

for we will absolve you

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tagore, City and Village

Tanushree, this passage I read today made me think about the question you posed, and which we periodically discussed: "What does a prosperous village look like?"

Can we have people thriving in a modern agricultural context, able to cultivate the land and live in solid, comfortable homes? With access to economic opportunity, supportive family ties and healthy psychologies? Enough mobility, while feeling rooted, with a sense of place? That kind of stable, yet worldy and connected, community would be an important salve for the anomie of urbanized life. It provides an alternative approach to what we currently see as the model of "development."

From a book review:
"Tagore was drawn to the agrarian milieu of pre-capitalist India, to the villages where divinely ordained dispensation had a spiritual context. Urbanizing, modernizing India is fleeing from Tagore’s ideal, a circumstance Mishra has examined to beautiful effect in 'Butter Chicken in Ludhiana' (1995) and 'Temptations of the West' (2006), non-fiction books covering the contemporary Indian and Asian scene. Tagore’s radiant words enshrine a wisdom against which India’s geopolitical ascendancy can be measured."
So perhaps we can add to the list of the characteristics of a prosperous village a reverence for the natural world and a relationship to the divine.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fitzgerald, meet Huxley

"Can someone please invent soma?"

"I forget what that is. Isn't that from Brave New World?" his friend asked.

Oh soma ... "the warm, the richly coloured, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday." "she swallowed six half-gramme tablets of soma, lay down on her bed, and within ten minutes had embarked for lunar eternity. It would be eighteen hours at the least before she was in time again."

Telling my friend about soma, I thought of John at the end of "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" murmuring softly to Kismine: "Turn up your coat collar, little girl, the nights full of chill and you'll get pneumonia. His was a great sin who first invented consciousness. Let us lose it for a few hours."

John could have used the right prescription. Oh the benefits of somatake us away from here! More bright descriptions from Huxley of this luminous dot:
"Benito was notoriously good-natured. People said of him that he could have got through life without ever touching soma. The malice and bad tempers from which other people had to take holidays never afflicted him. Reality for Benito was always sunny. "

"'You look glum! What you need is a gramme of soma.'"

"The return to civilization was for her the return to soma, was the possibility of lying in bed and taking holiday after holiday, without ever having to come back to a headache or a fit of vomiting, without ever being made to feel as you always felt after peyotl, as though you'd done something so shamefully anti-social that you could never hold up your head again. Soma played none of these unpleasant tricks. The holiday it gave was perfect and, if the morning after was disagreeable, it was so, not intrinsically, but only by comparison with the joys of the holiday." 
"'All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.'"

"half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon..."
This particular quip, along with other descriptions of how taking soma ends thought, made me think it could be a bit like bottled meditation:
"Was and will make me ill,
I take a gram and only am."
Perhaps that's giving it a bit too much credit. Instead of self-awareness, and the moment ceasing thought, the effect of this drug could potentially just be un-inhibition, so no consideration of future or past is countenanced. I haven't taken any, so I'm unsure.
"'Every soma-holiday is a bit of what our ancestors used to call eternity.'"
In the end, let's just sing: "Hug me, honey, snuggly bunny; Love's as good as soma." Virtually, almost, nearly as good as soma. That love, it's something, ain't it!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

From Vienna: "the hymn of acxiom (1st draft demo)"

Vienna Teng released a track to encourage folks to vote on Election Day. If you cast a ballot (of any kind), she sent you the link for the following song:

What a haunting piece! I don't know if it's reassuring to be constantly understood, or if it verges on Orwellian. It feels like church music, except we're praying at the altar of Big Data -- a hymn to digital life. It also begs the question: if the receiver doesn't think or feel, even if it hears everything and says all the right things in response, are we truly understood?

The novel "The Quantum Thief" is a really great read that might strike a similar chord in readers. The story touches on the creation of new online worlds, private and public space, and the meaning of shared experience. Here's a glowing review of the book from the WSJ:

I was about to head out to practice with the folk band when I heard this song, and it really set the mood for my morning. Thanks, Vienna!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Civic Culture

Time to take part in our national ritual! In the United States, our civic religion is democracy, and our liturgy is voting. As we celebrate hard-fought, hard-won rights (from Revolution to Abolition, from Equality to Full Enfranchisement), we join hands in this political process to venerate freedom and sustain our civic culture.

Long life to the Republic! Remember that it is strengthened by our participation and aided by our commitment to democratic principles.

See this moving series of photos from The Atlantic Wire: "The Length Americans Are Going to Cast Ballots."

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Wash it white

This line from an article in The New York Times on Asian Americans and affirmative action kind of pisses me off:
"More important, some argue, Asian-Americans themselves benefit from the campus diversity the system produces. Schools where admission is purely through a test, like the elite public New York City high school Stuyvesant, often have large percentages of Asian-Americans. The University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles are more than half Asian. That doesn’t help them integrate effectively, to pierce what some call the bamboo ceiling in the corporate and political worlds."
So we should "integrate effectively" by acting white? The problem of discrimination originates with the person who discriminates, not with the victim.

While I support diversity, and believe it is vital to respect and learn about the experiences of other cultural groups, this backward line of reasoning appears to delegitimate the heavily "Asian American" experience of students at UCB and UCLA. Somehow, they're "too Asian", and that's why they can't break through the bamboo ceiling? Maybe the bamboo ceiling is the problem, and the AsianAm culture extant at Berkeley is actually a legitimate form of being.

There may be features of the culture at those institutions that can be adjusted -- we can always talk about that -- but just because they don't mimic the dominant forms of the mainstream doesn't make them wrong.

Look, I get that there are advantages in learning to "play nice" and interact with people of different races. That's all well and good. But you shouldn't have to pretend to be something you are not in order to get ahead. That's like telling Tibetan minorities in China, "You should learn Mandarin and stop acting so Tibetan. That way you can reap the benefits of China's economic growth." That may be a personally strategic course of action, but you shouldn't have to do that just to live a decent life or be treated with dignity. Otherwise, you deny the validity of the minority community's way of life.

Just my off the cuff reaction.