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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Not a cynic, not a pessimist

Finished "Kennedy's Brain" last night. A passage in Chapter 19 spoke to me:

"Cynicism is a defence mechanism. Reality appears in a slightly milder light through the filter of cynicism. Otherwise it would be easy to lose one's grip and let everything sink to the bottom."

The man who said this is an archetype of cynic. He might have harbored hopes and expectations to do some good long ago, but in the face of dark and overwhelming reality he chose to become one of them, one of the money-grabbers, one who pay to f**k impoverished African women but had to be drunk enough to keep his own shame at bey while doing it.

Now I think I understand why Mankell said he is not a pessimist. Nor is he a cynic. This novel, although incredibly sad and dark and angry, is not a cynical, pessimistic book. All he wants to pursue and convey is the truth. It is to face the truths of the world, as dark and ugly as they are sometimes, without flinching, without the self-protective veneer of cynicism.

Paradoxically, cynicism protects people from the darkness because it is easier to dismiss the suffering and ugliness and greed and cruelty in the world as "oh well, everyone and everything is bad" and never have to think about it again or, like this character, plunge into the greed and cruelty oneself because, "heck, everyone is bad anyway."

Truth-seekers are different. They acknowledge both the bad and the good with the same unflinching courage. It is almost equally scary to frankly and unflinchingly face the kindness, generosity, and fraternity in people, because to do so is to allow one to care and risk losing them sometimes to evil forces, to human frailty, or to random destruction. It is easy to throw all hopes away and never form too much attachment. Without hope, at least one will never been disappointed.

It is like Maugham who said quietly and calmly, "There is no God. There is no afterlife. There is no meaning to life." It is to accept that there is no divine judgment and still holds a conscience.

In the end, it takes a strong person to look truths in the eye, to not be afraid of disappointment, to not be terrified of contradiction, to not fear the world's infinite shades of black, white, and gray. Both the bad and the good are far more extreme and intense and abundant in the world than most of us, our head and heart, can withstand. I am certainly not as strong as, for example, Mankell or Maugham, but at least I have learned not to brandish or admire cynicism as if it were clever or sophisticated or superior. Cynicism is a tin shack that the weak locks herself in to shield herself from life's truths.

13 comments:

CAVA said...

It must be incredibly difficult to be brave and look directly into faces of darkness, evil and hopelessness

Jun said...

I am not advocating for such courage -- one either has it or doesn't, and I don't. But at least I don't want to pretend that some people just deserve to be ruled and screwed by kind-hearted masters, so that I can sleep better at night. I'm not for revolution or violence or anything, but I know well enough that I am no part of the nice upper class and have no need to kiss their xxx.

li said...

我今天正好看到一篇讲迪拜的文章,中心思想是——迪拜是个奴隶制的地方。在文学城上看到这样的文章真是个surprise。

有兴趣直面人生的同学可以往以下链接一游,我觉得蛮好看的。
http://news.wenxuecity.com/messages/200905/news-gb2312-850495.html

Jun said...

这篇文章是从哪里翻译过来的么?有些地方给我一点似曾相识的感觉,好像看见过类似的叙述。

barb said...

Marlowe不就有点儿cynic的样子嘛。

虽然毛姆说了没God、没来生、生命无意义,他自己也给不出答案为啥要照这样儿而不是那样儿活。我对《月亮和六便士》最不满意的就是这一点,他技巧高超地描述了症状,也精辟地总结了root cause,但自己一点儿答案也没有——没有不要紧,大家都没有,但他一点尝试都没有,未免太smart了,所以到后来越写越乱乎(杂角出场后)。当然小说还是很好看的。

我们很容易认同“there is no divine judgment”,但是很难做到“still holds a conscience”——因为conscience不是一个绝对概念,它的前提是什么是非conscience。——有了是非,就不得不有一个大前提了——我想这是神学存在的基础,也是为什么那么多科学家有信仰的原因。

Jun said...

但是现在科学对这个“与人为善”也有了一定的解释。一方面当然是生存竞争,在有限的资源下尽量扩大自己的基因的生存机会;另一方面是人类非合作不可,在基因和先天结构上有大量的硬件促进合作。而这个合作的天性特别显现在 empathy 上面。所以不需要“天理”也可以解释,所谓好意和善良也是人类生存的必须成分之一。所有这些的东西,那么互相之间有一定的矛盾,也仍然有共存的现象,只不过多种因素之间的动态平衡在不同个体身上,在不同的环境之中,表现出来的程度不同。

今天刚看到一个基因学的population研究,发现尚武风俗的亚马逊部落流传后代的基因成分要比类似但不尚武的部落少。和平不是一个天马行空或者天定而违背人性的概念,和平跟战争一样都有一定的生存实用价值,但没有一个东西是绝对的,绝对好或者坏,绝对有用或者有害的。

Jun said...

绝大多数的科学家跟绝大多数的民众一样,不是搞进化论的,即使搞生物的人也未必有纵向历史感;即使知道一点皮毛也未必真正了解里面的 mechanism 。进化论是一个非常 elegant 的东西,看似简单通俗,里面象八卦一样变化无穷,而且随着新证据被发掘出来而不断修正和进化。

Jun said...

关于月亮和六便士呢,我也很久没复习了。我想主题其实跟毛姆的一贯理论差不多吧?人没有选择,每人的命运和结局都是必然。

barb said...

我还没看他别的书呢,除了一个短篇佛罗伦萨月光下,我打算再接再厉,看一看刀锋或人性的枷锁,不过对后者还没鼓足打开的勇气。

Jun said...

I strongly recommend Maugham's short stories. They are hilarious.

li said...

买不到中译本,气愤地说,对着图书馆的英文版本默默的流了一会眼泪。

Anonymous said...

上联:Kennedy's Brain
下联:Larry's Kidney
横批:Modern Medicine

我在等着读Larry's Kidney呢。

Jun said...

我也想看,等你写读后感吧。题目也太搞笑了,虽然中国读者看了可能会跳起来。Larry's Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant--and Save His Life.

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