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Friday, January 30, 2015

Consequences and Mahabharata (4)

The ending of Mahabharata is very interesting. After the war at Kurukshetra, millions were killed, including most of the Kuru Dynasty's royal family. The five Pandava brothers and their wives, who all along were described as representing the good side who had defeated the evil side, were left to pick up the pieces and rebuild their nation. Some years later, they left the throne to a son (grandson?) and went on to the Himalayas. One by one they died on the road, leaving only the oldest brother Yudhishtira, who represented righteousness, and his dog (it's a long story). Yudhishtira went to heaven and was shocked to find his cousins there who were on the side of evil and had been slain by the Pandavas. He demanded to see his brothers and was led to hell where his brothers were being punished. Yudhishtira asked angrily, Who decided this? Why are they punished? I want to say here with them.

Note: I'm going with Peter Brook's stage adaptation of Mahabharata, as I have not read the ending of the book to get all the details.

So the meaning of this ending is curious. One's instinct is that this is contradictory. If the Pandavas were the good guys, surely they would have gone to heaven, no? And one would think so because this is how it works in our collective consciousness --- If you do good in life, you will go to heaven. Or, more precisely, do good in life because you want to go to heaven after you die. Therefore, heaven is the cause and good deeds is the effect. Here we can see how cause and effect are flipped temporally. The cause/motive is the future, and the effect/action is the present (or past). Our current behaviors and choices at least appear to be driven by the promise of an afterlife in heaven. Obviously.

Yet this paradigm does not work in Mahabharata. If the Pandavas had known that they would go to hell, would they have chosen the good side and wage war against their cousins? Yet Krishna, who was an avatar of the god Vishnu, clearly and firmly goaded them on. This was the course that had to take place. The way of righteousness must be paved by this war and the death of their evil cousins. Is this a trap? Or, worse, a joke played by the gods on humans? To do this thing is good and necessary, but it will send you to hell. This is obviously contradictory, isn't it?

Then I discovered that the contradiction stems from my assumptions steeped in the Christian culture. Heaven and hell have a different meaning in Hinduism. They are temporary. People are sent to heaven and hell after death to pay for the debts (or spend the surplus, I guess) they incur in life, such as killings any kind of lives. Once your debts are paid, you are released from heaven or hell and go into the next incarnation cycle. The process is not entirely free of moral judgment, but the judgment is far less stringent or definite than Christian judgment because of its lack of permanence. In other words, being sent to hell isn't a permanent conviction of guilt on the Pandavas' choice to wage war against their cousins. Being born as a kshatriya (warrior caste) dictates one's duty to fight and kill in life, but anyone who kills has to pay the debt eventually. Seems like a pretty hopeless trap, but it is somehow more forgiving than the Christian system because it is not permanent or fundamentally damning on a person's identity and worth.

So, regardless of whether one does good or evil, one still has to face the consequences of their actions, which are not always fair or logical. Killing for good does not spare one from the consequences. Future consequences cannot be controlled or calculated by individual choices at present. This seems fundamentally different between Hinduism and the logic I am familiar with.

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I first started thinking about this issue while reading ASOIAF. Some readers argued that Ned Stark is a bad guy because he is a key piece in the chain of events leading to the War of Five Kings, or that Catelyn Stark is a bad woman because she affects a couple of links (kidnapping Tyrion in Book 1 and releasing Jaime Lannister in Book 2) in the events. (ASOIAF is a pretty good proximation for history, at which I am no good.) Yet I find this line of reasoning disturbing, because none of the characters, not even Joffrey, had the benefit of hindsight like readers do. To what extent can one blame a person for future occurrences that are (in part) caused by his past choices, if the consequences are not foreseeable?

One of the similarities between ASOIAF and Mahabharata is the complex Web of causes and effects. Minor events (or oaths, curses, and prophecies) become catalysts or triggers of snowballed crises and disasters in the future. Assigning blame and moral judgment on characters become exceedingly difficult as shit hits the fan and body counts rise ... But isn't that exactly the problem we face when we look at history and try to pass judgment of various characters involved? We have the benefit of hindsight, but they did not. What if the United States split after the Civil War? Would we be judging Lincoln differently? Is the problem his or ours?

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Of course, all this is not just about moral judgment of historical or fictional people, but rather about regret --- regret over past actions and choices, and fear of regret for present choices and future consequences.

Again, we are back to the advice from Bhagavad Gita: Go forth and do your duty. Detach from the outcome.  In some ways, Krishna has something very Albert Ellis about him (or maybe it's the other way around).

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Most Violent Year


Of all the classics that may have influenced JC Chandor in his restrained and (intentionally) unglamorous "A Most Violent Year," the one I care the most about is "The Godfather 2." At its heart, AMVY is a story about immigrants and their American Dream. The lead character Abel Morales (yes, both parts of the name are symbolic), played by Oscar Isaac who is half Guatemalan and half Cuban, represents all those first-generation immigrants who seek their fortune on the New World.

It is marvelous that Chandor chose a more obscure period and subject than the Gold Rush or cross-continental railway. This is reminiscent of "Chinatown," which was about water supply to Los Angeles.

I have very superficially talked with some friends about being an immigrant and the feeling of in-between. On the one hand I am trying to accept this identity for myself and all the baggage that comes with it. On the other hand, I really don't want to oversell this line. Maybe the immigrant identity is just a convenient vessel to hold the sense of being an outsider. Nothing new, nothing particular, nothing unique.

It only recently occurred to me that living between two established societies gives one a kind of freedom to build one's own framework of living. It is easier to discard social and cultural traditions and expectations from either side if you don't like it. One is left with a lot less space for certainty and a lot more for exploration. This space is also suggested in AMVY.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cause and Effect, and Consequences (3)

I continue to grapple with this advice from Bhavagad Gita. It seems completely unnatural to act without regards to the outcome. "Victory and defeat are the same." I have to keep reminding myself this line because it goes against everything we take for granted, yet there is something in the claim that pulls one out of the span of the next day, week and year and forces one to look down at the length of a life or a millennium. In the end everyone dies. If that is true, how can we argue with the statement that, at least on some level, victory and defeat are the same?

On the other hand, consequences are the main way we learn to interact with this world. If you touch fire, you get burned and learn to avoid it the next time. It is the consequence of pain that dictates your choices. This is how we infer cause and effect and subsequently avoid everything that is painful or unpleasant. This may also be why we become more fearful and set in our ways in mid-life. If I do this thing, bad things may result, and I should therefore refrain from action to be safe. And so it goes.

And this learning goes beyond our own experience. We watch the consequences of others' choices and distill lessons into rules of conduct for ourselves. This is how social norms and laws are formed. Do not kill another human, or you will be punished with your own death. Do not steal from another, or you will get your hands cut off. Do help your neighbors, so that you will be awarded with their help when you are in need. How else do we influence people's behaviors if not through the threat or promise of consequences? Aren't we ALL trained by reward and punishment?

Yet now you are telling me to forget about consequences, to go forth and do what I need to do without concerns for outcome, because victory and defeat ARE THE SAME.

Deep down I know there is something valuable in this advice that could cure mid-life malaise and fear-induced paralysis. But it does not come easily. Once I let go of the rules of conduct built upon decades of the reward-and-punishment system, what do I have left? I would have to make decisions and behave according to, uh, not dharma (whatever it means), but rather the motivations and desires and intentions coming from nowhere but within. That is a tall order.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

More Thoughts About Time and Consequences (2)

It's a vexing problem, perhaps only because we are a uni-directional species and remember the past but not the future. I'm sure the creatures in Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life" have a different view about it. Chiang would not be the first person to wonder what it's like to be able to see time on both sides of the present. One of the many similarities between Mahabharat and Greek mythology is their speculation about the time problem or, more simply, the future problem. (Side note: There are so many similarities that a Greek who visited Indian around first century AD mistakenly thought Iliad had been adapted into Mahabharat.) Although by no means commonplace, a number of characters in these stories have varying degrees of access to the future.

And, of course, access to or knowledge of the future is inherently a part of the issue of determinism and the existence of free will. Somehow I have a feeling that the belief in supernatural (or, more precisely, superhuman) powers, almost always anthropomorphized, is also connected to the same idea.

There seems to be an irreconcilable chasm between the predictability of the future and the malleability of the future. Am I right on this? I'm not sure ... If the future can be known, then it cannot be changed. If it can be changed, then it cannot be known. A future that is both known and alterable is a paradox. Isn't that the paradox of time travel, too? 

OK, so the question is, what made people in the past at least think the future is potentially knowable to some? It has been speculated by evolutionary biologists and others that humans may be the only future-minded animal (a theory obviously unproven). We are exceedingly concerned about the future. But why? Could it be rooted in the advancing technology? First we had seeds of grains that reliable grow and feed people over a long period of time. Then we had machines that faithfully run mile after mile after mile. Then we had calculators that spit out exactly the same answer to the same question again and again. See how predictable the future is? No wonder the need for superhuman powers has declined along with the rise of technology. In this sense, science might indeed erode religion.

Also this thought while we remember the past --- "If only I had made a different choice at time point A, I would have had a different life X hours/days/weeks/years later." It seems to be a defect in the mechanism of memory that prevents us from accurately remembering the state of not knowing at time point A. As we are confused about the state of not knowing (past) and the state of knowing (present), we imagine that we know the future attached to (caused by?) each of our present choices. 

And all this primarily because I continue to be fascinated and baffled by the advice from Bhagavad Gita: Don't agonize over choices. Go forth and do your duty. Act without concerns for outcome. Choose without either attachment or aversion to consequences. Can anyone live like this? Anyway, it seems as if I am trying to construct a series of argument to back track from the advice to a humanly possible basis.

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Coincidentally, or perhaps synchronistically, I have recently been helped to realize that most of my predictions of the future --- or consequences --- are probably an illusion, a mind game I play with myself. 


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A related note: Years ago I went out with a guy with clinical depression. He told me that one of his problems was decision paralysis. Sometimes, even the smallest choices, like whether to go out or to stay home today, could get him stuck for hours, his brain buzzing with confusion and anxiety. It now occurs to me that, if he can be convinced to live as instructed by Lord Krishna, he would be fine. Of course it's not so easy, because that way of living seems unnatural to humans, especially modern humans who have such a higher sense of control over the near future. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (by Janet Malcolm)

After repeatedly running into praises about Janet Malcolm, I checked out her early book "Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession" (1982). 

The best thing about the book is that it's a riveting read. I gobbled it up in two days (it's not long). I don't remember the last time a nonfiction book gripped my attention so. Her overview of Freud's major theories (along with their evolution) and certain branches of psychoanalysis in the 1950s to 1970s is very accessible while maintaining its accuracy. Anyone with superficial acquaintance of Freud's theories can follow it.

Besides the dry theoretical summaries and academic gossips, at least half of the book is told from the point of view of one mid-career, earnest, somewhat neurotic psychoanalyst in New York. The approach has both strengths and problems. The advantage is that the reader is given very intimate access to the mind and routines of an analyst, which is so often mysterious to and misunderstood by the layman, including most people who have been analyzed and everyone who has not been. The life of a modern psychoanalyst is not quite like the descriptions in Freud's books. It's an absorbing (addictive?) and somewhat voyeuristic peek as she turns the gaze around at analysts. She did not hide her simultaneous sympathy and skepticism toward the profession, and the ambivalence is reflected in the book title. Nevertheless my impression is that she thinks them heroic in a sense.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but suspect that her summary of both Freud and the post-Freud evolution of psychoanalysis was greatly simplistic and incomplete. It helps the text's readability and accessibility to keep the theoretical stuff short and light, but the loss of proportion and balance is inevitable. The book's credibility is further hampered by her reliance on one analyst's point of view and quotations. One! Even a look at her summary of academic theories tells us that psychoanalysis in New York alone is practiced in substantively different ways by different analysts, despite the stability of the setup and, of course, the couch. However, only the one analyst, whom she named Aaron Green, provided the first-person perspective, while other approaches and schools and dissidents were given little more than a passing mention.

Given the limited length, but despite the intermittent overviews and summaries, the book is really concerned about only one of a number of aspects in the structure of psychoanalysis: transference (including countertransference). Other major concepts are either mentioned in passing or left out altogether. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the reader does not expect to get a comprehensive overview of psychoanalysis through this book. However, some disclaimer by the author to begin with would have been kind.

Nevertheless, what makes the book a great read was the astonishing honesty about psychoanalysis, especially its limitations and the limitations of its practitioners. It often cures neurosis but fails in some patients and some disorders, and sometimes the practitioners falter. It does not bring about a life of happily ever after, nor does it make a person wiser or better (whatever that means).

Finally, this caveat cannot be helped: The book was written more than three decades ago, and a lot has changed.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mahabharata and Cause and Effect (1)

Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra via Wikipedia

I am not so ambitious as to want to discuss Mahabharata or Indian philosophy or something like that. Coming in contact with (although by no means actually knowing) ... this, eh, massive thing ... is another reminder how humans try to understand their existence and their relationships with each other for thousands of years.

Some of it got me thinking about cause and effect. I don't know enough about Hinduism to know what they actually think about this --- and signs suggest that different schools have their own interpretations. It seems to me that it is at least suggested that cause and effect is an illusion, or maybe it doesn't matter. In Mahabharata it often goes like this: Someone feels slighted or insulted and says a curse or makes a vow, something like "So-and-so has wronged me and I wish to eventually cut off his head." He or she may not be able to carry out this curse (otherwise they'd do it rather than just use words), but a series of events occur and the enemy is eventually slain, likely on the final battlefield of Kurukshetra. Or it could go like this: Someone strongly desires something and has to have it (eg, a son and heir to the throne). After much praying to one or several gods, the wish is granted, but things turn out to be not so peachy after all. The hero Bhisma wants to protect the legacy of his father's dynasty and does everything he can to achieve that, only to bring about the destruction of Hastinapura through intra-familial war.

Before the battle at Kurukshetra commences, the main hero Arjuna pauses in the face of a future of massive deaths of his relatives and friends, many at his own hands. His friend and guidance counselor Lord Krishna says, Don't worry about it. Just do your duty as a warrior. Don't think about outcomes. (There is of course a lot more philosophical digression in the famous Bhagavad Gita, but I have not got that far.) One could argue that Krishna is trying to justify war and killing, but it's not that simple. It seems relevant to everything we set out to do.

The fact is that some, much, perhaps most of our actions are intended for a future outcome. We do this and that in the hope of bringing about a future outcome or consequence. We work today to get paid next week or next month, with the faith that we will get paid eventually. We learned to believe in the future through agriculture at least --- planting seeds today and hoping for a harvest a few months down the road. Our mind makes a connection between events separated by a stretch of time, ie, cause and effect.

Some things are reliably connected, despite the separation of time. And then there are things for which the connections are not as clear or definite. Arjuna says, Look, there is my grandsire Bhisma on the other side. He has loved me and raised me, and I will cause his death. Krishna replies, Why grieve for his death? Everyone who's been born dies. It's the inevitable fate. So Bhisma is going to die regardless of whether Arjuna causes it or not. 

OK, I know this argument can be easily abused for murder, etc., but still, it is a worthwhile mental exercise and relevant to things we do every day. Hey, even eating meat may be a cause of killing and slaughters, and sitting in an air-conditioned room or driving a car may be a cause of more killing. If we really want to dig into it, this won't be a pretty picture. 

I don't know what one can do with this thought. It is NOT a manifesto to become vegetarian or renounce automobiles, that's for sure. Maybe nothing. Maybe it doesn't make anyone feel better or change anything. But still. Something to think about. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Moral Enforcement in Chinese Culture

最近朋友发给我一些杂文作家刀尔登的文集。很好看,尤其是对于我这种不太了解中国经典书籍的人来说,程度不深不浅,正好。其中留下印象最深的一句是说起孟子和多数的X子论点是,治国怎么治呢?把人民都变成好人了,国家就万事大吉了。 换言之就是改善民风,或“提高人民素质”。

一想果然如此,这或许是我见过的对中国文化最精辟的总结。The Chinese culture is in fact individualistic, but it is not the American kind of individualism. It's all about the perfection of individual morality.

实际上从汉朝至今这套政治理论是中国文化的主流,跟庞大而复杂但很实效的官僚结构并存。Throughout Chinese history, the ruling class (including the intellectual-bureaucrats) can't leave the ruled masses alone with their thoughts. The pursuit of refinement of morality has never ceased. The dream that utopia is a place where some pure-minded people live has never been completely abandoned and runs deep in the Chinese culture.

Of course, Chinese people are not and have never been better than anyone else (whatever "better" means). Nevertheless the political machine has its insidious effect. Chinese people are perhaps more preoccupied with individual morality than most other cultures --- When it's impossible to be the perfect person myself, I can always demand it of my neighbors.

人性之稳定和现实的力量令人叹为观止,中国人并未达到统治者努力推广的完美程度。或许这才是李约瑟难题的答案:为什么中国没发展出近代科学呢?因为大家都忙着去道德完善人民群众的思想了。

连老子也不能脱离当时的风潮,他的理论也是通过控制个人的性格和行为而达到政治的理想境界。或许在人口有限的当时这并不是完全无理的推测,把集体群众看作个体的机械总和。但是后来人口涨到面目全非,但政治理论仍然念念不忘提高人民个体的思想素质,也是挺奇怪的。人民真的会因为洗脑政策和自我完善而变得方便控制吗?毛似乎已经证伪了这个理论,但是被证伪的理论仍不停地被拿出来回收利用。

If the Chinese culture can be summarized into one sentence, it would be "You there -- Don't think bad thoughts."

Petyr Baelish of Sichuan: Echoes of the 3 Kingdoms

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