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Paul Salopek’s Donkey
I’ve sporadically followed Paul Salopek’s six-year walk across the world in National Geographic. As someone who loves to walk in all kinds of terrain myself, I find his a fascinating journey, a wonderful way to see the world up close in all its varied colors, moods and seasons. This to me is real travel; travel measured in footsteps rather than miles in a car or hours of flight. The very word flight conjures images of an attempt to escape rather than a journey to explore and expand one’s horizons. For much of the journey, Paul’s companions have been pack animals and his long treks have brought him to a real and humble understanding of the rich variety of sentient life. For this reason, he speaks with simple sadness of the death of Raju, the donkey who accompanied him on his walk across much of northern India. See the National Geo article here.
I’ve aimed to walk 10,000 steps a day (around 5 miles/8 km) for the past few years and more or less achieved it, except when the weather’s been impossible. I was also surprisingly moved by the death of a feline friend last year. Maybe that’s why the article resonated with me. Maybe that’s why the following passage he quotes from Matthew Scully’s book Dominion lingers in the mind long after reading.
“How we treat our fellow creatures is only one more way in which each one of us, every day, writes our own epitaph—bearing into the world a message of light and life or just more darkness and death, adding to the world’s joy or to its despair… Perhaps that is part of the animals’ role among us, to awaken humility, to turn our minds back to the mystery of things, and open our hearts to that most impractical of hopes in which all creation speaks as one.” From Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully.
“…to awaken humility…” and to perhaps remind ourselves that a warming planet requires us to do this for our own salvation.
Three Days that Flu by
I had the flu last week. It probably wasn’t a flu, actually. Just a cold and a fever that kept me in bed for three days. What a bore, you say. No. It wasn’t at all. Because the illness opened up a window of time where I could indulge myself and read what I wanted to. I was on a train journey when the fever and chills began, so I wrapped myself up in my warmest clothes and began to read Madeline Miller’s wonderful book.
Circe, by Madeline Miller. When I started the book, I knew of Circe only as an appendage to Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, an also-ran who played a small supporting role in the life of a classic hero. She was the one who bewitched his men and turned them into swine. In passing, Circe is spoken of as a daughter of Helios the sun god and an ocean nymph. In this book, the heroes (Jason and Odysseus among them) are shown to be flawed human beings with all too human frailties that undermine the lives of those closest to them. The parallels to the 21st century fall of several iconic heroic figures are very close and inescapable. The author brings Circe to magnificent life; a courageous woman who battles her fate and in the end, defies her father to escape the eternity of exile on the island of Aiaia to which Helios has condemned her. Rather than simple mythology, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story (over a period of several centuries, admittedly); a story for our time about a long suppressed and battered woman who finds her voice. The miles flew by and the train journey soon ended. By the time I finished the book I was home, the discomfort of the train journey behind me, and crawled tiredly into bed. After several cups of tea I fell asleep, and when I awoke it was bedtime. I was wide awake, with a runny nose, a bit of a cough, and no chance of going back to sleep. So I started another book.
Die Trapp Familie: die wahre Geschichte hinter dem Welterfolg by Gerhard Jelinek, Birgit Mosser. Many Austrians find it annoying when tourists gush about The Sound of Music and think that it represents a true picture of the country. They see the movie and the musical as a candy floss image of the truth. So this painstakingly researched history by two reporters sets the record straight. For me the real hero in the story is Captain von Trapp, a highly decorated U boat captain. More impressive than his wartime exploits are his apparent human qualities. According to his own writings, he genuinely agonized about enemy loss of life when attacking enemy shipping (but followed duty and did it anyway). He was a devoted father, had a harmonious marriage to his first wife, the mother of his first five children. It didn’t hurt that she was a wealthy English heiress who came from a prominent industrial family based in Trieste. An Irish cousin of his first wife who spoke no German lived in their household for several years. So his children grew up speaking English as well as German. This stood them in good stead in their burgeoning international career. Apparently it is true that the good captain used a ship’s bosun pipe with individual calls to summon his children, but only because they lived in a rambling house with extensive grounds. He was by no means a martinet and when Julie Andrews, pardon, Maria Kutschera, arrives as a childrens’ governess, the family was already very musically capable. They sang in a choir with Captain von Trapp playing first violin and two of the older children on instruments. Anyway, just as in the movie he does really marry the governess, and it is her driving ambition that makes them internationally famous. From this point on, the Julie Andrews myth seems to be closer to the truth. Good reading for the first night and second day of the fever.
Becoming by Michelle Obama. I was feeling much better as I started reading, but soon realized I wasn’t going to get completely well until I’d finished this book uninterrupted. It was a long and easy read. The narrative flowed unpretentious, self-aware and honest. After finishing the book, two impressions were very clear. This woman would be a great politician if she wanted to be one. Second was the certainty that she would never, ever go into politics. And so I delved into the life and times of this fascinating couple. Interestingly, only the last 30% of the book is dedicated to the White House years, presumably because so much of it is in the public record. It is very clear that the focus of her life, apart from the causes she has been associated with, is her family. The immediate family and the extended family. In any case, it was a refreshing and compelling read and I emerged from the book completely well enough to go back to the normal routine of time spent outdoors and other work.
Chasing Digital Dreams; Neglecting Nature’s Notebooks
I recently heard from a friend whose teenage son seems to be an atypical teenager. He’s home-schooled for one. And he doesn’t have a smart phone. He grew up running around barefoot in nature and learned naturally to avoid carelessly standing on ants nests. Once you’ve been bitten by a swarm of angry ants, you’re not likely to repeat the mistake. There are snakes and centipedes in the woods that surround his home. He is not afraid of them, but has learned to respect them.
He recently went to a local international school to write his board exams. The school is an approved center for these exams and he was registered to appear there as a private candidate. He was thoroughly perplexed by the behaviour of his peers during the exams, as they frantically peered (no pun intended) at their smart phone screens until the last possible minute, and then convulsively reached for the same as soon as they had handed in their papers. This obsessive relationship with their smart devices was alien to him, making him think that smart devices seem to make their owners look less smart. For me, as an adult who has managed to leave this compulsive obsession with social media behind, it’s refreshing to see a teenager who’s in tune with his surroundings, has a sense of fun, loves the outdoors, and reads without compulsion.
Some years ago I followed the blog of another teenager who was brought up on a sailboat and had lived most of his life at sea, with periodic long spells on land, wherever his multi-talented parents happened to find a job. Home schooled again, he was no stranger to electronic devices, mainly those used in navigation systems. Judging by the blog, this young man was whip smart and culturally savvy. His descriptions of short stays in several countries (Mexico, Malaysia etc) revealed astounding sensitivity and depths of insight into the social mores of the countries he visited. Unfortunately his blog has disappeared from the web, otherwise I’d have posted a link.
A recent trip to a rain forest with a group of young people reaffirms my belief that the best education for young people is to open their eyes to the world around them, encouraging them to read from Nature’s notebooks, in addition to absorbing the accumulated wisdom contained in printed books. Some lines from a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya seem most relevant here.
In days gone by I used to be
A potter who would feel
His fingers mould the yielding clay
To patterns on his wheel;
But now, through wisdom, lately won,
That pride has died away,
I have ceased to be the potter
And have learned to be the clay.
In other days I used to be
A poet through whose pen
Innumerable songs would come
To win the hearts of men;
But now, through new-got knowledge
Which I hadn’t had so long,
I have ceased to be the poet
And have learned to be the song.
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A Georgian ode to Austria
In June last year I wrote a blog entitled “Living in Limbo–A Streetside Portait” about a man who stands outside the local supermarket and sells the Augustin newspaper. He’s a refugee from Georgia and used to teach philology back home. I cannot communicate well enough with him to know why he had to leave his home. Perhaps he’s a political refugee and is reluctant to talk about it. Today he handed me a story, photocopied from an old edition of the Augustin. Since his German is very halting, I presume someone translated it for him. Whatever the case, the writer comes across as intelligent, well-read and sensitive, and the story deserves a wider audience. Hence I’ve translated it into English and posted it here. I hope you enjoy his story. I’ll simply call the writer Wassili.
The Man and the Mountain
I’m no longer a stranger here now. I feel I’m in familiar surroundings. I have many acquaintances who call me by name when they talk to me, which pleases me no end. No one knew me in those days, when an elderly man, Herr F., invited me to his villa. He was eighty years old, but still active and full of joie de vivre. His energy would have put many a younger man to shame. His villa was near Neustadt. He called the Augustin office one day to ask for ‘permission’ to take me to Neustadt. He arrived at the Augustin office in his car to pick me up at the appointed time. This was a great honour to me; such a great honour that it was embarrassing.
I remember another occasion when I felt such embarrassment; it was a very cold day. I had no gloves and I was selling newspapers. I noticed someone staring, and then approach me holding out a pair of gloves, obviously intending to give them to me. I refused, pretending I was not cold, but that was wrong. It’s normal for Austrians to look at strangers, but I only understood much later that it’s even more embarrassing to refuse warmth and gestures of goodwill.
Herr F and I drove in his car. It was an old Ford, but very well maintained. He was in high spirits. We joked and laughed a lot. He showed me his villa. Then he took me out to lunch at a restaurant in the mountains. We ate well and drank a little. Herr F was the first person in Austria who reminded me of the words of the 12th century Georgian poet Schota Rustaweli who said: Never forget the duty of friendship to a friend who shows you his heart, for all paths are open to him.
Several days passed before Herr F. came to see me again. “Wasil,” he said, laughing. “You’re Stalin. And I’m Hitler.”
“No Herr F. That’s impossible. The two of them didn’t like each other. They were enemies. We, however, like and respect each other.” Herr F. smilingly agreed. He knew who Stalin was. I’d spoken about him that day at lunch in the mountains. Stalin was Georgian, from Gori. This place is known for its delicious apples and its Stalin Museum. Many foreigners think Stalin was Russian and when they learn he was Georgian, they come to visit the museum.
I haven’t seen Herr F. for several months now. I’m now selling the Augustin at another location. I have neither his telephone number nor his address in Vienna. What do I know about this man who gave me, a stranger arrived in Vienna, such a memorable day? Who knows if he is in trouble, and if so, how I can help him? Who knows where he is now? Perhaps he’s busy and no longer remembers this simple newspaper seller.
There are perhaps many people who think like me. Perhaps the mountain also thinks so; the mountain that rises five hundred meters in front of me, and spends its time thinking. When no one comes to me to buy a newspaper for a long time, the mountain and I look at each other. I think of the time I worked in a school, with a book in one hand, und taught children Georgian language and literature. Now I’m learning to live, or rather, learning how not to be a stranger in a land where I must live.
Sometimes in autumn the mountain is covered in fog– and it seems to be thinking. Just as I do. A big mountain can think more than the small one can. People are like that. The more they think, the more the fog bothers them. I’m talking about the mountain that stands before me. There are vineyards on its flanks, but I see no one there. I wonder how anyone can produce wine on such steep slopes. Georgia too is a land of mountainous vineyards. Grapes grow there too; grapes that are nurtured like children.
In the country where I was born and grew up, one can see mountains, precursors of the Caucasus. I visited these mountains often in my childhood. I went alone, sat down somewhere under a bush, and looked down fondly at my village, loving every single settlement as far as I could see. You small Austrian alpine mountain, I think. It’s your fault that I’m homesick at the sight of you. I love you too. Even though I’ve not known you so well, I love you from a distance. There will come a time when I’m closer to you. For then, if you allow me, I’ll look on your fields and meadows from above, just as I did as a child, silently and wordlessly turning to the land I used to say: I love you, Georgia! With the greatest respect then, I would then humbly say: I love you, Austria.
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Words to Ponder
pederastrian zone -(pe.der.astri.an zone) child molesters on the internet
trumpet – (trum.pet) presidential proclamations of alternative facts
maybe – (may.be) current state of Brexit negotiations
pingterest – (ping.ter.est) Chinese views of disputed territories in South China Sea and Doklam
modify – (mod.if.y) religious fundamentalism in India
Al Jarreau – (al jar.oh) late jazz singer of Qatar?
merken – (merk.en) German (as in, remember me?)
macro – (mak.ro) big French cheese
killing fields – (kill.ing fields) Duterte’s Philippines
Gabon – (gab.on) ongoing discussion about who really won the last election
sod it – (sod.it) Saudi views on women’s rights
Zumba – (zum.ba) popular South African dance
Serious Comedians – Giving voice to Lions
An East African proverb. Until the lion learns to speak, every story will glorify the hunter. As with lions in the savannah, so too in human affairs. History is written by the victorious. As far as I know, contemporary Gauls did not write histories of Caesar’s conquests. My early school textbooks were published during colonial times and spoke of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A few years later, my history books reflected the views of a self-governing nation and called it The first war of Indian independence. Similarly, a history text used by children in a Francophone African country began: nos ancêtres, les Gaulois, étaient grands et blonds.
Moving forward to today, a modern nation confronts the semantic shenanigans of a prevaricating president, one who heads the world’s largest military and nuclear strike force. He threatens to destabilize the world, and frequently expresses the desire to overthrow constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a relatively recent tradition in our human history; a tradition that gives voice to lions. Research insights into the value of biodiversity show that ecological variety is absolutely imperative to the long-term ecological survival of our planet.
A time of instant communication is also a time of instant miscommunication, so many people no longer know where to turn for the truth. Official news agencies tend to broadcast the voice of the hunter, but where do lions tell their side of the story? Leonine voices are emerging from unexpected corners of television and the internet. The new lions are stand-up comedians, and they are emerging in every politically repressed country, from American to Turkey to Zimbabwe. Perhaps North Korea is the only country in the world where the only comedian still standing up is its great leader himself. In several countries that recently show signs of tending towards dictatorship, the leaders are becoming unwitting comedians in the mold of Kim Jong-Un.
It’s time for us consumers to realize how serious these jokes are. Time to sit up, stop laughing and act.
An Old Word for New Times
Sometimes, we need a new word to describe new trends. But to describe recent events that mirror the rise of demagogues and dictators in the past, an old word will do. Many thanks to my friend, Canadian economist Larry Willmore, for posting the following on his blog “Thought du Jour.”
1829, “government by the worst element of a society,” coined on analogy of its opposite, aristocracy, from Greek kakistos “worst,” superlative of kakos “bad” (which perhaps is related to the general IE word for “defecate;” see caco- ) + -cracy.
Source: Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 25, 2016 from Dictionary.com website
The Dice that lost a Kingdom
The grand epic of the Mahabharata tells of the war between two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The many stories in the book of tales, which are told in some 100,000 stanzas of classical Sanskrit verse are together 12 times the length of the entire Bible. I have read several different English translations of this stupendous work. Despite the sometimes stilted language of the translations I read, the sublime poetry and wisdom of this work invariably shine through. I have searched for years for the perfect translation, and found it at last on the internet. The tale in its entirety is so complex, with a huge cast of characters and so many different sub-plots, that I thought it impossible to ever write a summary that does justice to the tale. Until this discovery on the internet of a synopsis written by someone (or a collective) calling themselves Wm. Blake Fabricators. A Google search led me to someone called Richard Blumberg who is apparently based in Cincinnati. Kudos to Richard Blumberg, then, for writing the most readable and comprehensive synopsis of this monumental work; a synopsis that effortlessly conveys the essence of the stories in fluid prose. I have reproduced the Introduction from the website below, and copied the links to synopses of the other six major episodes, with an Afterword and a Bibliography. I’m convinced that readers of this page, and followers of this blog, will not regret the 20 minutes they might spend following the links below to read the rest of this fascinating story.
It has been called the national epic of India, and it is that, in very much the same sense that the Iliad is the national epic of Classical Greece. The Mahabharata is the story of a great war that ended one age and began another. The story has been passed down to us in a classical canon of Sanskrit verses some 100,000 stanzas long; that’s about 12 times the length of the Western Bible. The best scholarly evidence indicates that the earliest layers of the epic were composed between 2500 and 3000 years ago. The text had reached pretty much its present form by about 300-400 C.E.
Mahabharata has also been called the Hindu bible. It is important at the outset to recognize that epic and bible are both Eurocentric terms. The former implies the kind of single-minded focus on the hero and his deeds that characterizes the stories that we Europeans learned as epics in our schooling. And the latter term implies a certain iconic status for the book in its society; our bible is not something we know so much as it is something we swear on. None of that is particularly true for the Mahabharata, although it is not completely false either. It just misses the point.
Epic and bible together imply an absolute division between the sacred and the profane – one pure fable and the other Holy Truth – that simply doesn’t exist in the Hindu vision. Our Eurocentric minds, trained in a Jahwist tradition of good and evil, true and false, demand that the story go into one slot or the other, and if it is too big, then we will reduce it to fit. The Hindu mind, I think, rather than force the story into any single category, conceives a story big enough to encompass all categories.
The Mahabharata itself says it quite positively.
What is found herein may also be found in other sources,
What is not found herein does not matter.
The Mahabharata contains virtually all the lore and legend of the Classical Hindu Tradition – which is also, in typical Hindu defiance of simple-minded historicity – very much a living tradition. Here are the great creation stories – Manu’s flood, the churning of the milk ocean, the descent of the Ganges. Here are the favorite myths and fairy tales. Here are the jokes. Here are the codes of law – moral, ethical, natural. One of the best things about the Mahabharata is its wonderful richness of episode and detail.
But Mahabharata is not a random collection of tales, like the Medieval gestes (to further prove the habit of thinking Eurocentrically). Every digressive bit of the Mahabharata is there to shed light on a central story. The core event of that story is the great battle that was fought on the field of Kurukshetra between the five sons of King Pandu and their allies on the one side and the hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra, with their allies, on the other side. The battle was the culmination of a long history of struggle and diplomatic maneuvering, and it involved virtually every tribal king and every powerful city-state in Central and Northern India at the time.
It was a tragic war, that pitted brothers against brothers, sons against fathers and uncles, brave noble men against brave noble men. And it was devastating. Nearly all of the best men died in the long battle. The Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, survived, but there was no victory, for the war had destroyed the world that they knew, and the emptiness of what they had won colored the rest of their lives.
Now to say that the Mahabharata is the story of a great battle is to say that Hamlet is the story of an unsuccessful usurpation, or that Moby Dick is the story of a whale hunt. Hindu cosmology is sweeping, and the story of the Mahabharata war has cosmological significance, in that it marks the end of one yuga and the beginning of another. There are four yugas in every great cycle of existence, each one diminished from the one before. The yuga that ended with the Mahabharata war was the dvapara yuga – the age of heros, during which noble values still prevailed and men remained faithful to the principles and tasks of their castes. The age that follows the battle is the Kali yuga, the last age of the world; in it, all values are reduced, law becomes fragmented and powerless, and evil gains sway. We live in the Kali yuga.
The breadth of its vision is one of the things that makes the Mahabharata the best story I know. But there are other reasons. Mahabharata has a riveting plot and a compelling dramatic structure. Its characters are complex and real, with depth of personality that is unmatched in any other epical or biblical story I have heard. Finally, I have found the Mahabharata to be full of wisdom.
In the next few minutes, I am going to try to give you a sense of how the Mahabharata story goes.
Since the story has cosmic significance, its ultimate beginnings are lost in the mists of time and the minds of unknowable immensities; a wealth of family histories, myths, and fables lead up to the events that I will tell you about. I will jump into the story at a point where the succession to the kingship had come into question.
The Flood – after the vote on Brexit
The story below was written in 2010, long before the idea of Britain or Greece opting out of the EU was anywhere on the political horizon. The European Union is an unprecedented, brave and bold experiment by thirty-odd countries venturing into uncharted territory. Many economists have predicted that the experiment is doomed, and there is no shortage of possible reasons for failure.
Critics fail to recognise that any bold experiment can fail. For example, the dollar was chosen to become the monetary unit of the United States in 1785, nine years after the declaration of independence. The coinage act helped put together an organised monetary system in 1792. The Federal Reserve Act was passed only in 1913, organising a national banking system and a central bank, nearly one hundred and thirty years after the dollar was chosen as its currency. And this delay occurred in a vast country only slightly smaller than the area of the European experiment. Friends of mine have fiercely criticised the above comparison between the EU and the US. Of course they’re right. Unlike the EU, the US was a single political entity with a common government, it had a common language and a single currency. Nevertheless, the analogy is valid, despite limitations. Some of the problems faced by the federal union of US states in the past two centuries is similar to the divisive forces that plague the EU today.
Small wonder that populations in EU countries have misgivings about the wisdom of their leaders’ attempts to stabilise the common currency and dispute the need to support the economically weakest members of the union. The Flood is a parable on the need for myths to weld communities together. In the case of Europe, the common roots doubtless lie in ancient Greece and Rome, ironically two of the most economically troubled states in the current union.
“Every culture that we know of has one,” said the professor in conclusion, as the electrically operated curtains in the auditorium silently parted and the audience blinked at the flood of grey, fogbound afternoon light. Professor Paravant fumbled for a moment with the switches that remotely controlled the power point projector and then looked up in preparation for questions. He stole a quick glance at his watch. Two thirty-eight! He’d been at it for fifty-seven minutes precisely, which was seven minutes longer than intended. Where had he lost those seven minutes? Two certainly, while waiting for the technician to correct a problem with the projection. But he had continued his talk while waiting for the glitch to be fixed and then had briefly run over the same ground when the slides appeared.
And the other five? He had digressed a bit over the possible alternative interpretations to the new archaeological finds in the Sahel. Yes, yes. He had certainly got into deep water over there. That was stupid, he said very severely to himself (not the least because it was an arid zone! he added to himself). You should not inject conjecture into your talks, at least, not at this stage when it is not supported by a sizeable body of circumstantial evidence. As for certainty, forget it. There is no certainty in our profession. Some theories are in phase with popular belief and some are not. Archaeological truth could perhaps be defined as current conjecture backed by circumstantial evidence and hallowed by the concurrence of many. Professor Paravant himself was constantly and keenly aware of this limitation, therefore his talk was loaded with hedged statements. But did this come across to his listeners? Had they heard him out in rapt attention, or was it merely silent boredom? He was never sure.
Professor Paravant shot his cuff and looked at his watch again, this time openly. “Any questions?” he asked looking up. The nervous conference organiser interrupted with half-raised hand and an apologetic glance at the visiting professor.
“Dr. Paravant, please forgive.” He raised his quavery voice and climbed to the first step of the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, before the questions, please, I have an announcement to make. There’s been a small change in program. We’ll have the coffee break before the next session. Secondly, Professor Paravant has to catch the four o’clock flight to Brussels where he is to testify before the European Commission. So please understand that he can answer only a few questions. Shall we say, until two forty-five, Professor?”
“Until three, if you like,” said Paravant generously. “My luggage is already packed and waiting. If you could be so kind as to ensure that a taxi is available…”
“But of course, Professor. The faculty car will take you to the airport when you are ready to leave.”
“Very well, then.” He raised his head, stood with toes out, jacket pushed back and thumbs tucked into the waistband of his trousers.
“Questions? Questions?” he asked the still-blinking audience.
There was silence as the group of forty-odd academics looked at each other, wondering who was going to be the first to ask. This was a multi-disciplinary group, and although each of the attendees was a specialist in his (or her: there were six women present) own field, Paravant was the only archaeologist present.
“Professor Paravant,” this was one of the six women and she flushed as the entire auditorium turned to face the last row where she sat. “Professor Paravant, I have a question that’s unrelated to your talk today. When are you going to tell us about your finds in Northern Thailand and Cambodia?”
“Dear lady, I will talk about them when I have something to say. Right now we have no idea what we’re turning up at the site. We can only say that the artefacts are of enormous significance, all man-made, fashioned between five thousand five hundred and seven thousand years before our time.”
The organiser raised his hand for attention once again. “I must request you, ladies and gentlemen. Professor Paravant’s time here is very short. Please restrict your questions to today’s talk. Otherwise I know the professor will never catch the four o’clock plane, not even tomorrow’s four o’clock plane.” There was a murmur of polite laughter to greet this humorous sally, a murmur which almost drowned the protest: I only asked because no one else was saying anything, from the woman in the back row.
Paravant’s sharp ears picked up her protest, however, and he rapidly scanned the list of registered attendees that lay beside his notes on the lectern before him. “Dr. Clark,” he called to the woman in the back row. “You are Dr. Clark aren’t you? From… East African Uhuru University? I have your email address here on my list and I’ve made a note to send you a summary of findings till date as soon as I return to Thailand. Is that all right?”
“Oh, thank you. Very kind of you, Professor,” Dr. Clark flushed and beamed from the back row, completely won over by this unexpected kindness.
“Professor, I’d like to question your concluding remark. You said every culture that we know of has one. Now, I’m an anthropologist and specialise in theories of life in different cultures, the interface between myth and reality in various societies, do you see?’
“Yes, indeed,” said Professor Paravant, who did not.
“Now what I want to ask you is: how can you say that every culture has one? Did, for example, the tenth century kingdom of Mali have one? Did the late eighteenth century empire of Shaka in present day South Africa have one? Did the ancient Greeks have one?”
“Well,” said Paravant, rolling up his mental sleeves. He liked questions like these, ones he could get his teeth into and deal with specifics. “First, let me address the three concrete examples you have chosen. Briefly, the answers are: yes to the first and third, no to the second. But these one word answers need qualifications which I will provide before going on to answer the first part of your question, namely, how I can say that every culture has one?
“First, the kingdom of Mali. It was a flourishing empire from the early part of the ninth century onwards and lasted for more than two centuries until a combination of circumstances, chiefly world climatic and trade shifts, moved the focus of civilization on the continent southeastwards. They had a rich oral tradition, most of which is naturally lost, but some writings on clay tablets persist, which are conjectured to be a thousandth or even a millionth part of the original rich whole. Deducing from these, we find traces of the legend, minute indications of a great deluge, a cataclysmic event that occurred long before the kingdom of Mali was founded. This is your first example.
“For our second example you again chose Africa, the empire of Shaka. Now Shaka was a great general, one of the world’s great quintet, together with Alexander the Macedonian, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Napoleon. He created an empire that was a fusion of many tribes, many language groups, many cultures. There was no cultural unity among the Zulu tribes for many decades after Shaka welded them together into a political whole. The oral traditions of the various tribes were completely lost, therefore it is impossible to state that the flood myth existed among the Zulu. But the converse is equally true. It is, by the same measure, impossible to prove that it did not exist among them. I personally believe it did, although I have no proof.
“Now your third example is straightforward. The answer is a simple, unqualified yes. We have hundreds of texts to fall back upon, a rich gleaning of writings from other sources as well, Persian, Latin and Arabic among others. Let me give you a concrete illustration. You all might know or have heard of Philemon and Baucis, Ovid’s charming story of an old couple who showed hospitality to the gods. This story is a variation of the flood myth…” Professor Paravant was firmly settled upon his theme and would have missed his plane had not his host, the conference organizer, interrupted at three o’clock.
“Excuse me, Professor. But I really think you must go.”
“Oh!” Paravant looked around him, then at his watch and gasped.
“My goodness. It’s nearly three. I must run. I will write to you,” he glanced up at the anthropologist. “You’re…?”
“I’m Thompson from Sussex.”
“Yes, Dr. Thompson.” Paravant made a mark on his conference list and fled from the room, leaving the participants sighing with relief and hurrying towards toilets and coffee.
More than two hours later, wedged between an overstuffed matron and a pimply youth on the plane to Brussels Professor Paravant found time to think about the conference he had just attended. He reached for the briefcase at his feet and pulled out a copy of the paper he had presented.
The Flood Myth: an analysis of its existence in cultures around the world. A myth is a traditional story originating in a preliterate society, the paper began. After defining myth and its principal characteristic (it continues to influence the thought and behaviour of people living in the present time), it went into scholarly detail about the finds of various expeditions and researchers through the centuries, principally in the nineteenth and the twentieth. He skimmed over the listing of the flood myth in various continents, knowing them all by heart; the Sumerian, Babylonian, Chaldean, Biblical, Roman, Greek, Persian, Chinese, Finno-Ugric, American Indian and Tamil.
Professor Paravant’s meditation upon myths was interrupted by the arrival of two flight attendants, the first with refreshing hot towels (which he welcomed) and the second with drinks and plastic-wrapped sandwiches, the usual airline fare (which he hated because, although not hungry, he ate and drank it all). However, he could meditate further while he chewed, and he did, until the plump woman on his right stood up to go to the toilet before the drinks had been cleared. Paravant stood in the aisle gingerly balancing both paper cups of hot liquid in his hands while she squirmed in emulation of a camel’s progress through the needle’s eye between seats. He was thus powerless to fend off the pimply youth’s attempts at conversation. The flight attendants were still busy serving food and brushed by with indignant glances. The indignant glances were slightly more welcome than the pimply youth’s topic of conversation. He had been to a football match between two rival national teams and tried to convey the violent emotion of the encounter to his captive audience. The Professor would have been much happier if he had kept his mouth shut and offered to hold the hot cup of tea.
The woman finally returned looking greatly relieved and plumped into her seat without so much as a word of thanks for the cup holding. Her ingratitude put Paravant in such a foul mood that he was unable to think constructively on the flood myth and this inability further worsened his mood. It was past ten by the time he collected his luggage, found a taxi and finally checked into his hotel, so he went straight to sleep without attempting to find a meal or prepare notes for the following day.
He was up late the next day and the shepherd from the European Commission arrived early, so after a very hurried breakfast Paravant was ensconced in the back seat of the chauffeur-driven limousine by eight. The shepherd was middle-aged. In place of a crook, he carried a bulging brief-case under his arm. Paravant’s entire week had been very rushed, so he’d not yet had time to read the briefs that they had sent him. However, he was also an eminent scholar quite accustomed to being asked profound questions on subjects he hadn’t prepared for, so he faced the forthcoming interview with equanimity.
Not so the shepherd who kept pulling official documents out of the brief case and hurriedly scanning them to refresh his memory. At one point in their journey across the city, he caught Professor Paravant’s eye and smiled.
“What do you think, Professor? What are you going to tell them?”
“About what?” The shepherd raised his eyebrows, marvelling at the professor’s acumen.
“Oh, nothing. I shouldn’t have intruded on your thoughts.”
“Now, really, do tell me. What am I going to tell who about what?”
“They told you, didn’t they?” asked the shepherd tentatively. Paravent generously gave him the right.
“Yes, they did. What am I going to tell who about what?”
“The cultural commission. What are you going to tell them about their question?”
“Your prognosis on the cultural fallout to be expected after the European Union becomes a single political entity in 2020. What kind of national traumas can be expected? What are the possible consequences for the collective psyches of the various european nations? Which national clichés are most likely to survive, and which national traits can one expect to be aggravated after the merger, and so on?”
“Ah, was that the question?” asked Paravant, with a sigh of relief.
He stole a quick glance at his watch. With luck and a traffic jam, he might have thirty or forty-five minutes to prepare.
“That’s the only question I know of. If there was anything classified I wouldn’t know,” said the shepherd humbly. “I’m not eligible to know anything classified. Not yet, not for a year or two.”
“Of course not,” said Paravant, hoping to silence the shepherd by his lofty and detached manner. The ploy worked and for the next half hour, Paravant’s mind ground busily while he thought of what he could say about the cultural future to be expected for Western Europe in the years after complete economic and political fusion took place in 2020.
The building he was driven to was not the headquarters building, but one of the many subsidiary offices of the various commissioners which are scattered throughout the city of Brussels. The limousine pulled up at the nondescript entrance of a tall building and the shepherd alighted first.
“This way, if you please, Professor.”
The limousine slid away and Paravant followed his guide into the foyer of what looked like a large and busy hotel. The shepherd walked confidently to the bank of elevators and pressed a button marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Once inside they rode to the thirtieth floor and walked along a windowless, indirectly lit, crimson carpeted corridor to a door labelled CONFERENCE ROOM. He led the way into an outer office with three smartly dressed young women in almost identical white blouses and dark skirts, indicating the professor with a flourish.
“Professor Paravant,” he announced, “to testify before the joint cultural commission.”
“Ah yes,” said the petite brunette with the red-rimmed slash of a smile. “But you are early, Maurice. The commission meets only at nine-thirty.”
Maurice reddened. “The commission meets at eight forty-five!”
“Ah, you have forgotten. This week we have a new chairman. He is British, and wishes to begin at nine-thirty after his cup of tea.” Maurice crumbled and began to stammer apologies.
“No problem at all, Maurice,” Paravant beamed jovially at the EU underling. “If you could only arrange for me to have a desk in a quiet corner with a cup of coffee, I can use the time to go over my notes.” Maurice marvelled at the Professor’s grace and charm as he hastened to comply.
The commission sat at ten. They were a working group of cultural commissioners from twelve of the thirty one EU states (or was it thirty two this week?), and they treated Professor Paravant with great respect. The British commissioner was an erudite giant named Bartlett, an Oxbridge intellectual, who swallowed sentence endings to the point of unintelligibility.
“Right then, let’s get started, shall we?” he slurred. “Perhaps we can begin straightaway with questions to Professor, er…” he looked down at his notes, “Professor Paravant.”
“I would like,” said the German slowly, “to first hear Professor Paravant’s own synopsis before we go on to questions.”
“What do you say Professor?” asked Bartlett.
“I have no objection,” said Paravant pleasantly. “Perhaps one of you would care to put the question again so that I know exactly what you wish to know.”
“Didn’t you read the briefs we sent you?” asked Bartlett bluntly.
“Of course,” said Paravant, who had left them in the hotel room in the morning’s rush. “But we are going to dwell in the realm of conjecture for the next few hours, drawing on my knowledge of the past to make prognoses about the future. So it would help me to have a clear idea of your own perceptions of the dimensions of the problem.”
“Yes, yes. I see that,” said Bartlett. “And since I’m the chairman, I’m the one who should do it, I suppose… unless someone else here wants to.” There was deep silence. Paravant broke it cheerfully.
“It needn’t be too long, Mr. Chairman. Just a sentence or two will suffice.”
“The EU is going to eliminate all national barriers beginning in 2020, introducing a common passport, a single parliament, and so on. We already have the Euro which has, as of this week, been adopted by all thirty-one member countries.
“You know all this. The newspapers are full of it, with horror stories of the possible repercussions. Well the problem is this in a nutshell. How is some unemployed lad from Liverpool going to feel if the Merseyside is invaded by a bunch of Spanish speaking dandies in tight trousers? Cultural shock with bells on! We need to know how this boy’s going to react.”
“This is only a hypothetical question, Professor, not a likely probability. We’ll let it stand for the moment.” This was Jose Carreras, the Spanish commissioner, a tall man with a suffering El Greco face.
“Sorry, Carreras,” grinned Bartlett, who obviously wasn’t. “Didn’t mean to cast ethnic slurs. Let bygones be bygones. This is 2015 after all, and it’s time we forgot about the defeat of your armada four centuries ago.”
“Our armada was defeated by the winds off Falmouth, not by the British,’ said Carreras stiffly. “Your own historians write that when the storm arose that blew us off the map, the great Sir Francis Drake had only one round of ammunition left.”
“Gentlemen, I think I am ready to begin my scenario synopsis of the expected situation,” Paravant interrupted, now quite certain of what he was going to say. “There is a lot to be said in favour of preserving national identities even after the merger. Indeed, we can and must do everything in our power to encourage this. Going by past experience, once the process of integration is started, everything can be expected to proceed remarkably quickly. Integration will take place without a hitch, provided we allow for a period of cultural overflow and overlap. By this I mean a period of preparation to cope with different value systems and even workaday habits.” Through the corner of his eye he saw Bartlett and El Greco smile mockingly at one another.
“City dwellers in the EU countries are already truly cosmopolitan. The libraries of the great cities of Europe have for centuries garnered much of the wisdom of the world. Her museums are filled with treasures of art and culture from every corner of our planet. This immense cultural wealth has been cemented by the incredible fusion of art, music, film, entertainment and intellectual advance fuelled by the internet.”
“What does this have to do with 2020?’ slurred Bartlett impatiently.
“Everything and nothing. One the one hand, the exhibits from the museums are lifeless artefacts, showcases pure and simple. On the other hand, many of the objects displayed are symbolic of the internationalisation of knowledge. The scholar, for instance always knew that every single bit of technology available in eighteenth century Europe had already existed in eleventh century China, that the Greeks enhanced and transmitted the knowledge of ancient Egypt and that the Arabs translated, added to and handed down the wisdom of the Greeks to Europe in the Middle Ages.”
Constantin Anantapoulos, Costas, was of medium height with softly rounded features and reddish brown nut-thatch hair.
“Professor Paravant, forgive me for interrupting. You’re being impractical. These things happened hundreds or thousands of years ago and cannot have the immediate impact we need on the populations of our respective countries.”
“Yes,” agreed the Spaniard. “The Beatles, Elvis, Jay-Z, they all cross national and cultural boundaries today. There are others…’ he groped for names and found none.
“The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Elton John…,’ Bartlett smiled expansively as he came to El Greco’s aid. “They all happen to be British.”
“Thank you for the examples,” said El Greco. “Costas is right, Mr. Paravant. We need examples from today, from our recent past and not from bygone ages.”
“There is a real danger in that approach, which I will point out to you presently. Apart from the fact that it is short-sighted and wrong. But if you restrict unifying examples to recent decades in the present century, then you are denying yourselves the chance to use the integrative powers of sublime music, to give just one example. Think of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Smetana…”
“Wrong side of the fence, Paravant,” interrupted Bartlett briskly, wagging a school-masterish forefinger. “Tchaikovsky is a no-no. Beyond EU borders.’
“There you make the same mistake,’ protested Paravant with some heat. “It is just as dangerous to draw a dividing line in space as it is in time. The two questions I then put to you gentlemen are: how recent is recent, and where do we set the geographic boundaries?”
“Let’s say, within the physical confines of the European Union as we know it today and… the last two decades.” The Dutch commissioner Maartens spoke for the first time and looked around for approval. He was greeted by nods of agreement.
“All right, let’s start with physical boundaries.” Paravant adopted his most persuasive voice. “Where do we draw the line? If Tchaikovsky is out as an integrative factor because his birthplace is in Russia, then so are several Western cultural heroes. Pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky, Mohammed Ali, who was the most popular public figure on the planet during his lifetime. The contemporary list is endless. Need I elaborate?’
“But we have to draw a line somewhere,” insisted Bartlett, speaking clearly for the first time that day. The sudden clarity startled the other eleven commissioners into agreement.
“Yes,” said Carreras. “We have to have these geographic boundaries. But what about time?’
“Equally impossible to find a sensible or logical cut-off point,” said Paravant stubbornly, although he knew the tide of opinion was turning against him. “If we can go back a half century to the Beatles, what is to stop us moving another quarter century back to Hitler’s time? Two decades before that lies the destruction of the first world war. And in the two centuries before that there were seven major wars between France and Britain alone.” There was silence round the table.
“The myths of bygone ages live on in us,” said Paravant softly, with a smile. “We need new myths for a brave new tomorrow, but myths are an oral tradition and take time to create. Yes, it takes time to create them even today, in the age of instant diffusion of knowledge through electronic means. For this reason, we will always need the old myths. If we want a unifying factor, gentlemen, we will have to go back through the ages, all the way back through the common history of mankind to the flood.”
The above story was published as part of The Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories in 2013. This parable seems more relevant than ever today. I sincerely hope Britain votes today to remain in the EU.
For more by this author see his Amazon page here.
The White Temple – Ajarn Chalermchai’s Dream
Fifteen kilometers southwest of Chiang Rai stands a surreal, snowy white temple. It is known as the Wat at Rong Khun, but tourists simply call it the white temple and flock there in the thousands. Entrance is free, from around 9 to 5 every day, and tourists arrive in groups, large and small, or privately in a taxi, as we did. Apart from its natural beauty spots, half of the most important tourist sites in Thailand are palaces and temples, or Wats. Some of the beautiful palaces have Wats attached to them, and some of the Wats look like beautiful palaces. So much so that a friend warned me, it’s easy to have your fill and get wat-ed out. So I was reluctant to make a detour to see another temple, but we heard so much about it that we decided to go.
To begin with, the parking lot itself was dauntingly huge for such a small village so close to the Thai-Myanmar border. There were large groups of mostly Chinese and Thai tourists at the temple; smaller groups from a smattering of nearby Asian countries and a few Europeans. Picking up a free brochure available in several languages, one learns that the temple is a work in progress begun 16 years ago, that it was conceived and built by Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, an artist who was born in Chiang Rai. “I want to be good and valuable to my country. I want to create arts in my own style and to develop Thai Buddhist arts to be developed internationally. I want people of all nations to come and admire my works, like when they want to visit the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat.”
The art and architecture of the temple certainly is distinctly Thai. One sees shapes reminiscent of mudras made by the flowing hand movements of a Thai dancer. Chalermchai says he takes themes from ancient Thai murals, trying to create a modern synthesis that is recognizably and uniquely Thai. If the number of visitors is taken as a measure, then his ambition has certainly been realized. Within the temple are modern murals that face a statue of the Lord Buddha. “I want people to feel peace and happiness and to envision the kindness of the Lord Buddha to all beings,” says Chalermchai. “The mural shows the final conflict of the Lord Buddha’s own demon before he received enlightenment and freedom from immoral thoughts.” When asked about the images of George Bush and bin Laden in the demon’s eyes, the artist replies. “I want everyone to know that our world is being destroyed by those who crave to build weapons that kill. They segregate and therefore cannot find peace….”
Chalermchai expects to complete the temple in 90 years.He begins each day at 2 a.m. with an hour of meditation, then creates and sculpts. An artist whose wealth stems from the roughly 200 artworks he produced every year, he now devotes most of his time to the completion of the temple and currently produces around ten paintings a year. The entire site is kept spotlessly clean and supervised by zealous volunteers who ensure that tourists are modestly attired before they enter the temple. The toilets are guarded by a bronze hermaphrodite keeper.
Concluding with the artist’s own words: “I want to discipline the mind to train me toward being a good person with clear thinking, speaking well and doing good deeds. We are all human and I want to give goodness to people. If we have love and forgiveness in our hearts, it will come out naturally. You need to practice patience before you can control your own mind.”
For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.