The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin

  • I thought I could detect an erotic subtext to these astrophysical models, and my conviction was growing that Stephen Hawking wasn’t writing about physics at all, but about sex – only not about squalid human intercourse, but the grandiose cosmic coitus that gave birth to matter. Surely it’s not accident that this great explosion is referred to as the ‘Big Bang’. All the most sacred mysteries of the universe are concealed in the darkness of black holes, but it’s impossible to look into a singularity because it doesn’t emit any light, like a bedroom when the lamp’s switched off…Basically, I thought, astrophysicists are nothing but voyeurs. Except that voyeurs sometimes manage to glimpse someone else’s act of love through the gap between the curtains, but physicists have been cheated by fate, and they have to imagine absolutely everything as they stare into the ink-black darkness.
  • The cause of error by living beings is that they believe it is possible to cast aside the false and attain unto the truth. But when you attain unto yourself, the false becomes true, and there is no other truth to which one need attain after that.
  • Autocephalic uroborus
  • Beauty does not belong to a woman and it is not her specific quality – it is just that at a certain time of her life her face reflects beauty, as a windowpane reflects the sun that is hidden behind the roof of the houses. And so we cannot say that a woman’s beauty faced with time – it is simply that the sun moves on and the windows of other houses begin to reflect it. But we know the sun is not in the windowpanes that we look at. It is in us.
  • One should not become attached to words. They are only required as fleeting footholds. If you attempt to carry them with you, they will drag you down into the abyss. Therefore, they should be cast off immediately.
  • ‘In this world there is nothing but dust. But when a heavenly being sees the dust, she remembers the light that makes the dust visible. While a tailless monkey only sees the dust on which the light falls. That’s why, when a heavenly being dies, she becomes light. But when a tailless monkey dies, he becomes dust.

    ‘Light, dust,’ he said, ‘so there’s something there after all! There is some kind of individual personality. You’ve definitely got one, Ginger. I’ve felt pretty strongly just recently. Or will you tell me I’m wrong?’

    ‘This personality, with all its quirks and stupidities simply dances like a doll in the clear light of my mind. And the more stupid this doll’s quirks, the clearer the light that I recognise over and over again.’

    ‘Now you’re saying ‘my mind’. But you only just said it’s not yours.’

    ‘That’s the way language works. It’s the root from which infinite human stupidity grows. And we were-creatures suffer from it too, because we’re always talking. It’s not possible to open your mouth without being wrong. So you shouldn’t haggle over words.’

 

[Despite the bleak overtone of a post-Soviet outlook, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf remains cheerful with a certain Nirvanic lyricism. This beautiful, tragicomical Russian satire is about the deepening loneliness of cynical souls embedded in 21st-century emptiness searching for fulfillment.

I picked up this book on the sole premise that I thoroughly enjoyed Helmet of Horror and it did not fail to please. A modern-day philosophical fairytale threaded through with quantum physics, existential nihilism and literature, this book is a treat and deserves a rereading many times over.]

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  • Thus he died, and all the life struggled out of him;
    And as he died he spattered me with the dark red
    And violence-driven rain of bitter-savored blood
    To make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
    Of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.
  • Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.
  • …and I was initially attracted to her because she seemed like an intelligent, brooding malcontent like myself; but after about a month, during which time she’d firmly glued herself to me, I began to realise, with some little horror, that she was nothing more than a lowbrow, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath. It lasted forever, like some weepy and endless made-for-TV movie – all the clinging, all the complaints, all the parking lot confessions of ‘inadequacy’ and ‘poor self-image’, all those banal sorrows.

 

[The Secret History isn’t the kind of narrative that would move or wrench powerful emotions out of you, but once in a while it does bring back the stink of inflated pubescent self-worthiness and might make you recall (if albeit fondly) about the over-glorification of being ‘cool’, ‘popular’, being in ‘love’ or ‘different’, that you and your peers might have strove (secretly, resignedly – knowing you will fail, or outrightly) to achieve.

It might remind you of your unsteady transition from post-adolescence into adulthood, or of the times when reason evaded you on why you were working so hard to complete your dissertation, why you were attending classes in the morning or why you had to show up for group projects. It might also remind you of the shallow fear that grips you unexpectedly when you were unsure if wearing a particular article of clothing might tip the scales ever so slightly away from looking like you have a genuine passion in acquiring knowledge to appearing pretentious and dilettante-like.

This book is fraught with the loss of time and youth. Lost time, wasted time. Blighted youth, smeared by alcohol and drugs, wasted youth. It draws to light the filth in which we emerge from to become adults and makes you ponder – long after you have turned the last page – how many of us actually manage to leave it behind when we journey into the next phase.]

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

  • That passage from To the Lighthouse echoed something of Woolf’s I already knew, her essay about walking that declared, ‘As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self that our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s room…Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give one the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.’ For Woolf, getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.
  • …all enquiry and all learning is but recollection.
  • The colour of that distance is the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not.
  • But in this world we actually live in, distance ceases to be distance and to be blue when we arrive in it. The far becomes near, and they are not the same place.
  • Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.
  • ‘Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it was an explanation of the world ‘track’ in Tibetan: shul, ‘a mark that remains after that which made it has passed away – a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.
  • The process of transformation consists mostly of decay and then of this crisis when emergence from what came before must be total and abrupt.
  • Instar implies something both celestial and ingrown, something heavenly and disastrous, and perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far.
  • Writing is the most disembodied art, and reading and writing are largely private and solitary experiences, so music and dance have always enchanted me as arts in which the body of the performer communicates directly to the audience, welding a kind of communion writers rarely experience.
  • She had the nonchalance and style that mean so much to adolescents, who are urgently constructing a persona to meet the world, and this achievement is the antithesis of the openness that might make clear to self and others what one wants and needs. The currents of emotions that buffeted us were still invisible an unnamed.
  • We talked while the full moon mounted in the sky, words filling up the narrow space between us, as much a buffer as a link.
  • I wondered then and wonder now how I could give all this up for what cities and people have to offer, for it ought to be less terrible to be lonely than to have stepped out of this sense of a symbolic order that the world of animals and celestial light offers, but wiring is lonely enough, a confession to which there will be no immediate or commensurate answer, an opening statement in a conversation that falls silent or takes place long afterward without the author. But the best writing appears like those animals, sudden, self-possessed, telling everything and nothing, words approaching wordlessness. Maybe writing is its own desert, its own wilderness.
  • We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

  • The past was a light that if properly directed could illumine the present more brightly than any contemporary lamp. Greatness was like the sacred flame of Olympus, handed down from the great to the great. Alexander modeled himself on Archilles, Caesar followed in Alexander’s footsteps, and so on. Understanding was another such flame. Knowledge was never simply born in the human mind; it was always reborn. The relaying of wisdom from one age to the next, this cycle of rebirths: this was wisdom. All else was barbarity.
  • ‘Weave a nest for yourself in the depths of my eyes.’ – Ali-Shir Nava’i

The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau

  • ‘Well, how often have I heard the imperious voice of murder snarling in me! How often I have felt the desire rising in a surge of blood from the depths of my being to my brain – that bitter, violent and almost invincible desire to kill. Do not believe that this desire arose in a passionate crisis, accompanied by sudden, unreflective rage, or was combined with a keen lust for money. Not at all! This desire is born suddenly – powerful and unjustified in me – for no reason and apropos of nothing…In the street, for example, behind the back of an unknown pedestrian. Yes, there are some backs on the street that cry for the knife. Why?
  • This instinctive need, which is the mainspring of all living organisms, is developed by education. Instead of being restrained, and is sanctified by religion instead of being denounced, everything conspires to make it the pivot upon which our admirable society revolves. As soon as man awakens to consciousness, we instill the spirit of murder in his mind. Murder, expanded to the status of a duty, and popularized to the point of heroism, accompanies him through all the stages of his existence. He is made to adore uncouth gods, mad, furious gods who are only gratified by cataclysms and, ferocious maniacs that they are, gorge themselves with human lives and mow down nations like fields of wheat. He is made to respect only heroes, those disgusting brutes saddled with crime and red with human blood. The virtues by which he rises above others, and which win him glory, fortune and love, are based entirely upon murder. In war, he discovers the supreme synthesis of the eternal and everlasting folly of murder – regulated, regimented and obligatory – a national function. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will always see that word: murder – immortally inscribed upon the pediment of that vast slaughter-house – humanity.
  • ‘Oh, I know well enough. I had killed him! He was dead of cerebral congestion.’ – Murder is born of love, and love attains the greatest intensity in murder. There is the same physiological exaltation, there are the same gestures of strangling and biting – and often the same words occur during identical spasms.
  • If she does not execute them with her own hands, which are often too weak, you will find her moral presence, her ideas, and her sex expressed in their ferocity and implacability.

Antifragile: How to Live in a World We don’t Understand by Nassim Nicolas Taleb

– I feel anger and frustration when I think that one in ten Americans beyond the age of high school is on some kind of antidepressant, such a Prozac. Indeed, when you go through mood swings, you now have to justify why you are not on some kind of medication. There may be a few good reasons to be on medication, in severely pathological cases, but my mood, my sadness, my bouts of anxiety, are a second source of intelligence – perhaps even the first source. I get mellow and lose physical energy when it rains, become more meditative, and tend to write more and more slowly then, with the raindrops hitting the window, what Verlaine called ‘autumnal sobs’ (sanglots). Some days I enter poetic melancholic states, what the Portuguese call saudade or the Turks hüzün (from the Arabic word for sadness). Other days I am more aggressive, have more energy – and will write less, walk more, do other things, argue with researchers, answer emails, draw graphs on blackboards. Should I be turned into a vegetable or a happy imbecile?

Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s ‘spleen’, Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many toerh poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced…
If large pharmaceutical companies were able to eliminate the seasons, they would probably do so – for a profit, of course.

There is another danger: in addition to harming children, we are harming society and our future. Measures that aim at reducing variability and swings in the lives of children are also reducing variability and differences within our said to be Great Culturally Globalised Society.

– Fractal self-similarity: Benoit Mandelbrot: The cell has a population of intercellular molecules; in turn the organism has a population of cells, and the species has a population of organisms. A strengthening mechanism for the organism for the species comes at the expense of some cells; in turn the organism strengthens at the expense of some cells, all the way down and all the way up as well.

For instance, if you drink a poisonous substance in small amounts, the mechanism by which your organism gets better is, according to Danchin, evolutionary within your system, with bad (and weak) proteins in the cells replaced by stronger – and younger – ones and the stronger ones getting spared (or some similar operation). When you starve yourself of food, it is the bad proteins that are broken down first and recycled by your own body – a process called autophagy. This is a purely evolutionary process, one that selects and kills the weakness for fitness. But one does not need to accept the specific biological theory (like aging proteins and autophagy) to buy the general idea that survival pressures within the organism play a role in its overall improvement under external stress.

– Procrustean Bed: Procrustes was an innkeeper in Greek mythology who, in order to make the travellers fit his bed, cut the limbs of those who were too tall and stretched those who were too short. But he had the bed fitting the perfect visitor with total perfection. Treating the organism like a simple machine is kind of simplification or approximation or reduction that is exactly like a Procrustean bed. It is often with the most noble intentions that we do so, as we are ‘pressured’ to fix things, so we often blow them up with our fear of randomness and love of smoothness. Where simplifications fail, causing the most damage, is when something nonlinear is simplified with the linear as a substitute. This is the most common Procrustean bed.

– TELL THEM I LOVE (SOME) RANDOMNESS: What do we call here Modernity? My definition of modernity is humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systematic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors.

Modernity corresponds to the systematic extraction of humans from their randomness-laden ecology – physical and social, even epistemological. Modernity is not just the postmedieval, postargrarian, and postfeudal historical period as defined in sociology textbooks. It is rather the spirit of an age marked by rationalisation (naïve rationalism), the idea that society is understandable, hence must be designed, by humans. With it was born statistical theory, hence the beastly bell curve. So was linear science. So was the notion of ‘efficacy’ – or optimisation.

Modernity is a Procrustean bed, good or bad – a reduction of humans to what appears to be efficient and useful. Some aspects of it work: Procrustean beds are not all negative reductions. Some may be beneficial, though these are rare.

Consider the life of a lion in the comfort and predictability of the Bronx Zoo (with Sunday afternoons visitors flocking to look at him in a combination of curiosity, awe and pity) compared to that of his cousins in freedom. We, at some point, had free-range humans and free-range children before the advent of the golden period of the soccer mom.

We are moving into a phase of modernity marked by the lobbyist, the very, very limited liability corporation, the MBA, sucker problems, secularisation (or rather the reinvention of new sacred values like flags to replace altars), the tax man, fear of the boss, spending the weekend in interesting places and the workweek in a putatively less interesting one, the separation of ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ (though the two would look identical to someone from a wiser era), the retirement plan, argumentative intellectuals who would disagree with this definition of modernity, literal thinking, inductive inference, philosophy of science, the invention of social science, smooth surfaces, and egocentric architects. Violence is transferred from individuals to states. So is financial indiscipline. At the centre of all this is the denial of antifragility.

There is a dependence on narratives, an intellectualisation of actions and ventures. Public enterprises and fucntionaries – even employees of large corporations – can only do things that seem to fit some narrative, unlike businesses that can just follow profits, with or without a good-sounding story. Remember that you need a name for the colour blue when you build a narrative, but not in action –the thinker lacking a word for the colour ‘blue’ is handicapped; not the doer. (I’ve had a hard time conveying to intellectuals the intellectual superiority of practice.)

Modernity widened the difference between the sensational and the relevant – in a natural environment the sensational is, well, sensational for a reason; today we depend on the press for such essentially human things as gossip and anecdotes and we care about the private lives of people in very remote places.

Indeed, in the past, when we were not fully aware of antifragility and self-organisation and spontaneous healing, we manged to respect these properties by constructing beliefs that served the purpose of managing and surviving uncertainty. We imparted improvements to the agency of god(s). We may have denied that things can take care of themselves without some agency. But it was the gods that were the agents, not Harvard-educated captains of the ship.

So the emergence of the nation-state falls squarely into this progression – the transfer of agency to mere humans. The story of the nation-state is that of the concentration and magnification of human errors. Modernity starts with the state monopoly on violence, and ends with the state monopoly on fiscal irresponsibility.

E-resources

1. The Secular Web, A drop of reason in a pool of confusion; essays, reviews, articles, papers & critiques, a free thought resource) – http://infidels.org/library/historical/author.html

2. Bank of Wisdom (E-Books of Atheism, Freethought, Religion, History, Philosophy, Science, Politics, Economics) – http://bankofwisdom.com/

3. The Autodidact Project (A database for self-education) – http://www.autodidactproject.org/

4. Poetry Foundation (archive of poems available) – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/browse/poets

5. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – http://www.iep.utm.edu/