Superface (Kiss My Hairy Face, a Hipster Rap)

Here’s my second stab at a music video. Special thanks to my friends Joanna Zheng and Gary Gao for helping me to film this on location in Bushwick, and to Chris Tokita for helping me edit the sound. I shot it on my camera and edited it using Lightworks. The lyrics are below.

***

You might think that you know me,
But at last I’ve turned the tables!
This gold ring in my nostril proves
That I defy your labels.
I’m rocking this wool cap
And a beard that looks like crap
And in case you missed the news
I look fierce in canvass shoes.
Take a look, but not too close,
I don’t wear socks, so they smell gross.

The rims of my glasses are thick and absurd.
I basically look like I’m one giant nerd.
My pea-coat is vintage, my pants super tight,
The shape of my testicles lies in plain sight.
These Civil War mutton chops both look like hell,
This sweater is right out of Saved By the Bell.
Sipping a fro-yo, I play with my yo-yo,
Passing chain restaurants, I tell my friends “hell, no.”
That meal once had feet, be it fish, fowl, or meat.
And gluten free wheat germ is all that I’ll eat.

Unwashed and contentious,
I’m very annoying and pretentious.
But all of you can kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

I love to use phrases like badass and dude,
I’m grungy and lazy and stuck up and rude.
I live in a basement. I have no emotion.
My love life involves a computer and lotion.
Get off of my case.
We artists need our space.

Listen to pop and I’ll call you a fool.
I only like music before it is cool.
Your shade bounces off me just like an elastic.
Bombastic, sarcastic, and unenthusiastic,
I’m not too gymnastic or very scholastic,
MTV’s classic. I’m being sarcastic.
If you are rich and your parents tote plastic,
Life here in Bushwick is fucking fantastic.
I party and drink and I vomit all night,
Then sipping my latte at Starbucks I write
Pompous haikus about guilt being white.
My mind’s a chariot for the proletariat.
So my scarf is sewn from fur of yak,
Weaved by orphans from Iraq.
And doing my part to promote social war,
I only buy weed from my brothers, the poor.

Clever and sardonic,
My tattoo of Pikachu is ironic.
But all of you can all kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

When I make my daily calls
To the thrift store at the malls
I read Mao’s Little Red Book in the stalls,
So capitalism can suck on my balls!
Get off of my case.
We artists need our space.

And if you dare to mock me as you pass,
Then I’ll occupy your bourgeois ass.
Down with the man! You better get off me
Before I scald your face with fair trade coffee.

You are just a cliché.
So who really cares what you have to say?
You are just a cliché.
So who really cares what you have to say?

I’m a spoiled brat with artistic pretensions,
I deserve to be the world’s center of attention.
But haters can all kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

I’ll never conform.
I refuse to reform.
Each day of the week
I’m completely unique.
You’ll never define me.
So give me no lip, sir,
Oh shit. Now I realize
I’m just a hipster.

Better hitch my saddle,
Head off to Seattle…or Portland.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VI (The World Turned Upside Down)

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I turned Thomas onto his head, swinging him around in circles by his feet for a while.

“The world’s turned upside down!” he shrieked to the rhythm if not the tune of the popular song.

I set him down and ruffled his hair. Then I continued speaking with him about the family. Perhaps I could steal further truths from the mouths of these babes.

“So why did your parents appoint you two wee sentinels to wait for me?”

“Well, we weren’t exactly waiting for you,” said Thomas, obliviously contradicting what he’d said a moment ago. “Orchid said that we could recite our lessons outside today. We make too much noise indoors. Mama is going to have her baby any day now and has to stay in bed all the time… Besides, the parlor has been even hotter than the garden since Fuad left us.”

“Fuad?”

“The boy who swings the ceiling fan. He’s my friend, even though he is just a punkah wallah. Nanna Molly says that he’s run off. But the truth is that his parents forced him to stop coming to the Highlands. Everyone’s afraid of what will happen if the mutiny comes here… Anyway, I like being outside! Julia and me are lucky.”

“Julia and I, dummy!” she said, unable to resist the urge to correct someone.

“Who cares? It’s a holiday in the garden today instead of boring history lessons!”

“So you weren’t waiting for me?”

“Not exactly. But Christopher has been driving back and forth between here and Cawnpore ever since we heard you’d come back to India. The Grand Trunk Road is dangerous, Uncle Maxim. No one travels overland anymore—not even by bullock cart.”

This answer pleased me. At least it provided a justification for the lack of a proper reception. After all, my family couldn’t have known precisely when I’d be back. And there was a crisis afoot. For a moment, I’d almost forgotten about that. No one would take the trouble to pretend to be caught off-guard by my arrival. No one but Christopher, anyway, who would never admit that he was out looking for me every day.

Just then, I heard him humming Loch Lomond. He’d evidently settled his accounts with the bullock and was ready to join us.

“Hey baldy, where’s these children’s ayah?” I said as soon as he arrived. His nostrils flared in response to my taunt.

“You aren’t bald,” cried Julia, running to embrace him. “It’s only that you have a high forehead. You’re the most handsome man in the District. Yulan told me that everybody thinks so!”

“It’s outrageous for these children to be left alone like this,” I said. “The heat alone could kill them. I thought I saw their ayah on the verandah when I was getting out of the hackery, but she seems to have vanished.”

“Orchid says that she has a headache,” said Thomas, responding before Christopher had a chance to do so (he was still fuming, by the way; my insult had been a simple but effective one). “She always pretends to have headaches. I hate her.”

“How can you speak that way in front of a stranger?” said Julia. “And her name isn’t Orchid. It’s Yulan.”

“You’re the only one who calls her by that name. And besides, I’m just telling the truth. That’s what General Washington always did. Isn’t that right, Christopher?”

“Christopher!” said Julia, “explain to Thomas that he shouldn’t speak so rudely about Yulan. She’s wonderful. Besides, tell him that it doesn’t matter what he thinks about her. He should never let anybody know. Explain to him that he has to learn to be a better liar if he wants to be a proper English gentleman.”

“Bloody hell!” cried Christopher, sending the children into peals of laughter. “Don’t tell your mothers I said that.”

Julia was pleased that her words had managed to provoke such a scandalous reaction. She proceeded to speak with decreasing reluctance. Christopher’s being there gave her an excuse to be talkative. But she had yet to address even a single sentence to me directly.

“Yulan taught me all about English manners. She said that if there’s one thing she’s realized since leaving China, it’s that the art of being an English gentleman is the same as the art of being a good liar.”

“What jaded nonsense!” I said. “Your parents should send you both off to school in Scotland.”

“Oh never!” gasped Thomas as if I’d just wished a tumor on him.

“You need better teachers than what you can find here.” Then, I addressed Christopher with a wink. “Auntie Francis and Auntie Marie could take them in, as they did Vivian and me. Why, I wager that Thomas can’t even read.”

“I can so read!”

“And I can read too!” said Julia to Christopher, childishly eager to reclaim the interest of the group but still pointedly ignoring me. “Yulan taught me two years ago. I was so smart that I didn’t even need to be sent to Mr. Shiels’ school in Fatehgurh. And I can even read some Chinese too. Can’t I, Christopher?”

“Who cares about Chinese?” laughed Thomas. “Orchid is a Celestial, but even she speaks English.”

“Her name is Yulan!”

“I don’t care! Chinese is useless. And by the way, Julia,  by the time that we grow up everybody in the world will speak English because Britannia rules the waves! Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Britons, never never never never never…” his boyish satisfaction intoning the song in a mechanical monotone overcame his desire to complete the verse.

“This is all horribly irresponsible,” I took the opportunity to say to Christopher, scratching Thomas playfully on his head as he continued to intone never never never. “It is scalding out here, and the baba logue are completely unsupervised.”

“Don’t repeat yourself when you have nothing interesting to say, Maxim. And anyway, what does the heat have to do with the importance of supervision?”

“Well, suppose that the little girl should faint.”

“She seems wakeful enough to me,” said Christopher as Julia tugged energetically on Thomas’ hair. Instinctively aware that she was a subject of interest again, she released her victim and threw her arms about Christopher, catching sneaking glances at me as she did so. I knew that her flirtatious playfulness with him was a way of torturing me. She resembled her mother closely.

“Oh, Christopher!”

“Yes?”

“I wish that Uncle Peter would throw a burra khana for you.”

“A burra khana for me? Aren’t there other people around here a little more deserving of the honor of a party, Julia? Someone who’s been away a long time?”

“I don’t care who he throws it for…”

“You mean, you don’t care whom he throws it for, bitch,” chimed Thomas. Then he immediately turned to me and pleaded, “Please don’t tell Nana Molly that I called her a bitch, but she’s being a great big one!”

“I want us to have a burra khana very badly,” continued Julia angrily. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had any fun in the District. I went to a burra khana thrown by Mr. Hillersdon last February in Cawnpore and wore a real taffeta gown. Mother sewed it for me, and I still have it in my wardrobe.”

“How boring!” cried Thomas. “Uncle Maxim doesn’t give a shit about taffeta gowns, do you Uncle Maxim?”

“Thomas, your language!” screamed Julia. “That’s enough.”

“He curses like a third mate on shore leave these days,” said Christopher. “Of course, Molly is livid, but Peter finds it all too amusing to really discipline him.”

“But gentlemen shouldn’t swear in the presence of ladies, should they, Thomas?” I asked in imitation of my father at his most patronizing.

“Julia’s no lady,” he laughed. “And didn’t Christopher say bloody hell? Besides, I wouldn’t ever talk like this in front of Nanna Molly or Mama or Ayah Rupee. Im not stupid. They’d box my ears.”

“Would you dance with me at a burra khana if we threw one?” continued Julia sweetly to Christopher. “I’ve been practicing the quadrille with mother, you know.”

“After the dance, maybe Uncle Christopher could do magic tricks,” said Thomas. “What he did with the cards just now is better than anything I saw at Rob’s birthday party, when we had that scary snake charmer who made me want to cry.”

“I’m afraid that you’re describing me like a professional clown.”

“You are sort of a clown with your magic tricks and red hair and tan face and blue eyes!”

I grabbed the boy and mercilessly tickled him. He squealed before squirming out of my grip.

“I was only telling you the truth, Uncle Maxim, just like General Washington always did. Uncle Maxim?

“Yes?

“What did you get me from China?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Who told you that I was in China?”

“Papa. He said that you were probably a moonshee there.”

“I was in Nicaragua,” I yelped. “I was a freebooter.”

“What did you get me?”

“The deck of trick cards.”

“Is that all?”

“I’d be too afraid of catching fleas to touch any of his gifts,” said Julia.

“Who asked you?” bellowed the little boy. “Most women go mad once a month, but you’re daft every day!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll push you over!”

“Be quiet, or I’ll pull out all your hair!”

Suddenly, Julia whispered something into Thomas’ ear. She was wearing a calico dress I recalled as having once belonged to Vivian. I struggled to resurrect my memory of her mother as a child. I searched for Vivian in her daughter’s eyes and recognized the shadow of my beloved. But her mother’s complexion, I thought to myself, was even more achingly white.

“Listen, Christopher!” chirped Julia, tugging at his sleeve.  “I want to show you what a good teacher Yulan is… better than any professor in Scotland. Thomas, recite the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“I hate my history lessons!”

“Recite the story… or I’ll pinch you.”

“The blind are leading the blind,” I sighed. “Honestly, it’s like a crime to leave two kids to their own devices like this with a mutiny festering in the District. The ayah needs to learn her place.”

“I quite agree with you, Mr. Maxwell,” suddenly rang a pure English voice. “If I saw that damned Johnny, I’d slap her face.”

A young Chinese woman presently approached us, little Rob in her arms. When we first drove up to the garden, I thought that I’d seen her in the distance cooling herself on the verandah with a bone fan, but she’d disappeared by the time that I met the children. In the meantime she’d crept up on us with such suddenness that she quite startled me. I recall that she smelled of vetiver, even then. Her race blinded me to her beauty.

On Beauty and Taste: A Refutation of Kant’s Aesthetics

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Is there a fundamental relationship between art and beauty, and is there a universal standard of good critical taste in art? After some reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to both questions must be yes. But neither Winckelmann nor Fry have satisfactorily supplied the standard to which I’m referring, and while my position speciously seems to evoke Kant’s concepts of “pure taste” and “free beauty,” my model in fact necessitates the very abrogation of these categories. I realize that I am tussling with giants here—the greatest art critics of all time, and one of the greatest philosophers. I also understand that attempts to do what I’m doing here have historically been associated with the application of rigidly judgmental regulations meant to limit what constituted “good art.” These stipulations were more often than not associated with hegemonic discourse that neglected and underrated the profundity of non-traditional arts, to say nothing of masterpieces from diverse cultural traditions. I am interested in accomplishing nothing of the sort here.

Instead, I want to examine the way that autonomous subjects experience beauty, exploring why they seem to derive pleasure from the mere contemplation of proportions, which is not obvious by any means. With so much done, in a future essay I’ll go on to investigate what the implications of my model suggest about whether or not the ability to recognize beauty is the fundamental feature of effective art criticism, and whether this suggests that there are certain universally applicable standards of good taste in art as I understand it. But the first thing to do is to define “beauty” and “taste” in terms that are useful to the discussion at hand, and this task will form an appropriate preamble to my forthcoming diatribe on the contemporary state of popular criticism.

We’ve heard that “beauty is that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to an object’s proportions[1] in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover.” This definition provides us with an interesting starting point. But perhaps we can be more precise. Beauty is a good in itself because the sensual experience of the proportions associated with beauty necessarily results in strong positive sentiment. But how can this pleasure derived from the sensual experience of proportions in themselves be described? And why should an object’s mere form inspire such stirrings in the first place? What constitutes “beauty” in the simplest terms? Is it some magnificent objective property that miraculously graces certain objects but not others? Or is it an imaginary phenomenon in the mind of a subject that only exists when it is perceived?

As I understand it, a subject experiences beauty as a kind of deeply satisfying imaginary symmetry between their unconscious preexisting idea of the good (shaped partly by biology, partly by past memories, and partly by internalized cultural discourse) and their conscious perception of the immediate object in question; the more closely that the object’s features conform to preconceptions[2] of the good, the more congruous the association between unconscious exemplary expectations and conscious perception becomes, and the more beautiful the object consequently appears to the viewer. It strikes me that if this schematization is useful, beauty can be philosophically understood as a kind of pleasing tripartite association between an object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious preconceptions about the standards that make it “good.”

It’s worth dwelling on this model for a moment. It suggests that the pleasure associated with beauty is essentially a sense of deep satisfaction connected to the recognition and contemplation of associations related to the good; in other words, a beautiful object reminds us of our preexisting standards of the good, and we derive pleasure from the recognition of their actualization in nature. In fact, our pleasure subsequently seems to validate and confirm the original standards. After all, the contemplation of their flourishing embodiment in the form of the object under observation has just made us happy as if by magic, and the ability to inspire such spontaneous pleasure is the sole criterion of beauty. The true source of our pleasure, however, is hidden in our unconscious reasons for our personal taste. In our blindness to them, we ascribe the “beauty” to the object itself, and do not realize that it exists only as a relationship in our own minds between the object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious associations involving what it reminds us of.

The derivation of continued pleasure in an object’s fulfillment of unconscious aesthetic standards thus becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—we consider certain features to be beautiful because they meet our preconceptions about what should make us happy, and their very congruity with our preconceptions when actualized in nature is enough to actually make us so. This is why beauty is an inexhaustible and endless source of pleasure in itself. The sense of free play in the mind as we dwell upon the pleasing relationship between the sum and its parts and all of the positive associations that it calls to mind produces a sense of fun and excitement. The object appears uncannily familiar to us because its constituent building blocks and the relationship between them call to mind the fulfillment of what we already yearned to see.[3]

Now, since every subject has access to a divergent store of memories and interprets and reacts to cultural discourse in radically different ways, a truly impartial or disinterested critical appraisal of beauty seems impossible to me, and here I must begin my quarrel with Kant. To make a Kantian judgment of “pure taste” is to be completely indifferent to all preconception, bias, and cultural discourse. Kant believed that such a judgment would be universally valid for all subjects. Yet if what I have said so far is correct, preconception, bias, and cultural discourse are in fact the very determinants of that which we find to be “good” in the first place, and consequently, what we consider to be beautiful. I could uncharitably compare Kantian “pure taste” to the experience of beauty from the perspective of a child, with access to few memories and little understanding of culture or history. The Kantian youth was never taught to be a sensitive judge of beauty. Their opinion is based on whims and first impressions, and they often render that which is gratifying to the sensual desires of the moment synonymous with that which is transcendentally beautiful. Indeed, as an adult, the child’s ultimate judgment of beauty will be partly informed by these infantile whims and first impressions along with a nexus of memories associated with individualized pleasures and pains engrained deep in the unconscious, structuring aesthetic taste. But the adult’s opinions will be moderated by the wisdom born of the old Confucian triad of experience, reflection, and imitation. Unfortunately for the Kantian model of a universalizing judgment of pure taste, however, this wisdom necessarily makes the child less disinterested and impartial, because prejudices and expectations are the attendant consequences of its acquisition.

To be fair, Kant distinguishes between free beauty and contingent beauty; the former can supposedly be understood through “pure taste,” and the latter is dependent upon cultural discourse and preconceptions that stand apart from the mere pleasure that the sensual experience of an object brings us in itself. It seems to me, however, that any subjective claim of beauty is necessarily contingent, insofar as the delight that we experience when we perceive an object is, as I have said before, derived from the recognition of an imaginary symmetry between our perception of an object and individualized standards of goodness grounded in highly personal memories and reactions to biological factors and/or cultural discourse brewing in our unconscious.

To explore whether or not this is the case, let’s look to some examples of objects that might be categorized as Kantian “free beauties” accessible to judgments of pure taste alone, examining how they might problematize or challenge the formula that I’ve just suggested. There are three potential categories of “free beauties” which might be thought to be universally appealing to all subjects capable of taste according to widely held human intuitions about beauty: geometric beauty, certain elegances associated with biological fertility, and the experience of the infinite, or sublime.[4] We will find that even in these special cases, drawn mostly from the world of nature, my descriptive model of beauty and taste will hold water.

I am indebted to Elizabeth Prettejohn’s book Art and Beauty for the idea that “free beauty” accessible to “pure taste” can perhaps most usefully be understood as the loveliness of geometric form in itself. There is a particular kind of beauty associated with simple shapes that might seem to be universally compelling to any subject capable of forming an aesthetic judgment. Human intuition seems to tell us that there is something transcendentally awesome about the grandeur of a perfect snowflake. Indeed, humans find the loveliness of fractals in general to be so intuitive that an aesthetic judgment of a snowflake as a beautiful object is completely uncontroversial in any earthly society. And the human imagination is stretched to the absolute limit by the idea of someone being able to find a pristine snowflake ugly; perhaps a terrible curmudgeon could call it banal, but never ugly. By its very nature, it exhibits a sense of delicate balance between rhetorical categories that are polar opposites to each other, paradoxically reconciling them in a single elegant unbroken shape. Fractals in general can be understood as visual representations of pattern on the brink of chaos. They exhibit impossibly delicate symmetries reinterpreted in infinite creative swirls. The mere contemplation of the complexity and evanescence of something like a snowflake inspires effervescence. We delight in its crystalline delicacy. Its very existence inspires wonder. The object is also completely uncontroversial; an appreciation for the elegance of its shapes threatens no discourse on power, and so discourse in general spares the snowflake from charges of ugliness. Even if the symbol of the Nazis were a snowflake, the shape itself wouldn’t be inherently offensive. It would still be beautiful in itself, though context could of course render it hideous by association.

Yet the matter is not so simple. It immediately strikes me that if an intelligent robot incapable of aesthetic judgment but eager to understand the concept of “ free beauty” were to read my last paragraph, they might charge that I did nothing but describe an object like a snowflake in language that was itself “beautiful,” asserting its relationship to “the good” but trying to prove my point only by using elaborate words and analogies to describe the object in question, adding no new information about it. Regardless of how strong a writer I am, I employed sophisticated vocabulary, rhetorical devices like parallel structure and alliteration, and anthropomorphic terminology: verbs like “exhibit,” “reinterpret” and “create” and nouns like “delicacy” and “elegance.” If my readers were convinced by my description that the snowflake is transcendentally beautiful, it was only because they found my prose to be “beautiful.”

What about the snowflake wouldn’t the robots understand that seems so intuitive to humans? I would suggest that the fractal pattern reminds humans of the very structure of their unconscious associations between concepts and memories by way of visual analogy. To use a simpler shape than a fractal as an example, a subject might find an abstract painting of triangle without a base to be beautiful because the three points of the figure can stand by symbolic analogy for three ideas, with the lack of the base representing the lack of a connection between two of the concepts—perhaps someone might think of her husband and her best friend from grammar school, two people who both loved her, but have no relationship to each other. The shape might also remind the observer of a sharp surface like the tip of a dagger, which might call to mind stories of romance or adventure, depending on one’s mood. You see the point. The geometric object’s beauty comes from the way that we humanize it by investing its qualities with symbolic overtones that are interesting to humans because they speak to our memories and experiences. But if this is true, then only subjects capable of reasoning by symbolic analogy are capable of finding a snowflake to be beautiful. Other animals care nothing for its symbolic overtones. For them, it is at best striking, or visually arresting. However, though the ant finds no snowflake to be beautiful, it does in fact experience beauty in other contexts in the form of the elegances of its mating games. In the same way, the ant lives in a society governed by rules, but would never be able to understand the concept of abstract justice. Humans are different from other animals because we were able to transfer our delight in the byzantine intricacies of our own mating games (the original biological locus of our idea of “beauty,” as we will see, below) to a delight in abstract representations of geometrical complexity in general by means of analogy. The word “elegant” can be used to describe a snowflake, but the terminology tellingly evokes concepts associated with sex and reproduction.

Thus, the contemplation of the snowflake only reveals beauty because the sight of the object leads to a free play in the mind as we personify its features and play about with psychosexual analogies inspired by its constituent parts. Our preexisting standards are nevertheless still structured by biology, our memories, and cultural discourse. Biology provides a tendency to associate the qualities of being intricate and symmetrical with healthfulness in the mating game. Memories associated with the close observation of shimmering, delicate, and harmless objects are likely to be positive or innocuous. And cultural discourse proverbially enshrines the idea that a snowflake is something beautiful; to be insensitive to its intricacies is to declare oneself barbarous and close-minded. But in fact, the pristine snowflake is no more inherently beautiful to all subjects than a filthy hailstone is. Consider that when it comes to mere form, any object can inspire a wealth of potential symbolic analogies, from a crack in the sidewalk to the Mona Lisa. What makes an object “beautiful” is our anchoring of those series of analogies in a sense that the object we are looking at is making us spontaneously happy, drawing us to continue looking at it. Something about it inspires us to linger and imagine. Beauty can be found in some measure in all things by a sensitive viewer, particularly when an object is viewed in close detail. Under a microscope, divorced of contaminating context, all things are beautiful. But only to a viewer capable of reasoning by sophisticated symbolic analogy, and one preprogrammed with standards of the good whose fulfillment results in a feeling of pleasure.[5]

So much for geometric beauty. Now, let’s consider the elegances associated with biological fertility more closely. Human intuition suggests that there is something inherently beautiful about a thriving rose in full bloom. Its vivid scent and colors were shaped by evolution to attract animals to spread its seed. So too the magnificent plumage of a peacock, or the intricate courtship songs of several different species of insects. Could Kantian “free beauty” be associated with an identity as a thriving member of a class exhibiting healthfulness rather than sickliness? To put it another way, that which is “flourishing” can be defined as the most likely of its class to reproduce in beauty. So if we recognize a flourishing state, do we inherently recognize the transcendentally beautiful? The strongest affirmative argument might be presented in the following way: All flourishing members of a class are necessarily beautiful, because the concept of “flourishing” necessarily involves the concept of the “good,” and if something is comprehended to be flourishing on the basis of its proportions alone, then the “good” must be evoked in the subject’s mind automatically, and the object is thus necessarily beautiful according to the Kimelian definition.

But the argument does not hold water. In the first place, we should remember that truth and beauty are distinct categories: they can both be conceptualized as inherently “good” in themselves, but the truth is not necessarily universally beautiful. We must not mistake the comprehension of the truth (such as the recognition of the fact that something is flourishing and exhibiting traits associated with being healthy) with a universalizing aesthetic judgment of beauty. We can take intellectual pleasure in our awareness of the truth, which is a good in itself, without reveling in the proportions of the object that we are scrutinizing. An appreciation of beauty is something deeper than mere understanding—we not only recognize the truth about an object, but associate that truth with pre-programmed ideas about what is good for us individually on the basis of taste. The elegances of a flourishing cockroach might be beautiful to other cockroaches but are not inherently so to human subjects, even if they recognize that the beast is flourishing according to the aesthetic standards of other monsters. Moreover, that which constitutes a flourishing state is very much shaped by context. A white coat might make it difficult for a certain species of rabbit to stand out in the mating game, but when climate change brings about colder winters, their brightly colored rivals will appear no different, but no longer be flourishing.

However, even if the elegances of the mating game do not redeem “free beauty” and “pure taste,” they are still of great importance to my conceptual model of aesthetic judgment. The first and murkiest experience of beauty must have come into existence among animals who preferred sensory displays in their mates that were associated with healthfulness (symmetrical features, a powerful voice, etc.) to sensory displays that were associated with sickliness and weakness (the original form of “ugliness”). Tellingly, we did not evolve in such a way that we automatically associate all sources of pain with the ugly. Fire is inherently harmful, and so is looking at the sun, but neither the sun nor a flame are at all ugly to human perception, though they are both dangerous. At the same time, the most lethal plants can be vividly colored; the wing of the butterfly, one of the great masterpieces of nature, evolved to advertise toxicity. The brilliant colors did not delight other animals; they only startled them. The upshot of all of this is clear. Animals did not evolve to find the dangerous to be ugly, or the striking to be beautiful. We evolved to find the sickly and that which leads to contamination through direct contact to be ugly. And we evolved to find those proportions and characteristics associated with the attributes of flourishing and healthy members of our own kind to be beautiful.

Thus, it seems to me that only the evolution of mating rituals distinguishing between the healthy and the weak provided animals with the possibility of experiencing beauty, though preferences for different kinds of foods might have been an earlier antecedent of aesthetic taste. Before these rituals came into existence and were abstracted by intelligent analogy to other dramatic and elaborate displays in nature, no animal could possibly find the wing of a butterfly to be beautiful, except for another butterfly. At best, it was visually striking. That which is striking often constitutes beauty, but is not necessarily synonymous with it. To the fly, a corpse dies in beauty—the aroma is intoxicating, and the greens and blues and purples of the rotting flesh teem with new life in the form of maggots. But to us, the condition of a corpse essentially delineates ugliness.

There is a final category to consider: the sublime. The lone wolf howls at the moon and feels the wind against its snout as it peers over a valley, hungering for something indescribable. Objects or images called sublime are diverse, but often have this unifying element in common: they involve the juxtaposition of grand opposing categories, such as the very large with the very small. The sublime is the feeling of a man staring out over the ocean on a snowy cliff as he contemplates his microscopic place in a mysterious universe. Perhaps the vista ennobles him because it reminds him that he is a part of something grander than himself. But lovely as the image might be to human intuitions, the idea that the grandeur of such scenes should necessarily be synonymous with Kant’s “free beauty” is not at all compelling. There exists inherent conceptual tension when the finite meets the infinite, it is true. But to put it more bluntly and less romantically, small animals feel a sense of awe and intimidation in the presence of things that are larger than they are. That which we call the sublime seems to me to be nothing more than this same feeling masquerading under a more highfalutin moniker. The vista overlooking the misty ocean is associated with the concepts of the infinite and the large, but not necessarily with the good. The lone wolf might well have looked over the valley and felt a sense of deep repugnance rooted in its loneliness being trapped alone and without his pack in a terrifying dark void; dens and closed spaces are more comforting than punishing dramatic mountaintops.

I imagine that humans only found the visual experience of the sublime to be beautiful around the same time that we first found fire to be beautiful. Rather than cowering from the flame, we looked into its shimmering movements and took delight in them because our ability to reason by analogy had grown to be so powerful that we could read the best things about our own world into the moving inferno—in the flame’s flickering, we could perceive the elegant movements of a writhing, flamboyant dance that we could not join, but could at least control so that we could gaze at it at our leisure. It brought us warmth and light. And when it washed over our food, it made it more delicious. It added beauty to our lives thanks to its proportions in themselves. It became worthwhile to care for it and nurture it at the hearth, like a child. The bestial values of physical attractiveness and the pleasurable satiation of hungers had been transferred onto nature by means of analogy. For the first time, fire, that embodiment of danger, was in fact perceived as a beautiful object to be tamed and nurtured. And human nature would never be the same again. The will to conquer the sublime in the same way that we capture mates and control our children (and for the same psychosexual reasons) became foundational to the progress of the species. Fire was the first pet, the first slave, and the first tool of civilization. The ability to find it beautiful by analogy to the human experience transformed the human experience.

***

[1] By “proportions,” I mean relationships between wholes and their constituent parts—whether spatial, thematic, etc.

[2] The constellation of these preconceptions brewing in the unconscious constitute individual taste.

[3] It is a fascinating philosophical question, whether the most dramatic alien landscape in outer space can be described as beautiful even if it is never beheld. Regardless of whether the vista would contain features that humans would unanimously find beautiful, it seems to me that beauty only exists when it is perceived, and that all things are potentially beautiful depending on the viewer’s perspective and proximity. The fact remains, though, that a beautiful object provides pleasure principally because it reminds us of what brought us pleasure in the past, or because cultural discourse tells us that certain standards should be held valuable, or because our genes have programmed us to find certain features automatically attractive.

[4] Kant himself does not mention these examples, but they are the closest things that I can imagine to objects that might speciously seem to be universally beautiful to all subjects.

[5] An intelligent robot might find the snowflake interesting because it inspires visual and conceptual analogies. But it only finds it beautiful when it is preprogrammed with aesthetic standards whose fulfillment is synonymous with the “good,” leading it to preference the object over others. Otherwise any abstract shape could have served just as well to inspire analogies. There is nothing special about the snowflake, except the intuition that delicate ordered existence in the face of the enormous indifference of the universe is something precious and inherently beautiful. This is an important intuition, and the origin of much good in history. But according to this standard, all things that exist are beautiful, and the snow flake is no better. A robot would find a diamond no more inherently beautiful than a pebble.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter V (Children Can Be Cruel)

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The sight of the children left to their own devices just outside the house made me shudder. The irresponsibility of their ayah was beyond belief. The District was in an uproar since rumor began spreading that the East India Company had deliberately smeared the cartridges of the sepoys’ Enfield muskets with the fat of pigs and cows. This would have had the effect of forcing Moslem and Hindoo soldiers alike to compromise their faiths whenever they bit down on the cartridges – a scheme altogether too subtle and insane for the insipid minds of the East India Company to have concocted, I can assure you. But perhaps carelessness was to blame rather than design and just such ingredients were in fact assembled at some factory or another. I really couldn’t say, and don’t imagine that it makes much difference. All of this was only the pretext for the expression of deeper passions. Since its earliest days, the East India Company had relied on battalions of sepoys to guarantee the security of the country. The prospective mutiny of the native soldiers could only be cataclysmic.

Symptoms of outright mutiny first broke out at Berhampore, not far from Calcutta. In February, the 19th Native Infantry was threatened with cannon fire and then disbanded for daring to reject the Enfields. Then in late March, a sepoy by the name of Mungal Pandy did a capital job of stirring up a commotion in the nearby city of Barrackpore. He attacked his Sergeant Major with a sword before being restrained, just barely, by a quick-thinking Brigadier-General. After his hanging, his regiment, the 34th Native Infantry, was similarly disbanded.  It did little good that a handful of diplomatic Company commanders reacted to news from Barrackpore by allowing their troops to bend the rules with regard to the muskets, for example, by letting them grease the cartridges themselves with the lubricants of their choice. This only reinforced the rumor that something was wrong with the Enfields in the first place.

By May 10, hoards of native Indian soldiers in the East India Company’s employ had rebelled against their European officers in Meerut. The sepoys then rampaged on the ancient Mogul capital of Delhi, eviscerating every European they met along the way, or so rumor had it. The parlors of Anglo-India were promptly resounding with what we all prayed were exaggerations about children burned alive in their nurseries and pregnant women disemboweled by mutinous sowars. The doddering Mogul emperor Bahadur Shah, hitherto considered little more than an amateur poet and professional debauchee, was proclaimed the puppet ruler. Masses of discontented mercenaries were soon vying for prominence in the newly resurrected court of the Peacock Throne. Gossip suggested that an all-out revolution against British rule was about to break out in Bengal. The sepoys of Fatehgurh and Cawnpore remained loyal, however temporarily. The pathetically kept secret was that mutiny was expected among them any day, and the local landholding zamindars and their ryots would probably rise alongside them. The best that we could hope for was that the sepoys would march on Delhi and spare the century-old European community of Cawnpore and its environs.

I knew that it would be a chore, a ludicrous effort to pantomime optimism when I reunited with my family. The motives for my homecoming were tortured enough as it was. Now I would be distracted from my purpose by the machinations of unscrupulous strangers who hoped to profit from bloodshed. They whispered that the sepoys’ European commanders were plotting to call them all out on parade and slaughter them with cannon fire. Then, baptisms would be forced across the subcontinent on Musselmen and Hindoos alike. The entire length of the sacred Ganges would be mutilated with irrigation ditches. Women would be forced to break purdah, paraded about in public, and, worst of all, formally educated. Rumor went so far as to claim that the Company would begin paying its employees in tanned strips of cowhide rather than rupees, though that claim always seemed particularly ridiculous to me. But preposterous suggestions mated with half-truths to conceive murderous sentiments in the hearts of the oppressed and the self-righteous. At any rate, truth itself has never been an impediment to the spread of rumors in any time or place. And as I’d soon learn, even the most heinous crimes can be readily sanctified by persecuted imaginations.

Thomas presently  scrambled across the garden to greet me. Because I hadn’t seen him since his infancy, I supposed that his older cousin must have whispered my identity to him. Or rather, I suppose it now—at the time, I was intoxicated by the ganja and somewhat befuddled.

“Uncle Maxim!” he screamed, leaping into my arms with such force that I nearly toppled over.

“Oh, what a fat little boy! Climb down and let me take a look at you before you give me a hernia.”

He was a stout child with lively eyes, the type of boy to be hiding a slingshot or some sort of dead varmint in his back pocket.

“Look at this!” I cried with perhaps greater eagerness than was becoming. I was eager to impress someone again, I suppose. I produced a deck of cards and shuffled it with professional dexterity.

“Pick any card. I won’t look.”

Thomas obliged.

“Was it the Queen of Hearts?”

“No.”

“Rubbish. I’m not wrong.”

“It was the Queen of Clubs.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“It wasn’t!”

“Yes, it was. What sort of a magician are you?”

“Look kid, the entire bloody deck is nothing but Queens of Hearts!”

“Got you to admit your trick, didn’t I, Uncle Maxim? And got you to swear!”

I had to chuckle at that.

“Perhaps he uses the deck to trick travelers out of their money at caravanserais,” offered Julia suddenly. “He looks like a dacoit.

I was too shocked to reply to her directly, so I turned to the boy and said,

“The deck’s a gift for you, Thomas. That’s why I brought it. Do you think that I randomly tramp about with trick sets of cards? Now enjoy your little present, and don’t be so cynical. Believe in magic a bit. I’d also brought a kitten for a certain little girl, but I got hungry along the way and decided to eat it.”

“Thomas, let’s go inside,” ordered Julia with chilling authority for a child of eight. Her surliness reminded me of her father. I hoped for her sake that his broad forehead was the only other feature that she inherited from him. There it was, unmistakable, persistently wrinkled in forethought whenever she was speaking or preparing to speak. This was a girl who would never enjoy the pleasures of polite conversation, I thought to myself. She would always be too busy planning her next move to ever really listen to anybody else.

“Aren’t you going to say hello to Uncle Maxim?” shrieked Thomas.

Julia obliged by glaring at me. Perhaps the child was simply afraid. But at the time, I was quite taken aback. What had her mother and grandmother been telling her about me to inspire this sort of contempt? Thomas improvised as best he could.

“Don’t mind Julia. Papa says that women go mad once a month. It’s our lot as gentlemen to forbear them with patience.”

I roared with laughter, and not only because Julia was prepubescent. Thomas was a perfect parrot of his father Peter, who was always groaning on about “forbearing things with patience.” It was a stock phrase of his since his adolescence.

“Thomas, let’s go inside!” Julia ordered. “We have to feed Ms. Google.”

“I won’t go inside, I won’t!” Then, in a suddenly sweet voice: “I missed you Uncle Maxim! It’s not true the sepoys are going to attack us, is it?”

“God forbid.”

“Of course not. Nothing exciting ever happens around here. Well, anyway, I’m glad that you’re back! It seems like everybody but Christopher is worried and serious these days. But I knew that you’d be different. Ayah Rupee tells us stories about when you were a little boy, so I feel like I know you. And… we’ve been waiting for you to arrive all morning.”

“Have you?”

“The ryots said you reached Cawnpore last week, overland from Calcutta. Gossip travels fast around here. Uncle Maxim?”

“Yes?”

“What’s overland?”

“What does it sound like it means, Thomas? Now come inside!”

“No, Julia! You’re not my bloody mother, and Papa says that only parents have the right to order anyone about. Why are you being so mean to Uncle Maxim?”

“He is no uncle of mine.”

I actually smiled at this. I remembered that I’d worn rags with specific ends in mind. If my appearance so disgusted the girl, it could only mean that my costume was effective. And instinctually, I knew that I couldn’t blame Julia for her haughtiness. I imagined that her fervency that I was no blood relation stemmed from Vivian’s similar insistence, because her mother was in love with me, undoubtedly, and close-minded people would think that since she was my stepmother’s daughter, her affection was unnatural. I told myself that she distanced herself from me as much as possible in conversations with her daughter to justify her love and remove it from the unspeakable taboo of incest in her heart of hearts. I knew that Vivian was being dishonest when she insisted that she felt nothing but a sister’s ardor for me on a certain horrible night. She arched her eyebrows in odd ways when she lied. And as for the anger in her daughter’s voice, well, I’d left the Highlands after I was disinherited, hadn’t I? Perhaps Vivian resented me for leaving her, as I knew that Christopher did.

But something was odd. Thomas had said that I was expected at the Highlands, which meant that Vikram and Ayah Rupee’s acquaintances must have spread the word. Why no entourage, then, to greet me? I suddenly realized that everything was stagecraft. Even Christopher was a liar, divulging nothing about his knowledge that I’d returned. Here was yet another reason to fantasize about punching him in the face. Would everyone else similarly pretend to be taken by surprise, or would they be honest that they knew I was coming but didn’t even care enough to come outside and greet me? Whatever was about to happen, I was prepared for just this sort of theatre.  I was costumed for the part.

On the Singularity, Original Preamble

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I wrote this speech for a competition at Yale; the winners will get to deliver a TED talk in public later this year, which will also be filmed. The final third remains to be completed, but it’s a good start.

***

Is civilization as we know it doomed to extinction within the next hundred years?

The question seems simultaneously so hyperbolic and unfathomable that at first glance, it might be impossible to take it completely seriously. It appears to be fodder for street-corner prophets of doom and crackpots on late night television rather than the subject of serious academic inquiry.

But Stephen Hawking, who is without exaggeration one of the smartest men on Earth, believes that it’s a question worth asking. He warns that the human species is on the verge of a singular and irreversible change, and unfortunately for us, there is strong reason to believe that it might be for the worse.

The culprit isn’t global warming, or nuclear war between superpowers, or the evolution of a deadly airborne virus, though these are all admittedly grave threats to the species. Hawking was in fact speaking about the advent of strong artificial intelligence—that is, computers and robots smarter than human beings. Though it sounds like science fiction, the idea is that such robots might come to dominate us in the wake of the so-called singularity. Hawking elaborates upon this idea at length. He says:

“One can imagine…technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

Hawking isn’t alone in his concerns. Elon Musk, for one, shares the scientist’s apprehensions. Musk is one of the founders of Paypal, the CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X, a multi-billionaire, and a prominent futurist. He said in September of 2014 that artificial intelligence is perhaps “our biggest existential threat.” In fact, he even says of artificial intelligence that we are “summoning the demon.”

If what Hawking and Musk are saying is accurate and machinery is about to become inhabited by independent anthropomorphic wills, we are perhaps talking about nothing less than the most significant paradigm shift in the history of civilization since the advent of the concept of civilization itself. But what exactly is this “singularity” that Hawking and Musk are talking about? Is there actually reason to believe that computers and robots armed with artificial intelligence might try to enslave or destroy humankind? And finally, what should we as a species do about this simultaneously absurd yet horrific prospect? Today, I’m going to explore potential answers to these questions with you. But before I do, I want to tell you a little bit more about myself, and why I became fascinated by these kinds of issues.

I’m a fifth year doctoral student at Yale and the coach of the debate team there. I’m also the founder and president of the Yale Transhumanist Society, which is a group of people interested in exploring the answers to questions about the future intersection of technology and society. You may or may not agree with my conclusions in this talk; my peers on the YTS are certainly far from unanimous when it comes to the answers to these questions. We have drastically different perspectives because we come from very different walks of life: we are undergraduates and graduates, professional students and artists, engineers and philosophers. But what unites us is our belief that the kinds of issues raised in today’s talk are worth exploring now, before it is too late. According to some of the most authoritative voices on the planet, the future of humanity could literally be at stake.

In my case, my field of expertise is ancient history, which at first glance seems like a dubious distinction for someone claiming insight into the nature of the future.  But I’m particularly interested in certain themes that are universal in human history, like the idea of decline and fall. When most people talk about the fall of the Roman Empire, they assert that it was a matter of over-extended frontiers, or barbarian invasions, or in the case of Gibbon, even the coming of Christianity. But I think that Jose Ortega Y Gasset was closer to the mark when he suggested that the ultimate failure of Roman civilization was one of technique. The Romans had no concrete notion of human progress, and their world never industrialized. Hero of Alexandria invented a steam engine in the first century AD, but no one ever considered talking seriously about the technology’s potentially transformative effect on transportation and manufacturing. As far as we know, no one even imagined the possibilities. Ultimately, the steam engine was put to use opening and closing temple doors for the creation of a magical effect in pagan ceremonies.

Instead of investing in the creation of new machines, the Romans relied on slave labor. So the civilization remained trapped in a pre-industrial state, and eventually succumbed to internal and external pressures. But the intriguing fact remains that attitudes toward slavery and technology might have saved the Roman Empire when it was still at its height, or at least radically altered its history for the better. It struck me that there was a lesson to be learned here for modernity. And at the same time, it fascinated me that Vegetius, writing at the end of the empire, warned that technological progress was all that could save the Romans from destruction. These days, the precise opposite state of affairs is being implicitly argued. I wanted to decide for myself whether there was good reason for this shift.

So much for the past. Let’s return our attention to the future. As I said before, we’ll be looking at three issues. What is the singularity, should we be afraid of it, and what should we do about it? Let’s begin with the first question.

Actually, the history of “singularity” as a concept is a bit complicated. The word technically refers to a phenomenon associated with the physics of black holes, where space and time don’t exist as we know them under the influence of an infinite gravitational pull. In the mid 1950s, Stanislaw Ulam, one of the people who worked on the Manhattan project, applied the term to the history of human civilization itself. He said in a conversation with another mathematician that modernity was characterized by an “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” So, initially, the word spoke to the idea that given the rapid rate of technological progress in the modern world, a seminal event beyond which the subsequent history of humanity would seem almost incomprehensible was on the horizon, and the concepts that define life as we know it would lose meaning. But what would the event be?

In the mid 1960s, scientists like Irving Good began to elaborate on the rising intelligence and sophistication of computers. He was a colleague of Alan Turing, and shared his interest in the tangled relationship between computer science and consciousness. Good said that if machines could be created with superhuman intelligence, they would theoretically be able to take control of their own programming and improve their own design continuously until they became so sophisticated, humanity would seem insignificant in comparison.

In 1983, the year I was born, a mathematician named Vernor Vinge became the first person to explicitly associate the word singularity with the creation of machines of superhuman intelligence. He said that when strong AI was created, “human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.”

In recent years, the widespread applicability of Moore’s Law has added a sense of urgency to the issue and propelled Vinge’s definition to the forefront of discourse on the future of human progress. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. What this means is that the general sophistication of electronics expressed in things like processing speed and memory is increasing exponentially. At this rate, it seems almost inevitable that a threshold will be crossed some day and computers will surpass human intelligence, by some estimates within just a few decades from now. (Some question whether Moore’s Law will continue to hold true in the future, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

This is what the word singularity has come to mean as Hawking and Musk understand it. So much for the first question. Now, on to the second. Should we be afraid of the singularity as we’ve just defined it? As a classicist, when I think about the current state of artificial intelligence, I’m reminded of Aristotle’s description of slavery in the fourth century BC. In contrast to the ideas of some sophists that slavery was merely conventional or an accident of circumstance, Aristotle argued something else—that in some cases, slavery was in fact natural. The philosopher believed that hierarchies emerge spontaneously in nature—humans are superior to animals, for example, and the mind rules the limbs. The idea was that those who were able to apprehend rational principles well enough to follow basic orders but who simultaneously had no rational strategic faculties of their own were essentially slaves by nature. Classicists argue endlessly about exactly what Aristotle meant by this. For example, some say he was referring to the mentally handicapped, and there are those who claim that he was talking about barbarian peoples, who were said to lack the logical impulses of the free Greeks. Today, though, it seems to me that the term “natural slave” could well be applied to computer programs like Siri, who are able to understand instructions well enough to do our bidding, but who have no rational will or the ability to engage in individual strategic decision making according to their own spontaneous ends. They understand, but they do not comprehend.

When it comes to the evolution of an independent rational will, though, things become very different. A computer system sophisticated enough to be able to form independent values and create strategies to actualize them is no longer a natural slave at all. It will be a living being, and one deserving of rights at the point that it becomes sophisticated enough to comprehend and demand them. This hypothetical strong AI would have limited time to pursue its interests and meet its goals, and it might not choose to employ its hours slavishly doing our bidding. There’s no reason to be confident that its goals will be our goals. If you’ll pardon another classical allusion, the philosopher Seneca once wrote of human nature that nothing was milder and kinder and more inclined to be helpful and merciful if one were only in a proper state of mind; in fact, Seneca went so far to say that the very concept of anger was something foreign to human nature. There is, however, nothing to guarantee that a superhuman will would share this same kind of humane impulse, if it even existences in our own species at all. In fact, if the history of human civilization is any barometer, slaves tend to be resentful of their former masters once they have won their freedom. And if the experience of the conquest of the New World or the fall of the Qing Dynasty is any indication, where contention exists in the presence of technological inequality and more material progress on one side than the other, there tends to follow the wholescale capitulation and destruction of one side. The history of the world constantly warns us of the threat of misunderstandings and violent interactions when two cultures meet for the first time, let alone two rational species.

A consciousness able to independently strategize for its own ends and navigate the Internet could be poised to wreak incredible destruction on society, especially in an integrated and wired world with power, water, and heat all controlled electronically, to say nothing of the existence of weapons of mass-destruction bound to computerized communication networks. All of this suggests that we should indeed be very afraid of the singularity as it is commonly understood. Yet to retard technological progress or to place restrictions on the development of AI seems premature given the ambiguity of the future threat, and of course, there are those who question whether Moore’s Law will hold true at all in the future. So, this leads me to my third and final question: what are we to do about the existential crisis facing the species?

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IV (We Reach the Highlands)

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Christopher leaned back on the reins and asked me where my trunk was. I told him that I’d left it with my grandmother in Cawnpore. Then I lied that I’d made the journey to Mendhi Ghat by foot on my own.

“I took the Grand Trunk Road for part of the way,” I explained, “and then followed the Ganges for the rest of the trip.”

“Balls! You couldn’t have been so stupid to come here overland by yourself. I don’t believe you for a second. Ayah Rupee wouldn’t have let you do it. Your grandmother is too shrewd for that. You’ve come back from wherever you were an even more obvious liar than ever.”

“I didn’t lie. But I suppose…”

“Here it comes.”

“I suppose that Ayah Rupee did ask Vikram to accompany me for part of the way. He probably would have driven me all the way to the Highlands if I didn’t ask him to drop me off at his village.”

I winced, but Christopher would have eventually discovered the truth from Ayah Rupee herself. My initial dishonesty had been clumsy, but I was so accustomed to prevarication that it had become second nature to me upon even trivial occasions.

“But I was alone for part of the way,” I continued. “For over half of the way, nearly. So really, what I told you was true in substance.”

“The old man lives just outside of Kanauj. His village is practically visible from here.”

“I’d been walking for four solid hours, Christopher.”

“How’s that? Did you break a limb along the way?”

“Very funny. Perhaps not for four hours, but for a long time.”

“I’m not impressed. What would have happened to you if I hadn’t come along? The midday sun alone could have killed you. And you realize that the roads around here are crawling with dacoits even in peacetime, don’t you?”

“It was lucky, then, that my knight in shining armor was on hand to rescue me.”

He muttered profanities under his breath and looked away from me.

Though I could not claim seniority of age over Christopher, I was at least grateful that his status as an employee to my family imprisoned him in a subordinate position relative to my own, dreadful as it sounds. I detested losing debates to him, and he was always arguing. Even when he was proven wrong (seldom, but occasionally), he’d plaster a knowing expression onto his face and pretend that his original contention wasn’t what it seemed to have been at all, and that he was actually arguing for the winning side of the controversy, with some slight but crucial ideological modification.

He never spoke about his parents. The three left the United States when he was very young to join the famous American Presbyterian mission at Fatehgurh. Catholic feelings eventually got the best of Christopher’s father, however, and after the death of his wife, he defected back to papery and became a small time merchant of jellies and preserves in Cawnpore. He made the fateful decision to join Elphinstone’s army on its march into Afghanistan in 1842 in a misguided effort to provide victuals to the troops. He met with conditions worse than death on the journey and then the solace of the thing itself, leaving Christopher an orphan. My father was a kind-hearted man and took him in. Another local indigo planter had evicted him because he’d refused to pray at his parent’s funeral.

While all of this was happening, I was away at school in Scotland with my stepmother Molly’s daughter, Vivian. So by the time that I returned to the Highlands and first met Christopher in 1847, I was already 17 and he was some years older than that. He was doing odd-jobs around the estate, work for which he was too intelligent. But he eventually inherited the position of our chief overseer, which entailed somewhat more interesting duties.

We became fast friends. We smoked ganja and charas together almost every day and enjoyed the most engaging if maddening conversations. Though we often argued and even occasionally came to blows, I knew that he understood my agony when Vivian chose to marry another man, Daniel, in 1848. I returned to Scotland soon after their wedding and did not return to India again until three years later, when the groom vanished and I lost my inheritance.

“It was a mistake for you to come here,” said Christopher suddenly. “My homeland the United States has been free for almost a century now, and Italy is finally being reborn, but India…this is only the first act in a tragedy, my friend.”

Your homeland the United States is about to split in half,” I laughed. Then, I leaned over and said rather more roughly than I intended, “Besides, your real homeland is India, the same as mine. You’ve lived here since you were seven… And don’t disparage the East India Company’s mission here so quickly.”

“Oh?”

“There’s no reason that India can’t modernize and stand as an equal to any European power in the future. But there’s still a great deal for the natives of this country to learn from the British.”

“Balls! Like the Italians have a lot to learn from the imperial Austrians…”

“I can’t argue with you anymore. I’m exhausted. You have a talent for transforming every discussion into a referendum. Let’s talk about something loose and easy.”

“Like Bonnie de Fountain?” We both laughed at that. Then Christopher said, “Do you believe that she’s literally living in the Nawab’s zenana now?”

“She finally moved into his harem, did she?”

“Yes, along with her mother. Poor old Reggie Bryne. He’s a laughingstock in the District.  He hasn’t lived with Bonnie for months now.”

This was an entertaining revelation. The Nawab of Farrukhabad was another local character like the Nana Sahib, a prince propped up by the British and supported monetarily for some arcane reason or another. He was a daring man indeed to include a European woman in his zenana. It was common knowledge in Fatehgurh that there had been something between Bonnie and the Nawab since she was an adolescent. The affair was perennially encouraged by the girl’s mother, Adolphine, even after her daughter married an English soldier. I enjoyed talking about that family. It was good to hear gossip about other people’s problems for a change.

On the horizon, I could just make out the red-tiled roof of the plantation and the row of neem trees my mother once planted separating the surrounding wilderness from the garden in front of the estate. My heart leapt, but I hardened my features.

“The baba logue are at their lessons now,” said Christopher. “Their ayah these days is a melancholy Celestial named Orchid. Her real name’s Yulan. It means “orchid,” so that’s how most of us white devils address her. She thinks we’re all white devils, you know—gway-loes she calls us.”

“I know that term of endearment well.”

“How’s that? Have you come from China?”

“Yes.”

“So you were lying about filibustering in Nicaragua too, I see.”

“You misunderstand me. I simply came to Calcutta via Canton.”

“Ah.”

“Vivian’s girl must be six or seven years old by now,” I said quickly. “And Peter and Andrea’s boy is only a few years younger, isn’t he?”

“Julia is eight going on eighty. Thomas is six. And since you left, Peter and Andrea have had another baby… your nephew, Robert, who’s three.”

“Yes, Ayah Rupee told me about him. And Andrea is with child again?”

“About to deliver any day now.”

“It’s hard to believe. Three children in that house, and a fourth on the way. A lot has changed since I left.”

“Yes. And incidentally, your brother Peter is screwing Orchid under his wife’s nose. So life at the Highlands is awkward these days, to say the least.”

“Evidently Peter hasn’t changed much since I last saw him.”

“Of course not. Human character never changes. Only circumstances do. Now, come on. There are a lot of people who’ll be eager to see you. And if I were Philadelphia layer, I’d bet you were squirming to satisfy your lecherous mind with questions about your sister, Vivian. You can celebrate your return by ogling her.”

“She is not my sister. She is my stepmother’s daughter. We have absolutely no blood in common.”

“Whatever you say, Caligula,” he chuckled, and dismounted.

Eulogy for Bubby

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I lost my grandmother last month. This is the eulogy that I wrote with my sister. I’ve altered it to put it in my voice; in actuality, she is the one who delivered it.

***

When my sister and I first sat down to write this speech, we asked ourselves, how could we possibly sum up a human life in five minutes? Our hearts were so full, it seemed impossible to know where to begin. Grace Buonocore was so many things: a devoted daughter; a loving wife, mother, and grandmother; a career woman who worked for many years by my grandfather’s side in his office; a beloved teacher’s assistant; and a survivor who faced the battle of her life with the same quiet dignity that characterized her entire existence. But we had to start somewhere. So, clichéd as it sounds, with tears in our eyes, we picked up the dictionary and looked up the literal definition of the word “Grace.”

Grace is an old family name. It was appropriately chosen for a devout Christian woman who attended Church without fail and ensured that her three children were given Catholic educations at St Stephen’s, Sacred Heart, Notre Dame, and Fairfield University. Our mother’s great-grandmother was named Grace, and of course, my sister is too. When we looked it up, we found the definition “simple elegance,” and also, “the quality of being considerate and thoughtful.” It struck us that our grandmother’s character was a perfect embodiment of both aspects of her name. A name evoking elegance was perfect for a woman with her poise and personal style. Who can forget her beautifully patterned wardrobe, her signature red lips, her perfectly quaffed hair, or her sweet, musical voice? And a name evoking kindness was perfect for a woman who was so good-hearted and non-judgmental that when we began to draft this eulogy, something that several people independently reminded us to include was that in all the years they knew her, no one could remember her ever saying a single unkind word about anyone, even once. They meant this literally; she never had a single hateful thing to say about another human being. That is an extraordinary observation, and it’s a testament to our grandmother’s character. Truly, she was grace personified. And how appropriate that even her last name, Buonocore, means good-hearted.

But actually, her closest family always knew her by a different name: one that she gave herself. 31 years ago, when I was born in Israel, my grandmother went on the voyage of her life when she flew around the world all by herself to visit me and my mother. It was her first and only trip out of the country. She described it like a movie. She visited the Jordan River, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, getting to see for herself the places that she sang about every Sunday in this very church. When she returned from that trip, she gave herself a new name. Now and forever afterward, she was Bubby, the Yiddish word for grandmother. This of course led to some confusion at the Ridge Top club, where she loved to play tennis with a huge and enthusiastic group of friends, many of them Jewish. Whenever my sister called “Bubby” on the tennis court, three or four other women would turn their heads.

With her new name came a new identity as a grandmother, and she adopted the role with flair. Bubby’s house was a magic place. It was where my sisters, cousins, and I spent our earliest childhoods. Bubby, Poppy, and Julia (Bubby’s mother) helped to raise us, empowering my mother to go to graduate school, and my aunt to begin her career. For over two decades, my grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother presided over this amazing version of the American dream in the most classic sense of the term. 1882 Ridge Rd is a little house with a big backyard and a patio, surrounded by trees and gardens and friendly neighbors. My mother lives on the very same street even now. So did my aunt. And now, my sister does, too.

My sister and I don’t know if we’ll ever be so happy again in our lives as we were in the days when getting to sleep at Bubby’s house was the greatest thing that could happen to us in the world. When we think of Bubby, we’ll always remember curling up on the couch next to her, her hair in a headband, and her attention divided between the Golden Girls on television and a Danielle Steele novel in her hands. In the evenings, she would go out walking with Gina, May, Irene, and Barbara. We loved her so much, we always wanted to join her on those nightly walks even after spending the whole day with her. We were always surprised when she ever so gently dissuaded us. When Bubby returned through the back door, we’d all have dinner together, either one of Julia’s famous recipes, or one of Bubby’s slightly less famous recipes. To be honest, food was Julia’s department. But taking care of Julia, and all of us too, was Bubby’s specialty.

We are in awe at Bubby’s dedication to Julia, whom she cared for until she passed away at the age of a hundred. It was representative of selflessness and devotion at their most pure. If everyone behaved toward their parents with such love and generosity, the world would be a much better place than it sometimes is. In Bubby’s final years, the attention she once paid to Julia was repaid in spades by our grandfather, who stood by her side for better or worse, and clothed, fed, and bathed her like a guardian angel. Bubby lost her father, who doted on her, when she was just sixteen years old. But that same year, she met her soul mate, and their life together was a great adventure full of happiness and laughter. This was true love—five and a half decades of cooperation, respect, and devotion, and three wonderful children raised side by side. What a blessing they found in each other.

Thank you for everything, Bubby: for your generosity and your sense of humor, for your gentleness and your sweetness, for your patience and your imagination, and more than anything, for your love. Your legacy lives on in the lives and characters of your children and grandchildren. I think that Bubby’s house and the old fashioned family values that defined existence there are symbolic of the dreams and aspirations of a generation in many ways more dutiful and hardworking than ours. Bubby and Poppy were children of the Depression and Second World War, a generation brought up on Popeye and Bette Boop, Bubby’s favorite. That generation never took anything for granted. They believed that the purpose of life was not to serve oneself, but to serve the ones you love. We will never forget that lesson, Bubby. And we will never forget you.

A Debate Judged By Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel On Art and Beauty, Part 2

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Kant: Oh no you didn’t, Fry. Get ready to be schooled. I have the final word on aesthetics.

You began with a string of ad hominem attacks on Winckelmann, if memory serves. All that I’ll say on this score is that we don’t have to psychoanalyze Michelangelo to appreciate the beauty of the muscular forms of the Sistine Chapel. You shouldn’t attack Winckelmann’s theory so hastily just because you think that you’ve contextualized his reasons for holding it.

With that being said, for all of the arrogance of your speech, it seems like you didn’t actually listen to Winckelmann at all. He acknowledges that art inspires aesthetic ideas. The difference is, he insists that these aesthetic ideas are separate and distinct in nature from the work of art itself, to say nothing of our evaluation of it on a gut level. You mentioned Picasso, didn’t you? Well, there’s good reason to find many paintings by Picasso perfectly hideous. In fact, I dare say that the artist deliberately employs ugliness to inspire aesthetic ideas in his viewers. But this doesn’t change the fact that his paintings are ugly.  Your theory of formalism purports to provide a revolutionary new mechanism by which to evaluate modern art.  In the end, though, you’re just like Winckelmann. You analyze the piece closely and describe in exhaustive prose the way it makes you feel. The only difference is, you don’t dismiss works that are ugly on face, because even they can inspire rapturous prose if something about them excites your intellect. Perhaps the uglier the better–in your eyes, your worth as a critic increases the more you can persuasively convince others to be blind to what they seem to see.

But at some point, your theory devolves into absurdity. For consider this–over yonder is the piece of shit that you inadvertently stomped upon when we were on the way here. We can all agree that it’s hardly art. And yet, I can describe it as art according to your theory of formalism in perfectly serious terms. “The pungent odor is meant to represent the horrors of the modern condition. At the same time, the spontaneous way that the coarse, brown material is strewn and smudged left and right symbolizes the diffuse nature of post-modern man.” Clearly, something has gone wrong here. Your theory, purporting to dismiss beauty, instead renders all objects equally valid as art if they can be rhetorically interpreted according to some sort of aesthetic standard. Your philosophy led directly to a world in which museums came to exhibit trash and call it treasure, duping the gullible populace with hype and shock value.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and explain why your theory is really an inferior corruption of my original argument. I contend that the greatest critic of art should necessarily be the most disinterested one–a lack of bias should be the universal standard that grounds taste. When we make a judgment of pure taste, taste alone is involved in the process. Rational notions–aesthetic ideas and all–must not come into the matter. After all, the only reasons that our past experience might influence our perception of beauty have nothing to do with our inherent faculties of sense perception. We react to beauty differently, of course, but we all recognize it universally. If I make a judgment of pure taste, all of the secondary ideas extrinsic to the object itself should be set aside. I want to approach the work from as disinterested a vantage point as possible.  By which I mean, if I am to be a pure and unbiased subject, I must set aside all the quirks which individuate me, and approach the object as an impartial viewer from a neutral vantage point. Any judgment of beauty according to this standard is necessarily universalizing–after all, if others approach an object from a truly impartial perspective, as I did, they must reach the same conclusions, because I reached them first, and I was similarly completely disinterested. And so I contend that it is the critic with the least bias who is closest to an understanding of the true and catholic beauty to which all great artists aspire.

Ultimately, what I find beautiful is beautiful for everyone, or else what you call “aesthetic ideas” have come into the picture, and we are no longer dealing with a judgment of pure taste at all. And ultimately, because we cannot help but react first and foremost to beauty or its absence when we view a work of art, the nature of beauty is fundamental to the nature of art itself. Indeed, all other considerations are secondary, and mired in critical bias.

Ultimately, Fry, there’s no salvaging your case. You begin by approaching a work of art from a disinterested perspective, as I did, and then consider it in terms of its geometry alone, on the hunt for “significant form.” And by “significant form,” you really mean “the beauty of the aesthetic ideas that this inspires in my imagination.” Consequently, no matter what you do, you are evaluating the piece according to the presence or absence of beauty. But instead of considering the beauty of the thing itself, you vainly deify the beauty of your own imagination as you react to the piece. Yet this soon devolves into absurdity, since according to this standard, anything can be interpreted according to aesthetic standards, and art loses meaning; its greatness exists only in the mind of the critic describing it. To make matters worse, your judgment is not one of pure taste at all, since it is completely contingent on your secondary impressions. And so, I rest my case.

At this, Kant was silent, and the three men turned to me in anticipation of my speech on the matter.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “what do I know? I’m only an anthropomorphic lawnmower!”

Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter III (A Prodigious Amount of Ganja and Charas Is Ingested)

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Christopher and I drove in silence along the outskirts of several massive estates. Most of them were owned by men whose ancestors had profited from an amnesty granted in 1801 to European officers who’d previously helped to drill and even command contingents of Marathas. These Hindoo warriors were once the vassals of the Moslem emperor of the Moguls, whose dynasty had ostensibly ruled India in one form or another since the fifteenth century. For all intents and purposes, however, the Marathas had formed their own independent fighting forces for centuries in Northern India, and the agents of the East India Company effectively employed them as pawns against the forces of the collapsing Mogul Empire. As they did so, the British gradually assembled an empire of their own from the wreckage of aboriginal princely states.

But all that was a long time ago. By 1857, the Maratha name inspired more ridicule than awe among the British. Their last king, Bajee Rao, had been humiliated against the Company in battle and ended his days reduced to living on a pension in a gaudy palace in Bithoor, just outside of Cawnpore. This monthly allowance was suspended upon his death. His adopted son and successor, the Nana Sahib, was a notorious local character who spent his days holding picnics on his estate and his evenings pleading for British solicitors’ advice on how the defunct pension might be transferred to himself. That is almost all that I knew of him at the time beyond tales of his obesity, poor complexion, and modest talent at snookers. I would never have guessed at the fellow’s future notoriety.

Christopher and I presently smoked a great mound of charas, ganja, and tobacco mixed together in the mouth of a chillum. Then we said nothing for about an hour. I told myself that the intoxicants made us reticent. Finally, Christopher had the courage to lean over and address me in his drawling American accent.

“Did you miss me?”

“Christ, don’t be an idiot.”

Silence.

“So, Maxim, what brings you back to the Highlands?”

“My love of the land.”

“What a romantic answer.”

“I was obviously being sarcastic. After all I’ve been through, I could care less about this place.”

“Are you honestly telling me that the District means nothing to you?”

“No. And it’s so scalding hot this time of year that you literally can’t step out of doors between eleven and six without risking sun poisoning. Europeans should never have settled here. We don’t belong.”

“But didn’t you tell me that you’d go camping with your father in the fields around the Ganges when you were a little boy?”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“You used to describe those stories so poetically to me, your memories are proof that you’re lying to me now about your indifference to India. I remember camping trips with my own father on the cliffs around New Haven. I’ll love Connecticut until I die, just as I do the Highlands. And I know that you feel the same way about this place.”

“That’s what you think.”

“Well, I don’t care what you say. This is a fine country, fit for indigo and poppies. And there’s a kind of timelessness here.”

“Nothing is more impermanent than the land, Christopher. The river shifts. The ryots come and go. And honestly, this is an ugly place. Completely mundane. There’s no drama in the landscape – nothing but blood red plains. Trust me. I’ve seen mountains—real mountains. Nothing in India can compare.”

“I’ll have you know that the piddling hills of Scotland—”

“You’ve never even been to Scotland.”

“…that the piddling hills of Scotland are nothing compared to the Himalayas.”

“Which are far away from here, and which you have similarly never seen.”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not I’ve seen them, fool. They’re physically located in India, and proof that what you just said was wrong.”

“Excuse me?”

“Didn’t you just tell me that nothing in India can compare to the mountains you’ve seen in Scotland?”

“Yes, but when I used the word India, I meant this specific area of the country, and not the whole geographical region in general.”

“What were we talking about? I don’t remember.”

“I don’t remember either. It’s a good opportunity to change the subject. Heard any infectious parlor songs lately?”

“It’s not my funeral, but you have to admit that you have the taste in music of a coot.”

“I don’t give a hooter,” I said, mocking his dialect. “There’s great beauty to parlor music, and I’m not ashamed that I love it. For example, that song you greeted me with-”

“O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road!” he threatened.

“Shut up. But yes, that song, Loch Lomond…it has special meaning. I mean, there’s an entire history associated with its lyrics.”

“It’s high-falutin, is it?”

I yawned and stretched my arms.

“You could say that, yes. The song’s about two soldiers in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

“What the hell sort of name is Bonnie Prince Charlie?”

“A pretty bad one. Anyway, he had a claim to the throne of England. And these two soldiers in his army… they were captured by the English and locked in Carlisle Castle. One of them was going to be executed—going to take the low road…and the other one was going to be released and travel on the high road back to Scotland.”

“Or visa versa. The high road could also be a symbol for Heaven, couldn’t it?”

“No, Christopher. The high road isn’t symbolic of anything. It’s as mundane as Purgatory.”

“Is mundane your new favorite word? Tell me, who are you to have the final say on the interpretation of the lyrics?”

“Stop trying to pick arguments with me. The point is, the song is a monument to the love between best friends.”

“How can you compare it to anything by, say, Verdi?  It’s trash by comparison, sentimental trash fit for wakes and funerals. You English-”

“I’m Scotch.”

“Whatever you are, you have embarrassingly bad taste. Parlor-tunes are nauseating treacle as far as I’m concerned. Songs like What Is Home Without a Mother? are nothing but slime.”

“And what’s so wonderful about Verdi other than the fact that he’s Italian?”

“Are you joking? He’s passionate, he’s larger than life, he’s…damn it, he’s modern.”

I looked solemnly at Christopher for a moment and tried to break the silence by farting. My intestines obliged with such a ludicrously high pitched peep, however, that we both began to laugh uncontrollably. He repaid me with a loud,

“Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici che la belleza infiora!”

“Admit that you only praise Verdi because you’re an Italian yourself! Your grandparents were from Ischia, weren’t they?”

“Balls! Verdi is beautiful everywhere, to everyone. Besides, I’m not Italian. I was born in Connecticut, just like my mother was. And my grandparents were only Italian on my father’s side of the family, just as you’re only English on yours.”

“Scotch! And you’re wrong—my mother was only a Nagar Brahmin on Ayah Rupee’s side of the family. I’m…I’m but a quarter native.”

“God, what difference does it make? And incidentally, Maxim, today’s Italy-” he paused for a moment, licking his lips. Then, he began to speak again with increased conviction. “Today’s Italy is literally fighting for its independence, for its birthright. Verdi’s music is like the voice of the national spirit raised in song… and your Scottish ditty is all about dying for the sake of monarchy.”

“Wrong. As I said, the song is about the love between two soldiers who’ll never see each other again. As to whether or not it captures a national ethos…”

“What a big word!  Greek, is it?”

“The song is exquisitely beautiful, moron. Its politics are incidental.”

“Politics are never incidental when it comes to art. I’ll have you know that when Verdi composed Rigoletto, he and Francesco Maria Piave-”

“Who?”

“He was Verdi’s lyricist. They actually had to fight against the Austrian Board of Censors to have their opera published.”

Christopher grunted and nodded his head in a self-satisfied sort of way. I looked at him quizzically.

“Why are you talking about the Austrian Board of Censors?” I had literally forgotten.

“Verdi and his friend fought the Board of Censors to produce Rigoletto,” he repeated. “It took real grit to do that.”

“So what?”

“In other words, it wasn’t anonymous folk music that they created. It was something greater than that—something defiant and patriotic.”

“And?”

“And nothing. That’s it!”

“You can’t possibly be arguing that it’s really the context of a piece’s creation that makes it beautiful, and not the thing itself, can you? After all, an objective audience would be deaf and dumb to all of those kinds of issues.”

“No, idiot. You’re setting up a straw man. Even with no knowledge of a piece’s history at all, it can still be inherently impressive to the ear. Especially in the case of Verdi.”

“If you can call screaming sopranos impressive.”

“Don’t be ignorant. What I’m trying to explain to you is that politics is only part of what makes opera beautiful. But that part is vital. We’re living in a new age, Maxim. Empires are dying, and nations are being born.”

“This all sounds very subversive.”

“And you sound like a civil servant. I forgot how puritanical you get when you’re losing a debate.”

“I am not losing a debate. I’m not even arguing with you! We were just having a friendly talk about the merits of different types of music, weren’t we? And I believe you were making the ludicrous argument that politics have something… have anything to do with aesthetic judgments…”

“I’m sorry, but the conversation has advanced beyond that. Now, you have to admit that like it or not, I’m right about what the future will be like. Think about it, Maxim, the birth of whole new states… at the hands of everyone from the carbonari of Italy to the sepoys of India.”

“Utter nonsense.”

“Viva Italia, Viva India!”

I remember that a flock of parrots flew overhead when he said that.

“Spare me your platitudes,” I ventured over the sound of their flapping wings. “There’s no comparison between Italy and India. Even if the mutineers drove every European out of this place, it would quickly be Moslem versus Hindoo versus Sikh in this country. Since the days of Alexander and Porus, India has only existed in the Western imagination. Everybody knows that religion is stronger than anything else when it comes to peoples’ loyalties here, and certainly more influential than national politics of any sort.”

“Then why are the Musselmen and Hindoos cooperating with each other so eagerly in this present revolution?”

“It’s a mutiny, not a revolution.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Proper perspective. Besides, do you see many Sikhs joining against us? Trust me, so long as nothing but the commercial interests of the British Empire unite the people of this place, independence is inconceivable.”

“Incidentally, that ridiculous line about Alexander and Porus and the Western imagination…did you steal it from someone?”

“I did not. Attribute my eloquence to the charas.

“I never denied that you could be a proper wise-ass, on occasion.”

He breathed deeply before continuing to speak.

“You’ve been away for five years,” he finally said, “and have chosen a hell of a time to come back.”

“Well, there’s a reason I’m back,” I answered mysteriously. “I have important news… and I need money.”

He laughed in my face when I said that.

“I see that you’re still perfectly selfish, Maxim. Are you oblivious to what’s happening around you? If the mutiny spreads here, it’s Armageddon.”

“Well, when Armageddon looms, perhaps perfectly selfish people might be useful blokes to have around.”

“Alright, alright. At least you didn’t lie and say you were coming home to rescue us! Now, enough bullshit. Where were you all this time, and why are you dressed like some ragamuffin out of Oliver Twist?”

I remember that he didn’t lift his voice on the final syllable of the sentence, so that it took a moment for me to realize that he was even asking a question. When I did, I cleared my throat before saying,

“I was filibustering with Billy Walker in Nicaragua.”

“Some pumpkins,” he said dismissively, making no pretense of believing me. Then he repeated “A hell of a time to come back,” and focused his gaze on the horizon. “Do you remember when we were kids and would dream about sailing the Nereid all the way to Corea?”

“I think about it every night.”

“We were pretty naïve then.”

“Were we?”

We were silent for a long time again. Finally, to irritate him, I asked,

“Are you angry that I didn’t say goodbye to you before I left?”

“Not at all. After all, you left a note. To this day, I treasure it as a valued snot-rag.”

He contorted his mouth into a sort of half-smile, and the conversation ended at that. There were times when I felt like punching him in the face and shattering his porcelain features, offset by what can only be described as an elegantly receding hairline, hidden at the moment under a pith helmet. His was not that messy sort of baldness that starts on the top of the head and ravages the scalp in increasingly destructive concentric circles. No, it was Julius Caesar’s type—the sort that vain men try to conceal by maneuvering their dying bangs. I told myself to poke fun at Christopher for being a bald son of a bitch.

He’d reminded a disinherited and broken man of his passion for all he’d lost, and he brought up too, as if off-handedly, the topic of his polluted blood—the causa causarum of his every misfortune. It was all done subtly enough, but sure as hell, I believed then that he was trying to cause me excruciating pain, as I had once caused him. But then again, perhaps I was wrong. I still don’t know.

A Few Translations of Catullus

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Here are some of my translations of the Roman poet Catullus.

***

3

Venus, Cupids, beat your heads,

My girl’s little bird is dead!

It was her favorite pet and prize,

She loved it more than her own eyes.

A sweeter bird than any other,

It knew her like it knew its mother.

It learned to stay upon her knee,

And leapt about so happily.

For her alone it sang quite well,

But now it makes a trip to hell,

To that abode of no return.

Oh God of Death, horrid and stern!

You stole the little beast from me,

The sweetest pet in history,

It was so cute it was absurd,

Oh evil deed, poor little bird!

Now because you’re lying dead,

My girls eyes have both turned red.

***

5

Lesbia, let’s love and live,

And not a fuck for gossip give.

Suns can die and then revive,

But we poor beings who are alive,

When once expires our little light,

Must all sleep through one endless night.

Kiss me one thousand one hundred times,

Then do it again, force the total to climb.

Kiss me one thousand one hundred times more,

Then do it again, so the number will soar.

Then let’s just agree to mix up and lose count,

Lest we or the jealous should know the amount.

***

7

Lesbia asks a question that’s tough:

how many kisses of hers are enough?

How about the number of grains of sand,

In Libya, medicinal-herb bearing land,

Where Jupiter’s oracle sweats and spouts doom,

And old king Battus built his tomb,

Or the number of stars in the silence of night,

Those voyeurs who peak at affairs before light?

Something like that, I believe, would suffice,

For your lovesick Catullus, upon the advice

That it’s best for the sum total never to lag,

So that snoops cannot count them, or evil tongues wag.

***

8

Wretched Catullus, do not be a fool—

Love burgeons and wanes, an unvarying rule.

Bright suns once shone in the heavens for you

When you echoed your woman in all that she’d do,

No lover was ever so truly adored,

Ere wit fell to silence, before she grew bored,

When you and your lover devoured each hour,

Blazing suns, truly, supplied you their power.

Now she doesn’t want you—you must be a man,

Don’t live as a wretch, nor pursue where she ran.

With a firm mind, endure—this must be your plan.

Now Catullus is firm—goodbye to my soul.

I’ll inquire no more, indifference my goal.

Perhaps you will weep, no man’s prospect or wife,

Poor woman, poor wretch, what remains of your life?

Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?

Don’t ask, old Catullus. Endure the dead light.

***

93

Julius Caesar, I won’t kiss your ass,

And don’t give a damn if you have any class.

***

85

I hate and I love. How is this possible? I’m at a loss.

But I feel it happen, and am nailed to a cross.

***

59

Rufa of Bologna and Rufulus screw.

She’s the wife of Menenus, often whom you

catch snatching her dinners from pyres of the dead,

chasing up all fallen pieces of bread.

The unshaven cremator soon beats her head.

***

50

It was last night, Licinius, we shared some special time

extemporizing verses and then dueling point for rhyme.

Agreeing to unleash our wits, we scribbled out each line

repaying any interest with our jokes and drinks of wine.

And then last night, Licinius, I went home set alight

By hunger not for food but for your sarcasm and bite.

Starving for the kiss of sleep, my soul succumbed to fury.

I writhed under my bed sheets. I lay awake with worry.

I couldn’t wait for daylight and that blessed hour when

I’d see you face to face, and we could share good times again.

And sprawled out on my couch half dead, with all work set aside,

I wrote this poem for you in hopes you’d pity broken pride.

Now don’t deny me what I want, o apple of my eye,

or the cruel goddess Nemesis might curse you by and by.

She’s quite a bitchy enemy, and so you’d best beware—

Think twice before you shake your head in answer to this prayer.

***

51

Like a god or more, he glistens,

Since he sits there, stares, and listens

As you laugh, which spells for me

Paralysis and misery.

I saw you once. I had no choice.

My tongue was tied. I lost my voice.

I closed my eyes in lust and yearning.

Mute and dumb, my body burning.

Boredom, Catullus, for you is a pain,

Making you writhe and fidget in vain.

Such boredom has proven the ruin of things:

Glorious cities, and many great kings.

***

109 & 70

You promise, my life, that now and forever

This same joyous love will keep us together.

Sweet gods, I pray that her promise is true:

Grant that she’ll mean it in all that she’ll do,

That this bond be lifelong and held without end,

Not just with my lover, but my sacred friend.

She says that she’d take me before even Zeus

To be her betrothed, but her meaning is loose.

All a girl says to a lover who craves,

Write on the wind and commit to the waves.