Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VIII (Parlor Songs)


Julia and Thomas sang for the assembled family in the parlor before supper. My stepmother Molly accompanied them ploddingly on the piano-forte.

Ho-ro, my nut brown maiden.

Hee-ree, my nut brown maiden.

Ho-ro-ro, maiden.

For she’s the maid for me.

Her eye so mildly beaming

Her look so frank and free

In waking and in dreaming

Is evermore with me.

We broke into applause at the conclusion of the second verse to avoid an interminable punishment. Thomas bowed, and Julia curtsied repeatedly, cradling her gray kitten, Ms. Google, too tightly for comfort in her arms. The poor creature bore this indignity with patience, however. She was evidently good natured for a cat.

“That was just enchanting,” said Vivian, ethereal in yards of turquoise muslin, her hair unbound. “But skip the verses about mild-eyed Mary, please.”

“But why?” cried Julia. “That’s my favorite part of the song. It’s so emotional.”

“You’re liable to move us to tears,” said Christopher.

“Shall we eat our dinners out on the chabutra?” said Vivian. “It’s scalding in here!” Then she turned to me and dexterously avoiding even a moment’s pause in the conversation, said, “We’re all thrilled to have you home again, Maximilian. I only wish that Andrea could be moved downstairs to see you.”

“I wouldn’t want to trouble her,” I stammered.

“I’m sure that she would be very pleased to visit with you if it were possible,” said Molly, joining us. “You know that you’ll always be a welcome guest here at the Highlands, Maxim. One can always add more water to the soup.”

My eyes happened to be on Christopher as she spoke. He squinted. I wondered what sort of face I was making.

“Maxim knows that he will always be more than a guest here, mother,” ventured Peter, his breath reeking of brandy. He loathed polite conversation and very rarely shared his thoughts, so whenever he chose to say anything, he commanded great attention.

“Of course, my dear,” said Molly, adjusting the sleeves of her funereal ebony bombazine. “I misspoke.”

“Have you any interest in Company paintings, Maximilian?” improvised Vivian in a rapid voice. “I’ve been obsessed with them recently. They show such a fascinating mix…a wonderful mélange of styles.”

“Darling,” said Molly, “Maxim must be exhausted. Let him save his voice for later, when he tells your brother about his adventures in the jungle.”

“Oh nonsense, mother!” she answered, taking my arm. “Tell me, what do you think of the Daniells?”

“The Daniells?”

“Thomas Daniell and his nephew, William. They paint the most beautiful landscapes. They’re my second favorite painters.”

“They count collectively, do they?”

“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can hardly distinguish between their styles, to be honest! Can you guess who my very favorite artist is?”


“No, no—we were discussing Indian art!”

I chuckled and shrugged and must have seemed like a perfect fool. In fact, I had just downed a great quantity of bhang with Christopher on the sly and I couldn’t have cared less about Indian art. As my father’s eldest son and head of the household, I was eager to discuss several important matters with Peter such as evacuation plans for the family and the great secret I’d discovered on my travels which had inspired my return, to say nothing of my need for money. Since my arrival, though, no one had breathed a word about the mutiny to me. They all seemed more concerned about Andrea’s health than anything else. But they were all denying the plain truth. The family couldn’t remain at the Highlands for much longer or everyone there was likely to be unceremoniously slaughtered should the mutiny spread to the District.

The company moved outside onto the raised chabutra where a long table draped with a peach colored cloth had been set up. A native girl with an aquiline nose and a paunch who’d brought me a change of clothing when I first arrived had been doubling as a punkah wallah inside the house. She was presently transformed into a server. Peter’s khitmatgar was also on hand. He was a scrawny, acne-scarred fellow who looked no older than sixteen. His jacket, I observed, was at least two sizes too large for him about the sleeves. He probably inherited it from someone dead, I thought.

“We’re having pish pash and chupatties for dinner, among other things” said Peter quietly. “Jesminder tried her hand at Ayah Rupee’s old recipe—your favorite, I remember. Ever since Daniel’s death, things have been somber here at the Highlands. It’s refreshing to have an excuse to be happy again, brother.”

These were the first words that Peter had directly addressed to me since I met him on the porch earlier that evening and he’d enigmatically whispered, “Say nothing now. We’ll discuss everything later.” I’d noticed that his breath smelled faintly of spirits even then.

At first, I appreciated the illusion of domesticity so busily manufactured for me that night. Here, with the exception of my deceased father and my aunts in Scotland, was the only family that I’d ever known. My mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth, and my father married my stepmother, an Irish cabinet-maker’s daughter, when I was only five years old. I never ventured to call her daughter Vivian my sister, though my father and stepmother had originally encouraged me to do so; for whatever reason, these exhortations ended with the birth of Peter.

Vivian was so incandescent that I knew from the moment we met that I wanted to marry her. My affection for my stepsister was fortified by the long years we spent together as Anglo-Indian expatriates in Scotland. I’ve mentioned already that we were sent to my father’s ancestral home near Inverness to receive a proper education under the supervision of his sisters. I was seven at the time, and Vivian was ten. I recalled the heartbreak of saying goodbye to Peter, who was only four and remained in India with his mother. He was always Molly’s pet and was never sent to Europe, a great rarity in those days. India was all he ever knew.

We reached the table and all joined hands, Vivian on my left and Christopher on my right.

“Maximilian should do the honors,” said Vivian, squeezing my palm. “Make it the Selkirk Grace, in honor of your father.”

Some hae meat and canna eat,” I intoned awkwardly, thinking of nothing but the moisture of my hand in Vivian’s tight grip. “And some wad eat that want it…” My pulse quickened and its rhythm throbbed in my temples. “But we hae meat and we can eat…so sae…so sae…”

So sae the Lord be thank-ed,” concluded Christopher, releasing my hand and making an exaggerated show of wiping off his own. “Sorry Maxim, but it felt like I was shaking hands with the Little Mermaid there for a minute.”

We began to eat, and for some time there was no sound but the unpleasant scratching of metal on glass. The promised pish-pash and chupatties were on the menu, along with Julienne soup, yellow rice, a curry made with some sort of meat, and bottled peas—always bottled peas. Half of us were seated before decorated porcelain, and the rest ate from plain white ceramic plates. My plate happened to have been ceramic, but so was Peter’s, so I wasn’t jealous. Our wine glasses too were mismatched. My awareness of the gauche assembly of tableware cast a pathetic air over the entire meal, an ambiance only enhanced by the fact that half of our seats lacked antimacassars. Ayah Rupee ran a tighter ship once upon a time.

To make matters worse, the wine was too dry. Just as I was secretly considering the prospect of stealing some sips from Thomas’s lassi, Vivian revived the conversation. I considered that while her mother’s serene demeanor could almost be mistaken for coldness, her daughter’s character was forged of altogether different stuff, traces of her dead father’s nature, perhaps. She was the belle of every burra khana and the most popular woman in the District, forever the volatile center of attention.

“Shaykh Muhammad Amir of Karraya is my favorite Indian artist,” she said quickly and loudly, ignoring the fifteen minute interval separating this revelation from our previous conversation.

“I would never have guessed,” I said. “You were right.”

“In fact, I quite prefer him to Michelangelo.”

“Land sakes,” said Christopher. “That’s sacrilege. Now I’ll take everything you say about art with an ocean’s worth of salt, Vivian.”

“I’m sorry to shock you, Christopher. Michelangelo was a fine sculptor and painter so long as he was capturing the male figure. But he had no range. His women all look like muscular men! And his themes were completely monotonous, never touching on everyday life.”

“Then why is he universally considered a genius?”

“Commercial concerns.”


“Ever since the invention of the aquatint, there’s existed this gauche trend of celebrating geniuses like the old Italian masters and fainting over Michelangelo. But it’s only a commercial strategy to sell prints—a way to highlight individual dead artists in a marketplace oversaturated with them. What’s genius, anyway? An excuse to be temperamental, and to take full credit for lazy work! Give me elegance and truth over genius any day.”

“Well, if you ask me, nothing is more inane than the genre scenes that you idealize so much. There isn’t anything profound or uplifting about them.”

“You’re so wrong. There’s great beauty to everyday life if you know how to see it. But some haven’t the sensitivity.”

“This is all nonsense,” slurred Peter, providing yet another rare contribution to the conversation, “The idea that you would even compare Sheik What’s His Name and Michelangelo is ludicrous. Michelangelo was a white man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, brother. Race has nothing at all to do with matters of art.”

Molly arched her right eyebrow. I knew by the way Christopher was grinding his teeth that he’d thought of some witticism and was aching to reveal it, but he held his tongue. In his defense, he usually did his best to behave as politely as possible to everyone in my family, whose formality likely stood in stark contrast to the liveliness of his American household. The only exception was when political debates were on the docket. Then he would not only invariably venture strong opinions, whatever his audience, but even serve as a provocateur.

“Amir deserves every bit of praise that I can heap on him,” continued Vivian determinedly. “He captures the smallest details of everyday life in his paintings with amazing precision, just as Jane Austen did in her novels. I just adore his sketches of residences, carriages, hunting parties…all sorts of elegant scenes in the countryside. There’s so much truth to his style…”

“He certainly sounds talented,” I offered stupidly.

“Well, I suppose I have to admit that he’s something of a rarity. Art schools these days force native artists overwhelmingly toward portraiture, and everyone is taught the same tedious, formal style. It’s a shame, really. There was a certain beauty to that old, courtly Mogul look. Primitive but expressive.”

The room fell silent again. Evidently no one had anything else to add to the conversation about Company paintings. I reflected that even after Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, I’d never stooped to treating her with anything less than the greatest warmth. But it was an enervating charade, and I’d long since succumbed to an obsession with attempting to make her feel guilty for choosing him over me. I thought that my only hope was to shame her into loving me again, so that her pity for me would overpower any lingering loyalty to her illusion of Daniel. I knew she had loved me in more uncomplicated days in Scotland when we’d shared enough kisses to lose count of them all. But after our return to India, the only time she ever touched her lips to mine again—once, softly and briefly—was on her wedding day, when I burst into tears at the sight of her in her mother’s ivory gown.

We’d all finished eating by now and the atmosphere had become positively eerie. Insects roared in the background. We all plastered lying smiles onto our faces. Only the children seemed to take their elders’ calmness at face value. They argued playfully among themselves throughout the meal.

“Shall we have a party for your birthday tomorrow, father?” asked Thomas as the plates were being cleared away by the maid and the khitmatgar.

“Of course we shall,” said Julia. “After all, it’s the Queen’s birthday as well.”

Peter, Christopher, and I stole grave glances at each other. Molly kept her eyes on her plate.

Orchid presently appeared in the doorway with Rob hiding behind her. Once again, I hadn’t heard her approach, and once again she startled me. I noticed that Molly didn’t even lift her eyes to meet her. Vivian nodded graciously at her, though. Peter’s face turned even brighter than his hair, which was auburn as my own.

She was wearing a Regency-style, close-fitting gown that flattered her form splendidly. Though the dress would have been some forty years out of fashion in London, necessity has always compelled families in the District to be open-minded on the subject of popular attire. Given what was likely a limited wardrobe, I considered that she’d made a wise selection. And the rouge that she was wearing had a similarly impressive transformative effect. I wondered why she’d gone through the trouble of adorning herself so meticulously that night.

The children would have scrambled directly off to their rooms, but she caught them and whispered something to them in a huddle. Julia objected at first, but I saw Orchid stroke her hair and coax her into acquiescence. Orchid then whispered to Thomas for a second time and then disappeared into the parlor along with Rob. The long-suffering Ms. Google took the opportunity to scurry out of the room.

We presently all focused our attention on Thomas and soon heard the sound of a violin coming from within. The boy stepped forward with what seemed like genuine reluctance and sang:

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

He’s gone to fight the French for King George upon the throne,

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish him safe at home.


Oh where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

O where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

He dwelt in merry Scotland at the sign of the blue bell

And it’s oh in my heart that I love my laddie well.


Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

The bagpipes should play o’er him, and I’d sit me down to cry.

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish he may not die.

Though I was initially planning to tease my nephew for singing a woman’s song, I restrained myself, for his voice was almost as pure and melodious as Christopher’s. I realized that the child had been something of a little gentleman to have deliberately lowered the quality of his song to match Julia’s faint attempts at music earlier in the night. His true voice was as tremulous and delicate as a nightingale’s. It would be a sin, I thought, when Nature re-christened him a baritone.

I wondered how it was that Orchid played the violin so well. Unless the untalented Molly had instructed her, which I most gravely doubted, I guessed that she must have been self-taught. I later discovered that I was in fact correct in this assumption. She’d even arranged the abridged version of The Bluebells of Scotland that Thomas sang for us without the use of a published broadside.

We applauded Thomas heartily. He didn’t bow this time, but blushed and retreated behind his grandmother’s chair. Orchid, Julia, and Robert emerged from the parlor and we all clapped again. Julia embraced her cousin. It was to her credit that she behaved with nothing but friendliness toward him in the aftermath of his song, though the thought of her being upstaged had, I’d seen, originally broken her heart for a moment or two. Still, whatever this redeeming characteristic, the child had yet to speak to me, though I caught her staring mutely at me with a searching expression on her face more than once during the meal.

The children were now sent to bed and the women excused themselves from the table to tend to Andrea. Orchid did not reappear. Molly made me promise to detail my experiences to her in the morning. I convinced myself that her interests were sincere and that Vivian was similarly honest in her more verbose professions of sorrow for taking her leave from me so early in the night. At length, Christopher, my brother, and I entered the house to share a hookah and candid conversation in the library. It was the moment for which I’d been waiting.

Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VII (An Introduction and a Reunion)


“Lord, this is a scandalous first impression,” I said.

The woman cocked her head to the side and stared at me. I began to wonder if her knowledge of the English language was in fact poor and she was only able to deliver certain stock snide words and phrases in it.

“I assume that you are these children’s ayah?” I exclaimed loudly and with what she must have interpreted as humiliating slowness.

“That’s what Andrea and Molly call me,” she answered fluently, setting Robert down. The child stared at me in mute terror for a moment and then scrambled indoors.

“Are all of you on a first name basis, then?”

“Get off your high horse, Maxim,” said Christopher. “Things aren’t so formal around here anymore. The little boy alone has said enough this afternoon to give a vicar apoplexy.”

“Stay out of this.”

There was an awkward pause. The woman remedied it.

“I apologize—I should have said their royal highnesses Andrea and Molly.”

“Your English is impeccable, Yulan,” I told her quietly and close to her face, so that the children wouldn’t hear me, “and since I know it not to be your native tongue, I imagine that you must have a lively intellect. But you’ve given me the immediate opinion that you are unprofessional, madam.”

Christopher cackled at this, but the woman only stared at me again in an odd sort of way. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.  Her eyes seemed to be soulless, and she was breathing hard. At length, she smiled.

“Please call me Orchid. To be honest, only the little girl and her mother have the talent to pronounce my proper name correctly, so it’s better that you didn’t even try. Butchering the Chinese language is beneath you.”

“As teaching duties are evidently beneath you?”

“Thomas,” she said in a bored voice, “Recite your history lesson. Or are you too dense?”

“I am not!”

“Then prove it and tell your Uncle Maxim the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“The stranger thinks we have to be sent to Scotland,” whispered Julia urgently. “So do it right.” I realized that the children were completely oblivious to the danger of the mutiny. The worst horror that either of their little minds could conjure up was probably being separated from their mother, the gut-wrenching fate of all well-bred Anglo-Indian children. I couldn’t quite bring myself to sympathize with them, though, because both of my parents were dead when I left India for the first time, and I knew that worse fates existed than grammar school in Aberdeen.

“Watch me, Uncle Maxim,” Thomas sighed. He proceeded to rapidly recite, “Once upon a time there was an evil Indian prince named Sir Roger Dowlett. In seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-six the Brits were in an awful fix. Sir Roger captured Calcutta. He put 146 of her majesty’s royal…sorry…loyal subjects into a jail cell 18 feet long by 14 feet wide. Only 23 people survived the night. 123 people were crushed to death inside the cell. So, in seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven, Sir Roger Dowlett was sent to heaven. We beat him and his Frenchy helpers at the Battle of Plassey a hundred years ago this June, and that’s how we won India.”

“Perfect,” said Orchid. “Now run off and play.”

“Oh boy!” said Christopher excitedly in anticipation of a debate. “You’ve got the story all wrong there, Thomas.”

“I know why,” said Julia. “The prince’s name wasn’t Sir Roger Dowlett at all. It was Siraj Ud Daula. Sir Roger Dowlett was just a nickname.”

“Excellent,” said Orchid. “Now everyone has contributed to today’s history lesson. See? Was it so wrong of me to indulge the children with recess, Mr. Maxwell? It’s remarkable how erudite the baba logue are.”

As far as I was concerned, the woman’s surliness was an insult to the sacredness of her position. I knew intuitively that her fluency didn’t help matters. I guessed that she fancied herself a persecuted intellectual. But I thought she had no call to describe a child as dense to his face, particularly one so high-spirited as Thomas. I could understand why he disliked her. I suppose she was attempting to make an impression of some kind on me. But in my mind, I thought of Rupee, my grandmother, a buriah ayah of the old order, the compassionate true head of the household whatever the men of the family might think or have thought of her, shrewd, patient, and nurturing. This woman was no match for her.

I sat down beside a row of rose hedges, motioning for Julia and Thomas to join me. Julia of course remained in place, but Thomas edged forward.

“Siraj Ud Daula, or Sir Roger Dowlett as you called him, was the last Nawab of Bengal,” I explained authoritatively.  “Now, why did he attack the East India Company’s forces?”

“Because they were Brits?”

“No. It was because they defied his orders and began stockpiling weapons in Fort William in Calcutta. Fine bubble there, incidentally.”

“Why did they stockpile weapons?” he asked guiltily. (I’d just caught him blowing bubbles of saliva in boredom.)

“They were afraid of the French, who were causing trouble, as they always do in world history. Anyway, after Siraj…after he captured Fort William, some angry Europeans assaulted the native soldiers assigned to guard them. It was only then that Siraj’s officers threw all 146 prisoners into the Black Hole as punishment. When the guards told the prisoners to get inside, everyone thought it was all a joke, at first. But then their laugher transformed into terrified screams and pleas.”

I hoped that my effective use of hyperbole was proving entertaining to my audience.

“So, Siraj’s officers did it,” yawned Thomas, “and not Siraj himself?”

“Siraj was asleep—that was his excuse. Anyway, the soldiers might not have meant for the prisoners to die…when they began to die. But everyone was too afraid to wake up the prince and ask permission to unlock the doors. And so the native guards stood by as 123 people were smothered and trampled to death.”

“That’s just what I said,” said Thomas. “You’re only making the story longer, Uncle Maxim.”

“You missed the moral of the story.”


“It teaches us what happens when small-minded people use the excuse of following orders to justify their evil actions. Besides, you lacked details. For example, you didn’t even mention Robert Clive, the man who avenged the Black Hole at the Battle of Plassey. When it was all over, Siraj was betrayed by his own troops, and then he was killed.”

“And what happened to Robert Clive?”

“As a matter of fact,” interrupted Christopher, “he stuck a pen-knife into his neck in middle age. Thomas was absolutely right, Maxim! Your version of the story was no different from his. Show the kids that they can question history—that they can change the meaning of the story in retrospect, and make up their own morals. What if I told you, Tom, that Siraj Ud Daula was right to defy the British?”

“Right to defy the British?” screamed Thomas.

“From Siraj Ud Daula’s perspective, yes,” said Christopher.

“Right to suffocate all those people?” cried Julia, willing to join the conversation now that Christopher was in it.

“Christopher,” I said, “you’re ruining the lesson.” I had meant to set a calm example of the Socratic method to Orchid and was instead being upstaged.

“Wasn’t Siraj right to fight for his people’s freedom?”

“I don’t care what he was fighting for,” said Julia decisively to Christopher. “He was wrong to throw all of those people into the Black Hole. Those helpless prisoners were his responsibility, and their murder only made the British seek revenge. He didn’t help anybody, least of all his own people. But history will have its revenge on him. He’ll be remembered for all time as a villain.”

“Some people,” said Christopher, “argue that the Black Hole never really existed.”

“Oh, it existed,” I said. “There’s a plaque commemorating it somewhere in Calcutta.”

“This is an interesting history lesson,” said Thomas.

“You see, Maxim?” said Christopher. “I didn’t ruin anything. I was helping your lesson along, though you were too caught up in yourself to realize it.”

“These children need to be packed off to Scotland,” I repeated, secretly enjoying the visible effect that this threat had on them. It suppose it made me feel powerful in a petty kind of way. Admit it or not, but it can be pleasurable to be malicious to the weak when you can get away with it sometimes.

“If we were lucky, we’d all be sent far away from this place,” said Orchid. “Come along now, children, and go inside. It’s too hot to be out here.” She turned to me. “Your brother is away just now inspecting the vats, Mr. Maxwell. Andrea—I mean Mrs. Maxwell the Younger—is bed-ridden, and your stepmother, Mrs. Maxwell the Elder, is tending to her.”

“You know,” I said, “there’s no shame in being a governess. And certainly none in being a teacher.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m no pedagogue. You found me out.” She smiled for a moment, and then became serious. “You’ve been unfriendly and formal with me from the start, Mr. Maxwell, and I confess that I’ve also been less than polite. But you needn’t think of me as your enemy. There’s no place for either of us here.”

“Speak for yourself. You certainly have a lot to say for a stranger. This is my home. My family is here.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I thought I had it on good authority,” I offered as a parting shot, “that your people respected family ties, though perhaps I was mistaken.”

Orchid’s mouth tightened.

“I didn’t ask to be an ayah, Mr. Maxwell. You know, I was a person of some importance in my world before it was destroyed. I am of pure Tartar blood. My father was a bannerman in the emperor’s army. Now, the truth is I’m practically a slave in this household. You have no call to put on airs with me to show off for your friend.”

She turned to Christopher,

“I was impressed by your lesson,” she said awkwardly, the first words she had spoken directly to him since our arrival.

I remember that the sense of desperation in her voice was offset by a certain kind of self-assured dignity, a sort of nobility of bearing that I couldn’t help but admire. Anglo-Indian manners were nothing to this woman.

Christopher only wrinkled his brow in response to her compliment. She turned away and walked slowly toward the house. I watched her leave, studying the swaying motion of her body as she moved. I wondered where she kept herself during the day.

“Some pumpkins…” muttered Christopher. “She’s off her rocker on laudanum, you understand. There’s no telling what she’ll say when she’s on the stuff.”

“Of course,” I said. “What else could account for such insolence?”

The truth was, though, that I hadn’t realized this nor even considered the possibility of this.

It was then that I heard the sound of galloping. I turned and saw Vivian riding side-saddle toward me with reckless speed.

“I’m not bald, by the way,” said Christopher, retreating reluctantly toward the house. “I’m balding. And only ever so slightly.”

I was no longer listening.

Vivian leapt from the horse. Her sea-green eyes were accentuated by the emerald ribbons of her riding habit. She was ungloved, but she took my palms in hers, shaming me. My hands were filthy, and they always became embarrassingly clammy whenever I was around her.

“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered tearfully, and embraced me. My lips grazed her cheek, excruciatingly soft. I’d almost forgotten the impossible beauty of her face, snow white in a frame of jet.

The state of my costume was not lost on her. She even shuddered at the sight of it, quickly but visibly. This pleased me immensely. Yet I couldn’t help but notice a silver locket around her neck which I knew contained a maudlin daguerreotype of Daniel, and so I too shuddered.

Judging the Judge of Israel


In September 2014, I had the opportunity to form my own judgment about the former UN-appointed judge of Israel.

We were sitting in a brownstone on Crown Street in New Haven, the headquarters of Shabtai, the Jewish society at Yale. William Schabas, head of a three person committee appointed by the UN to investigate crimes against international law in Israel and Palestine during the summer of 2014, had been invited to meet with Israeli academic Moshe Halbertal and give a talk on the topic of Jewish contributions to human rights law. Some wondered why he’d accepted the invitation, but I didn’t. Presumably Schabas, a known critic of Israel who had once declined to call Hamas a “terrorist organization” when giving an interview with the Israeli press, was venturing into the lion’s den to indicate that he wasn’t prejudiced.

I was asked to interview Schabas for one hour about the history of human rights and the law. This assignment was particularly personal for me. At the end of June, I’d visited Israel for a month to attend my brother’s graduation and finish a novel about daily life in my birthplace during the second intifada. Over the course of my stay, rocket fire broke out. I experienced the effects of eleven air raids, including one where a dying relative and Holocaust survivor was unable to be moved into a shelter and asked us to leave her behind. Mindful of everything that I’d experienced, I wanted to talk to Schabas to get some insight into his thought process and judge him for myself. He’d mostly avoided discussing Israel and Palestine overtly on his trip because he said it might compromise his forthcoming report. So I had to be indirect, focusing on historical examples.

What was his opinion of the Allied bombing campaigns in Germany and Japan in the Second World War? He explained that the bombings might well be considered illegal by today’s standards, though the context of 1945 made their status more ambiguous. If it were up to him, it would always be a crime to attack civilians in cities. How did he think a hypothetical commission would deal with limited access to information regarding military decision making and activities undertaken in secret by terrorist groups? He told me that judges must always do their best to come to conclusions even in the face of great obstacles and incomplete information. Were there any examples in modern history of times when the bombing of cities by western powers represented a justified military intervention? He didn’t mention any. If the United States were attacked by rockets from Mexico, did he think it likely that the United Nations would investigate its retaliatory conduct? His answer was yes, absolutely. The law should apply equally to all nations. In an era in which terrorist organizations can embed themselves in the infrastructure of cities, what constitutes the distinction between overwhelming force and disproportionately violent force when dealing with perceived threats? This is the only question he declined to answer.

His discussion of the Goldstone Report was particularly telling to me. He was struck that Moshe Halberthal admitted that white phosphorus was no longer employed by the IDF thanks to Goldstone’s findings; this was the first time that he’d heard someone associated with Israel admit that the commission had done any good. I wondered if Schabas thought that recommendations for small practical changes such as this were the best that his report might ultimately accomplish.

In my judgment, Schabas seemed like a knowledgeable man who understood that there existed significant opposition to his commission, but who was nonetheless deeply convinced of its nobility. Though originally called upon by the UN to focus on Israeli actions, he immediately insisted that Hamas too had to be scrutinized. But this was the least that he could do to ensure that the commission would not be dismissed out of hand as one-sided. Given Schabas’ history of criticizing Israel, he seems to me to have been an undiplomatic choice to head the commission to say the least, almost guaranteeing that the Israelis would call his findings into question. In an ideal world, a report by the United Nations on the situation in Gaza could be a landmark document setting guidelines to help regulate actions by modern militaries when engaging with targets in densely populated cities using asymmetric force. But the efficacy of such a report would be bound to the constellation of voices that it brought to the table—it could only be patched together in a mutually supportive context in which military expertise informed the theorizing of the academics, and the academics considered the facts on the ground when making their recommendations.

I knew that Schabas’ commission would not provide such a document, and believe that his quitting at this point will have little influence on the ultimate reception of the UN’s findings. The entire enterprise was undertaken in a hostile context in which Abbas is increasingly resorting to the authority of international organizations to try to put the squeeze on Israel and draw attention to the iniquities of the stalling peace process. This adversarial atmosphere might not be the most productive for compromise and open discourse; something like the establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee led by truly impartial observers might lead to greater popular perceptions of justice being served. In the meantime, so long as Hamas continues to deliberately target civilian populations and refuses to adopt strategies of non-violent resistance that have proved gloriously efficacious in the cases of Gandhi, King, and Mandela (strategies courageously carried out every day by moderate Palestinian groups ignored by the press in the face of massive opposition by both the IDF and extremist factions), any effort to solve the peace process through legal finger-wagging will prove to be a futile endeavor.

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)


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.”


“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!”


“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?


“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


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)


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?”


“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?”


“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


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)


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.”


“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?”


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

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


“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.

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


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!”