Paul's visual arts, literature & philosophy forum.

The purpose of this blog is to initiate dialogue between people with interesting ideas about the subjects of greatest consequence to me, namely: the seven arts (I would also include certain films as the eighth) & philosophy. Any of the work on my site ( is fair game for criticism, comment or question & I will post stories & philosophical essays while encouraging you to do the same.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Change of address

I stopped posting articles here years ago. If you want to see more go here instead.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Masculine versus feminine, Muslim versus Buddhist.

Well, here I am again with the wild and wacky fundamentalist Muslims. I have been living among the essentially feminine, light-hearted and frivolous northern Thai Buddhists for almost three years now and the differences are stark. Northern Thailand joined the rest just three hundred years ago to form Siam, prior to that it has its own long history and particular traditions. Up until just one hundred and fifty years ago all men from the north owed the king six months of every year in labour. The men went off to be soldiers or whatever the king assigned them and the women learned how to run things on their own in the men's absence. When the men came home they found everything working and took a (well-deserved) rest, this became a tradition that has made the northern Thai man, even today, famously lazy while the women are industrious.

In my town of Chiang Mai you will find most shops, restaurants and offices run by women while the men abandon their children, cheat, drink and gamble. When one walks down the street the women meet one's eye and invariably return an honest smile.

Transvestites and homosexuals are folded easily into the social mesh and the only prejudice they might be subject to, is being liked more readily. Personally, I found it very easy to get used to going to the post office, bank, or anywhere else, to be greeted by an, often, beautiful man dressed beautifully as a woman. Everywhere, everything is clean, service is eager, everyone smiles easily, like I said: a feminine culture.

When I stepped off the thirty-six seat Fokker*(see footnote) onto the tarmac in Peshawar my first impressions included the large, belligerent, grey-headed crows familiar from years ago further south in India. Above their cackling swoops though, wheeled far larger birds in still and flapless flight: falcons. More falcons than I've ever seen together, falcons the colour of the sun-dried brick that made the buildings, the colour of the earth that filled the dusty air, the colour of the men who trod beneath them. Upon walking to the airport building from the 'plane, I found the people there were all men, all bearded, or at the least- moustachioed, and all but the uniforms, dressed in Shalwa, mostly white with two other popular colours- light blue or cream. In my entire three weeks there I never saw another foreigner. In the street outside, the cars competed with flat topped wooden wagons (in other words: a flat platform on wheels) pulled by skinny horses, tiny donkeys no larger than a Great Dane, cows, or pot bellied water buffalo all black-skinned and shiny as if their hides had already been tanned.

When I reach my friend Zahir's house, I am greeted with Arabic hospitality, the best in the world. Within minutes I have washed the sweat off and am lounging like a Roman on the beautifully carpeted floor of a cool room on a dripping hot day. We four or five men lie in a rough circle, feet to head, left elbows propped on pillows. The carpets are the colour of wine, the walls are a rusty, sunset-orange marble with veins of blood red, the high windows are coloured glass that bend warm light through the hash smoke of our atmosphere. Big brawny men with big black or white beards, one wears a Pakistani beanie (the tupee) another an Afghan turban. They break the chewy, flat medallions of bread with right hands only (the left being used for intimate hygiene never touches food at a polite cloth) strong, veined, peasant hands. They laugh easily, even childishly, but are fundamentally serious; men who pray five times a day and mean it.

I try to remember Islam's table etiquette, never dip the same bread twice in the communal dishes we share, wait until the head of the household offers before helping yourself to the meat dish... in my experience even in the simplest Muslim farmhouse, everyone will notice your manners though they would never be so discourteous as to show they don't like them. The mutton is as soft as butter and redolent of a dozen herbs and spices. The women billow in like shadows every once and awhile, to set the cloth on the carpet, cover it in food, remove the detritus, bring more courses, replace the teas (though the head of the household does at least the first pouring, everyone helping themselves after).

The women are dressed in pleated black tents that hang from the only place they show a body shape: the top of their heads. The only skin visible is their hennaed hands or if they wear a veil instead, sometimes just one eye, the other covered by the veil attached to the cloth at the forehead and obscuring the other eye. Their hems are weighted against an honour-damaging breeze and their sleeves are connected by a loop to their middle fingers against any accidental revelation of the wrist.

I have never been introduced to my host's wife, for all I know she may be bearded or be a different woman each time I visit. None of the men there look at her or address her in any way, what conceivable reason, after all, could a man have to speak to another man's wife?

Lunch is followed by talk in five or six languages, broken English and French added for my benefit, otherwise they all speak Pashtoo, Arabic and Urdu and many speak Parsee or Turkish as well. Talk is accompanied by a series of different and delicately spiced teas along with dried or fresh fruits, nuts and olives. In this pleasant atmosphere and good company I didn't notice the time (in-fact at one point I asked the time only to discover that not one of us wore a watch) until, without having shifted my position, we were being served dinner.

Between lunch and dinner Zahir sent someone out at my bidding to do two things, namely, put a local SIM card in my phone and to fetch a tailor. The tailor measured me for a few Shalwas that he brought back by lunch the following day (and I had to fight with Zahir to pay for!). With my Shalwa shirt hanging to my knees, baggy pantaloons with wide cuffs, lovely white-silk Tupee on my head and the beard I'd been growing for some time (one suffers an intangible but palpable diminution of respect if he finds himself a hairless pussy among fiercely bearded Muslims!) and despite my light skin and green eyes I was, as often as not, mistaken for a light skinned Kashmiri or as being of the tribe of Afghans that are blonde and blue-eyed, thus avoiding the attention that I would otherwise be smothered with. Like most countries the first inevitable question to the stranger: "Where are you from?" To which I usually shrug my shoulders and answer: "I don't know; I can't remember" which is much closer to the truth than mentioning any of the places I have lived or the one I happened to be born in which I left in infancy but still, it usually gets a laugh. I remember the same results when bearded and caparisoned in a beautiful Chilaba in Morocco, but though my few words of Arabic and couple of hastily learned Pashtoo words (the first? Thank you) couldn't get me past a greeting and first interaction without giving myself away- Salam Aleykum, I answer: Aleykum Salam, handshake and bring the hand to the heart with a slight bow of the head. "Would you like tea/food?" "Yes please" after that, anything they said to me was likely to be incomprehensible and even when it was not I had to answer in English or my atrociously thin French.

But even then, once they realise I am European, my beard & dress might mean I am Muslim which, in itself, is enough to erase political borders and allow me in the club. It is this quality, the clearly defined morality and behaviour that makes Muslim societies so comfortable and, in a sense- noble in attitude.

Once back in Thailand the social pressure is so overwhelming that I must shave my beard, to the Thai a beard is just something that holds sweat and dirt. To them Santa Claus, rather than evoking feelings of huggability, is instead thought of as a little disgusting with his big dirty beard.
Many of these men walk around armed and I don't mean little pansy pistols neatly holstered, but Kalashnakovs, and not strapped over a shoulder but held in the hand, to all appearances, ready at a moment's notice. Once, when walking with Zahir past one of the many shops with their hand-painted signs proclaiming their office as: 'Arms Dealers' I asked: "What do you need to go in and buy a gun?" He looked at me like I was daft and answered: "Money...?"

Unlike Thailand, outside the home, everything is done by men, shops, restaurants and offices are all staffed by men for every task. Everything is dirty and unkempt, service is slovenly and inefficient, on the streets men jostle each other to pass without ever saying "Excuse me" or "Sorry". The streets are hard-packed earth running muddy where the sidewalks should be. There are no public trash bins and everyone just throws their refuse to the ground where they happen to be standing. A minimal waste removal effort can be seen mostly in the form of an occasional man pushing a wheel-barrow literally overflowing and being filled by him with the aid of two small pieces of wood- one for scooping, the other for scooping onto. As a consequence many of the town's streets and food markets smell of putrefaction. It is the antithesis of Thailand, it is a place that throws its socks on the floor and leaves them there until they become its cleanest pair, then wears them again.

It is a masculine place and I must admit, despite everything, it is nice, very nice, to be a man among men.

* This same little Fokker went down a few days after my arrival, killing the 41 people on board. My return was on an old army cargo plane (it looked, to me at least, of pre-jet-engine design!) Just me and a few soldiers who were transporting some equipment. The plane was minimalist on the inside with a few cloth seats along the length of the airplane, some hammocks strung one above another and all the workings visible since there was no covering on the inside, we looked at the inside of the metal wall that made up its outside, well, barely visible as the only light came from a couple of port-hole windows placed too high to see out of. No seat belts, no temperature control, no emergency exits, just the platform that drops at the back and allows men to push cargo up it. I tried to photograph the aeroplane from the outside but the soldiers stopped me in no uncertain terms, I did, however, sneak a couple of shots of the inside, I will publish them when I get them developed.

Driving with Muslims or Buddhists

When an American or European person first drives on Thailand's streets it seems insane and impossibly dangerous. The majority of Thai people on the road have purchased their driving licences illegally without ever taking a class and such things as fast or slow lane, lanes themselves, or even double yellow lines dividing oncoming traffic are completely ignored. People drift from one lane to another, on any two-lane road everybody drives in the fast lane and it is not unusual to find people driving against the flow of traffic even on highways. Red lights are optional, and are generally taken as more of a suggestion to slow down and look both ways. Since Thailand is a feminine and courteous society, however, nobody beeps or gets angry when another driver does something that puts one's safety at risk. If one wants, for instance, to pass the slow moving car in the fast lane ahead, instead of beeping rudely, one moves into the thousands of clueless buzzing motorbikes that drift all over the slow lane and pass the slow moving car from the wrong side and lane. This reflects the feminine attitude as shown by the nicest compliment a Thai person offers another: 'He/she is greng jai- jai guang' generous and considerate to others.

Driving in some Muslim societies is equally insane and dangerous but in a very different and masculine way. In the northern frontier of Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan everyone beeps. When? At what? Well, all of the time and at anything that moves: other drivers, chicken beside the road, bag blowing across the road... now, you might think that aside from the cacophony created by all the beeping, the effect for drivers would be the same as no-one beeping, but no! The aggressive Muslim in his strictly male world has taken this fact into consideration and no matter how old and beat up his vehicle, he has gone to the expense of installing a customised horn, each car (like mobile phones) looks for his own sound and the only thing they all have in common is decibel level. I even noticed mopeds with simulated Mack truck horns.

At one point I was passenger in a van driven by someone I knew, a friend of a friend, maybe fifty years old, big grey-white beard but no moustache or hair on his head, dressed in shalwa and tupee, and driving me through Peshawar at night. We're going down a dirt road with no sidewalks bordered on either side with a market, the road ahead and behind full of milling crowds. He drives either with his high beams on or no lights at all. We are ploughing through the crowds, beeping with desperate urgency, bouncing through potholes and mud with near misses to all sides when an extremely old man, frail and bent, sees us coming towards him. The old man quickens his pace as much as he can but with mincing steps hardly accelerates at all. Ahmed, the driver, is looking with laser-like concentration but doesn't slow, I unconsciously push back in my seat pumping the non-existent brakes on my side. Now we are just inches from him, he still hasn't cleared our path, we are going far too fast to brake in an emergency, when... Ahmed swerves by the minimal amount necessary to pass the old man just an inch or two on the other side of the glass of my window... the old man throws a look of fear and outrage back over his shoulder, his face lit like Boris Karloff in our high beams. Ahmed turns to me and laughs with hearty, boyish glee.

The agreed upon modus operandi on the road is that whenever there is another vehicle visible you race to within inches of its rear bumper or its side and beep insistently and incessantly. If you catch the other driver off-guard or manage to intimidate him, you race in front of him even if there is literally not enough room for the volume of your vehicle but if the manoeuvre means a few cars must screech or swerve to accommodate you, no-one is upset, they will even give each other triumphant smiles as they pass and then the car they just passed moves to within inches of his rear bumper and beeps and swerves trying to overtake him in his turn.

The Buddhist femininity (The Thai (Theravada) Buddha is pictured as androgynous, symbolising the fact he was on a higher plane than one where gender is relevant) expresses itself in cooperation, where the Muslim competitiveness has at its root the firmly ingrained attitude that if it is the appointed hour of your death, nothing (like driving carefully) can save you, and if it is not, than nothing can harm you.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Peter Feldstein & Stephen G Bloom's Oxford project

Peter moved to the tiny town of Oxford, (6-700 people) Iowa, 32 years ago to teach photography at the State university. In 1984 he set up his camera & took photographs of many of the town's natives. In 2005 he did the same thing. The resulting project is garnering increasing amounts of attention with articles in the NYTimes, television coverage & now, Peter informs me: a book deal. Why is this project so universally interesting? Well, I think the answer is obvious, it is a symbol of our own lives encapsulated. It brings to mind the last line of that strange film: 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' purportedly the true life of Chuck Barris the 1970's game show host who invented the 'Gong Show' & 'Dating Game'. In the book the film was based on Mr Barris claimed his television persona was really just a cover for his real job as CIA assasin. In the last line of the film Mr Barris' character says in a voice over (paraphrasing from memory): Hey! I have a new idea for a television show: we get three old men on stage & give each of them a loaded .38. We then talk of the dreams & aspirations of their respective youths. The last one who alive wins a refrigerator! The idea that most people's dashed dreams of glory would cause them to commit sucide upon looking back, holds enough truth in it to make it morbidly funny. The Oxford project offers something of the opposite- people whose dreams smalness are matched only by the tininess of satisfaction or disappointment. A fascinating look at the fellow humans whom I (as socially marginalised artist) at least, never get an opportunity to meet.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How to argue

There are good arguments & there are bad arguments, there are valid arguments & there are stupid arguments. The good or valid arguments lead to deeper knowledge & harmonious agreement, while the bad or stupid arguments lead to negative emotions & deeper disagreement.

Plato claimed truth was in the air all around us, the proof being that two men who are ignorant of a certain knowledge can, through correct dialogue, pluck that knowledge from the very air... the correct discourse referred to, defines all the terms used in their arguments. It can be tedious at times but it is surprising how much can be learned when defining to mutual satisfaction even the simplest of commonly used terms; how little there is left to 'argue' about, & finally, how magically the insight sprouts from barren ignorance.

In the orient, Confucius' ideas which became such a thoroughly pervasive influence, fought the negatively confrontational aspect of argument with a strictly defined protocol in the allowed form of response. In a word: manners. With manners that make it impossible to cause one's opponent to 'lose face', all negatively charged emotional exchange is channelled instead into communication.

In the context of learning I think Platonic argument beats Confucianism for sheer efficiency.
Hegelian dialectics (with its roots in the pre-Socratic Greeks) where thesis & antithesis are reconciled in a synthesis, but these & other thoughtful, reasonable, approaches to argument are generally ignored by most people, indeed most arguments between friends & colleagues, (not to mention enemies) even those whose disagreement has nothing to do with their cherished relationship, affect that relationship negatively. The reason for this is not that most people like the person they argue with less because of an opinion that is different from their own, but rather because they don't know how to argue. It is this process that demeans the friendship within which the argument plays out.

By arguing badly or stupidly, other considerations aside from the difference of opinion being discussed enter into the feelings they are being discussed with. Instead of being interested in each other's point of view & continuing to exhibit the respect each combatant has for the other (often a pre-requisite to the eventual heat the argument, not the opinion, generates) they 'argue' through repetition & emphasis of their own standpoint while repeating with ever-greater emphasis that the other person's perspective is wrong.

Personally, though I am not immune to the sting of pride: to the 'bad' feeling that something I believed in & argued for, turns out to be wrong, that petty feeling is overwhelmed by the pleasure (when convinced by good argument that I am wrong) in having a new & better truth to believe in & argue for. Replacing the faulty truth with a new one means I won't be seen as wrong again in the future, as a point of pride that alone is reason to be grateful to the man who convinces me, through argument, of a fallacious belief.

Professor Beebe, PhD in philosophy, explains the simple rules of 'good' argument:

An argument is= a set of statements that include just two components-
a) A conclusion, which is the main point the argument is trying to establish.
b) The premises, which are reasons given in support of the conclusion.

There are two main requirements an argument must satisfy if it is going to qualify as a good argument:
1) The premises must be true.
2) The premises must support the conclusion.

One must be careful here because though the statement is simple the possible variations for the purposes of manipulating the logic of the argument (in order to confuse & mislead) are subtle & diverse. To start with it must be re-iterated that,
1- though the list of premises may be true, the conclusion drawn from them may not. (For various reasons we will examine)
2- though the list of premises may be false, the conclusion may still be true.

Professor Beebe points out some common forms of fallacious argument: (parenthetic examples & comments are mine)

A) Appeal to Inappropriate Authority = fallacy committed when a conclusion in one area of human inquiry is supported by appealing to the authority of someone whose authority or expertise lies in an independent and unrelated area of human inquiry.

B) False Dilemma = fallacy committed when:
(i) a decision is portrayed as being a choice between two (or more) options;
(ii) all but one of the options presented is obviously bad; but
(iii) there are, in fact, more options than are represented.

(A man giving a speech to a gathering about zoning a section of forest as protected habitat might say: Would you like to see this beautiful forest turned into a strip mall & parking lot? He hasn't said that it is the choice between his zoning suggestion & a shopping centre but the people gathered might come away with the impression that if they sign his petition they are indeed choosing the better option of the two)

C) Straw Man = the fallacy of attacking a position that one's opponent does not really hold and thinking that one has thereby attacked the opponent's position.

(When used well the opponent in question can sometimes even be induced to defend the irrelevant position thereby validating the criticism.)

D) Slippery Slope = fallacy committed when:
(i) someone argues against a certain proposal by claiming that it will set off a chain reaction that will ultimately end in disaster; but
(ii) there is no good reason to believe that such a chain reaction will (or is likely to) occur.

(That because hard drug users generally smoke, or have smoked, marijuana, smoking marijuana inevitably leads to hard drug use. That because violence on television is desensitising, kids who watch Popeye cartoons will exhibit violent behaviour)

E) Ad Hominem (latin- against the person) = fallacy committed when someone erroneously attacks the person giving an argument rather than the argument itself.

(A nutrition expert might have his statement about nutrition attacked because he is overweight. The connection might seem superficially accurate in an intuitive way, when in fact there may be many reasons aside from ignorance of the subject that causes him to be overweight. It might even be a reason the critic does not recognise though logically he should be able to accept it, such as that the nutrition expert feels he is more attractive when overweight & works hard to keep from losing those kilos.)

F) False Cause = fallacy committed when someone concludes that one event is caused by another simply because the one event follows the other.

(Every time I forget my umbrella it rains!)

Friday, June 23, 2006

On 'happiness', in answer to Ivan's comment.

Ivan wrote:
Happiness, in itself is a silly, giddy thing. Rather it's the "pursuit" of happiness that's of value. Imagine a life engaged in the pursuit of misery.
Ivan Sherman

Yes, I think that is a valid point Ivan, that a life in pursuit of happiness can be defined as more successful than one that becomes complacent upon accomplishing some pre-defined state of happiness. I think a good analogy to the concept among artists like you and I, is my belief that if an artist ever manages to define his inner vision perfectly on his canvas, it becomes time for him to do something other than paint. In other words: it is the element of experimentation, of striving for the indefinable aesthetic, that keeps an artist's work live. Making the opposite true, i.e.- an artist who knows precisely what his painting will look like before he begins produces- dead paintings.

Your idea reminds me of a quote by someone brilliant (who I can't place in my memory to attribute properly) who said: "The only true happiness a man experiences is in the fantasy of future happiness." This is proven by the fact that whenever we do achieve the object of our fantasy we generate a new fantasy of future happiness.

I don't however, agree with the last part of your statement, "Imagine a life in the pursuit of misery" it might be difficult for men such as you & I to imagine a life such as that, but I think it is not so unusual for people to do just that, most, I think, without realising it.

It is interesting and valid to define the terms of our dialogue in this Socratic manner but I think nothing has been said about the term 'happiness' that conflicts with my statement that a successful life is not measured in quantity or even quality of happiness but rather, in the more mature ability to appreciate the drama offered by the range of emotional possibility our lives present. I will close by offering another quote from my book (Life is Good Even when it's Not) as an example: when enough time has passed- "...I know when I look back, that I cherish the memory of a broken heart alongside the joy I remember at seducing the woman who broke it. Both are examples of living deeply. It is about drama."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Thoughts on Happiness

In response to some of the comments posted to the essay - 'Happiness Versus Suffering' (below) I would like to offer this excerpt from my book: 'Life is Good Even When it's Not':

The idea of life as a project or series of projects may not be unusual, but the deeper significance is interesting: it has made my satisfaction with life tied largely to my level of productivity, rather than my volume of happiness.

Looking at a painting I did sometime in the past, I realized I couldn't remember how I felt when I painted it. Or perhaps I worked on the same painting--one day happy, the next, angry, and a third, melancholy--and all that was left of those moments was the painting. This made the painting of greater importance than how I felt, and I eventually developed the theory (or made the discovery) that the phrase, "man's inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness" in the U.S. Constitution, constitutes a basic flaw in cultural philosophy: a successful life cannot be measured according to the amount or even degree of happiness, but rather by appreciating the drama provided by the range of our emotional life.

The fact that it is possible to be miserable one's whole life does not change the fact it is impossible to always be happy. It probably has something to do with what Chekhov said about happiness being a thing defined in a subtle range of greys--no single one concrete, the same thing that makes you happy today (like someone's company) can make you sad or angry tomorrow--while unhappiness is easily defined in its negative quality as the absence of happiness.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The birth of Chiang Mai

To the Thai, a city is a living body that can get sad, angry, happy, bored, sick... it is a cooperation of its inhabitants akin to the collaboration of cells in a human body. After the kings of Lampun and Sukothai came to the aid of Mangrai, the king of Chiang Rai to repel the invading Burmese, the three kings from Chiang Rai in the north, Sukothai to the south, and Lampun in the east, decided to band together. They looked for a site between their kingdoms to build the Capitol of their new country.

The three kings were strong idealistic young men, each sovereign to kingdoms already old enough for pride in their traditions, in Lampun originated the beautiful celadon ceramics of delicate translucent green glazes whose roots are in China. Sukothai represents much of Thai culture known to the West, the folk dances, apparel and most importantly, the enamelled gold and incredibly intricate linked chain jewellery they still make today, originated here, while Chiang Rai makes beautiful women.

The Kings met bare-chested and gold crowned, along with their parasol wielding, fan waving entourages, in the verdant and fecund valley which is now the Rose of the North: Chiang Mai. At 300 metres above sea level it was cool and had water tumbling from the surrounding mountains into the Mae Ping, or Ping river. Here they agreed would be a sublime city representing a perfect friendship and the first unification of northern Thailand. They designed a the town within a square moat a little over one kilometre to a side with four fortified entrances each half-way between two corners. If a city is a living body, however, it must be conceived instead of simply built, and so, along with their soothsayers, the auspicious date was decided and on the 8th day of the waxing moon, the month of Visakha, the year of the monkey, or April 24 1296, at exactly four a.m. Chiang Mai was born.

At the northern wall its head, whose opening was called the White Elephant gate, a lucky symbol, through which good things like a visiting sovereign or a celebratory parade might enter the city. The southern entrance is the other end of the body out of which the bad like the dead, the exiled and the sewage are expelled. At this southern point also is the prison, while to the east, where the river runs outside the walls, the rising sun lights the mind with schools and library. To the west: workshops for jewellery, arms, furniture. All around the outside of the moat the rice paddies and finally, at its centre, its navel, spiritual and physical health, temples and grain storage.

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