On Optimisn and Pessimism

Optimism and pessimism are appraisals/evaluations/predictions of the future, based not only, or no so much, on current knowledge/data, but on our interpretation of the same. The interpretation is influenced by a number of factors, ranging from past experiences and upbringing to natural disposition and efforts to be objective. Perhaps at a subconscious level it is influenced by our deepest hopes and fears of which, obviously, we are not aware.

Optimism need not dull us into complacency, nor need pessimism numb us into resignation.

Whether we are optimists or pessimists about ourselves or the world, we can always work to better the current status. That is what really matters, irrespective of how we see the as yet unraveled future.

I am optimistic that our current pessimism about the world will goad us to actions that have the potential to ameliorate the human condition, in however small a measure. I am also optimistic because – as someone said – the pessimist may be right in the long run, but it is the optimist who has fun all along the way.

Whether it is to paradise or to the other place, we can always try to make the mental journey to it cheerful, and that is the great merit of optimism. Convinced that we are on the road to the precipice, we may be spurred to change course, and that is what pessimism can, in principle, do.

November 24, 2011

Question and Answer on Empathy

In an internet conversation, the following question was posed.

Am I wrong in thinking that to promote empathy for those with whom you are sympathetic while demonizing those with whom you disagree is the secular version of claiming that God is on your side?

My answer: In my view, you are not only not wrong, but are absolutely correct.

Furthermore, you have drawn attention to a most important impediment to any solution of the countless problems we are facing today, both within and among nations.

This <God/Truth is on my side, and on my side alone, while the Devil/Falsehood is with my enemy> complex is as ancient as ideological wars which have raged and ruined human history time and time again.

Yes, for long this ailment plagued (and continues to plague) only religious bigots and zealots who were/are convinced that their own vision of God and prophet  was/is the only correct one, and that those who disagreed were deserving of and would surely be expedited to some very hot and uncomfortable transcendental region that is awaiting the erring souls in their post mortem phase.

Thank goodness we came to a period in  history when the forces of Enlightenment took control (at least in some parts of the world) and shielded dissidents from ruthless persecution.

But now, those liberating forces are themselves beginning to embrace the mindset of fearsome theocracy.

Though I am myself prone to side with the groups that are disparagingly labeled liberals when it comes to fighting for a cause, at the philosophical level I am bewildered and frightened by true believers on both sides.  Their blindness to whatever shred of goodness there may be in their ideological adversaries not only provokes escalating verbal abuse of and attitudinal contempt for the other, but also makes solution to any serious problem virtually impossible.

That is why I fear there is very little hope for resolving our many problems as long as this medieval intolerance of contrary views in thought and word  continues to persist.

November 22, 2011

On Philip Glass’s Opera: Satyagraha

I enjoy operas . I have been seeing practically every HD transmission of the MET. So I couldn’t possibly miss Satyagraha although my ears are not quite attuned to 20th century operatic efforts. But I realize that the era of Verdi and Rossini, Bizet and Puccini are over, and I must learn to appreciate modern stalwarts. That’s why I went to see Nixon in China last year, as well as  Philip Glass’s homage to Mahatma Gandhi, presented today (November 19, 2011). I saw it at Cinemark in Ames, IA. I am glad I went because Gandhi has been a hero since my school days. I still remember standing in a million-people crowd at Lake Maidan in Calcutta decades ago, listening to him speak to the multitude.

I was impressed by the elaborate stage effects and the white, authentic costumes. It was interesting to  hear passages from the Bhagavad Gita which were (supposedly) recited in the original Sanskrit, with a blue Krishna (in blue suit and tie). I rather doubt that the singers received diction lessons from qualified Sanskrit pundits. Though I have read and heard the Gita hundreds of times, I couldn’t distinguish a single phrase from the good singers. They might as well have been doing a Swahili rendition of the sacred text. The excuse given was that mantras are to be heard in their serenity, not in translation: True, but they also become meaningless noises when inserted into a story for the benefit of non-Sanskrit knowing audience. I wish there had been transliterations in Romanized Sanskrit along with some translations as subtitles. Those who knew nothing of Gandhi or the Bhagavad Gita or the Dharmasketra  of Kurukshetra would have been totally bewildered by what was going on, until the first intermission when some background information on Gandhi in South Africa was given.

I enjoyed the music which had a peculiar charm, though very different from the operas I am used to. No bel canto here, nor arias that would provoke cries of encore, nor any aria people would be humming often.  But it was magnificent and majestic all the same, overpowering by its somber serenity. There was also something disarmingly genuine in the enunciation of the tenor Richard Croft whose voice was even and inscrutably pleasant to hear. Alfred Walker as Rutomji was also good, though few would have known that he was supposed to be a Parsi. Kasturiba (Maria Zifchak) and Miss Schlesen (Rachelle Durkin) were very good also.  I liked the ah-ah-ah-ah chorus in the second act which was more rhythmic than some of the other choruses which were slow and repetitive, sometimes  ad boredomiam. The music in the last act especially struck me as  going on and on with no end in sight. The absence of subtitles did not help.

I was impressed by the creative use of stage hands, props and magnificent giant puppets, which, as always at the Met, were clever, complex, and cute. It was nice to see a snippet of Martin Luther King speaking to the masses, although his back looked more like Obama’s. I guess there was a lot of symbolism all through the opera, but I wish I knew what they were symbolic of. Perhaps the cow and the removal of shoes referred to Gandhi’s abandoning the use of leather? Perhaps the endless series of newspapers referred to Gandhi’s many writings in his journal Indian Opinion? Perhaps the throwing of crumpled papers at him referred to how he was attacked? Perhaps the slowly unraveling kilometers of scotch tapes, like Draupadi’s sari,  referred to the never ending birth and rebirth?

I did not notice any Indian/Hindu name in the credits. Obviously no one from the tradition was consulted on any of these matters. I feel the opera might have been made much more meaningful if this had been done.

With all that I am thankful to Philip Glass and others for bringing Gandhi’s  message to the world, because that message  is direly needed in our own times. This is a message of peace, non-violence, and the struggle for social justice. This was certainly conveyed extremely well by the opera Satyagraha.

November 19, 2011

Greg Palast’s Book: Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Carnivore

Such emotional and simplistic exclamations may soothe the confused minds and helpless predicament of the materially fattened Western world, which has been gradually realizing that industrialization involves environmental assault with implications for our survival, and good old capitalism can degenerate into obscene and callous greed leading to national suicide. 

However, such self-righteous book titles are purely hypocritical when uttered by the beneficiaries of these very forces which have given them so many creature comforts, health benefits, and ease of venting their views, and looking for getting into the NY Times best-seller list in order to bag royalties. 

Authors of such treatises  conveniently ignore or carelessly forget that the entire technological civilization of the past hundred years and more rests on the commitment of the petroleum pigs, power pirates and high-finance carnivores. They themselves have been unwittingly contributing to the sustenance and growth of industrial economies.

It is a shame it has all come to this, but this book would be more honestly grounded if it had been authored by a chieftain in an Amazon tribe, thriving on the hunter’s prey and clothed, if at all,  by animal skin, and utterly   uncorrupted by the fruits and  poisons of industrial civilization.

Having said that I still applaud the exposure of the venemous ingredients in modern societies which have brought us to the brink.

November 20, 2011