Saturday, May 11, 2013

Plan in Case of "Apocalypse"

by Betty source 
And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one's passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia, that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul. -Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray source
Leave it to Oscar Wilde to explain why I like perfumes so much better than I can. It seems like my preoccupation with scent is not something a lot of people can relate to. We all smell better than ever, maybe it's why we take smells for granted. There is a lack of bad smells to make us really appreciate the good ones. The ones we have satisfy us, so one doesn't seek something better, but I assure you, it does exist. Who knows, someday we might not take it for granted any more. It might seem trivial, but is anything trivial, really, especcialy if it produces a certain experince? 

I haven't ever been in favor of book reviews, I prefer reflections on books. In Fahrenheit 451 there are rebel bibliophiles who memorize books so that they can be reproduced in a future time. In case you aren't familiar with the story, is is about a time in the future where all books are banned, and they are burned if they are found. I find that everything in science fiction, is something that happened in the past, and could happen in the future. Science Fiction is an effort to learn from the past, in Fahenheit 451, this is put unambiguouly. There have been book burnings throughout history, but the practice of memorizing books, as a way to  have at least some protection against destruction, has also existed.

The Torah is the best example, aside from he ideological significance of doing it, the Jewish people were always under threat, and their belongings subject to destruction. Therefore, if the people survive with only the clothes on their backs, their religious text will still be intact. Everyone wonders what they will do in an ultimate catastrophe, I mean, what they will save; their gun, their important documents, their most precious sentimental object, their most valuable object, their means of making a living (I am thinking about Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura and her sewing machine from Hiroshima). But what about an emergency plan to preserve intellectual property, I mean books. It would truly have to be the ultimate disaster, where destruction is so complete that books are lost, but it happened before, so it can happen again. And, it is precisely a situation like that when they would be needed most. I have often wondered about which book I would memorize to save and why. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the one I would memorize. I have read it about 3 times already and have looked up passages at random all the time. I already have some of them memorized, anyway. But just the fact that it's a good book is not enough to make it really worth saving. Before I could read, I saw the 1945 movie and I thought it was the most profound movie I had ever seen. I must have been 5 years old, it was when I first wondered about the meaning of life. 

The special thing about it, is that it's the book that made me good. The idea that the purpose of life is the pursuit of experience, particularly pleasure, was new to me. But these experiences must be carefully curated. The wrong experiences can bring on personal destruction. Those things we all know as sins, are not necessarily, or at least it is a lot more complicated. From an outsider's perspective, while judging another, the same action can be the result of good or bad intentions, so there is really no way to know what is right and wrong. This is useless as a judicial system but for understanding one's own life, it is the best. Obviously, the first lesson is don't judge others, focus on yourself, but an act motivated by inner depravity is hideous, motivated by love, it is sublime, no matter how tragic. The idea that I will be marred by my "sins", that I will not be able to get away from them, ever, that my bad deeds will find a way to manifest themselves in my lifetime and make me suffer, not to mention make me ugly, is what made me decide that I will be a good person. It has nothing to do with Karma, it is only logical, be nasty to people around you and they will not help you in your time of need. The darkness in your heart will be expressed in all actions, somehow, the same way any philosophy is applicable to the most trivial situations. There was nothing mystical here. People might be deceived for a time but one's corruption and horror will be recognized, and worse of all, it can trap you in a monstrous cycle.

 I think that I should be clearer about what I mean by "ugly", it is not a deviation from our ideals of beauty. A technically beautiful person, one who has all the "right" features can still have a certain cruel turn of the lip, or a particular despotic glint of the eye, that makes one shudder. An old, wrinkled person, hunched over and toothless, can have a benevolent smile, and warmth in their eyes. No matter how perfect my appearance may ever be, I will never be able to get rid of the taint of hatefulness. It seems like a rather shallow reason to be good. But that inner "ugliness" will pervert anything that I do and I will not be able to erase it, like Dorian wasn't able to make the portrait pleasanter by doing a good deed. Once one has learned to be vile, one cannot unlearn it. Any selfless act will inevitably be a trick of selfishness. Whats done is done. There is no forgiveness, no absolution, and no redemption, so be good in the first place. That is the key difference from the bible, "Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment" -Wilde. But there is no punishment really, and there is not the purification that goes with it. 

It is also part of the reason why I have basically devoted my life to art. The name of this blog is derived from a Picasso quote "We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”, in Dorian Gray that is exactly what art is. It is a lie. It makes us think, and if one does that, one will arrive at a truth. The numerous explanations of what art is and what the purpose of it is, range from the insane to the labyrinthine. But here it is quite clear. That is why this book needs to be saved in a theoretical Fahrenheit 451 situation, and why I will be the one to do it. 

Make an inventory of that which you actually have memorized right now. Chances are, one of those things is an ad. If you were asked to reproduce something from memory, it might be a commercial. It definitely isn't that which is most valuable to you, but it is probably what takes up a significant portion of mental real estate.  So, in a hypothetical world where we have to rebuild everything from scratch, we might have our guns, our important documents, valuable and sentimental objects and possibly even our sewing machines but that's short sighted. We will have satisfied the lower tiers on Maslow's hierarchy of needs before long, inevitably, but then what? We will want to recreate the best parts of the past, but the only things we can remember with absolute certainty might be Coca Cola ads.

 I have nothing against Coca Cola but the idea that it will be brought back, with an added level of mythology, at that, while the great works of literature that fertilized the minds of the past, will be lost forever, makes me uneasy. Who knows, for lack of anything else, they might even start a religion out of it. People will try to do the right thing, they will say, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that was great, I can paraphrase it, sort of, but I don't really remember it". We rely more than ever on external sources to store that which is important, but I really think everyone should memorize something that is important to them. The Constitution might be a good place to start if you can't think of anything else, but if you do know, which book will you save?

In a desolate grey landscape, I will be walking around hunched over, sick and dirty, wearing rags, long stringy hair blowing in the wind, gathering Styrofoam cups (god knows they're not going anywhere) into a sordid satchel. I will sit on a pile of debris piecing them together and with my long yellow fingernail, underneath which there is a crescent of dirt, I will be scratching the words of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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