Category: Life

Reading shelf, September 2016

September 12th, 2016 — 10:26pm

Currently reading:

C.G. Jung: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (vol. 2) (seminar notes)

J.G. Ballard: Empire of the Sun (fiction)

Eric Hobsbawm: Age of Extremes (nonfiction)


Just finished:

J.G. Ballard: Extreme Metaphors (interviews)

Ursula K. LeGuin: The Earthsea Quartet (fiction)



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Collecting books

August 23rd, 2015 — 3:26pm


Until about five years ago, I would hesitate to buy books if I had other, unfinished books that I was currently reading. It seemed irresponsible to “start on something new” without finishing things that were in progress. This is the kind of attitude that leads you to visit every single room and see every single exhibit in a museum, exhausting yourself (thus precluding visits to other museums for a while). In retrospect, this was an unwise approach.

Umberto Eco (I learn via Nassim Taleb), and others before him, advocates the notion of an antilibrary. Books that one has not read are clearly more valuable than books that one has read. So simple, and so obvious. One should fill one’s shelves with unread books.

Of course this does not mean indiscriminate acquisition, though. We should curate, buy books on the basis of potential value – at present or at some time in the future. Look for links between books, associations, counterpoints, juxtapositions. Thus we build a space – both literary and physical – that is instantly accessible, offering up its riches. We can immediately jump from book to book, trace connections and make new ones, a quadratically increasing number of potential contrasts…

Talking to a new acquaintance for ten hours does not hold ten times as much “utility” or interest as talking to him or her for one hour. Trying to exhaust or deplete one person before moving on to make another acquaintance would be rude, clumsy, pointless and tiring. Although we may sometimes wish to converse with someone for days or weeks immediately upon meeting them, sometimes a few minutes is enough to have a crucial insight.

A metaphor, and an obvious insight now, but one that bears repetition. Finally: it is important that the collection is physical, concrete shelves with physical volume and mass. No digital interfaces, however convenient, can make up for the lack of physicality. They are complementary at best.

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Worlds on display

June 18th, 2015 — 10:23pm

In fashion shop interiors, I often see objects that suggest a certain environment, assemblages that seem to be taken from a different setting altogether. For example, very old sewing machines to suggest craftsmanship (even as the clothes are made in China with the latest equipment). Or piles of old books, sometimes surprisingly carefully selected (who picks them out?), or even musical instruments. There may be exceptions, but I think it’s fair to say that in the majority of cases, the manufacturing, design and retail process, as well as the customers themselves, have no relation to these objects other than the fact that they are physically present in the shops.

The practice of erecting an assemblage of objects to suggest a world that is in actuality not present might be called citing or quoting a world (a world being a referential totality of beings, in the Heidegger sense). The little world, or worldlet, is on a little stage, like a picture in a frame.

A parallel practice occurs in, for example, furniture shops. Certain shops, in Tokyo at least, carry genuinely old and worn furniture. Once I saw a big used work table from France that had no doubt supported a fair amount of actual work, perhaps some kind of craft. Now it is on sale for use in a large, fashionable home (judging by the price and additional items in the shop). In this fashionable home, the work table will quote a world just like the books and sewing machines do in fashion shops. Presumably, this will all be considered tasteful.

It would not be as tasteful if the owner of the home set up an actual work table in his living room and did heavy carpentry or welding on it, only to later sweep the work aside and serve dinner to his guests among the scratches and dust (not even if the table was properly cleaned). But it would be more honest. A quoted world at a comfortable distance — contained and framed — can sometimes be appreciated by polite society where a living, actual world could not.


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Concert review: free jazz at Nanahari, Sep 19

September 19th, 2013 — 11:28pm

The performers: Kevin McHugh from the US on piano, Hugues Vincent from France on cello, as well as an Australian clarinet player, and Japanese cello and flute players and a drummer.

The venue: Nanahari – “seven needles”, 七針 – a small basement in Hachobori, east Tokyo, in an authentically Showa-era building. We are partly transported into another time – the bubble era, echoes of it.

The audience: 10-15 people. Each of us brings something there: hopes and fears, personal histories, wine.

The context: up north, Fukushima seems to be having as deep problems as ever. Governments and companies over the world are embroiled in surveillance scandals and financial problems that seem to be piling higher year by year. The economic outlook in many places, and certainly Japan, is highly uncertain. The Japanese population is aging. For foreigners whose occupation is something unorthodox like music, getting a visa to stay in Japan is not trivial. In the middle east, conflicts are raging with no end in sight.

And yet. Here and now, these musicians from four countries manage to synthesise something that could have been done nowhere else and at no other time. The format is free jazz, one of the least restricted forms of music. McHugh and Vincent probe their instruments – piano and cello – deeply. McHugh dissects the piano and begins adjusting and interfering with its strings and other innards while playing, as he is wont to do. Vincent displays an intimacy and energy with his cello that is almost frightening. One fears what he might be capable of. Through the unorthodox playing, their instruments receive lobotomies, massages and savagery that allow them to produce soundscapes one must suspect they were never designed for. Yet in the hands of capable musicians like these, the result is plausible, amazing and profoundly unique.

The evening goes on for a few hours; various combinations of the present musicians (drawn by lottery) improvise together. The result is sometimes theatre, sometimes pure aesthetics, sometimes metaphysical. There are confrontations and compromises. Something is unconcealed; veils are lifted off. Intensely true and genuine narratives blend to form new and unique stories. The evening’s performances are one justification, one redemption of the mad state of the world today. And on some level, perhaps proof that the madness is not complete, that something healthy and vital is still alive, expressing itself.

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Teilhard de Chardin, Nietzsche and individuation

August 27th, 2013 — 9:13am

On a friend’s recommendation I started reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. De Chardin was a Jesuit and a paleontologist who in this work attempted to reconcile his Christian beliefs with evolution and natural selection. The result is an intense work of great ambition, rich with vivid metaphors.

By chance I was leafing through Spinoza’s Ethics and Bergson’s Creative Evolution at the same time. These books seem to be dealing with similar themes but perhaps in very different ways and it seems a comparative reading might be fruitful. More on this later, I hope.

I’ve read about half of The Phenomenon of Man but wanted to write down some initial reactions. The reasoning, imagination and ambition here is truly great, and the book is a truly positive endeavour. I see no traces of hostility or reactive thinking here. De Chardin wants to build something new, not attack the old.

What makes the work Christian (it appears at this point) is a fundamental belief in meaning and progress towards a goal point (“the Omega point”). From this notion of progress, every part of history and the universe is supposed to be imbued with meaning teleologically. De Chardin goes so far as to posit a force that pulls beings towards greater complexity, a fundamental force of progress/nature. I’m not sure I’m convinced about this part. A more Nietzschean thinker would perhaps say that the Omega point De Chardin sees is only one of many possible points that would appear randomly in succession, with no control or method. Given enough time one would perhaps observe additional such points. (Again, this is based on my having read only half the book and I haven’t read the main thrust of the Omega point argument yet.)

De Chardin views evolution, rightly it seems, as a succession of phases that repeat themselves: first a given life form saturates itself, then delineations and nervures appear and the life form splits up, fragments, species/individuals appear. Eventually species vanish, but one member of a family may survive to form the root of the next fragmentation phase. This is the pattern that happens on the level of species and also, it seems, on the levels of national, organizational and individual history, behaviour and thought. This is how antifragility manifests itself.

Against this backdrop Nietzsche seems concerned mainly with the individuation part. His great fear is that society or mankind will collapse into a formless mass where everybody “loves their neighbor’s warmth”. This is why he emphasises hardness and distance between individuals, rather than fluidity and the amorphous unity of a crowd. He returns to this theme in practically all of his books. A society where no individuals venture out onto chilly mountaintops to expand the occupied space would be past its peak and at the beginning of its decline. Nietzsche is in some sense a philosopher of expansion, as is De Chardin, but they approach the theme differently.

It remains for me to see precisely how De Chardin will engage with Nietzsche. Hopefully more on this later.

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