Thursday, June 03, 2004

Japanese wisdom & the impending catastrophe!

Our genteel, compassionate Polish blogger sent a note of concern because of the rumors circulating about the impending big quake in Tehran after having read, apparently, the latest angst-ridden post of our aptly named sleepwalker. Yes, we are all worried. But isn’t life, after all, about the choices we make—choices that become all the more oppressive when the prospect of death looms in the horizon?

You can discern a lot about various cultures by the way each broaches the subject. Now, I simply adore the Japanese wisdom manifest in Murasaki Shikibu’s wonderfully poignant masterpiece, Tale of Genji. It is a love story of sorts and the fortieth chapter, the Rites dealing with the impending death of Lady Murasaki has some brilliant, haunting passages. I think you can still get a sense for the profound beauty even without the rest of the book:

It was the tenth day of the Third Month. The cherries were
in bloom and the skies were pleasantly clear. One felt that
Amitabha’s paradise could not be far away, and for even the
less than devout it was as if a burden of sin were being lifted.

As the first touches of dawn came over the sky the scene was
as if made especially for her who so loved the spring. All
across the garden cherries were a delicate veil through spring
mists, and bird songs rose numberless, as if to outdo the flutes.

One would have thought that the possibilities of beauty were
exhausted, and then the dancer on the stage became the handsome
General Ling, and as the dance gathered momentum and the delighted
onlookers stripped off multicolored robes and showered them upon
him, the season and the occasion brought a yet higher access of

These were the familiar faces, the people who had gathered over
the years. They had delighted her one last time with the flute and
Koto. Some had meant more to her than others. She gazed intently
at the most distant of them and thought that she could never have
enough of those who had been her companions at music and other
pleasures of seasons. All of them would soon be gone, making their
way down the unknown road, and she must make her lonely way
ahead of them.

Though very thin, she was more beautiful than ever-one would not
have thought it possible. The fresh, vivacious beauty of other years
had asked to be likened to the flowers of this earth, but now there
was a delicate serenity that seemed to go beyond such present
similes. For the empress the slight figure before her, the very
serenity bespeaking evanescence, was utter sadness.

All through the night [Gengi] did every thing that could
possibly be done, but in vain. Just as light was coming
she faded away.

He might tell himself, as might all the others who had
been with her, that these have always happened and
will continue to happen, but there are times when the
natural order of thing is unacceptable. The numbing
grief made the world itself seem like a twilight dream.

I know the conventional wisdom has it that we live in a morbid land. The conventional wisdom, however, is often just that—terribly conventional. Ours is a highly sensual one; though, I must admit we have not as yet learned to speak openly about it in terms appropriately expressive of the orientation. And just like all cultures, there are subgroups with their own competing virtues and vices.

There is a game I like to play every day as I roam the streets. I look at the houses, high-rises, shops and the people who cross my path. “How many of you” I ask them in my head, “are worth my freedom?” How many houses? How many children? How many shops? How much lamentation? How many parents? And the severed connections? Then all begins to get murky.

To get back to the concerns of our somnambulist: His post exemplifies all that is decent about Iranians and also everything that I find offensive to my sensibilities. I mean, who can argue with his affirmations of life, love of family, and the desire to live? The bounds of affection are difficult to break, aren’t they?

And there is that desire to live just another day. A chance to discover new friends, to taste delicious fruits. And to ride a horse, smell a flower and dine with a loved one. To read a favorite passage and the chance to be awed by a new book, a movie and the simple joys of watching enchanting eyes, or expressive faces and a sunset. The prospect alone of listening and dancing to a moving melody is an invitation almost impossible to resist.

But then there is that perchance for rumor mongering. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear of “reliable sources” and their inside scoops about various inanities. And that simple easy act of dismissing everything which happens to not tickle one’s fancy. The pitch is almost always the same and tolerating yet another one becomes terribly, terribly taxing.

Let’s work through some of them: earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict. There are working hypotheses about the empirically verifiable precursors to quakes. These include the changes in the gravitational pull, alterations in the released volume of Argon and Helium, and yes even the existence of ionized clouds, and so many other indicators waiting to be worked through. But then there are questions of the nature of measurements, disagreements, and the need for constant experiments. Ultimately though, it is always the question of what we choose to do with all the data collected and the interpretations of the troubles, plaques and pestilences.

Everything hinges on assuming responsibility for our deeds and being driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and by boundless curiosity. It is never an either/or proposition. You can clearly see in his post an example of how Wonder has ceased to animate us. The social fragmentation, the politically charged atmosphere, the polarized life, and all the civic discord and authoritarianism have taken a toll on our Spirit. And in that we are not alone. You can encounter identical mindset in action in many blogs written by those outside Iran.

I mean, how hard is it to go through life and rediscover cluelessness each time you encounters something not to your liking? How difficult is it to dismiss anything not phrased exactly as how you and your small clique would like it framed? An unimaginative universe emerges that provides instant, easy and satisfying answers. But do we really want to live in such a universe?

I am not religious. But I like to see how different minds deal with riddles. So it doesn’t bother me if some in Iran worry about Adam, Eve and their navels. Much in the same way as I occasionally peruse the Jewish debates about the relationship between prayer, Israel and circumcision. Or the debates the Christians engage in as to whether the resurrected Christ was really circumcised, or not. Or some of the more “exotic” Hindu, Manichean or Zoroastrian concerns that some might dismiss as superstition.

You see, for me, the same desire for providing at least some answer to those riddles, also gives rise to the need to run experiments in order to find out if you can really predict earth quakes. None of this would happen if you create a milieu where any encounter with questions not to your liking is humored, ridiculed, and instinctively dismissed.

Consequently, exactly as it is in Iran, there emerges a life dominated by “reliable sources,” rumors, politically motivated half-truths and high death tolls (Bam) as well as utter, total lack of personal responsibility for anything of substance.

I don’t know if there might indeed be a quake in Tehran any time soon or not. What I do know is that this government won’t be able to handle the catastrophe. I know millions of people will surely die. I know there will be massive explosions because I hear gas leaks every day and night. I know our emergency services are not sufficiently trained, and organized. As it is, they are poorly equipped and ill prepared for any disaster of some magnitude.

But how many houses were built by this government? Not many I assure you. How many times the builders, each and every one of us, chose to bribe the officials to circumnavigate the building codes—however inadequate—instead of following them? How many (of us) used inadequate material to cut costs? Is there any accounting? Why not?

It is always some one else’s fault, isn’t it? And the politically charged atmosphere gives us the added impetus to ridicule and to dismiss anything that runs counter to our personal tastes. The result: the first casualty has become that Spirit which would allow people to ask hard questions, to run experiments, to search for more effective organizing principles; to search for answers to questions as yet not thought through. That Spirit might offer us an exit and a higher probability of at least beginning to get prepared to deal with the disasters of monumental proportion looming in the horizon.

At the end of the day though, I come back to the questions I ask of my city-- the building, the shops and my fellow residents-- every day: how many of you am I willing to lose?

The answer is simple for me. I can’t bear the thought of watching from some distance the day after millions of our citizens perish because of a lousy quake. I learned from the Japanese that sometimes the “natural order of things,” is so preposterously unacceptable that nothing—and I mean nothing can seduce you into going on with your prosaic, humdrum routine.

So, in case you were wondering, there will be no skipping town for me any time soon. We either die together, or we muddle our way through the catastrophe—together--however injured or crippled.

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