Thursday, March 30, 2006

The exceptional, contrarian Asses & one stinking habitat

One of our more serious bloggers had a link to a single caricature by Houman Mortazavi in the Iranian a while back that I have revisited quite often in the past few weeks. There are about twenty in the series. They uncannily capture, I think, a good deal of the dominant Iranian psyche today. (Chattering classes)

I thought perhaps we should play a little in this post. But it will require your cooperation. I’d like to present them to you as I see them. Please humor me and play along. Once we are done, do with them as you please on your own and feel free to share your insights

I am going to broach the subject quickly enough for today and move to study Henri Bergson for a while. I have been thinking about him much after I saw the caricatures. I am sure he has managed to learn a thing or two after our initial encounter of those customary selections decades ago. So surely our old Henri is bound to make much more sense now, I am thinking! Hopefully in due time I’ll get back to the caricatures.

Let’s start with explicitly stating and getting some of my simple initial assumptions out on the open.

We are, as humans, all (hopefully) thinking embodied beings. Our body situates us in the world we inhabit. “It” has certain visceral reactions that are hard to comprehend and yet unavoidable. Like allergies, for instance, that in extreme cases kills when kissing someone who has had peanuts long before that regrettable moment.

On the same continuum, though occasionally not much less intense, there are visceral reactions that are culturally determined or might simply be thoughtless reactions. And even within cultures there are variations obviously. Of course, these days even this latter seems to be in dispute among some people—even or especially those on a rampage seemingly hell-bent on re-making our world in their own “enchanting” image.

The more successful, tolerable cultures will channel the reactions more effectively. They thus tap into various creative forces while balancing some of the less life affirming ones.

Some of you might get all grossed out, for instance, seeing or hearing about a breakfast I occasionally relish eating. Sheep tongue, eyes and ears. PukeOrama some will say surely. Much in the same way as some Iranians might respond to hearing about what some of you might eat: crabcakes or lobsters. Even the name of this latter elicits disgust: Khar-chang or donkey claw! I rather enjoy eating both, although, I wouldn’t be caught dead myself anywhere near some goat’s milk or yogurt. The smell alone suffices to make me feel nauseous.

You get my drift.

Now as living organisms we all have certain “energy” that keeps us going in life. But the way we think or perceive of the world will affect that energy. Human mind is a bit of a marvel when you think about it. We daily hear of those dying as a result of over taxing some body part or other. But do any of us ever end up dead “overworking” our brains?

Whatever we ultimately might decide to do with our bodies and minds, however, does have a bearing on how life comes to turn out. Greater intensities might give us better results or conversely lead toward gradual or sudden self destruction. And here the particular social collectivities we are apart or the institutions and the laws we live with come to affect us decisively. And we too, in turn, will impact their developments.

And here everything gets real murky the moment we enter Iran.

Obviously we all do the “same” things no matter where we are. We eat, sleep, drive to work, read or converse, love or fight, work and rest among so many other things. But the manner we approach whatever it is we do constitutes or goes on to determine that “unique” flavor of our cultures.

The Iranian “uniqueness,” I think, is a rather bizarre, unexpected consequence of a perverse national self-definition given that as a general rule we Iranians tend to view ourselves as “different.”

We almost routinely tend to characterize ourselves as “not normal.” (“Adame Adi Nistam”). And by this we don’t really mean “abnormal” here. Others are referred to as “abnormal” depending on whatever conduct it is that remains unappreciated or is viewed as “unnatural,” on any given day.

Obviously, this latter category is a constructed one and changes with time. Various scholars have worked successfully to document some of the features or forces at work and some younger ones will do their part in due time.

Note here, though, that what people have in mind when describing themselves as gheyre-adi is in actuality being “idiosyncratic” or “exceptional.” To be normal is to be “one of the herds,” and something to be avoided like plague. And the image, of course, that is most in vogue as object of scorn is that of a donkey here or Khar.

Unless it is used with money, of course, as in Kharpool, or literally donkeymoney which has become the preferred image of choice these days and something to aspire to! If you can’t be Kharpool yourself, obviously you dream of marrying one. It’s all rather simple, you see. Donkeys require hay—lots of hay, and no amount of hay is ever enough. No one else on the planet ever manages to accomplish anything worthwhile they set their minds on without hay. It’s all hopeless without lots of hay.

But I digress! So what we have in reality in Iran today is millions of self described “exceptions” who have a visceral loathing for being donkeys. The national nightmare, I often suspect, remains that frightful specter of the “exceptional” multitudes suddenly morphing into “normal” donkeys.

Now whether anyone likes it or not, these exceptional ones are going to have to continue to live among others. We end up doing almost identical “things” everyone else on the planet does all over again everyday. But all the activities will be “processed” through that lens or the image of “normalcy” which must be avoided at all cost. There are dreams and fears at work here that modulate all our exertions and conducts.

Normal is boring boring boring, remember.

So the question becomes: what would the shape of a culture ultimately become when millions of “exceptions” come to act on their dreams and aspirations routinely while wanting to avoid being bored stiff?

Let’s explore now with the aide of some of Mr. Mortazavi’s caricatures. You will find descriptions of each frame in English in the middle top black line and the Farsi remains in the middle bottom of the square.

All our normal strivings everywhere hinge on sustaining a level of curiousity or attentiveness does it not? So what happens when enough people have come to believe that curiosity or inquisitiveness is something dangerous that might get you accidentally killed? (Unless it involves idle chatter and gossiping about other people’s personal lives -- a favorite national pastime)

Or that when faced with the prospect of real danger, it’s best to make a meaningless gesture of safely pretending all is subsequently well while deep down one continues to live in the dread of that something immensely deadly which is about to fall on one’s head?

What happens when as that exceptional one, enough people think everyone else is out to get them and, quite naturally, they all have bigger guns, while bravery remains the pretense of selflessly exhibiting that exceptional gesture of audacity by making a show of defiance against all insurmountable odds alone and with a wooden sword?

And when thinking long term is conceived of as having to think about or look at one endless, miserable little trek while any attempt at exerting oneself to meet obligations and responsibilities is felt to be running around aimlessly which will inevitably leave one exhausted, enervated and disappointed.

And subsequently that mindless lashing out and belittling of everyone and everything in sight because one is unhappy since the universe can be so unaccommodating most of the time!

What happens when there is a constant expectation, no matter the circumstance or the place, that optimism about specific projects or achievements (as opposed to grand Hopes and Wishful Thinking) is deemed the equivalent of jumping head first into a small bucket and any enthusiastic, sustained, passionate engagement with particular endeavors that might end up ultimately setting one’s shorts on fire if given a chance is actually proof of blindness or lack of real understanding of the nature of the chains that is binding one in place.

And what happens when enough people seek to avoid feeling genuine affection for others or even allowing themselves to experience the sort of love that might perpetuates itself through attentiveness, playfulness and effort because we think we’ll unavoidably get hurt or alternately that all true love shall remain unrequited for ever.

Or that as that exception, one is so exceptionally ambitious that any normal, routine work or a manageable dream broken down to its smaller parts comes to be viewed as those way too insignificant, easy steps and certainly below one’s dignity to even be deemed worthy of a serious try? So one ends up supremely disappointed with any display of genuine passion or excitement about specific tasks one is assigned or whatever else it might be that one has come to freely choose in each phase of one’s life.

And what happens to tolerance, civility or compassion in any society when humility comes to be viewed as tantamount to an open invitation to be defecated upon by insignificant ugly little black creatures from above!

As a multi-ethnic society, of course, Iran is the land of many accents and intonations.

So what happens when one comes to perceive any social engagement with others as that insufferable burden of having to negotiate life with the rest of the herd, especially since some of the donkeys naturally have “funny” accents? The village accents of southern Arabs, or northern Rashdis or Azari Turk accents or Eastern Khorasani or Southeastern Baluchi or Western Kurd accents or even those of the Lors or Armenians!

Or that any effort to engage in civil dialogues with others or even to attempt to genuinely be open to listening is something to be avoided since their “true intention” or their “real goal” is ultimately to traitorously crucify you. When they are not trying to deceive you or scam something out of you, that is!

The consequences, sadly, become dire.

The expectations are never commensurate with the results. The results, predictably, become grotesque. Here we end up in the land of arrogant, abrasive know-it-alls. Those who end up recoiling from life after each short term burst of energy hurriedly retreating again into that bubble of sloth for more sleep.

We enter a bizarre world in which all genuine, sustained passion for much of any thing substantial—and almost all serious exertions people might stick to-- are viewed as cutting the branches that’s holding one in place in the universe.

Hence no trace of mutual cooperation, substantial information sharing or teamwork that might go on to serve as durable foundations for a developing society. It is one-upmanship all over the place. And thoughtless, habitual belligerence, negligence and a perpetual cutting of others “down to size” which predictably reproduces exceptional midgets shore to shore!

Trying to read extensively, or even thinking though assumptions and/or grappling engagingly with or analyzing seriously (as best one is capable of) whatever it is one is passionate about comes to be habitually dismissed or humored because it’s all seen as lies, deception, old, boring, and not the latest hip, trendy fashionable paradigm. Something exclusively for deluded asses thinking they’re being well informed.

Hence that incessant fluttering about from one fad onto yet other mis-,ill or poorly understood ones! And endless tirades about invisible hands and conspiracies.

Either that or after all the pseudo- profound babble of “radical” criticism of life, a silly thoughtlessness and perpetual avoidance of current events because they too remain depressing and will drawn one in sorrow! Hence the land of superficial jokers border to border!

Something about the whole thing has gone wrong with us.

How could it be that so many exceptional, creative beings come to produce so little? How could so much pessimism give rise to such baseless optimism and misery? Why is it that so much money and love or glorification of it produce so little philanthropy and real profit or sustainable development?

Why does so much passion yield such barren creatures? How could so much desire for novelty lead to such little originality? How could so many of us hypercritical contrarians go on to produce collectively so very little and such dreary uniformity?

How could it be that so many kind, warm people reproduce so much ugliness routinely? Some are deemed too short, others too tall, the noses are too fat, the butts too wide, the feet too big, the skins either too black or too pale, and the skirts too short or too long! The hems too wide or too tight! The accents too funny.

It is unfortunate, but it does seem to me as though the enterprise that begins when the instinctively contrarian, exceptional multitudes strive to avoid the fate of normal donkeys, ironically enough, ends up transforming -step by step and gradually—a great number of us into that very image we loath above all others.

Hence our image of human beings today.

And those giant intemperate authoritarian plans by political thinkers who want to transform everyone and everything suddenly and overnight. Social revolutions, cultural revolutions, and it goes on and on. You name it and everyone wants it. Huge, gigantic godly leaps that crush countless in the process.

With the added bonus that an atrocious stink also permeates in most of the major cities, and in the buses and subways in the summers as well as-- and especially—in those omnipresent night gatherings attended by some of the more trendy elites, where the smell of mind-bogglingly expensive perfumes mingle freely with that of intense pheromone. In Tehran, as much as in London and Los Angeles!

For goodness knows none of us wants to be reminded of anything remotely resembling those licentious animals now, would we? Much less to go on to acknowledge the naturalness of it all! For this too shall remain for the asses.


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