My Dream

Here is a description of a dream I had in the early 90s in Taiwan. It is the most intricate dream I have ever experienced and can be broken down into four phases:

Phase I. I am around six years old and am standing in a desolate, Middle Eastern landscape, devoid of any man-made structures, that feels like the “Holy Land.” Nearby is a small pond, and two bearded and robed young men are fishing in it. They are fussing in a primitive way, and I am rather put off by them; looking closely, however, I see that their fishing tackle consists of long blades of grass, with neither hooks nor bait, which they are swishing through the water.

Although no one speaks, the knowledge comes echoing over the hills that God is approaching. I notice a figure emerging through waves of pulsating heat, walking down an incline toward me, as I continue to stand near the pond with the two grass-fishing men. At the wordless realization “It’s Her,” I see that God is a Native American woman, apparently in her mid-twenties. She comes to stand slightly upslope from the pond, and I follow her eyes as she regards the two fishermen: They have both landed healthy-looking, silver-skinned fish, which seem willingly to have threaded themselves through the jaw on the hookless, baitless blades of grass. The men pull their catches out of the water and begin wrapping the blades of grass around their necks, with the fish held in place at the backs of their necks, above their shoulder blades. They tie the grass around their throats, climb the few paces uphill to where God is standing, and fall to their knees before Her in devotion. I fixate on the fish: They are baking in the sun on the backs of the men’s necks, curling their tails upward as they die.

God senses my distress. Turning Her attention to me, she calms me telepathically:

“You must not feel bad for the fish, nor must you think ill of these men for their ritual. They are simple, but their hearts are pure.”

She smiles. “If this ritual is upsetting to you, you do not have to follow it. You do not have to do anything that upsets you.”

She opens Her arms and hugs me to her bare chest, stroking my shoulders, neck, and the back of my head.

I enjoy perhaps five seconds of bliss in Her embrace, but then I hear a clamor to my left, like the clanging of pots and pans. I turn in that direction, and when I do so, I become part of a changed scene; I never see the pond, the fishermen, nor God again.

Phase II. I am in the same Middle Eastern barrenness, but temples and altars now dot the slope. My age is now about fifteen or sixteen.

A portly man is shuffling up to the altar nearest me. He is dressed in a khaki military uniform and seems to be a British soldier of intermediate rank, perhaps a sergeant. He is in a fretful haste and his mess kit and canteen bang together, producing the racket that had seized my attention.

I intuit that the British army is being evicted from the Holy Land and that the sergeant wants to “grab a quick prayer” before leaving. Kneeling at the altar, he begins to pray, but his vexation remains throughout, so that he is praying and cursing at the same time.

A different sort of noise, like the clattering of dishes, rolls in from the right, and I turn in that direction.

Phase III. The landscape is unchanged, but I am now twenty.

I am looking at the Last Supper, as seen in the painting by da Vinci, except that dinner is alfresco. I advance toward the central seat, where Jesus is supposed to be, and find that he is Mark Twain. The disciples to the left and right are behaving like a pack of unruly children, elbowing each other and knocking over their drinks; and Mr. Twain wears an expression of the most grudging indulgence, brimming with sarcasm, rolling his eyes as if to say, “You’d better have mercy on these clowns, Father, because I just want to strangle them.”

I sit opposite Mr. Twain, and we begin sharing the same dish, passing the plate back and forth, helping ourselves to a little at a time. After a few rounds of this exchange, Mr. Twain scrapes off the last morsel and returns the empty plate to me. He produces another supernaturally ironic smile.

An electronic beeping from my right distracts me, and I turn to look.

Phase IV. I am twenty-four (the age at which I had the dream) and in Taiwan (where I lived when I dreamt it).

I am in a cavernous big-box warehouse store. Merchandise-laden shelves tower heavenward, reaching almost to the bare rafters, eclipsing the light. I’m standing in the checkout line, along the conveyor belt, just behind my American roommate, waiting for him to complete his purchases. However, he begins hitting on the cashier, a Taiwanese girl barely twenty. She is unresponsive and unamused. She reaches under the counter, pressing a button, at which the whole scene becomes an image on a TV screen, a video recording now serving as evidence at my roommate’s trial for sexual harassment. The End.

My interpretation: Each phase of the dream seems to correspond to a moment in world history and in the development of religion. Phase I is the Primitive phase, showing the hopeful moment when a religion of ritual evolves into a religion of love. Phase II is the British or imperialist phase, in which religion has been corrupted by power, significantly an unsustainable power. Phase III is the American phase, based on a parody of a painting, populated by quarrelsome chosen ones, and devoted to the worship of Irony, which proves an unfulfilling dish. Finally, Phase IV depicts the post-historical age in which we live: materialist, litigious, godless, and loveless.

The Hormonal Origins of Campus Radicalism

A former student recently asked me about campus radicalism, and here is how I replied:

Dear ________,

The far-outness on campus is real and has been at least since the 80s, when I attended [my alma mater]. It was 99% a left-wing phenomenon, but some ‘conservatives’ got in the act too by pretending to be victims and marginalized on campus. Most of the stuff that happened at school back then would count as funny and charming today.

As to how this has happened, there are many explanations. My theory is the hormonal theory, which calls attention to social and sexual factors. Essentially, leftism is much cooler and sexier than conservatism or moderation or classical liberalism. As a result, the most radical people on campus will tend to attain social prominence. At [my alma mater], the ‘in crowd’ was composed of radical lesbian feminists. Conversely, heterosexual white males found themselves on the wrong side of history and thus could never be cool. As compensation for this uncoolness, the heterosexual white males had to present themselves as supercommunists in order to get any attention and acceptance at all. In my case, having crushes on the lizzies made the problem worse. (Actually, it goes back farther than that. Even in high school, I found that the more radical I sounded in class, the more attention I would get, from girls and also from teachers. Either way I was greatly encouraged.) The male college student trying to get laid by lesbians writes paper after paper, each more pinko than the last. If he becomes an academic himself, he’s already developed habits of thinking and an academic specialty that cannot be so easily changed. On campus or off, if there is any kind of lefty ruckus going on, I guarantee that at the bottom of it is a middle-class, heterosexual, white male trying to get a feminist in the sack.



Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.

One Reason to Go On Living: The Neighborhood Malebox

Heartfelt praise and gratitude, thou saucy soul who affixed the upside-down penis sticker to the mailbox down the street. You give me strength. You give me hope – hope that, even in these debased and conforming times, even as the road before me narrows, straightens, and becomes ever more monotonous, even as each day’s food and music tastes and sounds the same; still there frolics the subtle prankster, still there sports the creative, visionary vandal. You render the common unique. You alter the uniform, making it irregular and baroque. With you lurking, I have no fear. With you on the loose, I might relax. Bless thee, Holy Pervert, for by you, we are all saved.

Review of Amadis of Gaul, Books I & II

The first two books of Amadis of Gaul are a pleasure to read, absorbing, and hard to put down. The only possible rough patch would be the narrative of the long series of Amadis’s and Galaor’s victories in the middle of Book I, which, since both knights are invincible, borders on the monotonous. However, the story soon becomes more politically intriguing and generally deeper, so that the reader is fully enthralled by the end of Book II. Indeed, it is hard to resist the temptation, even after 682 pages, to dive right into the second volume, containing Books III and IV. (Even so, I think I will balance my palette with a taste of something else before returning to Amadis.)

The world of Amadis of Gaul consists of three overlapping and sometimes conflicting moralities. The first morality, the aristocratic one, equates good looks, personal honesty, martial valor, and fine pedigree, resulting in the assumption that a handsome man must therefore be an honest man, who must therefore be a good fighter, who must therefore be a man of noble birth. These linkages are nonsensical to the modern reader, who may be amused by such statements in Amadis as “‘I really believe you are telling the truth, for I heard you praised extravagantly for your good looks’” (p. 91); but they were accepted by the pre-modern reader, who, perhaps because he was an aristocrat himself, wished to believe that his position atop society was justified by the general superiority of all the individuals in his class. It is interesting in this respect to observe that many of the villains in this book are ugly of appearance or of nonstandard physical types such as dwarfs and giants. In any case, this aristocratic morality of Amadis is so internalized that its compiler, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, never pauses to examine it.

The second plane of morality, the religious one, holds that God’s favor determines everything and that self-confidence, in the Augustinian sense, is folly. In contrast to the passively-accepted aristocratic morality, the religious one is elaborated more explicitly. Often, its invoker is a character in the book, as in this dialogue between the evil Arcalaus and the heroic Amadis:

“Knight, you are in danger of death, and I do not know who you are; tell me so that I may know, for I am thinking more about killing you than overcoming you.”

“My death,” said Amadis, “is at the will of God, whom I fear; and yours at that of the devil, who is already angry for having supported you and wishes that your body, to which so many evil vices he has given, should perish along with your soul” (p. 207).

Just as frequently, the reminder that God is in charge is provided by the narrator himself. Thus are we told that the arrogant King Dardan “esteemed his own strength and the great zeal of his heart more than the judgment of the most high Lord, who with very little of His power brings it about that the very strong are overcome and dishonored by the very weak” (p. 151). In a few places, too, the narrator speaks in general, didactic, terms, as in:

And at this juncture, as the story seeks to proceed, you will be able to see how little the strength of the human mind suffices when that high Lord, with slackened reins and lifted hand withdrawing His grace, permits the judgment of man to exercise its powers freely; whence it will be manifest to you whether great estates, high dominions can be won and governed with the prudence and diligence of mortal man; or if when divine Grace is lacking, great pride, great greed, a throng of armed soldiers are enough to maintain them. (p. 630)

Of course, the notion that possession of “great estates, high dominions” could only have been won and kept through divine right is a huge justification of the prevailing class system and suggests that the religious morality reinforces the aristocratic. However, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, in soliloquizing that the high may be brought low, seems also to be positing the religious morality as a contrast to the aristocratic.

Finally, there is the romantic or chivalric morality, which subjects even the most well-born and divinely-favored knights to their ladies. Amidis himself, after declining to serve King Lisuarte of Great Britain, becomes the sworn knight of Queen Brisena, as though to prove “how much greater influence women have on knights than men do” (p. 167). Of course, Amidis’s true master is Princess Oriana, his lover, “at whose slightest angry word heard by him – for such is his great fear of angering her – he would bury himself alive” (p. 507). Indeed, since Amidis is so completely the devotee of Oriana, it might be wondered whether he really serves God at all. When he accepts a dangerous fight with the giant Famongomadan, Amadis at first dismisses the concerns of his squire by trotting out the familiar religious morality: “I want to test the compassion of God,” he says, “whether it will please Him that the very great violence that this enemy of His commits be done away with by me.” However, a few lines later, Amidis prays not to God but to his lover, then miles away: “Oh, my lady Oriana! Never did I begin a great feat on my own initiative wherever I might be, except with your help; and now, my good lady, help me, for it is so necessary for me” (p. 538).

One might suppose that the romantic morality would come into direct conflict with the religious, if and when it leads to sex, but Rodriguez de Montalvo never uses words like fornication or adultery to describe sex out of wedlock. He seems, however, to draw a distinction between sex and love and to invest the latter with a religious aspect – especially when the woman is in command.

Common, purely sexual episodes result from passion and appetite, as in:

At this time the maidens were going about through the castle searching with the other women in order to give them something to eat; and Galaor and the maiden, called Brandueta, were talking alone about what you hear, and as she was very beautiful, and he was covetous of such viands, before the meal came or the table was set, both of them rumpled a bed that was in the hall where they were, thus making her a matron who before that was not, satisfying their desires, which, in a short space of time, each looking at the other’s beautiful youthfulness in bloom, had become very great. (p. 266)

In spite of this enjoyment, though, Galaor and Brandueta do not become permanent lovers. They each take their pleasure and move on.

Contrariwise, Amidis’s parents, King Perion and Princess Elisena, fall hopelessly in love, despite their moral virtue. Elisena’s “great modesty and exemplary life could not prevent her from becoming a prisoner of incurable and great love for him, and the king in like manner for her.” At dinner, Perion expresses hope that “my whole life will be employed in serving you,” and later, Elisena’s maid, Darioleta, arranges for them to be together, at which, King Perion considers himself “very fortunate that God had brought him into such a connubial state” (pp. 25-30).

The offspring of this union, Amidis, and his lover, Oriana, grow up together innocently, he serving as her page. With years of love budding between them, and with Amadis having demonstrated his martial valor and high birth, they find themselves, likewise, at dinner, and Oriana grasps Amidis’s hand under the table. Each confesses the most consuming desire for the other, and, as Amadis weeps and loses the power of speech, Oriana promises to give herself to him (pp. 294-296). When, at the conclusion of a subsequent adventure she undertakes to fulfill her promise, she charges him only to “see to it that, although here below it may appear error and sin, it not be so before God.”

And Amadis is able to “see to it” by surrendering the initiative  — and by surrendering himself, body and soul — to Oriana:

When he saw her thus so beautiful and in his power, she having agreed to do his will, he was so distraught with joy and bashfulness that he did not dare even to look at her; so that one could well say that in that green grass, on that mantle, more by the grace and courtesy of Oriana than by any immodesty or boldness on Amadis’s part, was the most beautiful maiden in the world made a matron. (p. 339)

As I understand it, chivalric literature was influenced by Sufi Islam and transformed by the troubadours, who reoriented its ecstatic devotion from God to woman. Amadis of Gaul is a monument of this unique form of worship.

It’s also, as I said, a lot of fun.

PS. An OpEd in today’s Wall Street Journal by Ashley McGuire called “The Controversial Text That Saved Me” contains the following sentence that may be apropos: “The trust spouses place in each other imitates the transcendent trust that faith teaches us to put in the divine when things aren’t fully within our control.”

PPS. At one point, Amadis’s conduct seems to anticipate classical liberalism. After freeing a group of prisoners, he says to them, “Friends, may each one of you go wherever he pleases and where it be most advantageous for him” (p. 213).

Taiwan Journal: The Firecracker Gauntlet

Here is the diary entry from my first Chinese New Year’s in Taipei.  The experience stayed in my mind and became the inspiration for the first few pages of my novel, Southern Rain, now available for pre-order on Kindle. You can click on the link on the sidebar of this blog.

February 7, 1989                                                 Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

This town is crazy with fireworks. Small children employ every conceivable sort of artillery, turning every thoroughfare into a gauntlet of bouncing fireballs and air-shattering explosions.  The missiles ricochet off storefronts, apartment buildings, parked cars, speeding taxis, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. Traffic moves nonchalantly through the minefield, zigzagging around the volcanoes, which burst in their grand finales, right when a car passes alongside. I’ll never forget the sight of this old pedicab salesman, hawking his wares as he pedaled down the street, bottle rockets snaking along the pavement to explode directly beneath him or bouncing off of his torso. He kept idiotically crooning his sales tune, a living fountain of sparks. A lovely vignette!

Writing on Flags

Writing on flags is an underrated pastime. The American flag lends itself to sloganizing, owing to its college-ruled design; and the experience can be philosophical and meditative.

My favorite personalized flag is the Spinoza flag. Pictured above is my current version, finished today. It replaces one done a few years ago (pictured below), which became frayed. I found that the gold lettering didn’t show up very well.

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The translation is “The purpose of the republic is freedom.” (Spinoza put in a few extra words.)

My wife, a superior artist, produced the following design on canvas:

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The inscription comes from the Greek statesman Cleisthenes and is an injunction “Not to Notice the Tribes.”

The missus also is a better forger of Abraham Lincoln’s signature than I am:

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