A League of Their Own

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Reading a section featuring a small, pleasant Q&A type of interview with a writer in The New York Times Book Review on restful weekends gives me a kind of voyeuristic fillip to be privy to the life of the writer; moreover, the usual question of whom to invite for dinner is the gist of such small pleasure. I’ve found it quite stimulating to think about my own list of people to have dinner with. Therefore, I have herein drawn up my own list of invitees to confabulate with, though not at dinnertime but at lunchtime, which I think more convenient and favorable to enjoy the Californian sun and the beautiful scenery in daylight. Here’s my list of guests:

  • Eleanor Roosevelt: The paragon of the First Lady of the United States with Intelligence that ministered to her moral character. She put her philosophy into action by actively participating in social services. Besides, Mrs. Roosevelt possessed a polished but common sense of humor and wits communicative to people of all social strata with her timeless adage: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
  • Joan of Arc: The Virgin of Lorraine, The Patron Saint of France… Such are the epithets of this patriotic French maiden who was burned alive on the counts of witchery and treason, which was of course conspiracy concocted by the French ecclesiastical dignitaries collaborating with the English against whom Joan of Arc fiercely and courageously fought to victory. She was neither a religious fanatic, nor a hallucinated mooncalf, nor a certifiable schizophrenic. She might be a simple peasant woman but a courageous, headstrong, and smart woman of faith who did not even protect her face during battles with the English amid the attacks of sharp arrows, axes, and lances. No wonder did Mark Twain praise the Virgin Knight forthwith: “Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, an there you will find it.” Besides, her simplicity of faith excelled the pomposity of ecclesiastical knowledge by saying thus: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing, and we should not complicate the matter.” I can learn many things from Joan as a True Model Woman who embodied Intelligence, Femininity, Courage, and Faith.
  • Marilyn Monroe: Born as Norma Jean Baker, she was not a blonde bimbo whose physical attractiveness belied her ceaseless pursuit of  knowledge concomitant with her pursuit of meaning of life she desperately wanted to ascertain. Monroe enrolled in evening college courses in the New York City when she had no schedules during the daytime. Behind her pretty persona of movie star, there was a profound shadow of existentialist. Also, Monroe’s down-to-earth personality and kind nature would make her a lovely company striking up a convivial conversation at the table full of strangers.
  • Jane Birkin: Her bohemian look – that effortlessly sensual but charmingly delightful facade with simple French Chic style is always timeless and boundless, appealing to Womankind imbuing with a sense of emulation of the style. In fact, such qualities of Birkin had one time convinced me that she was French. She seems to wear sexuality like she’s wearing her favorite set of perfumes, which is never vulgar nor degrading. Once a shy English girl is now a sensuous cosmopolitan woman demonstrating admixture of art and individuality in the most fashionable way. She will be a delightful addition to my lunchtime table.

In view of the above, my guests of honors are an eclectic company of women, past or present, surprisingly and strictly non-professional authors who make a living by writing only, although I did not intend it to be that way. Or maybe my preconception of professional authors – especially women – as highly volatile artists with inflated egos, dazzling intelligence, divine beauty, and impressive achievements might have played a vital role in excluding unconsciously any of them from my circle of companions. But so did Michelangelo; he was never befriended with his contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci, who in fact lambasted his untidiness as a sculptor in comparison with a baker. Nor did Michelangelo make friends with other famous artists. Instead,  he was a friend of some obscure artisan who helped around various artists by doing sorts of drudgery. It all boils down to the fact that having a good company of kindred spirits can do a favorable service to your soul, making you feel charitable and magnanimous, so much so that you can- to quote the swashbuckling Oscar Wilde- “forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

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Morning Train

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She should have caught the first morning train to the city instead of debauching her first cigarette of the day upon her arrival on the platform. She knew smoking as the first thing in the morning wasn’t the most salubrious thing to do, but she had to. It was her way of relieving her mind of its cares, anesthetizing her strains of everyday life for the moment of her sybaritic indulgence, which was the only hedonistic practice Julie insisted on keeping because no other things were permitted to her, literally, apart from all the virtuous and sensuous delights of all human creatures that denied her access.That’s probably a pathetically lame excuse for smoking, and the militantly health-conscious, priggish, and principled public would love to lambast her and her smoking habit not because they really care about her health but because they just do it, since anti-smoking is now the ethos of this ostensibly egalitarian era, the zeitgeist of New Social Totalitarianism that dictates Social Science Model Behaviors. And although Julie was never a forceful character, she was a free spirit with proud individuality, declaiming against the mob psychology that was grounded on suitably fashionable stance for demotic mores. She defied it in her own way, in her own solipsistic way.

The act of smoking could be conceived as one of the most highly advanced forms of humankind ever since the dawn of civilization when Prometheus, an ingenious and recalcitrant Titan, fashioned man out of clay and water, and then stole sacred fire for mankind to kindle civilization. In this regard, manipulating fire in the ritualistic process of lighting a cigarette and emitting smoke from it can be regarded as a sacred ritualistic performance to pay homage to the benefactor of civilization. Also, Ahura Mazda, a lord of heaven and light and the only true god of the prototype of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – Zarathustra, aka Zoroaster by the Greeks, was manifested in the form of Sacred Fire, symbolizing Purity, Illumination, Warmth, Enlightenment, and the Zeal. And there were also the Vestal Virgins, the ancient Roman priestesses who kept the celestial fire of Hestia, the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and domesticity.

Like the tortured thinker Kierkegaard anguishing over his existential conflicts caught between actions and religion, Julie was wretched in this world of collapsed grand narratives, fake news, volatile subjective opinions, hypocritical truths, and inflated egos, all fallen apart and adrift on a sea of the postmodernist detritus. What are am I in now? Are humankind really progressing for betterment or gearing up for its own destruction?

According to the ancient Greek peasant/poet Hesiod, known for didactic elements in his poems, there are Five Ages of Mankind: the first one is a “Golden Age,” governed by the Titans, the first generation of Greek mythology, where no words for sickness, war, and discord existed. You see, the Titans were alright for humans although their own children raised war against their parents, even castrating Uranos, the first ruler of the universe, the sky, Titan of Titans; the second one is a “Silver Age,” a reign of Zeus and the Olympians who were very much like us in temperament and characters with the exception of supernatural endowments of immortality, talents, and beauty (but not in the case of Hephaestus, the lame and ugly god of fire and blacksmith, and the husband of Aphrodite). Humans lived only 100 years, most of which were suspended in childhood, consequently making them sophomoric, childish, and disputatious; then came a “Bronze Age,” chockablock with warriors and more warriors spending their time in the office of war and conflict; the next “Heroic Age” was a modified version of Bronze Age in the sense that the characters of war were tinctured with noble and epic elements as in the case of Homer’s “Trojan War” in which Hector, a Trojan prince and the greatest warrior and Achilles, the Greek version of Hector, Odyssey, the timeless voyager, and Aeneas, a Trojan refuge who later founded Rome, the ancestor of the feral brothers Romulus and Remus; and the last and the lasting one is the “Iron Age,” in which we all live now. Hesiod might have foreseen where we are now in his poet’s eye; it’s a world of vehement contenders vying for the sponsorship and the possession of the beautiful, the powerful, the fortunate,… THE FITTEST. It’s a world of social Spencerism that yoked Darwinian evolutionism into philosophy to champion eugenics. And what will be the next age be like? Julie was curious, but then she was soon past caring because she wouldn’t live to tell anyway.

All of the aforesaid musing triggered by her smoking kept her occupied while waiting for the next train to the city. Julie looked around her at the station that began to be full with another batch of commuters, more men than women at a glance. Funny, Julie thought. Are there more men working in the city than women in this town? Or is it because there are just more men than women in this town? Anyway, the men looked just average without distinguishing outward appearances. Julie knew that beauty was only a skin deep, but being a highly aesthetically person, she could not help but observe physiognomies of whoever she saw in view. As a matter of fact, even the intellectual like Francis Bacon also took a person’s physiognomy into consideration that he even rationalized phrenology, a divinity by shapes of skulls. And then there was Karl Lagerfeld who realized that the look was what others made interested in your soul.

Woe betides anyone who would disagree to this dictum of our time, for she or he would be a downright hypocrite! The human faculty is instinctive, sentient, and physical. Beauty as an essential objective of intelligence is what calls a beholder’s attention to the other elements of its possessor in the sense that the poster of a movie gathers spectators to the doors of the movie theater.

Moreover, Julie could see what others could not see or decided to ignore because it’s regarded as trifle. Her sense, sensitivity, and sensibility were extraordinary to the point of exquisite uncanniness. Then, she jeered at the thought and dismissed it as a hocus-pocus, all jumbled up with meaningless bits of harebrained abracadabra in a shambolic array of grim masks that languished with faint tweaking in the left corners of their lips. That was another way of visceral escapism she sometimes took to bring herself to a different place from the rabble that seemed to belittle her nondescript exotic existence that didn’t fit their circle, their legion of the beauty. That’s the existential issues Julie had to face everyday – an acute sense of isolation, an unquenchable feeling of rejection, and a sentient awareness of her aloneness… To escape from the excessively dour, namby-pamby sentimentality, Julie looked at the magnificently rustic beauty of mountains and hills outside the moving windows of the train and fell into a reverie of the 19th century Wild West where she as a Pony Express Rider was riding on a rapid mustang across the land to deliver a Letter of Hope to a final station in the city.

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Pirate, Writer, and Traitor- on Walter Raleigh

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Sir Walter Raleigh

The first time I got to know this interesting English notable was through a small paperback compiling vignettes of historical figures in the western civilizations I found from my father’s library. No man stood more gallantly and impressively than this daring figure in the Elizabethan England; it was no less a courtier, writer, and adventurer than Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) himself. The vista of his gentlemanly manner of soaking his cloak for the queen to tread upon in the messy muddy road lingered in my mind. (He was the only man in the queen’s entourage who did not hesitate to do so.) This would generate a possible peal of jeering laughter from many contemporary men and women in the age of insouciant conventions and lax mores. But such gesture of civility, a sign of respect, orderliness, and thoughtfulness, tells a lot about one’s character in the absence of the proliferation of the civic virtue as a result of ignorance, lassitude, and degradation. And based upon this gentlemanly aspect of Raleigh, I have formulated and kept my favorable opinions on him.

With this as a background of my knowledge of and interest in Raleigh, to come upon the article written by Anna Beer, visiting fellow at University of Oxford, about Raleigh’s years in the Tower of London from the latest edition of BBC History was a kind of nostalgic pleasure, rekindling my first impression on this enigmatic man. In fact, Ms. Beer seems to have viewpoints on Raleigh similar to mine: an explorer (or more precisely, a privateer), a writer, a poet, a courtier, and a gentleman are nominal titles bestowing upon Raleigh. Besides, unlike many other political and historical figures of his time, Raleigh was a dashing, handsome man who would make a fitting character actor for romantic adventure movies or drams, if he were alive. And perhaps it was this physical attractiveness of Raleigh that contributed to his endearment to Queen Elizabeth I, who was offended upon learning that her favorite subject had married discreetly without letting her know in advance. But above all, Raleigh’s prodigious feats of intellect in a spirit of Odyssey were laurels for his distinguishing merits. At the behest of the queen, Raleigh ventured to South America in search of El dorado, directed a settlement of the lost colony of Roanoke in Virginia (even though he himself did not go), ruled the seas by confiscating valuable cargoes carried by Spanish ships (he was also a pirate), and engaged in international trades like a very successful modern businessman. He was in fact flying high under the aegis of Queen Elizabeth I.

However, after the death of the vestal guardian and benefactor, Raleigh fell out of favor with King James I, who seemed to be hell bent on removing him from the court because of his unyielding individuality, which only the queen knew how to harness to her advantage. So Raleigh was found guilty of treason and incarcerated in the Tower of London on the ground that he and his ilk conspired to dethrone the king. It was groundless, of course, but the king could not wait longer to get rid of him and did not even allow him to retain a lawyer to defend himself. But no such royal counter-intuitive animosity deterred him from expressing his ever unbridled spirit; during his imprisonment in the tower, Raleigh built up a personal library of 500 books, a personal conservatory for drawing on the knowledge of a universal history for his writings, one of which included The History of the World that criticized King James I and his abuse of autocratic power and institutionalized faith. It was a radical kind of thought in his time of England. The recalcitrant subject was surely anathema to the king. Raleigh was beheaded in public in 1618, but even during his execution, he was all man by adhering to his principles without an apology nor a customary reverence toward the king.

The legacy of this adventurous Elizabethan gentleman continues in his writings that strike the political, religious, and literary chords in our hearts as well as those of the revolutionaries subsequent to his death. For example, Oliver Cromwell was an ardent myrmidon of Raleigh’s writings and even recommended them to his son in earnest. Not only Cromewell championed Raleigh’s political stance but also he reconstructed Raleigh’s dismally pessimistic providentialism, aka Calvin Predestination, based on the futility of all human actions as a result of unavoidable death to an optimism about the potentials of human endeavor under the proper guidance of providence. In addition, Raleigh’s critiques of monarchy and his support of parliament ignited the fuse of insurgencies calling for radical political changes. Surely, Raleigh was not a perfect man with immaculate morality, but he was a man of intellect, courage, confidence, and civility laced with irrepressible individuality whom posterity can look up to, especially in this multifariously convoluted era when so many politicians are just grandstanding from the vantage points of popularity.

Existentialism in a nutshell

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Landscape under a stormy sky by Vincent Van Gogh

Existence precedes
the secondhand identity;
Essence follows
the primary reality.
Where a fact finds a being,
Man defines a meaning.

 

P.S. The tenet of Sarte’s Existentialism is “Existence precedes Essence.” People love to criticize it because it lays bare to the starkest truth of life, even though they are all aware of it. Man defines himself where he stands in his life vis-a-vis his contemporaries, measuring himself against the burgeoning careers and just moderately settled lifestyles of his peers. I find this school of philosophy applicable to Charles Horton Cooley’s sociological theory of “Looking Glassed Self,” stating that you become what others think you are. Although I do not want to wholly subscribe to either of the thoughts, I can see where these thoughts come from: Human sentience, that is. Our faculty is rather instinctive than reasoning, physical than metaphysical because it reacts to an external stimuli much more than to internal principles of judgment. And I guess the age we are living in now is the apotheosis of sentient modus vivendi in many aspects…