Decomposing Wisdom

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A: “Tolstoy? Is our world stochastic in its workings?”

B: “If i knew what that meant i might offer up a reply.”

A: “Well, it’s just that I was reading about this professor in America who made headline news for turning the concept of the humble CV on its head.”

B: “And what does this have to do with the world being stochastic?”

A: “By highlighting his failures over his successes, the prof wanted to show not only that failure is experienced in the average life far more often that success, but also that you might as well pick any old event from your life at random for all the good it does in predicting what kind of person you are and what kind of life you’ve had. That’s what he meant by stochastic.”

B: “Meaning I’m going to be remembered not for Anna Karenina but for the stunted crop of carrots I grew in the the spring of nineteen hundred and four?”

A:”Why not? One’s as valid as the other.”

B: “A man cannot live on a diet of words, and words alone, i suppose.”

A: “So, Tolstoy, does nothing exist beyond probability? Are our lives reducible to happenstance? All we live for is randomly determined from variables we don’t even pick up on? God! How depressing if that’s the case.”

B: “As luck would have it, I discussed this very thing in my recent collection of Meditations from Moscow.”

A: “Recent? With all due respect, you’ve been pushing up the daisies for the past hundred years. You’re only here today because I invoked your spirit. Called you up from the dead.”

B: “Well, I never. Been that long, has it? A man can lose track of time when he’s dead.”

A: “A man can lose a whole lot more than time when he’s dead. His healthy complexion, for one. I have to say, you’ve looked better.”

B: “As I was saying, before I started decomposing, I broached this topic a number of times in my literary canon. See my wisdom as a crutch, if you like, to help you through the worst that unpredictability has to offer.”

(clears throat ready to theatrically quote, even though the throat Tolstoy is clearing is clearly no longer a throat in any substantial sense).

A man on a thousand-mile walk has to forget his goal and say to himself every morning, ‘Today I’m going to cover twenty-five miles and rest up and sleep.’

That was a line from War & Peace, if anyone still reads it these days.”

A: “By that I presume you mean that any great undertaking, like life itself, is overwhelming unless taken in short disciplined bursts. Are you saying that we need to simplify the complex? To break something huge into smaller parts in order to answer it?”

B: “Precisely. I wrote in Bethink Yourselves that the two greatest warriors are patience and time. Time and time only will reveal what the moment won’t. Patience will cure the illness of not knowing.”

A: “But why do I feel only disappointment? All around me others post their success, and then a successful academic comes out and states that taking a random sample of anyone’s life is more likely to fall on failure than success. The difference between this happening and that happening, you could decide by spinning a roulette wheel. All this damned effort for nothing.”

B: “Whether every minute of your life unfolds by accident or design, or a combination of the two, or neither, is hardly the point, young man. Why all this need to know? Nighttime always comes whether or not you believe you control the day.”

A: “But Tolstoy, if predicting the course of our lives is all just one big crapshoot, then what’s the freaking point of natural justice? I’ve had a lifetime hearing ‘you make your own luck’, ‘it’s up to you.’ Obviously, it’s not.”

B: “Suffering from the pangs of anxiety, I see. Your controlling tendencies getting the better of you? Relax, comrade. Rejoice in knowing that we can only know that we know nothing. I wrote that in War & Peace, too. Socrates will back me up on this one: that recognizing this truth is the highest form of human wisdom. Accepting it will liberate the torturing of the soul and deny the dishonesty of the intellect.”

…Now go in peace, and know that none of this matters. I’ve death to get back to before eternity ends.”

A: “If you say so, Tolstoy. Say hi to the ancestors for me.”

B: “Ah! And one more thing before I return to the other side. If it’s the content of a CV that’s bothering you – do I extol my successes? Or do I play them down and instead admit my failures? that kind of jazz – join the other ninety-nine percent in doing what they do.”

A: “What would that be?”

B: “BULLSHIT the bosses. Tell the bourgeoisie what they want to hear. Their empire of lies is bound to crumble, anyway.”

A: “I gather you weren’t around to meet the Bolsheviks, Tolstoy?”

B: “?!!”

 

 

Mellon Collie & Infinite Sadness Returns With a Boyish Smile

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It was twenty years ago today, and it had nothing to do with Sgt Pepper. Actually, it was twenty-one years, October 1995. I was a grand old man of twenty-three, about to leave for great things called the Himalaya. I never gave it much of a listen at the time, probably because my head was swirling in santoors and my fingers tapping to tablas. They, you know who they are, had rumbled the mountain of rock two years previous, releasing an avalanche of tunes powerful enough to bury the listener in millions of tonnes of sub-sonic brilliance. The title even featured Siamese, one cool cat of a word. That was then and this was not. Even though only a couple of years had passed between ’93 and ‘95, the ultimate male rite of passage (other than unholy communion) happened to fall for me in between, so the before and after factor had made two short years into two distinct pre-me and post-me lifetimes.

Crowned a world traveller in 1994, the visual hyper-realism of seeing America from sea to shining sea and Asia in all its technicolor bedlam had blown me away more than the aural experience of any of the musical anthems that I hitherto was sure could not be topped for their ability to bring a feeling of rapture to a higher consciousness that was all too often starved of affection by the sameness of experience.

The eyes had it, but the ears would have the final say. I should have known better than to think I could go on escaping the music. Sure, it was pictures that all too often filled the head when it hit the pillow, but it was songs that got us going in the morning.

Twenty-one years and countless countries later, the paint has dried and faded a little on that kaleidoscope of images seared into the retina of these ageing eyes. Yes, it was eyes that swished, brushed, dabbed and dotted the visual cortex with a continental flourish of mountains and deserts, forests, and exquisite hilltop towns. But it was music – the only vehicle we could afford to travel on through our student years – that never receded; that seemed to run on perpetual motion.

The sensory world out there is yin and in here yang. Travel is illumination. Music is Jung’s shadow, collective sum of all inward things denied expression in outward life. Time passes, excitability fades. Thrills that take more seeking out in the physical world are harder to find in the physical world. Musical thrills lurking in the metaphysical world are not hard to find, for they never really went away. The great journeys overland I made back then that held me spellbound seem glassy and opaque now, but the journeys of music made in the mind then are as raw and stereophonic now as they were 21 years ago. Dusting down old musical oeuvres like the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness and listening to them as if for the first time is proof positive of that claim.

Putting the meta into the physical, Billy Corgan.

Please take the stage.

 

Muzzle, The Smashing Pumpkins, (Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, 1995).

 

I fear that I’m ordinary,

Just like everyone.

To lie here and die

Among the sorrows

I was 23 with a few big countries under my belt, feeling anything but ordinary. Does anyone know ordinary well enough to call it family? I wasn’t going to lie there and die among the sorrows, not until I had found where sorrow hung out. For that, more globetrotting was urgently required.

Adrift among the days

For everything I ever said

And everything I’ve ever done

is gone and dead

On the evaporating lake of time that is life, I was not going to float adrift on the days. I saw quickly that when it was done it would be dead and gone. Whatever it was.

As all things must surely have to end

And great loves will one day have to part

I know that I am meant for this world.

Even the Himalaya must surely have to end. And who hasn’t lived with the terror that even great love cannot in the end but part? Though I’ve gone everywhere to find meaning in the world, and everything in it, I’m not sure if I am meant for this world, and everything in it.

My life has been extraordinary

Blessed and cursed and won

Time heals but I’m forever broken

By and by the way…

Hallelujah! There can be no more fitting a word than extraordinary to describe the life I have had, for all its blessings and it curses. Who hasn’t been told time will heal even the deepest cuts, only to feel a twinge long after time has called time on time? We are born broken, given a life for the purpose of self-fixing.

Have you ever heard the words

I’m singing in these songs?

It’s for the girl I’ve loved all along

Can a taste of love be so wrong?

Yes, I’ve heard those words, that we’ve all had one love who outshines them all. A candle that flickers a vigil in the cluttered corners of our hearts. For her, all our songs are sung. And yes, the taste of love can be all wrong. When it’s not right, it can only be wrong. And when is it ever right?

As all things must surely have to end

And great loves will one day have to part

I know that I am meant for this world.

There’s no denying, all things must surely come to and end. Love and love with the greatest of intention, but know that you’ll go your way and he his, she hers, and they theirs. Go on journeys in search of meaning before deciding if you’re meant for this world. Don’t hang back, expecting it to come to you.

But I knew exactly where I was

And I knew the meaning of it all

And I knew the distance to the sun

And I knew the echo that is love

Where was I all this time ? I can’t rightly say if there is a meaning to it all. Is there meaning in numbers? Ninety-three million miles is the distance to the sun. Do you hear that echo through the cavern you once aerated with love?

And I knew the secrets in your spires

And I knew the emptiness of youth

And I knew the solitude of heart

And I knew the murmurs of the soul

The spires are snow-capped, their secrets uncovered on the rooftop of the world if you’re willing to travel there. The emptiness of the empty-hearted boy looking to score. Fuse the heart to the soul and the solitude of one will reassure with the murmurs of the other.

 And the world is drawn into your hands

And the world is etched upon your heart

And the world so hard to understand

Is the world you can’t live without.

The palmists say it’s all there: the head line reads; the heart line beats; the life line lives; the fate line decrees that your world is very much in your own hands. The world was a melody never easily sung, a chord never easily mastered. If it were, we could more easy live without it. And the music played on…

 

 

Cry Me a River (Just Make Sure First it’s Ephemeral)

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On Oman’s highway 9 running inland from the little coastal town of Al-Khabourah on the road to Muscat, the Batnah plain comes up hard against a bottom row of mountains that would not go amiss in the mouth of a demon god.

Ahlan Wa Sahlan. Welcome to the sublime world of the wadi, Wadi Al-Hawasina to be exact.

The road starts deforming, clamming up in fear as it probes deeper into rugged backcountry. It twists and turns, up and over, around and down. Great pyramids of rock, ultrabasic as the underworld where they formed, are too monumental to tunnel through. So the road follows the geology of Oman by buckling, by going up and over. Few other places anywhere on Earth lay bare the earth’s upper mantle to the atmosphere like here. These are geomorphic rarities indeed, truths that refuse to be buried a second time. The road is as serpentine as the mineral of the same name that characterises these mountains. Serpentine is the green stone, burnished to the most beautiful glazed jade when immersed in the water that courses down the normally dry wadi beds. Serpentine is also, figuratively, the dragon’s blood of this mountain range. Weirdly, the topography is not unlike the teeth that run down the dragon’s back.

Parked under a lone acacia in temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I am alone in a quick-drying riverbed on a scale continental. This is Oman on a cool day. The world’s only Sultanate built on ophiolite rock, here Islam is practiced on hardened molten plastic normally found in the earth’s asthenosphere beneath the kilometres-thick crust that makes the planet habitable. Here, as in a few other spots located on geological faultlines, the innards of the earth seeped out some 90 million years ago. Looking around, I could be in the late Cretaceous without ever knowing how I made it there. Much as I revere my VW Touareg’s capabilities in transporting us into this rugged backcountry, redshifting me back in time is not one of its advertised selling points.

So, I’m parked under an acacia that must be tapping some deep aquifer, the real river under the one that’s been dry longer than mammals have been around. The rock, not unlike human skin, has blistered, dried and cracked under a sun that simply will not relent (unless you call evening a defeat for his coronal highness). What has to be, in its very primordial nature, pristine is anything but. Detritus of the human variety is strewn under trees. Even polymers need cowering from the sun lest they start cracking up, too.

This writer cannot sit for broken glass. I mean, how do you create so many jagged pieces unless you’re a ignorant muppet, probably local, who is so plagued with emptiness in this big, empty land that smashing bottles against geology’s holy grail (not that the locals care for the orogenesis of their Terra Madre) seems like the only fun to have? Or else, maybe what the offending vandals are trying to do here is create a tortured artistic representation of the violence that brought the mountains into being 90 mya.

Two local lads, sitting under the other acacia across the wide expanse of boulders that form the creek bed, spot the foreigner and mosey over. Their tall, skinny physiques shimmer in their white Bedouin dress. If I didn’t know these sorts better, I would take them for a couple of robbing opportunists. But that’s not the way these Omani’s roll. Assault and battery is rarer than a sod of grass in these parts. One asks for a selfie with the white man (who is going a shade of red in the blistering heat). He must be expanding the narrow definition to include himself, myself, yourself, ourselves. We watch the birdie and like that they are gone back to the shabab sitting cross-legged, encircling the tree. The glass glints in the sun. Even an apologist now has to admit the bottle-smashing was an exercise in wanton loutishness, Arab-style, and not wanton art, Dada-style.

The panorama is bleak as it is dazzling. Pillow lava, dark and basaltic. There is no policy to it, as such. It’s enough that the earth is scorched without we scorching it more with our bloody policies.

The mountain at whose base the glass and plastic discards threaten to take a starring role: the gravel, come weeping from the pinnacle in an auburn avalanche, forms a burnt topping. It’s not your average mountain. The iron in them hills makes the mother mountains look all fired and glazed and ready for market. Against a sky mottled by higher than high cirrus clouds going it alone in an island archipelago of blue, the sky is an ocean, the world is a vampire, and the land bearing the whole load belongs to another time and another planet, say Mars.

When the sun starts dipping beneath twenty degrees from the horizontal plane, the mountains lose that glare. What replaces the washed out dictatorship draped in that fake ultraviolet flag are what I like to consider the true colours. A spell is put on the hour. Magic is come. Revealed is the face behind the mask, a face crumpled with ruts. Think of your grandfather and those bristled lines of age you ran your hand down when your hand was half the size it is today.

The strata of rock tells a history of violence even though the only white supremist was the sun and that’s mellowing with age now. Some bands of rock have been thrust up, extruded, born on their belly and sat bolt upright until, like the beaverskin-hatted queen’s guards, they matured into the role. Not even idiotic tourists can irritate these rock sediments into sitting back down. On a promontory a village, who can tell in this desiccated landscape how ancient, lies part in ruins. The bones of man’s archeological past are so delicate as to crumble at the faintest touch. Whoever lived here in the distant past knew how to crush pigments to make paste for topaz walls. They had a flair for geometry, too. Then again, this is Islamo-mundo where God speaks in fractals of geometry. He’s 90 degrees when perfection, and 45 degrees when He is more perfect still. The doors hanging on ruined dwellings (see image) might not lead to perception, yet they do embrace a kind of fleur-de-lys, heraldic beauty. Long after the walls have crumbled, these iron doors will remain upright and non-corroded, like the upturned layers of rock shaping this valley in a bowl.

On the way home the sky behind the mountains is glowing orange. I stop. A wedding party ride by in a cavalcade of four-wheel drives. Bits of bunting flap from roof racks. Horns blow and the hands wave at the sight of the lonesome European standing roadside, bewitched by the umbra that the mountains have now become. The shadow of black serrations. The object between you and the source of light. Finally, after hours, of playing dead under the surveillance of the sun, the mountains finally come to life. The place is alive with the spirits of ninety million years of life on earth, and it’s not quite dark yet.

The Man-Cub Howls Back

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If a little oozing of enchantment is what you seek, then you could do worse than tune into John Favreau’s revamped Jungle Book. It’s not only the husky sibilance of Scarlett Johannson playing Kaa, the reticulated python, that has the power to seduce. The film is a joy the equal of the 1967 classic, but behind its tableaux of trees, vines and strangler figs there is wood to be seen. And much of it is has been either trimmed and replanted or else sawn and turned to pulp. Global population has doubled since 1967, as has India’s population. This effect on India’s jungle forests has been inversely proportionate, giving a new spin on the book and a whole lot more import. There’s a lot of book to be had from this story but, tragically, not a lot of jungle.

It’s hard to conceive of a better tonic to cure the sickness of the postmodern soul than to pop those 3-D glasses on and sit back while Mowgli romps through a wild and woolly wilderness dreamed up to great effect in a room somewhere in downtown LA.

Whether you happen to be eight years old and have yet to reach the age of consent, or forty-eight years old and have reached consent but not yet the state of content, it matters not a jot. This is a film for sharing, for panthers and tigers alike. The Jungle Book has a universal mandate to bring us back to where we once belonged. Fifty years after the original hit the screens, seeing the remake is a summons to the dormant Mowgli within, to the you who used to make rope swings on tree boughs before manhood tied a noose around the end.

If teasing out the lost primordial within ain’t motive enough, then the prosecutors of the film can offer another two: CGI technology allowing the filmakers to take anthropomorphism to heights that are credible to the mind and soaring to the heart; and an ecological subtext which could not be more timely, even if you called Colombo in to investigate. Let’s face facts, there is not one among us who is not a zoophilic somewhere in an interred stratum of his being, who doesn’t love animals that can lip synch, who doesn’t secretly dream of being raised by wolves and still emerge as a well-adjusted little looker. I mean, how unbelievably cool would it be to have a sentinel of a dog dad laying down the law of the jungle to the pack from atop a rock, a little brother called Grey whose lupine beauty could steal the heart of even the ardent of hunters, and two guardians, one a schoolmasterly panther of lithe proportions and the other a honey-loving sloth bear with a sense of wryness reminiscent of Bill Murray. Flanked by those homies you have more of a dream team, the jungle’s very own Harlem Globetrotters. What ten year-old boy could ask for more?

In our age of conscious uncoupling from the forest that mothered us through our species infancy, the very sight of Mowgli’s pandora-like world is enough to stir the Eden child in all of us. It was not all that long ago that such jungles did extend across the Indian subcontinent and right around the entire girth of the planet. The reality, nonetheless, is not quite that depicted in the film, for the Indian wilderness no longer envelops isolated villages, and fire is not the last line of defence against an overwhelming opponent in the all-creeping, all-conquering form of nature. Probably the inverse is true nowadays. The wilderness comes in pockets protected by law while the urban jungle does the marauding. The man-cub has come of age as the wolf, but not the kingpin of natural harmony who does the trophic cascading in Yellowstone NP. No. Rather this wolfman has Shere Kahn on the run. Wildlife groups report an upturn in the fortunes of the Bengal tiger, but those increases in numbers reported may be attributable merely to better detection. Again, wherein the Shere Khan of the Jungle Book shirks from no man, the truth is that our tiger-spotting techniques are only as ineffective as the real Shere Khan’s effectiveness in using those tiger stripes to blend in with the elephant grass; to stay the f**k away from us if he knows what’s good for him.

When Kipling wrote his batch of stories in the 1890’s, the British Raj were bagging big cats quicker than they were bagging countries on their imperial monopoly board. The difference being, though, in the 1890’s India’s wilderness was deep as it was pervasive. The civil engineers trying to cut the Indian railway system across near-impenetrable forest, and the track-laying coolies frequently the victims of ambush by Bengal tigers will bear dead witness to that fact. The trigonometry of mapping India was amazingly complex not because of the calculations involved but because of the logistics needed to cut a swathe through such dense jungle-forest to triangulate the readings in the first place.

The philosophical themes around civilisation and savagery alive in Kipling’s Victorian environs would have juxtaposed man and nature and where possible would have allowed a vibrant and imaginative literature to jemmy open the shut case of man and nature as separate and mutually inimical, as well as civilisation as equalling that which is built on, and savagery as what is let be. Again, it was literature’s role to gainsay these crudely dichotomous worldviews. Savagery could be noble, and none more so than when it came in the guise of the great beasts. When we find a common tongue between man and the beast, does man elevate them to his noble-born stature or, like the inexorable march of all things organic, is he subsumed down to their base level? These questions the Jungle Book raises.

One hundred and twenty years on, and the questions of ontology, of man’s place in nature, remain. Except now, man’s red fire really is burning out of control (as Kipling’s animals prophesized). A water truce has been declared by all jungle creatures great and small, and not because of lack of rain, but because of lack of space. Their world is shrinking and with it ours. For this reason, among others, the Jungle Book continues to exert such a magical, if haunting, presence in the core of us. With the auto-destructive power of the tiger, the cunning ingenuity of man, and the ultimate restoration of natural balance as the story’s leitmotif, its themes are as redolent of the world of today as they were in the heyday of the Victorians, whose imagination immortalized this unforgettable cast of characters. And boy, do they look good. But beyond the magic of the characters, there lies the sorcery of modern economics, doing the devil’s work deep in the forest of the boy’s imagination.

From Ingenious to Helpless

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How Oil Has Turned a Resourceful Desert People into Overdependent Recipients of Vast Resource Wealth.

Considering how innovative they were to survive the harshest, most unforgiving of natural environments for so long, these days it’s hard to see how the heirs of the great Arab conquest of 632AD could survive in this desert they once mastered, far less innovate in this ultra-modern society they now govern.

The discovery of vast, easily extractable reserves of oil in the 1960s transformed a preindustrial society into one whose all-round development was so rapid as to be unparalleled anywhere, including China. Yet, in all this frenzy of socioeconomic transformation a link crucial to historical identity has been lost and with it the skills and resourcefulness to eke out a living on the bare minimum that nature provides in this most arid of regions.

And so the spectre of the desert looms again. For tribes to claim it as home, an environment consisting of a combination of desert climate and geography tolerates nothing less than a winning formula of mental agility and physical hardiness from its few inhabitants. This innovation to survive on the margins of habitable ecology has been squandered in relatively short time, however, by the purchasing power of oil. If these dwellers of the great desert, here known in a loose grouping as the Bedouin, are to make themselves future-proof it is to the desert they must look, and not to global investment banking, Western innovative engineering and Indian graft that has become the mainstay of their social and economic development over the past two generations. They need to rediscover that fortitude, that stamina and that simple genius of innovation – in short the survival skills of desert life – if they are to emulate their illustrious forebears.

Back in the day, they blazed a zealous trail out of Mecca in an expansion dovetailing west as far as the the Atlantic coast of Al-Maghreb and east as far as the Pamirs. The distance covered on horseback, the lands subdued, within such a short spread of time, was nothing short of breathtaking. With sword in one hand and the book in the other, they bore down on every Berber and every Pathan and every hardy native in between.

These North African and Central Asian tribes, described by historians such as Polybius and Livy in their writings on Alexander, were hardly pushovers. But no ancient Roman or Greek could have seen the Bedouin Arabs coming. In rapid succession, a new rising overshadowed the cities of the Byzantine empire: of Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and other important staging posts of the Near East. They crushed the heirs of Constantine as if the citadel walls were not of Roman cement but of sand! The fearsome Armenian warriors they took to task. Persians, the Arabs subdued them as if their thousand-year empire had never existed. The Parthian heartlands folded more like paper than like the mountains that made them men of stone. Khwarizm, Khorasan, Transoxania all toppled like dominoes. Roderick’s Visigoths might as well have given up Spain as tribute before the fight. Hell, even the Nile itself seemed to narrow to let them cross on their way past the worthless Pyramids. Destination unknown, the desert warriors would take their jihad however far the sunset would take them. They would stop along the way only to make inroads in ancient Roman provinces like Cyrenaica and beyond to Mauretania where Islam would be consecrated for once and for all in Kairouan in modern day Tunisia.

Emboldened by faith and destiny, from there these simple desert folk swept over the Rif mountains of latter-day Algeria and Morocco, breezed across straits their man Tariq named along the way, coveted the fair lands they saw en route through Visigoth Spain, retraced Hannibal over the well-watered Pyrenees, then continued unaided all the way to the Frankish stronghold of Poitiers where they met the uncompromising figure of Charles Martel. If not for him and his Frankish army, all of Christendom would have become the greenest province of the Caliphate.

Those 7th century Hijazi Arabs – Meccans and Medinites – were a resourceful lot. Of that there is no doubt. Within a mere 50-odd years from the death of their prophet Muhammad in 632AD, the first caliphate of the Umayyad had broken free from the clutch of the desert to unleash like a fever. Like the Mongols and Conquistadors centuries later, the Arabs might have had divinity in the sky and horses on the ground to manifest their destiny, but they had not much else to go on. Rather, it was mastery of the world’s most inhospitable terrain – namely, the deserts of rock, sand and scrub – that made all the difference. No one, but no one, could solve a problem like aridity in the way they could. Few, if any, could make a living, far less mount complex military campaigns, in temperatures brazen enough to cook a man’s brain into delirium within hours.

From dwellers of the desert worshipping rocks and things, within a hundred years history elevates them to heights hitherto unrivalled in their world, arguably unseen since the beauty of Achaemenid Persia or classical Rome. From finding ways of keeping cool in summer temperatures topping 50°C to finding ways of being cool through fractal geometry in structures designed by man in the mind of God, a people from a harsh land came a long way in a short period by taking the resourcefulness of desert living all the way to its physical and metaphysical end.

The golden age was in the reign of the Abbasid. Libraries that today adorn the present seats of civilisation – of London, Paris and New York – are reminders that once there was Baghdad and its House of Wisdom. In that house much thinking was done. Much that had been lost was found. If in that epoch Europe’s was an age of darkness, Al-Kindi and his housemates of wisdom resurrected classical Greek teaching, fusing it with their own in an age of light.

Where the rough and ready nomadism of the Bedouin Arabs had laid foundations, the more urban and urbane descendants of the Muslim expansion could turn their hands and minds to a new and golden age. That age required an intellectual climate that was temperate. Ironic when you imagine that to arrive at this cultural zenith – epitomized by the first universities in Cairo, Fez and Cordoba – one has to start the historical and geographical odyssey in a climate which was anything but temperate with tribes that were anything but learned: in the empty, blistering desert with the camel-driving Bedouin.

What the desert giveth the desert taketh away. To survive it takes more than faith. It requires supreme resourcefulness, and complete independence from the outside world.

Today, the Arab world is a paradox of helplessness and enormous resilience; of dazzling wealth and yawning poverty; of incredible stability and disintegration; of building the world’s tallest buildings but not having a clue how to do it. They were, only two generations ago, a wholly different animal, lacking even infant schools and field hospitals, eking out a living in the most inhospitable places, cultivating vegetables and palms on soils that received less than a few millimeters of rain per annum, mastering the flow of artesian water, getting by. Look at them now: hiring resourcefulness from outside, paying top dollar for expertise, getting others to find water for them, hiring an army of impoverished labour to pick up after them. Ambitions outweighing abilities, commissioning others to build them a world of comfort that they managed largely themselves for so long in their own modest ways. In short, using oil money to buy helplessness.

So is the discovery of an ocean of oil beneath their timeworn feet a blessing or a curse? With each petrodollar these Bedouins are taking the harsh out of living and themselves out of the desert which had made them uniquely adapted to conquer and consolidate half the known world fourteen hundred years ago. Unforeseen events in the coming century or two might give cause for a hard landing, even among those who appear most financially disposed right now to avoid it. But when a people go soft and lose the resourcefulness and simple innovation that kept them one step ahead of the desert and its punishing cycle of heat and hardship for so long, what insurance policy will shore them up and what investment banker will bail them out then?

 

A Paean to Nobody

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“Tolstoy?”

“Privyet, proto-comrade.”

“Got a minute?”

“For you, I’ve got two.”

“Indebted to you. Can you tell me, in that case, how to write a poem around a single, memorable, line from a Smiths song?”

“Come again, comrade?”

I am the sun and air, of nothing in particular.”

“What is that pretentious crap?”

“It’s an allusion to, like, the sun and the air being, like, nothing…in particular.”

“But they are something. In fact, they are everything, for without them you would not be here asking me these pointless questions.”

“It’s just that I’m emotionally repressed. I’ve got unresolved issues stemming from a one-time thing that didn’t quite go my way. I fell hard, right, and I want to say something dark and brooding about the way it left pustules of resentment all over my soul. You know? The anger should be directed at me, but I’m too narcissistic to do that to myself.”

“Your two minutes are up. Do-svidaniya.”

“Be like that. Who needs a dead writer to speak for their feelings, anyhoo?”

20 minutes later……

I am a volcano about to go dormant.

I am the sun and air of nothing in particular. I am prisoner in your niggardly arms, hostage to your nether beating pulse. 

You sap the life from me when it suits you and when it doesn’t you sap the lifeblood from me all the same. 

You are a ghost that doesn’t deserve my afterlife, a memory that bullied your way in. You whine through the ventricles of my heart, groan in the pit of my stomach. 

You are the moon and water, of nothing in particular, dead light and choking waves. 

Take that, Tolstoy, and lodge it where the sun don’t shine. In your cold Tsarist heart, for instance.

Life’s Shallows

Uncategorized

Why run aground on life’s little shallows?

Dying prematurely to meet a lousy deadline.

It’s all a gift and when I go to the gallows

Will I, hand on heart, say I read that sign

Bent by the roadside all the life down?

Did I for a moment take my eyes off the road?

Pull over for a breather, see the leaves turn brown?

Break my routine, watch the elements corrode

Everything around me that was once pristine?

Did I down tools for just long enough

To peer through the gloaming at the fading green?

See diamonds gleaming in the rough?

 

 

Katrina: A Grade-5 Whuppin’

Uncategorized

Convinced she would veer off and miss yet again,

Big Easy rolled into the heat of the night,

But tropical tempest did show no refrain,

The eye got the old town right in its sight.

 

And so it begins, the aftermath,

Black tide mark of unwanted children,

They pulled the plug on an overflowing bath,

Sat back and watched in disaffected sin.

 

White flight, black plight,

Wasn’t that the point of Lincoln’s long fight?

In the old French quarter it’s all plus ca change,

In the human hell of the dome a tear-soaked sponge,

 

Of poor souls screaming for a little bit of sense,

‘Where’s your priorities lie in this nation’s defense?’

You can deploy with alacrity all the way to Baghdad,

To your own southern comfort you moved not a tad.

 

Man builds cardboard ramparts and casts them in stone,

Is property of the land yet calls it his own,

Runs little circles through the sand of the shore,

Sees not fragile tenancy under his floor.

 

A broiling gulf that storm she exposed,

Whipped up old enmities in a nation disposed,

To dress all its wounds in star-spangled banners,

This hard wind and rain will test southern manners.

(©SMS2006)

 

 

East On The Wind

Uncategorized

Beyond swaying palms of freedom’s psalms,

Lies a restless ocean of myth devotion,

There on the Maghreb shore divinity more,

Whipped Sahel sands of Mohammedan hands.

 

Sea red, then dead, then none at all,

Between the rivers mountains tall,

Pantheistic plain all are small.

 

And on northeasterly, high plateau Ohm,

Far, far behind Hebrew shalom,

You’ll find the saffron in the snow,

Born of sufferance, a life of know,

Onward yellow stream, confusion reigning,

Twixt Marxist dogma and Confucius saying.

 

Destination microchip men,

Spring cherry blossom,

Land of the rising Zen.

 

Southward Cook he did espy,

Outback orange, Maori black, blue Pacific eye,

Which brings us back to new world gold,

Where Cortez the Killer watched the Aztec fold.

 

The shores on which we did not land,

Are those which had the greatest hand,

Of shaping Earth to their own end,

Still gaping wounds they cannot tend.                                      (©SMS2008)

I am the Root of All Things

poetry, Solipsism, Uncategorized, verse

Before i knew of it, did it exist?
So now that i know of it, was there something i missed?
Isn’t it only a figment, a thought, a vision?
If it’s truly there, why have i no precognition?

Just because we call it a door, does that make it a door?
When suddenly it goes out of sight, is it a door to us no more?
Call it then timbers joined to keep the in from out,
Surely before i knew a tree from a tree, no curiosity it brought about.

Stood before the beauty o the tree i have little doubt you are real to me,
Until i close my eyes and see that you are no more than a memory.
An image inverted onto where the retina may conserve
A photograph fired along the optic nerve.

Where lies this photo library, the vast image bank?
Drifting in the soul or swimming in the think tank?
Do things exist because we wish them to be?
Is all knowledge a posteriori or a priori?

And clouds above what forms you take,
As journeys through my mind you make,
And waking hours make smug slaves of men,
Who see not reality fragmented and broken.

Does wakefulness inform our dreams?
Or is this life not quite what it seems?
Two mirrors positioned face-to-face,
And you in between the infinite space.

(©SMS2007)