Decomposing Wisdom


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


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)


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.