Tuesday, June 1, 2021

రాయమనే కథలే ఓ సంచారి

On most days, I don't really understand what goes on in my head. Sometimes it's nice, when I'm surprised that I know the answer to a question I didn't know I knew. At times it's a thrill when I'm trying to remember the name of a filmmaker and try to go around clicking hyperlinks in my head until, voila!, I suddenly reach the destination. But many times, it's infuriating/ alarming/ exhausting to learn that what I thought, what I was led to believe, was a permanent fixture, suddenly revealed its transcience and simply disappeared. This is as true for interests and worldviews as it is for resolutions and emotions. The latter two I understand, having lived with them all my life more or less. The former two I'm still coming to terms with. 

Let me try to illustrate the point with an example: A month ago, I discovered this wonderful podcast called History of Philosophy. As usual, I didn't just want to dip into it but wanted immerse myself in it, to start from the basics, so I started from the first of over a hundred episodes. I heard 3 or 4. Loved them. I went around looking for essays/ books involved. I felt that I had discovered what it is that I wanted to do, that this was to be my vocation. I imagined myself going back to college to study, impress everyone with my original mind and do tremendous research that would bring me joy and accolades. I beat everyone I spoke to with that hammer for those few days. It also became my stock lens for understanding my world. And as suddenly as it flared up, my interest in that dissipated. I realised I wasn't able to concentrate on the podcast, I had to keep rewinding. Then I spent the next few days cursing my immense stupidity for letting my fantasy take wings despite similar previous experiences. I told myself that I should learn from this experience and embrace who I was. That my interests were varied and the intensity with which I pursued them would ebb and flow. That my primary mistake was my desperate need to associate myself with one thing at the cost of everything else. I was looking for that one thing which would let me escape from the frustrations and consolations of having to keep thinking, keep figuring out, keep updating my mental models. That I was trying to live like an archetype, for the simple reason that it'd cost my less mental energy, instead of celebrating the reality that my being couldn't be reduced to simplistic tropes. I knew that this solace was temporary too but I enjoyed it. I hoped to learn from it and deal with the next crest with more equanimity, all the while knowing that I possibly couldn't hold onto this rock of realization when the next wave inevitably hit with surprise and force. That I'd dive in naively, greedily, because it was too hard to resist the temptation. 

And as if on cue, the next wave, Christopher Nolan's films, hit rightaway. Back to square one of fantasizing and imagining and telling myself that I'd finally arrived at my truth. WashRinseRepeat.

I'm not exactly complaining because I genuinely seem to enjoy this aspect of myself. Truth be told, I'm probably too much in love with myself so its actually a bit of a problem. But I find it interesting at my mind's capacity to shift and change so much while also essentially remaining roughly in the same area. My interests haven't changed drastically- It's still mostly a bit of science, a bit of society, philosohy, art and tech. It's the temporariness and, more interestingly, the intensity that's.. well, what exactly is it?

--

I watched a few films in the last few weeks and I've been meaning to briefly write about four:

  • Siddu Jonnalagadda's Krishna and His Leela, and Maa Vinta Gaadha Vinuma. I call them Siddu Jonnalagadda's because despite being helmed by different directors, he co-wrote, edited and played the lead role in both and I see enough simalarity between them to claim that they both carry his signature. I thoroughly enjoyed both movies- the humour, the charm, the urban upper-middle class air, the women. I also like how plot mechanics really kick in only, almost like an afterthought, at the end. Viva Harsha is growing on me, especially after Colour Photo, and I love his exchange with Krishna in the pub:
    • అన్యాయం గురు ఆ అమ్మాయి
      నాటె జోకూ
      అజ్జా బాన్ చేయాలి అలాంటోళ్ళని
      వాటె.. నువ్వు నేను నూతిలో కప్ప
      వేర్వేరు
      ఇట్సె బొంబై మాటర్ రా ఇదంతా, నీకర్థం కాట్లేదు. ఇట్సె యో.. ఖూ..
  • Gaadha was more mainstream in its treatment if not for its plot but I like how things were kept interesting by using Bharani gari character as a framing device. And the idea to cast Fish Venkat as Fish Venkat was gobsmackingly inspired. I also liked the Carnatic tinged music of both films though it infuriates Sravani to listen to this 'debasement'. So I listen to it on headphones.
  • Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple is a remarkable achievement. I found out about Court years ago, via Moi Fight Club I think, and took pride in the fact that it'd premiered in Venice. When I watched it, I liked it but I thought it was a bit too pretentious. And at that point in time, I was a huge pretentious snob myself (you should see my absolutely ignorant, inferiority-complex-shrink-wrapped-in-superiority-complex comment on BR sir's blogpost about Ship of Theseus to know what I mean. I can't because it literally gives me goosebumps from embarassment) so I suppose I need to rewatch it to make a more upto-date, hopefully more genuine, judgement. I fell in love with The Disciple as I was watching it because it genuinely made me feel, and to a large extent remind similar feelings of ineptitude, what it is to desperately seek greatness. While this would've made it a great film in itself, what drove it to stratospheric heights is the scene in the bar where Sharad hears stories about Maai that he doesn't want to. While I could go into a pedestrian interpretation of how it throws a light on the need for deities, I will refrain from doing that because it'll debase the impact of the film. I will suffice it to say that Tamhane's control was such that my impression of Maai totally flipped after that. I was thrilled.
  • I can't remember why I didn't watch Dunkirk earlier, it's probably got to do with my usual grandstanding about how Nolan is a limited director without inspiration, which ironically was probably lifted from Tom Shone's profile of the man in The Guardian, but I watched it a few weeks ago because I knew I was going to get a copy of The Nolan variations. I must say I enjoyed it and I found Nolan's use of different timeframes really interesting. While it makes for great cinema, and that can be a respectable end in itself, I also thought it did a meta-commentary on cinema itself. We tend to remember 2 hours of a great movie more vividly than months, if not years, of our lives. And in that sense technology, both physical and mental (eg: narratives), help us get more bang for the buck. If one way to measure the 'success' of a life is to manage to collate the 'memorable experiences', while understanding that at any point in time we are what we have access to, both within our head and without, then these technologies allow you to pack in more within a life. So maybe there is a way to say objectively that my life is better, in terms of how fulfilling it is and how much I enjoy it, than that of an average person born 2000 years ago, or 15000 years ago, or even 100 years ago. In a way technology allows you to have greater leverage over your immediate physical spacetime and consequently on your agency which must be one of the foundations of a good life. 

--

April also happened to be the month when I was able to read/listen/think about ideas that I was able to put together to form a interesting little framework. Now that I think about it, my interest in Nolan's adamant materialism was probably lead by this phase which in turn was preceded by reading about/around Darwinian Evolution in the previous few months.

Here they are:

  • I'd been reading Dr. Velcheru Narayana Rao and Dr. David Shulman's extraordinary Classical Telugu Poetry, and as I was going through the long introductory essay, it struck me that  it was probably the first time in my life that I was reading an introduction and exploration of Telugu culture from a Social Science view. They had placed the poets, and by extension their works, in the context of the social, cultural, political and economic conditions in which they lived and worked. Maybe it'd been done before but I hadn't been fortunate enough to come across that interpretation. The little old Telugu culture I had read/heard/was told about had, for the most part, spoken about these mythologies and works of literature as being born fully formed. They were అపౌరుషము. Again, apologies if that's not true, but that's how I saw them. And so they became hard to access, their apparent perfection both uninteresting and hard to believe. This essay, by charting the evolution of the form across the ages, and by creating brief but humanising sketches of the poets helped me get over my bias (that I'd developed as a resistance in my childhood when I was told that these were great but never really learned how they came about) and made me feel grateful and fortunate to be able to access them centuries and worlds away from where they were created. The material aspect of it made them so much more real and precious. I could sense their humanity reaching out from far, far away.
  • I discovered David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity in Naval Ravikant's podcast. While I've listened to only a couple of hours of the audiobook, I found his articulation of the Scientific Method quite helpful. Deutsch coins a phrase called 'Good Explanation' which he says is essentially how human progress is/ has been made. So religious concepts, mythologies, folklore, heuristics, customs/ rituals, infact maybe even superstitions, are developed by humans to better understand their environment so that they can thrive. What we call Science, and he argues that Enlightenment is the inflection point, is essentially the best method we have discovered as a species for generating 'Good explanations' about the world. Every theory that comes up not only is not final but in some ways both is created by and subsumes the previous explanation because it had proved inadequate to the task. I found this model of thinking quite useful. Another argument that absolutely floored me was his insistence that scientific discovery, despite its popular image to the contrary, is a supremely creative act. Infact, all theorising is. He says that we don't go around looking for data and then let theory drift up, so to speak, once enough data has been collected but create theories and then go about verifying their validity as more and more observations are recorded. I found this flip absolutely riveting and I think it makes sense in my day-to-day experience.
  • In Jonardon Ganeri's essay for Aeon on the Tree of Knowledge, which is a terrific read in its entirety, he writes about how what we generally assume to be laws of living, that are handed down by our parents as traditions, are best understood as methods or strategies that must be applied intelligently. There need not be anything irrefutable/sacred about them. This again was extremely liberating because I had spent years listening to people tell me that one should follow the guru, not everything can be understood via the intellect, that these traditions have been handed over by 'masters' and the like. Nothing against them but now I was able to see that these are probably part of just one method of pursuing whatever it is that you're seeking and so all other methods aren't misplaced or wrong by definition. Limited, maybe. Primitive, maybe. Valid nonetheless.
  • From that essay, I discovered the History of Philosophy podcast written by Ganeri and Peter Adamson. I haven't gone past the first few episodes, yet, but I'd made one staggering discovery. That the what we call the six systems of Hindu Philosophy, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta actually started as certain methods of understanding and interpreting the world. So, for example, Samkhya started by the belief that enumerating the world was a good method to get started for understanding it. Similarly, Mimamsa was apparently about inference and analogy via argument to understand. Likewise, Yoga was literally about putting various things together and building a more cohesive worldview. A union in that sense of the word. Again, I need to reinstate that my knowledge of this is extremely rudimentary and I could be totally wrong in all this. Neither have I gone back to confirm if this is what was told in the podcast, nor cross-referenced it from other sources. What I'm trying to put across is what I started thinking after listening to those episodes and that I find it useful in thinking about the world.

From what I can surmise, the one common thread among all these ideas has been the material and evoltionary aspect of things.  This, like I stated earlier, probably comes from my cursory readings of Darwinism which I must've sought out in the first place because I was looking for an alternative to more, for the lack of a better word now, supernatural explanations of the world I live in. Not that they are necessarily wrong, it's just that at this point in time, I neither find them convincing nor useful. It could be a right hunch or my limited capability, but at this point in time, they don't seem right.

Sticking to more materialistic, this-worldly explanations also lets me feel pride and a sense of community with other humans. For as long as I sought ways which were either religious or mystical, I felt a sense of inadequacy in being myself. As if I had fallen and had to be lifted by a guru or some such deus ex machina. As if I could only be hauled across by a benevolent deity. This, on the other hand, while making me feel genuine humility at the extent of things I didn't know, atleast fills me with awe, gratitude and belonging with a much larger family of human beings across time and space. I can feel a sense of kinship. I feel less alone, less deficient. I don't know if its the right thing. Except it feels right. And that's my sole compass; Atleast for now.

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