I am writing to you from beyond the pale.
An Education (Part III)
He told us about seeing the bulls in Spain. How they were bred for belligerence, then watched in pens as they played to select again for that profitable trait. How Americans could never understand that bullfighting was an art — yeah, an art. Americans with their narrow-mindedness, sterile humaneness, squeamishness at the first drop of blood or whiff of sex (even mere metaphorical sex).
I imagined the Spain of his depiction, which I equated to the Spain of Hemingway: Pamplona as a getaway for a tradition of white writers concerned with their own masculinity. This was about the same time that Michael Vick was in the news for illegal dog-fighting. What, then, made the difference between brutality and art? Was it just a ripeness for phallic symbolism? Historical representation in the Western canon? I suspected it was even less meaningful than that, a totally arbitrary distinction. I caught up with him after class.
“Professor, what makes bullfighting different from dog-fighting?” We had spoken enough times at this point that I didn’t mind him thinking me a bit daft on occasion. I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the lanky literary girls who haunted the department anyway. The consensus seemed to be that I was precocious but not serious. The professors half-heartedly goaded me towards grad school.
The look in his eyes was equal parts paternal exasperation and intellectual condescension. The slant of his mouth equal parts smirk and grimace.
“Well, it’s totally different.”
He looked back ahead, and we walked in silence for a while.
“Oh,” I said. (“So it’s arbitrary,” I thought.)
That was alright by me. What was life without arbitrariness, a searing white line halving the sky? Man and beast, art and brutality, teacher and student. Yeah, that was alright by me.
An Education (Part II)
Structuralism and Poststructuralism For Beginners by Donald D. Palmer - $10.17 on Amazon.com.
An Education (Part I)
If I get to University, I’m going to read what I want and think about what I want and listen to what I want. And I’m going to look at paintings and go to French films and talk to people who know lots about lots.
- Jenny, An Education
I hesitated before the half-opened door and double-checked the slip taped over its surface. The slip confirmed what I already knew: I was right on time. Giving the door a gentle push, I peered around the side. In the muddled glow of late morning sunlight and unforgiving fluorescent tubes, I was a little surprised to distinguish an unoccupied desk in the little office lined with bookshelves.
Then I spotted him immediately to my left, at a round, wooden table smothered by papers and books. As still as the tableau, he hunched over it, seeming a natural outgrowth of the furniture and quiet, friendly disorder. But this impression was misleading; I instinctively knew the haphazard arrangement grew out of - was an analogy for - him.
There are certain moments when a vision will freeze, a scene startled into static being by a bolt of lightning. So it seemed at the time, when, in a half-second or less, I took everything in. He was cupping a book in his hands with a tenderness that was unmistakably, preciously masculine. A wry smile of captivated delight lent dynamism to his features. In his engrossment, his eyes had taken on a delicate glaze. At seventy, he struck a charming - if somewhat wistful - picture of an academic life well lived.
Wistful? I was surprised by that note of sadness as I surveyed him. Though he was ostensibly happy, I saw what struck me as his tragedy. The love for that abstraction he held in his hands could never be transferred to this world. No woman, no child could ever receive it. Any love outside abstraction was a rough esquisse; any touch in this world was marred by tangibility. It was a beautiful dream that ensnared clever men.
He looked up. “Ah, my dear, come in! Pull up a chair.”
I grabbed the chair by his desk and shuffled up to the table. There was not an inch of clear space on it. I had the impression he’d just picked a volume from the heap and started reading. It was, after all, the aleatory nature of dreaming.
He pointed to the pages before him.
“I was reading some Mallarmé,” he explained. “Beautiful poetry. Look at the way he arranges words spatially on the page….”
His fingers traced the paper in the outlines of an invisible world. I wondered if it would someday materialize for me.
A boy whom I had wanted to marry died.
He died on the twenty-second of May, 2009 — almost a year ago to the day. He was twenty-two years old.
He jumped off a bridge without leaving a note. He played the piano, Chopin in particular. He had an associate’s degree and was planning to pursue an engineering degree. He wrote.
This much I found out from his obituary and an article in his local newspaper.
Previously, I had known only his first name, his zodiac sign, and the first five characters of a screenname he had used when he was thirteen and I was eleven. The first five characters constituted the name of the brightest star in his constellation. He was gentle, kind, and a little sad. He listened patiently to an eleven year old painstakingly detail her future, a future she wrongly insisted would include him.
Good night. I hope the music is sweet and beautiful where you are.
Stakes on a Plane
A couple of days ago, while I was procrastinating studying, my dad called to tell me he was getting on a plane headed to the States from China. Later at night, while I was still procrastinating, he called to say he’d arrived! We live in a world where someone can travel to the opposite end of the Earth in the same time that someone else puts off reading one chapter of astronomy. Amazing.
But what happens when the mechanics of that world are disturbed?
The grounding of planes across Europe after the eruption of the Icelandic volcano is revealing just how integral international air travel has become. Modernity is all about speed - fast is good but instantaneous is better. Along those lines, boats are cool but, shit son, we really need those planes!
Which has got me thinking: In what other ubiquitous but underappreciated ways does the expectation of instantaneousness permeate our lives?
Get separated from your friends at the mall? Call them. Find out at 11:53PM that it’s an acquaintance’s birthday? Post “Happy (not technically belated) birthday!” on their Facebook wall. A natural disaster hits some poverty-stricken country? Donate some money and expect that it’ll drop out of the news as it inevitably does, to be replaced by the next natural-disaster-and-poverty-stricken country.
The simple fact of living in a world where information is instantaneous means that we expect everything else to be too. If something’s no longer making the headlines, we think that it’s been resolved. Even when something is still in the headlines, we expect that it won’t be soon. Case in point: my mother just bought three plane tickets to London for mid-August the other day. Now, if we expect - as some experts testify can happen - that the volcanic eruption will last a year, that would have been an incredibly dumb purchase. But we don’t expect such a scenario because a year without planes over a major international airport is literally unthinkable. As in, no one can seriously entertain the thought.
Sure, there have been articles written hypothesizing extreme scenarios where Europe’s climate gets colder and the European Union falls apart, but these are intellectual exercises. We instinctively feel that this is outside the realm of possibility. But is it really? I am just now realizing how much we take the impossible for granted.
Reflections on a Week in Morocco
Okay, so I was forced to write a reflection for our granters. It only had to be 3/4ths of a page double spaced but I got a little carried away. Warning: really, I mean really, long.
As our plane touched down in Rabat, Morocco, an unexpected thought occurred to me: There’s something magical about being in a kingdom! The unfamiliar terrain - tall, stocky palm trees punctuating parched earth - prompted the realization that I was entering a part of the world that was wholly new to me. In this North African country, part of the Maghreb, the ideals of democratic government didn’t apply. Even the more authoritarian government of China, my birth country, differed fundamentally from a monarchy supported by ancient religious traditions. Morocco’s political institutions, culture, and history would be unlike anything I’d ever been exposed to.
Over the next five and a half days, our group explored the cities of Rabat, Fez, and Marrakesh. We visited stunning palaces, medinas, and ruins; haggled our way through bustling souks; navigated maze-like casbahs; visited two NGOs; met with a U.S. diplomat, a representative from the National Democratic Institute, and three Fulbright scholars; and conversed casually with many Moroccans about their country. A few themes emerged in what I heard and saw.
The Progressivism of King Mohammed VI:
I think there is a tendency for Westerners to judge the “goodness” of governments on a spectrum. At one end is the authoritarian government crushing human rights and the press; at the opposite end, a happy democracy with political cartoons in the daily paper. Learning about Moroccan politics led me to reassess my prejudices. We did have some encounters that suggested a more sinister side to the government. Our guides shied away from the topic of the King, who is revered as the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. When pressed, one guide hastened to say that he supported the King but admitted that the King’s ministers could be corrupt (he nervously asked us not to relay his comment about the ministers). The Fulbrights we spoke with indicated that journalism functioned in an environment of self-censorship and, more rarely, official censorship. One journalist had been jailed for a critical line, and even a poll showing widespread support for the King had been pulled from a paper.
On the other hand, we learned that the current King has instituted drastic social reforms since taking the throne in 1999. The revised Family Code of 2004 (the Moudawana) granted women more rights in the areas of divorce, child custody, polygamy, and sexual harassment. The King also created a commission (the IER) to compensate the victims of abuses such as wrongful imprisonment and “disappearances” under King Hassan II, his father. Moreover, he has made significant strides toward appeasing Amazighs, Berber minorities in Morocco, by creating a Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM), mandating the teaching of Amazigh languages in schools, and adopting an Amazigh script instead of an Arab script for Amazigh languages.
While one may think that in countries with authoritarian governments, the population tends to be more progressive than the government; in Morocco’s case, the government may actually be more progressive than the people. As the U.S. diplomat noted, social reforms take time. Attitudes don’t change overnight. The diplomat told us that when the King first tried to pass many reforms quickly, critical stories spread about him, including rumors that he had sexual diseases. While Moroccan rule may look very different from what we Americans think of as a “progressive” government, I think one can argue convincingly that a reform-minded monarchy may suit a country that is so mired in traditional, hierarchical culture.
Women and Public Life:
Part of the hierarchical culture is the ranking of males above females. While women walk about freely in Morocco, there are still signs that males are associated with the public sphere while females are relegated to private life. Males populated the outdoor cafe areas, where they sat and watched the streets. Female customers (and tourists) were moved to the “nicer” but out-of-sight second floor terraces. It was also rare to see a woman walking alone, especially at night. Women who participated in nightlife without a male companion would be considered “loose” at best, and possibly a prostitute. Going to Morocco in a group of nine females and two males, we were able to experience some prejudices firsthand. Our group elicited either catcalls (from mostly younger men) or disapproving glares (typically older men). Moreover, we noticed that these reactions were less severe when the males in our group walked closely with the girls. We also ran into situations when servers took orders from the males in our group over the females.
Before our trip, we had debated the wearing of headscarves and burqas at a Model UN night. However, it’s always hard to judge a cultural practice without exposure to the culture. In Morocco, we saw many women wearing headscarves, but just as many women without them. Burqas could be spotted, but they were less common. One of our Moroccan female guides said that those who wore burqas came from more traditional and religious families. She herself didn’t even wear a headscarf because “she was over fifty, and there was no point.” Such a statement indicates wearing these items are still linked to the patriarchal notion of covering up sexually alluring, young women. But this is only part of the picture. Many women who wore headscarves also dressed in fashionable, form-fitting clothes. I increasingly saw headscarves as a normal fashion item. When we passed through the souks or marketplaces, the girls in our group fawned over the beautiful scarves. Considering that some Western customs are also rooted in patriarchal traditions - the purchase of engagement rings, for example - I believe that wearing headscarves may be a much less sinister practice than many Westerners think.
Colonialism, Orientalism, Tourism:
There did seem to be a sinister aspect to the fun, touristy activities we enjoyed. For our entertainment and coin, Moroccans around us often conformed to Orientalist depictions. Morocco was ruled by French and Spanish colonists from 1912 to 1956, and that showed in the areas frequented by tourists. Just as Western artists and writers depicted the colonized Maghreb as a place of languor, irrationality, opiate dreams, and harems; the kitschy Moroccan art in the souks pictured disordered spaces with sand dunes, camels, tea rituals, and smudgy figures in hooded garments. At the hamam we visited (a Moroccan bath house), a painting of a reclining woman mimicked Renoir’s Odalisque. Out on the streets, men in elaborate costumes plucked instruments, wagged their heads, and extended their hands for payment. The tourism industry was mired in the politics of power and economic exchange.
Colonization had also manipulated the country’s hierarchical structure. Sadly, lighter skin was equated with greater beauty and worth. This was reflected in public ads and billboards. One Fulbright scholar even told us of a couple of black Fulbright scholars who had had to leave their assignments due to harassment.
As the only Chinese student in our group, I soon realized that I didn’t fit the typical image of an American tourist. I was alerted to this when a teenage girl politely asked in English to take a picture with me! Afterward, I paid more attention to my surroundings and noticed that people often pointed to and notified their friends about me. But aside from shouting vendors, all my interactions with Moroccans were very friendly. They were curious about my origins and seemed pleased when I talked with them about it.
Still, for a country bordering the Mediterranean where vendors often spoke Arabic, French, a Berber dialect, English, and Spanish, I was surprised that there had been so little exposure to some races. As we streamed past vendors in the souk, one vendor cried out in surprise, “Vous-êtes mélangé?” (you are mixed?). Certainly, we were a diverse group. His words led me to a renewed appreciation for environments in the U.S. where such “mélanges” are common enough not to be noted.
NGOs and Philanthropy:
The two NGOs we visited stood in stark contrast to each other. One of them, a woman’s association in Fez, educated at-risk, young women (especially young mothers) in basic reading, writing, math, cooking, and tailoring skills. The mission was to keep the women off the streets - it was implied they may otherwise become prostitutes - and give them skills for jobs as tailors, maids, nannies, and factory-workers. Women graduated from the program after two years and sometimes received assistance from microcredit institutions.
The association held classes in a converted, cramped apartment. Outfitted mannequins lined the walls, and women sat in front of sewing machines or workbooks at long tables. The organization received some funding from the government, but their operation was clearly constrained by limited capital. It also seemed that the women running the organization, while educated, were not especially wealthy themselves. Only a couple could speak French well. I guessed that they had worked their way to their economic positions, leveraging their education. They seemed genuinely delighted to receive us, as if it were atypical for them to have visitors.
The other NGO was an orphanage in Rabat that housed over two hundred children. The facilities were expansive, airy, clean, and heavily staffed. The orphanage comprised a primary school, a middle school, and a high school. Enrichment activities such as sports and art lessons were available to the children. As we toured the facilities with a man who seemed specially prepped to handle public relations (and spoke perfect French), it became clear that this organization was run by an entirely different class of people than the woman’s association. The leadership was male, obviously wealthy, while many of the donors seemed to be wealthy female socialites. They were used to receiving visitors; the King himself had toured it. Moreover, the children were invited annually to stay at a Turkish palace. This was a place with connections, to politicians and to old, rich families. It was apparent that they welcomed visits to the extent that those visits generated publicity and donations.
After visiting the two NGOs, I found myself wondering which model was more effective. Certainly, the orphanage reached more people than the woman’s association, but was it as cost-effective? The woman’s association clearly needed and used every dollar (or dirham) they got. By contrast, the orphanage channeled funds toward some luxury activities, such as touring the country. If these activities meant the orphanage was able to reach less children but provide a richer upbringing for those children it did take in, was the extra spending justified? Also, while those running the woman’s association were clearly involved for the well-being of the women, could the wealthy people running the orphanage be motivated by enhancing their social status? Even if social status played into their philanthropic decisions, would that be OK as long as people were helped? These were difficult questions, and I found myself feeling conflicted yet again in trying to answer them.
As it turned out, I learned much more from a week in Morocco than I’d ever expected. It seemed that my first intuition was right: there was something magical about the kingdom.
Twilight Zone Intellectuals
At times I have wondered if my personal ideology belonged - however casually - under that universally disdained philosophy of Libertarianism. I rarely think deeply if at all about politics but did a little reading for a course on political philosophy a while back. The thinkers that resonated most with me were the original “liberal” thinkers - the ones whom if you actually follow today will get you tagged with the unappetizing label of Libertarian. Putting labels aside though, I just wanted to follow whoever the heck made the most sense.
Last night, I realized that Libertarians (at least those who are also Objectivists) definitely were not “whoever the heck made the most sense.”
In putting off doing homework, I occasionally attend lectures at the university by visiting thinkers. My decisions on which lectures to attend are based largely on how shiny the event poster is and how attractive the lecturer’s picture on the poster is. By this criteria, the poster for “The Practical and Moral Aspects of Capitalism” - featuring Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute - was not bad. Glossy paper was used, and Yaron sported a tweed jacket of an autumnal shade that rhymed with the colors of his hair, eyes, and the border of the poster. This convinced me to go, despite the fact that everyone I know who has ever heard of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism has insisted to me that it’s crap.
Though I felt intellectually adventurous, I had the good planning and foresight to drag along a friend who wanted free food.
As soon as we sat down, we received Enjoy Capitalism stickers.
Over the next hour and a half, Yaron and Fred Smith (president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute) delivered to us the manifesto of capitalism. It made even less sense than Andre Breton’s Le Manifeste du Surréalisme. That’s right: “A burst of laughter of sapphire in the Island of Ceylon the most beautiful straws have a faded color” made more sense than these guys.
To be fair, I couldn’t really understand Fred, who mumbled, talked quickly, and dropped mysterious jokes about co-eds. But for a guy who was responsible for relating the “practical” aspect of capitalism, he strangely provided no statistics showing that capitalism actually works (association with higher per capita GDP, number of enterprises started per year, etc.) Even as an econ major - read: positive view of free markets - I was unconvinced.
Then came Yaron. Yaron had a strange accent but good diction. I could understand what he was saying, and he seemed to make sense … at first.
Yaron argued that the economic crisis should not be blamed on the deregulation of financial institutions. He insisted statism was to blame: Low interest rates encouraged bankers to make reckless investment decisions, ratings agencies overrated securities, and the government overprotected Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. While these were fair criticisms, I think Yaron was wrong in saying that most economists agreed statism more than deregulation was responsible for the crisis. In the narrative my professors provided, deregulation was always a huge part of the picture.
This ended the portion of the lecture where Yaron made sense. Paraphrasing:
On the hypocrisy of Socialists — “When you’re little and a strange kid asks to play with your toy, your mother tells you to share. But if a stranger came up to her and asked for her car, she wouldn’t share! Our moral ideal is Socialism, but in reality, Capitalism is what works.”
On a solution to those without health care insurance — “If your neighbor wanted you to give him some money to prevent him from dying, he has two options. He can come to your door and ask you, after which you can say yes or no. Or he can come to your door with a gun and force you to give him the money. If he comes with the mafia, that’s the same as coming with a gun. If he comes with 51% of the neighborhood, that’s the same as coming with a gun. The government is the same as coming with a gun. I know of a lady who founded a charity to save hawks. Charities will keep people from dying on the streets.”
In the reception afterward, I had a chance to scope out the other attendees. A small group of students had formed themselves into a circle to debate something arcane. One girl suggested forming an Objectivist club at Cornell and collected e-mail addresses. I drank peppermint tea, ate lemon cookies, and contemplated asking the Marxist feminist computer science major in my dorm to hang out.
When Words Fail
How often do artists find that their art fails them? Setting aside the raw emotionality of music, where does it leave painters and writers when no arrangement of pigment on paper can condense and convey their thoughts and feelings?
I do not mean that musicians are exempt from creative trouble. It takes a talented artist of any medium to recount an inner narrative effectively. But it seems to me, no music lover myself, that music can channel things in a way that other media cannot. Music can be cerebral, but aren’t writing and painting necessarily so to some degree? Sounds reverberate and envelope; paper always lies inert.
Thank goodness there’s no origami enthusiasts with sharp paper cranes around to contradict my statement!
The digital analog to paper is the screen. And the modern analog to the amateur writer is the ubiquitous blogger. But I have trouble with even this meager task - to set forth a trivial amount of writing at regular intervals. It’s been a month since my last post and there are loads to write about, if only words didn’t fail me.
When do words fail? Why do they fail? Words do not fail a lusty teenager; I had no trouble dashing off posts in high school, angst-ridden though they were. Since then, the pesky concepts of privacy and dignity have gotten to me. The internet is safe for funny anecdotes…not so much for thoughts that erupt in conversations at 3AM.
I returned a few days ago from a week-long trip to Morocco. My head is still swimming. I want to say that it’s been one of the most important weeks of my life, but to justify that in words would require more time and talent than I have. We saw places, we met people, we did things.
There is one way that I have been channeling this. I bought a small, silver, hamsa hand charm at la Maison d’Argent in Rabat. I am wearing it around a chain on my neck. Forgoing speech, a symbol. It is a reminder to me of the person I want to be, the person I’m not within university walls.
To live instead of document, sing instead of stutter.