The Bamboo Annals

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The original Chinese text of the Bamboo Annals

The ancient Chinese text The Bamboo Annals, published around 300 BC, details the events in Chinese history–or mythology–that transpired between around 2700 BC to the time of the text’s publication. Included in the Annals is the story of the legendary Emperor Yao. Yao was a patient and wise emperor, beloved by his constituents. Unfortunately, his talents were not bestowed upon his son. Danzhu, in contrast with his father, was petty and capricious. He was prone to profligacy. As legend has it, Yao invented the game of Go to instill good values into his son. He insisted that the lessons of Go might carry over to real life.

Danzhu took to the game; he even became a good player. But his attitudes never changed. He rejected the notion that a mere game could teach him how to live. Eventually, a weary and crestfallen Yao abdicated the throne, and gave it to Shun, his trusty advisor, instead of his son. Danzhu was furious. He began concocting a plan to kill his father.

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Losing Count

Edmond Dantès is a promising young sailor growing up in the French fishing village of Marseilles. Just as he is preparing to accept the captainship of his vessel and to marry the love of his life, Dantès is framed as a Bonapartist, a heinous crime in the eyes of the Royalist regime of early 19th century France. The Count of Monte Cristo tells the epic tale of Dantès’s imprisonment within the grim Chateau D’If, his eventual escape, and his protracted revenge against the three men who plotted his downfall. We hear the stories of bandits, smugglers, and aristocrats; we’re taken from the southern coast of France to the mountain villages of the Orient to the raucous Roman Carnival. In the process, we’re faced with a challenge to our previously-held notions of good and evil, which are twisted and bent by the story of the Count.

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A depiction of Monte Cristo’s coat of arms (credit M. Gulin)

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Child’s Play

I hadn’t seen an exercise in silliness of this magnitude in a while. The Wall Street Journal blared, on its front page, that “A CHESS NOVICE CHALLENGED MAGNUS CARLSEN. HE HAD ONE MONTH TO TRAIN.” My eyes were already rolling. “You fucking serious?” was the first question I asked. The second one was, “How badly did he lose?”

Badly, it turns out. Self-styled speed-learner Max Deutsch blundered a piece on move 12. It’s not quite a move someone who’s never played chess before would make—but it’s close. In fact, it’s just about the type of move someone who’s played for 30 days would make. By move 14, the game was essentially lost.

Board

On first glance, Max’s 12. Qf3 appears merely useless. But further study reveals that it’s problematic.12….Qh4 threatens a bad attack, which is addressed with 13. h3. But the queen on h4 also looks at d4, a threat which is discovered after 13…Nxe3. To make matters worse, Max recaptures with 14. Qxe3 instead of fxe3, putting him down a whole piece, instead of just a pawn, after 14…Bxd4.

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Poison and Medicine

Anton Chekhov’s short stories tend to feature ordinary characters in commonplace situations. In spite of this, these stories proffer a palpable, though often intangible, profundity. On close inspection, this profundity seems to reflect the fact that Chekhov’s stories, though on their face commonplace, address issues which are deeply philosophical, and which strike upon fundamental questions of human nature. My Wife is no exception.

Middle-ranking official and former engineer Mr. Ansorin is married to Ms. Natalie Ansorin; their marriage has descended into cold indifference marked by only sporadic hostility. They, along with Bragin, a fat, oafish man who was once handsome, and Sable, a friendly country doctor with a taste for good food, and drink, organize a committee aimed at bringing relief to a local village struck by famine. Ansorin, however, encounters a pervasive malaise, which only gets worse as he, a man of means, funds the relief effort.

Ansorin eventually finds that his discomfort stems not from his actions, which are, no doubt, admirable, but from his motives. Continue reading

Blurred Lines

The mere word Lolita immediately conjures unsavory images of pedophilia, incest and murder. I was surprised, then, upon reading Nabokov’s classic, to find that it was one of the best books I had ever read, but often for banal reasons.

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Renoir’s Girl with Pink Bonnet, displayed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which I just had the pleasure of visiting last week.

It’s often the sunlit scenes, not the sordid ones, which stick out most in my memory. Describing her tennis game:

My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.

He describes chess the way only a chess player could.

In my chess sessions with Gaston I saw the board as a square pool of limpid water with rare shells and stratagems rosily visible upon the smooth tessellated bottom, which to my confused adversary was all ooze and squid-cloud.

“I suppose,” he adds, “I am especially susceptible to the magic of games.”

It all sounds so natural, so reasonable. Only when the reader recalls the appalling content of some of the book’s other pages does the cruel flippancy of the author’s testament come into focus. Games? How, at a time like this, could he be talking about games? Continue reading

Great Expectations and Supermen

Dickens, Nietzsche, and the science of a better life

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One of the most memorable scenes of Great Expectations, as illustrated in the original 1861 text

Pip, of Dickens’s Great Expectations, was set to have a normal childhood and to lead a happy existence, albeit a humble one, until Estella came along. He had a job ready for him in Joe’s forge; he had a father-figure, a mentor, and a friend, in Joe; he had a faithful friend, even a prospective romantic companion, in Biddy. He took happiness even from—indeed, only from—the simplest of things.

For example, in their nightly eating of bread and butter by the hearth, Pip and Joe shared in an amusing ritual.

In our already-mentioned freemasonry as fellow-sufferers, and in his good-natured companionship with me, it was our evening habit to compare the way we bit through our slices, by silently holding them up to each other’s admiration now and then,—which stimulated us to new exertions.

They did all this while trying to avoid the wrath of Pip’s tyrannical older sister. The reader comes to look back with fondness on a time when avoiding Mrs. Joe’s temper was the greatest of Pip’s troubles.

Everything changes when Pip meets Estella, the gorgeous but ice-hearted daughter of Miss. Havisham, a reclusive, mysterious old rich woman, at a mansion in the nice part of town.

Over a game of beggar my neighbor: “He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”

Back home, Pip broods over his hands and his boots.

I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favorable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.

Thus begins Pip’s obsession with becoming a “gentleman”. He’d like to wear the finest clothes; to become literate and read the best books; to associate with the most refined of people. Life in the kitchen and forge was good enough for Pip, until it wasn’t.

Yet when Pip comes into a fortune and starts a new life in London, all is not always splendid. Worse than his daily troubles and trifles is the fact that his once-easygoing relationship between Joe becomes stilted and forced. Back in rural Kent, now-gentlemanly Pip has dinner with his uncultivated companions:

Soon afterwards, Biddy, Joe, and I, had a cold dinner together; but we dined in the best parlor, not in the old kitchen, and Joe was so exceedingly particular what he did with his knife and fork and the saltcellar and what not, that there was great restraint upon us.

And their easygoing relationship of the past seems distant and inaccessible.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hubble might like to see you in your new gen-teel figure too, Pip,” said Joe, industriously cutting his bread, with his cheese on it, in the palm of his left hand, and glancing at my untasted supper as if he thought of the time when we used to compare slices.

Despite all the frills of life with London’s upper crust, Pip can’t help but wonder at times, “with a weariness on my spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge.”

Great Expectations gives rise to a question I myself have considered quite a bit: is it necessarily better to eat better food, to see better plays, and to dine with people who have better manners? Or might one rationally opt to gain pleasure from baser sources? If a college student gains as much pleasure from Burger King as a chef does from French haute cuisine, is not the student better off in this regard? Is Pip wise to pursue a life of excellence, at the expense of the simple things which once gave him pleasure? Continue reading

A Fragile Truth

My four-week psychiatry rotation at Western State Hospital landed smack in the middle of peak general election season. And, oddly enough, these two experiences have yielded remarkable similarities. In both cases, I have been forced to entertain various versions of the truth.

Many of the patients here at Western State are psychotic. Our known and stated goal, then, is to return these patients to reality-based thinking. Only then might they qualify for discharge. This exercise has presented philosophical challenges. Certainly, sometimes, our job is easy. One of our patients, who signs her forms as Michelle Obama Prince Harry Elizabeth Queen Zealand, communicates with Russia, Germany, Berlin, Jerusalem, East Germany, West Germany, South Germany, and Russia, by radio, television, and satellite, including the satellite in the backyard of her palace, which she built, and in which we currently reside. Another patient, though, gave me pause. Continue reading