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Reincarnation Bank, or How the Transmigration of Souls will change the Banking Industry

In popular economics on July 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm

There is a bank that can manage your assets to make sure you still own them in your next life. Tyler Cowen, co-author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, found out that there is a Reincarnation Bank owned by a certain 2i Limited. Eccentric markets are interesting, even on the level of scholarship. We have here a hybrid of the theory of the transmigration of souls and the theory of banking. The process seems simple: you deposit now, then you can withdraw from the same bank in your next life. Too bad if you’re reborn as a duck or a horse. According to Jorge L. Borges’ knowledge of Buddhism, the probability of a person being reborn as a human being is the probability of a tortoise rising to the surface of the sea and finding a solitary ring, which can float anywhere in the world, around its head.

This bank’s theory of transmigration of souls has three assumptions before the transaction can be complete from deposit to withdrawal:

1. You do not attain Enlightenment (hence you are reborn);

2. You are reborn human; and,

3. You can remember your past lives.

A favorable condition must fulfill all these conditions. Granting metempsychosis fulfills these criteria, this is how Reincarnation Bank proposes to facilitate withdrawals:

As in this life, in the next you will have memories of previous lives. One of these recollections will be of your arrangement with Reincarnation Bank. Whatever version of the internet or data retrieval mechanisms in use at the time of your return, you will renew your contact with Reincarnation Bank and through regression you will recall the details/instructions that you left at the time of making your deposit. A custodian of Reincarnation Bank will open your letter privately in your presence and will ask you to repeat the details contained therein (whilst in regression). Once this has been satisfactorily achieved, funds/property will be handed back to you and the account closed.

Sounds like a passage from a Buddhist science fiction.

The universe of theories can be postulated in the format of a Tree. Each theory does not exist autonomously. The influential ones tend to coalesce and define what’s common sense, practical and enforceable. The whole arrangement sounds like the work of a lunatic, a prankster or a desperate fraudster, but maybe if we develop the theory of metempsychosis to the fullest until it is inscribed as common sense, a Reincarnation Bank wouldn’t sound so bad. The Catholics have done it with the selling of indulgences.

Related posts:
Economics and Global Climate Change
Notes on the Film “Hero”
Arthur Waley and the Translators of the “Tao Te Ching”

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The Translators of “Tao Te Ching” and Arthur Waley

In book review, critique on July 21, 2009 at 6:01 am

Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese classics are considered the most readable for modern readers. His abridgement of Wu Cheng-en’s The Journey to the West, certainly one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China and which he retitled as Monkey, is praised by Jorge L. Borges (the greatest writer not to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature) as the product of a translator who is simultaneously a sinologist and a man of letters.

I recently finished a version of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching by Waley in the book The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (1934). The Tao Te Ching is composed of 81 short poems talking about the basic principles of Taoism. I have since loved the book after picking up a copy translated by the scholar Stephen Mitchell, who also translated the last version of Bhagavad Gita that I’ve read. Taken on face value, the book of Tao is full of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions, but once the reader has familiarized himself with the iconoclasm of, say, Buddhism and the Zen sect, he will understand the rationale behind these linguistic features.

Waley’s translation of the book, however, is different from his other projects. He admits that the modern reader wanting to read the ancient text for practical ends must look at the version of Richard Wilhelm.  His Tao Te Ching will not try to achieve what Wilhelm’s version has done for the modern reader. Waley reconstructs the ancient book based on historical context in order to capture how it was received by the people during the time of its initial publication. The position of the text is then interpreted side-by-side with the positions of other schools of thought at that time.

There are two kinds of translation. One is historical, the other (as Waley calls it) scriptural. Waley’s version serves the interest of specialists in Chinese literature and sinology. Wilhelm’s version, perhaps like Mitchell’s, is for readers who want to read the book for modern purposes. I have not seen Wilhelm’s translation but Mitchell’s version is surely more readable than Waley’s, but not necessarily better. A reader-friendly translation is not always equal to an accurate one, and the notion of a “best version” depends on the purpose of the translation.

Related posts:
Notes on the film “Hero”
In the mood for Zen
Bhagavad Gita

Notes on the film “Hero”: Milton, Deconstruction, the Tao

In critique, philosophy on July 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

The events in the 2002 film Hero, which was directed by Zhang Yimou, are surely lacking sense in Western paradigms of thought. After all, one story contradicts another, fight scenes do not occur in reality but only in the minds of the fighters, and on top of it all, the film abandons its own genre toward the end when the assassin refuses to do his job.  But I feel that the assassin’s refusal to execute the tyrannical emperor resembles Hamlet’s slowness to kill his father’s murderer — both seemingly passive actions are results of higher thinking.

What can possibly be said when you want to say everything? That’s my problem in discussing Hero. There are at least five main ideas which are related to the discourse and which simultaneously reflect my personal interest on this great film: Taoism, Confucianism, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and deconstruction, semiotics, and narrativism. There is no other martial arts film that elicits this much response. I can only speak in fragments, hypotheses and observations, leaving the “metanarrative” of my arguments (perhaps) to a future essay that will synthesize all these. I have yet to deal with the translation issue, and I suppose that too will be a fruitful endeavor in the discussion. I can only offer the following notes:

1. Hero and the Tao. The protagonist, obviously for lack of a name, is called “Nameless”. In Arthur Waley’s translation of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching or Book of the Way from The Way and Its Power, the eternal Tao “cannot be told” — it is nameless. We are enticed to make a Taoist reading of the final action of Nameless — abandoning the mission essentially constitutes non-action . Action-less activity is one of the central teachings of the book. A Western equivalent, but a poor one, is Hamlet, whose consciousness causes him to “lose the name of action” — like Nameless, Hamlet can be said to have renounced his cause through his delays. Perhaps the Tao is what Nameless, Broken Sword and Emperor Qin simultaneously understand, and which the Western audience may possibly miss because it is too difficult to comprehend.

Taoism is a kind of active disinterestedness with the ways of the world. Central to this doctrine (though it cautions you to forget this very doctrine) is the notion of emptying ourselves of passion, knowledge and morality. Closest to the Tao is the infant and the water. The infant doesn’t know what’s good or bad. The water doesn’t care where it goes, that’s why it’s everywhere. We can interpret the ending (when Nameless refuses to kill the Emperor) as constitutive of Taoist submission — but this is an active rather than a passive submission, since through it we align ourselves with the “power” and the “mystery” which gave birth to the world.

2. Hero and Confucianism. The setting, which is shortly before the construction of the Great Wall of China by Emperor Qin, is a period in Chinese history when the philosophies of the people were bent on establishing the bureaucracy (government routines and ranks) and the education of officials. This was made possible by the Qin kingdom’s efforts to unite all of China under one rule. Confucianism addresses this need, since its primary concern is the moral virtues of the citizens for harmonious politics. Historically, most of the officials of this era were predominantly influenced by the teachings of Confucius in executing their government functions. The uniformity of the Qin army and the court officials constitutes the Confucian element of the film, and the command to execute Nameless is very much in line with Confucianism, which in turn resembles Platonism in the West. Recall the determination of Socrates to drink the hemlock.

3. Hero, “Paradise Lost”, and deconstruction. Catherine Belsey, in an essay introducing Jacques Derrida’s theory (?) of deconstruction, mentions John Milton’s Paradise Lost and how the text may be read by scholars as demonstrating the notion of differance. I believe Milton has already anticipated this notion. From a post on Paradise Lost:

The design of the epic revolves around how we gain knowledge about death, choice, and a sense of good and evil. What ensues is an argument that concepts cannot be construed with a positive term — they must always rely on other concepts, often their opposite. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit because the consequence is death. But how can they make sense of death if it has not yet been introduced in the world? We are thus in a situation where nothing can be known without experiencing it first. The Fall gives us knowledge. To know they are capable of choice, the angels must choose the other term (disobedience), because to remain obedient cannot possibly give rise to that knowledge.

In the same way, Hero is about how we can only start to make sense of things if, and only if, we gain a knowledge of their opposites. The kingdom of Qin is like God’s heaven in Paradise Lost, the assassins are the rebel angels. Though the rebellion was not successful, and though all the rebels’ actions made no difference in terms of real results, their very existence as an antithesis to the kingdom of Qin made the latter meaningful. Without the antithesis, Emperor Qin can never assert his vision of “all under heaven”.

4. Hero and semiotics. The film has been compared to Leni Reifenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will”. Other reviews call it propaganda, a call for radical reunification of modern China. This is only a natural result of the politicizing of the text in semiotics. But I believe a Taoist reading of the film (see #1) will dispel the misinformed criticism that the film is a paean to authoritarianism and tyranny. The renunciation of Broken Sword and Nameless can only be seen as mere passivity in Western paradigms of thought.

5. Hero and narrativism. While Hero is clearly about an assassination plot, it is also about the nature of narratives, why they are told, and who gets to tell them. The movement of events in the film resembles a kind of dialectics of tales — one story sublates the last one, not to cancel it out or contradict it totally, but to contain it in a higher and more complex level. (There’s also a Scheherazade-esque story-within-a-story-within-a-story, a technique we witness in One Thousand and One Nights). The version of Nameless is pitted against the version of the Emperor, and when the latter seems to have won, Nameless revises his version to defeat the Emperor’s. In this story, hardly any battle ever took place on the plane of reality. Some fights were fictional, some imagined, the others probably exaggerated. In this film, the real battle is the battle between narratives. I can almost hear Nameless say, “Fiction and swordplay have the same principle”.

Related posts:
Paradise Lost
In the mood for Zen

Kafka, Borges and Perfection

In book review, literary on July 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm

The following piece, “Before the Law”, is the introductory parable of Franz Kafka: the Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer and with foreword by John Updike. What a powerful hook! The closest literary companion of Kafka is the Argentinian master of labyrinths, Jorge L. Borges. Kafka writes best in parables and short narratives. Borges never published a novel.

The literary figures of Kafka and Borges (not necessarily the empirical authors) are obsessed with perfection.  While Borges pretended that the books he wanted to write have already been written, Kafka never “completed” his stories — i.e. they are complete and perfect in their incompleteness. For these two authors, the notion of literary perfection is in the negative.

I’ve never seen a more perfect preamble for a collection than this:

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tar-tar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many at-tempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts every- thing, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted any- thing.” During these many years the man fixes his at-tention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He for- gets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly, later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contempla-tion of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware t of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a ques-tion he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insati-able.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admit-tance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Related posts:
Argumentum Ornithologicum

In the mood for Zen

In philosophy on July 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

How to transform your pessimism into a resource: see the glass as already broken.

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

The quote is from this source. Another blogger explains the Zen habit:

So when the nice glass you bought inevitably falls and breaks, someday, you might get upset. But not if you see the glass as already broken, from the day you get it. You know it’ll break someday, so from the beginning, see it as already broken. Be a time-traveler, or someone with time-traveling vision, and see the future of this glass, from this moment until it inevitably breaks.

This sounds like the ending of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the hero wakes up from the illusion of time and sees all past, present and future in one object or moment. It’s not simple pessimism, but a glimpse of eternity.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay entitled A History of Eternity, reports about an ancient conception of eternity not as time without end, but the conjunction of all moments. Ludwig Wittgenstein is more parsimonious: eternity is simply the here and now, because it is timeless, and the present moment is always a state of timelessness.

Partial solar eclipse

In Uncategorized on July 16, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Inquirer.net shares this tip for viewing the partial solar eclipse on July 22:

Pagasa said the safest method would be “indirect viewing” through a “pinhole camera” or projecting the image of the sun onto a white piece of paper or a card using a pair of binoculars (with one of the lenses covered), a telescope, or another piece of cardboard with a small hole of about one millimeter in diameter.

I have never seen a clear solar eclipse in real life. I hope the weather in Metro Manila will cooperate.

Against over-enthusiastic clapping during classical concerts

In Uncategorized on July 16, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Jonathan Lennie of Time Out asserts himself against over-enthusiastic clapping during classical concerts. Here is his open letter reblogged from this source:

Dear Loud Clapping Man Who Sits Behind Me At Concerts,

You know who you are: the one who insists on applauding at every opportunity and the clear winner of that solo competition to be the first to clap the moment a piece is over. Now, I’m not averse to audience members showing their appreciation, but this isn’t about the music or the performers, is it? It is all about you – showing off your apparent expertise, reflected by your knowledge of exactly when a work has ended, while others demure, lacking your certainty.

It’s good you have such knowledge, but don’t you realise that the music is not over when the conductor places the last down-beat? There is a silence that concludes the experience, both musically and emotionally. In his book ‘Everything is Connected’, pianist Daniel Barenboim explains: ‘…it is so disruptive when an enthusiastic audience applauds before the final sound has died away, because there is one last moment of expressivity, which is precisely the relationship between the end of the sound and the beginning of the silence that follows it. In this respect music is a mirror of life, because both start and end in nothing.’

So, having sat through a long and profound work, why do you have to start making a racket as soon as you perceive it to be over? Everybody hates you for destroying that moment of spiritual digestion. Pleasingly, I saw a clip of a well known maestro conducting Bruckner’s final symphony. As he lowers his baton for the last time, and the dying notes of that ‘journey of the soul to God’ begin to sink, there you are shouting ‘Bravo!’, shattering the spell, oblivious to what has been expressed. The conductor, though, in a fit of pique snaps his baton in half and storms off.

You don’t have to clap, you know, particularly between movements in a symphony, or songs in a song cycle. You don’t have to reward the performers halfway through (this isn’t opera): they do not expect it and most often resent the intrusion. Two weeks ago in a recital at the Royal Opera House, the baritone Thomas Hampson raised his hand in polite admonition when some members of the audience (were you among them?) felt compelled to applaud between the dark songs of Mahler’s song cycle ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’.

The whole point of movements – something that seems to have escaped Classic FM – is that they form part of a whole. In fact, there have been occasions when the performer prefers that you do not clap at all. At the start of June, for example, Piotr Anderszewski played ‘Gesäng der Frühe’, Schumann’s last completed work before mental illness prevented his composing further. In the programme notes, and a broadcast announcement, the pianist requested that the audience ‘kindly restrain from applauding after the piece’. This is an extreme dictation of ‘appropriate’ behaviour but a good starting point for a debate about when an audience should clap. After it there was a respectful silence, though a few (no doubt, you were one) couldn’t desist from some appreciative coughing.

We live in an age in which everyone is encouraged to express themselves, from inane blogging, Twittering and voting in mediocre talent shows. Please, let’s keep this out of the concert hall. The apotheosis of great music is all about the art. It does not seek acclaim; it only demands that we engage attentively as it speaks to us. The moment of its closure is a shared profundity in which we commune with our humanity.

So, clapping man, please restrain your enthusiasm until the work is genuinely over, otherwise you are interrupting that intimate conversation.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Lennie

Related post:
Music and Metaphysics

Economics and Global Climate Change

In popular economics, reblog on July 15, 2009 at 11:53 am

Conor Clarke, correspondent for The Atlantic, lists the reason why it’s difficult to make sense of global climate change after his interview with Thomas Schelling, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics. Schelling has been recognized in the field of game theory, which is the study of strategic situations. A strategic situation, by layman’s definition, is simply a situation where the outcome of one’s decision is affected by the decision of another party.

The rationale for the interview is to contextualize the issue of global climate change in complicated bargaining agreements among nations. Part one of the interview can be found here. He summarizes the difficulty of making sense of the issue in the following:

1. Any solution to climate change must have a theory for what the present generation owes future generations. That’s hard. How do we weigh the interests of people that don’t yet exist?

2. Any global solution to climate change must take account the fact that the costs of warming will be borne unevenly around the world. Parts of the northwestern United States will actually benefit from a warmer climate. Bangladesh will not. But why should the U.S. care what happens in South Asia?

3. Any solution should account for the fact that the responsibility for global warming is also borne unevenly. The developing world will bear most of the costs, but the developed world bears most of the responsibility. (My understanding is that this will change at some point in the next 50 years.)

4. Related to #2, the world’s ability to adapt to a changing climate is distributed unevenly. It would surprise no one to learn that wealthy nations will have an easier time adapting than poorer ones. So should we allow poorer nations to pursue the most rapid growth possible, before the consequences become dire? Or should we pursue a solution that achieves the maximum possible reduction in global emissions?

5. There is a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen. To be sure: There is no (repeat, no) scientific uncertainty as to whether or not the climate is warming. It is. But the question is, By how much? And when? Will the temperature increase by two degrees Celsius over the next 100 years? Three degrees? Seven degrees? The differences matter.

6. Climate change has an incredibly long time horizon. Any small cost or small chance of a catastrophic outcome must to weighed across hundreds or thousands of years. There is also one-way ratchet here: It isn’t clear everything we change about the climate can be reversed.

7. Global warming asks us to weigh economic factors — growth, GDP — against non-economic ones, like the diversity of species and the amount of arable land on the planet. I have absolutely no clue how to do that.

Thomas Schelling

Related post:
Game Theory of Washing Dishes

Ulysses Seen

In literary on July 15, 2009 at 5:58 am

The Telemachiad or first episode of Ulysses takes place mostly in a Martello tower, involving a mourning Stephen Dedalus (from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), a Falstaffian Malachi Mulligan, and the Oxford man Heines. This is before we meet Mr. Leopold Bloom. A lot of people say it’s the hardest to visualize, since we’re practically “in the middle of nowhere”, regardless of the specificity of setting.

Fortunately, Ulysses illustrated is on the works. The creators are well-versed in the myths, allusions and techniques of the book. I have seen portions of the Telemachiad and all I can say is that they know very well what lines and details to include. Their website includes notes on the production. Here’s a sample from the “who chose this face for me?” scene:

The project is called Ulysses Seen. An illustration can never be a substitute for a book, and I’m sure the creators admit that too. But it’s a great project!

Related post:
Notes on Ulysses

Music and Metaphysics

In academia, philosophy on July 14, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Philosophers have such a high regard for music that even Arthur Schopenhauer, supreme pessimist of the West, ascribes to music the being of the Will. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his first important work entitled The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, interprets this by saying that music is never just an expression — for that would reduce it into an appearance or phenomenon. For him, music is the thing-itself.

Metaphysics is the quest for this irreducible there-ness of entities. The simplest way to understand it is imagining a tree in the middle of the forest, and imagining you are not there — what remains in the forest, while one is absent, is the thing-itself unmediated by consciousness and perception. Any metaphysics is concerned about the tension between appearance (or mere “physics”) and this fabled thing-itself.

Professor David Jonathan Bayot’s 2007 Professioral Chair Lecture talked about music and ontology (a branch of metaphysics) in The Alter Egos of Music, Real Presences, or Being inside a Ripe Green Grape: A Rhapsody on a Theme of Pedagogic Interfaces. The article can be accessed on IDEYA, a journal of humanities published biannually by De La Salle University. The following excerpt develops the arguments of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche using the ideas of Heidegger and Steiner.

What is music, then? What could it be? Steiner, with Heidegger’s Sorge / care within the givenness of Being as Being-towards-Death, declares that “music would stand as the alpha and omega of Sein, of being itself.” Steiner’s allusion to Heidegger’s distinction of Sein as Being “the ‘thereness’ or ‘being of’ an entity, in contrast to Seinde as being that is there as an entity” is not a mere glib to skirt the subject of music out of rational sight. The allusion to such metaphysics of distinction enables Steiner to claim for music an ontic plane of existence that “demonstrates . . . the reality of a presence, of a factual ‘thereness’ which defies either analytic or empirical circumscription,” while, at the same time, an ontological level of existence that opens itself up to “the ‘thereness’ of what lies beyond it.” The ‘thereness’ beyond circumscription has the obstinate texture of Schopenhauer’s ‘will-to-live’ and the invincible aura and aural ‘lightness’ pointing to the ontology of transcendence. And to characterize to one that irreducible ‘thereness’ of music is, for me, to extend an invitation for one to traverse the inscape of a ripe green grape while one dwells on the ‘isness’ of that Being. To put Steiner’s thought in another set of expression, one can say that music, for him, is a phenomenon while, in simultaneity, a phenomenology. In Steiner’s words, in music, “there is a there there.”

Related posts:
Heideggerese
Notes on Ulysses