Wednesday, November 15, 2017

RELATIVITY IS NO THEORY (updated)

Almost everything is relative, isn’t it? Spent the better part of my life peeling off layers of middle-of-the-road, middle-class programming (my dad subscribed to Reader’s Digest and sometimes bought their mail-order compilations of bland music). Yup, I fancied myself some exotic species of Bohemian. But where I live now - in an Orang Asli resort village in the jungly heart of the peninsula – I’m certainly the most middle-class person around. How many other households here actually have peanut butter and toilet paper on their shopping lists? Indeed, nobody else in Pertak Village has even heard of a shopping list.

I take a measure of pride, though, in the fact that ours is perhaps one of three houses without a TV aerial. My daughter did offer me Astro once but I didn’t want to pay a monthly fee only to get high blood pressure from watching the Bulldog Broadcasting Corporation and the Crap News Network and the icky ooze of putrid commercials. No doubt if highspeed broadband ever comes to the wilds of Ulu Selangor and I can actually stream Netflix, I might just relent and get hooked up - or simply hooked. After all, I’ve already long relented on electronic word processing, the internet, cellular phones, emails and SMSes. In fact, I’m really quite impressed by digital tech.

In my early teens I thought my musical taste was pretty outré (that’s French for astonishing and bizarre). I was picking up records by Edgard Varèse, Conlon Nancarrow, Terry Riley, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra (pictured left). The Beatles made pop respectable for me, and I began to ease off on movie soundtrack albums and progressive jazz à la Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus after turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. When a brain-damaged sociopath stole my entire LP collection a few years ago, I figured it was high time I updated myself on the contemporary music scene. However, try as I might, I just couldn’t get into hip-hop, rap, or techno – and death metal made me wish entire sections of the human race would die horribly, especially those generating the noise. Another sign of maturity, I sighed, acknowledging my thinning top and thickening middle in the mirror. But the truth was, I now qualified as a mainstream musical conservative – not unlike that snooty classical music reviewer who once dismissed as “fluff” everything written after 1856.

Not long ago I ventured into a fashionable chill-out joint (more like a low-budget sauna it was) where the in-crowd let their hair down (and their deodorized sweat out) twitching to b&d (bass & drums) and brainless dj scratching and a whole slew of absolutely soulless post-industrial neo-existential yuppie punkfunk. Didn’t do a thing for me. Why can’t they play some really sexy Senegalese m’balax? Or some truly inspired millennial techno-rap like 1 Giant Leap? Could this possibly be the unfortunate result of being born in the 1980s and having to listen to the dumbest music in the history of the Universe? Or just a long-term side effect of chlorinating and fluoridating the water supply?

“De gustibus non est disputandum,” the goddamn Romans used to quip. Can you figure that out? That’s right. There’s no disputing taste. Perhaps not, if everything is relative after all. But I’m still convinced that after a couple of generations, humans who habitually ingest fast foods are bound to suffer acute tastebud damage.

I’ve often been accused of being an “intellectual.” Excuse me, that’s not at all an accurate description, even if I do have a penchant for polysyllables. But I now accept all labels, having learnt to peel them off before the glue dries. Now, the late dramaturge Krishen Jit - bless his huggable soul, may he relish his new job as Director of the Cosmic Theater of the Absurd – he was my definition of an intellectual. Somebody who can’t help conceptualizing reality. Yet, it sometimes occurs to me that if I had been living in China during the so-called Cultural Revolution, I’d probably have been frogmarched to a labor camp and forced to grow kumquats on stony ground, even though I don’t wear half-inch thick glasses (Look, Ma, no contacts either!).

One of my childhood heroes was the Russian-Armenian magician G.I. Gurdjieff (pictured right), who enjoyed calling humans “those two-legged, three-brained beings.” There were no microchips or computers in Gurdjieff’s day, and nobody had heard of nanotech, or he might have said “four-brained beings.” However, Gurdjieff pointed out that to be whole beings we must connect our thinking, feeling, and moving centers and keep them functioning in dynamic equilibrium. The thinking center is located in our brain and neural circuitry. The feeling center is our emotional core, the metaphorical heart, where we experience empathy and compassion. The moving center is combination of ego, libido, and animal instinct (the solar plexus, sacral, and root chakras, if you’re familiar with such concepts).

An overactive moving center makes us dangerously and mindlessly impulsive (shoot first, talk later). Isolating ourselves in the ivory tower of the thinking center makes us Hamlets, beard-stroking theoreticians. And being stuck in the feeling center makes us compulsive consumers of melodrama (condemned to Drama Minggu Ini week after week).

Yup, it’s all a question of relativity. And you have to go through a hellish amount of relativity - demonstrating Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle over and over again - before you arrive at that point of Absolute Certainty where latitude and longitude intersect. But, have no fear, we’ll all get there yet. Then, finally, we’ll be able to hang a sign on our front door that says: NO RELATIVES, ONLY ABSOLUTES!

[Originally published in the May 2005 issue of VIDA! First posted 8 January 2007]

No comments: