Saturday, December 4, 2021

Excerpt from my "Agony Ant" column (repost)

[For a brief period I had an "Agony Ant" column at www.kakiseni.com, the funky Malaysian arts portal. It didn't last very long because hardly anyone bothered posting arts-related questions except for Patrick Teoh and somebody signing off as Lazy Sod. However, it did yield some mirthful moments. This is the last item fished out from my archive. After this, I'll be going "live on air"!] 

Dear Uncle Ant, I'm a lazy sod so I'm posting my questions about the Malaysian arts scene here [on the kakiseni.com readers' feedback page]. 1. What is Malaysian Culture? 2. What is Malaysian Arts? 3. What is Malaysian Heritage? 4. Are these compatible with tourism? 

Dear Lazy Sod, Talk about lazy questions, yours are in the same category as: Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here? What Does It Mean To Be Human? If I Find The Answers Will People Pay Top Money To Hear Them? But our excitable editor is correct when he declares that Uncle Ant can answer any and all questions (if he feels like it, that is). Be warned, folks, that you may find the answers to Lazy Sod's questions totally unfunny - because our lack of Culture is certainly no laughing matter. Okay, folks... fasten your seat belts... now for some straight answers to Lazy Sod's 100 million ringgit questions! 

Many decades ago I wrote an article for a newspaper in which I compared "culture" to weaving a fine carpet - that is to say, "culture" means diddly-squat to someone who's sleeping on cardboard cartons under a flyover, or who lives in a leaky zinc-roofed shanty in the slums. But along with material gains and creature comforts comes a nice big house in the suburbs - and a professionally laid parquet or marble floor just waiting for a tasteful carpet to make home look a little cozier. 

Now that's what "culture" represents to most folks who have evolved beyond basic survival: a few original paintings on the walls, a Rhythm-In-Bronze CD playing in the background, and a selection of director-playwrights, soon-to-be-published novelists, or (ahem) theatre reviewers on your birthday party guest list. 

In other words, being “cultured” essentially implies that one has developed an aesthetic sensibility or “good taste” – a prerequisite to acquiring even the rudiments of an ethical sense, without which we cannot govern ourselves and therefore will be governed by others on pain of punishment or through brute force. Can you imagine what life in the social matrix might be like if everyone - including candidates for the police force and the civil service - was exposed from infancy to good (read, uncensored) literature, music, films, theatre, paintings and sculptures? 

How about the traditional culture you might find in, say, a Kelantanese fishing village, or a rice-growing community in Kedah, or a remote longhouse in Sarawak? Doesn't that qualify as "culture"? 

Well, folks, that's where culture begins. Man does not live on rice and tapioca alone. After a hearty meal, we want to relax with a couple of drinks and maybe hear someone with a stirring voice and a string instrument sing about the good old days, or watch the belles of the village do a fertility dance. So there's pop culture and haute culture to consider. 

For instance, would you consider it a cultural experience to hang out at a karaoke lounge with your contractor buddies, 4 bottles of Martell, and 5 GROs (that’s Guest Relations Officer, for the uninitiated)? Well, in Korea and Japan, that's part of the Business Culture - nobody does actual business in boardrooms. And among affluent youth everywhere, culture means Friday night at Zouk with the gang and a good supply of "headshaking" pills. A few years ago, youth culture would have meant a spot of spontaneous breakdancing – and today some fierce skateboarding or rollerblading - outside some mall. In short, let's not get too precious over our definition of Culture. 

But what is MALAYSIAN culture, you ask? Huh? Is there such an animal? I know we have Melayu culture - you know, all the fun stuff banned by PAS, inspired by the Ramayana and whatnot - kite-flying, top-spinning, gong-beating, ketupat-steaming. We also have Chinese culture, especially around the Lunar New Year, you know, tong-tong-chang and red stuff all over the streets. And we have Indian culture - especially in conjunction with Hindu festivals when painted cement gods adorned with multicolored lights are dragged through the streets in their chariots, and folks in trance pierce their cheeks with stainless steel skewers, and lots of coconuts get smashed. Funky, vel vel. But as playwright Huzir Sulaiman astutely remarked in Notes on Life & Love & Painting

It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up. 

Should we bother mentioning the OFFICIAL CULTURE designed and promoted by our tireless bureaucrats - you know, the candle, umbrella, and banana leaf dancers and the stylized silat choreography performed mainly for 65-year-old tourists? Well, that's really just a bowl of wax fruit sitting on the table as some sort of kitsch decoration (hey, don't attempt to eat the stuff, you'll gag and puke!).

I wouldn't call THAT culture - but a definitive symptom of the acute lack thereof. And yet... I can point to a few cultural icons and hold their work up as exquisitely representative of MALAYSIAN culture: the ever popular “Latok” Lat, for a start. And there’s my old friend Salleh Ben Joned the bilingual poet and essayist whose work transcends sterile notions of ethnicity while drawing heavily on ethnic elements. These are forerunners of a younger generation exemplified by the likes of Jit Murad, Huzir Sulaiman, Jo Kukathas and the Instant Café Theatre. 

What do they have in common? A balanced cosmopolitan sensibility that aesthethically merges the “native” and the “foreign” within their own psyches, putting a spicy spin on the rich stew (or should I say curry?) of derivative cultural elements that define being Malaysian. 

Your next question is grammatically unsound and I have every right not to answer it. Nonetheless I’d define “Malaysian arts” as any form of cultural expression practised by anyone born in or residing long-term in Malaysia. (Now some of you, like our nose... I mean nit-picking editor, may be wondering why I described your question - What is Malaysian Arts? - as “grammatically unsound.” Arts is plural and your question addresses a singular issue. 

How would you define ‘Malaysian Arts’? 

Now that’s grammatically sound!) What is Malaysian Heritage? Another grammatically shaky poser, Lazy Sod! But let’s not be too pedantic. Here’s a partial list of what I consider to be our Malaysian Heritage: ancient rainforests, aboriginal peoples, Cristao-speaking Portuguese Eurasians, the Stadthuys (you know, those stodgy red buildings in Malacca), written English and spoken Manglish, Ionic columns, guided democracy, cinema subtitles in 3 languages, Chinese satay sellers and Malay chee cheong fun stalls, not to mention Hakka-speaking Tamils in Kuala Kubu Bharu. 

As for your final question: YES, of course, EVERYTHING is compatible with tourism - we need the foreign currency. In any case, your question comes too late: Tourism is now a separate ministry from Culture, Arts and Heritage. During the Mahathir Era, Arts and Culture were subsumed by Tourism, and artists were seen as entertainers, Guest Relations Officers, and court jesters. Before that, the arts were perceived as a means of keeping hormonally-charged youngsters out of trouble and so we had the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. 

Let’s be grateful for small mercies. I feel the new Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage under Rais Yatim could be a healthy sign. At least it promises to revive the traditional arts suppressed by fundamentalists in Terengganu – and it may well lead to DBKL* being relieved of its censorship duties on humanitarian grounds (poor, overworked City Hall already has enough on its hands, maintaining its fleet of lifeboats in anticipation of the next flash flood). 

______ 
*DBKL = Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur aka City Hall

[First posted 5 December 2006]

Friday, December 3, 2021

Illustrated Puns with a Timely Sense of Purpose (reprise)

Now you know why police are called mata-mata (eyes) in Malay.
First there was Nothing. Then it exploded. Oh yeah?
Is there a link between the colonial impulse & colon cancer?
Some are a bit slow on the uptake.
Is Selangor state a feudalism, I wonder? Think I'll PAS on this one!
Some say this hat rack once belonged to Samuel Beckett.
Remember, there are always greater forces at work.
Don't the police have better things to do?
He even survived being grilled by a military tribunal.
An apt metaphor for our current state of political apathy.

Thanks to Olivia de Haulleville who forwarded the puns.  
I just chose the images & provided the captions.

[First posted 25 August 2014 & 11 December 2019]

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Road To Radiant Health (revisited)

On his deathbed Tim Leary was asked if he had any regrets whatsoever. His candid answer: "I really should have done a lot more fucking."

The 1980s saw a puritanical backlash that came in the guise of a new scare - AIDS. In the late 1970s herpes was the "in-thing"... but somehow it didn't really catch on as a deterrent to guilt-free and uninhibited eroticism. AIDS, on the other hand, was sufficiently life-threatening to frighten a whole new generation of teenagers into accepting "safe sex" as routine practice.

There are women now in their late 30s and early 40s who have NEVER once experienced lovemaking WITHOUT a condom! How sad. Follow the money and who's laughing all the way to the bank? That's right... the condom manufacturers (who have inflated prices about 600% since the AIDS scare started).

I want to state in print that this puritanical backlash has generated a dangerous level of psychopathology amongst the overall human population - which may explain why violence, rape, and sexual murders seem to be dramatically on the rise. More police patrols and electronic surveillance are DEFINITELY not the solution.... and the rapid proliferation of porn sites won't solve the problem either. Indeed, it completely defeats the purpose of healthy erotic practice, which is Nature's most powerful prophylactic. When you're getting well and truly and ecstatically laid (in other words, utterly without fear or guilt) your immune system gets a real shot in the arm. Your hair looks and feels better, and your breath is always fresh. And you regain a wholesome perspective on LIFE... which means you will no longer tolerate any form of external authority. In short, you attain psychic and emotional maturity. I know Wilhelm Reich said pretty much the same thing 80 years ago... and was MURDERED while under custody in a U.S. jail for his efforts to free humanity of its State-induced robotism. Bless you, Willy. Long live the Fourth Reich!!!!

[First posted 3 January 2007, reposted 3 December 2018 & 4 December 2019]


Monday, November 29, 2021

a concise but accurate & comprehensive account of the universe


PART ONE

“The Universe?”

“The Universe.”

With the resounding vigor of an apoplectic horse, the portly priest blew his nose and tossed the soggy ball of tissue paper towards a handwoven rattan wastebasket. He missed, though this escaped his notice and, wiping the tip of his nose with the back of a pudgy hand, he said:

“You will please excuse my cold. Even we physicians of the soul are not exempt from viruses, ha ha!” The laugh came from his throat and his face was still red from the effort. “Ah… what was the question again?”

“I asked what your conception was of the Universe, Father.”

“Yes, yes… but, my son, I have no conception. I am merely God’s instrument. I serve no purpose but that which He has determined for me. If you ask me for a conception of the Universe, I can only tell you that which I have learned from reading God’s Word.”

“And what is that?”

The priest carefully pressed the tips of his fat fingers together: “The Universe is God’s masterpiece in harmony. Everything that exists is purposed by its Creator. It is the sum-total of His infinite wisdom.”

“That’s most lucid, Father.”

“Good. And may I add, my son, since God is perfect, the Universe is perfect, too.”

“Perfect? But, Father, I don’t quite see how.”

“Ah, but you are young, my son, and only a mortal. For the day you can understand God’s mysterious ways you will be more exalted than the angels.”

“Do you mean to say, Father, even flies and bacteria that cause disease have a purpose; that even an asteroid traveling endlessly in the void of deep space has a purpose?”

“You have an eager young mind, my son. That is good. But as I told you, God is omniscient! Nothing He creates is without purpose; only you might not see that purpose in this earthbound plane of existence.”

“Then even death has a purpose, Father?”

“Death, and the process that follows it, is the initial step towards the ultimate understanding of God’s Perfect Plan.”

“Are you saying there can be no purpose in life but only in death?”

“No, my son, no, no… One can always try to lead a good, Godfearing life in order that death may be accepted as an occasion for rejoicing rather than mourning. Life, my son, is part of the terrible test God our Father has set for us, and the only way you can show your love and devotion is to do well in that… at… at… atchoo!” A deafening sneeze drowned his last words.

The priest dried his bloodshot eyes on the sleeve of his satin surplice, sniffing noisily. “I am sorry, my son, um, where was I?”

“Oh, it’s quite all right, Father. I want to thank you for answering my questions. I was very impressed.”

"Of course, my son. I enjoyed chatting with you. By the way, I don’t recall seeing your face in my church. Are you by chance a Presbyterian, perhaps?”

“No, I’m a student.”

“Good, good, very good.” He sighed and stopped a sneeze by inhaling violently. “Well, my son, go with God.”

PART TWO

“The Universe, dear boy, can exist only when all the cosmic forces are in equilibrium.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite comprehend, sir.”

“Ah, I see.” The wizened metaphysician curled his silver goatee around a thin, graceful finger. “Ah, I see, I see.”

There was an uneasy silence as the student waited for the great scholar to continue. The metaphysician was preoccupied with trying to tie a knot in his goatee.

“Er… what I mean is, sir, well, I don’t exactly see what you mean.”

“Let me put it this way, my dear boy.” A sudden spark appeared in the old scholar’s eyes. “The entire Universe functions on a very fundamental basis of balance. In everything you can detect the same pattern, from the ultra-microscopic to the super-telescopic.”

“Pattern?”

“Yes. Definitely. Existence is possible as a consequence of the equilibrium produced by conflicting forces: Life and Death, Light and Dark, Black and White, Abundance and Scarcity, Good and Evil, Truth and Falsehood, Happiness and Misery, Male and Female, Mountain and Valley, High and Low, Large and Small, Hot and Cold, Yin and Yang… can you perceive the pattern?”

“Well, yes… vaguely.”

“Can’t you see? It is the constant conflict of all those Forces that results in the balance essential to the very existence of the Universe. The ultimate aim of every single existence is to attain that perfect state of equilibrium – inertia! Yes, inertia! The very basis of being is a ceaseless struggle to attain inertia. Continuity, perpetuity, coiling and uncoiling. The completion of the circle. Inertia.”

The metaphysician broke off in a spasm of dry, convulsive coughs. When the attack was over he took a long sip from the glass of sherry on his desk, muttering an excuse that it was good for his cough. Clearing his throat, he continued:

“Can you not grasp the inexorable pattern that governs the Cosmos? Does it not overwhelm you to merely think about it?” He broke off, coughing again.

“Forgive me, dear boy, I am at a loss for words. I cannot help choking with fulfilment each time I see the vast intricacies of the Universe fall so effortlessly into one immense, awesome, sublime pattern…”

“This is certainly most fascinating, sir. But what exactly do you mean by inertia? Isn’t it a continual state of being?”

“You may call it that if you wish. You see, an object that is immobile wishes to remain so; one that is in motion is reluctant to change its course or to stop. Similarly, a person who is alive desires to remain so, but once death puts an end to his life, he has entered a new state of being – or non-being – and will desire to remain dead. And since death is, to all intents and purposes, continual, death is inertia.”

“You said that everything in the Universe strives for inertia. Do you mean that everything desires death?”

The metaphysician uncurled his goatee and allowed it to spring back to its original position. He scratched his chin, and a thin smile crept across his ascetic face. He coughed goodnaturedly.

“That, my dear boy, is a good question… however, I’m afraid I don’t feel at all my usual self and shall have to interrupt this absorbing dialogue, much to my regret, and get some badly needed rest.”


PART THREE

“When we speak of the Universe, we are of course referring to the lifeforms that occupy it, no?”

“Lifeforms?”

“The Universe is nothing without Life. So don’t you agree that in considering the Universe as a Whole…”

“As a hole? I don’t really follow you there, doctor.”

“Jcchk, I mean to say… instead of considering the Universe as an abstract concept, we might be better off discussing LIFE, per se, ja?”

“But how about the billions of lifeless stars and other celestial bodies that comprise the Universe? Don’t they matter?”

“Definitely. You are assuming, no doubt, that there is no life outside of the planet Earth. In the study of biology that could be a most misleading assumption. We must think of life in other forms besides those familiar to us, you see.”

“Yes, I see what you’re getting at.”

“So you understand what I mean when I say we should think of the Universe in terms of the lifeforms that inhabit it, am I correct? Okay, good. Now, everyone knows that survival is the greatest aim of all living things, no? Nothing exists if Life does not exist. Therefore, Life is the most important urge in the Universe. You will further observe that in order to preserve Life by perpetuating their species, all living things undergo reproduction of some sort; and then, to ensure the survival of their offspring, these living things die, so that there will be no lack of space and the cyclical regeneration of nutritive matter can occur. It is a neverending process which has gone on, and will go on and on infinitely. Life… then death… and life again as a result of death. Astounding, no?”

“Astounding, yes!”

Clucking affectionately, the biologist focused his microscope on a glass slide where an amoeba was wobbling along determinedly, trapped within a drop of fluid. “Ah, my little Mabel – she is a veritable miracle of unicellulation, ja?”

The student bent over the microscope to take a look.

“And yet,” the biologist went on, “she is the unique epitome of Life itself! She need never fear age nor senility, for she merely splits in two, then four, then eight. She knows no death… unless, of course, the water bubble she is swimming in evaporates without warning.”

He reached for a glass of drinking salts which had ceased effervescing; a powdery white precipitate lined its bottom. “I have the acid in my system,” he remarked. Then he licked his lips, made a face, and carried on:

“Alas! With multicellulation, complexity, and what we call evolutionary sophistication, death has entered the picture. No complex lifeform can expect to live indefinitely; and, the fact is, its struggle for survival benefits not itself but its offspring. And the same goes for its offspring: they fight to exist for the sake of their offspring, and so on. Sad but true, Life cannot be without Death. This is the Universal Paradox.”

The biologist seemed pleased with this statement, and gulped down the rest of his drinking salts without a grimace.

“I’m sorry, doctor, but I don’t believe I understood that last bit. What you said about life being an offshoot of death. Is that what you mean?”

“Life springs from death. Death springs from life. Ach, but who cares, after all, ja? We limit our consideration to Life only. That is a much brighter prospect, no?”

“Yes, I agree, but I’m still puzzled by what you said about there being no life without death…”

“Or no death without life, put it anyway you like. It is the same, I think.”

“Let us talk about your conception of death, then, doctor.”

“Ach, ach, no, no, no! Remember, biology is the study of living things. If you wish to know about death, consult a mortician, ha ha ha!”


PART FOUR

The Professor’s face was crimson. He wasn’t angry. He had high blood pressure, and everyone kept saying he ought to take a rest. But he was an obstinate old coot. “My work is more important,” he insisted. He was fond of defining and measuring the importance of things.

“Oh, good morning, Professor.”

“Yes, yes, good morning, if you say so. It’s much too humid for pleasantries.”

“Er, Professor, I’ve done the research. Here’s the paper I’ve written.”

“Ahhh. Your thesis. Let’s have a look… Hmmmmm, a little on the short side, I’m afraid." He shook the paper in the student's face and continued: “Short indeed! A long way from what one might classify as verbose, hmmm. Extraordinarily compact, in fact. Hmmmmm, let’s see…”

The student self-consciously lit a cigarette and tried not to notice the strange expression on the Professor’s face as he read the essay. But he couldn’t help observing that the old man’s face had reddened even more. He half expected the Professor to explode with something like: “This puerile jest fails to amuse me!”

However, the Professor was quite restrained, knowing how important it was to keep calm. His white, brittle hair stood out in stark contrast with his flushed face.

“Aha! Aha! What’s this? Quote: There is no Universe without Life. Life is a glass of wine and death the dregs that await at the bottom. The Universe is the wine, the dregs, the glass, the drinker, and the Thirsty Soul that oscillates between ecstasy and despondency, replenishing her vessel in perpetuity. Unquote…”

The Professor’s wry smile was almost humorous. “Which reminds me, “ he said, looking up from the essay and reaching for a bottle of port from the tray beside him. “May I offer you a tipple?”

The student politely declined, clearing his throat somewhat neurasthenically. He had a maniacal urge to leap out the window and get away from the Professor and his stuffy office.

“Life is a glass of wine, eh?” said the Professor, lifting the glass of port to his lips with a raised pinkie. He let out a weary sigh. “Rather interesting, I must admit. Even poetic, but I’m afraid rather inconclusive and vague, to say the least. Hmmmmm…”

The Professor turned the glass round in his heavily veined hand, absently studying the ruby liquid. “You have omitted a very important thing no essay should ever be without. You have not specified the essence of your concepts relative to your allegorical argument, and this seriously weakens your thesis.”

The Professor sighed again, as though in pain, and said, more softly now: “Body… and substance… that is what’s lacking. Rather inconclusive, I’m afraid.”

Then he gulped down the port, which ostensibly cheered him, for he looked up at the student and smiled his usual sanguine smile.


Text & Illustrations © Antares, 1967 & 2015

Joseph F. Martino, Jr in 1968
Joseph F. Martino, Jr (who studied Literature at Cornell under the tutelage of Vladimir Nabokov) taught creative writing at West Essex High School, New Jersey, in the 1960s. 

As a 17-year-old exchange student I happened to enrol in Joe's class in the fall of 1967 and this was my first attempt at a short story. It now comes across as a naïve and pretentious foray into the nebulous domains of epistemology and ontology, but since Joe very generously gave me an 'A' for it, I'll be brazen and publish it here for archival interest - and as a tribute to a truly dedicated mentor I shall never forget.

[First posted 23 August 2015, reposted 4 July 2017 & 18 November 2019]