Why We Should Write

February 24, 2009

If as a writer, I try to write because I will say something new that has not been expressed by someone writing before me, then I am going to find myself at a loss pretty quickly. Whatever the troubles and joys of human life, they have already been expressed by writers before us. We do not have to look any further past the works of writers, thinkers, philosophers, historians and commentators of the last thousand years of human civilization to convince ourselves that all the great ideas covering how human beings conceive of themselves, of the societies they live in and of their place in this Universe, have been expounded upon extensively and in many languages. Why then would I, a writer, continue to forge my craft today?

All writers are chroniclers, of their times and of the language of their times. Writers do not conceive of anything on their own; they merely offer insights into the way things are. The truth of how people behave is evident in their actual behavior and it is the writers’ job to dredge this out of the swirling currents of human interactions. Without the writers being around to assess and explain the salient aspects of human society, our descendants will have no idea what our lives were like, and what we hoped for, and what we hated every day, and what gave us joy, and to what we gave love.

So even if writers cannot say anything new about humanity that their literary predecessors have not already written about, they still have to employ their talents out of a sense of their responsibility towards future generations.

A History Of Wounded Afghani Pride

February 22, 2009

Barnett Rubin writes an amazing account of his work with Afghani governments in the post-9/11 era, for the Boston Review. He picks just the right details from the history of this tortured country to give us a very human portrait of what’s been going wrong there for more than 30 years now.

As Manan Ahmed observes elsewhere:

It is one sad casualty of our current myopia that we are interested only in the monolithic account of Soviet-Afghan war and the “Talibanization” and continue to stress “top-down” factors in our analysis.

The New Great Game of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, while not necessarily imposing a particular great power’s direct control over the region, has essentially been a process of destroying a strong central government in Afghanistan in order to keep their options open, as it were. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to have a more pliable ruler there, so that they could more easily counter American influence in Pakistan. The Pakistanis encouraged radical Islamist militants in their fight against the Soviets because they were afraid that the nationalism of the more liberal Afghani would lead to loss of territory around the disputed, century-old, Durand Line. The Americans were interested in destroying the Taliban in order to drive the Al-Qaeda out or at least underground. What every one failed to do was provide the region with some form of centralized bureaucracy and administration — even if it wasn’t democratic — so that a movement could be made towards the creation of liberal institutions and a more globalized form of economy. Without either of these, Afghanis have no incentive to move away from tribalism and bonds of local clans.

This situation, perversely, leads to an argument for an increased engagement with Afghanis in terms of the tribalism that they have been forced by many decades of Western intervention of the most haphazard kind, to reluctantly embrace. In Senator Clinton’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, Chairperson of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, says:

We have not, I think — we honored tribalism when we dealt with the Northern Alliance and initially went in to Afghanistan. We really haven’t adequately since.

What Sen. Kerry probably doesn’t realize is that “honoring tribalism” is merely a short-term strategy that doesn’t address, and in fact probably exacerbates, the underlying problem in Afghanistan, which is the lack of a central government.

What Afghanistan has lost, as a result of this neglect of the West, is a way of life that will probably never return, a way of life that Rubin, in his article, briefly alludes to when he mentions lunching

… in a private room in the rear of the Marco Polo restaurant, where Malikyar [a friend of Rubin’s] father had run a night club in Kabul’s swinging sixties.

This era in Afghani history was the pride of its elite, an elite that could have been seen as an anomaly in a largely rural and Islamic region, but it could also have been an elite that could have provided a way forward for the region into true nationhood, had it not been betrayed on multiple occasions by the short-sightedness of those who needed Afghanistan as merely a base for pursuing larger power struggles that had nothing to do with the population of the region.

It is an unimaginable blow to the hopes of the Afghani elite that has been struck. For people in the West, who might look fondly back on the Sixties, as an era of unparalleled experimentation and permissiveness, the current age is merely an inconvenience or irritation in its return-to-roots fervor. But for Afghanis, the difference is one of life and death, sometimes literally, and always in a spiritual sense. What has been lost will possibly never be recovered. Such a loss is a true tragedy, because it is a loss without any complementary gain. They have been stripped of their old identities but have no comfort in a new one — at best, they can show each other fading photographs in the comfort of suburban dwellings in various Western countries that have offered them refuge.

Irony: Makes Its Entrance

February 19, 2009

The Onion is what brings it all together. Through the emergence and history of this magazine, we, all of us, the writers who live in this country, understand what we are doing — we, the writers, foreign and native, of this country — we are swimming in the currents of ironic existentialism, and by God, we are enjoying ourselves as we do it.

For every one of us, whether we originate from a culture outside of this one, or from one that’s embedded within the United States, The Onion embodies the experience of coming out to irony. We are not born ironic, for we are born to our own true selves. This self is something we are chained to, clad in, from the moment of our conception. This self is the reflection in ourselves of the glad, hopeful, faces of our parents. These parents, no matter where their provenance, are not ironic. They are unboundedly sentimental, and their sentimentalism is the progenitor, and arch-enemy, of the irony that will be forever part of our lives. They are sentimental because they have just suborned themselves to the most basic of human needs, the need to give birth to the perpetrator of their genetic inheritance. In this need are bound together their deepest biological and spiritual imperatives — to have after them something made in their own image.

And The Onion is the most subversive of retorts — that this imperative, and everything else they stand for, that all any one can stand for, is open to ridicule and to questioning.

Where else in this world can this impressively impertinent idea survive, untouched and unchallenged by any Bowdlerization, any politically-correct vendetta, any fatwa or jihad? Why, but in the United States, where the ultimate expression of political and economic empire dictates that self-introspection, so indistinguishable from self-cartooning, should be the uber-apothegm of self-expression!

And it is only in this supremely reigning culture, the only culture that can produce something like The Onion, can any other culture arrive to express itself fully, to understand itself fully, to identify itself fully. The Chinese are not Chinese in China; they are Chinese only in the United States because only here is their essential nature open to comparison, competition and caricature, with other cultures. There are no hyphens more pervasive, more in-your-face, than those that carry in their hindparts, that dread word: “American.” There are no Jamaican-Finns, nor any Japanese-Nigerians. But there are hyphenated Americans of every faith and geography, and in this truth lies the power of American cultural hegemony.

From The Deathbed Of An Old Man

February 16, 2009

I see all their faces, heavy with grief,

And realize that their grief is meant for me,

But I cannot do anything to stop it.

Their grief has a life of its own that is now

Detached from the object of mourning,

Which lies here, in turns, patient, penitent,

And sometimes just plain annoyed.

On Being At Home

February 16, 2009

A few months ago, I wrote down a note to myself: Home is where you can be a failure. That thought is haunting me a lot recently because I have been “unsuccessful” in various ways — I was laid off twice last year, and I have been seriously disappointed in general at my ability to understand and participate in most human interactions, including but certainly not limited to, my relationship with my girlfriend. While in this mood, I thought about what it means to always have to be employed while in the United States, and how that necessitated being emotionally and mentally alert, stable and competent. It is as if the immigration laws of this country were written to only let normal and stable people work here; those who cannot be the “best and brightest” have to pay the penalty for their lackadaisicalness and indolence by returning to their home country. Over there, presumably, I can let myself go as much as I want, and no one can really do anything except hope that I will either shake myself out of it or be forced to work out of indigence, shame, a sense of filial, matrimonial or parental duty or some combination of the above.

I just read a book that was written by another immigrant to the United States, a man named Aleksandar Hemon. He came here from Bosnia, or Serbia, or one of those war-torn countries where for a while, the ethnic strife became a global theater of blood-engorged horror. He had it easy in coming here — he pointed to Bosnia (or Serbia) and said, my home is no more, and they believed him. He wasn’t a famous, New Yorker-published writer then, so they didn’t keep him because he was known to be industrious and capable of having a normal, mainstream life. In fact, seeing as how his brethren back at home were ripping each other’s throats out, or pumping sniper bullets into each other’s hearts and lungs, at that very moment, the immigration officials could well have been excused for turning Mister Hemon back under grounds of being a potential vector of homicidal lunacy.

As it happens, they let him stay on, so that he could, after a suitable series of circumstances, involving the inculcation of enough English to allow his natural talents as a writer to emerge in his adopted tongue, produce a not-inconsiderable body of work in a language he wasn’t born to speak. Having read, and been entranced by, a short story of his in the New Yorker, I picked up his latest book, The Lazarus Project.

The book’s basic structure is that the narrator, Vladimir Brik, is working on a research project involving one Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who escaped pogrom back home (for him, home was where you could be buried alive or simply bludgeoned to death for being born into a certain religion) to arrive on the shores of the United States and thence to the ghettos of Chicago. In parallel, Hemon weaves the story of Brik himself who, upon fortuitously receiving some foundation grant money to pursue this project, decides that the best way to spend it would be to travel himself to the city in Moldova where the eponymous Lazarus was from and learn more about the circumstances that caused Lazarus to flee. Of course, it makes sense that this journey becomes a sort of homecoming for Brik too — he is, after all, from a part of the world that isn’t that far away from the scene of this turn-of-the-century iniquity. During the journey, we learn gradually more about the narrator’s own ambiguous relationship with his foster-motherland, a relationship reflected in all-too-real terms in his marriage to a woman from a mid-Western family, representing in her general attitude of self-exceptionalism, the vaunted purity of American idealism. She “suffers,” Brik keeps telling us, “from a surfeit of good intentions,” as does her father, though his moralizing turns him into a stern and unyielding father who the children naturally come to hate, in that peculiar way that Americans have of almost reflexively turning against the values of the previous generation, almost every generation, creating a cycle of liberalism and conservatism that works with the same sense of deadly clockwork as does the country’s business world.

Meanwhile, Brik’s research subject has crossed paths him, in a literary sense, by coming to America from the place Brik is headed to. He has landed unwittingly in a time and place that is going to be very dangerous for him, because the ghettos are under fire from virulent anti-immigrant sentiment. In fact, the novel itself opens with a spectacular shoot-out in which an unarmed and plainly very innocent Lazarus has just been butchered to death by Chicago’s Chief of Police. Brik’s utter disdain for and cynicism about authority in its many forms spews out of the pages almost from page one, both in his descriptions of the conditions under which the murder has taken place, as well as in his assessment of social mores in more modern America. The parallels between the spectre of anarchism then and the bugaboo of terrorism now are plain.

Of course, things are no less dangerous in other parts of the world, where terrorism is, if not exactly a predictable and regular event like the neighborhood farmer’s market, at least something more real than a political sound bite for talk shows and State of the Union addresses. Brik is on a perilous trip and Hemon reminds us constantly that the erstwhile republics of the Soviet Union are a capricious place, perhaps partly to contrast with the humdrum orderliness of ordinary life in the United States, and perhaps also because this is his strongest sense of what it was like to live in the satellite worlds of Soviet power. He and his traveling companion, a sometimes laconic, sometimes irrepressible man named Rora, are always surrounded by hulking men, who seem to be perpetually on the verge of committing a crime, of running away from one or at the very least, having just planned one. These are the people who are “all now,” Brik muses, whereas he is himself, being a writer researching a dead history, much more in the past.

At some point, because this is a post-modern novel of sorts, the two story lines collide in even more of a literary sense than the one I’ve already mentioned. Hemon glides effortlessly from dialogues between his “real life” characters to thoes between the “fictionalized historical” ones. The fears of one set of travelers who are outsiders looking into a fearful world where they were once insiders and would still be mistaken for it were it not for their shields of invincibility — their American passports — meld with those of the set who are desperate to be inside a world that both fears and welcomes them for being outsiders.

Though the characters I’ve described here might seem like caricatures who will pall after a few pages, the book is anything but boring or cliched. The Adventures of Brik And Rora, which might have well been a working title, engulf you all the way through to the end in their madcapness, even after you have fully imbibed Brik’s, and Hemon’s, point that around where they are wandering, the distinctions between nations are largely administrative — as far as the people and their attitudes go, it might well be one vast stretch of Fuck-Youistan. Yet, Hemon creates just enough space in the interstices of the borders he crosses and fills it with just the right mix of sardonic humor, violent anger, mordant self-deprecation and philosophical brilliance, all emanating mostly from Brik but also from Rora who acts as his foil, that you never feel like skipping past the boring bits about the museums and parks, for a cursory glance at the last part of the travelogue, where you can find listed the cheap places to eat and pick up a whore at. And it is hardly a spoiler here to say that in the end, everything is resolved, in some sense, not because characters are necessarily transformed, or are transported through their personal epiphanies but because they make a grand choice, a choice between life and death, in a manner that only the characters of really good novels can.

In an interview many years ago, David Foster Wallace said that writing used to be about “taking people to foreign lands and exotic cultures and giving … access to worlds they didn’t have access to.” Now, he said, (and his “now” was about fifteen years ago, in this interview,) things had turned around a 180 degrees, because everybody was familiar with every place, so writing had to exoticize and distance everything. What Hemon does is to perform both tasks — his lands are both familiar and strange; his characters both improbable and eminently believable.

Perhaps one place Hemon fails to perform this sort of magical melding is in his thoughts of the country that he, and the obviously semi-autobiographical Brik, now call home. Brik reminds us on multiple occasions of the perniciousness of idealism — the idealism of religion, personified by the life and decisions of “Mister Christ,” as he refers to the Christian messiah; and of course, the idealism of the United States, which transmogrifies frequently into naked and ugly power, uglier when more naked. It is an idealism into the fold of which his father-in-law and wife are portrayed as relentless in bringing him. Brik’s bile shows the most when he ruminates on the world he has (temporarily) left behind on his trip — but slapping into senselessness the subtleties of the American point of view into such doesn’t do his case any good. It is a show of demagoguery that would sound more natural from a disgruntled jihadi or an unreformed Communist — is Brik merely harboring an intense resentment of the United States for having been against his side of the war in the former Yugoslavian nation; or it is just the pressure of a failing, perhaps ill-advised, marriage merely “acting out”? It’s never clear, nor does Hemon clarify this situation for us, leaving America a rather trumped-up villain straight out of a Punch magazine sketch.

The Lazarus Project is worth reading because it represents a good example of what happens when someone with cross-cultural sensibilities puts his consciousness into literary creation. The questions in the Project are still existential but they are keenly aware of the real history of immigration and globalization — for most of us, home is merely an accident, a skin thrown over us in the haste of our creation, and it’s an accident that we come to terms with and to celebrate. For others, finding a home is one of the ends of life itself, rather than the means of living it. For every one who has been on that journey, Hemon’s Project is a voice in support.

Cast of Villains: Chinese Currency Manipulation

February 13, 2009

Easy liquidity: fault of under-valuation of dollar, or of the yuan? Is it the monetary policies of the U.S. or of China that fueled the housing boom?

WSJ, Jan 26th, 2009, says it’s the US. But another conservative rag, the WaPo, has a columnist complaining: “The mortgage bubble reached its craziest extremes in 2005-07, when China was flooding the world with cheap capital.”

If My Mother Knew Any Technology…

February 11, 2009

I am thankful that my mother is essentially unaware of anything momentous that has happened in the world after, say, 1975, pretty much the year after I was born. She gave birth to me and retreated thereupon into this domestic world, and I don’t think she even has read any recipes written after 1980, leave alone anything about new technologies invented since then. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and my mother has some vague notion of it as a historical event, but she couldn’t have cared less if they had let it stand. If pressed, she’d probably wonder if they had thought of putting some more doors in it.

But I count my blessings here, because if she had known how much the human race had achieved in the last three decades, especially in the field of computing technology, she’d be berating me for not having invented more of it.

“Transistor? You ever heard of transistor? Extremely simple device, you use your basic semi-conducting material to be able to hold charge for a limited period of time, and from that to representing first order logic through the absence or presence of electrical current is such a simple step. You know why you didn’t think of it? Because you are dating white woman. And are not married yet.”

For my mother, marriage is a panacea, because it supposedly puts your mind in this magic state of bliss and fortitude combined so that you can take on any challenge the world has to offer. Ford every mountain, cross every stream, that sort of thing. Once you have figured out how to be married, or I suspect, merely how to get married, there’s something about how your neurons will arrange themselves that you can then achieve anything else you might set your mind to. For my mother, if you are the kind of guy who has taken on the regular responsibilities of putting out the garbage and planning trips to India with a baby and a pregnant wife in tow, why, at this point you could write a letter to the President telling him you know how to bring about peace in the Middle East, and he will believe you! “He’s managed to find the cheapest fare to India three summers in a row; he could fix Social Security on his next layover in Singapore, I know it!”

If my mother knew about Star Trek, she would be blaming humanity’s failure to create real teleportation technology on me.

Pakistan As Playground: Some More Notes

February 4, 2009

Quite coincidentally, after I wrote a post yesterday on the prospective state of American engagement with Pakistan over the next few years, I ran into the online issue of a magazine coming out of India that has a round-up of opinions of the geopolitical future of Pakistan.

There are nine op-ed articles in this round-up, intended to be written as thought experiments, looking ahead and wondering what Pakistan will look like eleven years from now. The selection seems pretty diverse, if rag-tag, from commentators in India to an extract from a 2004 book by Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute. Unfortunately, all the energies poured into the collation of these pieces doesn’t provide us with much fruitful insight — we get a general consensus on the cast of characters who are throwing their weight around on this stage, and a bunch of wishful thinking about how they will behave.

The articles pretty much support my conception of what the main issues in Pakistan are: the radicalization of the army, the need for outside intervention of some kind, the importance to the larger problem of stability in the region of resolving the power vacuum in Pakistan, and the perennial weakness of its civilian governments.

You could entirely skip the articles and take it from me that all they do is inform you that the main actors in the regions are:

  1. The military, with essentially two factions within them: the one that’s “Talibanized” or “jihadized” and the one that’s not.
  2. The jihadists themselves.
  3. Feudal landlords and other power brokers, with essentially regional affiliations that in some sense represent another binary divide in Pakistan: those who are Punjabi and those who are not.
  4. The international community, notably the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The worst of the mistakes in this characterization is in the overly simplified view of the Pakistani military (which is also reflected in the (slightly less) simplified view of the regional power dichotomy.) The military has long been a breeding ground for a whole host of ideologies and power grab movements, similar to the structural history of the Communist Party in China. It would be hubris to try and predict the direction the military will go in over the next decade, because it isn’t clear which of its factions will achieve dominance over the others.

While the military might definitely be largely united in their animosity towards any meaningful reconciliation with India, there is no reason to believe that a force with a strong history of internal discipline and martial traditions will tolerate the emergence of a “non-state” band of tribal warlords. While the Pakistani army might be reluctant to appear to the larger populace as being controlled by American interests, they will certainly not stay their hand if they have to prevent civil unrest. This was certainly their desire during the 1971 war with India over Bangladesh — to prevent the disintegration of the country.

The most, perhaps only, really thoughtful article, though, comes from Rohit Pradhan and Harsh Gupta, who surprisingly seem, unlike the other contributors to this collection, to have no other pedigree than being journalists of some sort. They see that secessionist movements cannot threaten the overall strength of the Pakistani nation-state, partly because of the overwhelming power of the army and the need for external states to keep Pakistan intact, each for their own ends.

India too is a player who needs Pakistan to remain unfragmented in some way or the other. In his article, R Vaidyanathan claims that India will simply watch from the sidelines as its Western neighbor disintegrates but that hardly does justice to India’s historical attitude to its neighbors. India fought actively to hasten the disintegration of the first versoin of Pakistan, formed in 1947; it also attempted to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts. A damaged Pakistan, which might result in jihadi armies gaining access to sophisticated weaponry, is not a scenario India would like to imagine. It will do what it can to find an ally within Pakistan who will at least prevent the greater of two devils from taking control of the reins.

In one way or the other, every one realizes or refers to the Pakistan’s central problem: that it has no recognizable statesman who has the power and legitimacy to lead its people through the mess it is in right now. This person will have to be someone who will have credibility with the middle class and bourgeois elite who participate in Pakistan’s nascent civil society, who will be able to politically assuage the religiously more radical elements of its society, and at the same time, will be able to fend off its army’s constant needling and attempts to preserve and extend its own power. The reason General Musharraf met with such fervent approval from large sections of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, back in 1998, even though he’d done nothing short of suspending all democratic institutions, was because he’d seemed back then to be precisely this kind of Messiah. Perhaps he might still return; at any rate, Zardari and Sharif are clearly not the answer, even if one were to completely ignore their history of political corruption and venality.

The Political Playground of Pakistan

February 2, 2009

It’s hard not to notice that Pakistan is the center of a lot of attention now, after Obama has become POTUS. About three days after his assuming office, rep0rts came in that airstrikes ordered ostensibly by an organ of the United States government targeted areas within the north-western border of Pakistan. The idea that these are CIA-controlled drones appears mainly to be an idea of the Pakistani and Indian media, a possibility stated with glee by the latter source and with some consternation by the former.

So far, every one’s following the script, except the rather terse but aggressive stance taken by the Obama administration, mostly via Defense Secy. Robert Gates, that these attacks will continue as necessary, which is a little more peremptory and directly indifferent to Pakistan’s sovereignty than the Bush administration was in general. However, even this indifference is not unexpected, given then-Senator Obama’s assertion that he would pursue aggressive action against those actors in Pakistan against whom the government of Pakistan was “unwilling or unable” to mount a serious offensive.

It will be interesting to note over time if the current US administration does in fact pursue a more public attitude of military incursions within areas that are inside Pakistan’s political boundaries. In essence, Pakistan’s government has, over the last few years, allowed its inaction to give some measure of encouragement to the non-state forces operating in its remote areas, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I don’t know what the translation of “federally administered” must be into the local language in those provinces, but I would imagine that at least some of the natives there have found out a way to pun it with “federally fucked.” While some parts of the areas are in fact not that far from Islamabad, the seat of Pakistan’s government, there is certainly much to be doubted in any assertion by the government that they can control critical intelligence information about the area or that they have actual political control over it. Even Pakistan’s most hopeful allies in the Unites States Senate, like John Negroponte, a Deputy Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence,  have expressed very cautious optimism about what the Pakistani government can achieve to integrate this region into the nation’s economic and political mainstream.

The US engagement in Pakistan is going to be a far more adventurous story, though possibly capturing far less public interest, than its engagement in Afghanistan. The simplest reason for this will be that the US will have minimal ground engagement in these regions for obvious political reasons. This will mean that casualties will be low and so will media attention. The Pakistanis may complain about how any American action in the area only exacerbates terrorism and militant Islamic activity but they can’t raise the most serious objection usually used in such circumstances — that their sovereignty is being transgressed. The state has a very tenuous hold on these areas to begin with and the natives have only a vague idea of allegiance to the Pakistani government. In the end, what the Pakistani government wants is political stability over all else, and the jury is still out in Pakistan, and in the rest of the world, if suppressing cross-border terrorism in the FATA is inimical or helpful to such stability.

American activities in Pakistan, if they gain in intensity over the next few months and years, will turn into a rich mixture of political doublespeak and tactical expediency. The actions in that region affect the fate of the American military support for political change in Afghanistan, no doubt; they also will be watched with keen interest by the Indians who would rather things remain murky on Pakistan’s western front so that they have fewer resources to devote to managing their proxy war on the Indian border. Of course, matters are not quite as simple even from the Indian point of view, because instability in Pakistan, to which the current situation in the FATA will contribute, also pull in Indian resources and energies as India’s political establishment worries about the fall-out of a non-civilian government returning to power in Pakistan, and possibly imposing martial law in order to control the political situation. A militarily strong neighbor is never in the long-term good interests of India because it is bound to be more fundamentalist than a civilian government and more compelled to adopt a hawkish stance towards India.

An American military solution to the FATA problem doesn’t have a good script to follow. This is certainly not early Afghanistan or Iraq because the Americans consider the ruling government an ally, unlike their issue with the Taliban. This is not Vietnam because there is no coherent and united political force to fight against. This is not late Afghanistan or Iraq either, though there are more parallels with this situation — fractured tribal interests filling a power vacuum, because there is a national government in the backdrop whose stability needs to be preserved, for the sake of geo-political sanity.

The playbooks of American interventions in Central America might be of some utility here. The current government of Pakistan has to, in effect, assent to becoming a client of the American intelligence and military forces, and through some combination of active and covert cooperation do serious enough damage to the military capabilities of the FATA natives, that they will either sue for peace or simply cease to be a viable alternative for politicall leadership in the area.

Portrait of the Artist in Pieces: Part I

January 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking, naturally, of what makes someone an artist. I say “naturally” because I am one myself, or aspire to be, in various ways. I did not always aspire to be an artist; it’s something that gradually came upon me through a series of desires, not all of which had anything to do with art. In fact, I think the original desire that started me on the path to discovering the artist in me was quite simply the rather mundane and very prosaic desire to get laid. I still think of this desire as a mundane one, though some treat sex and the need for it as one of the fundamental expressions of human nature and of beauty. I however do not hold sex is any such regard. I do sometimes, when I am looking at pornographic material, think to myself that this is a beautiful thing but I don’t perceive my own having of sex as something with pleasing aesthetic qualities. Not because I haven’t slept with beautiful women — I certainly have and I say this with such emphasis not to aggrandize myself but to give those beautiful women their proper due — but because when I am a participant in the act, the act ceases to seem to me to possess elements of anything other than the fulfillment of gross physical desires.

And yet out of these desires came to be the series of events that led me to be an artist. There is a circular problem here — if I know myself to be an artist, then why am I wondering what makes one, and if I am still at the stage where I have to think about what constitutes an artist, then how can I know that I am one? I disentangle this thread by noting that others call me an artist, and that I have produced or participated in various works that could properly be assigned to the field of art, if for no other reason than because they never made anybody any money.

But penury as a foundational element in the portrait of an artist is not what I am going to write about here. That perhaps will happen another day. In this post, the aspect of an artist’s character that interests me is the desire or need or affliction an artist has whereby he cannot avoid seeing and experiencing life from as many perspectives as is humanly possible. The artist cannot stop himself from regarding the many implications and symbolisms inherent in nearly everything that is the world around him, or at least in those things of this world that the artist is particularly interested in.

Someone who is not an artist is satisfied with a singular interpretation of an object that he sees, like a chair. A chair is simply an object that provides the possibility of repose. For an artist, there is much, much more to think about: the making of the chair, the historical importance of the chair, the chair’s provenance, the statement it makes in tribute to humanity’s power to design tools and mould the natural world — all of these thoughts are awakened in the artist’s mind when he sees what to others is a mere chair, an insipid chair.

Some artists apply political dimensions to the objects they see or the events they experience or the stories they hear. When an object in the world, especially one made by human beings or a natural object manipulated by human agency, is seen by an artist, it embodies not only its inherent form but speaks to the artist of the desires and motives of the people who wrought it. A chair can then be not just a chair, but something built perhaps to give its occupier a position of power and grandeur, or to bestow on its owner the privilege of rest and relaxation. The chair as an extension of human desires is a thing that only the artist sees; indeed, the artist cannot ignore this aspect of the chair.