Monday, February 20, 2012

Disconnecting the Dots

Sometimes life doesn't make sense.  It's just one damn thing after another (like history).  Normally, it's human nature to look for significance and meaning in the tea leaves of our existence.  And we quite often use religious language to describe what we find.  Two survived the plane crash because of the grace of God, it's claimed, while ignoring the other 128 who died because of...what, God's anger. We define our success and failures according to the script our culture has handed us, though values are increasingly globalized and homogenized.  First books, then movies, taught us to look for the plot.  Who are the heroes and who are the villains?  Politicians are very good at this.  But in our quiet moments of honesty we might at least admit to ourselves that no one's holding the hand of fate.  There is no puppeteer, just the blowing winds of chance.

I've been using Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince to teach English to my graduate students of linguistics.  Last year we read it in the BuddhistPsychos discussion group and found it a useful book for expressing some truths of the Dhamma.  I've long believed that truth, the kind that means something deeper than scientific fact, can best be conveyed through stories, the ones we hear and the ones we tell ourselves.  I was hoping the simple sentences in The Little Prince, translated from the original French, would help my students with their English. And I also thought they might find the prince, the pilot, and the other characters in the book appealing.  Finally, I wanted to use its language to illustrate the different descriptive tools of linguistics: phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics.  It was a big task and I'm still assessing the results.

Most of the messages I got from Saint Exupéry's now-classic story were missed by my students in their weekly papers which included the linguistic analysis of a sentence from the assigned reading.  They didn't connect the dots I laid out for them.  They didn't understand the author's criticism of the narrow-minded thinking of grown-ups which is emphasized throughout, perhaps because of Asian respect for elders.  They didn't get the idea of relationships as a kind of mutual "taming," nor the claim that what is really important is invisible -- "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly."  They were enthusiastic about the idea of pills to quench thirst in order to save time, a proposal I saw ridiculed by the author and the prince.  But they did get the importance of water for a story that takes place in the desert, and I think they understood the prince's love for the vain rose.  I wanted them to appreciate the insight that love changes the way we see the world -- "The stars are beautiful because of a flower that cannot be seen." -- but it seems they have difficult seeing metaphorically, at least in English.

It's not important that my students agree with my interpretation of The Little Prince.  I told them at the first class meeting that I was not a teacher who could open up their heads and pour knowledge inside.  They're used to learning by rote and critical thinking is not emphasized in Thai education.  To help them understand the story, I encouraged them to look at the Thai translation of the book, showed them portions of the 1974 musical film, and circulated an audio version.  A few copied opinions from the internet, but most grappled with the reading in order to express a few ideas in English.  It's a weekend MA program and students take five classes with considerable homework in each.  I'm happy with the conversations we've had in class and look forward to their final paper, a review of the book as a whole.

This February is a leap year and the extra day has thrown me off balance.  What's it all about, Alfie?  Thais love Valentine's Day and the stores were filled with displays of hearts while the press wrung its hands over fears that young people would use the holiday as an excuse for sex.  There was even a curfew.  Nan and I exchanged cards and had a delicious buffet dinner at You & Mee in the Erawan Hotel.  A group of Iranians celebrated that day by blowing up their rented house and one man lost his legs when a bomb he threw at a police car hit a pole and bounced back.  While Israelis interpreted the whole fiasco as part of an international plot (with anti-Semitic bombings duplicated in India and Georgia), observers in Bangkok found it odd that the "gang-who-couldn't-shoot-straight" partied in Pattaya, getting their photo taken and displaying Iranian cash, before they came to the capital and accidentally set off explosives.

The march to war with Iran over their nuclear ambitions, with Israel's Netanyahu as drum major followed closely by Republicans campaigning for the presidential nomination, dominates the news these days.  Along with accusations that Obama is conducting a "war on religion" because of his policy that Catholic hospitals and schools cover employes for contraceptive health costs, the stories coming from the U.S. press make one wonder if someone hasn't put something into the water (in addition to the poisons seeping into the ground from the practice of fracking).  While I scan the headlines, I look for worthwhile commentary by writers like Paul Krugman, Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky.  The division between social and economic conservatives virtually assures Obama's reelection, but that is only mildly good news, given that he sold his soul after Inauguration to the money manipulators, proponents of Empire, and Israeli interests.  I find him on many issues to the right of Clinton (no favorite of progressives) and even Bush.  It's mildly depressing and a good reason to take a break from the internet (which I've not yet been able to do).

Thailand's political situation remains murky.  Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai government have apparently reached an accommodation with the military and the royalists which may avoid a coup but which could eventually bring a confrontation with her red shirt base in the provinces.  The campaign against 112, the draconian lese majeste law, led by a group of lawyers from Thammasat University, continues despite threats from the right.  Thongchai Winichakun, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club last week and said increasing use of the law and stiff penalties was due to an ideology of "royalist democracy" and "hyper-royalism" expressed through new rituals which arose in the 1970s and has increased dramatically since the 2006 coup.  Although freedom of expression around issues concerning the monarchy has been drastically curtailed, Thongchai felt the current public conversation about 112 was a small sign of hope.  Conditions have changed since the 1970s, he said.  "Thais love electoral democracy, they realize that politicians can be good for them, and this implies a direct confrontation with royalist democracy."  The backdrop to the current struggle over 112 is uncertainty about the succession (and at this point the cone of censorship descends).

After eye surgery, my vision improved and I've ordered new glasses.  But the arthritis in my knee is worse and I'm going to have it x-rayed this week to see if anything short of an operation can help relieve the pain while walking.  Aging is a gradual degeneration of the necessary parts of the body needed for socialization.  It is hard to stay present while your senses are failing.  I sit on our comfortable couch and judge the nominees for the Oscars to be awarded next weekend, with the aid of subtitles even for movies in English.  My favorite film is "A Better Life," and I wish its star, Demian Bichir, could nab the Best Actor statue, but both are long shots.  His role in the film is very different from the drug czar of Tijuana he played in "Weeds," and I barely recognized him.  Every border conservative should be forced to view this film about the plight of defenseless undocumented workers.  I also liked "Extremely Close & Incredibly Loud" and "The Help."  And I hope the animation award goes to the incredibly wonderful "Chico & Rita" about entertainers from Cuba, old and new.

I have nothing to add about the tragedy of Whitney Houston.  Such a waste of a promising life.  I played a music video of "I Have Nothing" for my linguistic and 3rd year English students and let them guess the missing words in the lyrics marked by blanks.  I did the same when Amy Winehouse died, and hope I never have to do it for Grammy's big winner last week, Adele.  Fame eats its young.  Nicky is on tour in Europe with Hanni El Khatib, with 11 days alone in France where he has a girlfriend now.  I hope they can deal with the stresses and strains of celebrity.  Fame is not what it's cracked up to be.  The dots we connect for the lucky recipients of society's awards rarely remain connected.

1 comment:

Ian H said...

Every time I read your posts I want to comment with a quote from a book by Sebastian Faulks (of Birdsong fame).

Now at last I've found it:

So while living may have no meaning in any teleological sense, it does have practical purpose in the way that how we live can improve the experience of others alive and yet to be born; and thus, a bit more also has value.

Jennifer in Sebastian Faulks' Engleby