Thursday, June 30, 2011

O tempora O mores!

So here's a speech given in my "Thought and Society" class, in which we read something like rudimentary social theory and cultural criticism, except repackaged for the foreign student's gaze. The first chapter was about how modernization makes us sick, so our prompt was to write about health. My classmates all gave these well-reasoned presentations of scientific fact, but I took the opportunity to crank out a YPU joke speech about a favorite topic for pretentious, macaronic riffing: the fallenness of contemporary society.

Okay, so I followed the prompt pretty loosely. It's more of a sermon than a presentation, really-- a buffoonish Jonathan Edwards parody in which I tried to stuff as many breezy allusions as possible. This was actually really fun to write, and I had my teacher giggling the entire time at my ridiculousness.

After the program's over, I'll post a representative end-of-term speech for unscientific cross-comparison purposes. I've also appended a translation in which I've adhered slavishly to the syntax of the original Chinese, while simultaneously taking arbitrary liberties with its diction. Whatever.

Awkward English is awkward. But misreading canonical texts for the lulz is so much fun. Oh, the biblical quotes come from the Chinese Union Version and the NKJV.

In the Song of Songs, which is Solomon's, there's a particularly poetic verse of luring speech: " Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love." What this holy love-verse describes is the close relationship between the soul and the Holy Spirit-- a relationship akin to romance, or marriage. But the metaphor used therein comes from medical science.

According to this conceit, the lover is an invalid and his passion a virus, quietly invading the soul's tissues and organs. Love assuredly can, like the Song of Solomon claim, deeply influence an individual's emotions and behavior. Yet to those living in the world at present, there is a graver illness threatening us. What, then, is this epidemic? Doubtlessly, it is modernity.

We had better revise the Song of Songs and sing, "Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of modernity." The sickness suffered by this generation of invalids is doubtlessly less poetic than that marveled at by the Song of Songs. The influenza of modernization is a sickness of the soul; what it threatens is the health of our moral sense.

Over the course of losing touch with our ancestors' life of labor, we have gradually lost touch with their virtue, taking the nomoi which they received from Heaven to be trash and so discarding them, in due course declining into a generation of irredeemable-- indeed, wholly depraved-- sinners. The conditions of the modern age lead one to recall the words of the Roman man of letters Cicero: "O tempora O mores!" O what times, O what customs!

Our time and our customs are assuredly different from those of our predecessors. At present, we have already lost the Mandate of Heaven, assassinated the philosopher-king, and rejected the grace of Jehovah; is it not the case then that we have for a long time not dreamed of the Duke of Chou?

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. The circumstances described by this sage of antiquity yet remain, and indeed have already transformed into a sickness unto death. What, then, is the only means of treating this disease caused by sin? A sincere and swift repentance.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pass over in silence

Here, have some awkward philosophy of language ramblings of a distinctly undergrad caliber. Yayy!

Apologies for a) using the same adjectives over and over again and b) sounding like the Section Asshole Classic (or maybe the Valley Girl iteration). Also for the post-cold scratchiness of my voice. And the unfortunate construction "baroque-ass".

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Playing with antiquity

Since I'm morally depraved, I've been neglecting this blog in favor of other stuff, e.g. sickness, study, low-impact socialization, and sketchily reading Hannah Arendt in the Eslite bookstore, in between guilty, overpriced food court meals of vegetable protein and lemon ice. Yeah, I'm reading in English, making this a pretty manifest case of sin. Cheating on ICLP with the western canon, which only seems to interest me when my geographic position is emphatically non-western. Let's call it a sickbed indulgence. And anyway, Eslite has a much better collection of English-language monographs than my public library back home.

I'll write a legit blog entry some other day, but for now I thought I'd share a little slice of my everyday pursuit of rigor wrt the humanities. I'm taking a class called "Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners", with this refreshingly old-school instructor who has us memorize particularly beautiful passages from the old sages. It's great for an absurd girl anachronism like me-- a means of indulging my recurring Confucian gentleman fantasy. Although I admit to taking a break from working on this to memorize some John Donne. I am so colonized. Batter my heart indeed.

This is a passage from Liezi, a vaguely Daoistic freethinker-type-- can't really claim to know too much about him, alas. The story's about this foolish old man who wanted to move a mountain, and how the purity of his faith and ambition eventually elevated him above the prudential consideration of an alleged wise man. It's also, as one of my classmates pointed out, weirdly into man's dominion over his environment, a position the western academy caricatures as incompatible with Chinese thought's general approach to nature. Whatever. I just like reciting things in bright red tights. And yeah, I know I look cray.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ohai, fashion blog interlude!

Like I wrote a couple of days ago, I feel like my Facebook feed's become a ghetto fashion blog: "How to survive Taipei heat with puritanical modesty and a disassembled mallrat's wardrobe". Even though it's hot as Hell and four times as humid, I'm determined that no one in this city's seeing my legs. Hey, at least it keeps the mosquitoes away.

The other day, I was struck by this boredom-induced craving for rudimentary Photoshopping, so I figured I'd actualize that vision. So here's a selection of outfits from the past two weeks— the ones that happened to photograph the least objectionably against the background of my bedsheet:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

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To Carthage then I came

On my last day before orientation I decided to ride the Xindian line to a terminal station, hunt around the southern edges of the metropolis for those clay oven rolls my tourist map recommended. I got off at Xiaobitan, which had an air of the seashore about it, all those open planes, that pale sand-colored stone. The white courtyard crowning the station dazzled in the heat, in a squint-eyed, Waste Land way. I circled it aimlessly for a few minutes, shielding myself with a parasol’s circumference of shade.

I felt a little weird in the outfit I’d thrown on after a slapdash layer of sunscreen— there’s no full-length mirror in my room. My tunic was a little too long and my shorts a little too short, such that the one obscured the other. On the way over from Taipower, I kept staring at myself in the empty train car’s expansive of mirrored surface, smoothing my hands over the houndstooth tights I’d gotten cheap at the Shida Night Market. In the morning, as I swiped on a layer of powder against the heat and twisted my shower-damp hair into its plait, I’d talked to my roommate over Skype about mirror fasting.

When I’m stateside, I come to a standstill in front of every reflective plane, brushing my bangs up and to the side. That habit hasn’t faded here. But somehow I feel less burdened by my body, by the insidious need for some visual verification of its integrity. I expected to be triggered here, into some dark laughable spiral of neurosis— the way I was needled, shameful and cliché, by the thinness of the girls in Harbin. But instead I walk until my feet hurt, suck down cool, calorie-rich teas without guilt. I forget for long swathes of time the troubling heft of my flesh because I’m busy trying to figure out if I should cross here, whether I should ride to the next station or just keep following the street.

I sneak glances at myself in the silvery sides of elevators, and feel okay. My image blurs when I’m in constant motion. I suspect I can feel my thighs diminishing, though. I still lay a hand against them periodically, to feel the tightening of that plane on the outside of my leg, make sure the hollowing is perceptible. Yeah, I think it’s stupid. I stand by that claim I make sometimes, how I’d gain fifty pounds for fifty additional IQ points. But this is better than going to sleep anxious because there’s no twist of hunger in my belly, then rushing out for dessert to prove I’m beyond it all. There’s nothing heroic about sucking down a milkshake. And maybe I’m not losing weight at all. It’s nice when I can stop thinking about it and just read my map, move towards some destination more concrete than the dim shape of a girl like a switchblade.

I guess this is fair warning. Certain Light demographics to which I belong are vulnerable to a particular brand of malaise when abroad— one that, alas, emblematizes our shiny Cosmogirl zeitgeist. I don’t know what I’m talking about, exactly. Phenotypical Asians with seesaw body image? Fat heritage girls? The culturally credulous? I’m aware that I’ve got enough aesthetic privilege that I should really just shove it; “fat” is, of course, a contextually contingent marker. The point is, I’m fine in Taipei— the usual stupid fleshly fixations run at a level that puts them well within the normal range. And yeah, that’s kind of problematic, my drawing comfort from the fact that every other girl of my demographic totes around the same tired sack of mild self-loathing— a real case of first world problems. There’s nothing particularly pathological about the way my self-scrutiny manifests itself here, not beyond the sicknesses of this cultural moment in time. And I'm no visionary; I can't transcend my time. Hey, it’s not like I’m satisfied with my mental qualities, either.

In the afternoon I walked from the Dingxi station to the Museum of World Religions. Going by foot was easier than figuring out the bus route. After negotiating for a bit over an English-language audio tour, I demurred on paying the price and was instead attached to a docent who led me around with two other ladies. Like at the National Palace Museum, everything is gorgeously designed, with an oppressively meticulous consideration for details. We knelt down in front of scale models showing Chartres Cathedral, the Dome of the Rock, and glasses cases displayed all manner of communion robes and marriage contracts.

Our guide turned towards me periodically, asking if I’d seen this before, or that— a pair of tiger slippers sewn for a newborn, a stack of paper money to be burnt for the dead. It made me think of this one conversation I had with my Chinese-American suitemate, about how when we become householders, all these rituals of continuity will be lost. I’d offered up this farcical image of us looking up Chinese funereal rites on WikiHow, or enlisting in western anthropologists to help us become ourselves. It’s like how I time my tea ceremonies, those bastardized mainland-Taiwanese affairs conducted with mid-grade Iron Goddess of Mercy. I use a cell phone, adding five minutes to each subsequent infusion with the stopwatch app. The syncretism is fun, like mass-market Urban Outfitters irony. But I’m meant to feel kind of sad about it, and I do— pouting reactionary that I am, allergic to the tang of modernity.

The museum curators were definitely drunk on symmetry, a visual manifestation of their careful fairness towards all faiths— a mysticized political correctness that bordered on pantheism. Although our docent did make some comments about Hindus or Indians— the words are the same in Mandarin— that wouldn’t have gone unremarked upon if they were given on the floor of Congress. It was all very Deep River— that Endo Shusaku novel we almost read with Chloe Starr, about Japanese tourists in the land of the holy Ganges. And I guess as a Sanskrit fetishist I’m carting around my own brand of orientalism.

After tomorrow, I'll be glad for a schedule and some academic tasks to accomplish. I'm getting tired of this intellectual atrophy. Blogging helps. Sending dispatches abroad helps. Hell, what is blogging except a correspondence addressed to my future self, who will sit in a New Haven common room reading back over this log? And cringe, probably.

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