Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review- The Summing Up- Somerset Maugham


Is it not amazing that precisely at the time when you start believing in the childish notion of knowing all there is to know, like a bolt from the sky, awakening descends on you, as you suddenly find yourself, ignorant, devoid of any knowledge. The good part is that this revelation is not particularly embarrassing or demeaning, rather you feel elevated and enlightened with the understanding of your own smallness. Reading "The Summing Up" by W. Somerset Maugham was one such moment of revelation. I am just through with getting my book of philosophical essays published, and while I would take all the praise which would come from friends with a pinch of salt and sincere humility, a little strike of wickedness, allowed me to secretly feel happy with the praise. But that was till I came across this book, which once I picked up and finished reading, left me dwarfed and happy at the same time, in the backdrop of the greatness of the author. 


The book is autobiographical in nature, although, Maugham in the book itself, waves off any suggestion of auto-biographic nature as he starts the book with the statement "this is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections. So there are no controversial chapters, with people casting aspersions on the truthfulness of the accounts, but the author more than makes up for the juicy gossips, with a rare sincerity and razor-sharp honesty as he with disarming simplicity says " I have no desire to lay bare my heart, and I put limits to the intimacy that I wish the reader to enter upon with me. and says "There are matters on which I am content to maintain my privacy". Here is a writer who seems to be supremely confident in the quality of his writing to be strong enough to arouse enough interest in the readers, without leaning on the "Juicier chapter and racy content" to bind the interest. Although he does demonstrate a degree of disenchantment as he says "Everything I say is merely an opinion of my own.The reader can take it or leave it" or when he says "I do not much care if people agree with me. Of course I think I am right, Otherwise I should not think as I do, and they are wrong, but it does not offend me that they should be wrong. Nor does it greatly disturb me to discover that my judgement is at variance with that of the majority." Despite the disclaimers to its autobiographical nature that Maugham has spread through the book, there is no denying that the book is absolutely autobiographical in nature although it stays confined to the limited area of author's life that is the part which deals with him as a professional writer. Although the book briefly touches upon Maugham's childhood and ancestry, it essentially examines the impact it might or might not have on his writing skills and style.  

The effort that the author makes to keep the book simple and honest are mighty obvious, still the depth of Maugham in terms of literature results in gems entailing profound life truths slipping through fingers, and noticeable all across the book like "There is only one thing about which I am certain, and this is that there is very little about which one can be certain" or " Perfection has one great defect, it is apt to be dull." or when he says " Most people have a furious itch to talk about themselves and are restrained only by disinclination of others to listen." "You can get a great deal of entertainment out of tedious people if you keep your head. "The Value of culture is its effect on character. It avails nothing unless it ennobles and strengthens." is one such jewel, towards the last few chapter as he dwells on his interest in writings of philosophers like Kant and Nietzsche, the book moves to a completely different plane as he ponders over intricate and complex subjects like the meaning of life and comes with great statements like "I was taught that we lived in the presence of God and that the chief business of man was to save his soul." But apart from the profound truths which the author cleverly hides in the fabric of the book, it is his struggles in being a writer which makes the book a great read for anyone who seriously wants to take writing as a profession. As he speaks about multiple iterations he put his work through to get the right word and structure, his efforts to enhance the vocabulary, and his deep interest in reading as a way to enhance and improve on his own writings, is something, which makes me believe, that if I were the person finalizing the curriculum for creative writing, I should seriously make this book a mandatory reading. And above all, summing up, which it opens your eyes to the fact that writing is not a profession of idle men (and women), it needs a great degree of devotion and commitment to be a decent writer, and in the process, as Maugham would do with his novels like "Of Human Bondage" he secretly passes the keys to be better human being in your hands, without your realizing it, unless you are watchful enough.

The Writer's Block- Looking Pack From my Old Post

(This was first published on Hubpages)

When Dreams were Young

There used to be a time, when as they say, spring was in the walk and the dreams were young, when words would float in front of my notebook and land softly as today my toddler walks around in the room in the winters of Delhi..on the tip-toes. Dreams were beautiful and not yet impossible. Truth seemed to be an idea which lived and breathed next door and not a distant idea. Those were the times when an equitable limitation of resources cut across the social position and we all stood in front of each other, devoid of the fig leave of social backgrounds. Calls would be made through the public call booth across the road from the Hostel and with new mobile set was not a status defining instrument but only a flight of fantasy. In all our nakedness we shall be all be judged as friends or not by those around us, simply by the grandness of our dreams, our understanding of our ideals, and more importantly, by our ability to love. Love, I had in my heart in abundance, writing poetry on the back of cigarette packets, which friends claim even today to be of readable kind; reading the material which would transport me into an era of self-belief, and belief in all that is good in life. Everything good in life was possible, and all that was needed was to merely stretch the hands out wide, with a heart full of conviction as The Messiah taught the pilot in the books by Richard Bach. I read it, pretty happy in meeting in thoughts with authors good enough to be published and make a best-seller. 

The Now

The words come out on the screen, which replaces the notebook of the past, apologetically. A gloomy mist descends over the world with a minor trace of sunlight in the form of my toddler, who is constantly trying all the time to cope up with my cruel mood-swings, I just hope that her efforts to accommodate my mood swings outlives my ability to grow beyond them. I know, it is cruel, but I know it is true and is almost as cruel as truth can be. I keep on thinking if the world in which I live has changed or have I, as a pesky and demanding inhabitant changed. Was the world always like that, ruthless, competitive and all the time measuring me against the scales which were all tilted against me? and I was living in my own euphoric world of imaginary goals and ideals, that I never noticed the crookedness of all straight-lines which I drew around myself as pointers to what I presumed then to be a life of delirium. The words, enter as a soul wretched with poor self-esteem and poor acting ability thrown on the stage to perform an act of consequence, with conviction of not fitting in deeply placed in the heart. Was it that I was happier then because all the expectations of life I had with myself, which I could control and change and shift, thus the goals closer or farther as I wanted to? I do not know, what I know is that then I could be kinder to myself and to the world around me, and I have somehow, now, pushing people to the walls asking them to play the roles as the play which I have scripted requires them to, become to be the living equivalent to the movie recently released called "Despicable Me". Nothing comforts, this unkindness which I had not seen in my life even in the days when Nietzsche and stoic philosophy literature replaced the lofty, happy world of Erich Segal has now descended so deep down, that now I find myself unbearable and writing, which always came to me as an answer to my disturbing dreams, has eluded me, as a disappointed friend who came to meet me after a long time. I hope, somehow, I can run after my long lost friend, beg him, reason with him and ask him to stay back, for I need this ray of sunlight in my life, to pull me out of the depth of darkness. Writing for me is a way to converse with myself, and as with verbal conversation, in the face of emotion, the lump rises in the throat, the clot rises in the pen or the kepboard mocks me, of what I have become. But I have to write, even if it does not make sense to anyone, including myself, as there is no other cure that I know of. 

The Idea of Justice

(Reproduced from Hubpages)
The new year of the new decade has dawned in all its glory with delightful cold and somewhat shifty sun. The clouds of the gigantic corruption of past year and years does not seem to be getting dampened by the festive spirit of the X-mas followed by the New Year. The dirt seem to have risen so high that now it has reached the highest offices of Justice and I sit myself down with an attempt to understand what actually constitutes the noble and yet, elusive (and maybe, an impossible) idea called justice is. Is it something beyond revenge or is revenge good enough to be termed as Justice is the collective exercises it on behalf of the individual? Is justice something which pleases the most number in a society or can Justice in the extreme loneliness in the face of public opinion against its exercise?The fact is that the topic is so subjective and so skewed in the direction of numerical strength and it does not seem like justice any more. It is like, if a law, which is said to be formulated by large majority of people or those who rule them on their behalf, allows for a revenge, it is justice; when an individual does so, it is criminal. I am not for revenge in any way, as I do believe it is forgiveness which address both the concerned parties in the most positive manner, and we do not forgive the perpetrator of a wrong for his good, but for our own good, given the amount of tranquility it brings about to us.

Justice- The Definition with Current Perspective.

While seems to be that the efforts to tie it into a neat definition has been going on since probably the first time, a man stepped into other man's periphery and the idea of Ethics and what is proper started troubling men, the attempts could not get more accurate than too close. That could be more because to my mind, justice is a subjective term. However, let us try to explore how close we as humanity ever came close to define it, in concurrence to our individual wisdom. The online dictionary terms it as the quality of being Just, without getting engaged in the more difficult task of defining what is the meaning of "Just". Thesaurus defines it as revenge when undertaken by the collective, which is a definition which I have concern about, since it at the first look itself seems to unjust. Justice, Plato says in Republic, Book II is the type of good which is desirable on its own merits and also is advisable from the point of view of expected outcome. While Justice is one of the integral component of what constitutes ethics (which includes other features like courage, magnanimity and kindness), Ethics is both inward and outward looking, while justice is all the time outward looking defining fairness in one's interaction with the world around one.
Aristotle in his famous treatise on Ethics (Nicomachean Ethics - Book V)divides justice into two aspects based on the proactive or reactive nature of it asDistributive and rectificatory or corrective justice. The distributive one refers to the distribution of wealth among the members of the society (based on Geometric proportion), and the corrective justice (Based on Arithmetic proportion) refers to the resolution of inequitable distribution of the wealth. Further, Aristotle, so well looks further deeper into the matter and explains in a manner which is nothing short than a breeze of fresh air in an otherwise stale environment (what would you feel when you find all the top spokesmen of top political parties, for some reason, all lawyers, debating smugly on justice and hiding behind law will take its own course). Aristotle further stresses that in the event of inequitable distribution of the good, it is the distributer who is more culpable then the receiver. This is what I was arguing on when I objected to the media pursuing the beneficiary of wrongly placed and accepted bail plea, on the appropriateness of the same in Delhi, in an infamous murder case involving son of a noted politician (latter was helping the party in power in Delhi, to set up a government in the neighboring state), as the latter was the beneficiary, it was the Government of Delhi or its chief representative who should have been the one carrying the key culpability, as she had given inequitably, benefit to one person of the society as against anyone else.
It may be noted, it is equitable is the key word not the equal. The distributive justice does not require equal distribution, but equitable distribution, in a manner termed as geometric proportion , as per the merit. This law of geometric proportion takes out the air out of the claim of the government that they can not distribute the food grains rotting in government warehouses, shoddy as they may be; on the ground that then they will not know who they ought to distribute it to as it is not enough to be equally distributed to all. The government of the day, in the backdrop of news reports of food grains getting washed away in rains and people facing increasing food inflation, in its arrogance went on to even ask the highest court of the land to keep off the area of governance. The principle of geometric proportion also brings in a sense of reality and consolation to people what modern day philosopher Alaine De Botton terms as the pressures of presumed meritocracy on account of which people unnecessarily set themselves to the goals not in line with their abilities, when Aristotle says," If the persons are not equal they will not have equal shares.
We however would be wrong to presume that justice is defined by law, it is rather the other way round. When we find people against whom there is a great amount of evidence of unlawful conduct, moving around with immunity, constitutional or otherwise, in disgust the common citizen only complains of lack of justice. This is where justice is in contradiction to the law, and that is what Aristotle refers to when he says," whatever is unfair is lawless, but not everything lawless is unfair" .
Plato in Book V of Republic, explains that while Justice is helping the friends while harming the enemies and returning the debts one owes, constitutes justice, but not adequately. Socrates in the Book V defines Justice as "Working what one is naturally best suited for" (how many are able to do that???) and to do one's business and says that justice is what protects and nourishes virtues like Temperance, wisdom and courage. The society to be just needs to have rulers (The executive- cabinet and government) creating Just laws, Soldiers (The Judiciary) which ensures the implementation of those laws and Producers (The Citizens) who ought to be willing to follow those laws.
John Rawls Who wrote "The Theory of Justice" in 1970, counted Justice as one of the primary virtue of a social system, just as truth is for the system of thought. Building around the Aristotle's idea of Golden mean, John Rawls defines the concept of Justice as that of proper balance between competing claims. He says that a Just system sets the boundaries of the ambitions and aspirations of individual, with a presumption that "Interests requiring violation of justice holds no value."
John Stuart Mill'idea of Utilitarianism propounds an interesting view of the act which brings welfare to the largest average is just. The idea is however, suffers the same problem which I had expressed in my some other blogs as the problem of numerical superiority as a proof of justice (as can be seen from the way a government in majority, tanks through a numerically weak opposition even in the face of blatant unethical acts). The major issue with utilitarianism as proponent of justice is that it does not base the driver of justice and social laws on Socratic idea of Ethics but rather on Epicurean ideal of Pleasure as an end to itself. This in itself is not something to have worries about, the dilemma appears when we start thinking of my pleasure against yours, and then we try to decide whose pleasure will take precedence in the event of contradiction. Utilitarianism bases the precedence of idea on numerical strength, which makes a lonely man, a wretched soul and a lonely idea an orphan to social security. This principle builds on the idea proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1780.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why Writers Should Read the Classics

(The Article was first published on Literary website: The AirshipDaily.com)
Despite the seemingly formulaic success of modern bestsellers, one writer argues that the classics are where authors should look for inspiration.
“Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helicon (Parnassus)” by Claude Lorraine, 1680 (via Wikipedia)
Pursuing a typical Indian middle-class dream of becoming an engineer, my exposure to classic literature during my adolescent years was dismal. It was only later in life that I came across those great names, attempting to school myself as a writer by reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Maugham, Bronte and others. I was awed by the beauty of what I discovered, which was hitherto hidden from me as a casual reader and occasional writer.
But it was with trepidation that I read, with fear of their brilliant writing influencing my own. Books are now written according to calculated formulas of success defined by clever marketers. It is not a good moment to be influenced by classical styles marked by slow-paced, intricate storytelling — or so I thought. Yet the more I read, the more I was convinced that classic literature could and should help me mature as a writer.
The classics illustrate for us the possibilities that language holds if only we were patient enough to look, dedicated enough to try. They inspire us to overcome the sloth that makes us use words carelessly. A modern writer might get away with less under the garb of realism (e.g. “She was a bitch”), but that will not stay with you, not like “Coquetry runs in her blood, blends with her brains, and seasons the marrow of her bones” (Jane Eyre). Charlotte Bronte is no rush to finish her story. She wants you to see and feel and understand these people, her characters.
“The Kiss of the Muse” by Paul Cezanne, 1860 (via WikiArt)
More importantly, the classics persist because they are timeless.“It is a classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness,” Ezra Pound once wrote. It hardly matters whether they were written in the Jazz Age of The Great Gatsby or the Victorian era of Jane Eyre, these works transcend their contexts, and it is this very timelessness which defines them. They are perpetual lighthouses.
The classics are able to achieve this timeless quality because they are not descriptive; they are introspective. They are not focused on the world in which human emotions exist, but on human emotions themselves. Reading “The moon shut herself wholly within her chamber, and drew close her curtain of dense cloud: the night grew dark; rain came driving fast on the gale” (again, Jane Eyre), you understand, rather than the banal weather, the emotional turmoil of the character. Indeed, the external world only seems to exists because of the character’s internal feeling, the landscape taking the color of her emotion.
We, as readers, are able to find our own feelings in such words despite the distances between us and the time and space they were originally composed in because those emotions are universal. The world which surrounds these feelings may change, but the emotions themselves do not. Consider, from Heart of Darkness, the lines: “She carried her sorrowful head as though she were proud of that sorrow, as though she would say, I — I alone know how to mourn for him as he deserves.” Simple words but an ache rises from the heart of even the modern reader, for who wouldn’t want to be loved thus?
Great literature ought to have, to quote Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, “discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered.” Writers should employ eloquence because they want to whisper their truth to you. In this way, the classics are philosophy, with fiction there to illustrate the point. But a classic, contends Italo Calvino, is a book that has never finished to say what it has to say. Don’t we all want to read such a book? Don’t we all want to write such a book?


Saket Suryesh lives with his wife and six-year-old daughter in Delhi. He’s written a collection of non-fictions essays, If Truth were to be Told, and two compilations of poems, and is currently writing his first fiction. He runs a blog called Love, Life and Happiness on family, parenting, writing and, rarely, politics. In a parallel universe, he is an engineer with a Master’s in International Business.
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