Insights

I have a habit, it might be strange. I deliberately etch into my mind some moments as I face them. The criteria is very abstract. I might be sitting in a mosque and staring at the window, as a gust of wind comes in, the window closes and opens, I select this moment to remember it forever. I might be sitting at a tea shop at MT Khan road, talking with Anas and having tea, a cat passes by and I decide to give this moment a grave in my mind’s cemetery. There are many graves but only some have gravestones. I might be standing outside Herfy’s at Airport Street AUH after lunch, kicking a stone, staring into the earth, slow peaceful traffic of the city passing by, I see the wind moving through sparse growth of grass near my foot and this moment is engraved in my memory forever. I am certain as we age, these trivial moments are lost, and why shouldn’t they? What effect do they have on the course of our lives. I will remember when I walked on to the stage at Pearl Continental to collect my qualification. I will remember the first time I hit somebody in the face or somebody hit me in the face. I will remember the day I completed a project at the firm  on my own. I will remember the day when my mother told me that I was worthless (of course she was not serious). But I will not remember that I vomited at 3’o clock at night after eating a bun kebab at night when I was 9. I will not remember that I dropped my little infant sister in the street in Kamber when I was 8. I will not remember that an old man pinched my shoulder I don’t know why when I was walking in a street in Rwp. I will not remember when I peed in my pants in school when I was 5 (I don’t want to!). I will not remember that I pushed a boy in Montessori and hurt him and was punished. These memories are memories which all of us have. You might have more interesting memories than these but there are others which are lost forever. Like I want to know what did I feel when I saw a butterfly for the first time but I will never know.  All this is mundane. I will not lose anything by not knowing how I felt but if I knew, the feeling would be invaluable. It is like a mustahib act.

Ah, how wonderful it is to talk about oneself. Every word is a gulp of sweet potion of vanity. How it soothes us to feel important. How would it feel to be entirely devoid of vanity? It is vanity that I wanted to talk about. Vanity and Arthur Koestler. Earlier this year I had some doubts. In any decision made my man, there is always a streak of normal vanity. Is this normal vanity undesirable? It is natural for man/woman to want fame. The proportion of vanity and real desire to achieve something is different in different types of decisions. So if I think that vanity is  undesirable I will not do anything because I will think that the act I am considering to do is tainted with my vanity, my wish to be famous. I discussed this with a very learned person and he said: ‘as long as you are aware that it is only in God’s power to give you success, your will and determination is pure from vanity; the moment you lose this, you are vain’. I understood this. Now I know and propose that if I am a better swimmer than you are, it is not my vanity speaking, it is a fact. It is only when I belittle you that I am being vain.  The lesson: ‘it is not unethical/sinful to want immortality and fame but bear in mind that it must not be your sole guide.’

The thought about vanity came to my mind when I started to consider why an author writes and why a scientist invents. Is it his vanity, his desire to be immortal that forces him to proceed in his endeavour? Or is there something else too? It is amazing that when you are pondering upon a question, a book answering such question pops out while you are wandering. I buried this question for a while. I let it sleep. Then I began to read Arthur Koestler.

Arthur Koestler is best known for his novel ‘Darkness at Noon’ which was published in 1940. I have not read it. He has written many books on a variety of topics. I found his book ‘The Sleepwalkers’. It is a history of man’s changing vision of the universe. Beginning from the ancient views on cosmology it moves on to Newton covering on its way three giants of science. Newton has said: ‘If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants’. The book covers few such giants: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Tycho de Brahe. The book is more than five hundred pages long but extremely engaging. I was into it for weeks and enjoyed every page. I liked the meaningful analysis of these scientists’ lives and their roles in the development of ideas. Later on I explored more of his books. First, ‘The Act of Creation’ which is a study of the process of a creative act in the realm of humour, art and science and later his autobiography ‘Arrow in the Blue’.

‘The Act of Creation introduces the concept of bisociation which means association of two previously unrelated matrices of thought. In plain English, to connect two thoughts from separate avenues which have not previously been connected. Koestler explains this concept throughout the book giving examples from disciplines seemingly as different from each other as humour and science. He proposes that a humourist, an artist and a scientist go through similar process before reaching their respective destinations, that is, a joke, a work of art (poem, novel, play, portrait, painting et)  and a discovery or an invention. You know when you have to explain a joke you just cracked and nobody laughed because it went above them, the joke loses its intended impact. Koestler explains why we laugh and then why a joke makes us laugh. He dissects many jokes and states where the fun in joke existed. If you have seen a movie called Dead Poets Society starring the now departed actor Robin Williams you will remember a scene, when the English teacher tells his students in the first lecture to tear off the pages from their text books, pages entitled ‘Understanding Poetry’, which measured the greatness of poem by a graph. The teacher asks them to rip the pages and tells them the real reason why poetry is written and read. When Koestler was explaining jokes to me, the scene came to my mind but I understood that he is doing it to make a point about similarities between works of art. So you can flatter yourself if you are a good humourist that you are as creative as a scientist or an artist. He speaks of pun, witticism, satire, impersonation and caricature in explaining the nature of humour.  From here we move on to the second part of the book (my favourite) entitled ‘The Sage’ about the scientists, inventors, discoverers.

I started to get answers to my vanity question as I said above from the following paragraph on page 87 of the Picador edition of the book I have:

Satisfaction presupposes the existence of a need or appetite. Intellectual curiosity, the desire to understand, is derived from an urge as basic as hunger or sex: the exploratory drive. It is the driving power which makes the rat learn to find  its way through the experimental maze without any obvious incentive being offered in the form of reward or punishment; and also the prime mover behind human exploration and research. Its ‘detached’ and ‘disinterested’ character – the scientists’ self-transcending absorption in the riddles of nature – is, of course, often combined with ambition, competition, vanity. But these self-assertive tendencies must be restrained and highly sublimated to find fulfilment in the mostly unspectacular rewards of his slow and patient labours. There are, after all, more direct methods of asserting one’s ego than the analysis of ribonucleic acids.

Koestler says that there must be certain factor present in the discoverer before he hits an original idea. The ripeness of thought, the role of chance, the power of his intuition, the perseverance of his efforts. He gives many interesting examples in sufficient details: Louis Pasteur’s inoculation methods in 1879, the invention of printing press in the fifteenth century, Newton’s gravity, Darwin’s natural selection, principles of Archimedes. The good thing is Koestler has included a brief summary at the end of each chapter. On the bisociation of thoughts in the arena of science, he writes:

Concerning the psychology of creative act itself, I have mentioned the following interrelated aspects of it: the displacement of attention to something not previously noted, which was irrelevant in the old and is relevant in the new context; the discovery of hidden analogies as the result of the former; the bringing into consciousness of tacit axioms and habits of thought which were implied in the code and taken for granted; the un-covering of what has always been there.

He relates the stories of Hellen Keller, Michael Faraday, Alexander Fleming, Benjamin Franklin, Otto Loewi, the discoverer of chemical transmission of nerve-impulses, Henri Poincare and many others. Particularly interesting is the role played by the ‘unconscious’ in the creative process the significance of its role presents a paradox about the nature of scientific activity. Koestler quotes Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, that:

the pioneer scientist must have ‘a vivid intuitive imagination for new ideas not generated by deduction, but artistically creative imagination

At this point, one wonders about the limitation of rationality. Koestler explains this paradox:

Here, then, is the apparent paradox. A branch of knowledge which operates predominantly with abstract symbols, whose entire rationale and credo are objectivity, verifiability, logicality, turns out to be dependent on mental processes which are subjective irrational, and verifiable only after the event.

I wonder at this. Rationality through irrationality. Momentary lapse of reason. Suspension of you logic. The book is extremely well written and fairly simple for a an average reader. If you are interested in the history of ideas, you will love this book. If you are science enthusiast, especially about its history, you will devour it like I did. The above paragraphs are not even the tip of the iceberg. The last part is about the creative activity of an artist but I found it a little less enlightening then ‘The Sage’.

I was impressed by Koestler’s writing therefore I bought his autobiography. If seen from the traditional view of life, the man seems insane.  Koestler was a short man and in his youth this became a basis for an inferiority complex. The only boy shorter than him in his class was a dwarf. If friends asked him to a party, he inquired about the stature of young ladies expected to be present and if a beautiful tall girl was expected to be at the party, he pleaded indisposition. He says that the examples of Napoleon, Beethoven and other undersized great men comforted him but not much. The best thing about the autobiographies is the writers frankness with which they write of the embarrassing moments, thoughts and actions. I always assume that whatever people write in their autobiographies is true and this gives me a satisfaction because I can sometimes relate to them.  When Koestler was a boy he had to go through appendectomy twice. He speaks of his fear of the operation but he did a really brave thing and an act I suppose very mature for his young years:

I was  told that the appendectomy, which had failed the first time, had to be repeated…….in fact I was in mortal fear of the ether mask, of a repetition of the choking agony before going under……. Then one day while reading the Tales of Munchausen, I had an inspiration. The chapter I was reading was the delightful story of the boastful Baron falling into a bog and sinking deeper and deeper. When he has sunk down to his chin, and his remaining minutes seem to be counted, he saves himself by the simple expedient of grabbing his own hair and pulling himself out….. I found the solution to the problem which had been haunting me. I was going to pull myself out of the bog of my fears by holding the ether mask myself over my face until I passed out. In this way I would feel that I was in control of the situation, and that the terrible moment of helplessness would not occur.

This is very courageous for a boy and here is a great piece of advice from the man:

I have learned to outwit my obsessions and anxieties…To arrive at an ‘’amicable arrangement with one’s neuroses sounds like a contradiction in terms – yet I believe that it can be achieved, provided one accepts one’s complexes and treats them with respectful courtesy, as it were, instead of fighting them and denying their existence.

In the beginning of his book, Koestler states different motives for writing an autobiography. At one point in his life, he made a strange vow. Think what you or I would do in the situation:

In 1937, during the war in Spain, when I found myself in prison with the prospect of facing a firing squad, I made a vow: if ever I got out of there alive I would write an autobiography so frank and unsparing of myself that it would make Rousseau’s Confessions and the Memoirs of Cellini appear as sheer cant.

And of course, in his frankness, he has written about his sexual life in a chapter, to speak of which would be trite. When I said that from traditional view of life the man was insane I had a fact in mind about Koestler’s life. One night he came home late after a long discussion on free will and determinism with a friend. On his way back, it started to rain, he stopped at a lamp post for a while. Then he went home and burnt his educational certificates and a file called Index which was a record of students accomplishments in Vienna. He says this burning of the Index was his burning of bridges and the end of his career as a respectful citizen and member of the engineering profession. The act was not premeditated. He was in the seventh semester of his studies. This was an unreasonable act on his part. His father had gone bankrupt sometime ago:

To abandon my studies in seventh semester and thereby to renounce a hard but solid professional career at a time when my parents’ only hope rested on it, was indeed the peak of unreason and irresponsibility.

Should we call this an act of courage? I think yes. An act of irresponsibility but an act of courage too. He explains why he did it. But at the time, it was purely unpremeditated. From here start his vagabond years. He leaves for Palestine. Koestler was a Jew and a supporter of Zionism and a separate state for the Jews. Spends years there. Goes to France as a journalist. By profession Koestler was a journalist. He left the engineering profession six months before he could have got a degree. After France he goes to Germany and on an expedition to Arctic aboard the Zeppelin. Later he joins the Communists. And he ends his biography at this point of this life,calling it the turning point. He writes about further encounters with many people in Palestine and France. I particularly found the chapters about his Zionist activities boring. Later on he would leave the Communists becoming too critical of them, would fight in the Spanish civil war for the Republicans, would write many more books. Koestler was born in Hungary in 1905. He and his wife committed suicide in 1983. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and leukaemia. He left a suicide note explaining the causes of his suicide.

I have yet to read his most important work, ‘Darkness at Noon’.

I have enjoyed Koestler’s work so far. I am sure his other books would be enjoyable too. When I read his autobiography, I found the act of burning his bridges very difficult in reality. Although he did it rashly but he did not regret it. He admitted his irresponsibility but ultimately his will to ‘lead my own life’ outweighed his guilt of callousness. He understood how a man might come to believe that his decisions are predestined. In a chapter titled ‘The blessings of unreason’  he says:

You were born on to a certain track, as a train is on its turn according to a timetable; and once on the track, you no longer had free will. Your life was determined, by outside forces: the rail of steel, stations, shunting points. If you accepted that condition, running on rails became a habit which you could no longer break. The point was to jump of the track before the habit was  formed before you became encased in a rattling prison. To change the metaphor: reason and routine kept people in a strait-jacket which made their living flesh rot beneath it.

What about the people you leave on the track? Are their lives not important? They could have only made a decision to stay on the track so that you could come into this picture in the first place! Was Koestler not not well versed in basic morals of doing good to your parents. The question is ‘ Is this a question of morality?’. What should we do when morals are at odds with courage? Are morals ever at  odds with courage? His parents didn’t die when he left. He wrote them a long letter telling them about an imaginary job in a factory to gain practical experience has caught his attention in Palestine and therefore he is leaving. His parents cursed him but gave him their blessings. The reason I am talking about this episode in his life is because I could never do it. Can you do it?

Leave off your studies in the last semester and go away to the land of your choice? I am sure many more people have taken these decisions and we are often encouraged to live our life, break the chains of traditions, innovate, take the reins of your fate in your own hands, make your own destiny. Such decisions demand that we suspend rationality for a while and take the courageous, bold unreason as our guide when on crossroads!

But to close the matter: when he discussed this idea with his friends they didn’t approve of it at the time. They told him to get the degree first in six months and then move on to wherever he wanted so that he can always fall back upon his qualification. To throw away a safe profession in the last minute is to act like a complete fool. To this Koestler replied: ‘But I want to act like a fool!’  I think he could have completed his degree and then move on, it would have made no difference. But who knows. Koestler was successful in his journalistic career and what would have happened if he hadn’t jumped off the train at the time he did? The answers to such questions do not exist.  Bear in mind that we are discussing this post-event, do we go through this pattern of thought at the time of acting? Rarely.

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