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“Oh how quickly passeth the glory of the world away!” March 18, 2013

Posted by newsthatstaysnews in Uncategorized.

I felt a bit childish, to have reached Punjab, a thousand miles from anything like home, and in all probability a singular opportunity, and to spend my time in simply sleeping, reading, and at times wading across the sidewalkless bridge, thinking, quite against my will, “sikh transit gloria mundi”.  At rest, I did not feel weariness, but self reflection is not easy for me.

I was disappointed when I chose not venture to Himachal Pradesh.  It took perhaps a day and a half afterward before I sought and failed to deny for the last time the necessary consequences of taking even a broken fever to a day or two of bitter cold, or still-loose bowels to six hours of bumpy, winding roads.  It took perhaps another hour to make peace with a decision to which I at last conceded no alternative.  It was a little better when I finally returned to my hotel room from a walk, lay down on a soft enough bed, and slept.

In time, I came to be feel curiously happy, to believe that I was exercising what virtue belonged to my situation.  I found a tailor to cut and hem a pair of pants, that I might again wear something unsoiled by sickness.  While he worked, I drank lemon coriander soup and sat on a cement slab in which were sunk the six-inch stainless serif words ‘NO EXIT’.  I found the “Booklover’s Retreat”, where practical sorcery and books of chemistry experiments sit one atop the other, and a man who has spent the last half century selling books observed that “Bertrand Russell was a great man, but they do not read him so much these days”.  I found the Crystal restaurant, which sold me cardboard boxes with plastic bags of rice and hot lemon coriander soup inside them to accompany Russell in my room.

Through a narrow alleyway, I found the Jallianwala Bagh in which to read Russell.  A peaceful walled garden amidst a sea of five-story apartments, with barbed wire to keep one off the grass, waste bins to leave litter, and painted labels to make the bullet holes in the walls easier to see.  In the words of the well known Indian independence activist Winston Churchill:

The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons.  It was not attacking anybody or anything.  It was holding a seditious meeting.  When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away.  Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other.  When fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides.  The fire was then directed upon the sides.  Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground.  This continued for 8 or 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.

At the end of that road, I found the golden temple itself, around which to think about what I’d read.  Some things are still magnificent even if you are led to expect them.  At the main gate, one begins to hear the chanting, and then suddenly, past the white stone pillars, the temple itself: a warm golden haze in the rippling black waters between the bright reflections of sodium vapor lights.  It speaks to the inexcusable poverty of my memory and imagination that I can only compare the style of metalwork of the unreflected temple to a gilded cigar case, in form like some silver tray that one’s rich aunt might have lying about the house.  Looking outward, the whole perimeter in white, lit by its own patchwork of mercury vapor.  To the south, two great watchtowers, partially rebuilt, and an incongruous water tower, same.  It’s easy to forget that thirty years ago, the whole complex was filled with armed insurgents, then with soldiers, and finally with death.  That the army used artillery against the great white building to the left.   That the assassins of Indira Gandhi are still honored there every year.  Today though, it is peaceful, and full even at 8PM on a Wednesday.  I sat by the water and thoughtabout sin as lèse-majesté against God, which I like as a moral rhetoric, but I guess I don’t really believe in.  And vice as a state of moral disorder in a person which I don’t have a good vocabulary for, but I guess I do believe in.

Beliefs have a dreadful tendency to imply one another.  I thought about Xenophanes for some reason, and thence about a tiger’s virtues, among which mercy is nowhere to be found.  I felt bound to try to explain why it might yet turn up among a human’s virtues; I seem to remember that Aristotle does this, but don’t seem to have been impressed enough with the details to commit them to memory.

Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920

I would like to believe, too, that virtue can be stable in the aggregate.  The clever and the wise have yet to convince each other from first principles that the basic rules by which we understand our universe allow such a condition.  And as no traveler has returned from such a land to publish in Nature, science has for now provided little hope of this.

I have long been puzzled by the simple rules of Chess, and myriad interesting possibilities they are found to contain, among them that my father and I might play it contentedly by the fire.  I am no subtle metaphysician to say in what sense those possibilities come to exist when the rules are set out, or how come they are good whereas the rules of the card game ‘Ass,’ which I’d learned not long before, produce a long and arbitrary round of elimination and then -after a brief period in which it was advantageous to have kept count of the suits- promptly conclude.

To me, ‘Progress’ is the hope that basic decency between thinking creatures may in that same sense result from the rules of the universe, and do so more and more frequently as individual capabilities increase.  I believe that God intended something with these rules.  What is more improbable and more arrogant is to think that we may be a part of it.

At any rate, I stood and queued up to walk into the golden temple itself.    From within, I could see that the riveting was not so perfect, and the ceiling fans were -painted bronze to blend in.  That three men were chanting over the book, seemingly the chanting which I could hear outside.  It is beautiful without being perfect, so that it doesn’t matter if the gold is only a veneer.  I liked that the two flights of marble steps to the rooftop are narrow, and not overly regular, and the sense that there was no need for them to be.  On the way out, there was a sugary dough for those who had passed through the temple.  I did not eat it,  and as I passed out the main gate, the chanting faded away behind me.

On the whole, I confess that I enjoy the torches-and-incense aspect of houses of worship, and the sense of the sublime that it creates independently of the reflective action of reason.  I recognize that the conditions to create this feeling can be understood, and cynically manipulated to create authority.  And yet, I still believe that the sense of the sublime helps us understand truths about the world beyond whatever directly inspires it.  I feel more than a little childish, believing that without any reason at all.



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