I WAS very surprised that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is an excellent writer. Believe it or not, I do occasionally read things other than football reports, and I have enjoyed Ishiguro’s work tremendously.
However, I always thought that the Nobel Prize for literature was given to authors who are so complex and hyper intelligent that they seem to be from another planet. I have tried to read the books of some of these folks – Naipaul, Saramago and Gao, to name a few. And I haven’t managed more than 20 or 40 pages. It’s not because the books were awful. It’s just that they were too difficult.
Contrast this to Ishiguro’s breakthrough book The Remains of the Day. My Japanese mate introduced it to me and I read it in one night. It was a jolly good read, but it wasn’t particularly challenging.
But then, can we be surprised? After all, Bob blinking Dylan won the prize last year. Seriously? “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? …The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Seriously?
Again, I am not dissing Bob. I think that Blood on the Tracks is an awesome album; it’s the best break-up album money can buy. And I remember fondly hearing him sing unintelligibly at, of all places, the Putra World Trade Centre. But is he up there with Neruda?
Musical Genius Bob Dylan and a Man of Peace
Okay, at this point, you may be saying that I am being elitist. Maybe I am, but not in the way that you may think. After all, I freely admit that I am not smart enough to get the works of the Nobel winners that I have tried to read. How can I be elitist when I clearly don’t understand them?
I guess what I am trying to say is that it is good to have some crazy mad high standard of human achievement; something to look up to and admire. A gold standard that perhaps in our own small way we can aspire to.
The same goes for sport. As sweet as it is to see the Falkland Islands badminton team huff and puff away at the Commonwealth Games, it is the elite in sport that truly captures the imagination.
It is when we bring things down to a lower or in the case of television, the lowest, common denominator that we start to lose that aspirational element of human endeavour. Why train and work hard to be a good actor when you can simply be obnoxious and have your own reality TV show?
And so it is in politics. I want leaders who are smarter and more able than me. They should be people who have a grasp of the world that I don’t have, in order for problems to be solved and governance to be good. If we just go for the popular and the lowest common denominator, then any Tom, Dick or Donald can be a leader and that could be disastrous.
All people are created equal. That is something I believe in. But not everybody can achieve equally. Some are just stronger or smarter or more talented.
It is one thing to acknowledge those who can be appreciated by a wider audience, who are more like “one of us”. But if we do that all the time, then what is there to aspire to? What is there to inspire?
Azmi Sharom (email@example.com) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
I am fascinated with Bamboo. It is Nature’s gift to mankind because it is versatile and durable. Dr.Kamsiah and I plant bamboo in our home, no. 26, Jalan SS22/39, Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya to enrich our environment and attract the birds.
Have a good weekend.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican
This hotel pianist once wrote songs for Sudirman and toured with P. Ramlee. Jon Chew tells his extraordinary story.
At three o’clock, Tuesdays to Sundays, underneath the gold-leaf dome roof of the grand five-star Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur, a man hunches over a black Yamaha piano. He wears a bow tie, a white jacket, and a hearing aid on his left ear. Slowly, he takes out a small turquoise clock, and leaves it on the left-hand ledge. He places a file of loose sheet music next to him. He takes a pause. Then, he begins to play.
He doesn’t smile. His fingers dance on a white ivory floor, born again like a young ballerina’s joy at touching the ground with the tip of her toes. He starts with “Moon River”, segues into “Top of the World”, then flows into the classic “As Time Goes By”. He is 75 years old.
For 45 minutes, history’s greatest pop songs are seamlessly twisted in the pianist’s hands. Still, no smile.
The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur
Hotel Majestic —which first opened its doors in 1932, and relaunched in December, 2012 to much fanfare—is a building that doubles as a treasure trove of Malaysian history. Former patrons claim the Allied forces of World War II conspired within the walls of this hotel; the inaugural meeting of the Independence of the Malaya Party, held by Datuk Onn Jaafar, took place here in 1951.
Dato’ Ooi with Tan Sri P. Ramlee, both are from Penang
Today, as every day, guests are spending a cloudy afternoon basking in the Majestic’s colonial luxury. A group of girls eat scones on embroidered sofas. Some aunties chatter while sipping the house-blended Boh Cameronian tea. Waiters decked in white jackets walk around in brisk fashion. The only constant is the sound of music that floats in the air, the last thing anyone would remember.
Yet, unbeknownst to everyone present in this room, the old man hunched over the piano is Ooi Eow Jin. 38 years ago, Ooi Eow Jin (known to hotel staff as Uncle Ooi) was one of the music industry’s most sought-after composers.
It was Ooi who once toured with P. Ramlee, who conducted the most lauded orchestra in the land, and who wrote the first song ever recorded in a studio by a revered Malaysian singer: Sudirman.
Ooi will always have a love affair with hotels. In 1960, he became one of the first resident pianists at the E&O Hotel in Penang, and entertained guests every night in their lounges for three years. On one of these nights, Alfonso Soliano, a jazz hero, music arranger and the founder of the seminal RTM Orchestra, came to the hotel for drinks.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang
“It was at that place when he first heard me,” says Ooi as we sit at a corner of the Majestic before his session. His voice is brittle, strung-out. His thoughts jump between past and present. Sometimes he stops, and leans forwards to ask you to repeat your question. He wonders why we’re sitting here in conversation.
Well, you have an interesting life.
“I don’t know what is there to write about me,” he says, words rattling gently inside a soft, time-worn box. “I’ve been doing this for too long.”
But of the details on the night that changed his life, his memory is still as clear as a full moon. “I was playing that night, and he heard me,” he recalls. “He got interested, started asking questions about me with his friends. After I played, he got a hold of me personally and asked, ‘Why don’t you come to KL and play with the Orchestra?”
“Those days, the RTM Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”
This was a big deal. Soliano had moved from his part-time job playing keyboards at nightclubs to starting an orchestra at then-Radio Malaya in 1957. When television broadcasting was introduced in 1963, the RTM Orchestra became one of the most widely-watched music acts in the country.
It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the then-24 year old Ooi, and he left his day job as a government clerk and took the risk of moving to the capital. “Imagine people saying, ‘You are crazy. You’ve got a full-time salaried government job, and you’re leaving it for a contract job.’” He wags his finger, reminding you that one generation will always admonish another for choosing uncertainty over certainty. “But that was my calling. I couldn’t be a clerk if there was something like this in front of you. Those days, the Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”
Radio Malaya Band with Alfonso Soliano in the early 1960s
Ooi would spend the next 17 years in the RTM Orchestra. “It was a great experience playing all kinds of music. To have the orchestra there, that’s something, you know? That… that really took my heart away.” Soliano would groom Ooi to become the orchestra’s senior arranger, giving him opportunities to conduct concerts, and teaching him how to compose a piece of music. “He guided me. He wanted me to depend on my ears. ‘What you hear, you play’, he would tell me.’”
Ooi’s career would soon intersect with another artiste looking for his own break in life. In 1976, a young singer with a songbird’s voice by the name of Sudirman Arshad took part in a nascent reality show called Bintang RTM. In the final round, Ooi arranged a Broadway medley that would help Sudirman win the competition. “I used two songs. One of them was ‘Cabaret’, and the other was ‘Big Spender’. I arranged those two songs for him, and he got first prize because of that.”
The two became friends, and Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”. History tells us that Sudirman would become an Asian phenomenon, pulling in 100,000 people in a Chow Kit Road open air concert, tabbed as “Malaysia’s Number One Entertainer”.
The Legend –Sudirman Haji Arshad
Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”.
“One thing I know of Sudirman is that he is a very, very humble man, a very nice person to know,” Ooi says. “Every time he meets me, when he was famous, he would say, “Mister Eow Jin, I can never forget you for what you’ve done for me. Imagine someone like that saying like that about you.” He looks down, humbled by the power of a sincere compliment. “It makes your heart melt.”
Ooi gets up from his seat, and returns soon after with a CD in his hand. It is a compilation of twenty compositions, a greatest-hits collection he gives out to friends. It’s part of a personal canon that encompasses over 60 Malay pop songs, a nostalgic walk-through of the local music industry’s heyday.
Singing Sensation Dahlan Zainuddin
He penned the weepy hit “Masa Berlalu” for singer Salamiah Hassan, the mother of current jazz singer Atilia; other singles include Dahlan Zainuddin’s “Lagu Untukmu”and Yunizar Hoessein’s “Kisah Gadis Sepi”. He wrote the entire soundscape for Yassin Salleh’s blockbuster film Dia Ibukuin 1981, along with the theme song sung by the popular M. Nasir. He would rub shoulders with industry luminaries that spanned the entire region; names like Gigi Villa, the Alleycats and Frances Yip all sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.
“I have something that will knock you down.” He takes out a photograph, and lays it on the table. It is a black-and-white snapshot of a boyish, bespectacled Ooi wearing an army uniform. He is standing next to P. Ramlee on the shores of Sebatik Island off Tawau.
Industry luminaries sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.
Ooi played for the Malaysian legend during a tour of 21 army barracks in Borneo in 1965, bringing A-class entertainment to the armed forces. “We were quite near the Indonesian camps, and we could hear gunfire sometimes, at a distance… A few of us would fly in on helicopters into these camps, and we would do on-the-spot performances for the soldiers.”
By any generation’s estimation, this is unquantified success. But as Ooi deep-dives through his past, something escapes his grasp like grains of sand. For all the credits, his name rarely comes up in any historical tome of Malaysian music.
When asked about his success, Ooi pinches the skin of his wrist. “I am the only one amongst so many Malay composers. I was the first non-Malay composer to write Malay songs for films,” he says. “There is something, when I tell you, you’ll feel a bit sad. You know FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia]? I won the prize for best theme music for one movie, you know? After they announced the prize for best theme song for the movie, you what came out in the papers the next day? Nothing came out.”
His voice becomes unsteady. “You devote so much to this, and you get nothing out of it. Just because of…” And he pinches his skin again.
Older guests who come to the Majestic Hotel—some fans of the RTM Orchestra, or simply those who listen to artistes like Sudirman and are homesick for a piece of history—still remember Ooi. “Some will come up and say, ‘Hey, you formerly from RTM Orchestra ah?’ Ya lah, I’m now doing a new job.” By a twist of fate, the Filipino quartet who plays in the evenings after Ooi’s session are the Solianos, a family ensemble who are all children of the late Alfonso Soliano, Ooi’s mentor.
Many years later, Ooi still plays because it is a calling that he cannot quiet. “How do you retire? Unless you are too sick to play? I will play until I cannot play. Because there is nothing else to do.” Ooi has also seen his only two sons through tragedy; the eldest had a brain tumour in his twenties that has resulted in two serious operations, and his youngest son died of leukaemia as a youth. “These are just the sad things of my life I put away. I store it away somewhere, and try to pretend it didn’t happen.”
He comes to us after his first session. He sits on our table, and a waitress brings him a cup of coffee. Instead of drinking one of the hotel’s hinterland imports, this cup is made from a three-in-one instant coffee mix from Malacca, a sachet he gives to the kitchen to specially brew for him every day. He grabs her hand, and pats it like a grandfather.
“Thank you.” He looks up and smiles at her, paying forward the kindness once shown to him a long time ago. “You are a very nice lady.”
“No problem, Uncle.”
He leans forward, eyes tainted in fading black. “Did you hear me?” He looks back at us for an answer.
We could hear you.
“I’m always not sure whether people can hear me from back here.”
Soon, he returns for his second 45-minute session. The medleys will fill the room. But all around him, the music stays silent.
UPDATE: As of 30th June 2015, Mr Ooi has retired as a pianist, aged 77. However, friends rallied around by organising a fund raising concert to help the pianist through his family difficulties.
On 7th September 2015, Mr Ooi was conferred a Datukship by the state of Penang. Poskod.MY is honoured to have played a small role in bringing wider attention to this music man.
The following text is adapted from a keynote address given to the recipients of the 2017 Whiting Awards for emerging writers.
When my mother’s mother began to die of a mysterious, undiagnosable neurological illness, the first thing she lost was her sense of taste. For most families, perhaps, this would be a rather inconsequential loss, but this had severe repercussions for us. As the matriarch of our heaving, multi-generational family, she had always helmed the kitchen with an efficient, if somewhat despotic, hand. Because all the food in that household was cooked by her—years earlier, an attempted takeover by one of the uncle’s wives had been swiftly and tyrannically rebuffed—my grandmother was, in fact, the ultimate arbiter of taste. For decades, this had been a relatively stable and blissful arrangement: she was an acutely talented cook. But as her taste buds numbed, week by week, the food turned from mild to well-seasoned to intolerably spicy. It was, perhaps, a kind of neural compensation for her—the way people with early hearing loss often begin to speak more loudly—but the fish curry now went off on the palate like a thermonuclear bomb. The lentils exfoliated the tongue. The fried spinach was an incinerating terror; the okra, an endurance sport. When even the white rice, the final refuge of the Asian tongue, began to arrive at the table with halved Thai bird peppers on top, the seeds squinting above it, we squirmed in terror. But we steeled ourselves and kept eating: numbness begetting numbness.
I want to talk to you today about desensitization. In my other life, I am an oncologist. Numbness, you might say, is my occupational hazard. Over the past month or so, I have watched twelve of my patients die from or relapse with cancer. Yesterday, I heard that a friend who ran my favorite restaurant, the place I went for daily refuge while I was writing my last book, passed away from tongue cancer that had colonized her brain and bones. When interviewers ask me how I carry on carrying on, I speak about the startling successes with some of my patients, about hope and the future. But I do not—I cannot—tell them that a certain kind of numbness must be a part of it. I come home from the bone-marrow-transplant wards on a January morning and play with my dog, rearrange the furniture, and practice polynomial factorization with my daughter. I celebrate a recent laboratory paper with a glass of champagne. I return to the wards the next morning and look down a microscope to find a marrow choked up with leukemia cells after a heroic attempt at salvage chemotherapy. And this cycle repeats. You might say that I have an advanced degree in desensitization.
But, of course, I am not here to describe the numbness that accompanies medical practice. There is a different form of desensitization that surrounds us today. When I was asked to give this talk to a roomful of aspiring writers, I had to confront the elephant-in-the-room question: How shall we continue to write in these numbing times?
On April 21, 1890, a thirty-year-old doctor turned writer named Anton Chekhov travelled to Sakhalin Island, a penal colony, in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. The journey took three months. To get to Sakhalin, Chekhov had to cross, by train, the wind-blown steppes of northern Russia and the still-frozen Siberian tundra. He boarded a horse-drawn carriage, then a steamer across the Amur River, and then a small trawler ship across the Okhotsk Sea.
Why, you might ask, did an unusually sensitive and mild-mannered man—delicate of physical and mental constitution—choose to travel to a hostile, faraway island inhabited by thieves, hustlers, and murderers? Chekhov told some of his friends that he was going to Sakhalin to run a census (and indeed he did run a census, although he didn’t seem to care particularly about the data). He told others that he was doing some sort of ethnographic project on the prisoners and settlers as part of his medical studies. But the census and the medical project were half-lies, each merely an excuse—a “device,” to use his word—to bring him to the island.
So what was the real reason that drove the journey? Chekhov’s medical training had left him spiritually depleted. He had honed his observational skills and matured into an astute diagnostician. But the extraordinary quality of suffering that he had witnessed, and the inscrutable arbitrariness of sickness and death, benumbed him. Much of this anguish would find eventual voice in his later works—particularly in the story “Ward No. 6”—but he wrote virtually nothing about it at the time. We also know that his health was declining. Chekhov’s brother had died, of tuberculosis, in 1889, a year prior to Chekhov’s departure, and Chekhov himself, having spit up blood just before the arduous journey, also knew that he was infected with the bacillus, and that the illness would likely kill him. Perhaps he thought that the island would offer a kind of medical or mental sanatorium.
But as much as he was encumbered by the diseased state of his body, Chekhov was repulsed by the diseased state around him—by the sickness of the body politic. “To a certain extent,” his biographer Ernest Simmons writes, “his anxieties mirrored those of all thinking people of the Eighties, this ‘epoch of social stagnation.’ “ Tsarist Russia in the eighteen-eighties was suffused with moral and economic depravity. It was a society overrun by corruption, bribery, and nepotism. Censorship abounded. The news was frequently manipulated and false. Political dissidents were kidnapped, assassinated, or packed off to prison. The élites ensconced themselves in grotesquely opulent homes while poverty, violence, illness, and incipient famine haunted parts of the land.
It wasn’t just disease or death that Chekhov was trying to escape; it was deadliness. “There is a sort of stagnation in my soul,” he wrote to a friend. Chekhov, then, was looking to resensitize himself—to un-numb the numbness. He sought a place where he might inoculate himself against the ennui that was slowly destroying his soul.
Sakhalin Island, to put it mildly, was not a place for the faint-hearted. What Chekhov found there was a community even more depraved than the one he had left behind—an island society on the edge of sanity, law, and self-discipline. The men on this island hunted each other for sport. Women were routinely sold into prostitution. The children were malnourished and enslaved by adults. The prisoners bribed the guards, and the guards beat the convicts nearly to death.
Two examples from Chekhov’s writings about Sakhalin Island serve as conduits or portals to a deeper point. One is an encounter on the ferry across the Amur River:
On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.
The second describes a meeting with a woman on the island:
An old woman called Miss Ulyana cohabits with a prosperous old peasant in exile. Once, a very long time ago, she had killed her baby and buried it in the ground; at the trial, she said that she had not killed the child but buried it alive—she thought that she would stand a better chance of being acquitted that way. The court sentenced her to twenty years. Telling me about this, Ulyana wept bitterly, but then she wiped her eyes and asked, “Fancy buying a nice little bit o’ pickled cabbage?
In Plato’s Republic, Leontius, the soldier, forced to confront a glut of decaying human corpses, turns his eyes away in horror and shame. But the appetite to look overtakes him; he rushes toward the bodies, forcing his eyes open and shouting, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches.” Chekhov, the writer, neither turns away in disgust nor rushes forward to satisfy a sadistic curiosity. He simply looks, and looks again. The gaze is unsparing and penetrating, clear-eyed, clinical—a word used often in association with Chekhov. You cannot see if your eyes are clouded with tears, he seems to tell us: a weeping doctor is a useless doctor. He cuts away the artifice. He cauterizes our indulgences in pity or piety: it is impossible, he reminds us, to feel pity for the self-pitying.
But Chekhov, importantly, does not only cauterize. If the nerve ends were left seared, dead, and blunted—numbed—then he would be a lesser writer. In Chekhov, the clinical detachment—that cool, unsparing, astringent gaze—gives way to tenderness, to a sensitivity that is precisely the opposite of dispassion. The dissecting lamps must be turned on and left on, he realizes, but the patient cannot be left to wither under the mercury bulbs. She must be tended and resuscitated, made whole again. It is easy for the doctor to express moral outrage or indignation at the patient’s illness, but there is narcissism in that revulsion. It is easy, too, to concoct a moral fable out of sickness—“this is a punishment that the patient brought on himself”—but there is sadism in that confabulation. It is vastly more difficult, and more courageous, to observe, describe, diagnose, empathize, and heal. “Six principles that make for a good story,” Chekhov would later write, “are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.” The first five principles cleanse and desensitize our wounds. But it is the last—compassion—that moves us beyond numbness toward healing.
Chekhov, in short, invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness. “These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize,” Virginia Woolf would later write about Chekhov. “In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong. But where the tune is unfamiliar . . . as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”
It was this world—arbitrary and strange, not unjust but simply lacking justice, without moral or spiritual tidiness, with no simple harmonies, no hum-along tunes—that would find its full-throated voice in Chekhov’s most powerful later works. This world would be actualized in the plays and stories that he crafted after 1890, which would define his oeuvre and establish his reputation: “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and “Ward No. 6.” These works indubitably define modern writing. But, perhaps more significantly, they launch modern writing. Indeed, we might argue that Chekhov invented the modern novel—and, for that matter, contemporary narrative nonfiction—along the way. If the immensity of that achievement escapes us today, it’s because the fundamental elements of Chekhov’s writing—its clinical humanism, its keen compassion, its steadfast rejection of the narcissism of moral outrage and the sadism of moral fables—have become so familiar in the greatest of our literature that, like the air we breathe, they escape notice. We want to see Chekhov through the lens of the modern novel, but it’s the novel that must be seen through the lens of Chekhov.
I hesitate to make this story into a parable—its protagonist would have protested—but this, after all, is a keynote address. What—how—shall we write during this time of numbness? One temptation, perhaps, is to succumb to Leontius’ first urge: to turn our eyes away. Numbness begets numbness, and it’s easy to steel ourselves to our times, or to withdraw from engagement altogether. There’s a more insidious and seductive temptation: to indulge in self-pity and piety. Anger, like false news, is cheap and easily digestible; it is the fast food of the indignant.
Chekhov used Sakhalin as an antidote. It may not have restored his health, but it restored his sensitivity. He moved beyond his own numbness and found a new means of engagement with his world—and, in doing so, invented a new kind of writing. Today, and especially today, as the threat of desensitization—and the accompanying seductions of detachment, outrage, revulsion, indignation, piety, and narcissism—looms over all our lives, we might need to ask ourselves the question that Chekhov asked himself in the spring of 1890: What will move me beyond this state of anesthesia? How will I counteract the lassitude that creeps over my soul?
Each of us will find individual answers to these questions. There is no formula that describes what your solution might be (although Chekhov’s six principles of storytelling certainly come close to such a formula). But it is humbling to recall the breadth and depth of our literary debt to a thirty-year-old physician who set out to cure his anesthesia. The opposite of “anesthetic,” we might recall, is “aesthetic”—a word that originally referred to whatever could be perceived or felt but that came to refer to the nature of beauty. Beauty, in all its myriad forms, can only be created in opposition to numbness. That, at least for me, serves as a quiet manifesto for our times.
Siddhartha Mukherjee has published three books, including “The Emperor of All Maladies,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, and, most recently, “The Gene: An Intimate History.”
The $54 billion bonus heading for the Pentagon is a beautiful thing, and so far I haven’t heard a dog bark against it, even though we don’t appear to have $54 billion worth of new enemies and we’ve now come to admire former enemy Vladimir Putin, and the idea of throwing billions at the Islamic State is like going after bedbugs with bazookas, so there it sits, a big lake of cash waiting for water skiers.
Base pay for a private first class these days is around $22,000 and, granted, it is not rocket science — aerospace engineers can earn a hundred grand or more — but a Radio City Rockette earns about $1,500 per week. Should we be paying more for precision tap-dancing than for the defense of our country? Meanwhile, apple pickers are hauling down around $23,000 while orange pickers get $20,000. I’d say our soldiers are due for a big raise. Those caissons don’t roll themselves, you know. The shores of Tripoli are an ever-present threat to our security. And the halls of Montezuma are out for revenge.
I just hope that my good friends in the Pentagon will stop and think about the value of the arts and literature to our national defense. Some of that money, perhaps $3 billion or $4 billion, would be well spent encouraging writers and artists to cast a warmer light on our uniformed services than what we’ve seen the past century or so when, aside from George M. Cohan’s “Over There” (1917) and Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (1942), the arts have been decidedly anti-war.
When was the last time a great poet wrote an ode to the importance of following orders? 1854, that’s when. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” immortalizing Lord Cardigan’s botched mission in the Battle of Balaclava — “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Tennyson was England’s poet laureate at the time and felt obliged to turn a military disaster into something heroic. No American poet laureate ever wrote anything similar, and maybe that’s because they’re paid $35,000 a year. Make that $350,000 and give the laureate the rank of major general and a cap with a plume and see if the tune doesn’t change.
Our Nobel laureate Bob Dylan could have written (but did not):
Well it ain’t no use to sit around the barracks
And ask why you must drill.
Or ask why we have to carry rifles:
They are to injure, maim and kill.
Get out of bed at the break of dawn,
Put your helmet and your uniform on,
You’re not a bishop, son, you’re just a pawn.
Don’t think twice, it’s all right.
It’s no wonder that wealthy New York real estate heirs shopped around for physicians to diagnose heel spurs to exempt them from the draft. For a century, nobody has written a great work of literature celebrating America’s military — “Slaughterhouse-Five”? “Catch-22”? “The Naked and the Dead”? “The Things They Carried”? I don’t think so. Nobody read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and went down to the recruiting office to sign up.
It was not always thus. Look at what Homer did for the Greeks with his “Iliad.” It’s an action epic, one hero after another, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax — no introspective nonconformist in the ranks, wondering, “Why are we brutalizing each other? Why can’t we sit down and talk through our differences?” Because we are us and they are them, and it’s one for all and all for one, so grab your spear and go puncture those Trojans, son.
What we need to make America great again is American literature about greatness. Look at Leo Tolstoy. He could’ve just written “Peace” but he wrote “War.” too, both of them, glorifying General Mikhail Kutuzov, who engineered the defeat of Napoleon. Spending some of that $54 billion on the arts would be an excellent investment. If they need someone to write an epic poem, here I am, my pen is poised.
Media to the right of him,
Media to the left of him,
Loud was his battle cry,
The man with long red tie,
Onward he twittered.
Rising in early dawn,
Turning his smartphone on,
Texting he bravely fought,
Tweet after tweet he shot
With his red hat on,
Looking like George C. Scott
Playing George Patton.
It’s the story of a man who overcame his heel-spur handicap by playing golf regularly and eventually took command in his bomber jacket and led the country to greatness. It’s going to be fantastic. I promise you.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.
One of the first things that any undergraduate learns is that when writing a scientific text, he or she must provide references. In fact, without such references, a text is not considered scientific.
This referencing behaviour is meant to show that the student has been reading the correct material; and that he has been digesting the words so thoroughly that he can now include the thoughts in his own writing. Now, what a Malaysian student will end up doing is provide references to books and articles written by professors based in faraway universities and colleges.
Dr. Ooi Kee Beng, ISEAS (Yusuf Ishak Institute, Singapore
My argument is not with this jarring asymmetry in global knowledge. It has always been the case in human history that in every period of time, knowledge is concentrated and generated at certain centres much more than at others. At the moment, much first appears in the English language and in countries using that language. What’s more, the spread of new knowledge is also strongly overseen by a global network based on that language.
Sanskrit, Latin and Chinese, among others, have played that role before. But none has the global reach and the amazing speed and width of dissemination that English today commands. The soft power that America enjoys today – and no other culture comes close to the reach of its soft power – is not merely of its own doing; it rides on the back of hundreds of years of English imperial strength and colonial mastery, during which the English language and its cultural preconditions penetrated the farthest reaches of the world.
My concern is with a serious side effect of the sharp imbalance in knowledge generation in our times. What happens is that people outside the English-speaking world are left nursing a lack of confidence, not only in themselves but also in those in close proximity to them. Their behaviour where the transfer and generation of knowledge are concerned becomes rather warped.
In writing a scientific text, for example, it is much more probable than not that a Third World person will refer an idea or train of thought to a known person from a distant land even when that idea may have come to him through some other more immediate and personal channel. This is because he had learned to assume that he gains more points among his peers by referring to the politically and academically correct person; and that his own ideas are merely approximations of that bigger idea expressed better by others.
But if we contemplate the matter and observe what actually happens in our daily life, we should realise that inspiration comes most of the time from proximate impulses and from individuals in our surrounding.
Given the habit of referring distantly, the chances of us giving credit to those around us are also diminished, and complimenting things and people in our immediate surrounding – for referencing someone is indeed a high form of compliment – is rendered suspect.
The competition among students and scholars of showing that they know something that their peers have as yet not gotten around to knowing cultivates in them the tendency to be stingy with praise and to be secretive about their immediate sources of inspiration.
This is an impoverishment of the soul and of our culture; where we withhold praise and admiration from those close to us and give generously of the same to distant and often dead persons.
Note that I am merely using academic referencing to initiate a debate on a more general matter. In my experience, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, but if I were to inform people around me of personal epiphanies, I would not get as good a hearing as I would if I referred whatever idea I just had to some distant knowledge authority.
Perhaps this explains why prophets always come from distant lands speaking exotic languages; and sometimes bearing superior arms. Those who dare to be prophets in their homeland are forced to flee into exile or are crucified in one way or another.
Catholic hymns are sung in Latin, Japanese Buddhists chant in Chinese, and Muslim thoughts are preferred in Arabic. In the secular sphere, Coolness wears an American accent. Indeed, we seem tobe talking here about something generically human.
We tend not to join clubs that will accept us as members. Since you know me, you cannot possibly be a significant person. But I am being far too categorical here; I am not being generous. Come to think of it, there are two ideal types of people. There are those who cannot imagine that people they come into contact with can be important; and then there are those who treat all coming into their orbit as meaningful and significant. Most of us are sometimes the one, and sometimes the other.
My basic point is that, epiphanies are always waiting to happen and inspiration can come to us at any time and place. We just have to let this take place by not imagining that profundity dwells far away, and are foreign to us.
We just have to realise instead that inspiration lurks around every corner, and is present at every meeting.
This article is republished in Merdeka for the Mind: Essays on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century by Dr Ooi Kee Beng (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Centre, 2015). pp 9-11.