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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 33” by Lao Tzu

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.

This is one of those passages where every word resonates with truth. I read this short section three times and found it so perfect in its brevity and wisdom.

The second line really made me think about the word “insight” in a way I never really did before. To have insight is to see beneath the surface, to peer deep within yourself, and grasp the true nature of your being. To have real insight is a tremendous accomplishment. I feel like this word has become trivialized through overuse. If you stop and think about it, very few individuals gain a deep understanding of themselves, hence very few of us ever gains true insight.

The first line of the second stanza also struck me as profoundly true: “He who knows when he has got enough is rich.” We westerners, ensconced in our consumer society, never seem to feel we have enough. There is always something else to strive for, something better which we desire. But how much material stuff do we need, and is real wealth measured by how much stuff or money you have? I suspect that to be rich in the way Lao Tzu is describing is to be content with having your necessities met, and being fulfilled spiritually.

Finally, I thought about the last line a lot. What does it mean to die, but not perish? At first I considered that it may mean becoming one with the divine source after leaving this mortal world. And this is still a valid interpretation. But then I wondered if death here symbolizes something else, something that is connected with the rest of the passage. I began to suspect that maybe to die, as Lao Tzu suggests in this passage, means to end the constant materialistic striving which defines the lives of so many of us. Maybe dying is letting go of our grip on the material world and embracing the spiritual. Doing so will fill us with wisdom, a treasure which remains with us after we free ourselves from the body.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 29” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Does anyone want to take the world and do what he wants with it?
I do not see how he can succeed.

The world is a sacred vessel, which must not be tampered with or grabbed after.
To tamper with it is to spoil it, and to grasp it is to lose it.

In fact, for all things there is a time for going ahead, and a time for following behind;
A time for slow-breathing and a time for fast-breathing;
A time to grow in strength and a time to decay;
A time to be up and a time to be down.

Therefore, the Sage avoids all extremes, excesses and extravagances.

I feel that this is a passage that every politician, every corporate CEO, and every Wall Street banker should read. It is essentially the same idea as expressed in the sayings “Live simply so that others may simply live,” or “The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth.” As I look around at the mania associated with the frantic quest after more and more, I cannot help but acknowledge that this mindset is totally unsustainable. If we continue to tamper with our world and strip it of its resources, we will ultimately initiate our own demise. Lao Tzu, who lived in the 6th century BC, already understood this. Why is it so difficult for people to grasp today?

The other thing that struck me as interesting about this passage is its similarity to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which was put to music in the song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I am not sure whether there was a sharing of ideas between the east and west in antiquity, or whether the authors had both tapped in to the same source of divine inspiration, but the parallel is something worth pondering.

Today, I will avoid all “extremes, excesses and extravagances.” If we all made a conscious effort to do this, what a change it would make in the world.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 27” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

Good walking leaves no track behind it;
Good speech leaves no mark to be picked at;
Good calculation makes no use of counting-slips;
Good shutting makes no use of bolt and bar,
And yet nobody can undo it;
Good tying makes no use of rope and knot,
And yet nobody can untie it.

Hence, the Sage is always good at saving men,
And therefore nobody is abandoned;
Always good at saving things,
And therefore nothing is wasted.

This is called “following the guidance of the Inner Light.”

Hence, good men are teachers of bad men,
While bad men are the charge of good men.
Not to revere one’s teacher,
Not to cherish one’s charge,
Is to be on the wrong road, however intelligent one may be.
This is an essential tenet of the Tao.

This is an interesting passage and begs the question: what does it mean to save? It appears that a sage is efficient at saving both people and things.

The saving of things is something dear to me. In our consumer society, things are too often used and discarded. Items have built-in obsolescence so that they break and cost more to fix than they do to replace. Unfortunately, this path is not sustainable, and if we do not change how we use and reuse our valuable and limited resources, we will reach a point where we will no longer be able to continue with our current economic model.

The other act of saving regards people, and this immediately kicked up negative associations of proselytizers knocking on my door and attempting to convert me to some form of religious doctrine. But I do not think that is the kind of saving that Lao Tzu was talking about here. I suspect that he is instructing the sage to practice compassion and empathy, to not be judgmental of others, and to serve as an example of how to live in balance with nature and spirit.

Essentially, I can sum this passage up as an instruction to help other people while not being wasteful.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 1

InfiniteJest

So I recently started reading Infinite Jest, which is no small undertaking. Weighing in at a whopping 1079 large pages of small type, I suspect this book will keep me busy for a while. Which posed a dilemma: Do I wait until the end before I write about it, or do I write posts as I work my way through the book? I decided to do both, to post quotes from the text and share my thoughts on them as I make my way through, and then share my overall thoughts about the book as a whole once I complete it.

So, here is the first passage that I want to talk about:

Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.”’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.’

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

(pp. 106 – 107)

There is a lot here that I found interesting. First off, the issue of fanaticism has definitely dominated the forefront of world news as of late. And it is not just ISIS; I see fanaticism spreading to all areas of society, here in the US as well as abroad. People have become very attached to their causes, ideologies, beliefs, and so forth. And there is an intense fervor associated with this fanatical attachment. No one seems willing to compromise. There is no longer any room for healthy debate. People have become so polarized that they view any slight deviation from their belief as a full-frontal assault on the ideologies that they hold dear. This is a very dangerous trend, in my opinion.

There is also a satirical criticism against our society here. We are a consumerist society, and we maintain a fanatical attachment to our “things” which borders on worship. We are attached to brands. Coke drinkers would never dream of buying a Pepsi. Apple users cringe at the thought of having to use a PC. We are drawn to the latest gadgets, leering at catalogs and flyers like porn. Our fanaticism, like a disease, has spread throughout our entire being. It is frightening when you stop to think about it.

This has caused me to stop and question what it is that I am fanatical about. I challenge you to look at yourself too and see what it is that you are fervently attached to.

Thanks for stopping by, and I will share more thoughts on Infinite Jest soon.

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“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

HowlIf you read just one poem in your lifetime, it should be “Howl.” This poem not only captures and expresses the unspoken reality of post-WWII America, but it shattered social taboos and paved the way for artistic expression that continues today. It is truly a masterpiece.

The poem is much too long to include here. You can click here to read it online; or better yet, go and purchase a copy from your local indie bookstore. Ginsberg would certainly approve of that.

The poem begins with one of the greatest poetical openings ever, in my opinion:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

It is free-form poetry that has a distinct rhythm. I’ve heard it compared with Walt Whitman, and I can see that, but the rhythm is unique and heavily influenced by the jazz music of that period. Reading the words, the cadence makes me feel like I am in a smoke-filled basement and losing myself in hypnotic beats.

In addition to the long, winding lines of verse, Ginsberg brilliantly uses alliteration to create the musical feel of the poem. The following line is a great example of this, where he uses the “B” sound to accent the verse and drive the natural rhythm of the language.

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

The 1950’s were a time of repression. Thinking and acting in a way that didn’t fit in with the social mores could be very dangerous. As a result, people began exploring new spiritual and intellectual paths. Ginsberg expresses this searching and longing in the poem.

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,  

who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels,

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,

Travel and mysticism were not the only ways in which Ginsberg and his contemporaries searched for meaning in their world. They also turned to sex and drugs, and for Ginsberg, this was open homosexuality, something that was not accepted at that time. Ginsberg expresses his homosexuality with frank openness, something which led to an attempt to ban the poem as pornographic. Thankfully, the courts upheld the artistic value of the poem in one of the landmark censorship cases.

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,

The poem is divided into three parts. The second part focuses on Moloch. Moloch was a god worshiped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites who required parents to sacrifice their children by fire. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch) Ginsberg adopts the symbol of Moloch and employs it as a metaphor for America. People were expected to sacrifice themselves and their children to a culture that demanded obedience, crushed individuality, and thought of people as nothing more than cogs in the great wheel of capitalist consumerism. It was a society where money was God.

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

The third section of the poem is all about how Ginsberg relates with Carl Solomon, to whom the entire poem is dedicated. Solomon was a writer who was influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism. He was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital where he was subjected to shock therapy. (Source: Wikipedia) In the final section, Ginsberg uses the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” to express solidarity, and most importantly, to assert that, like Solomon, we are all institutionalized. We are all trapped within the society that seeks to dull our minds with the continuous zapping of our thoughts. All creativity and deviation from the societal norms is systematically extinguished by a culture that demands conformity.

Again, I cannot stress enough how important this poem is. It is one of the most ground-breaking works of literature ever. While I have your attention, I’ll also recommend watching the film “Howl” starring James Franco, which has some great reenactments of the court sessions where Lawrence Ferlinghetti from City Lights Books was on trial for publishing Howl and Other Poems.

Finally, there is a “Footnote to Howl” which stands alone poetically. You can probably guess what my next post will be.

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“The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde

I’ve been pretty busy lately with work and the Olympics, so I thought I would read something short and fun. “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde was the perfect choice: quick, entertaining, well written, and thought-provoking. Basically, it’s a story about an obnoxious American family that moves into an English country house that is haunted. The ghost finds the family so insufferable that it becomes depressed.

One of the things I found the most humorous was the Americans’ obsession with brand-name products, suggesting that the ghost use “Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator” to oil his chains so as not to make too much noise at night. It seems that little has changed. American’s still appear swayed by marketing and advertisement. I can’t turn on the TV without being bombarded by commercials telling me which brand is preferred by 4 out of 5 ______ and how this car will make all the women look at me. Whether you want to admit it or not, we are a consumer society.

For me, the most intriguing line of the story was the very last one: “Virginia blushed.” This was in response to her husband asking if she would tell their children about what happened when she was with the ghost. It is not clear why she blushed. It would appear that the idea of them conceiving children was the reason, but I suspect there is something else going on, that there was some form of intimate relationship between Virginia and the ghost. There are two clues that make me think this. First is the ruby necklace that the ghost gave to Virginia, the crimson color of the rubies symbolizing the blood associated with the loss of virginity (Virgin/Virginia). The second was that after Virginia returns from her time with the ghost, the twins point out the blossoms that appear on the almond tree, blossoms representing the blossoming of a virgin into womanhood.

There is a lot to contemplate in this short story, so it is definitely worth a read. If you want, you can download a free copy from Project Gutenberg. Enjoy!!

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