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A round peg in a world of square holes...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Amour propre



M____, a JC schoolmate I have not met for almost a decade, recently stumbled upon my blog and managed to contact me. We met for dinner to catch up on old times. In the course of the evening, she admitted that, upon reading Sandbox, she couldn't recognize me. Compared to my JC days, I've become very hard, she opined. A lady really shouldn't be this candid about her bedroom activities, I parried  :-P

1951: in a letter to his son in London, V. S. Naipaul, Seepersad Naipaul, wrote:

And as to a writer being hated or liked — I think it's the other way to what you think: a man is doing his work well when people begin liking him. I have never forgotten what Gault MacGowan [one-time editor of the Trinidad Guardian] told me years ago: 'Write sympathetically'; and this, I suppose, in no way prevents us from writing truthfully, even brightly."
 
If M____ had read this and this, she would realize that I have not become a bitter old folgey. In fact, on rare occasions, I might even rise to the exercise of non-malicious humor. But I am loathed to refer to my previous blog (having regard it as a closed chapter in my life), and that is how, I suppose, M____ developed her skewed opinion.

To write sympathetically, however, does not mean the descent into purple prose or maudlin drivel. Some truths are harsh; and, consequently, harsh language is required to examine, expose, or even engage these truths. Eleven years after receiving his father's advice, V. S. Naipaul, with scathing precision, in The Middle Passage wrote:

Trinidad teeters on the brink of racial war. . .. The Negro has a deep contempt. . . for all that is not white . . .. The Indian despises the Negro for not being Indian . . .. Like monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be whiter than the other, Indians and Negros appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise one another.

Such an observation may be harsh (it drove not a few of my liberal classmates crazy); it is certainly — grotesquely — politically incorrect, but neither detracts from its truth. In 1989, at Taman Negara, a national park in Malaysia, the orders for our table (consisting of Chinese, Malays and Indians) were delivered 45 minutes later, even though we arrived 20 minutes ahead of the table of Caucasians next to us. They received their food (with gratuitous smiles from the friendly Malay staff) within 10 minutes. Why? Our money is as good as theirs (and we ordered the same food). Why the self-denigration? Why the self-hate?

Hence, as posts such as "Silence is golden. STFU" and "Dogma and deracination" evince, when the occasion warrants, I can — will continue to — be harsh.

On this tropical-island-paradise-with-the-death-penalty, where insular denizens imbibe the Kool-Aid dished out by hacks; where the English language is mangled, brutalized, trampled, and bastardized — in print, on air, and on the screen; where "journalists" (actually, a significant number of them are former intelligence operatives. Do some research on individuals such as Chua Lee Hoong, Irene Ho, Susan Sim, and Tjong Yik Min. Reporters Without Borders rates Singapore No. 146 for press freedom in 2006. Coincidence?) such as a certain senior writer (with the initials J. D.) flubs his tenuous grasp of grammar and writes "___ and me" instead of "___ and I"; and, rather than being contrite when his mailbox overflows with reprimands from irate readers, embraces haughty indignance and compares himself to Shakespeare instead (What are you? You hew sycophantic babble for your (pay)masters on The Straits Times The Shitty Times, an Engrish language rag that fails to get its English right on a daily basis, and is not worth the paper it is printed on); where a "Mind and Body" journalist used "curriculum vitae to describe the physical exploits of Khoo Swee Chiow, and listed his nationality as "Malaysian-born," rather than "Malaysia-born"; where a print advertisement from a self-proclaimed, "leading, world-class" university brings attention to its failure to recognize the distinction between "tomorow" and "tomorrow"; where its sister university (allegedly a "world-class" institution as well) stages a farce of an exhibition, "Cultures of Creativity: The Centennial Exhibition of the Nobel Prize," to instill creativity by highlighting the lives of Nobel Prizer laureates, but conveniently leaves out the bit about Albert Einstein being one of the signatories of the "Manifesto Against Conscription and the Military System" ("lies by omission," anyone?); you can hardly expect me to be sympathetic.

V. S. Naipaul once wrote:

Writers need a source of strength other than that which they find in their talent. Literary talent doesn't exist by itself; it feeds on a society and depends for its development on the nature of that society. [ . . . ] The writer begins with his talent, finds confidence in his talent, but then discovers that it isn't enough, that, in a society as deformed as ours, by the exercise of his talent he has set himself adrift.

Writing with sympathy depends on the environment — you can't lower me into a pit of shit and honestly expect me to pen odes to flowers.

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