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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chuang Tze's Cup of Tea

My old friend, Chuang Tze, came for a visit. Every morning he would brew a peculiar pot of tea which was not like anything ever concocted before in this world. At 8.00am sharp, he would insist we put out a table in the forecourt, and leave a cup on it filled with his unique brew. Day after day, a few people would walk by but no one tried the tea. So I asked Chuang if I should put out a sign inviting people to sample his tea. But he was adamant that I should do nothing of the kind.

This morning I saw him watching intently as an elderly woman came by the front of the house. She looked at the cup of tea, paused for the briefest moment, and continued her journey. Chuang smiled and went off to sleep on the kitchen floor.

Later Chuang rose to pack his things and get ready for the train he would have to catch. I pressed him to explain what his ritual was all about. I was not surprised when he ignored my request, and instead asked me to brew a pot of tea. He said I must put whatever I wanted to into the pot, mix them in a manner of my choosing, and then pour it out carefully into a cup. “Do you want me to drink it?” he asked. “Absolutely not.” I replied. “Then let us leave the tea in the cup.” He then went off to catch his train.

Chuang’s now gone. I tried out another combination, and poured the resultant brew into a cup. The moment I finished pouring, I began contemplating what I would do next time. Chuang never looked back on whether his tea was drunk by anyone. He was only interested in the making.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Assassination of Humpty Dumpty

“Why shouldn’t I draw a precise line between reality and imagination?” asked Humpty Dumpty. There was something very odd about that challenge coming from him, and I tried tactfully to suggest he might care to clarify what he meant by ‘reality’. Instantly, he snapped back, “Reality is what I experience, nothing more, nothing less.”

I turned away from my egg-shaped friend to reflect further on how we got ourselves into this conversation. It is that desire to capture some of those fleeting moments, to record it as distinctly … real. It wasn’t just a fantasy. It happened. Each and everyone of us feels the weight of this finitude closing in on us almost as soon as consciousness transported us to the commencement of our mortal journey. So we want to put a marker down. It’s a kind of a cry for acknowledgement. Please confirm, we are in effect entreating, that we have truly existed.

When I looked around at the lonely figure sitting on the wall outside my study, I felt perhaps he should get his recognition after all. Books, films, songs, cartoons have all featured him, yet his existence is still granted at a level somewhere below that of true reality. But that’s the point, this so-called separation line for these levels is itself unreal. I was attempting to explain that when the phone went.

It was some automated sales pitch about insurance or something, I put the receiver down in muted annoyance. Walking up to the window, I saw a man and a little boy cycling by at speed. I wish they would be careful. There are reckless drivers around these parts. Then it occurred to me. I wasn’t thinking about Humpty Dumpty, and therefore he was no more. He was not to be found anyway. Wiped off the face of reality.

Monday, June 6, 2011

After the Shadow

Let me tell you more about the man who ran past me, nearly knocking me over. But you would only be interested in his obsessive chase after a shadowy figure he swore had been hanging around wherever he went. Day and night, he would point to a distance and claimed someone was staring at him. Running off for hours on end, he would eventually return exhausted with nothing but his conviction that he was getting closer to catching whoever it was he wanted to snare.

The truth is that he had stopped sleeping and eating. The only thing that kept him going was the belief that there was something out there worth him pushing himself one last time. He had lost his job months ago, because his firm could make more money without him – even though he worked hard and had much valuable experience. His family couldn’t take the strain and they fell apart. Next came the eviction notice for his home. Perhaps by revealing who it was who had been watching him in silence, he might end this conspiracy to destroy his life.

Yesterday morning he was seen in a confused state in the city centre. Before anyone offered him any help, he disappeared into an old, disused building. Given the haunted look on his face, it was probable that no one would have approached him anyway. Shouting was heard from the outside. And then, silence.

I can tell you that he went straight to the dark basement. There was something he had tracked there. He ran down one corridor and then another. He had his prey cornered. He had no doubt about it. Into the last room he pounced. Switching on the dim light behind him, he saw clearly at last, there in front of him, a flat lifeless shadow. It belonged not to him, but his former self. He shut the door, and turned the light off.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Two and a Half Existentialists

Charlie Harper may barely add up to a half in the company of Kafka and Camus, but what stimulus he would bring. Just the other day he was noticing that Alan, his younger brother, was losing the will to live because he was no longer driven by the fear of not being able to send his son to college. Having been told that mum was setting up a trust fund for the boy, Alan stopped going to work, but rapidly came to feel that his life had no meaning. So Charlie stepped in and told Alan that he must start paying a hefty rent for staying at his big brother’s house (Alan had previously been kicked out of his home by his ex-wife). And if he should fail to pay on time, Charlie would hit him hard.

Kafka, having smoked a cigar or two with Charlie, would probably sit down and spin out the tale of a man lost on a California beach, desperately trying to work out how he could find his home before the tides would come in and drown him. Staring at meaningless messages in the sand, he would get more and more anxious about the hopelessness of his situation. He would turn to run, but every house on the sea front would look the same. When he finally opened a door, his brother would punch him hard and he would turn into a fresh water fish just before he dropped into the ocean. “That is life”, Kafka would observe.

Shaking his head, Camus would protest. Alan’s life could have no meaning beyond what he would invest in it. If all he could do to get himself up each morning is to fix his mind on something he must do to protect himself, then he was half way dead already. But life could be more. Alan could commit himself to bigger things, caring for other people. Life is not so much like a damn box of chocolates as a potential plague sweeping across the face of the planet. We can give up and perish, or join in solidarity with others and fight valiantly for every moment of cherished existence. “That,” said Camus, “is life”.

To complete the existential demonstration, Charlie Harper would deliver an immaculate proof. Yes, there are people like Jed Bartlet, who would embody the defiant spirit of Camus and dedicate themselves to making the sum of human existence greater than its tiny parts. But for others who cannot be bothered with all this lofty stuff, there is Kafka’s path to total futility – and Charlie led the way by drinking himself into oblivion.