News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Saturday, February 26, 2005


Just finished reading Graham Greene's The Quiet American. I'm making a point now of reading novels, good or mediocre, from beginning to end unless they're excruciating. I'm no fan of novels, primarily because most novelists, like most writers period, have so little to say about the world around them. To get published essentially the minimum requirement is the ability to throw down a train of plausible logic, clothed in a mildly diverting form. This is really no more than a cold-blooded mathematical process, whereby one dredges up, wipes down, and couples old best-selling themes and tropes in a random sort of order to inspire the illusion of novelty and hammer on the buttons of robots running on a fuel of stale emotions and flyblown sympathies. A clumsy mixed metaphor on my part, and of course one can aspire to do much better and a number of us indeed do try and sometimes succeed in doing so. Either way, if getting published is all that is required, then what's not required is any more than a newspaper reader’s feeble grasp of human psychology, of history, of world events, of national idiosyncrasies, and so on and so forth. This is particularly evident with Graham Greene's works.

Apparently Greene was not a fan of writing and had to pinch himself to put out just 500 words per day. (For what it's worth Jack London did 1500 words a day, though he ended up having to get drunk first thing in the morning to do it. Anthony Trollope did three thousand words every morning and then went off to deliver the mail. Hoo-daddy!) According to Michael Korda, an editor at Simon & Schuster, Greene would breathe a sigh of relief and cap his pen, having pulled up and stopped in mid-sentence if that was where the target word number 500 was. Perhaps it's presumptuous to connect Greene's feeling that writing was a chore with my own feeling that reading his work is a chore, but it's hard to imagine a person who did not love what he was doing, doing it particularly well.

Greene has his central character sarcastic almost all of the time to distinguish himself from the dull simpleton that all right-thinking Brits know typifies Americans as a species. It took me a while to realize that Greene was actually trying to be witty and clever. Humor of course is difficult to master, as I certainly know myself, having failed to get it right on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, one crucial element of humor or wit is the surprise factor.

This is from Wilde's The Decay of Lying:

Cyril: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

Vivian: I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb responsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might as just well speak the truth at once.

If Greene could have done something like this, then his books would be much more worth the reading. But he doesn't. He lacks the imagination, the desire to penetrate into the mechanics of things, and thus he's never in a position to surprise the curious and worldly. And his constant desire to be witty of course gets in the way as well. For wit is often a conversation stopper. Its aim when in the wrong hands being one-upmanship, browbeating, the domination of those personalities in one's orbit and their subordination to the point that they don't ask embarrassing questions. That of course produces stagnation. Stagnation is one part of the puzzle explaining why his books are awash in platitudes and empty of novelty and penetration.

As he has nothing new to say, it's difficult for his dry wit so-called to appeal to someone who is still capable of learning after the punishing regimentation and ass-kissing so vastly encouraged in the academy. His wheezes enter the consciousness, at least mine anyway, as dull statements of fact, lame commonplaces, tedious attempts to arrogate a superiority that the character does indeed have but only because the American character is a young self-serious left-wing schleppe.

I'm not a fan of Greene's though I'm probably going to punish myself with his well-known novel, The Comedians, just to be sure that he is indeed as serially glib and flippant and, in the end, tedious and unenlightening, as I suspect he is. Maybe I'm wrong though. I would prefer to be.


Today's Asia Times letters section has a handful of angry rebuttals to an article written by an American who boldly ventilates the hoary platitude that global warming and cooling has been a serial event of the last several thousands of years. Who could be surprised by this? Methinks you know the answer already. Said apostate maintains that most of those prehistory and early history warming events could not possibly have been fired up by the machinations of rapacious corporate man (i.e. the Americans). Time for the New Left to lay out the faggots and the white bed sheets and send this good ole boy to his Eternal Reward. Loose talk like this must mean he’s wanted badly in Heaven.

What caught my interest was that only one of the several letters was penned by a do-gooder earnest enough to perform a Google search or otherwise look into the subject matter. Only one person quotes anything, with this anything being a study quoted in The New York Times. Formal studies on major topics are dime a dozen and can be touted to prove anything and nothing as I discovered while poring through the British Medical Journal and The Lancet several years ago. One study published in a left-wing newspaper is hardly persuasive to a skeptic, or even a rightwing reader. And there’s my roaring contempt for reporters and newspapers.

A serious do-gooder would of course have gone to a meteorology journal(s) or a book(s). I'd as soon trust a tabloid as a newspaper on such topics. Inflammatory topics with great growth potential in the minds of the serially credulous (ex: global warming and fake epidemics such as SARS, Ebola, and mad cow disease) is what sells newspapers, what grants the gallant and pugnacious editor an edge over the prudish competition. The temptation to sensationalize such gloriously juicy tidbits is overwhelming, particularly during slow news cycles. Newspapers are not to be trusted when, at the end of the day, profits are what matters. The problem ain't corporate media either. The problem is the customers. If we're stupid enough to want stupid news, they're happy to sell it both to stupid and I’m with stupid. The customer is always right. Too bad he's also usually a jackass in his judgment when it comes to any field other than his narrow professional or hobby interests.

Anyway, my point is that none of the authors were interested in the facts. Call me simple, but I forget this sort of thing happens and I found it surprising.

One of them, from Cuba, complained about a drought that's ongoing there. By implication, Cuba's getting too hot to handle. However, for the first time in the 15 winters I've spent in Taipei, we had two snow falls on the mountains surrounding the city. Usually we only have a snowfall once every three years by my count. This year, as I said, two snow falls in one season. Anecdotal evidence, whether mine, or the correspondent’s in Cuba, is simply unreliable when it comes to the big picture.

The cardinal difference between left-wingers and right-wingers in this regard seems to be that left-wingers accept that education, i.e. the force-feeding of abstruse and often inscrutable, not to mention unreliable and downright factitious facts, figures, and theories is a substitute for doing one's own homework and thinking through the prevailing theories and urban legends for oneself. Essentially, whether a person is left wing or right-wing, adherence to any ideology suggests a mediocre mind.

No ideology works and one should never be loyal to an idea, any more than you would be loyal to the spare change in your pocket. Not to mention the fact that an ideology is ipso facto a set of ideas borrowed from someone else who is not necessarily any more intelligent or informed than oneself. Historically speaking, the manufacturers of ideologies on average have proven to be hustlers, fibbers and prevaricators. The marketplace for ideas has produced a great many horse traders, slick customers, and pawnshop retailers of battered ideas, buffed up and polished. The bull market for packaging and refurbishing ideas to fool the season’s fresh crop of suckers constitutes a bubble economy that's been in the ascendant arguably ever since Socrates downed his hemlock in disgust.

And I’m not just thinking of the obvious leftwing frauds from Marx to Chomsky but also medical frauds (like Robert Gallo) who gave us such foolishness as retroviruses and mad proteins cause human disease or that mercury or AZT could cure disease; or political charlatans such as Moses, the glorious pioneer of modern monotheism (far less suited to human nature and politics than polytheism) who lectured God (check your Bible if you doubt) and gathered round a group of credulous apes to support his fiscal needs; Alcibiades of ancient Greece who espoused liberation from morality and was the best exemplar of immorality when he sold out Athens, his home state, not to one enemy but to two; or the crew of cynical swindlers who populated the 3rd century AD Council of Nicea and trimmed various ancient myths into the toxic misogynous concoction known as the New Testament; or Robespierre who gave us modern terror; to Napoleon who gave us the modern cult of personality (as opposed to Alexander the Great who gave the classic era theirs); to Lenin who took a feather from Moses’ cap and substituted ideology for religion in his own equally successful duping of the public and grab for temporal power; to Mussolini and Hitler, two political scientists who gave us modern fascism.

This circus never ends. It’s motoring on good and strong as we speak.

Back to work for me. Hope this Taipei rain quits before the weekend is over. Have mistresses that need attending to.

Biff Cappuccino

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