The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

“Anything’s possible in Human Nature… Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite joy.”
Of the four things that were Possible in Human Nature, Rahel thought that Infinnate Joy sounded the saddest. Perhaps because of the way Chacko said it.
Infinnate Joy. With a church sound to it.


The more I think about The God of Small Things, the less I like it. As I’ve now thought about it quite a lot, and still really, really like it, that’s actually a compliment.

My copy comes complete with page after page of praise at the front. It’s effulgent, it truly is. It makes it out to be the great masterpiece of our age. I thought it was, the first time I read it. I think it works best at the first reading.

The truest comment in the praise is from John Updike, who says that it creates its own language. Surprisingly, this is actually true. It’s what’s great about the book – and also why I didn’t like it at first, when I was trying to read the beginning of it.

The closest explanation I can manage is that Roy is a Minimalist writer. Reading her novel was like listening to something by Steve Reich. Every time I turn on Vermont Counterpoint I am repelled by it, like diving into a very cold pool. Everything about the music is alien to me: it’s harsh, it’s repetitive, it’s simplistic, it’s obvious, it’s wholly impermeable. But I keep listening to it, and by the end, I love it, and hope it won’t end.

Like Reich – better yet, like Taverner or Pärt – Roy uses repetition as a device to create a womb-world of envelopement, a self-supporting aura, an almost religious awe, a sanctity. I know, that’s a poor explanation.

Elements – from styles to concerns to specific words and phrases – are hammered into us again and again and again, merely re-arranged a little, or very slightly altered, or combined in various ways. At first, the effect is alienating and ugly: but like the slow intonation of a mantra, what at first seems peculiar gradually encloses us in an attitude in which everything makes sense.

The initial rejection is tempered somewhat by the dual nature of the narrative. The God of Small Things employs a non-linear structure, in which two distinct but codependent ‘stories’ are told, with frequent interconnections between the two, and modulations into other time-periods. On central story is the story of Rahel, a thirty-odd-year-old woman returning to the house of her childhood, in Kerala, after a long period living in America. Her house is decaying, inhabited only by her repulsive great-aunt, a housekeeper, and more recently by her silent “two-egg” twin brother, from whom she has been separated since they were both children. The second story, which takes up most of the book, is the story of what happened to destroy their childhood together, when their cousin came to visit them from England. Diversions tell us the stories of various secondary characters, such as their great-aunt, their grandparents, or how the parents of their cousin first met.

The two primary stories alternate chapters, although not strictly – some chapters move between the two time-periods. They start the book together, diverge as we move into the middle of the book, and then come together again at the end: the structure mirroring Rahel’s return to her memories and her attempt to come to terms with them. In addition to time, there is a considerable stylistic difference between the two storylines: the adult line is narrated largely in a very sophisticated, arguable over-written voice, while the childhood line is told in a simplistic, almost patronising, infested-by-childishness manner. The first line: “May in Ayamenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.” Next paragraph: “The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation”. From a child-section a few pages later: “They also believed that if they were killed on a zebra crossing, the Government would pay for their funerals. They had the definite impression that that was what zebra crossings were meant for. Free funerals.”

When the distance is greatest, in the middle, the effect is stronger. Near the end of a child-section:

“Estha and Rahel had to sing in English in obedient voices. Breezily. As though they hadn’t been made to rehearse it all week long. Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. Insect.”… “Their Pre NUN sea ayshun was perfect.”

At the beginning of an adult section:

“The sound of the chenda mushroomed over the temple, accentuating the silence of the encompassing night. The lonely, wet road. The watching trees. Rahel, breathless, holding a coconut, stepped into the temple compound through the wooden doorway in the high white boundary wall.”

Both storylines are kept blurred by a lack of temporal focus, in particular by the drone-note of the tragedy of the Loss of Sophie Mol – and although this doesn’t occur until near the end of the novel, I’m not spoiling anything, because the funeral occurs in a flash-forward/flash-back on page four. Throughout the book, we know what is going to happen at the end of it – as the novel says, “the secret of Great Stories is that they have no secrets[…] they don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know you will die, you live as though you won’t.” We don’t just know that Something Terrible Will Happen – we’re told it again and again. The only thing we don’t know is exactly how it will happen, and part of the point seems to be that exactly how does not really matter. The characters of the novel are only pawns in the unstoppable progress of history, the manifestation of an eternal storyline.

“His feet walked him to the river. As though they were the leash and he were the dog.

History walking the dog.”

Although the repetition of what is about to happen is at first annoying, it does have a purpose – it creates an air of horrible, beautiful tragedy. It is in tragedies, where we know that the ending will be hideous, that we most fully latch on to the moments of beauty.

And, no mistake, The God of Small Things is a beautiful book. It is… baroque. An ocean of baroques. Every sentence is a rare, misshapen pearl. The prose is often excellent, and the imagery is cutting, true, and innovative.

It is also a very real book. It feels as though it is about the world, not something apart from it as polished literature sometimes does. It has things to say, and it says them with great humanity and subtlety. Most of all it talks about love: not so much romantic love (though it does several types of infatuation, some of which may be construed as love) as familial love. Ammu’s tender, martyred love for her children, and Rahel’s silent, impotent love for her estranged twin are both touched on delicately enough to draw tears. Also noteworthy are the reflections on modernity and tradition, in which a new resort for Westerners is portrayed as a double-edged “Heart of Darkness” in the midst of a sea of Indian ‘cultural flavour’.

[The novel has been called post-colonial, but I don’t buy it. It’s true one character muses on the negative consequences of Imperialism, but to me the motivating forces in the tragedy are all deeply Indian (while the fact that the main characters are Syrian Christians (a sect imported from the Middle East nearly two thousand years earlier) rather undermines the notion of an Indian/Western dichotomy); if anything, the sin of the West (both through the Empire and through Marxism, both of which cast significant shadows in the book) seems to have been to fail to dismantle the native social systems, in particular the atrocity of caste, that they found there; and while the Heart of Darkness and the thinness and superficiality of culture that it embodies are certainly condemned – and indeed the small parts in modern America hardly show the West in a good light, though the Oxford sections are more neutral – to me it seems the sought of condemnation that is very native to the West. It is a critique of consumerism, capitalism, social anomie, alienation – all things that the West produces its own critiques of, and all things that characterise a later era than that of colonialism.]

So: it successfully builds tension, it is meaningful, and it’s affectingly written. What DON’T I like about it?

Well, let’s start with the prose.  Yes, it gets better as you get used to it – but it’s still overdone. In the child sections particularly, there’s a Limit to how Meaningful you can make a Sen Tence by Adding Capitalletters and Joiningupwords. And Breaking Sen Tences. Into little Fragments. They’re fine techniques, and they work, but they’re employed too monotonously. The adult sections are less blameworthy, but can still be tough going in places, because every damn noun has to have a damn adjective of some damn kind.

And not just the words, but the meanings! Please, please, let us just know what’s in the room without a page of metaphors and similes every single time? Some of the metaphors are brilliant. Most are good. And I LIKE writing full of metaphors. That’s how I like to write myself. But this is an object lesson in why I should try for restraint, because dear heavens it was annoying by the end.

More generally: Roy has little regard for conventional pacing. The pacing of events is fine, but the pacing of prose is not. Every sentence feels, as I say, like a pearl, very carefully, very precisely crafted and laid in a long string of other, very precise pearls. At the beginning of the book, this is a little boring, and by the end, when we really want to know what’s going on, it gets far too frustrating. I don’t know how much of this is intentional and how much is accident – after all, it’s her first novel.

Precise is one word – I’m tempted to say “precious”. At times she seems to care more about the delicate writing than about the plot. Most frustrating of all are the times when she feels the need to use half a page of five-word little paragraphs to flesh out the description of something perfectly well described already. It’s like being dared to skip ahead.

But it’s not just the prose. It’s the plot as well. I don’t like to sound callous, but not enough happens to merit the air of excruciating tragedy. Some bad things, yes, but… I think the biggest problem is that, despite the idea of implacable history and everything playing its part, it just doesn’t hang together. She seems to want to hang guilt on everyone and no-one as though all are implicated – but the blame can be assigned too simply in some places, and at other times it all seems down to random chance. Not even ironic chance. If you compare this book to the truly great tragedies, so finely and subtly plotted, it seems too haphazard and straightforward. It makes the atmosphere of tragic lament and foreboding seem undeserved – as though she’s trying to make it more powerful than it really is. As though she’s trying to intimate a symbolism that didn’t, to me, seem merited. It’s hard to say why – why does one story seem symbolic of the human condition, while another seems like just something that happened? I think that the lack of cohesion is particularly problematic in this novel because the foreshadowing tells us what will happen – all that remains are the details, and fundamentally the details don’t matter. We want to find out things that matter, the little missing links that explain things – but here, the details don’t explain it. We know as much at the end as we did at the beginning.

Part of it is the characterisation. Rahel, her brother Estha, and their mother, Ammu, are beautifully and sympathetically drawn. But everybody else? They’re flamboyantly described, made very clear – like background characters. I didn’t get the ‘why’ of their lives, I didn’t have them live for me like the main characters. Which is important, because these background characters – and there are quite a lot for such a simple, familial novel – are all powerful forces in the plot. In the absence of their own animacy, they can seem a little too much like authorial puppets. [Worst offender: Chacko. I know why the author thinks he would act as he does, but I don’t feel why. And it needs a pretty big why. It’s a really obvious why, and I know many if not most people would act like that. But characterisation is about more than being justified, it’s about being vivid, like reality but more so.]

And alongside that (perhaps explaining it): everyone’s horrible! The children can’t really be blamed, and I like the adult Rahel, maybe the adult Estha (it’s hard to tell). Why wouldn’t anyone like them, they have no flaws? Huge, gaping problems, sure, but no real flaws. Ammu is understandably under pressure a lot, and doesn’t deal with it perfectly, but is otherwise unimpeachably likeable. Velutha is flawless, and, in the one scene we meet him in, his half-paralysed brother seems likewise. Everyone else is fundamentally unlikeable. Pappachi is horrible, Mammachi is horrible but slightly to be empathised with in places; Baby Kochamma is nightmarish (again, while I understand her life-motivations as explained by her backstory, I still don’t empathise with them, fundamentally because I don’t believe the author does either); Chacko could be likeable in a well-meaning mild-mannered way, but he is too weak, too stupid, too selfish, too blind, too egocentric and too pathetic, as though she’s layering on reasons not to like him; Margaret Kochamma is bland, and though her backstory is quite benign, the author goes out of her way to give her greater flaws than virtues; Comrade Pillai is a villain through and through; the police are all bastards; pretty much every passer-by or spectator is a bastard, and so on. Rahel, Estha and Ammu: VICTIMS. Everyone else in the world: VILLAINS. Oh, sure, she doesn’t condemn them all, she tries to explain their actions… but it’s just unrealistic to me that so many seemingly likeable people should really act in such immensely blockheaded, petty, selfish and spiteful ways, without any opposition. I know that that CAN happen, but it must be warranted, it must be purchased, by making it make sense, emotionally as well as intellectually. Instead, often it feels as though the author presents one fact (what has happened to a character, often long ago) and then another fact (how they behave), as though the juxtaposition, and the intellectual knowledge that one fact can lead to the other, it’s been demonstrated before, we all know it, is a substitute for seeing how one fact actually organically grows into the other. It feels sometimes as though they’ve been written like that for plot reasons, with the backstory-justifications tacked on to prevent complaints. They don’t feel like central characters. In the case of the central characters (at least, Rahel and Ammu) the same thing is done, but more thought is put into showing how one thing leads to another. It’s still not entirely clear (particularly for Rahel, where the important parts of her life are missing from the novel), but it feels true. For Chacko, or for Baby Kochamma, it just doesn’t. And for background characters, that’s fine – but too much of the background is happening right in front of the camera.

[Perhaps the problem is just ambition. The fact that the backstories are provided suggests that the author knows these characters need some strong grounding – but there’s really not enough space to give them all enough life to function properly. It feels as though it ought to be a sprawling, dynastic family sage (it does cover four generations!) but in fact it’s a simple snapshot in only 340 pages, which isn’t a lot when you cover nearly a century from start to end and three continents and a dozen characters and want to throw in some local political, social and religious history along the way!]

That’s why this novel isn’t brilliant.

Adrenaline: 3/5. By the time I was halfway through, I was hooked, but not viscerally. My pulse was mostly unaffected. The end could have been more exciting, but the author’s refusal to up the tempo of the prose shackled the adrenaline.

Emotion: 5/5. I was on the verge of tears repeatedly, even if they never actually fell. And not all the emotion is negative, either. There’s a lot of… well, “Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite Joy” in the novel. The ending, in particular, is a long way from sad, though there is sadness behind it. No criticisms here.

Thought: 3/5. The novel depicts a complex society and deals with difficult issues, and as such requires a degree of cogitation. However, there is little overt or innovative consideration of the themes and little moral complexity regarding the background characters, while the continual repetition of the foreshadowing takes away the element of wondering-what-will-happen (although curiosity regarding the details can remain).

Beauty: 4/5. I have to compliment it on its prose – it’s very dense and hit-and-miss, but the misses are not calamities, and the hits are devastating. What’s more, it feels a lot lighter than it is – for prose so rich and thick, it’s suprisingly accessible, perhaps because so much is written from a semi-childlike perspective. However, it isn’t perfect: she doesn’t know when to prune back a little, she overdoes the foreshadowing, and the plot lacks the beautiful composition we hope for from a tragedy. Likewise, the background characters lack a little subtlety, and it all feels a bit forced. Then again, some scenes are beautiful, particularly those dealing with love and hope.

Craft: 4/5. Inventive imagery, reliable writing, more tension than you’d expect from something so simple, and an admirably light-feeling novel for how much content is rammed into it; a sophisticated structure that really works with, not against, the plot. However, as may be gleaned from the above, there are also flaws. These flaws can mostly be considered to spring from the slight lack of judgement expected from a first novel.

Endearingness: 4/5. Fundamentally likeable; I’ve recommended it to many people. Approachable yet deep; moving, with central characters you can reach out and touch, and a little agony in it that makes you never quite forget it. On the other hand… it’s not quite right. It feels a little bit too much like being lectured at, or listening to a woman’s therapy sessions (apparently, many details are autobiographical – my edition even provides a photograph of the author, to compare to the identical description of the main character). I think what I miss is a sort of sense of connexion between the author and myself, some collaboration; it feels too distant from myself. Not written for me, just in front of me.

Originality: 4/5. Innovative structure and prose, a distinct and real perspective on the world from a non-Western (or semi-Western) viewpoint. But no character stood out as unique to themselves, nor any events, nor any images or devices. “Indian post-colonial novel dealing with family tragedies and the injustices of Indian society, heavily influenced by magic realism although not actually magic realism itself”… doesn’t describe it completely, but it describes it too well and too formulaically for it to score a 5 for originality.

Echo: 1/2. If you remember, this is the category for how a book shakes my state of consciousness. This book did that to some degree… but only to some degree.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. First time I read it, I thought it was brilliant. Second time, some of the lustre is gone. Nonetheless, it remains an exceedingly good book, and an astonishingly good first novel. I earnestly await the second!

Creatures of definition: are they only mental?

Some person’s done me the honour of linking to my blog, over at this “Rational Skepticism” post (the impartial observer may note how frequently the word “rational” is to an atheist what the phrase “People’s Democratic” is to a free and fair election).

I can’t respond there without registering, which I don’t like to do if I’m not going to be posting (and what could be more dull for an unbeliever than a sombre congregation of the devout?). So I thought I’d say a little something here.

First off, I am given as an example of “Neoplatonism or Advaita Vedanta”. I know very little about the latter, so on that I cannot comment, but regarding the former, the position I advanced in the Ontological Argument post is so directly contrary to everything that is platonist in neoplatonism that what I said might be regarded as ANTI-platonist, and I cannot fathom what sort of philosophical ignorance could conflate these two directly opposing points of view. Platonism, including Neoplatonism, is the triumph of the real over the actual, of the essential over the accidental, of the universal over the particular, and of the compulsory over the chosen. What I have said is the absolute contrary.

The more important point, however, is what they go on to say. “Sure, anyone can define a God into existence for their own convenience, but this is hardly a convincing reason for someone who doesn’t share your assumptions and habits of thinking to have faith in your God.” – well yes, I said that myself. But then: “These people have practically admitted that their God is a mental construct”.

Here we have a very serious misunderstanding. What a theist who accepted my earlier comments would have to acknowledge is that God, as we know of and conceive of him, is a creature of our own definitions. But there are two large errors in conflating this with the position that “God is a mental construct”.

The first is that “God” and “our conception of God” are not the same thing. The latter is created by definition, but that says nothing about the former. Consider the black box of skepticism: something is in there that causes various things to occur in response to stimuli. We put in X, we get out Y. What is in the box? We’ll call it Bod. Now, Bod’s behaviour is very complex, and some of us realise that predicting what will happen is a lot easier if we instead think of there being TWO things in the box, Bod-1 and Bod-2: instead of one complicated Bod, with an extremely complicated behaviour, we instead posit two quite simple Bods, interacting with the outside world, and each other, in quite a simple way. In addition, perhaps somebody notices that Bod-2 would be more or less the same as the things inside many OTHER black boxes (a type of thing already classified as the Gox).

Now, what is Bod-1? Well, our concept of Bod-1 is a concept born out of a voluntary definition. We don’t have to define Bod-1 as existing at all: we could ascribe everything to Bod-2. And once we DECIDE to posit Bod-1, we are still free as regards which behaviours we ascribe to it: there’s an infinite number of ways (well, a LOT of ways, at least) we could split up the behaviours between Bod-1 and Bod-2. So in the end, our only core conception of Bod-1 is “that being that, in combination with Bod-2, explains the outputs from the black box, if it is assumed that Bod-2 is, or is very similar to, a Gox”.

So, our concept of Bod-1 is a creature of definition: but is Bod-1 a mental construct? Well, let’s see: we bash open the box, and inside we find an ordinary little Gox of unexceptional type, and this other thing, which is indeed as we calculated Bod-1 would probably be. Look, a physical little creature! Not a mental construct at all! Our CONCEPT was mental, yes, but what concept is not?

The quick-minded realist among you will no doubt have noticed that Bod-1 can stand  an analogy for ANYTHING. We are constantly forming concepts of the world around us on the basis of inadequate information. Some of that concept-formation occurs by (intentional or unintentional) definition; some of it, by (conscious or unconscious) calculation; some of it, perhaps, by various forms of rationalist or empiricist strong intuition or impression. But all these concepts are concepts, and all concepts, at least as they are present in the mind, are mental constructs (even if some people might want us to believe that they have been constructed according to, as it were, a floorplan of non-mental origin). So to say that our concept of God is the result of definition is not to say that God itself is a mental construct.

Now, it might be objected that something strange is going on in an ontological argument that concedes that the existance of God can only be “shown” if we make a definition without any exterior reason for doing so. Yet all that amounts to is saying “I only believe in the God I believe in because I have this particular concept of her”: but about what could this not be said? You do not believe in Gox, but then how could you, when you have not formed a clear concept of what Gox is said to be?

The difference, I suppose, is that with an OA-God, we are essentially saying that the concept itself cannot be formed except by definition… except we’re not, because although a believer in such a God CAN put forward an ontological argument, they may themselves have formed their concept in some other way already. So the concept of God is in much the same ontological condition as the concept of anything else.

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However, there is still another point. It might be said that God, while not a mental construct precisely, is still in a different category from, say, snails. It may be a concept that is ‘disconnected’ from reality: there may not really be a God.

This is where I think that people like that “Rational Skeptic” are themselves perpetrators of platonism, in Kantian form. We have our understanding of a thing on the one hand, and the Real Thing Itself on the other. Some ‘understandings’ may have no correlate in Real Stuff. We may call these concepts “false”; and, in keeping with the spirit of our Skeptical friend we may call the putative “things” depicted in false concepts “imaginary” or “fictional”.

To illustrate this, back to the black box. We are talking about the contents of the box as Bod-1 and Gox, before we’ve broken in. Is our concept of Bod-1 false or unfalse? It is a concept drawn from definition, but does that make the thing it is a conception of, Bod-1, “imaginary”? No, not by itself. We may break in to the box and find Bod-1 within: then Bod-1 would clearly be “factual”.

What are we talking about when we say “Bod-1 is hungry!”? Are we talking about Bod-1? Presumably, if Bod-1 is factual. But what if Bod-1 is fictional? Well then, let’s see, would “Bod-1 is hungry!” be true or false? Or neither? Or both? Let’s insist: “hungry” must mean the same thing as usual. Well then, either we accept that we are right to talk about fictional things in the same terms as factual things (in which case “Bod-1 exists” will likewise mean the same thing, and be equally true, whether Bod-1 is fictional or factual), or we say that no, it is NOT true that Bod-1 is hungry if Bod-1 doesn’t actually exist. And yet: something is clearly truer in saying “Bod-1 is hungry” than “Bod-1 is not hungry”, if the black box behaves in the way that we are predicting when we ascribe hunger to the putative being inside. So maybe we are saying something true, but not about the fictional Bod-1? Maybe we’re actually talking about an aspect of a single Combi-Bod, which aspect we’ve named Bod-1?

Consider this from another side: when I say “I am hungry” and I’m not lying, I’m talking about a real thing, myself. Because when we ascribe things using unfalse concepts we ascribe them to true, real, actual, factual things. But when, it seems, we ascribe things using false concepts, we ascribe them to… well, surely we are still ASCRIBING them? But to what the Skeptic named “mental constructs”. But this means that we do not know whether we are talking about a construct or about an entity until we have opened the box! Until then, we must withhold judgement.

BUT: we can never open the box. “Opening the box” is comparing the real thing, if it exists at all, to our concepts of it. We have the real thing in one hand, as it were, and the concept in the other, and see if they weigh the same. But we can never “know” about a thing without our concepts of it. Knowing about a thing and having a concept (in the sense of an understanding, which need not be a conscious concept) of it are integrally connected concepts: the former requires the latter. Regarding this lightbulb here: I don’t get to say “well, I’ve got this phenomenal conceptualisation of the lightbulb, and I’ve checked that with the real lightbulb as it exists outside of my understand and experience of it, and they’re the same!”. We can never open the box. Which means that we must ALWAYS withhold judgement. We never know which things are “real” and which aren’t.

But that doesn’t mean that we should be skeptics in the sense of decrying our inability to “know” the external world. Because what would that mean? It means saying “the concept-lightbulb may not represent the lightbulb”. What does “lightbulb” mean in that sentence? If our lightbulb-concept is unfalse, the lightbulb is factual, and we are talking about lightbulbs. In which case, yes, the concept-lightbulb MUST represent the lightbulb. Or alternatively, our concept may be false, and “the lightbulb” is fictional. In which case, how does out concept of the lightbulb fail to represent the fictional lightbulb? Presumably because we say that the lightbulb is real but in fact the lightbulb is fictional. When do we say the lightbulb is real? Well, that’s assumed. We can assume that every time we use a word we’re making the claim “this is a real factual thing, not a fictional thing”.

What if we weren’t saying that? What if we never claimed the lightbulb was factual, but merely that that lightbulb could not be demonstrated to be fictional? Well then, in that case, “the concept-lightbulb may not represent the lightbulb” would be false – if the concept were unfalse, the claim would be untrue, and if the concept were false, the “lightbulb” in question would be fictional, but so long as it could not be shown to be fictional, our concept-lightbulb would not make any untrue claims about it.

So what does it mean, “to choose to use the word ‘lightbulb’ to mean a thing that is not demonstrably fictional”, in contrast to “to choose to use the word ‘lightbulb’ to mean a thing that is not fictional”. Well, it means that in one case we’d be wrong a lot without ever knowing, and in the other case we wouldn’t be. But which do we actually choose? Well, I don’t remember choosing. OK, so not a conscious choice. But what sort of choice at all? We choose to do X or to do Y – but what is the difference in this case? By definition, there is no possible circumstance where choosing A (not fictional) would lead to different behaviour from choosing B (not demonstrably fictional). In every possible world (given a suitably strong rendering of ‘demonstRABLE’) the two choices lead to identical behaviours – except, perhaps, how one chooses to talk about the choice, if you happen to read this blog post. To me, that’s a distinction without a difference. And that means that the concept of a concept failing to represent a real thing is unsupportable. And that means that failing to represent a real thing is not a failure at all. As Nietzsche put it: in abolishing the true world, we have abolished the apparant world also.

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And there is another consideration also. What does it mean to say, even putatively, that a certain concept doesn’t represent anything? If we say “Bod-1 is hungry” and this predicts the behaviour of the thing in the box, surely “Bod-1” does represent something, even if not what we thought? A part of Combi-Bod, perhaps, or a combination of Bod-3 and Bod-4?

To put it another way: it doesn’t even matter whether we can open the box. And what if we can? We open the box and pick out what’s inside. One person says “that’s Bod-1 alright! But… it turns out he’s a little different from the way we thought he would be”. Another person says “that’s not Bod-1! That’s something entirely different!”. What does this argument really signify? How could it be resolved? Well, it can’t be. There’s no evidence could prove the case one way or another. Whether to call it the same thing with different behaviour or a plain different thing is a matter of our own free choice.

Imagine: “everything we say about the concept-lightbulb is really true, but the concept doesn’t reflect the real lightbulb”; “the concept reflects the reality, but everything we say about the concept is isn’t really true”. We cannot divorce the concept from its content.

What this should tell us is: we don’t actually care about the ‘connexion’ between concept and reality. As the case of Bod-1 shows, we can argue irresolubly about whether that connexion exists (whether the Bod-1 concept was false or unfalse) even when we agree upon the truth or falsity of everything said about Bod-1. The further matter of the “reality” of Bod-1 has no content that can be cashed out in experience. Our words, however are founded in experience, and anything that has no, even hypothetical, experiential ramifications is nothing but hot air. We can choose to believe in it or not as we are inclined.

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So, I don’t accept that this distinction between fictional things and factual things exists. If talking about a thing has some use and import, that is enough for me – whether the “thing” has a mystical connexion to some unseeable, unhearable, unknowable, uninfluential and superfluous “Real Thing In Itself” is a matter for, ironically, theologians to bicker over, ‘Skeptical’ theologians included.

But another distinction could be made: between concepts that are “natural” and those that are merely the products of definition. Bod-1, it might be said, is actually a defined concept, but the definition matches a natural thing, and hence has a certain fitness. This ‘nature’ can be written out in terms of the experiential things around us, so does not fall prey to the same objections as the metaphysical dualism did.

But why bother with it? Imagine: you go to a volcanic island, and you do some measurements, and you realise that a huge chunk of rock is likely to fall into the sea at some point creating a tidal wave that will destroy half of civilisation. You call this chunk “Nemesis”. This “chunk” is actually contiguous with the rest of the island; it may be bordered by weak zones of rock that you calculate will break, but there is no clear defining fault. You don’t know the precise boundaries of Nemesis; indeed, they haven’t been ‘decided’ yet. Does Nemesis exist? It has been “created” entirely by your “definition”, and is thus a “mental construct”, not something that “really exists” – or to put it in the terms we’re now using, it’s not a natural thing, and hence the Nemesis-concept is artificial and purely man-made.  But Nemesis will still fall into the sea and kill everybody, so the fact that it’s purely a creature of definition (at this stage!) doesn’t seem to be too important. Or imagine a beach of sand. You put markers in the sand and call the volume of sand they enclose “Albert” – by measuring the movement of the markers, you measure the movement of “Albert”. But Albert is a creature of definition – yes, but sand is still moving. We can always redefine through new definitions. A bicycle has too wheels? No, a bicycle has one tweel! The CONTENT of the definitions are the same, so how can an atheist come along and say “tweels are mere mental constructs created by our own definitions; what’s REAL is the existence of two-wheeled bicycles!”. Or, for that matter, “wheels are mental constructs, they’re really just our attempt to understand semi-tweels”.

What I’m getting at here is that regardless of the role of definition, a concept can still be used provided it has some content. Of course, some concepts can’t be used. Which? Well, try them and see. A common analogy to the ontological argument is the ontological proof of the “highest prime number”. But I don’t believe we can easily sketch out what we MEAN when we talk about coherently believing that there is a highest prime number; the words must be so redefined that they have little connection to the items of mathematics. And is that redefinition of any use? To my knowledge, nobody has suggested that it is. So, we can leave the issue until somebody makes that choice and tried to live with it. By contrast, people DO live with their belief in a deity. And since some of those are very intelligent and sane people, and some of those are also sincere in their beliefs, as best we can tell, we cannot say that their concept is incoherent.

A Course in Rawàng Ata: 2.3

LESSON SEVEN

The Simple Passive

There are three broadly ‘passive’ constructions in Rawàng Ata, but for now we need only worry about one: the simple passive.

A sentence in the simple passive has the object as its control, and agrees with it through suffixes, not through prefixes. Aside from first and second person suffixes, which will be dealt with later, there are only two such suffixes: -ar- to agree with animate objects, and -as- to agree with inanimate objects. The final letter of the verb is actually an affix itself (which will be discussed later), so these suffixes come before the final vowel. There are no suffixes for concertive or pluractive action, nor for feminine objects or subjects.

The object is not marked for case. The subject is placed into the ergative case.

datta wohola kòmana

the sailor strikes the young woman

dattaya woholara kòma

the young woman is struck by the sailor

kòma kuruaya runtama

the young woman wipes clean the floor

kòmaya ruayara runta

the floor is wiped clean by the young woman

The passive is often used to help link clauses with those around them, but it may also have the connotation of change of control or animacy – the passive suggests that the object is responsible for, encourages or invites the action. Additionally, the passive is automatically intransitive, so has no connotation of completion, success, or lasting effect upon the object. The passive also has various modal connotations which will be discussed later.

It is important to note that the simple passive does not promote the object into the subject, but merely promotes it into the control. This will be an important point later on.

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Native Passives

The most common use of the simple passive, however, is as the default state for certain verbs, called native passives. These verbs are usually verbs of perception, evaluation, or continuing state. It is vital to note that for most of these verbs, the ‘object’ would be the ‘subject’ in English, and vice versa.

lutàya tìara kòma

the ball is seen by the young woman

doyaya nūngara kòma

the child is loved by the young woman

tòkaya mayajdara kòma

the walls surround the young woman

hiukongya faràkkara kòma

the young woman is painted blue

In all four sentences, kòma is the object of the sentence: it is the woman who undergoes some sort of change, or who is in a state that has some effect upon her – the ball being seen does not affect the ball, the child being loved need not affect the child, the walls are not changed by being around her (though being surrounded by walls is important for her), and blueness itself is not affected if the woman changes colour.

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Binative Verbs

In addition to native actives and native passives, there are some verbs that are binative. This means that the same verb may natively occur in either the passive or the active – and this can be distinguished from normal changes in voice by the fact that the two versions have distinct meanings.

kòma kuduànga dattama

the young woman fells the sailor

kòmaya duàngara datta

the sailor is killed by the young woman

In the active form, the verb duang refers to a strong blow or attack that drops the victim to the ground or renders them incapacitated – but in the passive form, it refers to violent killing.

doya kulutawa tòkama

the child draws on/decorates the walls

kòdalamya lutawara datta

the sailor is depicted by the carving

doyaya lutawara datta

the sailor has his paternity evident in the features of the child

The verb lutaw is more distinct in its two meanings: in the active voice, the subject literally draws ON the object, or by extension decorates them in some other way; in the passive voice, the subject is a drawing OF, or some other depiction of, the object.

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Vocabulary

lūba = pipe, pool, cistern, tank, plumbing

The lūba are an essential part of an upper-class home, denoting essentially any part of the system of plumbing that deals with rainwater collection. By itself, it usually refers to the gutters that run through most rooms of the house, providing fresh water, and just as importantly the sound of fresh water. However, the word can be modified in several ways to specify other types of lūba (see next chapter for explanations of the processes): the kuturnù lūba is the roof-guttering; the lūba daòy is the ‘upper tank’, where rainwater is stored before use; the halù lūba is an artificial pond created at near ground level; the lūba moyòy, or ‘lower tank’ is an underground cistern. The cistern’s reserve of cold water serves not only as an emergency store of water, and as a cold place for preserving food, but also as part of the ventillation system of the house; air heated in the house rises through chimneys in the walls, pulling up cooler air from the cistern to prevent the house overheating. In this way, one problem posed by the climate (excess rainwater) acts to ameliorate a second problem (excess heat). The plumbing system as a whole is lūba osa.

yutào = noodles

Noodles are the basic form of food for the Lày people. They can be made from many different things: different grains, turtle jelly, seaweed; and they can come in several shapes – mostly thread-like for grain noodles, and ribbon-like for jelly noodles, but dumpling-like noodles also exist. More elaborate shapes were once common in rich meals, but now are seen as decadent, and are reserved for semi-ritual use at formal occasions.

enòk = dishonoured corpse

To some degree, this definition is almost pleonasm: any corpse that stays still long enough to be named is dishonoured, for the Lày destroy the corpses of their dead as soon as possible – usually, on the same day or night. A corpse is removed from its house by a hacking a hole in the wall, so as not to contaminate a doorway, and is taken, completely hidden by a cloth, to the shore, where it is set out to sea on a raft and burnt. Those who knew the dead person are expected to watch the burning ceremony, and the corpse is dishonoured if anyone refuses (although an inability to attend due to illness, absence or binding oath is permissable). During this time, only a special caste of psychopomps are permitted to touch the body. However, the funerary rites truly begin after death, in three stages: vigil, mourning, and proclamation. In the vigil, a bell chimes for around ten minutes every three hours, and during the chiming, those who loved the deceased will cry and wail in a public place. No individual is permitted to cry at the chimes for more than two days (once in memory of the times passed, and once in regret for those to come), and the family are expected to cry together, but the vigil can be lengthened by the number of unrelated or distantly-related mourners who come and cry – the length of the vigil is an indication of the greatness of the deceased. During the vigil-time, however long it is, the family live in other houses, wear no clothes, prepare no food for themselves, and use no tools, and speak only to each other. The vigil is followed by a period of mourning, in which the family wear red clothes, paint their faces black and their hands white, and grow their hair (died red) long, without cutting it, instead braiding it together into dreadlocks. In this time, they continue to live in another house, are forbidden to fornicate or eat meat, are forbidden from going to sea, and can use only tools dedicated to the gods of mourning. Because grief is a deity that possesses people, the pious will give the mourning offerings for the god; these offerings remain marked as dedicated to mourning, and must never be destroyed, or used outside mourning – they can only be disposed of by offering them to another god, or by throwing them into the sea. During the time of mourning, the name of the deceased may not be mentioned, and their existence not acknowledged – debts both owed and owing, for instance, go into abation, and the time of mourning does not count toward interest. Neither the dead nor their family may be spoken ill of. Marriage in this time is impossible, and any baby born is killed at birth (babies are not considered human until their first meal, and so can be disposed of easily, without the full mourning ceremony –in any case, vigils for infants are usually minor events). The period of mourning lasts for an indefinite period of time, but it is generally fixed at seventeen times the length of the vigil, except in cases where the deceased was of national significance. Before the Discord, mourning could be maintained for years. Finally, after the mourning, there is a day of proclamation, in which all those who admired the deceased are encouraged to use their name: typically, by beginning all conversations with “I had a friend named…” or the like – however, it is forbidden to speak of the dead as though they were still alive. The day is usually the occasion of a huge feast, and often marriages are conducted at this point. A festive atmosphere prevails, and it is particularly felicitous for children to be conceived on the day of proclamation. In some cases, the proclamation may last several days.

The corpse (which word is taken to include all physical remains, even after cremation) is dishonoured if any part of the above is not followed. There are five degrees of dishonour: dishonouring the proclamation; dishonouring the mourning; dishonouring the vigil; dishonouring the disposal; and preventing disposal entirely. The first can be merited on some occasions, if the deceased is hated; the second can be merited only by the most severe crimes, and otherwise is the grounds for ostracising the offender; the third will bring blood feud regardless of the cause; the fourth, usually in the form of displaying the corpse publically before disposal, and of delaying disposal, is seen in the execution of the most despicable criminals only, and otherwise only in warfare; the fifth cannot be justified under any circumstances – it is usually done by burying the body in a secret location, and is the worst crime that can be committed.

It is said that a dishonoured corpse returns to punish the offender, although this is no longer considered to take the form of any sort of supernatural zombie, but rather a general misfortune. However, children are told of zombies – the corpse, even in the form of ashes in the sea, returns to plague the criminal, generally simply by growing heavier and heavier until the wrong-doer is crushed in their sleep.

In ages long ago, endocannibalism was practiced; this no longer occurs, but is still a motif in some stories.

Small thought

A thought has occurred to me (possibly not for the first time) about perspectivism and relativism.

The traditional idea of ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ an object ‘truly’ can be rephrased as viewing the object from the best perspective. The traditional quest of epistemology has been locating this superior perspective.

Nietzsche tells us that the death of God, the unavailability of a single privileged perspective, means that we must instead try to view things from MANY perspectives.

A first thought might be that this would mean that perspective-sets could be compared for size: which of two envisionings is most ‘complete’, in the sense of containing the most perspectives?

This, however, does not work: because ‘perspectives’ are not discrete and countable. We’re talking not about a ‘collection’, but about a ‘mass’. And the apparent relative sizes of two masses itself depends upon perspective (metaphorically, imagine seeing two objects at different angles; more literally, because the significance of distinctions is perspective-dependent, one viewer may see two viewpoints as significantly distinct perspectives, while another would see the same viewpoints as only negligably, divergent, or not even “realise” that there was more than one viewpoint under discussion).

However, going back to an earlier ramble about sticks: although it may not be possible to judge which of two sticks is longest, it IS possible to compare one stick against a shortened or lengthened version of itself. Likewise, although two independent perspective-sets may not be objectively comparable, it should be possible to hypothetically alter one set (adding or substracting perspectives) and compare that hypothetical to the original.

Less confusingly: if you have a set of perspectives, A, and I have a set of perspectives, B, it may not be possible to determine objectively which set is larger than the other. But if I compare A with A+1, or A-1 (the same set plus or minus an additional perspective), I can tell unproblematically that A+1>A>A-1. [You might say that this is what is meant by “+” and “-“; and so this relies on a scalar concept of gaining or losing a perspective, which I think is available]

What does this mean? That, giving a starting point, it is perspectivally possible to talk of improving or disimproving one’s knowledge of a thing. This may sound trivial, but it is a clear distinction with relativism. In a pure relativism, we must say “X is true relative to Y” and “Z is true relative to W”, and do no more to compare them; but in perspectivism, I think that we can say “X is more true than Z” -provided that “X” is not a single belief but an entire understanding, and provided that X is a development of Z, or Z a development of X.* (If we really want to talk about the truth of belief, we can do that by defining the ‘truth’ of a belief in terms of the truth of belief-sets it is a member of).

Objectivists may still object that seeing a thing from MORE perspectives is not good per se – some of the perspectives may be entirely deceptive! (Ie beliefs from those viewpoints are simply false). But this can be avoided by replying that this is not a hypothetical matter, viewing a thing from two perspectives: tha attempt is itself a test: CAN I try to understand it from this insane and confused perspective? This is just heading in the direction of coherence. If a person holds beliefs that he is able to find coherent, but that I find incoherent, I don’t see how I can correct him: either he is as sane as I am (in which case how can my views override his? On what basis?), or he is insane. Insane people can believe all sorts of things. Yes, my views prevent me from condemning the insane as being wrong – but why bother condemning them, they’ve got enough to worry about. More important is the fact that their beliefs are not feasible for me to hold, as my “sanity” is too central a part of me to give up. Those of you who come from a more objectivist direction may appreciate a rephrasing: the insane are not “wrong”, because to say the things they say and believe them, they must mean something so different, even incomprehensible sometimes, in cases of great madness, that it is futile for us to try to pick out which bits are ‘right’ and which are ‘wrong’. They are so incommensurable with us that direct comparison is impossible – we would not know what we were comparing.

Of course, it seems extreme to say that anyone seriously differing from my views is either insane or beyond reproach. There is a third option: they do NOT really believe what they think they believe. This seems patronising: who am I to say that they don’t even believe what they think they do? But the point is: it’s not a binary thing. When we reach out to embrace a new perspective, we do not only either fail or succeed: often, we maintain a tenouous grasp upon it. In this process, we say we “hold” certain prominent beliefs that come with that perspective. But if that perspective CANNOT be reconciled with those we already have access to, we cannot fully grasp it – we struggle with it, we shift our grip – which is to say that we may end up abandoning it, or we may end up with a slightly different perspective instead, one that’s more coherent with what we already have. This may require us to give up the beliefs we thought we held. Less imagistically: we half-hold a belief, but then we work out its consequences (the other beliefs it is connected to in that perspective), and if we cannot digest the bones it is attached to, nor rip the bones away, we may be forced to let the meat slip from our mouths and find a more tender morsel. [Did I say LESS imagistically? Sorry.] This “working out” is an active process, a part of incorporating the perspective, and may take quite some time, during which time we half-hold the belief, on probation, as it were. Not having yet worked out the consequences is why seemingly otherwise-rational people can hold beliefs that appear incoherent: they do not firmly hold and master them, but only entertain them.

[Question/Objection: can we ever cease this ‘working out’? I don’t know. I think we can, though. It appears as though we haven’t, because every time we try to eat a new perspective and find the sharp bits stabbing us in the gut, our attention is drawn to some previously unproblematic weak point that the sharpness is hurting – and it’s possible for us then to have to adjust our previous beliefs. In any case, I think it’s true that most of us are walking around with a lot of half-digested points of view in our head; the result, of course, is a sort of existential indigestion]

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Gods, I need to be clearer. Not today, don’t worry. But sometime. And in doing so, regretfully I may need more clearly-formulated jargon. Every idea starts out naked and innocent, believing it can do without technicalities and be clothed only in sunbeams and imagery; but then the winter comes, and the sunbeams are woven into prose and terminology.

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*But this is useless! Well, no, but… we so often want to say “yes I KNOW it would be better to see this from another point of view: but WHICH?” This scalar judgement can’t help. But it can, indirectly. Because we can go beyond “can I accept this perspective” to “if I accept this perspective, can I THEN go on to accept others?”. X and Z may both be improvements on U, but if Z allows us to later accept A, then B, then C… and X is just X and that’s that, then X is a dead-end, and Z is prefarable to X.

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Yeah, I bet you all found that just FASCINATING.