Urban Blight and Orwell’s Pyramid

 

by Judith Huang

First published at The Boat 16072010

You can tell a lot about a city from its county newspaper. Of course, I am unnaturally interested in regional newspapers because there weren’t any in Singapore where I grew up. I was stunned by the provincialism of the Western Australian, amused by the graphic focus of USA Today, temporarily seduced by the cosmopolitanism and urbane tone of the New York Times, and now I’m in St Louis I flapped open the NorthSider, a free mag (and apparently in its first issue) that was lying on my friend Darell’s breakfast table.

Here are some of July’s Headlines –

REBUILDING BLOCK BY BLOCK

A NEW TOOL FOR REPORTING ISSUES

“OPERATION UNITY” CALLS FOR END TO THE VIOLENCE

NEWSTEAD DEVELOPMENT NEARING COMPLETION

TRANSFORMING O’FALLON PARK

ST. LOUIS LANDS $21M FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING

MISSOURI UNEMPLOYMENT NUMBERS SLIGHTLY BETTER

STATE OUTLAWS FAKE POT

Here are a selection of the ads:

MINORITY CONTRACTORS!

HELP KEEP YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD SAFE AND BRIGHT: LEAVE YOUR PORCH LIGHT ON!

LEADERS NEEDED! HELP RAISE THE STANDARDS – IF YOU DON’T LIKE WHAT’S HAPPENING ON YOUR BLOCK, HELP CHANGE IT!

So, I guess Darell did warn me before I came to St Louis that it is a “blighted city” – she’s working in an urban planning office to revitalize the city, after all, and it’s one of the most segregated (racially and economically) cities in America. Fortunately Southeast Asians are a bit of a rarity and so we encounter curiosity rather than hostility on either side. I had felt some of the tension in Chicago, but man, St Louis is something else.

“The Chinatown closed down,” Darell said, while we whooshed through the almost-empty metro onward to her apartment. “Have you ever heard of a Chinatown closing down??” Later in the evening I was cooking some Singaporean fish porridge for her. “Do you have any ginger?” She looked at me sheepishly. “You call yourself Malaysian???” “Judith, there isn’t an Asian grocery store around here!” Fair enough. We did, thankfully, have soy sauce and some pseudo-Asian fried onion flakes though. But no ginger.

“So what’s the socio-economic breakdown of St Louis, from what you’ve seen?”

“Hm, so, there are these really really rich people who live in mansions and have been here since the 1800s or something,” she said. “Then there are the young rich professionals who also live around that area. And then, well, there’s everyone else…”

“The proletariat?”

“Yup, the proles.”

“What would you say, 85%?”

“Yeah…. maybe 75%…. or yeah maybe 80.”

And you wonder why there’s crime and resentment and segregation.

I mean, here’s a little graphic depicting the social structure of Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984:

image from Wikipedia

Sounds about right?

I was talking to someone from China who was with the CCP from the start – he was a soldier in the PLA, a young, idealistic boy who joined up and wanted to help alleviate the suffering of the masses. He was curious about America, never having been there before.

“So, what do you find is different about America?” He asked, after relating his stories about the Chinese Civil War, and the Cultural Revolution. I was kind of embarrassed – not just because my Chinese vocabulary leaves much to be desired, but I wasn’t very sure what to say. Different from what? Different from Singapore? From America? From Australia? From everywhere else?

He gestured towards his balcony, which had a pretty green grill over it – it was a new condominium, and he’d just moved there in the last two years. “Do people have grates over their doors there?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. “You mean, fences and gates for security?”

“Yes,” he said. “Do you need to keep thieves out?”

This was all a revelation to me. I had never lived in a place where you wouldn‘t want to at least install some grills over your windows. I mean, in Perth there weren’t fences around the houses, but already break-ins were more and more frequent and people were starting to put them up due to a surge of poor refugees into the city.

“Yes, yes, people have security grills.”

He laughed. “During the 1970s, everyone was equally poor,” he said. “There wasn’t anything worth stealing. We didn’t have grills over our windows then. I mean, we were all starving, but I guess we were all equal.”

I guess I just had never thought about it that way.

.

When I was back at college, I had to take a couple of psych tests in order to fulfill my requirement for Steven Pinker’s class, the Human Mind. At the beginning of the psych study we were asked what sorts of shapes we liked better – shapes like this:

image source

or this:

Generally, a preference for pyramidal structures indicates a tendency toward political and economic conservatism, while a preference for circular structures indicates a tendency toward political and economic liberalism.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that the actual pyramids of Egypt were built for a single man’s remains, possibly to preserve him as an immortal, on the backs of hundreds of thousands of slaves; it should also come as no surprise that the complete abject equality of the Cultural Revolution led to a destructive, collective purge of thousands of years of culture and civilization – in which the young and powerful beat the old and helpless, not for goods or because they were poor, but for fun, for acceptance amongst their peers, and out of a fierce, misguided ideological conviction.

In the end, all kinds of tyranny led to the same place: the War of All against All.

Poetry is Logistics: Okigbo

Screen your bedchamber thoughts

with sunglasses;

who could jump your eye,

your mind-window?

 

And I said:

The prophet only,

the poet.

And he said:

Logistics.

 

Which is what poetry is.

Which is what poetry is.

 

  • Christopher Okigbo, quoted in Edwin Thumboo’s PhD dissertation.

 

The symbolic fusion of the traditional and Christian elements noted by critics is successful on account of the balanced yet un-strained meaningfulness contributed by image and symbol.

 

Scar of the crucifix

over the breast

by red blade inflicted
by red-hot blade on right breast

witnesseth

 

The ‘crucifix’

we have been made over-familiar with its sorrowful aspects at the expense of its pictorial and dramatic qualities. Okigbo revives the potency of the symbol, restoring the full impact of Christ on the cross, the opening of his side, the miracle of the stigmata, intensifying the visual qualities, symbolises the life and passion of Christ.

The religious content of both traditions meet and merge in the

protagonist. We notice the dialectical movement, the synthesis

creating its own dissatisfactions, leading to a further poetic ex¬

ploration, a critique through poetry of the unity achieved. Perception is
a new vantage point from which to ponder the limitations of the

temporary because the new awareness provides a fresh insight,

present. The poet moves on, not because the ‘rituals’ are likely to obscure his perceptions or ‘paralyse’ him, but in order to move continuously onto an ever-increasing purity of perception to arrive at a complete understanding.22 In this manner he achieves, through experience, a unity of being which gathers the sum-total of all interests, not merely the African or the Western. Only a compre¬ hensive personality can express in meaningful form the matrix of differing experiences.

Elemental, united in vision of present and future,

the pure line, whose innocence denies inhibitions.

Full paper can be found here.

The Rev. Dr. Peter J Gomes: A Eulogy

 

The second semester of Freshman year, I was already (in my own mind) a cool cat when it came to wily ruses to get into good sections of my classes. This is how I did it: I signed up for Reverend Gomes’ Christian Bible and its Interpreters, but sneakily didn’t enter my name for the section lotteries. Instead, I simply turned up at Professor Gomes’ Wednesday section, and insinuated myself as a member. It was in an underground room in Memorial Church – the only class I took my four years in that building, and appropriately lined with dark wood, crimson wallpaper and a particularly obnoxiously loud and handsome grandfather clock. The man himself sat in the middle of a long table like Jesus in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

“Hoom!” was the first sound he made when it turned out the class list didn’t quite tally with the one he had been given. Sitting in the middle of the table was a kind of beautiful ledger with cream paper, and a bulbous fountain pen. We were all supposed to write our names in it for attendance at the start of class. My fifteen compatriots and I looked uneasily at one another, until one of the braver ones took up the pen, a thing of silver and marble, and proceeded to scratch his name awkwardly in the ledger. When the book got to me, I felt like a chicken scratching her name in the Book of Life, but fortunately the six names above mine bore the same marks of strenuous effort. When we went around introducing ourselves and our reasons for taking the class, one of us said her two previous siblings had taken it, and now that she was, her parents were nervous. Gomes chuckled appreciatively.

“Ah, so you, too, are here to lose your faith!”

I was slightly alarmed. I had been warned about this sort of thing – my church was the sort which had concerned housewives pull you aside to tell you not to study literature at university, or preferably not to go to university at all, “in case you lose your faith”. It was a good thing that the Serious State of Degeneration of Mainline Protestantism in the North East had yet to reach the ears of tropical Singaporeans half a world away, or the assurance that Harvard was founded by the Puritans wouldn’t have made for such a good retort. At the same time, I felt a kind of illicit thrill, the nerd’s equivalent of taking the first puff of a cigarette behind one’s school. Perhaps I would be corrupted! The chorus of R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” rang in my head. My church back home had thought R. E. M. (and Harry Potter, and James Bond) were Satanic. I felt myself at the precipice of a very long and slippery slope.

I enjoyed the class immensely. I was taking it for fun. I read with literary interest of Christian typology. I was shocked and delighted to learn Augustine had warned against literalism centuries before my country had even been founded. Professor Gomes’ lectures were always an event. The man was a self-conscious fulfillment of everything any of us had dreamed a Harvard professor would be. I am pretty sure he did it on purpose. He would stride into Harvard Hall, walking stick in hand, a vision of tweed and pocket-squares and watch-chains, and carelessly (but theatrically) toss his fedora in a way that made it land precisely on the window ledge of the first window on the right, alarming students sitting on the next one. Job well done, he would write the three words “GOD CHURCH BIBLE” on the board, and launch into his subject with that booming voice of his. To say it was challenging to my evangelical, Calvinist, dispensationalist worldview is an understatement. By the end of the class, I was shaken and stirred, major theologians jostling for space in my head. I didn’t know what to do about the final project. I talked to him about it, and in his infinite kindness and understanding, he assigned me Barth.

One of the most glorious experiences I have ever had at Harvard was the dinner Professor Gomes threw to conclude the class. It was in the wonderful rose-red Pusey room, on the second floor of Memorial church – another room outfitted to his instruction. We were ushered into the room, seated at great round tables, and when Gomes rose to give a toast, instructed to read the text that was inscribed (by his instruction) along the top of the walls of that room. Squinting, we read– “Here is Wisdom; here is the Royal Law; here are the Lively Oracles of God.”

“To the lively oracles of God!” he said, lifting his glass with glee. “And let that cry shake the very stones!” I am certain he has left more than just these little clues, scattered around and about the campus, anchoring Harvard to its true origins, to its moral core.

Him being a proud eschewer of email, I thought I would never be able to contact him again with the course completed, but I was wrong. I was to have several more encounters with the man before I graduated. Whether it was the steward of the Signet Society (“We do not do, we are”) complaining about budgeting for his refurbishment of the dining rooms (“Professor Gomes has exquisite – but expensive – taste!”) to finding myself on the Harvard Ichthus, which he lent the moral support of his name on the masthead to, Gomes permeated the atmosphere of my Harvard.

His life was a case in point in how fancy dinners can have stellar uses. In my junior year, I saw a tiny ad in the Harvard Gazette for a “Vocations Dinner” at Sparks’ House, where he held his weekly teas. As a Myers-Briggs INFJ obsessed with the word “vocation”, and feeling particularly directionless at the time, I knew I had to sign up. It was all the pomp you could imagine, with very silent butlers and clinking silver and every imaginable sort of cheese. When Professor Gomes stood up to clink his glass to welcome those who were interested in making a career out of ministry, he set out to dispel the myth that it would necessarily impoverish us. “Some of us, as you can see, do quite well for ourselves,” he said, waving airily at the cheese platters. There were seating cards involved. For which I will be eternally thankful, for I was seated next to Samir Paul, the dashing young man who had just received the mission to revive the Ichthus (then in the throes of death due to the graduation of its entire exco). From there on, the Ichthus became the consuming passion of my Harvard life, and I had Gomes to thank for it.

The thing about Professor Gomes was that he had style. Sometimes this was infuriating, and some people held it against him. Perhaps from years of being in charge of fiercely ecumenical Memorial Church, he had honed the art of the evasive witticism. “Do you believe in God?” “Well, God believes in you.” “Do you believe in the Trinity?” “Well, it is traditional.” Always pithy, sometimes maddening, he could seem two-dimensional, or, more accurately, opaque. He clearly enjoyed pomp and ceremony, and believed in them in a nearly sacramental way. He enjoyed recounting dinners with English Catholic aristocrats (“Who had always managed to keep their heads”) and holding tasteful dinners redolent of Old Harvard. In his way, he was one of the keepers of Old Harvard, simultaneously incongruous and more Harvardy than anything else. (To place it in context, most of Harvard for me consisted of wearing a hoodie, typing out papers while procrastinating on Facebook.) My more evangelical friends liked to dislike him for his equivocation, and those who were suspicious of WASP-iness liked to dislike him for his airs and graces. I must admit I held some of the same reservations, as I distrusted my own enjoyment of the pomp and privilege that was being at Harvard.

But it all melted away in a very unexpected place – in the office of poetry critic Helen Vendler. I forget why she told me this, but I do remember the story, because I told it to someone else. Just before I graduated, I was talking to a friend who was struggling deeply with his sexuality and his religion. Like me, he had been brought up evangelical, but the sort of thing he had grown up believing cut him more deeply and closely than I could imagine, for he was just coming to terms with being gay, a thing his family hoped would be merely temporary. He was one of my friends who liked to make Professor Gomes and Unitarian jokes.

“Do you want to hear a touching story about Professor Gomes?”

“No, I don’t want to hear a touching story about Professor Gomes.”

I went ahead anyway. “Well, here it is anyway. Helen Vendler told me that, in the nineties, during the AIDS epidemic, there was a lot of demonstrating for and against homosexuality in the college. And there was this one undergrad who had holed himself up in his room when he had found out he tested positive. He refused to come out for weeks and weeks. His friends brought him food and it would just lie outside, and they were all afraid he would commit suicide. Months went by. Then, the only person who managed to reach him and coax him out was Professor Gomes, because he sat outside his door and waited until he did.”

My friend was silent for a moment.

“Yes, that was a touching story. I’m touched.”

And really, that’s what it was. It wasn’t that, in an act of extraordinary bravery, Professor Gomes had stood on the steps of Memorial church in the face of an angry mob and come out as gay, and a Christian. It wasn’t that he was one of only two black men on the faculty when he first started at Harvard. It wasn’t that he knew every theologian and American historical movement in Christianity inside out. It was that he cared deeply and sacrificially for that one boy. After hearing that story, I knew that this man knew God. He complicated my faith – made it less lazy, more honest, more complex – but he didn’t make me lose it.

In the Spring of 2010, up the steps of Memorial church, the soon-to-be-graduates entered boisterously two by two. His red cloak billowing behind him, Professor Gomes stands with both hands held out, round-framed glasses tilted slightly up over deep-set eyes, booming his congratulations to each undergrad who passed by. I reach out to grasp his hand and thank him. “Did you know that the Ichthus now blogs every day?” I told him. “I am very pleased to hear that, my dear. Very pleased,” he boomed. “I am very glad, for I was an early investor.” All eyebrows and eyelids, he gives me a wink.

“This is so Old Harvard!” whispered one of my atheist friends during the service. “It’s so… anachronistic, that we have go to church to get blessed before we graduate. By a Professor of Christian Morals.”

“Yeah…”

“But you know, it’s sort of like, if there wasn’t such a thing, you’d feel kind of cheated, somehow. Like you aren’t really graduating from Harvard.” I knew Professor Gomes would have liked to hear that.

Later during the processional, I call out to him as he passes by. “Professor Gomes! I seek your blessing!”

“You have it!” he said, flourishing his wand and tapping me with it. And I still feel blessed.

Singapore Civil Servant, Makerspace Guardian: Don’t Engage

I was waiting for my best friend Xuwen, a programmer, at one of the public libraries the other day. I discovered that on one of the floors there was a makerspace. “Cool,” I thought. “I’ll check it out.”

There was a woman manning the desk at the entrance.

“Can I come work in here?” I asked.

“Are you registered?”

I shook my head. “Can I register myself?”

“What are you working on?”

“I’m working on a science fiction novel.”

“Sorry, this space is for people using technology only.”

I look around. There are two people in a space that could accommodate forty.

“Come on, there’s almost nobody here. It’s SCIENCE fiction.”

She grows stiff. “I’d love to, but I’m sorry, you need to use the common spaces.”

“I could end up collaborating with people who are using technology. I’m writing ABOUT technology.”

“Sorry, you have to leave.”

Congratulations, Singapore, you have just achieved escape velocity in maximum irony. You just turned away a science fiction WRITER in an empty makerspace in a public library.

“Whatever,” I say and back out of the room.

This is why I just choose not to engage, really. What’s the point? I do so much better and it’s so much better for my sanity if I just “stick to the common areas”. Sigh.

Also, when in doubt, it’s better to laugh than to cry.

 

PS I hesitated to write this cos I don’t want to get anyone fired, but well. Sigh.

The argument from Beauty

I had a very good friend in college who used to be Christian. He was so Christian he was the head of the organization I wrote for. We prayed for each other for thirty days over the phone after we met.

He was also an organismic and evolutionary biologist and a philosopher, and in the closet.

Years later he told me he still found Christianity to be beautiful, but could no longer believe it was true.

I wrote before that I grew up as a young earth creationist. That fell by the wayside by senior year, but I was still confused about how a process that involved death and destruction could give rise to consciousness and a beautiful world.

What is beauty?

What is truth?

And are they related or interchangeable?

They are obviously not entirely the same thing.

The first time I realized that evolution could be beautiful was when I watched a 3D computer graphic simulation of evolution. A small cube developed a limb, which developed another branch, so it was paddling along. After a few thousand iterations, it was locomoting.

The video was beautiful.

I still took some convincing.

If we are merely wired to think what we see is beautiful, isn’t it a circular argument to say that a beautiful thing is a sign of a consciousness outside ourselves?

What is the evolutionary purpose of being able to perceive beauty?

How about beauty in abstract things, such as concepts? Symmetry? Language? Mathematics? Code?

The argument from beauty is not trivial, it is one of the most convincing because many of us are aesthetic creatures. We are enraptured by the senses, blinded by the thought of perfection.

The argument from beauty can silence all others.

How, then, can my friend find something beautiful but not be convinced it is true?

If he believes that beauty is a deception, I suppose. But even if it is a deception, doesn’t it point to something deeper, something beyond that could be even more perfect?

I have no answers to these questions.

 

Misquoted in the press: HCI

When I was 18 I was misquoted in the press.

This was when Hwachong was being renamed Hwa Chong Institution. There was an uproar amongst Hwa Chong Junior College alumni who felt this erased their inclusion in the alumni. The people from Chinese High were not too happy either. And nobody liked the word “Institution”.

I was quoted as saying “It looks like we’re trying to copy RI”

The worst possible thing anyone could be quoted as saying because RI is Raffles Institution, our rival high school.

But which is what everybody was thinking.

The next day I’m summoned to the principal’s office.

“Hello Judith,” says the principal.

“I was misquoted.”

“We know. I know our Judith wouldn’t say anything so stupid.”

“Well, thanks. But I want to help you. Give me two days and I’ll draft a petition.”

I go back and draft a petition suggesting that “Hwa Chong Institution” be an umbrella term for “Hwa Chong Junior College” and “The Chinese High School”, then I get my classmate, best friend and collaborator to translate it into excellent Chinese.

Then I get as many other students to sign the proposal as possible.

“You know he’s just using you, right?” asks my friend.

I shrug. “I know he’s using me. I’m using him too,” I say.

“OK just so you know.”

I present the bilingual edition of the proposal to the principal.

“This is interesting. What’s an umbrella term?”

“It means it’s an institution that incorporates two older institutions.”

“We’ll forward this to the board of directors,” says the principal.

“No problem.”

“Also, I didn’t know your Chinese was so good.”

I bite back the name of my collaborator. He didn’t want to sign the petition.

He doesn’t have any power. I don’t have any power, even less than he does. The only people with power are the board of directors. Maybe even only the Chairman of the board.

I never hear about this issue again, but sure enough, the next time they rename the gate, that’s what it says,

Hwa Chong Institution

Incorporating

Hwa Chong Junior College and The Chinese High School

Like most compromises, nobody is happy, nobody got exactly what they wanted, and nobody feels particularly satisfied.

It also didn’t last. The gate has since been changed again. It just says Hwa Chong Institution now.

But I do have this story.

So…. I’ve kind of built a university?

Inspired by a facebook post in which I asked a few friends what their major would be in Nsibidi Institute of Technology, the equivalent of MIT or Caltech in #Bythenose, my second novel, I have started a Discord Server to host this online university. It is a crowdsourced worldbuilding RPG. Pls feel free to join at

 

Variation on the Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood reformatted by Judith Huang

Variation on the Word Sleep

by Margaret Atwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

I                                        would like                       to watch                                         you   sleeping,

which may not happen.

I would like to watch you,                         I would like to sleep with you,

                                                     sleeping.

to enter your

                    sleep

as its smooth dark wave                                                                  slides over my head and walk with you through that lucent wavering forest of bluegreen leaves with its watery sun & three moons towards the cave

where you must

                                descend,

                                                    towards

                                                                             your

                                                                                             worst

fear

I would like to give you

                                                           the silver branch,

                                                                                                     the small white flower,

the one

word

that will protect you

                                            from the grief

at the                                center                         of                              your                  dream,

from the grief at the center.

I would like

to follow you

                           up

                                                                                                                    the long stairway again &

become the                                                  boat                                          that would row you

back

carefully,

a flame in two cupped hands

to where

your body                                                          lies                                                           beside me, and you                                                                                                    as easily as breathing in

                                 enter it

I would

like

to be

                                                                                                                                                           the air that inhabits

you

                                                                    for a moment only.

                                                                                                                                                                        I

would like to be that

unnoticed

& that necessary.