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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Language Poem (1) by Robert Bringhurst reformatted by Judith Huang

Language Poem

ONE

The heron has practised his silence longer than time has been

time. When he rises and speaks, there is no one in the cove who doesn’t

listen, there is no one in the cove who couldn’t translate what he

says, and no one in the cove who wouldn’t realize the heron had been lost

in that translation. Everything speaks for itself in this world, and everything rests in what is unspoken.

Hairy woodpecker too, mystified, miffed, or exasperated or pleased, utters

his one word and jumps or hunkers down and squeezes hard: hanging on

for dear life to what is, or swimming right through it as if it were there. And it is. And it is.

How many more words would it take to make up a language? Does

language actually have to have words? What it must have are meanings—

and some way of saying, These and not those are the meanings that stand here uncovered—or covered.

The meanings a language must have are the meanings it lacks: located

outside it, like sunlight and grass. So together with meaning there has to

be pointing at meaning. A language, in other words, has to have

gestures and speakers. One each, let us say, for a start. With a little bit

more—

one speaker,                                                 two gestures;

one gesture, two speakers—

along with the requisite 

bedrock and fauna and flora of meanings— it might make the first blunt

lurch toward a life of its own.       The sounds of our speech are nothing

but gestures that reach around                                        corners and work in the dark,

the sounds of our footsteps                                                                   nothing but gestures out                                                                                                                      hunting for

 

meaning.

There are, as you know, languages spoken by millions of humans in

which there are syllables, gestures,                                                                with dozens

or hundreds of meanings.         Imagine                                                        a language

with only one

word

 

and five

hundred

meanings.

 

Imagine

 

one

finger and five hundred moons. You are not so far now from the

            woodpecker’s language,                                                                                                               and not so far now as you were from the shuddering throat of the great blue heron or the sandhill crane. If you tried, you might cling for a moment or two to those hollow-boned fingers of air in which five million years’ worth of watching and thinking are caught like a fossilized fish in one braided, eroded, unanalyzed word.

The invisible dictionary that sits on a rickety, tilted shelf of air there in the great blue heron’s study, open to the weather, perpetually shredded and reprinted by the wind, has only one entry, a thousand pages long.

What does it mean,

this evergreen book full of one-fingered meanings?

That words are like wind

in the leaves

and leaves

in the wind:

scraps of reality.                                                     And that we harness them

nevertheless,                 as the fishermen,               far up the river harness their cormorants, horsemen their horses, and as the go players harness their stones.

That gestures are gestures only because we employ them as gestures—and gestures, like other things, are what they are. They are not what they point at and not what we thought we would get them to say, in the same way that horses are not what they pull. That the journey will tell you, whenever it’s ready, where you were heading.         That meaning was here before you were, or they were, and will be long after.       That gestures, like horses, are part of it, yes, but gestures can never—no matter how beautiful they may be—create what they say. What gestures give life to, and birth to, are gestures, and that is their value—the same as with cormorants, humans, and horses.           And this: that what speaks from its heart is in that moment spoken—a form of the language, a part of the speech—swinging down and back up and back down on the dangling tongue in its mouth like a bell—sometimes moving toward singing, and sometimes toward walking and sometimes toward freezing and holding its breath in the presence of meaning.

God in the Dock: THBT Oedipus Rex Should not be let into Heaven

script by Judith Huang, 2001

Oedipus has died. But there are a number of angels who violently object to his presence in heaven. However, there is hope for Oedipus yet, for you and other like-minded angels are going to root for him.

 

Prepare a full argument that Oedipus’ greatest fault is not arrogance, nor is it incest or parricide, but only curiosity. Provide evidence from the heavenly transcripts of earthly conversations in Oedipus Rex, the text.

The Intro

 

Jieying (as Propangel): So, who’s next on our waiting list?

 

Judith (as Oppangel): I believe it’s Oedipus, a good and noble king of Thebes. Deceased at least 3 millenia ago.

 

Jieying (as Propangel): Oedipus…that human who – (eyes widen in horror) Didn’t he marry his mother, kill his father…?

 

Judith (as Oppangel): Er…yes…but…

 

Jieying (as Propangel): (growing more horrified by the second) That man has no place in Heaven, exclusive territory of the pure and virtuous!

 

Judith (as Oppangel): No…it was not like that at all! I MUST protest. Oedipus was an honourable man and I can’t allow you to ruin his chances in Heaven! (makes a very unangelic lunge for PA)

 

Jieying (as Propangel): HOLD it. I propose that we review this case in a more civilised manner.

 

Judith (as Oppangel): (a beat) I see. A debate.

 

Amanda hands Blin the first God paper.

 

The Heavenly Court Proceedings Entry #567812

 

Blin (as God): Good eternity, my subservient creations, and welcome to the Heavenly Court Debate, round #567812, also known as Blin’s Lit Lesson. The motion for today is “This house believes that Oedipus should not be allowed in heaven”.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): On the side of the proposition, we have the Propangel, and on the side of the opposition, we have the Oppangel. (Whatever position Blin is in, e.g. seated on the right), is the Judge, Blin, also known as God Almighty. I now invite the only speaker of the Proposition to present her case.

 

Jieying (as Propangel): Good eternity, God (bow to Blin) and fellow angels. As the only speaker of the proposition, I propose the motion, THBT Oedipus should not be allowed in Heaven.

 

What does this mean? Simply that Oedipus’ sins are too great to qualify him for eternal life in Heaven. What then, are these sins? The proposition divides them into two categories – action and attitude.

 

First of all, let us look at Oedipus’ sinful actions – incest and parricide. In killing his father and marrying his mother, he broke the most sacred taboos of his society. He killed his own father, and married his own mother. Let me stress to you, God and fellow angels, that this is no trivial matter. Oedipus’s marriage to the woman who gave birth to him is an act of gross unnaturalness. It is contrary to all common morality. It is an act of sexual perversity, and certainly has no place in Heaven.

 

Now, his second sin – parricide. Oedipus killed his own father, God and fellow angels! The taking of a life is already a terrible crime, but the murder of one’s own father is a thousand times worse! Murderers are routinely condemned to burn in Hell, as a matter of principle. What more could be said for father-killers?

 

Judith:             Point of information, ma’am

 

Jieying: Yes, ma’am

 

Judith: But he did that out of ignorance, and intention is…

 

Jieying: I am going to address that point. Perhaps, the opposition may argue, he didn’t really intend to commit incest or parricide, and this makes him innocent. But we in heaven firmly believe that it is the deed that matters. Intention does not change the facts! The fact remains that Laius was murdered by his own son. The fact remains that Jocasta was so shamed that she was driven to suicide. The fact remains that their tragic deaths were Oedipus’ fault. THE FACT REMAINS that he DID commit incest and parricide. Are you saying that just because Oedipus was ignorant, the blood on his hands can be washed away? No! He was no less guilty of his crimes, and must be punished accordingly.

 

Now, to my second point – Oedipus’ sinful attitude. Oedipus was sinfully arrogant. Although we recognise Oedipus as a man of many talents, his so-called superiority did not justify his blatant arrogance, which can easily be seen in the things he said: (remote)

 

Brenda (as Oedipus): I, Oedipus, whose name is known afar.

 

Jieying:(remote)This disgusting arrogance contributed to Oedipus’ downfall. It led to obstinacy. He refused to listen to anyone else, as can be seen in this earthly example: (remote)

 

Brenda (as Oedipus): I doubt your eloquence will teach me much. You are my bitterest enemy; that I know.

 

Zhenling (as Creon): First, let me tell you—

 

Brenda (as Oedipus): Tell me anything except that you’re honest.

Zhenling (as Creon): Can you believe this obstinacy does you any good?

 

Brenda and Zhenling freeze, Jieying gives an interesting comment.

 

Jieying: He was always so overconfident with his superiority, that he couldn’t accept the possibility of his being wrong.

Brenda (as Oedipus): I know I’m right.

 

Zhenling (as Creon): In your own eyes, not in mine.

 

Brenda: You are a knave.

 

Zhenling: And what if you are mistaken?

 

Brenda: Kings must rule.

 

Zhenling: Not when they rule unjustly.

 

Brenda: Hear him, Thebes! My city!

 

Jieying: (remote) An egomaniac’s cry! He was similarly rough with Teiresias, who actually knew the truth, and could have helped him, as can be seen here:

 

Brenda: Do you think you can say such things with impunity?

 

Amanda (as Teiresias): I do- if truth has any power to save.

 

Brenda: It has, but not for you, no, not for you Shameless and brainless, sightless, senseless sot!

 

Jieying: This proves that Oedipus wasn’t as noble as he was made out to be! After all…

 

Zhenling (as Chorus): Pride breeds the tyrant;…shall he escape his doomed pride’s punishment?

 

Jieying: Of course, the fact was that he was wrong. While he was busy slamming others, he was unaware of his own faults, which were far more serious than Creon’s or Teiresias’. This is blind arrogance, or hubris, and it was utterly unjustified.

 

In the end, his own stubbornness unmasked the truth, at his expense. Notice that despite various warnings by other people, he stubbornly continued to probe for evidence. If he had only listened, perhaps he wouldn’t have come to his ruin.

 

This is, on the other hand, proof that sin can never escape punishment, and justice will always be done. Why, then, should Oedipus be allowed into Heaven? It’s Heaven’s duty to set high standards of purity and virtue, and Oedipus has clearly sinned beyond redemption. Imagine allowing such a sinner into our midst! The credibility and image of Heaven will be stained for all eternity! Thus, I rest my case. The motion, THBT Oedipus should be allowed in Heaven, must stand. Thank you.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): The only speaker of the Proposition took __ min and __ sec. I now invite the only speaker of the Opposition to present her case.

 

Judith (as Oppangel):

Good eternity, God (bows to Blin), and fellow angels. As the only speaker of the Opposition in this heavenly debate, I must disagree with what the proposition has just said. Although I cannot disprove that Oedipus committed both incest and parricide, and was to a certain degree arrogant, he has made an admirable effort in redeeming himself, and does not deserve to be condemned.

 

First, I shall deal with the proposition’s points on incest and parricide. These actions were done in complete ignorance. He did not intend to sin. Oedipus did not know that he had married his mother and killed his father.

 

Oedipus won his bride while rescuing Thebes from the Sphinx. Can you say that he sinned because he had the compassion and courage to save Thebes? No. Can you say that he sinned because he killed in order to defend his pride? No. Perhaps, in this time and age, it would be considered rash and foolish of Oedipus to murder a man for so slight a cause, but remember, God and angels, that Oedipus lived three millennia ago. In any other situation, Greek legality would have allowed Oedipus to kill to defend his honour. His sin was not the murder of a man, but the murder of his father, which he did not recognise! Therefore, he committed parricide in utter innocence!

 

Surely acts committed in ignorance do not play a part in heaven’s condemnation!

 

Jieying: Point of Information, ma’am. The fact still remains that he has committed a terrible sin, ma’am.

 

Judith: Again I stress, it is the intention that determines sin! I shall now proceed with the proposition’s second point.

 

Yes, Oedipus was arrogant, as the proposition has presented evidence true to the heavenly transcripts on this point. However, he had other, greater qualities that redeemed his hubris. For example, Oedipus was a good man – he came to Thebes to save it from its suffering. His compassion in saving Thebes from the Sphinx earned him his place as the King of Thebes. Oedipus was a good King – he promised to do his best in hunting down Liaus’ murderer. He was the greatest of men. It is not arrogance for him to say so. Let us refer to the words of the Priest (picks up remote control)

 

Amanda (as Priest):    “If we come to you now, sir, as your suppliants,

“I and these children, it is not as holding you

The equal of gods, but as the first of men

 

Judith: These words show that the people held Oedipus as the first of men. Even the priest, who represented the gods, admitted so. Thus, Oedipus was justified in thinking of himself as a great man.

 

Now I shall move on to my substantive. I shall now prove that it was in fact curiosity that was Oedipus’ greatest failing, not the actions or attitudes pointed out by the proposition. Then, I shall further elaborate on how even this fault is negligible in the face of Oedipus’ redeeming virtues.

 

Curiosity, perhaps, may be named as Oedipus’ greatest fault; had he not been curious and found out more about the prophecy, he would never have left Corinth and caused himself all the trouble. Curiosity is innocent, my friends. In fact, it is almost noble – it is the pursuit of truth. If Oedipus’ only fault was curiosity, how could he be called sinful?

 

It is this relentless pursuit of the truth that caused Oedipus to discover the shame he committed. He did this even in the face of Jocasta’s repeated requests that he stop. (remote)

 

Enter Brenda (Oedipus) and Zhenling (Jocasta), Brenda in noble, uncompromising pose and Zhenling pleading.

 

Zhenling (as Jocasta): “No! In God’s name – if you want to live, this must not go on.” (freeze, unfreeze)       “I implore you, do not do it.”

(freeze, unfreeze)         “I know I am right. I am warning you for your good.”

 

Judith: On realising his so-called sins, Oedipus demonstrated his nobility in a great, unnecessary act of repentance.

 

Enter Brenda and Zhenling (as Jocasta) who act out what is read about them

 

Judith: What does he do? He reduces himself to a blind, humbled man, condemned to live as a pariah. He condemns himself to the full punishment he dictated, not even sparing himself. He was no coward, unlike Jocasta who committed suicide. (Zhenling hangs herself) He forced himself to go on living, my friends – blinded and stripped to a fragment of the proud man he was.

Clearly, that Oedipus was a noble man whose virtues far outweighed his failings. He more than redeemed himself with these virtues. His willingness to repent, his capacity for suffering, his sense of responsibility, his unshakeable principles. These virtues mark him as a man worthy of nothing less than heaven. He has repented. How can we deny him entry?

 

In conclusion, the opposition poses these questions: must a man be perfect before he can be considered ‘good’? Oedipus has repented his sins, if they can be considered sins. And that must be good enough, if not more than necessary. Lesser men have been considered good, and accepted into heaven. If even a man like Oedipus is refused, wouldn’t heaven be an echoingly empty place?

 

It is true that judgement means that every sin must be punished. But with justice there also comes mercy. For this has come down to a debate between fact and situation, between cold, hard evidence and Godly compassion. And it can only be solved with the application of Mercy to Justice.

 

And so on Oedipus’ behalf I implore, most honourable Judge, that on account of these things I have shown you, that you show mercy to this man.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): The only speaker on the side of the Opposition took __ minutes and __ seconds. The Judge will now be given a 0 minute recess to make his decision. Will both sides of the house please take note that the judge’s decision is final, since it’s already been written on this piece of paper he’s supposed to read out. ( Amanda hands Blin second slip of paper for God)

 

Blin (as God): Since the question I set was that the Angels of this house prepare a full argument that Oedipus’ greatest fault is neither arrogance, incest or parricide but mere curiosity, I hereby declare the Opposition the victor in this debate. Let Oedipus into heaven.

 

Jieying looks glum, goes over to shake hands with an ecstatic Judith

Brenda: But I’m Greek! I believe in reincarnation! I demand that I be banished from this place! I don’t want to go to heaven!

 

Blin (as God): That is of no consequence.

Anyway, this verdict is microscopic. To take a more macroscopic view of these proceedings, I also hereby declare that these Angels be awarded top marks and extra credit for their excruciating effort in 1) presenting both cases instead of just one, 2) making it amusing and educational at the same time, and 3) ingenuously putting words in God’s mouth.

 

Amanda (as Chairman): The next motion for the Heavenly Court Debates, which will be debated next millennium, is “This house believes that teachers are not gods”. Thank you.

 

Credit

Amanda (2)      Brenda (6)       Judith (7)         Zhenling (10)   Jieying (12)

Guest starring Blin (unregistered)

Utterly Unlike the Snow

So, when you say you’re going overseas to study, the first thing your Singaporean friends and relatives will say is, “Aiyoh, won’t it be cold?” Or, if they are of a slightly more optimistic bent, they will say, “So lucky! Will there be snow?” (Unless you’re going to China, in which case, the first thing they’ll say is, “Ee… But what about the toilets?” – Actually, I’ve been to China, and thanks to a possibly Singapore-inspired 5 star rating system, their toilets, at least in major attractions, are now pretty decent.) So when I landed in Boston, I was pretty scared. I didn’t check the weather, because in my imagination everywhere “overseas” was cold. So I got out of the plane wearing the family winter jacket. You know, the communal jacket that gets passed around and is too big for you because it is from your uncles and aunties and cousins who lend it to anyone going “to a cold country”. It hangs off me like an ugly oversized bag of polyester. Which is what it is. Anyway, I get out of the plane in my family winter jacket, and step into the blazing heat of 40-degree Boston summer.

But of course, this is September, the end of summer, and soon enough the leaves turn, and it is fall. Fall is nice enough, but winter here in Boston is hard and cold. It also seems to go on forever. My first winter here, I remember looking out onto Harvard Yard with my new roommates, and seeing the light, polite dusting of first snow softly covering everywhere – the grass, the branches, the paths, the people. It was exquisitely beautiful. But it was also really, really scary. Something in me panics. I’m a tropical person! I’m not adapted to this sort of thing! I have no evolutionary advantages in this environment whatsoever! I have very skinny legs. I have a lot of melanin. If you put me out in the sun every day I will get unflattering sock lines. I remember in secondary school I had my entire school uniform imprinted on my body: neck line, sleeve line, skirt line, sock line. I have big (for an ethnically Chinese person), wide eyes. My JC boyfriend had an epicanthic fold over each of his eyes – like Lenin – “to keep out the snow”, according to Wikipedia. It must have been some vestigial Northern Chinese trait, because as far as he knows he is Teochew. I was very envious. I could spend hours just looking at it; it was a source of endless fascination.

At Harvard, they call our first semester Fall term and the second semester Spring term. This is a blatant exercise in deception. What they really mean is Winter Part I and Winter Part II. Winter extends its lengthy limbs well into November sometimes, and, exasperatingly enough, it refuses to go away for sure until May. What I hate the most about winter is the slush and the snow. First snow is beautiful, but when it’s sat there for days, weeks, months, its whiteness gets lost in the dirt and smog from the car exhaust and pollution, and from the countless people stepping all over it. People slip and fall on it – there are always a few people hobbling around on crutches by mid-January.

By February, a thick crust of snow has covered all the ground. We let it stay there, just shoveling the minimum number of paths, but even those have slabs of ice and treacherous freezing puddles and slushy pools of water that feel like 7-11 Slushies but look far less appetizing. Every time a fresh coat of snow whitens the ground again, my heart lifts a little – new snow is easy to walk on, and crunches pleasingly underfoot like a million little bones. But in my mind I always know it’s only a matter of time before the white turns to grey and sooty black, and the walking gets treacherous again.

Anyway, sure enough, I wasn’t built for winter. After suffering from the harsh cold of three winters, when the loss of light from the short days and the difficulty of even getting from point A to point B became overwhelming, I capitulated. It turns out I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, the appropriately acronym-ed “SAD” (like Mutually Assured Destruction = MAD). Apparently, I need to stare into a little box of full-spectrum light for at least 20 minutes in the morning during the winter months to maintain my sanity. So when, this year, I returned to Harvard, and winter started creeping up on me again, I felt I had something to prove. I couldn’t let all that ice and snow and sleet and hail or the icy Atlantic gales stop me from going outside. I decided to run every morning, regardless of the temperature. Now, I’ve always been one of those extremely wimpy nerds with no ball sense whatsoever who enthusiastically follows the ball from one end of the netball court to the other, always sprinting but secretly dreading that the ball may come flying my way, because I knew that I would drop it, or freeze on the spot and not know what to do with it. Fortunately, all my classmates knew this, too, and never threw the ball at me, so, by this wonderful tacit agreement, my pretense of playing netball during PE was preserved, as was my personal dignity. So my point is, I am not by any measure athletic, nor have I ever been inclined to be. But as I said, this time I had something to prove.

The first day it dropped below -12 degrees Celsius, My skin felt like it was being burned off by the wind. I got myself one of those terrorist balaclava things. The first day the ice was thick on the ground, I slipped, and, Charlie-Chaplin-like, slid right onto my butt three steps in front of my door, after carefully picking my way over the ice for 40 minutes without a hitch. Soon it became a matter of honour. I started to keep score: Judith 1, Boston 0. Judith 2, Boston 0. Then it was Judith 130, Boston 0, and there was no going back. Because damn it, if I stopped now Boston would get ahead!

Most days, I run along the Charles River. It thrills me to bits that one of my favourite novelists, Haruki Murakami, ran along this same river the year he was at Harvard. He wrote in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, that the Harvard girls he saw running along the river were often confident, sporty and blonde. He never saw any “ethnic” runners. Well, I’m not blonde, I think to Murakami. (I often have these completely one-sided imaginary conversations.) Look, I’m pretty ethnic! And rather pudgy, too. (This was the semester after I gorged myself on Mexican hot chocolate for a couple of months.) I’m nothing like those girls!

Anyway, the Charles River doesn’t look like a river in winter. Like the huge crusts of hardened ice and snow that cover the ground, this river looks utterly dead. It looks like land. It gives off this cold, white look. It chases away the geese that used to feed by it. It was very sad, watching those geese go. I had developed feelings of kinship with those geese. It is difficult to imagine that anything is going on under that formidable sheet of ice. I could walk across it, and probably get safely to the other side.

And that’s the thing about winter that really gets to me. Soon, you cannot imagine things looking any different from how they look now. The Charles River is so solid, it looks so firm you cannot imagine how it could look any other way. The sheet upon sheet of snow, frozen as giant ice heaps on the ground, look so heavy, so huge, so difficult to move, you cannot imagine how anything beneath it could survive its crushing weight, or its formidable cold. That’s the funny thing about really huge heaps of ice and snow. There are only three ways to get rid of snow: heat, salt and friction. Harvard has giant machines that try to loosen bits of ice with salt and friction. However, there is only so much you can do with a giant machine. If you tried to do it with only your hands, you can barely break off little bits, and then the bits you chip off burn and freeze you if you hold them for too long.

You start to imagine that this state of affairs is permanent. You start to forget what the trees ever looked like with leaves on them, with birds in them. You start to forget the songs, the warbles, the squawks and quacks of the birds. You imagine that, because you feel so dead and tired inside, everything beneath all that heavy winter must be dead too, and what little surviving stirrings in you are completely and utterly alone. People walk differently in the winter. They bundle themselves up, tuck their chins down, their hands deep in their pockets, their backs hunched against the wind. They don’t look at you when they pass you by. In winter, everyone behaves as though they are under siege. Our bodies are so preoccupied with fighting off the cold that they have no time or energy for anything or anyone else. This is what they mean when they say, People in Boston are Cold. They just want to get to the next building, warm themselves up – then they can start noticing things around them again. Who has time to bother with what’s around when their eyes are tearing from the bitter wind?

So, the coming of spring is always miraculous. This is how it begins: the sun, even though it seems distant and small and cold, somehow provides the enormous nuclear power which warms the earth again. The earth warms up, the snowfall turns to rain. For several miserable days, you wade around in Wellingtons, shielding yourself from the cold, but the persistent little raindrops soak you through anyway. At the same time, the ice melts. Those formidable sheets of white slush, snow and ice mysteriously seem thinner, then more translucent, then more transparent. They begin to shrink, to pool into puddles with tiny particles floating around in them. As they recede, we are all in for a surprise, the oldest surprise in the world – beneath the snow is earth, covered with grass. It is so green it hurts the eyes. You would think the grass would be dead, or brown, or straggly, but in fact the nutrient-rich ice has been feeding it all along, even while it froze it, and locked it away from view.

The ice on the river Charles begins to crack – large holes begin to form little lakes, then streams free of ice appear beneath its receding borders. And underneath the ice is streaming, living water. Water – that’s what ice is, that’s all it is, and what a thing it is! Water is everything to us – it bubbles forth from the ground, it embraces the earth, it dwells deeply within us. We all thirst for water, the swift currents that make up more than half of us. I imagine what water is to cells, swelling, pushing, pushing against and past their little walls. Without water, the ground will die, the plants will die, the fish will die, the birds will die. That beloved thing, water, which brings us nutrition, which washes away our toxins, which oils the mysterious rivers of our machinery, has only been disguised as ice. It is no longer solid: it is fluid, flexible, adaptable. It moves. In our breath we hold its vapor. It rises, and it falls again as rain.

Imagine a baby born in the heart of winter. She has only known the blinding whiteness of the snow. She grows up in winter, and has never seen a leaf, a bird, a river. All these things, filled with life, are beyond her imagination. But somehow, she has some inkling, some idea of the rumour of spring, because she is herself a wonderful new life, a bursting forth of lips and limbs and fingers. She stretches them, testing them against the deep white silence. Months, years go by. And then suddenly, spring sweeps forth, touching its first flower, and all the life that had been dormant all along rushes up through the earth. To be that girl! Imagine knowing the world for the first time, and then seeing it rapidly, suddenly for a second time, more lively and mysterious, more abundant than the first!

The land we know is utterly unlike the snow. It is deep and rich, it is green and lush, it is uneven and dirty and filled with ants, it is soggy and fertile and laced with roots. Its thousand tongues are the leaves of thick, green cow grass, those rich, fat leaves have just the sticky, slightly itchy edge. All manner of insects wind their private ways between them, crawling up the legs of the unsuspecting human, attacking the sweet stickiness of the fruit in your hand. It used to make me think those British picnicking children in my storybooks were crazy. The land that we know gives us huge, beautiful trees: rain trees, rambutan trees, angsana trees, palm trees, the magnificent and majestic banyan tree. It gives us mangrove swamps, with their subtle flapping mudfish, their slopping stagnant water, their rich smell of gentle humid rot. Orioles and mynahs and yellow birds and crickets and grasshoppers and lizards and ants cry and scuttle and creek and whisper and rustle and sing – I can almost hear them in my mind. I can almost feel the thick blanket of water vapor, that warm, saturating blanket of humidity. In the island of my imagination, everything bursts with the knotted thickness of life. In the midst of winter, I long for the land of eternal summer.

Published in Lianhe Zaobao in Chinese. Click here for translation and link to PDF and online article