Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nessun Dorma, Nessun Dorma...

("No-one sleeps, no-one sleeps...")

Puccini's masterpiece has been ringing in my ears all day. I find myself lying awake now, staring at the ceiling and humming it to myself in the darkness. It is a beautiful piece of music and one that I cannot help but betray a great fondness for. It's only now, however - in the middle of this lonely, sleepless night - that can I finally come to appreciate what the words contained within it actually mean: there is nothing in the world more capable of driving a man to insomnia than the feeling of being in love! I should think it impossible to fall into unconsciousness now, with my passions so violently ignited, my heart so delightfully engorged! I am in love and no biological function, no matter how necessary, can possibly overcome it!

But how did it come to this? My life had finally reached a comfortable plateau: good job, good friends and a string of loose women. I had everything I needed and I was happy for it. Happy? Maybe that word is a little strong. I desired little yet received it duly. I was content.

But then this:


I will be passing through Melbourne for a few days. I want very much to meet with you. Meet me tomorrow under the clock at Flinders St Station at 3. I must see you again!



Seeing the handwriting upon removing the sheet of paper from its envelope should have set off alarm-bells: I never receive hand-written letters. The writing was beautiful too: every loop and dot perfectly executed. She had obviously taken care with this letter.

I don't know what to make of it. "I want very much to meet with you"? That doesn't mean anything. Actually, I should say the exact opposite: it could mean anything at all. Why does she want to see me again after all these years? Does she still love me or is that the way she signs off on all her letters? Is it possible that her love for me could have lasted all this time? Does she want to be with me again? Is there hope for us yet? I read the note over and over again but it yields no clues. It means, at once, both nothing and everything to me. These are most certainly the words of a woman.

E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir.
("And we must, alas, die.")

Ours was a familiar story, doubtless played out countless times throughout the course of human history: she moved away, I stayed here. I didn't try to stop her: it was, afterall, her decision to make. The relationship was certainly passionate while it lasted, but I assumed it could be easily replicated. "We will find someone else", I said. "If you must go then you must go". And that was it. She left and I forgot her quickly.

Forgot her, that is, until now. From the dry ink on the sheet of paper before me, her memory begins to re-emerge from the ethereal fog of my mind. In the loops of her d's I rediscover the smooth contours of her naked shoulder. In her rotund e's I find her soft, round earlobes hidden behind waves of golden hair. Even her t's remind me of the tiny creases that would form by her eyes when she smiled - and oh how we smiled then! How easily those we love make us laugh! How easily we take it all for granted!

I knew, even back then, that she had loved me. I could see it etched in her face when I told her that I wouldn't follow her north. But what could I do? I was happy here. Life up north held nothing for me except for her - and she was replaceable. Every moment we shared was still valuable to me - all the moments of my life are - but that time had passed. We had grown, it was time to move on. Our passions flared brilliantly for the months that we were together, yet it was time for us to break from them: there is nothing here to be mourned! It was over between us and that should have been enough.

But it wasn't. With this letter, everything changes. She loved me and perhaps she still does. I loved her and only now, in the wake of so many other inadequate women, do I realise it. We were perfect for one another and the hand-writing I find on this sheet of paper tells me as much. She loved me and the words in front of me say so. "We can begin again", I accidentally allow myself to think: "It shall be as though nothing has changed".

But I try to exorcise these thoughts from my mind. That was a long time ago and much has changed! We were young then, our emotions too easily forged by the transient experiences we shared. Ours was the passion of misguided youth: how could her love for me have possibly endured for so long? Surely we were, by now, living beyond any hope of of reconciliation?

Guardi le stelle che tremano d'amore e di speranza...
("Watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope...")

On this sleepness night I find myself on my balcony looking up at the night sky. Rigel, that brilliant white point of light sitting atop Orion's powerful body, captures my attention. It twinkles at me through the warm night air, like a distant eye winking right towards my very soul. Many stars, tonight, seem dull and uninteresting. Rigel, however, reaches me as a point of impeccable white light. It seems somehow pure to me.

I dwell upon the distance of that point of light. Four and a half quadrillion miles away there hangs, in the obscurity of the enveloping darkness, a ball of gas that dwarfs our own sun many times over. At its core, millions of nuclear explosions occur every second, fuelling the blinding light and brilliant heat that reach even the distant extent of our own small, insignificant corner of the universe. I imagine a photon - that tiniest of particles - being trapped within Rigel's massive core for millions of years, before finally breaking free from the star's considerable gravitational pull and taking itself on a long journey through the cold, dark expanse of space.

It must pass by hundreds of unremarkable stars during its path through the near endless vacuum that exists between Rigel and my balcony. Even at the speed of 300,000 kilometers a second, the stars pass by slowly. After a journey lasting 750 years, by sheer, unintelligible happenstance, the photon reaches my eye. It - and the other photons that have reached me on the long journey from Rigel - stimulate the cells in my retina and, through a series of impluses passed along an irreducibly complex web of nerves, an image begins to take form in my brain: that of a perfectly white ball of light, shimmering brilliantly in the sky against the endless expanse of a black, empty space that holds, suspended within its unbounded structure, the totality of everything that has ever existed. I understand now why the ancient Greeks thought the heavens to be intrinsically perfect: for this moment, at least, I find that they are.

Here I realize, with a smile and a warm shiver of joy, that the photons that have granted me this epiphany have travelled through space for more than seven centuries before reaching my eyes. In the context of such an incomprehensibly large universe, our separation of 700 miles and 3 years suddenly seems so irrelevent. Anny, were we ever really separated at all?

Dilegua o notte, tramontate o stelle! All'alba vincerò!
("Vanish o night, set o stars! At daybreak, I shall conquer!")

I have made up my mind. Tomorrow, once Rigel has set beyond the distant horizon, I shall meet with Anny and we shall resume where we left off.

There will be issues to resolve after so much time, of course, but they matter little. I was foolish to let her leave me three years ago and I shan't make the same mistake again. I will go to bed and tomorrow my world shall begin anew. Anny and I shall be together once more.

Quando la luce splenderà, il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio. Che ti fa mia.
("When the light shines, my kiss will dissolve the silence. That makes you mine.")

I sit under the clock, in the heat of the afternoon sun, waiting for her to emerge from the gates behind me. I decide that there is nothing that can be said once she arrives: what, afterall, could be said? "How are you"? "How was your trip"? "I missed you terribly"? No, these are just words. They don't express how I feel about her. When she comes, I will kiss her before she has the chance to speak. That will be words enough.

Before long I see her coming through the turnstiles. She is wearing an immaculate red dress and has left her hair untied. Her skin is pale yet radiant, her eyes wide yet calm. She is an intractable image of beauty and I think here again of Rigel: I have rediscovered the perfect, pure point of light within my universe.

I stand and she sees me.

"Babe, I..."

I don't let her finish. I pull her to me and press my lips to hers: how soft they still are! How passionately they still find my own! And the skin of her arms: could there be anything in the universe quite so smooth or quite so pleasing to the touch? I hold her close to me and feel her heart beating wildly against my chest. For a moment I am sure that the movement of all the bodies in the heavens have stopped: all of existence, the essense of the entire universe, is contained within this passionate embrace.

I step back and look into her her wide, brown eyes. Callisto returns to its inexorable orbit around Jupiter. The spiralled arms of our galaxy resume their majestic revolution around our galaxy's nebulous centre. Rigel, again, begins to career away from our own star at the speed of hundreds of miles per second. And her new fiance grabs me in a headlock from behind and kicks me in the balls. I swear to god, right in the fucking balls. And it hurts. I double over in pain and they leave without saying a word.

I find myself awake all night holding a bag of frozen peas to my groin while waiting for the swelling to go down, staring at the ceiling and humming to myself in the darkness. Nessun Dorma indeed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On the Fetishising of Food

I'm not proud of it, but on Wednesday I found myself watching free-to-air television in the middle of the afternoon. Those of you with, you know, "lives" may be unfamiliar with the soporific beast that is daytime television, but in my experience there are few phenomena quite so capable of dredging up ruminations on humanity and its myriad of shortcomings as this one. Ready, Steady, Cook, with its glittering array of TV "stars" relaying the best way to cook asparagus with an enthusiasm that asparagus should never inspire in a human being is cause enough for depression, but by the time that the preternaturally cheerful Ian Hewitson appeared on my television screen, enjoining me to appreciate "those oozing juices - ooo lovely!" from whatever dish he happened to be cooking that afternoon, I was ready to ask: "what the fuck is wrong with us?"

It's not just daytime television of course: Masterchef, a show devoted to judging people on the basis of dishes that the audience can neither smell nor taste, became one of the highest rating shows of all time, consigning a generation of men, women and children back into the kitchen to spend hours slaving over stoves under the guise of Epicurean exploration - weren't the conveniences of modern life supposed to have liberated us from this kind of domestic slavery decades ago? Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver - two men who have staked a career in berating people who can't cook properly - also generate high ratings, the former's ratings glory apparently not even hampered by endless reruns or poorly judged swipes at current affairs hosts. Food, apparently, makes for compelling television.

But then there's the flip side: a culture conscious of its status as one of the most obese in the world, where the contents of children's lunchboxes are debated in the halls of parliament and fast food restaurants are referred to with the same scathing condescension previously reserved only for tobacco companies. It is the same culture that's made Magda Szubanski's weight-loss front page news, and made shows like The Biggest Loser - where obese people are humiliated via a process of applied sadism into losing weight - ratings winners. We are obsessed with food, yet we're also feeling guilty about being obsessed with food. Food, once just a necessity of nature, has been transformed into an object fit for fetishising by our zealous cullinary puritanism and the consequent attempts to surpress appetites that are otherwise completely natural: food is the new sex.

Where we once became slim to make us more attractive to the opposite sex, we now become slim out of some deontological deference; the consequence of a culture in which obesity is increasingly seen to be a moral failure. Where once the puritans were writing in to complain about the sexual content on television whenever a nipple should happen to become exposed (which, of course, says far more about the sex-obsessed mind of the puritan than it does about the rest of us) the puritans are now writing in to complain about ads for food during kids programs, or about fast-food companies sponsoring sporting events. Where we once felt pangs of guilt for fantasising about a variety of sexual episodes in quite lurid and unnecessary detail*, we now feel pangs of guilt for fantasising about eating the kinds of foods that don't deliver the essential doses of omega 3 we need to keep our bodies healthy.

It is, of course, important to try to encourage people to eat properly and lose weight - the health of the nation depends on it. But we have to be careful about swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, where quite normal appetites for various types of foods become unhealthily surpressed. Just as sexual repression can lead to aberrant expressions of sexuality, is it not possible that gastronomic repression can lead to aberrant patterns of eating? Is that not, in some way, what we're aleady starting to see already within our weight-obsessed culture and its mid-afternoon cullinary porn?


*C'mon, don't play coy with me. We all know what you've been up to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Steve Fielding: "Blame My Jeans"

From the Age:

STEVE Fielding says a life-long learning difficulty is to blame for his occasional mangling of words, but the Family First senator does not want people feeling sorry for him.


Speaking to The Age, Senator Fielding, 48, said the mistakes were a result of a learning difficulty he’d had most of his life.


The father of three declined to specify what his learning difficulty was, but said he saw similar speech patterns emerging in one of his sons, for whom he had arranged special treatment. Senator Fielding said people with speech difficulties often faced ridicule.

I'm presently reading the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (a book which makes the case that human mind does not begin as a "blank slate" that is gradually filled up by experience, but rather that many mental proclivities are actually predetermined by genes) so I don't have any difficulty believing that some people may be genetically predisposed to abberant patterns of speech. While medical science apparently has no name for this strange disorder - typified, apparently, by the rather gentle symptoms of sub-par spelling and the occasional malapropism - I think I'm still prepared to take Fielding at his word here: many people are likely just congentially predisposed to better or worse language skills than others. Those predisposed to poor language skills should not - as Fielding rightly points out - be punished or ridiculed for mental traits that they have little to no control over. So far so good then, but how far is Fielding willing to go in his defense of the realities of biological determinism?

We should not waste money "mopping up after drunks", he writes. Alcohol abuse is, afterall, "a cultural problem that needs actions [sic] that would lead to responsible drinking". This despite the multitude of evidence suggesting that alcohol abuse can be tied to a number of genetic (as opposed to cultural) factors. What about the idea of introducing "tougher [criminal] penalties" as a means of "solving our culture of binge drinking [and] alcohol-fuelled street violence"? Again, there is quite ample evidence which suggests significant variation amongst individuals in their capacity for empathy, impulse-control and many other mental traits that are necessary to curb violent instincts and to adhere to socially acceptable forms of conduct, sure signs that even violent crime may be partly determined by genetic factors. And as for homosexuals? Fielding seeks to deny them equal rights purely on the basis of their congenital sexual disposition: hard not to see the hypocracy there.

Now of course I am not suggesting that we shouldn't treat alcoholism or punish violent offenders simply because there may be a genetic basis for such behaviour, but it does suggest to me that we should approach such topics with the same degree of compassion, understanding and realism that Steve Fielding would have us approach his minor learning disability with. Just as we should not leap to prejudiced conclusions about someone who has difficulties with spelling, we should also not leap to prejudiced conlcusions about people who abuse alcohol or commit crimes. When Fielding advocates tougher sentencing for criminals, or depriving gays of equal rights, he is really just making the erroneous assumption that people act the way they do as a consequence of choices that they have freely made. The possibility that there are any circumstances which may exist beyond the control of these individuals which may account for the kind of behaviour he wishes to morally censure just doesn't cross his mind. He lives in a simple, Christian fundamentalist world of good and evil and the godless philosophy of biological determinism is only to be invoked where personally convenient.

But the most frustrating thing is that Fielding's disorder doesn't seem to have brought him the degree of humility in making judgements that it probably should. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong about being unable to spell or pronounce the word "fiscal", but it makes Fielding's vainglorious grandstanding on any number of fiscal issues (particularly the stimulus package) all the more outrageous. A man with a learning disorder should act with the understanding that his comprehension of a given issue may be hampered for reasons completely beyond his control, meaning he should probably think twice before boasting with unchecked certainty that the world's scientists have "yet to prove that man made carbon dioxide emissions are the main driver behind climate change". One can certainly forgive a man the occasional slip of the tongue, but one cannot so easily forgive such a man when he is prone to such displays of hubris and ideological rigidity.

One more year until we get to vote the donut dhimwitt dimwit out.