Am I a cynic?

I had a very interesting discussion on Saturday with people who kept on insisting that doing things for other people just so they would feel better is a reasonable way of spending time. I, quite naturally, disagreed. I’ll get to the specific examples in a moment, but right now I’ll establish the label that was given to me based on what I said.

Namely, I am supposedly a “cynic”.

To help us with the question of whether I am one, it might make sense to define “cynic” just to be sure we know what we’re discussing. Here goes the Wikipedia version that has probably got quite a bit of it right:

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ apparent motives or ambitions, or a general lack of faith or hope in the human race or in individuals with desires, hopes, opinions, or personal tastes that a cynic perceives as unrealistic or inappropriate, therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. It is a form of jaded negativity, and other times, realistic criticism or skepticism. The term originally derives from the ancient Greek philosophers called the Cynics who rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and unmaterialistic way of life.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Modern cynicism, as a product of mass society, is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can manifest itself as a result of frustration, disillusionment, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.

That is what Wikipedia says. It is a bit of a mouthful and could probably be expressed in an easier way, but it will suffice for now.

The two specific examples we questioned yesterday were as follows: a) our graduation ceremony is a worthy event, and we should go there; b) marriage reception is an integral part of the ceremony.

My views on those two can be best expressed as follows: a) graduation is a ceremony that does not establish anything of value nor does it grant us anything we would otherwise miss out on, therefore there is no harm in missing said event assuming there is something better that could be done with the time; b) marriage reception is worth it not because of it being an integral part of the ceremony, since marriage is best taken as an institution for an economic and social purpose, but the reception is worth it assuming that people have gone through the trouble of marrying in the first place.

These views were enough to have me labelled as a “cynic”. I disagree, for there is nothing inherently distrustful or hopeless about my attitude — it is rather an expression of a cost-benefit system that evaluates whether an action is worth it or not. If something is worth it, then it should be carried out — which is also incidentally why a reception would nearly always be worth it: as mentioned above, the trouble of organizing things into a marriage would almost definitely ask for a release as a party. The same cost-benefit analysis says that if the time spent on a ceremony as useless as a graduation could be spent on something else that would create value for the people in question then that should be done instead.

So, thus far, nothing cynical — only the best application of one’s time and effort to maximize any outcome from life. I am not sure that every person who reads this will agree with that assessment, but that at least is how I would reason it. For, after all, it is not that I am saying that no one should go to their own graduation — if people find that they can spend their time and effort on something that doesn’t give them anything they cannot find otherwise, then they can obviously go for it. What I am saying is that it is highly unlikely anyone will find me from my own graduation (unless it is by some lucky chance a day off from work) — simply because I will have better things to do with the time.

I will add that in general I follow the good words of Mr Arthur C Clarke — and by that I mean I am not a pessimist about our future. I don’t have the greatest of hopes for humankind but I am of a mind that we will end up somewhere better in time. For the words I speak of are as follows:

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”
— sir Arthur C. Clarke

Which is very true. I think there’s a glimpse of hope for us, and I am sure we’ll get there in the end. It just might be that the road will be long and hard.

Another relevant question might be if I have Cynic tendencies, referring to the old Greek school. Now, that might be true although I am not familiar enough with them to actually answer this in detail. Based on a short look into them giving up most of the desires of people, I would have to say no. My philosophical outlook rather tends to welcome and accept desire, so again I seem to have thwarted being labelled a “cynic” in some way or form.

Although I guess that labels don’t really matter as long as there is a coherent thought process working its way in one’s mind…

“Whose entire body of work is worth reading?”

Reading Marginal Revolution brings up interesting questions every now and then. Tyler Cowen is a person with a very wide range of interests, and these are well reflected in the wide spectra of posts that can be found on MR. So, with interest I opened up a post with the same title as above, thinking: “What has Tyler written now?”

That original post can be found over here, ‘Whose entire body of work is worth reading?’. It might be interesting to acquaint oneself with what Mr Cowen has said for I think I wish to differ in my opinion.

Yes, I’ll grant that historians are an easy pick. Or, at least, an easier pick than any fiction writer. But there’s a reason for that and I am not entirely confident that the reason is that high quality history is always substantiated by top research. And, even if it is, it is not the research but the author’s readability which is the important part in reading a historical book. And, being very good at research means very little in immediate writing skills gains so there must be more to the puzzle.

My theory on the historians would be that historians who have the knack for writing come out better in the general readability of their tomes. If they know how to write well instinctively, they have an easier time writing for having to worry less about making the story into a single cohesive unit. And, yet, I would dare not name any names. I don’t think I am familiar enough with the works of any single historian to bring him/her out in full.

Overall, then, this question comes down to style for me. But, if I concentrate on the problem, is it possible that any writer has kept their style from the very beginning to the end without pause so that it is uniformly strong and infallible?

I don’t think so.

In effect, I would go so far as to say that all of the names that Mr Cowen brought up in his post are names that I would not dare mention. In which case, what names would I bring up?

That’s a trickier one to answer, partly because I feel like I would want to name a few people, but I am afraid that their originals read worse than the translations that I have read. It might be a fortuitous event that I’ve probably read Arthur C. Clarke most extensively, probably covering the majority of his published works, but even that list is a few titles short of a full collection. And no matter how good the ideas present in the books I’ve read, Mr Clarke has had a few weaker books.

Henryk Sienkiewicz would probably come second, and again the question of translations has to be present. Assuming that Sienkiewicz’s style in Polish is just as clear and strong as it was when I read it in English and Estonian, I would be happy to say that all of his work is worth reading. If, however, some parts of it were a fluke of chance or an edit of the translator, then maybe the reader has been deceived. [Note that a lot of the sentiment present in Mr Sienkiewicz’s works is something I might consider worthy of reading to understand the past rather than the present.]

Of other names, I would bet on Ryotaro Shiba. Again, I have only read him in translation, some of which was not the top quality work I was expecting, I do say myself, but I think that his style in the original is likely to be so much better. So, there’s another unsubstantiated claim that I cannot prove.

On the philosophers: why would I cross off Plato and the rest mentioned in Tyler’s post above?

I am not certain that their works carry the worth of reading throughout. The thoughts of philosophers naturally vary over time and space, and I would not find it difficult to believe that the heavy style we have attributed to Plato and Nietzsche is stronger in some of the books than in the others. And if that is the case, then with the style of the author faltering how can the author himself be consistently skillful?

Indeed, if I were to guess of a type of people who would have put down the most to paper that is all worth reading, I think I would lean towards a playwright or a poet. Maybe Pedro Calderón de la Barca is a good guess, but I’ve only read one title by him so I cannot comment in full. Yet, Calderón de la Barca sounded as if he had something to say. Likewise, I would probably prop J.R.R. Tolkien up there if only for all of his poems, although that is shirking the question slightly again…

So, those are the names that I would put forward. I didn’t think much on where to get them from, nor did I spend an inordinate amount of time on them, but I think that’s something for a start (I’d be interested to see what any of my readers say). I dare add that this is probably one of those questions which are better left unasked in general, although it is also always fun to throw names around and see which ones stay in the air. But, for now, I’ll keep to the poets…

Short Stories

Into the flash fiction category belong a number of very fun and interesting short stories. I found a short page detailing a few of these here. I’d suggest people who are interested in these very interesting literary works to go and take a look.

I think my present favourite of these is Orson Scott Card’s “The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.”.

However, I’ll present two issues with that site I brought up in the beginning of this post: The story of Arthur Charles Clarke is an adaption he made to a very short (31-word) short story which you can also find at this site. It is titled “siseneG”, and also recounts the story of the world.

As the second issue: that story accredited to Ernest Hemingway on that short story listing is not actually Hemingway’s but is now taken to be authored by William R. Kane as a recent investigation into the matter proved (Slate article here).

Also, Wired has an interesting list that was, I believe, written in response to their competition for very short stories (they limited theirs at six words) here. The link above has some but not all of the ones present on the Wired site.

‘The Songs of Distant Earth’, A.C. Clarke

[Disclaimer: This post has been lifted from its original version here with some minor edits.]

“To the legions of listeners, the concert was a reminder of things they had never known-things that belonged to Earth alone. The slow beat of mighty bells, climbing like invisible smoke from old cathedral spires; the chant of patient boatmen, in tongues now lost forever, rowing home against the tide in the last light of day; the songs of armies marching into battles that Time had robbed of all their pain and evil; the merged murmur of ten million voices as man’s greatest cities awoke to meet the dawn; the cold dance of the aurora over endless seas of ice; the roar of mighty engines climbing upward on the highway to the stars. All these the listeners heard in the music that came out of the night-the songs of distant Earth, carried across the light-years . . . ”
— sir Arthur C. Clarke, “The Songs of Distant Earth”

Oh the emotions that Clarke’s words convey!

And yet again, having faced the destruction of my original post, I’ll try to rewrite what I had so beautifully already put down. It is not the same though — it is never the same. Perhaps that is yet another illustration of Clarke’s point getting across (not that I hadn’t known before, but the setting was so different).

So, I finished rereading ‘The Songs of Distant Earth’. It is a great book, one of the finest I’ve ever read. In its philosophical aspects it rivals Henryk Sienkiewicz’s  ‘Quo Vadis’ (rivals, not surpasses — they touch upon completely different questions). ‘The Songs of Distant Earth’ has this sadness of irrevocable loss — a feeling that can not be described through words (“songs”, after all) and yet which can be understood.

The thought of having the one place called home destroyed by one of nature’s ‘miracles’ is somewhat frightening… and uplifting at the same time. The novae and supernovae are something no person can likely witness with their own eyes. They certainly would be worth the effort — limitless destruction, by what can be considered a source of (nearly) infinite power (for our present requirements).

The mention of Atlantis in the book brought up a question — the search for perfection. Can it ever end? Should it ever end?

If you saw Earth destroyed by the one thing that gave it life… What would you do?

Oh, and here a review of this book by the NY Times. Worth reading.

[Silent Note: This is a far different entry than what I wrote the first time round. Also, I changed the music from Amethystium’s ‘Lost’ to ‘Innocence’ since it seemed more fitting.]

For a proper ending though, the continuation of the quote with which I began:

“For the concluding item, the producers had selected the last great work in the symphonic tradition. Written in the years when Thalassa had lost touch with Earth – it was totally new to the audience. Yet its oceanic theme made it peculiarly appropriate to this occasion – and its impact upon the listeners was everything the long-dead composer could have wished.

“. . . When I wrote the ‘Lamentation for Atlantis’, almost thirty years ago, I had no specific images in mind; I was concerned only with emotional reactions, not explicit scenes; I wanted the music to convey a sense of mystery, of sadness-of overwhelming loss. I was not trying to paint a sound-portrait of ruined cities full of fish. But now something strange happens whenever I hear the Lento lugubre – as I am doing in my mind at this very moment.
“It begins at Bar 136, when the series of chords descending to the organ’s lowest register first meets the soprano’s wordless aria, rising higher and higher out of the depths . . . You know, of course, that I based that theme on the songs of the great whales, those mighty minstrels of the sea with whom we made peace too late, too late . . . I wrote it for Olga Kondrashin, and no one else could ever sing those passages without electronic backing. . .
“When the vocal line begins, it’s as if I’m seeing something that really exists. I’m standing in a great city square almost as large as St. Marks or St. Peters. All around are half-ruined buildings, like Greek temples, and overturned statues draped with seaweeds, green fronds waving slowly back and forth. Everything is partly covered by a thick layer of silt.
“The square seems empty at first; then I notice something – disturbing. Don’t ask me why it’s always a surprise, why I’m always seeing it for the first time. . .
“There’s a low mound in the center of the square with a pattern of lines radiating from it. I wonder if they are ruined walls, partly buried in the silt. But the arrangement makes no sense; and then I see that the mound is pulsing.”
And a moment later I notice two huge, unblinking eyes staring out at me.
“That’s all; nothing happens. Nothing has happened here for six thousand years, since that night when the land barrier gave way and the sea poured in through the Pillars of Hercules.
“The Lento is my favorite movement, but I couldn’t end the symphony in such a mood of tragedy and despair. Hence the Finale, ‘Resurgence.’
“I know, of course, that Plato’s Atlantis never really existed. And for that very reason, it can never die. It will always be an ideal-a dream of perfection-a goal to inspire men for all ages to come. So that’s why the symphony ends with a triumphant march into the future.
“I know that the popular interpretation of the march is a New Atlantis emerging from the waves. That’s rather too literal; to me the finale depicts the conquest of space. Once I’d found it and pinned it down, it took me months to get rid of that closing theme. Those damned fifteen notes were hammering away in my brain night and day. . .
“Now, the Lamentation exists quite apart from me; it has taken on a life of its own. Even when Earth is gone, it will be speeding out toward the Andromeda Galaxy, driven by fifty thousand megawatts from the Deep Space transmitter in Tsiolkovski Crater.
“Someday, centuries or millennia hence, it will be captured – and understood.”
Spoken Memoirs – Sergei Di Pietro (3411-3509) “