The Poetry of a Humble Hollyhock

These are a few pictures I took of  one hollyhock at the edge of a children’s playground, Santa Fe southside, May-October 2015. I watched this flower carefully over months, and noticed how it looked completely different from day to day. This must be an effect of the New Mexico sky, which is different and surprising every day. There is hidden poetry in the world around us; we just need to stop and open our eyes. A single humble flower is millions of poems, millions of paintings, millions of dramatic moods. 



Heroes with Daemons


[The World of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights [3]

Most fantasy novels share two great obsessions: the heroic and the holy. They come across less as themes than as questions. Is the heroic possible in this world, are there heroes? Is the sacred possible, where is it? Of course the two questions are ultimately inseparable, because the heroic can be a sacred calling, and the sacred can de defined as what is worth dying for. In this essay I’ll focus on the heroic as it is manifested in Pullman’s enthralling alternate universe.

   The heroic is a question in fantasy novels because they are written in a time when heroes cannot be taken for granted: everything is for sale and can be priced, everyone has hidden motivations, there is no one who is not shrunk down to the normal human scale and commensurable — capable of being measured — with everyone else according to that scale. This has been so since about 1600, about the time when Hamlet despaired of being like his father, and when heroes became fantasy figures in the world of Don Quixote. The hero of antiquity knows who he is and what he is here for; he does not doubt himself like Hamlet and Montaigne — and he does not doubt that he towers over everyone else. He may, like Achilles, question the war he is fighting, but he does not question the war he should be fighting. The heroic comes under interrogation in a time that no longer believes in it, perhaps after too many wars and too many disillusionments, and after a period of unrelenting skepticism in which all past ideals have been torn down. Thus War and Peace, set in the Napoleonic wars, is the first great modern quest for heroism and the sacred. In ancient literature, Virgil in the Aeneid already expressed the profoundest loathing of war and, in my opinion, the futility of heroism. Even the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, an epic composed by non-warriors about warriors, is a post-heroic work, expressing on every page perplexity about heroism as a vocation. In all post-heroic writing, the story-telling is animated by a yearning for a charismatic manly potency that is felt as absent in our daily lives, a potency that involves greatness of soul, justice, courage, as well as capacity for terrible violence. The modern superhero fantasy is post-heroic in the same way: there is usually an ordinary man struggling with having to be the superhero, and the struggle is because there is no reconciliation between the two. Tolkien’s books are preoccupied with heroes: the old types are powerless in the face of the new threat, and a new kind of hero has to appear — yet even with his deep affection for his new heroes, Tolkien venerates the old heroes and constantly refers to them. Philip Pullman, who is not a conservative and has no reverence for a golden age, also searches for a new kind of hero, but in Northern Lights has to work towards this by first giving us four different types of possible heroes. In a fantasy novel it is possible to juxtapose versions of heroism from different literary worlds that would not otherwise be seen together, and this is a marvellous opportunity to contemplate each one of them in the critical light of a strange new context.

   There has to be at least one representative of pagan heroism, often a fusion of Greek and Germanic types. In Tolkien these are the Aragorns and Boromirs and warriors of Rohan. In Pullman it is the unforgettable figure of Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear. Who on first reading of Northern Lights is not struck and intoxicated by the wonderful image of a talkng polar bear clad in armor made of meteoric iron? The polar bear is a notoriously solitary animal, but here it becomes even more isolated by its armor, which is like the souls of the people in this world: “A bear’s armor is his soul,” says Iorek, “just as your daemon is your soul.” (p.192) 

“I made it myself in Nova Sembla from sky metal. Until I did that, I was incomplete.”

“So bears can make their own souls…” she said. (p.220)

Yet one doubts that the armor is the same as a person’s daemon; it can’t talk, and it doesn’t give companionship. Perhaps an armored bear cannot understand what a daemon is for a human being. Iorek acknowledges that “Bears are made to be solitary,” (p.218) whereas a person with a daemon is never truly alone. Is there ever a hero who is alone, or are all heroes beings with friends and community? — Achilles and Hector both have profound human attachments, for the sake of which they are willing to die. Or does a hero become fully a hero only after experiencing absolute aloneness? — Hector at his death, Achilles grieving for Patroclus, Priam coming to beg for Hector’s body. Something in us knows that the person who has never faced utter aloneness might have at most tremendous practical strength, but not spiritual strength. If this is so, no one in Pullman’s book can be a full hero except an outcast armored bear, who has neither daemon nor community. 

   Pullman’s prose captures beautifully the grand style of pagan heroism. He does this in Iorek’s balanced speech rhythms — “…and I am an armored bear; war is the sea I swim in and the air I breathe” (p.178), and the crisp Nordic solemnity and legalism of Iorek’s challenge to the usurper Iofur:

 “The terms of this combat are these. If Iofur Raknison kills me, then he will be king forever, safe from challenge or dispute. If I kill Iofur Raknison, I shall be your king. My first order to you all will be to tear down that palace, that perfumed house of mockery and tinsel, and hurl the gold and marble into the sea. Iron is bear-metal. Gold is not. Iofur Raknison has polluted Svalbard. I have come to cleanse it. Iofur Raknison, I challenge you.” (p.344)

The syntactical balance of these sentences expresses internal poise: it is the poise of a speaker who knows who he is and has no quarrel with himself. This results in a simplicity of action that is like Nature reasserting equilibrium, which Pullman renders with Homeric similes:

Like two great masses of rock balanced on adjoining peaks and shaken loose by an earthquake, which bound down the mountainsides gathering speed, leaping over crevasses and knocking trees into splinters, until they crash into each other so hard that both are smashed to powder and flying chips of stone: that was how the two bears came together. (p.345)

That was when Iorek moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself up high into the sky, terrifying the shore dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power — so Iorek Byrnison rose up against Iofur...(p.348)
Iorek can fight and has a great lyrical gift with words, but his intelligence does not have sufficient deviousness and obliquity to fight the great enemies of this world. Because of this he is a partial hero, useful and admirable but somehow also inadequate. A hero needs to be able to understand what is going on, and one can’t imagine Iorek growing in understanding.

   Iorek is the most fleshed out character in Northern Lights: he is formed, complete; what you see is what you get. The others are either still being formed, still open to influence, or concealing under-levels of activity and motivation. Perhaps this is one difference between daemoned and daemonless life: to be intelligent and open to engaging with the new, one needs a kind of split soul, whereas the unified soul of the daemonless is locked in itself and protected from otherness, like being enclosed in an impenetrable suit of sky metal. 

  Lord Asriel has intelligence, vast knowledge, unpredictability: He was said to be involved in high politics, in secret exploration, in distant warfare, and she never knew when he was going to appear. (p.4) He is like a more complicated Jules Verne hero, a more interesting Indiana Jones. He is surely modeled on the intrepid British explorers/ethnographers of Africa and Central Asia who combined the talents of scientist, linguist, historian, philosopher, and warrior-spy, like Sir Richard Burton. Yet when Pullman tries to convey aristocratic severity, he fails as Tolkien often does in describing old-style warriors. He can only think of giving Lord Asriel an unsurprising warrior-totem such as a snow leopard, and Asriel himself is compared to predictable beasts: Yawning like a lion (p.9) Sometimes the description is awkward, strained, unclear:

Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight; never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it. (p.11)

What does a fierce dark face look like, or eyes that flash and glitter with savage laughter?  Asriel should not be so transparent, otherwise there would not be so much puzzlement as to what he is up to. The repetition of wild animal suggests vague desperation: do all wild animals have movements that are large and perfectly balanced? — a ferret, a seal? And which wild animal held in a cage too small for it? I’m sure Pullman is being vague because he doesn’t want to do another big cat simile, but he is also at this stage not interested enough in Asriel to try to get the right word. He is much more interested in Iorek, and writes better when he writes about Iorek — because he is excited about this spectacular reconceiving of the ancient hero:

He stood high up on his hind legs and looked west, so that the last of the sun colored his face a creamy brilliant yellow white amid the gloom. She could feel the power of the great creature coming off him like waves of heat. (p.192)

   Another sketched-in heroic figure is the witch, with Serafina Pekkala as the one we get to know. The witches come across as Pullman’s version of Tolkien’s elves: an ancient warrior aristocracy, not as tied to place as the elves are but of a similar light, aerial quality and refinement. Their age gives them a different view of human events: “…men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies, creatures of a brief season. We love them; they are brave, proud, beautiful, clever; and they die almost at once.” (p.309) Witches also differ from bears; their longevity gives them a calmer, more philosophical view of war, and an indifference to some of the things that matter hugely to warriors:

“…all of us, humans, witches, bears, are engaged in a war already, although not all of us know it…If there is a war to be fought, we don’t consider cost one of the factors in deciding whether or not it is right to fight. Nor do we have any notion of honor, as bears do, for instance. An insult to a bear is a deadly thing. To us…inconceivable. How could you insult a witch? What would it matter if you did?” (p.304-5)

Ancient epics generally have characters that can give expression to a vaster time scale, in which prophetic insight and sense of mortality set the immediate events of the narrative in a larger background that has the potential either to reduce all human action to insignificance or to make certain actions seem destined, or both. In Homer this view of things is voiced by Nestor, the gods, the soothsayers, Odysseus’ visit to the underworld. In Tolkien it is given by Galadriel and Gandalf, among others. Serafina is only adumbrated in Northern Lights; it remains to be seen what Pullman will make of her in the subsequent volumes. 

   The fourth heroic type in this book is pulled from yet another literary genre, the Western. The aeronaut Lee Scoresby is a stringy gunfighter with a balloon: here is a dreamlike conflation of Western with Jules Verne and Frank Baum. 

He was a tall, lean man with a thin black moustache and narrow blue eyes, and a perpetual expression of distant and sardonic amusement. She felt strongly about him at once, but wasn’t sure whether it was liking she felt, or dislike. His daemon was a shabby hare as thin and tough-looking as he was. (p.188)

The description itself is a stereotype, and the choice of hare is predictable. He is the anti-hero gunfighter of the post-western, who makes no claims about justice or other ideals and who avows only the straightforward contractual and monetary sensibilities of the mercantile class. Pullman is effectually alluding to the entire genre through his description of Scoresby and the rendition of his way of speaking, but through the allusion we have no doubt that Lee Scoresby will always do the right thing:

“Sticks and stones, I’ll break yer bones, but names ain’t worth a quarrel. But ma’am, you see my dilmma, I hope. I’m a simple aeronaut, and I’d like to end my days in comfort. By a little farm, a few head of cattle, some horses…Nothing grand, you notice. No palace or slaves or heaps of gold. Just the evening wind over the sage, and a ceegar, and a glass of bourbon whiskey. Now the trouble is, that costs money. So I do my flying in exchange for cash, and after every job I send some gold back to the Wells Fargo Bank, and when I’ve got enough, ma’am, I’m gonna sell this balloon and book me a passage on a steamer to Port Galveston, and I’ll never leave the ground again.” (p.305)

What he avows is love for materialistic, homely comfort, but he does have a balloon — and it is obvious to us that a man who lives his life in a balloon is unlikely to have ideals that are down-to-earth. As with Serafina, this is a character who needs to be fleshed out. Later his friendship with Iorek will give the bear connotations of another pagan hero, the Native American warrior, and the friendship will feel a bit like Leatherstocking and Chingachgook. 

    Four types of hero — but what about Lyra? She has unquestioned courage, intelligence, love of justice, and empathy, but she is a child. Can a child be a hero? — because a child has no grasp of mortality, doesn’t understand the world, and spontaneously throws herself into action. Amazing, wonderful, admirable — but heroic?  Her hero type is the urchin of 19th century novels or earlier, a Dickens child, a Huck Finn: practically an orphan, who has to discover herself, and to make the fragmented world she finds herself in into a whole. The classical hero cannot be an orphan; he knows who he is and where he comes from, and is defending what he knows against the menace of the unknown. But a child literally faces the world as an unknown; an orphan even more so, because the confrontation is unmediated by parental protection. The prophecy says that Lyra will in fact save the world, but as yet we do not know enough to interpret the cryptic Miltonic overtones of the prophecy. Will Lyra turn out to be a new kind of hero? 

A Single Drop of Water

These are a few of the pictures I took over two years of a single tiny koi pond that I walk past every day. From day to day this pond opened up for me a different world, with different light and different moods. The photos are taken with an old phone. I’m looking forward to exploring the surface of the water with a better camera.

When you have still not fully realized the Dharma in body and mind you think it sufficient. When the Dharma fills body and mind, you feel some lack. It is like boarding a boat and sailing into a broad and shoreless sea. You see nothing as you gaze about you but a wide circle of sea. Yet the great ocean is not circular. It is not square. It has other, inexhaustible virtues. It is like a glittering palace. It is like a necklace of precious jewels. Yet it appears for the moment to the range of your eyes simply as an encircling sea. It is the same with all things. The dusty world and the Buddha Way beyond may assume many different aspects, but we can see and understand them only to the extent that our eye is cultivated through practice. If we are to grasp the true and particular natures of all things, we must know that in addition to apparent circularity or angularity, there are inexhaustibly great virtues in the mountains and seas. We must realize that this inexhaustible store is present not only all around us, it is present right beneath out feet and within a single drop of water.

(Dogen, Genjokoan)



Mind The Gap: A Geometrical Mystery

If I delight in Greek geometry and even study it for fun, it is not because I have a good mathematical mind or because I have a temperament that enjoys solving problems and constructing complex figures. The opposite is true: I am slow at mathematics; with me even the most basic mathematical insights are earned through painstaking labor. I am also not a natural problem solver. Some of my friends obtain deep satisfaction from solvng problems: you can see it in how their faces beam and their eyes sparkle when they complete a difficult jigsaw puzzle, or when they succeed in calculating the force needed to throw a basketball through a hoop on a planet the size of Jupiter. I, on the other hand, might be able to reach the same solutions if given enough time, and if I solve them I feel at most a mild satisfaction, but nothing strong enough to make me want to do it again. I was never good at puzzle books, whodunnits, or chess — where the problem-solving is at least spiced with competition.  Of course if I had a life-or-death reason for ascertaining how much gunpowder I’d need for my 97 cannons to hit an enemy target  500 yards away with ten-pound cannonballs, then an accurate calculation might be satisfying — but still not as satisfying as actually beating the enemy. Nonetheless, the delight I take in geometry is not for its usefulness to personal goals and triumphs, but rather for the almost philosophical, almost poetic riddles it confronts me with — and in places where I least expect to encounter the outer edges of my own mind. Here are two examples.

The third book of Euclid’s Elements is about that apparently simple figure, the circle. In Proposition 16, Euclid shows that in a given circle with diameter AB, a straight line EA drawn at right angles to the diameter at A will fall outside the circle (that is, be a tangent to the circle at A),

(Diagram credit: Green Lion Press edition)

and that between the circumference and EA no other straight line can be interposed. In real life this makes sense: if you have a wheel on the ground, and you try to push a flat stick into the space between the wheel and the ground, the stick will eventually bend under the wheel — in other words, to fit between the wheel and the ground it cannot remain straight. In Euclidian geometry, however, this is a conundrum: a line is defined as a breadthless  length, and right up to the moment (which “has no part”) when circle meets tangent at a single point there is always some breadth or space — so surely a breadthless length will be able to fit into some amount of space? How could a breadthless length not fit in there? A Euclidian geometer would not use a word like “infinitesimal” because such a thing cannot be directly conceived, but even if he did, a breadthless length could still fit into an infinitesimally tiny space. Euclid will go on in this proof to say something about the angle CAE, made by the tangent EA and the circumference of the circle, and the angle CAD, made by diameter BA and the circumference of the circle — namely, that the latter is smaller than any angle made by two straight lines, and the latter is greater than any angle made by two straight lines that is smaller than a right angle. The first time we read this our naive reaction is to wonder how this thing that is a fusion of curved line and straight line can be discussed intelligibly as a magnitude that can be measured or compared. Thus what goes on in this hole, this gap between straight line and curved line, becomes very mysterious: there is something here that we can’t think.

In Book 2 of Apollonius’ Conics, there is a similarly striking moment. He has shown that two straight lines, called asymptotes, can be constructed that will flank a hyperbola and never touch it. In the following diagram these are AM and AB. He is then presented with a short, even minuscule, magnitude K: as we go further down the hyperbola and its asymptote, can we find a distance between them smaller than K? — no matter how microscopic K might be. Apollonius shows, building on previous propositions, that on any line EF drawn parallel to a tangent it will always be possible to cut off a length EL smaller than K, and a line drawn from L parallel to AM will meet the curve. Thus, no matter how small K is, even “infinitesimally” small, we will always fit between curve and asymptote an even smaller line.

(Diagram credit: Green Lion Press edition)

We moderns would say something like this : that as hyperbola and asymptotes increase infinitely, the gap getween them becomes infinitesimally small — but a limit or end-point can never be reached. Again, the Greek geometers would never use words like “infinite” or “infinitesimal,” because they were more honest: such fancy words make no sense. Instead, they express the question operationally: is it possible to fit a smaller straight line in there or not? The mystery is encountered: we find this thing we cannot think — the gap between asymptote and hyperbola, way down there. As with Euclid 3.16, we cannot grasp what happens at the end of the hole, where a curve has the audacity to meet a straight line. But isn’t it wonderful that we can, with our own puny minds, uncover the unthinkable and know — not just religiously assert — that it is unthinkable?


After Racism: Heartfelt Thanks To All

(Photo credit:

My title is not ironic: through the many episodes of “Paki-bashing,” the confrontations on the streets, the name-calling and taunting, the subtle and not-so-subtle rejections, the fear and loneliness and self-hatred that racism brings to its victims,  I have grown and become a better, more thoughtful person. For one thing, because of it I have more empathy for the outcast, the refugee, and those who are persecuted for their difference. I have also become more resilient. Maturity often comes from absorbing criticism and even abuse, and then growing out of it — like some trees I have seen in the mountains, slender pines apparently growing out of granite boulders from which fortress no tornado or raging winter storm will ever manage to dislodge them. Oppression is unjust and nasty, but it can result in something good if it is reflected upon and used well — like bitter medicine, like instructive defeat in sports, like a stronger immune system after sickness. This is obviously not what racists intend; what they want is for you to stay small and frightened, but what they get is that they are the ones who stay small and frightened. 

   Many children who endure inexpressible torment learn to build rich interior lives both as a refuge from a perplexing and inhospitable outer environment and as a way to develop freely what in their social surroundings would be obstructed or scorned. Children of mixed parentage or from multicultural backgrounds often lean towards a life of writing or art, partly because they have become very good at creating inner worlds. I’m grateful for racism for getting me accustomed to solitude and its pursuits — notably, reading and writing, and keeping company with obscure classical composers. At first solitude was mere loneliness, an avoidance of society — but with time this changed into a love of a much grander community, the one of great writers, spanning hundreds of years and dozens of different societies. No one in this greater community ever told me to get back where I came from, and even as a teenager I could see that my world was a larger, more expansive one than the urban early 70s where my schoolmates seemed to be trapped and blindfolded.  Of course, not everyone who has suffered from assault has been as fortunate as I have in discovering so rich a harbor, and I was lucky to be a teenager who could be nourished by Wuthering Heights and Jude the Obscure.

   I also apparently learned to be tough inside — insouciantly ignoring abuse, easily dismissing the utterances of the stupid, and going on with my life and projects just because they were far more interesting to me than engaging with bullies. Later in life I realized that I had inadvertently been cultivating Stoic equanimity in the face of things and people I couldn’t change. My parents, with characteristic common sense, told me that bullies only wanted to get under my skin, and the best response was to ignore them; besides, why should the negative opinions of someone you didn’t respect have any effect on you? Over the years I understood this more deeply: the pair of eyes on the high street glowering with hatred at you, or the obtuse and self-important authority figure taunting you — why should I desire approval from such beings, and why should their loathing affect me? This kind of reflection takes disciplined practice, but it is possible to cultivate through such practice mental freedom fom other people’s prejudices. The Thai Buddhist teacher Ajaan Chah once responded thus to a student’s question about how to react to abuse: “If someone calls you a dog, there is only one thing to do: take a good look at your backside, and if you don’t see a tail you can’t be a dog. End of problem!” On the other hand, if you do see a tail, you recognize that they might be right, and you quietly thank them for showing them a side of yourself that you had been unaware of. What matters is the truth, and we don’t need to waste as much emotional energy as we do in perpetual defence of our own image. Cultivating freedom from our own prejudices is actually much more interesting than struggling against other people’s views of us.

   I will never forget a conversation I once had with Lucy, a 94-year-old African-American woman in Chicago who had lived through every racial turbulence of the 20th century. When I asked her how she felt about the way people of color have been seen by those who identify themselves as white, she shrugged and calmly replied, “How others see me is not important to me. What’s important to me is how I see them.” Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would both have bowed to this woman, recognizing that she was one who had achieved strength and tranquillity through lucid understanding.

   I grew up in a tough place in tough times, and I appreciate now that I was being taught a certain kind of realism. England in the 70s had no societal ethos of respect for everyone; you were pushed, and either you pushed back or you were pushed further back. When I settled in the U.S., I was surprised that minorities would vocally insist on being respected, or on not being disrespected. If it is possible to get respect from others by merely requiring it, either through law or custom, then social harmony will be an easy thing to achieve. But what I have seen is that the thing called respect here is often only a social or political posture, an attitude to how society should be, but not an attitude towards the other person. Respect, like mercy, cannot be coerced; in reality, no matter what people say about respecting you, you have to earn it — not coerce it, but compel it. And you do that by striving not to be their equal — because those who don’t respect you will never think of you as their equal — but by being clearly their superior: doing everything they can do but better, and doing more. Any minority person knows that the competitive burden is heavier for them than for white people; any woman knows that it is greater for them than for a man, just to earn the same salary. When you find yourself competing in this way, there are times when you wonder if this means you have internalized more deeply the contempt of the oppressors: to whom are you trying so hard to prove yourself? Is this another, more dangerous version of seeking to justify yourself in the eyes of the prejudiced, whom you fear but do not respect? The only exit from this cycle is to pursue excellence for its own sake, to know your excellence and fulfill it — and not just take the posture of asserting it without really grounding it, because in being content with the rhetoric of “respect,” you won’t even fool yourself. Instead of complaining about having to work harder to gain the same respect from people whom we don’t respect that much anyway, it may be better — even noble and aristocratic — to know that we have done so much more and have become so much more capable than those who take themselves for granted. 

   The other significant thing I realized as a teenage outsider, looking in through the windows and wanting to be invited in, is that in fact the house was constructed. Just as race is constructed — for who is “white,” who is “black,” who isn’t mixed, who is capable of knowing who their grandparents or great-grandparents had sex with?– so is culture constructed, so is nation constructed. Every culture is full of dissent, full of crazies and recalcitrants and originals, who are shoved to the peripheries and kept out of the definition; every culture claims ancient roots for practices that turn out to be of recent invention or appropriation; every culture is porous and fluid, and influenced by neighbors. The Scottish kilt was promulgated by an English Quaker industrialist; the Indian sari became ubiquitous only as a result of  Victorian English prudishness, conquering parts of India where until the 20th century women went bare-breasted. In intellectual tradition, the curricula that base themselves off Plato and Aristotle and German philosophers have a hard time seeing how Pre-Socratics, Plotinus, and Skeptics fit in to the “West”: think about all those great authors who rarely get taught because they don’t represent some supposedly mainstream movement. Cultural outsiders can be more aware of the process of cultural formation, which those who feel themselves to be insiders will take as self-evident and unquestionable. You see that no one has a culture, and that indeed culture is not a thing to be had; rather, we might share a history, we might share certain practices through our history together, but we do not share history or tradition. The cultural outsider, the multi-ethnic stranger, that restless being without a sense of home, is a creature born of the destabilizations and unsettlings of modernity — a being who will always hunger for a home, but who can see that even those who claim to own a home are also really hungry for a home, which they secretly know they don’t have. Racists are driven by a deep fear of not belonging — hence their vehemence.

   These are things I would not have learned so efficiently without my racists. They are only a part of who I have become, but a significant part of my ability to live with other people and to learn from them. Although I would not wish racism on my children, I am grateful for having seen it face to face, and know that when they see it, they too will grow from the experience.




On Being Shaped by Racism

If you are an Asian in America or Europe, chances are you will experience racism of some form or another — whether you emigrate or stay at home. You will be “different” wherever you are. This year we have been seeing a resurgence of race hatred in the wake of Trump and Brexit: bigotry is being permitted and even empowered, and its virulence is being fuelled by immigration and economic insecurity, among other things. Things are going to be bad for a while. I decided to gather my thoughts and memories of some of the racism I have encountered into two essays. The first is a simple account of what I have experienced and what it felt like; the second is a reflection on how not to become embittered by racism and even to gain strength from it. 

Whether I like it or not, I have been shaped by my encounters with racists. In this essay, I’m going to be writing down for the first time an account of some of my experiences with racism, of which I have had more than most people I know. The essay was stirred up by a video I saw this week of a young black woman being jostled and abused at a Donald Trump rally; watching the rage-contorted faces of the men shoving her and shouting at her I remembered that I have known the same faces and shouts in my own life. Earlier this year, watching Tom Hardy’s Mad Max being chased down tunnels by a mob of albino skinheads, I  had a flashback of having experienced something very much like this twice in my life. I haven’t talked about this much; it must be a symptom of some kind of PTSD that I can calmly talk about it only now, and usually only when some event like a film or video triggers it. In the next few pages I’m going to set down some memories, thoughts, and feelings,hoping that they might be consoling to those of you who have experienced similar things, and instructive to those lucky enough to have been spared.
My ancestry is Chindian — Indian father, Chinese mother — and I was born in Malaysia, a country with a dominant Malay population. By birth already I am a minority, and a minority that would not have been accepted in both of my parents’ traditional ethnic groups. Their marriage was an act of courage in those days, and fortunate to have been protected by British colonial law — which served the ideal of equality but also the practical end of maintaining civil stability among the multiracial subjects of the empire. Only after we left Malaysia were Chinese and Indians put through an aggressive affirmative action program aimed to make ethnic Malays dominant in all areas of life. All those Chinese and Indians who could afford it sent their children abroad to study, knowing that if they stayed in Malaysia there would be no chance for them to succeed in school.

We were lucky, having moved to Taunton, Somerset, by the time that started. For four years, from age seven to eleven, I remember on the whole sunny, friendly days — but then we moved to the industrial Midlands, the national center of coal, steel, and ceramics, and also of low wages and a growing unemployed underclass. This was in the 1970s, a period of general strikes that brought the country to its knees; the xenophobic, fascist National Front party was prominent, and supported by the growing population of uneducated young people with no hope. Even now the place has not recovered from the devastation of Thatcher’s government, which has left the area with three generations of unemployment.  Before I relate some specific experiences, I want to stress here that I have never met people who are warmer hearted, kinder, and gentler than the people of the Potteries, but this was only one layer. The other layers were perhaps only visible to the handful of brown teenagers when they tried to navigate the public spaces of this world of vanishing hope.

We lived in a small town that was part of a close cluster of industrial towns. In the 1970s there were tiny Asian communities in a few of the other towns — indicated by the existence of a couple of Pakistani groceries that sold rare essentials such as rice and spices — but in our town, on a busy Saturday afternoon, the only brown faces on the street would be ours. At our school there were two other Asian students, but they must have lived farther afield. When walking home from school, or just idling in town, it was a weekly occurrence to be called “Paki” (generic term of abuse for any south Asian) or “Chink,” often accompanied by an expletive and aggressive facial expression. It became fascinating to me how they decided whether we were Pakis or Chinks, but they were usually absolutely certain. “Go home” or “Get back where you came from” were exhortations we would regularly hear — these from young adults or adults. Kids would follow us yelling “Chink” or “Ching-chong Chinaman” or just “Paki,” not doing anything more than jeering — but there were times I would just hunker down and quicken my steps for fear of the abuse turning physical. It was not uncommon to be standing in a bookshop looking at a book, and then raising one’s eyes to see a face a few yards away glaring with loathing as the mouth spat out “fucking Paki.” My recollection is that these verbal assaults took place a few times every week and were felt as a daily reality.

This was a period before Political Correctness, and there was no training in “cultural sensitivity” or respect for “diversity.” At our school there was an uneducated man who maintained the swimming pool boiler. Joe was a sweetheart and loved to talk with me, and would say things like, “Gimme a smile! You darkies always have such white teeth.” I never felt anything he said to be racist: while the words he used might have come from systemic racism, the man himself was unfailingly kind and respectful to me, and there was never a jot of hatred in anything he said.

The Hare Krishnas had just made to to the West; on TV and in Middle England they were a symbol of ridiculous exoticism. Sometimes, without knowing what my actual name was, kids would follow me around chanting “Hare Krishna.” Of course, I got this a few times at school from kids who did know my name. One result was that it made me dislike my own name immensely and hate to be even remotely associated with Hindu devotional cults.

These regular tauntings would have been sufficient to make any sensitive person dread to venture out; there was no question of a harmonious relationship with our surroundings, and there was always fear of physical attack. The first assault I remember was when I was eleven, and my brothers and I, together with an English friend, went to play soccer a few blocks away from home at a public field adjacent to my brothers’ primary school. We were kicking around when, seemingly from out of nowhere, about eight older boys turned up, encircled us, started pushing us around, and then made us sit on the grass while they yelled at us, kicked our ball at us, and hit us. “What the fuck are you doing here? Fucking stay over your side of fucking town. This is our field, do you hear? Fucking Pakis. You come to our country and take all the fucking jobs. Go back where you fucking came from. We don’t fucking need you here…” And so on for about thirty minutes. We sat there frightened and crying. They made us get up and leave, and we trudged home in silence. I knew that what they were saying were things they had heard from other people, and we never encountered this particular group again — but after that we could never go out and just play. There was no movement of Asians resisting this kind of thing, and in those days no wider social movement standing strong against racism, so we didn’t really have the tools to think about this or to help us figure out what to do about it. No one talked about it at home or at school; there was never an invitation to talk about such things, and no developed vocabulary for doing so.

It always started with pushing and verbal abuse. About once every two months there would be an incident on the walk back from school, when a bigger boy or — more commonly — two or three boys would crowd me and start the abuse. On one occasion two boys started to hit me lightly and I flew into a rage, grabbing one by the collar and swinging him round and round, keeping him between me and his friend. I hurled him to the ground and started to kick him. Meanwhile, cars were going by. One car pulled up, and a moustached old man popped his head out of the window and told me sternly, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down, boy! I saw the whole thing, and you could easily handle both of them without doing that.” The two louts took this opportunity to escape. After this, I did not feel triumphant or pleased — just physically sick. I sat on the kerb and tried not to throw up; this is how sensitive people actually feel even after winning a fight.

When I was 13, my class went on a field trip to Chester Zoo. There was another school there at the same time. We were free to roam, but once out of sight of the teachers I was hounded by a group of crewcut thugs from the other school who called me every racial name they could think of and, brandishing empty bottles, started to chase me around the zoo until eventually I found my teachers again. This was my first Mad Max chase. Another one involved a crowd of drunk soccer fans at a motorway restaurant where I worked; they were determined to beat the little Paki up, and I hid in the toilets till I knew they were gone. Both these incidents I had successfully repressed until I was about 45; the sudden resurgence of these memories at this later age took me aback, because I had never stopped to reflect just how bad it had been. In those days, dread of the streets was normal, the imminence of physical assault was normal. Compared to similarly motivated assaults in the U.S. the level of violence was relatively mild because there were no guns involved, but the intensity of aggressive emotion was what shook a person more than physical violence: we saw for ourselves that we were intensely not wanted there. Of course, the physical expression of this hatred was only the most obvious face of it; there were countless more subtle expressions of racism every day, many of which we wouldn’t have even noticed because we were more focused on the more physical expressions.

All of this had a deep and pervasive effect on me. I became less social, and consequently read more, listened to music, and learned to love solitude. I have a permanent dislike of large crowds, loud groups of people, and abusive obscenities. When at 14 I overheard a pretty girl saying that she’d never go out with a Paki, it was another blow to any hopes I might have had for a normal social life. Altogether, my relation to communities after this upbringing has been an anxious one, and I have become content with staying at the periphery of community. Fundamentally I do not know how to trust a community and unselfconsciously inhabit one. If I were either a Paki or a Chink, I might not have developed this unease because there would be somewhere where I’d fit in — but being Chindian, born in Malaysia and brought up in England, there can be no place where I would simply be at home. Without the childhood experience of racism, I might never have become a reader and writer, and might never have discovered the delights of solitary activities. And I would not have studied martial arts without this special incentive. In addition, the permanent Alien status has brought with it a thoroughgoing skepticism about traditions and cultures, because I know how manufactured those things can be in the effort to establish groups against other groups.

After the Midlands I studied in Cambridge — more educated, more cosmopolitan, more tolerant, although often too more subtly racist — and then lived in Germany, where the hated minorities were Turks and Greeks, but Asians got some too. It was nothing as bad as in my teenage years though. In China I was treated very well, but was aware of the severe abuse of African students in some of the larger universities.

Occasionally something will happen that stirs up again the dread of racist violence. In India five years ago I tried to visit my great-grandfather’s temple in Trivandrum, the ultra-rich Padmanabhaswamy Temple (whose vaults hold over $24 billion of treasures). I had entered a few months before in the company of my venerable uncle, but now, going in by myself and without an elder as shield, I was stopped at the gate and told to show my ID. Non-Indians are not allowed in, but as an official “Person Of Indian Origin” my status was ambiguous, so I tried to reason with the guys and appealed to my ancestral connection to the temple. They would have none of it. To them, I was an apostate Indian, a traitor, and within a few minutes they were shouting at me and about to start pushing. When more men started arriving, I left — calmly, because I had seen this before. The body language and facial expressions were entirely familiar to me; these boorish Hindu nationalists were no different from the English louts on that soccer field.

For almost three decades now I have lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about as far removed from any of the nationalisms I have known, and a town that prides itself on its difference and its hospitality to difference. Even so…during the first Gulf War six young men cornered me near the railroad tracks at the center of town, started pushing me around, and accused me of looking like Saddam Hussein. They had been drinking, and I wasn’t scared because I knew I could outrun them — but the questions (“Where do you come from?” “England.” “Yeah right, you wish!”) and assertions (“You people don’t belong in the U.S.A.”) told the old story. I broke out of the circle and ran before things got bad. There have been occasions when my credit card and driver’s license received longer than usual scrutiny because of the suspicious name — from people who cannot be expected to know that no Islamic terrorist would go by the name Krishnan Venkatesh. On the other hand, in my years of long hair, after a particularly disheveling session of fencing at the gym, I have had my credit card refused at a gas station because I must have looked to the Hispanic clerk like a drunk Indian who could not possibly have a Mastercard; only when the white friend who was with me vouched for me was my card accepted. This has happened twice. And as in England, incidents of subtle racism are more numerous.

I realize from the episodes in Santa Fe that the minorities for whom I am mistaken get treated like this regularly, and my treatment was just a glimpse of what life is like for these groups of people: they are experiencing daily the same unease and fear that I experienced as a teenager. Women generally experience subtle and not so subtle abuse daily. I am fairly sure that in a Republican America all of this will get worse, and even if the Republicans lose the national elections a sufficiently large number of bigots now feel empowered to express their loathings. I already know their faces.







[The World of Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights” (2)]


We all have our daemons — but in Philip Pullman’s world they are literal daemons, and not inner daemons. The daemon is the most beautiful of Pullman’s conceptions in these books, and seizes the imagination from the very first entrance of  Lyra and her daemon.(ch.1) The word is used in the Greek sense, meaning a kind of spirit — as Socrates uses the word when he describes his own daemon as an inner voice that says No, or when in the Symposium he calls Eros not a god but a daemon, something between men and gods. The enchanting thing about Pullman’s daemons is that they are embodied, as animals, padding around or flying  with their people; as such they are reminiscent of a witch’s “familiar,” usually cats, close counsellors and companions for their people. Each human being has one daemon, and they cannot go far from one another. Most interestingly,these daemons talk, in language that is not cryptic or oracular and does not require interpretation.They are a little like pets, furry friends that one can hold for solace; but they are also like twins, who know each other’s minds and are in continual conversation both in words and in silences.

Before going on, we should thik about what Pullman’s daemons are not. Although they echo the “emanations” of William Blake (which are companion-projections), they are not projections of the repressed sides of us, the parts of us that are kept in darkness, like the Jungian Shadow or Anima. They are not intimidating, hostile, frightening, or even unknown to us; we are fully familiar with our own daemons. And they are not like gods, alien and powerful; nor are they like animals, who are locked within their own distinctive senses of things and have no language to make bridges from their worlds to ours. These daemons are friends, embodied soulmates with whom we are perfectly comfortable and always together. They are certainly not wild animals, from whom we expect no questions and answers. Later in the book we will find out why the Magisterium that governs this world considers these daemons a profound threat, and that is how they come to be seen as demonic in our sense of the word — but for now, they are a natural, unavoidable, and benevolent part of the human realm.

The daemon can be something like an inner counsellor. “You’re supposed to know about conscience, aren’t you?” says Lyra to her daemon Pantalaimon early on. (ch.1) But most of the time, Pantalaimon seems to be a bosom buddy to confide in and bounce thoughts off. The person and her daemon are so closely bound that one feels the other’s pain. When a golden monkey daemon attacks Pantalaimon, it is Lyra who screams with pain — “Don’t! Please! Stop hurting us!” (Ch.5) And when at one point Pantalaimon tries to move further away from Lyra than usual, the agony is worse than the one felt by a mother and child being forcibly separated: It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your daemon was pulling at the link between you: part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. And she knew it was the same for him. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief…He nestled in her arms, and she knew she would rather die than let them be parted and face that sadness again; it would send her mad with grief and terror. (Ch.11) Even to contemplate that one’s daemon might somehow want to leave for a happier life is sad and frightening, as when Pantalaimon briefly changes into a dolphin: He had to stay close to the ship, of course, for he could never go far from her; but she sensed his desire to speed as far and as fast as he could, for pure exhilaration. She shared his pleasure, but for her it wasn’t simple pleasure, for there was pain and fear in it too. Suppose he loved being a dolphin more than he loved being with her on land? What would she do then? (Ch.10) Here the daemon is a soulmate or a soul-friend, about whom insecurities of this sort can be tormenting. The daemon is thus a composite of different kinds of “familiar”: bosom buddy, counsellor, conscience, soulmate, soul-friend, twin sibling, child, pet.

A child’s daemon is still malleable and changes shape freely, but as people became adult, their daemons lost the power to change, and assumed one shape, keeping it permanently. (Ch.3) This is a beautiful way to express maturation into a stable personality, a settling into who we are; the daemon becomes the manifestation of our settledness, and not a compensation for it (as in a yet different imagined world where, as human beings stabilized into their mature characters, their daemons might become more feral, resisting them, pulling at them). In the middle of the book Lyra has this memorable conversation with a seaman:

   ” Why do daemons have to settle?” Lyra said. “I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he.”

   “Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him.”
   “I never will!” 

   “Oh, you will. You’ll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form.” 

   “What are they?”

   “Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She’s a seagull, and that means I’m a kind of seagull too. I’m not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I’m a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That’s worth knowing, that is. And when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are.”
   “But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”

    “Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.”

   But it didn’t seem to Lyra that she would ever grow up. (Ch.10)
In this world, of course attachment to childhood would take the form of clinging to a changeable daemon, and for the rest of life one would remember fondly the time when one’s daemon was not yet fixed. Yet what a significant transition it is when the daemon settles! Unlike our own passage, puberty, which involves a shaking of self-certainty, the settling of the daemon means the discovery of the self. When your daemon settles, you know who you are. There is no mystery about it, because these daemons have logos and are not impenetrable to us; the challenge here is not to know yourself but to accept what you are. What would it be like to live as a being who knows what it is and merely has to be reconciled with it? Is this even a human being as we know it — since for us being human involves a long struggle to know ourselves? If the self is not a mystery to us, can we be tragic or philosophical? Pullman’s people are in this way not at all people as we know them in our world.

In Lyra’s universe, the externalization of the person as two beings brings with it some interesting inhibitions and prohibitions; to encounter a person as unfolded, as it were, into two, and not as an outside containing an inside, does not mean that there is no privacy or respect for an Other. It is taboo to touch another person’s daemon. In quiet moments when Lyra finds herself gazing at the exquisite fur of Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey daemon,

She longed to touch that fur, to rub her cheeks against it, but of course she never did; for it was the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable to touch another person’s daemon. Daemons might touch each other, of course, or fight; but the prohibition against human-daemon contact went so deep that even in battle no warrior would touch an enemy’s daemon. It was utterly forbidden. Lyra couldn’t remember having to be told that: she just knew it, as instinctively as she felt that nausea was bad and comfort good. (Ch.9).

It is as primal as the incest taboo. When they find a little boy who has had his daemon cut away, the sight is heart-breaking:  Lyra knew that Pantalaimon’s impulse was to reach out and cuddle the little half-child, to lick him and gentle him and warm him as his own daemon would have done; but the great taboo prevented that, of course. (Ch.11) A daemon is like something naked, inviolable, not secret like sex organs but untouchable not only because it is seen as vulnerable and needing protection but because it is sacred to a person. In the more refined social circle of Mrs.Coulter, this primitive inhibition is extended to control over the gaze, just as in our world we would avert our gaze from the nakedness of someone who is not an intimate. When Mrs. Coulter bathes Lyra,

Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs.Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs.Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra before. (Ch.4)
During the voyage to the north, a witch’s goose daemon appears on board, and even though everyone knows that it is a characteristic of witch daemons to be able to roam far away from their witch, the sight evokes an uncanny respect: the daemons of the men affected the extreme politeness of keeping their eyes modestly away from this singular creature, here without his body. (Ch.11) The phrasing is striking: a lone daemon is not like a naked body but like a naked soul, and thus should not be subjected to the direct gaze.

The relation of daemon to person is like that between soul and body, both of these being ensouled but the daemon somehow being more private, more personal, expressing in its very form the essence of the person. To come across a person without a daemon would, for us in our world, be comparable to meeting a ghost or zombie, an animated but soulless thing. When the Gyptian men contemplate a woman who had no demon: It was as if he’d said, “She had no head.” The very thought was repugnant. The men shuddered, their daemons bristled or shook themselves or cawed harshly, and the men soothed them. (Ch.10) When Lyra later finds the “severed boy,”

Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense. (Ch.13)

It is all the more interesting then that the armored bears have no daemons. Their king Iofur Raknison  would give anything to have one: “He wants a daemon! Find a way to give him a daemon, and he’d do anything for you,” exclaims the Palmerian professor(Ch.2) Lyra is moved to pity and wonder by this forlorn fact: How different it was to be human, with one’s daemon always there to talk to! (Ch.11) Later, observing Iorek: He had no daemon. He was alone, always alone. (Ch.11) She recognizes something uncomfortable, unheimlich, in this fact, as if this puts the bears beyong the pale of the anthropic; even though they talk, reason, feel, aspire, what they have is not a human intelligence, nothing like human, because of course bears had no daemons. (Ch.10)  When the magnificently heoroic Iorek, attempting to describe to Lyra the intimate relation of a bear to his armor, says “A bear’s armor is his soul, just as your daemon is your soul” (Ch.11), the comparison is poignant because of course the armor is mute and cannot talk back — but then an armored bear cannot possibly know what a daemon is for a human being, just as it cannot know what cold is.

With his parallel universe, Pullman is drawing us into a riddle, not to solve it, but to inhabit it — and this riddle, like all the best ones,  concerns human nature. The people of Lyra’s world are ceaselessly companioned, never alone; they know who they are, and in some sense they are complete. The embodiment of their daemons as animals is a wonderful conceit, for a bond with animals implies a bond with nature and a sense of being at home.  We, in our world, are less like these people and more like the armored bears: we are alone, and can make objects into substitutes for companions. Or we are like severed people — once at home in our world, feeling friendly presences in the form of pets or invisible friends, but in our adulthoods cut away from that intimacy. Does Philip Pullman’s image of the human being always accompanied with a speaking twin express a yearning for something in our world that is largely impossible, or is it an image of a comfort that we should be afraid of? — because in our world spiritual growth and maturing cannot happen without solitude, and it is loneliness that brings us face to face with ourselves. Lyra would have to lose Pantalaimon to grow: in her world, this would kill her; in ours, we would suffer and go on, functional but diminished. The people of Lyra’s world are fundamentally different from us — so how is it that we so naturally identify with Lyra and her daemon, and how is it that while reading the book we do not find it simply alien and weird?