Art in life and life in art #4

On unbalanced lives that work, the death of truth, love letters, etc.

What we see & what we don’t see

Herbert Bayer
“Humanly Impossible”, 1932. A self-portrait. #

The places we make & the places that make us

Every great bar is a breath of paradise, and the best ones know, in their gleaming surfaces, what Proust meant when he said that the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.

Andrew O’Hagan
A Love Letter to Drinking in Bars

A ballad of the human heart

I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out. Some nights she lets me lick her ears and knees. I can’t talk about it.

Barry Hannah
from one of my favourite short stories (you’ve got to read the whole thing),
Love Too Long” (Airships)

Something to tickle your funny bone

OK, I don’t know if you can call this a love letter, exactly. But the affectionate condescension made me laugh, a little guiltily, as much as the love it professes so brimmingly struck deep. It’s a declaration that belongs totally to another era. More at, which I came across while looking for things to do for an upcoming trip to England. What can I say? I’m a sucker for epistolary romance.

Some words to live by

He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page.

Edward St. Aubyn 
Mother’s Milk

More couch explorations

The Passion Paradox
By Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

I picked this up after watching Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary in which Alex Honnold’s uncompromising single-mindedness is on full display. I might have found mention of it in an article related to the documentary; I can’t remember. When I posted about digging into this on social media, several people got in touch to ask for a takeaway. Here it is.

Truth us, I chafe a little against overzealous exhortations by wellness experts to live a more balanced life. It doesn’t take much for me to become fully immersed in a task (if it’s a task I’m interested in), at the expense of other things like sleep, exercise, or just pure fun; and it’s been like this since I was a child, whether it was reading, writing, coding websites, or making newsletters—actual ones, back then. I get “in the zone”, so to speak—time disappears, though I’m not so sure that conscious struggle does, for me —and I can spend an entire day steeped in one thing, or go two weeks without seeing anybody when I’m consumed by a project.

Yet, this doesn’t necessarily make me feel disciplined or effective; in fact, I feel it can make me fixate too much on the little details and risk losing sight of the bigger picture. So when I came across this book, its seeming promise that living an unbalanced life could be good for you rather than bad for you sounded attractive to me. Having now read the book, however, there are, of course, qualifications to its seemingly benevolent outlook on passion.

In fact, the authors conclude that yes, passion can be very, very bad (that it toes the same line as addiction), but it can also be good and “harmonious”—i.e. passion that is a manifestation of your true self; passion for the process rather than the results; passion for the long haul despite doubts and difficulties; passion that connects you with a wider community; passion with purpose and meaning; passion that elevates not just your work but also your life.

But even when it is the good kind, they concede, “Passion is disruptive.”

Think about your own experiences. During the times when you’ve felt most alive, have you also felt balanced? For us personally, the answer is a resounding no.

However, the authors suggest, there is a different way to look at it. For one, living an unbalanced life is neither good nor bad in itself:

So long as your passion is harmonious and you are aware of what you’re sacrificing to pursue it, then there is no “wrong” choice. The only wrong choice is losing the ability to consciously make one.

The problem isn’t that you sacrifice a lot for passion, but that it’s all too easy to let the inertia of a passionate experience carry you forward without ever really evaluating what you’re sacrificing—for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episode of your favorite television show.

(The “inertia” of passion sounds counterintuitive, but is very apt!)

For another, they say, it helps to evaluate how balanced your life is on a macro scale—over the totality of your days:

For some people, when you zoom in on any given day, week, month, or maybe even year, they don’t appear at all balanced. But when you zoom out and look across the totality of their lives, they are actually quite balanced and whole. This is the kind of balance to strive for.

So maybe someone takes a few years off from their passion to have a family, or to take care of a sick parent, or to pursue another passion. Maybe you don’t see your friends for weeks, but when you do, you take whole days off to spend with them. (Guilty.) Maybe you work non-stop for two weeks, but then give yourself a couple days of rest. (Guilty.) I do better with big chunks of deep time spent doing one thing—even within a single pursuit, like telling stories: I prefer to spend a whole day pitching, a whole day researching, a whole day pounding pavements, a whole day writing, a whole day chasing up payments and admin stuff. I’m more focused and effective that way than when I try to carve up one day into doing many things.

Not all the case studies the authors employ feel hugely convincing to me, but the book is a good read overall and I’d recommend it if, like me, you need to hear what this book says, even if on some level you already know it. I also enjoyed reading about how the word “passion” has evolved—did you know that it comes from the Latin word passio, which means suffering (e.g. “the passion of the Christ”)?—and about how, as derived from a nascent field of research, a passionate character owes partly to biology: the neurochemical dopamine, which is released prior to or during a pursuit, not after. It’s what gets you hooked on the feeling of the chase, not the achievement. So the more insensitive to dopamine you are, the more persistent you are.

Another long passage I highlighted, which applies for me not just on a general but also micro level—as a reminder to follow my nose when an idea for a story interests me, and not talk myself out of it before I even begin:

When you come across an activity or idea that subtly pulls you toward it, you are faced with a choice: Do you grant yourself permission to lean in and further explore? Or do you let it go, ignoring it and writing it off as a momentary blip of intrigue? If you choose to ignore, you send a strong message—and one that quickly gets encoded in your brain—that the activity or idea carries little value. The next time you encounter something similar, your brain won’t send a signal for excitement; it will have already gotten the message that “there’s nothing to pursue here.”

Unfortunately, far too often when a feeling of intrigue or curiosity arises, we simply let it go. In some cases, we tell ourselves we’re too busy, quickly becoming distracted by our smartphones or the next item on our to-do list. Other times, we tell ourselves that wherever an initial spark of intrigue is leading must not be for us because it conflicts with our perceived identity; a form of resistance that we call “I couldn’t possibly do this” syndrome. Common examples of “I couldn’t possibly do this” syndrome include: “I went to and paid for business school, why should I be concerned with art?” “I’m a physician, not an essay writer.” “I’m sixty-four years old and I’ve never worked with my hands, why start now?”

“I couldn’t possibly do this” syndrome only grows stronger with age. It also creates a formidable sense of path dependency, or the narrative that you are on a certain path, and the best—if not only—option is to stay on it. But path dependency prevents you from exploring opportunities that could lead to a better and more fulfilling life. You’ll never know if you’re truly on the right path unless you allow yourself to explore and pursue the things that capture your attention, even if they seem to conflict with the current path or identity you’ve constructed for yourself.

One thing, though, still niggles at me. The authors talk about how passion should be driven from within, not without. They also say that, when passion is driven from within, success tends to come as a by-product. And I’d like to think that’s true, but I’m not sure that it is. It begs the question: Can one still justify passion and an unbalanced life to oneself, if one is never recognised for it? I’m thinking of the writers who died before anyone ever paid them any mind, like Richard Yates and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Then again, maybe that’s missing the point. Maybe both men couldn’t have helped but write anyway, in the faint hopes of breaking through to an audience, even if they’d known they were never going to be recognised within their lifetime. Because it’s an urge, a compulsion, something they just do.

But no, wait, really, it’s a fair question: What if, despite all one’s passion, one just never becomes very good, whether by one’s own definition or others’? What then?

More on Goodreads.

The Death of Truth
By Michiko Kakutani

As Kakutani quotes Hannah Arendt:

The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.

Without planning, this book ties in exactly to the anxieties I expressed in May’s letter. It’s obviously a little American-heavy in its references, but the thinking and arguments that underline it are compelling and the developments it speaks of quite universal. It validates what I’ve been feeling, especially regarding how language has broken down as a tool for communicating, which, to my mind, poses an existential crisis like no other. (Well, until I heard about deepfakes—particularly relevant to Malaysian (sex) politics right now—and the democratisation of its technology, but that is a whole other can of worms.)

What’s great about this book is the comprehensive context and history Kakutani lays out on the broader cultural, social, and political dynamics that had been percolating for decades which brought us to this point: the breakdown of truth as an ideal. She touches on the rise of subjectivity and narcissism, the rise of the amateur and the increasing contempt for experts, the merging of news and politics with entertainment, and the replacement with reason with emotion.

Honestly, if there’s one book you read this year, please make it this. Maybe it’ll get more of us on the same page, and get us all to recognise the respect that facts should be treated with, and then maybe we can have some hope of understanding one another. This isn’t aimed just at those who baldly wage assaults on facts, but, I think, is even more important for those who are simply agnostic or indifferent about them, or who think that playing loose with facts is a small price to pay for increased sophistication (or sophistry) in language, communication, and literature.

What I found particularly important and fascinating was what she said about how the rise of postmodernism in the ‘60s, though it contributed to avant garde breakthroughs in art and literature, has been particularly problematic in the fields of social sciences and history in its claim that everything is subjective:

[…] broadly speaking, postmodernist arguments deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception, contending that knowledge is filtered through the prisms of class, race, gender and other variables. […] Language is seen as unreliable and unstable (part for the unbridgeable gap between what is said and what is meant), and even the notion of people acting as fully rational, autonomous individuals is discounted, as each of us is shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by a particular time and culture.

The postmodernist argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one’s perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event. This both encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the previously disenfranchised to be heard. But it’s also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated.

As on so many other subjects, [George] Orwell saw the perils of this sort of thinking decades ago. In a 1943 essay, he wrote, “What is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.

In a long essay about contemporary culture, [David Foster] Wallace argued that while postmodern irony could be a potent instrument for blowing things up, it was essentially a “critical and destructive” theory—good at ground clearing, yet singularly “unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” Its promulgation of cynicism made writers wary of sincerity and “retrovalues like originality, depth, and integrity,” he wrote; it shielded “the heaper of scorn from scorn” while congratulating “the patrons of scorn for rising above the mass of people who still fall for outmoded pretensions.” The attitude of “I don’t really mean what I say” would be adopted by those alt-right trolls who wanted to pretend that they weren’t really bigots—they were just joking.

Where is the ambition, in Wallace’s words, “not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem”? We need something better.

Of course, we’re human and fallible and we’re never going to get all the facts right every time, but it’s still worthwhile to aspire to get as many of them right as possible, so that in interpreting them, we might come close to an aspect of the truth. We need a baseline of facts to begin with. One might feel inclined to omit or highlight a fact depending on one’s perspective, but the fact itself shouldn’t be editable.

More on Goodreads.

P.S. Shoutout to my favourite local indie bookshop Lit Books, where I bought this!

Slapdash movie reviews

High Life #
Wow. What did I just watch?
That was my immediate reaction to this film. It’s simultaneously disturbing and mesmerising. I wasn’t sure I was able to trace a coherent logic; more a feeling, a reverie. I might describe it as a space + body horror film that reminded me just a wee bit of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. But mostly, it’s entirely its own thing. I’m still turning it over in my head, and I’ll definitely want to watch it again. And I love the way NYT critic Manohla Dargis describes Robert Pattinson’s skull, which dominates the beginning of the film: “It is an amazing head, its pale skin stretched across bone that is as geometrically distinct as a Cubist portrait.”

If Beale Street Could Talk #
A vintage romance based on a James Baldwin novel: a testament to the rapture of first love and how family, wherever you find them, takes care of family. A soul-shaking line: “Remember love is what brought you here. And if you trusted love this far, don’t panic now.” There’s some of that Terrence Malick euphoria going on, but Barry Jenkins’ style is less overwrought. It also made me think: I want to watch more romance movies. Not rom coms, not chick flicks. True romance, man. Like Cold Mountain, Brokeback Mountain—mountains do seem rather conducive to romance, don’t they?—Casablanca, The English Patient, Call Me By Your Name, Jerry Maguire, even Titanic and Romeo and Juliet… And yes, even when someone dies or they don’t ultimately stay together.

A Private War #
Unlike other times I’ve read a book or watched a movie about women war correspondents, I thought, after watching this biopic on the late Marie Colvin (the lady with the bad-ass eye patch): I definitely would not want this life. By which I mean, this film lets the despair shine through more acutely than the glamour. (And let’s not pretend otherwise: there is glamour. Read this profile.) Rosamund Pike is great in this, and I’d really like to see her in more movies.

A Simple Favour
So stylish, so confident. Bit of a caper. I wish I were tall enough to pull off Blake Lively’s wardrobe. Anna McKendrick is hilarious. The verdict is still out on Henry Golding, though he’s better than I thought for someone who fell into acting. It feels like the film was trying to scrape a little at Gone Girl, but never quite reaches the heights of its heights or the depths of its darkness. It’s definitely funnier, though. Anyway, I loved Bridesmaids and am inclined to give Paul Feig my time. #

Colette #
I do enjoy watching Keira Knightley in period dramas. This film is based on the true story of the French writer and iconoclast, whose illustrious life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, and made me feel all sorts of indignant on her behalf. Okay, her husband got her started writing, even if he claimed credit for her work under his name. But he also almost destroyed her love for it by forcing her to write in a locked room! Thinking of some of the ideas that still shackle our modern age, it’s quite amazing to think of such a free spirit existing in her time.

Goodbye Boys #
A 2006 coming-of-age Malaysian film by Bernard Chauly, set in the ‘90s—the decade in which I grew up. Follow a cohort of boy scouts on an expedition as they figure out life along the way. It’s somewhat melodramatic, but also charming. Perhaps it’s partly the nostalgia. The songs they sing while on the road in the film are songs I grew up learning in school too, like “The Happy Wanderer”—possibly in the course of being a brownie/girl guide. The film’s also set in Ipoh, my hometown, and takes you through some unexpectedly barren, scintillating expanse of Perak, my home state—the once tin-rich Kinta Valley, littered with the detritus of rusting dredges. I was moved, seeing the landscape, at once intimate and strange to me, on screen. I want to visit again.

Life stranger than fiction, kindling thoughts & glimpses of horror and beauty

“I’m Stephanie,” the billboard reads. “I was raped by a guy like this in a place like that. I told the club and the police, but no one did anything. So I painted this billboard.” #

“Incels” are going under the knife to reshape their faces, and their dating prospects. #

The curious, very English, world of barristers’ clerks: one of the last surviving professions of Dickensian London. #

To get pregnant, Palestinian women whose partners are locked up in Israeli prisons smuggle out semen hidden in candy wrappers. #

Young girls in El Salvador commit suicide to escape the cycle of violence. #

Next time you travel, check the bonafides of your wildlife “sanctuary”. #

Read this for the next time you see “truffle” on the menu, and be rightly suspicious. #

It’s Craig Mod’s thing to take long walks in Japan and unplug himself from technology, experimenting with new ways of documenting, and he wrote another essay about it. #

Camille Billops abandoned her four-year-old daughter to become the artist she knew she was meant to be. #

The Profiler got profiled. And reportedly won’t get out of bed for anything less than USD$4 a word. Writing goals! #

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