‘Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house’ – Alan Paton
1. it gets more than mildly solipsistic in the Lair, where I’ve been (notionally) working most days, most of the days… generally just one other person and the pitter-patter of keys to punctuate the passage of day with sound. really love what i’m studying – the sheer elementality of personal property (e.g. if I mix my cows with your cows who owns… the consequent admixture of cows? or, mutatis mutandis, wine, or corn) counterbalanced with the self-consciously artificial and instrumental scheme of intellectual property. the obvious proprietary question — what does it mean to have? a little disappointingly, Honore could do no more than list 11 discrete (and merely indicative) incidents of ownership, some positive (‘liberties’), some negative and exclusionary (‘rights’ stricto sensu). most others prefer a single pithy definition – either the right to exclusive possession or the right to exclude all others (the two being subtly different)
2. the English common law is a compendium of the idiosyncratic. a newborn animal belongs to the owner of the mother, except for cygnets, who belong to the owner of the father and mother in equal shares: Blackstone, but presumably still good law (not sure if this has ever formed the basis of any common law decision!) the justifications for both the rule and the exception are evidentiary and compensatory: firstly, the father wanders and is rarely ascertainable, whereas swans apparently cleave to each other even after the female gets pregnant (!) so the father remains identifiable; secondly, ownership of the young is deemed to be some sort of recompense for the fact that the mother is generally incapacitated and inutile during pregnancy and requires extra care and expense. the discrepancy is again a lot less in the case of swans, precisely because the two stick together so much and are presumably equally useless to their respective owners…
3. as much as i like studying tidbits like the aforementioned – with each passing day i feel less inclined to turn in that BCL application. i really like law, especially now that everyone’s doing options i really like how there’s something for everyone and that at its core law is really – and surprisingly – a concatenation of inexorably addictive puzzles, even if swathed at times in formalism. but i have come to learn that everything taken to excess is noxious… i can’t remember the last time i picked up a book for fun, can’t remember the last time i picked up a text without eventually parsing it into typed bullet-point text stripped of articles and prepositions. it is on the whole heartening that it still matters to me, i think, that i whistle (again, notionally) when i see a nice turn of phrase in a judgment (invariably English; the EU ones are shit) – but appreciation of words should be more than piecemeal and aspirational. i need more, i need to do more, i need to allow myself to be more.
4. not least – am learning quietude; always learning, never really quite learned. if last year was about padding (cv; muscle, very occasionally) this year is about paring. learning how elementary – how beatifically axiomatic – faith is. i had been extremely tired of striving, tired of the interminable roiling within me, tired of having so much to lose. loss is a good thing. it shows me how little one can have – how spent one can be – and still be replete!
the last time i was in singapore i asked my bible study leader about Romans 7 (one of my favourites – almost mathematically poetic: ‘for that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I‘) – what should one feel about it? the answer of course comes in Romans 8:1 (no condemnation, etc); but would that not, paradoxically, spur one on to complacency?
in reply – and these are now probably my favourite verses ever:
9 For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle […] 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 cor 15:9-10)
neither fallenness nor grace precludes graft. rather, the one in response to the other precisely inspires, and sustains, it. note Paul’s almost guilty aside at the end, his repression of the undying urge to arrogate some credit to himself (also 2 cor 12), making it a sort of sinusoidal passage. so it is with everyday life, i think. knowing that God is sufficient, at the bottom – but equally, knowing that God is necessary, at the top. and it is precisely that knowledge that makes joy inalienable – that fixes happiness and security not on people or things of this world but on Something firm and unyielding. it is that very fixture that sets us free.
4a. walking home past midnight as usual, down Cornmarket St, some possibly homeless guy outside big-Pret strumming maudlin tunes that overlaid what was otherwise expansive silence. the sky was faintly speckled. the wind had died down. for the first time in ages i leaned into the quiet and felt properly able to smile.
recently it has struck me how inadequate I am in Chinese/Mandarin – and importantly, how much it affects me. this revelation unfurled piecemeal, after the umpteenth time of representing that I was a ‘native speaker of Mandarin Chinese’ on job application forms (neither fairly nor unfairly, I feel), and maybe after singing maudlin taiwanese songs in pek’s karaoke cavern.
I don’t wish to overstate the case, of course; I’m honestly too comfortable with English to be particularly bothered or crippled. but that it bothers, or should bother, me at all isn’t as self-evident as it may seem to an outsider. weakness in Mandarin is generally lauded – not merely tolerated – amongst Singaporeans in my generation, exceptional for an inadequacy of any sort, especially in this peculiarly acquisitive day and age (or more starkly, amongst my peculiarly acquisitive social circle). a not uncommon phatic line of conversation features mutual commiseration over poor Chinese language skills, certified by a B/C/D grade at ‘O’ level and reaffirmed by amusing recollections of awkward encounters with Chinese teachers, elderly folk or tourists.
viewed as a mere instantiation of a broader petulance with school and homework this whole thing with Chinese seems unremarkable. I remember being a rather moany secondary school kid for whom learning about organic chem and igneous rocks was (almost) as unpalatable as Chinese cloze passages. but I find it difficult to shake off the suspicion that my aversion to Chinese is uniquely hypocritical. I have always felt myself to be an acquisitive learner of languages, with English and then with Japanese – whose distinct blend of the pictorial and alphabetic renders it pedagogically (as well as etymologically) similar to English and Chinese. I like getting stuck into nice words or turns of phrase, and – more idiosyncratically – like learning about grammar; I like few things more than snapping words and particles together to form a ‘proper’ sentence in a foreign language, probably the less modern version of writing an elegant, pithy, piece of code. it thus strikes me as distinctly odd why I have little but faint bemusement and antipathy for Chinese. (it can’t just be the fact that I am Chinese and thus find learning ‘my’ language unromantic; my inordinate interest in the Singapore general election, when juxtaposed against a general distaste for politics, tells me that I am fully able and willing to lean into the banal and the familiar)
odd, not inexplicable, of course – the non-volitional, non-familial nature of my experience with the Chinese language makes my inadequacy therein not wholly surprising. but for me, and surely for anyone with a similarly ‘ecumenical’ outlook toward learning new things, this it inimitably falls through the cracks between the natural and the novel – it’s not familiar enough for its pursuit to be self-evident; not strange enough for the returns to be hurtling and exponential.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
God knows best.
hmm- finding out that the self isn’t easily defined negatively or in opposition to a host of things. to say that doing so is merely akin to discovering a sculpture by chipping away at extraneous marble is horribly misconceived; the sculptor arrogates the right to decide what is not needed simply because he already has a firm idea of what is. the temptation with defining yourself negatively occurs because it is the path of least resistance. the act of distancing is intrinsically safe, because you can’t and won’t be judged for what you don’t purport to place any value in. i am not an athlete, hence it doesn’t matter (except maybe in a cursory impressionistic sense) that i have dull reflexes and abysmal motor coordination, etc.
but as you continue on in this way, you must eventually find that the selfsame anonymity that swaddled you will swallow you whole. the ease with which dissociation can indemnify you from judgment clearly extends not just to the things you genuinely don’t care about, but even to those you merely don’t think you deserve to care about. those who like me have pretty much always belonged to ostensibly monolithically “elite” bands of people constantly run the risk of conflating identity with quintessence, of assuming that excellence is the necessary standard because it is the only standard, of thinking that performing at any lower standard inevitably strips the activity of all meaning or, what is possibly worse, relegates it to a “hobby”. once you begin to accept for yourself that this is the case, it ceases to matter that you don’t belong to any discrete group of “elites” any more, or that nobody is specifically or overtly influencing you in this manner – it sticks, like an axiom, and makes you tuck away the parts of you that you might justifiably have been proud of at one time, and before you know it you’re left with nothing to go on with, visibly less than the sum of your parts.
probably the only way to escape this paradox of apersonality is pretension: a painfully cognizant repudiation of the self. inevitably there’s a very thin line between bad-pretending and good-pretending, but the least that should be said i think is that pretension is value-neutral – any value judgment must be laid, if at all, upon the objective of the act of pretending and not the act itself. i don’t think i can express this much better than Lewis, who in any case planted the thought in my head:
What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.
(cs lewis, Mere Christianity)
i don’t suppose that the act of pretension necessarily cures the fear of mediocrity, but i think it could only be healthy to bear in mind that mediocrity is often a necessary precondition to success of any sort.
this holiday has thus far been exactly as sedate as i’d envisioned and wanted it to be. it’s been a month since i’ve returned; subjected myself to the refreshing if bafflingly cyclical rigmarole of inhaling singapore again in sharp intakes: eaten bah chor mee at least three times, met pretty much every valued person/ social group. it’s good to be back!- but not, I think, in the same way or to the same extent as it is usually portrayed on social media or other bits of the internet, brimfully replete with fanfare and patriotic fervour. no, it really only hits home when you’ve settled into sleepy routines and made your room your room again (ie bags, scraps of receipts and clothing everywhere), when you can stare pointedly at your phone while walking for ten minutes and still make it to the mrt station without incident because the route’s long been scored into your feet. if you continue being careless in this way it really feels as if you’d never left – but that can’t be. you’re a lot more susceptible to the heat now and you inexplicably have tons of law in your head.
bereft of girlfriend and (for two more days) gainful employment, i’ve been gamely keeping up with law, reading cases, trying to get into what it means to “think like a lawyer”. the more i read the more tentative i become, like with one of those trick gifts i secretly already know comprises nothing but wrapping paper to the very core. what does it mean to reason like a lawyer and what are the implications, if any, for the pursuit of truth? the law seems unabashedly (collusively?) incoherent and rife with backward reasoning – the more eminent the judge the more impunity as to specious argumentation – and while i genuinely find pleasure in understanding the parts of the law i’ve been exposed to (or at least successfully delude myself that i do) i could never pretend, not even to others, that this pleasure does not arise despite the state of the law rather than because of it, a sort of grim Pyrrhic thrill in having sifted through the wreckage and pried out the relevant corpses for interment.
don’t get me wrong though! i don’t think the fact of my enjoyment being merely derivative (of the incoherence etc) detracts in any material way from its quality. i think two years of army (and to a lesser extent Life-At-Large) has equipped me fairly well for perverse hypnopaedic equations of this sort: it is painful so you must be growing into a better person. besides, academia is in the business of equivocation, and there would be nothing to pussyfoot about if not for the non-sequiturs and the contradictions. i guess what grates just a little is how feebly indiscriminate my defence of the subject is; how i could have picked practically anything in the world to study and have reached at least as positive a conclusion. axiomatically, either an endeavour is intrinsically attractive or it is character-building to the extent of its unattractiveness, and to accept character-building-ness as an equally valid competing pleasure is a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? surely it takes far more courage to be miserable than to be stoic.