Whales Through Melville’s Eyes

October 13, 2015

Browsing through the highlights and notes, the brilliant moments from the long journey of Moby Dick came to life again. I remember being repelled by the second half of Heinlain’s A Stranger from A Strage Land, despising its complete derailment from the story and the endless spouting of his unimportant opinions. But I totally enjoyed the random thoughts and musings Melville offered.

The narratives of the plot constitute just a small part of the volume. In an unintruding manner, the various aspects of the whaling business was laid out. If these descriptions are more out of necessity for later understanding, then what branches out from them emitting witty insights and wild deduction, touching ancient history, philosophy, social issues, are pure brain food. One example is taken from the last passage of the chapter debuting Ahab’s harpooneer Fedallah,

…according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.

As Melville’s ambition commanded, the book also contains large quantities of encyclopedic entries. Similarly, his comments are most worthwhile paying attention to. In particular, he revealed one peculiar aspect of the whale’s vision system: the sideway positioned eyes separated by a dead wall of face, thus two completely different images at the brain’s processing center, and thus two fronts and two backs! I’m surprised how I have never thought of this amusing problem. I’m less troubled by his classification of whales as fish though. He explained reasonably, and that’s his personal choice. But it’s indeed questionable whether his description of whale’s exceptionally small brain is true by today’s standard. That aside, it nevertheless illustrates Melville’s powerful armament of similes.

… hidden away behind its vast outworks, like the innermost citadel within the amplified fortifications of Quebec.

Perhaps the tranquil tropical cruising that Melville so lavishly and untiringly depicted – which I already quoted before and had better refrain from doing so again – is truely the source of the freest thoughts seen all over the book. Yet my constant theme has always been the conflict between the strong sympathy towards the whales and reading of what the main characters are doing to them. This is intensified by the author’s own manifested contradiction of attitudes. He did not withhold any bit of admiration for or marveling at the whales’ mild profoundness and joyous swiftness. But no less praising was given to the whaling business and killing scenes. I don’t attempt to guess which side he stands, but he clearly knows what they are doing down to the core – read more …


Not Misanthropic

August 27, 2015
linked to a low-res full view

A low-res partial view of the painting (clouds, electric poles).

How I’m still so fascinated by the sign of nature reclaiming abandoned towns. Whenever my eyes glaze over at the only painting on my wall – my reproduction of the iconic cover of Yokohama Kaidaishi Kikou – the flowing thoughts all reflect the same crystallized distinction between the animosity towards insect-like humans and the admiration for noble trees, which is time and again strengthened by numerous other imagery to help develop a kind of aesthetics that glides among the green, the worn-off, weary tranquility, dreamy desolation – and perhaps most important of all – that is devoid of explicit human elements.

It would seem rather unrelated that on one summer afternoon, in a hazy daydream I read that even when I listen to music alone, it is a social experience*. The evoked thoughts and emotions may or may not be what the artists hoped to convey. But the process creates a sense of connection, as if I found someone with whom I share something in common – I’m sure I don’t appreciate music purely through its sound design. To achieve the sense, of course, requires some imagination, but it doesn’t render it false**. The same goes for reading, and… looking at paintings. The only thing that makes this idea seem a bit odd to me at first sight is – apart from the implication that everything I do is a balloon craving for social interaction – that the communication is not real-time and often one-way. But that’s all there is to it once I see it.

The soul searching was prompted following a regrettably brutal declaration during a conversation:”Humans are ugly; trees are beautiful; if I was to choose only one species to preserve, I’ll gladly let the human beings die.”*** It seemed to me so true that I could be easily delighted in nature motifs in paintings however they are portrayed, whereas I could hardly appreciate any human figures. But it’s actually because I’m more sensitive to human facial/body recognition than to anything else; I never developed that kind of nuanced standards for trees to differentiate the charming from the lesser among them. I am just like anyone else in this regard, however the opposite I strive to be. Habitual behaviors betray my nature when the thoughts didn’t notice. And the irony rose to the middle of my consciousness conspicuous and hot.

What am I really seeing in me when I gaze up into my bedroom painting? I gradually recall the primal reason was that I wish for a slow-mo, buoyant type of life with infinite time at my disposal, just like Alpha does. This could only happen after the colony size of the “human-insects” starts to decline. And why have I always shied away from depicting humans in my drawings? For I fear my skills could not live up to my picky eyes for human figures. In other words, straightforward cowardice.

Indeed, one who appreciates art cannot, by definition, be misanthropic. What’s more, one who seeks seclusion might in fact be addicted to socializing, in a certain sense.

* I had always thought I read it in one of Boards of Canada’s interviews. But I reread all what bocpages.org has and found no evidence. Apparently I was dreaming.
** M.A. van Bemmel, ‘We are Superjews, Ajax is the name’ – A study of the Jewish identity of Ajax supporters, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2012.
*** It is regrettable that things I say in conversations always tend to be an oversimplification of what I really think. But in this case I guess the statements didn’t deviate too much from my long-held beliefs.


Porquerolles Days ≤ 5

August 12, 2015

It’s been a month since then. Memories are fading. So I’ll group all the rest of the days together and document some highlights.


Remembering one of my Italian friends wearing a fancy suit for the Israeli aerospace conference, who told me that’s just being European, I thought I had to bring my JK uniform – the closest thing I’ve got to formal clothing. But on the way to Hyeres I suddenly realized: I packed my skirt, knee-highs, uniform shoes and even the bow knot, but not the white shirt! I soon turned from being horrified to glad for my consistency and a possible solution of buying a substitute in a local mall. As the plane approached a small rustic airport, round bales of hay which I only saw in paintings* seemed to tell me there are no malls here. At the suggestion of the Hotel reception, I went back to land the next morning and traveled to Grand Var at the outskirt of Toulon. At the first store where I bought a boy’s white shirt, I met a very nice high school girl who was helping in the store. She led me to the next store I was looking for. And when I finished shopping and found no taxi outside the mall – Grand Var is not Grand Canyon after all – the girl came out again and walked me to the exit where the taxi that a customer in her store helped me ordered was. Pimples flourishing on her sunny cheeks and forehead, she would complain about not being good with school and stuff. How nice to behold the face of a high school girl with all these innocent little troubles, thought I – the 114-year-old… …All this while she didn’t really speak English. In the end she typed her farewell message for me on Google Translate and I really didn’t know how to fully express my gratitude.

In the mall I bought three shirts in a row because all of them were somewhat casual. I thought I would leave the difficult question of which one to choose to tomorrow when I would be speaking. In the afternoon, the conference officially started. The organizer Stephane – I still miserably remember I assumed it to be a French version of Stephanie and addressed him by “Ms.” in emails, TWICE!- opened with a welcoming note. To my amazement, he came in beach T-shirt, shorts and flipflops. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, when he needed a pointer, he grabbed a fallen tree branch taller than even me. At this point I understood that I should be glad that the difficult question was no longer relevant. And without loss of generality, let me just omit that part concerning some certain amount of Euros…

A by-product of that shopping trip was that I had a glimpse of Hyeres center, where a plethora of small-scale palaces lined up the neat boulevards. I have no idea what these eye candies are. But it was definitely nice to have walked around that place.


Before going there, we were warned that “the comfort in the conference center is limited”. But it time and again challenged my bottom line. First there was no air-conditioning in the lecture room. I managed to cool down thanks to the fresh island air. But to the bigger others, life was not easy. Second was of course the lodging. I didn’t complain about the small space which had me bump into the bed corner all the time, or the shower head – or rather the lack thereof from which the water poured down quite bluntly. The jaw-dropping fact was that there was no air-conditioning again… And no WI-FI… These definitely hit new lows. Later Julie told us this place is sort of like kids’ summer camp or military camp. Then it makes sense.

I was well aware of and prepared for sharing the space with another girl. I was confident that academia people have to be nice. This claim stands unshakable. Moreover soon it turned out my roommate was cooler than just nice. Elektra, unlike the introvert me, is an outgoing person with unrestrained bright laughter. Despite striking differences in sociability and bedtime, we both read before sleep and advocated leaving the window wide open for fresh air during the night (thus making ourselves open targets to the mosquito army).

Whenever Elektra fondly called me “μήλο my apple”, my heart stealthily turned into a sweet blossom. By the last night – the last beach time we were going to spend together – I found myself changing into bathing suit without bothering to enter the bathroom anymore. Elektra let loose her wild laugh and teased me. I rushed to explain myself ** by citing the imminent meeting time with others. But it’s undeniable that the somewhat intimate week of sharing personal space and stories, especially of witnessing Elektra’s carefree attitude with regard to changing in front of her roommate, I gradually gave up keeping that awkward distance. read more …


Porquerolles Day 6

July 19, 2015

The last day of the conference. Before 11 a.m. the lectures were all over. I wasn’t sure if I paid attention to them well. During the coffee break, I found out everybody I know was to leave the island immediately except for Ernst Jan. We went to see them off at the port in the middle of the day under the blazing hot sun. It was that laid-back kind of atmosphere that made my eyes half closed. All of a sudden, Ougustine came to hug us and went to join the line. Then I noticed the line moving and that signified the departure of my friends. I only managed to locate Elektra who called out to me, and Julie beside her. We hugged and kissed and bid farewell. It was so brief and there wasn’t any chance to say goodbye to anyone else that I hung out with. The next moment the port was empty, leaving me a bit bewildered- a feeling I had long time ago. I always find it hard to digest that friends who created and shared fond memories can just disappear from my life this easily. But I also realize for truly sociable people, it happens all the time and they don’t lament it.

Two hours later, Ernst Jan and I were sitting at Le Pelagos. After the Delft native introduced me to their rowing culture and their enormous civil engineering revolving around dikes, somehow we came to the topic of Israel’s conflict. I looked up at him when he used the word “aggression”, albeit in a careful tone as if that would irritate me. I did find it offensive as Israel never acts unprovoked (okay, minus that 1956 war). So far I had seen myself as a little ambassador of Israel to the world, ready to discuss any complex problems in an educated manner. But before I could make a statement, he said in the gentlest possible way – in a mosquito’s volume – that Farah was a refugee from Lebanon. I gasped and my mind went blank. But that was not all. Her house was destroyed when Israel invaded southern Lebanon. The whole family fled to Egypt where soon afterwards there was unrest and again they had to run away. Eventually they settled down in France. And now Farah lives in Australia where she did her research. For years she could not speak to an Israeli. When she met Israelis she got so angry that she felt like punching them in the face. Only a year ago she gradually overcame this.

As the story unfolded, the images of my limited interaction with Farah came rushing through my mind. I always introduce myself first and foremost as a student from Israel because I never like to present myself as being from China. Like most, Farah verified that this most-definitely Chinese looking person is not Israeli. But why in the world did I add, in the face of a Lebanese, that I like to pretend to be Israeli, only falling short of declaring myself as a self-appointed Israeli ambassador? I somewhat perceived a tip of the iceberg of my silliness when she naturally pursued: “Why do you like to pretend to be Israeli?” There was apparent underlying meaning pointing to her distaste towards Israel. But I chose to ignore her being uncomfortable and clumsily shrugged it off by saying “It’s just fun.” Now that I came to know what kind of bitter personal history she had had, I totally regret my insensitivity. Perhaps later on we got along well: the next day she told me how her nervousness before the presentation could be manifested in her shivering voice; in the afternoons we went to beaches together; during a coffee break I offered my condolence for her stolen bikini; the last morning I think she came to sit right in front of me at breakfast. But all this is perhaps due to me not being Israeli, and/or her being more mature.

I remember that miss universe incidence where the Israeli girl still in the army service cheerfully insisted in taking a selfie together with the Lebanese girl. I sneered at the narrow-mindedness of the Lebanese when it was reported that Miss Lebanon was harshly criticized for that photo. Back then, it again proved for me that only the Arab states perceive us as the enemy, refuse to accept coexistence and perpetrate the century long hostility, whereas we don’t hate anyone and just want to make peace. So when we come across someone from the other side, we lightly go up to them believing we should make friends with them and they should NOT have a problem in making friends with us. But for them, they could not take it lightly. No matter how legitimate a reason Israel has for launching the offensive, what happened on the ground were massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and large-scale displacement of the Lebanese population. Displacement, what a neutral sounding word! But now I suddenly see the substance in this word by relating it to a real person, whom I spoke with and respect. Sometimes our simple-mindedness, innocence, mixed with insensitivity can become stupidity. How can I blame those people for not ready to befriend us?

Ernst Jan asked me to imagine myself being in Farah’s situation. But I could not. I was already saddened and I knew I could not take it to place myself in her shoes. That would be too agonizing. For all these years, I have refused to see the real pictures of any human misfortune, be it the suffering of Gazans, the stories of our fallen soldiers, or the Holocaust. Therefore I love to read history books written by serious scholars. Largely devoid of emotion, I can stand reading numbers, which I forget in a millisecond, or words like displacement, casualty and death. And after reading the books, I believe I know what happened without having to undergo mental depression. But real pictures are indeed there. Sometimes they are just suddenly before your eyes without warning. In the future, I will still hide behind the texts. But this shock lesson indeed significantly influenced me towards giving more weight to the ordinary civilian on the other side when thinking about the conflict. read more …


Porquerolles Day 8

July 8, 2015

It turns out that La Tour Fondue only serves for Porquerolles. In order to go to Port Cros, one has to be in Port d’Hyeres first. As expected, this one hour morning cruise was one of salty breeze, gentle sunlight. Leaning on the white rail, I sometimes gazed at the northeastern end of Porquerolles tilting at an unnoticeable pace, wondering what I had missed due to the previous day’s accident; sometimes I stared at the dancing white foams creating a glistening rainbow. There I gradually slipped into drowsiness, and Melville’s beautiful narration emerged in the center of my consciousness:

…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature… In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space…

I came to Port Cros mainly because of the advertised underwater trail. To reach it from the port, one first needs to hike along the cliff edge of the island for 40 minutes. Even though the cliffs ran fast down to the water, the thick vegetation gave me a very comfortable sense of safety. It was such an enchanting trail because you never completely lose sight of the sea or the impenetrable forest. On the left, there was the sound of waves crushing against the rocks; on the right, there was the synchronized buzzing of cicadas celebrating the heat. I have freedom in my left hand and love in my right hand. Here there was such a variety of trees growing wildly into each other that made the shady trail barely passable. Upon arriving at the destination I was almost sorry.

But at the same moment, I suddenly realized I hadn’t rented any snorkeling equipment yet! That’s of course very typical of me. I ran up where I came from, saying Bonjure to all the people that just started flocking to the beach. Got the mask and tube for almost twice the cost of that on Porquerolles. On my way back to the beach, I chose a different route, steeper and more winding. And obviously I don’t mind getting acquainted with this scenic part of the island by walking it three times.

Now I finally got to what I came here for. Plage de la Palud was a fluffy beach again. The shallow water was muddy. The underwater trail turned out to be quite similar to Crique de la Galare. Yellow carpet, white ginkgo leaves and rolling grass thickets glittering with sunlight rays. There perhaps were a few more kinds of fish. I spent about 40 minutes around the area, looking for the true face of the murderous medusa to no avail. I would conclude that it wasn’t boring, but definitely not very breathtaking. It shouldn’t be surprising though. After all, these three islands are so close to each other. There’s no reason to expect anything different in the underwater landscape. So probably I didn’t miss much by dropping the second snorkeling destination the other day.

In the afterthought, what was really nice about Port Cros was definitely its intimate cliff trails. The island is an official national park (the smallest in France) where trees are specifically protected. I left la Palud and its screaming, laughing kids altogether. As soon as I ran into the bosom of greens, it was all tranquility and solitude again. Along the way, I discovered several more picturesque coves where no bathers visit.

When I got to the east most point, I already felt a bit tired and wanted to turn westward back to the village. But over there I lost the trail. I looked back and saw clearly the trail led me here. But before me was some extremely difficult rock climbing down to the water. And it wasn’t the right direction that Google Maps pointed for me. I stood there for a few minutes, not knowing what to do. Just then, though I was all alone all this time, just when I needed help, two human beings magically appeared before my eyes. They were coming from high up towards me. Then I realized I was supposed to climb up. I gladly greeted the two guys hiking the opposite way and said “Youu saved me!” “Why?” “Here I thought the trail led me to nowhere and I was stuck. Then I saw you guys coming down and now I know where to go.” They laughed and wished me good luck. read more …