Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Medias Res
-The Other Middle Way-

The renowned contemporary Californian poet Robert Hass performed a reading of his recent works at the Doheny Library in the University of Southern California on March 30 this year. At the start of this event was a distribution ceremony of awards of academic excellence to graduating students in the university's Creative Writing program, fittingly felicitated in the presence of one of the most eminent practitioners of their art. Something I remember with some amusement about this ceremony, is the announcer's repeated description of the students as 'graduating poets' and the impressive-sounding statistics of the 'number of poets graduated by the University in recent years' reeled off exultantly. I remember asking myself, "When did Milton 'graduate'?". Notwithstanding the undeniable accomplishments of the awardees in the ceremony, a 'graduate of a Creative Writing program' and a 'poet' are not the same thing. By the same token, in a less formal context, a 'blog-owner' and 'blogger' are not the same thing. The blogosphere teems with too many blog-owners and too few bloggers. An online report of a survey on blog useage by Caslon Analytics, makes the following sardonic observation, "The 'average blog', thus has the lifespan of a fruitfly", and goes on to add, even more scathingly, "One cruel reader of this page commented that the average blog also has the intelligence of a fly".

Why do so many blog-owners end up trailing off mid-sentence what they begin with such a flourish? And why are so many of the bloggers reduced to compulsive transcribers of small-talk which neither edifies nor entertains, but only exhibits their fright of awkward silences? Is it a poverty of ideas, want of time, cynicism about reception or the result of an unreasonable quest for unattainable perfection? In short, what causes, and what can cure, the dreaded "writer's block", which seems to be unsparing in its affliction of anyone who writes, be they casual dabblers, avid hobbyists or gifted authors? Elizabeth Gilbert, another contemporary American poet, during a 2009 TED talk screened at a USC event, asks in exasperation, "Why is there only a 'writer's block'? Has anyone ever heard of a 'chemical engineer's block'?" An attempt at answer, could begin by saying that a chemical engineer most often knows what is expected in terms of clear specifications, can draw on his training to decide how to meet these specifications, and must meet them within a stipulated duration. But devoid of the problem statements, provisional plans and estimated timeframes which a chemical engineer almost always has, a writer most often does not have the answers to the questions, "What to write? How to start? When to finish?"

As for the first question of "What to write?", it seems to imply an assumption that there should be something to write about, and must be demanded by an occasion. That may be quite a limiting assumption, for in the words of W M Thackeray, "There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write". Even the faintest attempts know what these myriad unknown thoughts of ours are, is worthwhile according to the ancients who held that the most worthwhile pursuit of all is to 'Know Thyself', a motto often quoted in Latin as 'Nosce te ipsum'. Beginnings to answers to all these questions of troubled writers today, can perhaps be found in the aphoristic wisdom of antiquity. Consider the third question of "When to finish?", which writers of all hues never seem to be able to answer; either erring on the side of the excess of hypergraphia producing an abundance of inanity; or by taking parsimony to the point of disease, a disease which they resignedly call "writer's block". The ancients, anticipating this question, caution us, "Nothing in Excess", an aphorism quoted as widely as "Know Thyself", rendered in Latin as "Ne quid nimis". This is the famed Middle Way, an enduring theme in Oriental philosophy as well, and its import ought not to be lost on writers, who instead of aspiring to be prolific or perfect, would do better to seek sufficiency without superfluity. As for the second question, "How to start?", there is an answer in the form of another Latin phrase, less oft-quoted than the previous two, but having its origins in the world of writers: in medias res, meaning 'in the midst of affairs'. To begin at the beginning may not be the best way to begin, the ancients caution, for the beginning itself may beg earlier questions and endless clarifications, losing the narrator both his enthusiasm and his audience. Instead, they suggest, begin at a turning point, a crucial incident which can both trigger a flashback and set the stage for a climax; something that will draw in the audience, suspend their disbelief and engross them in suspense. If you must start bang in the middle of the story, so be it, they say, and this counsel can, in a way, be thought of as the other, less known, Middle Way.

It definitely worked for the bard of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad begins in medias res, in a battle-camp scene where a tumultuous war of words rages between warriors who almost come to blows; with a wrathful, scornful Achilles a hair's breadth away from stabbing Agamemnon, then commanding the Greeks during the ninth interminable year of the siege of Troy. The bard chooses to begin neither in Sparta splendidly with the birth of Helen of the face that launched a thousand ships, nor in idyllic Ida where the Judgment of Paris eventually sealed the fate of Troy. The Odyssey also begins in medias res, amidst the debauched revelry of egregious suitors ravaging a palace and intent on seizing its queen; as a helpless Telemakos and a Penelope at her wit's end guard their honour in Ithaca in the twentieth of the unendurable years spent waiting for Odysseus, for whose return they are hoping against hope. Again, the bard chooses not to begin at the obvious starting point which would have been the denouement of the Iliad and the sacking of Troy. The Homeric epics begin as long as nine years and twenty years from the real beginnings of their stories as it were, and far from drawing any complaints from readers, draws them into a double mystery presented by the questions, "How did we get here?" and "Where do we go from here?"

Nature imitates Art, and so does History, in that they all unfold in medias res. Alexander the Great began his conquest of the world in medias res, since he had to begin with, and contend with, plans for a Persian invasion already laid by his father, Philip of Macedon before his assassination. The history of the conquests of the world's best-known conqueror, is not one of a dramatic beginning, but rather, of a taking off from where an earlier false start had left off. Rarely, if ever, have any of the 'boy kings' of history had the luxury of being prepared to shoulder the demands of war and peace. Medieval India has the example of Akbar, crowned as a teenager, in medias res in a beleaguered empire in an anarchic subcontinent of warring chieftains; and recent Indian history has the example of Rajiv Gandhi, elected as the youngest Prime Minister, in medias res in a republic under threat, in a subcontinent ravaged by sectarian violence. Most recently, President Barack Obama has been elected Commander-in-Chief in medias res, at the helm during two ongoing wars.

It is not just generals and statesmen, but also those who fight the wars against disease and ignorance, who are denied the luxury of forewarning and preparation, and are left to their own devices in medias res. Researchers seeking the AIDS cure, are always half-way behind the breakneck speed mutations of the retrovirus, leaving the baffled investigators never abreast but clueless in medias res. All higher education begins in medias res. Thanks to recent advances that may revolutionize whole professions overnight, what today are preliminaries in a higher education program typically are several steps beyond the 'beginning' which yesterday's curricula of undergraduate courses prepare a student for. With most higher education programs being interdisciplinary, a student more often than not, is not familiar with the fundamentals of all the disciplines from which his or her interdisciplinary specialization feeds off, and must cope in medias res with the challenge of attaining intermediate competence in fields they maybe beginners in. Almost the entire project life cycle in the Information Technology industry lies in medias res, since all upgrades of business processes are desired to be 'online' without halting any regular operations, 'while the engine is running' as it were, and it is very seldom that software systems are built from scratch instead of being upgraded patch-wise coping with 'legacy code'. In media res is an underlying ubiquitous theme in the narrative of not just organizations, nations and other human endeavor, but also of the origin of our species and race. The story of biological Evolution itself occurs in medias res in a more overarching unfolding narrative of Geological Time, with such disruptive events as colliding asteroids and staggered Ice Ages altering the course of Evolution in unpredictable ways. Adapting post hoc is not an option since Evolution offers no second chances, and if any species has survived, it is because it adapted in medias res.

We can consider the in medias res worldview as the antithesis of what can be called the ab initio world-view. The ab initio worldview is one that assumes that knowledge of beginnings and fundamentals is sufficient to arrive at whatever else we need to know, and that application succeeds theory. In the ab initio worldview, the logic is deductive, the philosophy is idealist, the approach is reductionist and the stand is determinist. By contrast, in the in medias res world, the logic is inductive, the philosophy is empiricist, the approach is holistic and the stand is existentialist. The ab initio and in medias res positions are constantly in dialectic in any evolving body of human knowledge, and a concrete example is the debate about the primacy of Genes or the Environment in determining the human personality. Even the most dogmatic reductionist admits that the maxim "DNA makes RNA, RNA makes proteins and proteins make us' is an oversimplification, for though it is true that the 'master plan' of an organism is contained in the Genes, not everything in the development of the organism in its Environment goes 'according to plan' and the laws of Nature operate in medias res in a context established by Nurture. Laws, in any science, Natural or Social have an unspoken 'ceteris paribus', 'all other things remaining equal' preceding them. The Laws can seldom, if ever, be applied to the real world ab initio, but only by first accounting for and correcting for, in medias res, all those things which do not remain equal.

Like the Sciences which can really be practiced only in medias res, the Arts are no different. Returning to where we started , this is why poets do not commence or graduate ab initio per se, but engage in medias res in a process of creation, whose beginnings and outcomes should not preoccupy them. Confucius said, "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand", meaning that however much theory is appropriated ab initio, understanding is achieved only when practice is engaged in, in medias res. Confucius, hailed by posterity as one of the wisest men of all time, considered his own lifetime an unfulfilled one, with his mission of building a new society founded on the edifice of his ethics, unfinished and uncertain. So many great works conceived of by the human mind have not only begun but also remained indefinitely in medias res. For Mahatma Gandhi, the political freedom of India was little more than a ground-laying for the larger mission which Pandit Nehru described as 'wiping every tear from every eye', a mission which to this day, remains in medias res. Returning to the epics of antiquity, Virgil, author of the timeless Aeneid which is hailed as the national epic of the Romans, in his deathbed thought of his work not as a masterpiece but as a draft in medias res awaiting urgent revision or deserving to be burnt if unrevised. Posterity benefitted from the good fortune that his last words were never heeded. Like so many other tormented practitioners of his art over the ages, Virgil seems to have been perplexed by the belief that a work of art is owned, dispensed and disposed by its creator. Were they but willing to accept that their creations are larger than their selves, and every creation is somehow already in progress for them to join for a time, at fortuitous moments not always of their choosing; how less tormented they would be and how much fulfilment they would be able to give their art? It is with this glad and liberating acceptance that Homer begins his invocation which in way counsels every writer of posterity to seek his Muse: "So now, daughter of Zeus, tell us that story, starting anywhere you wish!". So invokes Homer his Muse. So begins the Odyssey...