Thursday, July 16, 2009

Moral Calculus

[I put off posting this last night, and went to bed too tired to log on. Some of the references to being tired, lateness, etc... won't make sense as a result. Nevermind.]


I was going to write tonight about the Romance half of the equation from the other night, and then I was going to write about today's journey amongst the second-hand book-shops in Chiang Mai - big recommendation to Backstreet Books (no website) near the old city gate - but a foot massage and a hot bath got in the way. So, long as this post is, it could have been longer.

Quickly then, on the romance. You'll find a reference to this in some posts on my old blog, around January 2006, where I had said this:.

Speaking of hippies, E@L visited a great family-run pottery, home-stay, coffee-shop, garden local artist's enclave place built out of old (REALLY OLD) rice barns and various Thai-farmyard found objects - will get back to you on the details, they're in his room.

Throughout the visit vague and subtle fireworks of matrimonial set-up paranoia were sparkling in E@L's peripheral inner-vision as the conversation pointedly turned into Thai whenever the girls (newly-hitched Pla and recently divorced, very gorgeous, painter, University lecturer Unn) were looking in E@L's direction... Was the word farang just mentioned? Farang HUSBAND?!? Mum and dad seemed OH SO friendly to a total stranger...

Rrrunnnnnn AAAwwwwaaaaayyyyy, Brave Sir Robin...

Suffice to say, things haven't turned out well for the lass in question - long story short; pregnant to the wrong person again (coulda been me!) - and E@L fell under the scrutiny of a desperate mum and dad once more.


Not quite as quickly on the books. (You'll have to Google the books I mention if you're interested, as I am drafting this off-line; only have a few minutes of internet time remaining in my room account.)

I felt the need (from what turbid depths do these urge arise?) for something new to browse whilst having my Java Frappuccino at Starbucks (not another insipid Cappuccino "Ice-Boom" from WaWee Coffee, please!) now that the work day was over. (At four o'clock. They pay me for this?) Yes, I needed something heavier than the clutch of little books I bought on Monday.


Thinking of other books (such as Wide Sargasso Sea) that I started and never completed, I remember that I had borrowed William T Vollman's You Bright and Risen Angels from a weird young stoner hospital orderly I worked with; shit, it must just have been published in those days, and I'm not sure I ever gave it back. I know I didn’t finish it because I bought his Whores For Gloria and The Ice-Shirt when they came out and never finished them either. Strangely, that stoner orderly who walked round with the book in his pocket, ostentatiously taking it out to ruminate over a favorite passage every now and then between bringing patients down for barium enemas (I'm talking way, way before endoscopy, Creepy) or whatever dehumanizing thing we would inflict upon them, was the spitting image of the young Vollman (in the snippets of photos I had seen of him then. Vollman, not the orderly). I call him young because he is the same age as Michael Jackson. (Vollman, not the orderly.) It was pointless him (the orderly, not Vollman) being such a pseude about the book, because I was the only one who gave a fuck about literature in the entire hospital, apart from out part-time night-shift girl (who knew someone who went with a girl who was living in Helen Garner's Monkey Grip house and had put me onto Anna Kavan) and I kept pestering him so much to browse the truly wonderful chapter epigraphs in that book, he eventually lent it (gave it?) to me, so *I* ended up walking around all day with this huge, unread rectangular bulge in my radiographer's lab-coat pocket, feeling interlecheral but being a major psuede in my turn. Then he got sacked. (The orderly, not me, not Vollman.)

Anyway, I've no idea where it is now (the book), though my sister hints at revelations boxed in her garage, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, what?

Vollman strikes me as being someone a Chiang Mai visitor would read. A poverty-class intellectual, professional whore-monger, a verbal historian of the underclass, a little bit out there with his guns and maybe some libertarian beliefs (?) and I'm thinking some violent/revolutionary tendencies from reading too much Ché Guevara in kindergarten, and mostly, his extreme volubility and unending supply of one-upmanship travel stories. I'll have to find out more about him. Someday.

So I figure there'd have to be a copy of YBARA in a second-hand book-store somwhere in Chiang Mai. Surely. Such an alternative touristy place, the exact type of place my old hospital orderly would frequent - if he kept a job long enough to get money for airfare.

Big assumption?

Long story short: third book-shop I went into. BINGO! I am fucking brilliant about these things.

Just for interest sack I went into the bookshop next door, Backstreet Books, and it was, as mentioned, much better than the many musty Gecko ones and it has a much larger range - an excellent range in fact of both second-hand and new books. Mostly paperbacks, not too many hardback 1st edition Graeme Greene's lost in here. B-S Books even has an Oirish Literature Section and I grabbed a fair condition paperback copy of Banville's The Untouchable. It was manned by a rambling, mumbling, slightly eccentric but CHARMING Irishman (didn't get his name), so that figures...

But the major score for the evening in Backsteet Books was another work by Billy Tom Vollman! Step forward again, sir!

Rising Up and Rising Down - Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means is the abridged (only 734 pages) version of Vollman's seven volume, 23 years in the writing, magnum opus of the same name. This is Viking Saga stuff. Wow. This is not a book you'd find in any old bookstore!

So much of Vollman's stuff is basically interviews with the strange people he meets, right? Which is fascinating in itself when you go to the extreme places Vollman likes to head to, but in this work he uses those interviews as case studies in violence, freedom and, well you know the rest. In these condescension-free interviews he focuses on why people who have committed acts of violence did the things they did, how they got to be where they were - in the position of thinking violence was the right thing to do, etc…

I read a bit of the South-East Asia section - in the mid 90's Vollman spoke directly to rebels and leaders in the southern Thailand… fascinating for me, in light of the continuing struggles in the provinces there, and, obviously, me being in Thailand at the moment.

However, right in the heart of the book, the pumping heart to the meat of the rest of it, is Vollman's Moral Calculus. He uses these case studies to derive a way to assign some sort of moral value to these peoples' acts of violence, terror or rebellion. The Calculus is centred around that pan-religious ethic - the Golden Rule. He breaks it all down methodically, with schoolboyish assiduousness.

So when that Thai rebel in Pattani shot and killed an unarmed government worker, and admitted being pleased as he did it, was he justified? To calculate; fold Justification 5(d) to Punishment 4(a) and divide by Maxim For Tyrants (3) until the edge of Definition 5.3.C1 is just visible on the corner. Sort of thing.

Anyway I don’t think Vollman really expects his Calculus to usurp plain common sense, or the International Court of The Hague for that matter, but by using this vast and exhaustive approach he certainly has humanized the problem of violence, even evil, and if he makes any of us think more deeply before assigning blame or making overhasty judgments on issues like terrorism and political violence, when the question of who are the rebels or terrorists and who the government arises, as it so often does in the third world, then it will have been 23 years not wasted.

Obviously I have only skimmed the book (whilst in a German Beer Garden drinking Erdinger Dunkels) so this is only a brief first impression, not a deep and researched review.

And I feel, like the orderly with YBARA in his pocket, that no-one out there really cares about me and this book.

What a revelation.


(Sorry if this doesn't read easily; late, first draft - I try rewriting it on Friday, or tomorrow if I have time.)


Dick Headley said...

Good luck with 'You Bright and Risen Angels'. I tried but found it tedious. You may well love it.

Anonymous said...

this story makes me think of your stream of consciousness posts...

expat@large said...

Dick: my WTV list of unfinished tomes is extensive!

Rea: *this* post? or do you mean *all* of my posts, or only those that state they deal specifically with SoC(i.e. none?)?

I am trying to work out if this is a compliment or not... :-) Thanks for commenting anyway.

Great story, what! Yes sounds like Johnson writes the way I do. As in the mechanics of writing; just anecdotes rather than *stories* as such.

expat@large said...

OK, yes Rea, I get it, yes, that's my stoner orderly!

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