Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Thanks to capitalism, the bourgeois ideals have successfully forced us to arrive at an objective assessment of what success is. A life of success has been defined by what we do rather than who we are. Our inability to purchase a brand-new Mercedes suggests that we are losers in the game of life, placing us at the grass-root level in the pyramid of social hierarchy. Hence the modern idea of success necessarily aligns with economic reward. Our incapacity to bring out the best of us through material articulation is a forceful reminder of the fact that perhaps we have not worked hard enough or that we are far from being lucky to be born with God-gifted talents, because a meritocratic society is ultimately just and fair.
If meritocracy is based on an objective evaluation of who can be rewarded, we might then easily come to the conclusion that destitution of money is not merely pitiable, but also deserved. To display our sympathy towards the poor is therefore to expose our emotional vulnerability, because the poor are destined to be unsuccessful. In the early 19th century, however, there emerged a group of people called the bohemians whose traditions have been passed on down to this day. What distinguishes them from the ordinary mortals who surrender to the bourgeois system is their distaste for business and material success. They lack the usual patience to engage in meaningless conversations concerning money, deal with insincere handshakes, and bureaucracy. Rather than associating the modern idea of success, they take pride on being poor, as a unique characteristic to stand out from the flock (because being poor indicates moral goodness rather than human greed). They tend to cultivate their intellectual adequacy and emotional sensitivity. Their allegiances are to the arts and emotions.
If the bohemians don't think material success indicates the glory of a person, it is perhaps because being financially unsuccessful suggests that one has directed his energies to other activities that might prove more fruitful, cherishing values that might be undermined by the mainstream culture which actually are more vital to human civilisation. What is valuable about this part of the Bohemian philosophy lies not in preventing us from suffering financial assault, but in the ability to realise our own limits. Of course, to realise our limits is to risk hampering the potentials that might lay beneath us. But if an architect can work with the materials available to him, why, then, can't we accept our own limits and explore our potentials within them? Why can't we place focus on ourselves rather than the herd to understand who we really are? Do we really have to be like Bill Gates and Steve Job?
We need to realise where we belong to. To discard what our nature limits is to become self-indulgent (because forgetting our limits may seduce us to be overly optimistic about our own abilities). Understanding our limits not only allows us to become humble, it also allows us to discover what we are actually good at, urging us to be specific instead of being generic, hence nurturing our own potentials at their best. Therefore, we are likely to amount to failure in some aspects of life. But accepting failure also indicates the fact that we are all unique. Instead of acknowledging that we are obedient drones, the humility to accept failures affords us a better sense of reality about ourselves, providing us with a ruinous defence mechanism against illusions and arrogance, anxiety and rage, incompetence and self-contempt.
Prompted by financial necessity, too many understand the value of entertainment and neglect the value of leisure. Stretching out on the ground and letting the grass caress my bare feet would be considered one of the most unproductive activities in the modern era. If leisure offends the bourgeois values, it is perhaps because leisure is in violation of the fundamental law of what anchors to capitalism, seeking to destroy the inevitable contract between economy and productivity. Therefore, merits not measured in money are regarded as useless.
If only financial merits may be considered useful, could we then easily conclude that what the Bohemians do proves unimportant in the modern era? Can we not say that their pursuit of the arts is useless merely because writing poetry and understanding Shakespeare are unable to afford them a decent condo? If the Bohemian lifestyle is to be established on unshakable grounds, perhaps a philosophy which dated back to the sixth century B.C. emerged on a different continent might offer a better understanding of the Bohemian lifestyle.
The philosophy is Daoism. The founder of Daoism, Laozi, might be regarded as one of the first prototypes of the bohemians. In his celebrated work "Dao De Ching", he dedicated several chapters in defence of uselessness or idleness and articulated its value in a rather obscure language:
“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house; And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognise the usefulness of what is not.”
These were not haphazard and reckless articulations of what is valuable about uselessness. This verse in Dao De Ching laid a well-developed philosophy, an arresting claim that risks ascribing a more proper value to what is useless and undermining a misguided enthusiasm of what is useful. It invited us to reconsider the notion of usefulness that inherently contained in things which may on the surface seem useless. Though taking a leisurely stroll in the park deprives us of the chance to invest in the stock market, it actually allows a contemplative habit of mind to flourish and nurtures deep friendship. Though reading poetry may spare us of the opportunity to acquire an eminent position in the business world, it fosters a family of life-cultivating emotions which are of supreme importance to friendship and romantic love.
Hence Daoism recovers a sense of justification for the Bohemian lifestyle. It paradoxically gives weight to what seems useless, forcing us to readjust the values we commonly regard as unproductive. Though the Bohemian lifestyle is unable to allow us to grow richer in cash, but it allows us to grow richer in intellectual adequacy and emotional sensitivity.
The Bohemians suggest an alternative way of living which deviates itself away from the bourgeois mainstream. Their role lies in opening our eyes, in sensitising our awareness of what is around us, and in inculcating in us an appreciation of objects whose qualities are previously neglected. Moreover, we tend to be more productive during leisure. It's not just because it makes allowance for periods of contemplation about life, it's also because we are able to escape from the monotonous everyday rituals enforced by the bourgeois society.
A life dedicated to the Bohemian lifestyle gives us something new, something refreshing. It restores in us a better mental functioning to which deep, sophisticated thoughts are anchored. The lessons? We have devoted too much time in doing "something" rather than nothing. And only after we submit our thinking to the bourgeois philosophy, we amount to ultimate failure.