Practicing life

Practicing life

By Jorge Majfud

Translated by John Catalinotto. John Jay College, New York.

Not a few times I’ve heard that the disadvantage of learning a new language is that if it isn’t used, it is lost. This is technically inaccurate, since losing the ability to use knowledge does not necessarily mean that one has forgotten everything or all that is needed. In fact, the same thing happens with our own mother tongue. In our memory there are tens of thousands of words (you can check by opening a dictionary), but we use just a tiny fraction. This is just one example, since the problem is rooted not in quantity but in quality. According to some studies conducted with students in my home country, new generations of students use only 500 words, which is contradictory considering the new written media in the digital age. Contradictory, but not inexplicable: you cannot emerge unscathed from having mastered the ability to manage emoticons and other forms of intellectual poverty and laziness, so characteristic of the «click» culture.

Sure, you have to respect the changes of the new generations; a generation that doesn’t change is a lost generation. But neither can you cozy up to the younger generation, in a complicit and cowardly manner, while neglecting to point out all they have inadvertently lost because they probably never encountered it. At least until it is shown that the one old habit of reading 300 pages of antiquities (on paper, why not?) by some genius of history is a futile and anachronistic exercise. Then all worldly power will remain concentrated in the hands of those few who come from top universities, redoubts and bastions of the «old» literacy, while the rest will be limited to another traditional role: their function as consumers of novelties.

The old catchphrase of «a picture is worth a thousand words» is far more popular but no less true than its opposite: «a word is worth a thousand pictures,» and not only for abstract thought and the most profound emotions. We also see it every day in the media: images, with the false aura of objectivity, are almost always slaves of the text accompanying them, of the speech that says who is the base and who is noble in that war, in that street brawl, among those children dying of hunger. In these cases, what is bizarre is to hear: «The images speak for themselves.»

Learning is often a pleasure, but any serious learning involves a great effort. If it were not, the world would be almost perfect and no title, no recognition and probably no skill would have any social value, like a medal in an Olympic tournament that is valued for its selective discrimination. Of course not all knowledge and all skills mean a breakthrough for humanity. For example, stupidity is not innate. No one will find a stupid child two years old. That is, stupidity is also a skill that is acquired after a careful training.

Languages, then, are not the only example of something that requires care to grow and maintain itself. In the same way you learn any subject, including those that require physical training, you also can lose many skills and much knowledge when you don’t use them. The muscles of a bodybuilder deflate much more quickly than the exotic words we learn in a sightseeing trip.

I studied mathematics for many years in formal education in my country and for a few semesters I even taught math (at a time when, not without contradiction, my main job was to solve practical problems in construction projects) before leaving all of this for literature. Sure, to leave is also an imprecise verb. Everything is still there. However, my ability to solve differential or integral equations, which at one point in my life was a fascinating exercise, has significantly diminished. One day I started to refresh some of that know-how and I realized, not without difficulty, that the high-walled city had not disappeared, it was somewhere in my memory, but a little bit buried, or maybe more so. Or maybe that this ability that formerly served to solve the equations or structural calculations that computers now do, is dedicated now to influencing my life in some other unsuspected form.

Either way, we know that the same thing happens to an athlete. The brain is, after all, a muscle, a greasy muscle that consumes almost one third of the total body oxygen. We do not know if it’s there that the spirit,  the soul and all emotional activity lie, along with the intellect, but it is surely the central station of all these life experiences.

The game of profit and loss also occurs with the most complex feelings and emotions and with the most basic and elemental ones like love and hate, sadness and happiness.

Once a teacher friend in the United States saw that I was worried and when I told him my vague reasons (the world, my own uncertainties about the future) he warned me about the following: you always have problems and, of course, it’s best to take them seriously and solve them. For a problem there is nothing better than a solution. But then, if you live in a constant state of worry or unhappiness, even when you’ve solved those problems that were troubling you, you will fail to notice what has been done or, worse, you will be unable to be reasonably happy, because you will have lost the training or wisdom needed to reach that state. You learn to be unhappy and then, as with a mother-tongue, it is more difficult to lose that perspective. Still, no learning is irreversible.

If you do not practice certain feelings, you lose them. It is possible to recover them, however. Sure, it is easier to understand this intellectually than to do it. But understanding is almost always the first step.

Keeping memory (and now also intelligence) in hand, is not something that will go unnoticed by the intellectual muscle, just as it would not pass unnoticed if a tennis champion should replace the traditional court and racket with a PlayStation. While universities manage robots that look more and more like human beings, not only for their intelligence but now also for their ability to express and react to emotions, our habits as consumers are making us more and more similar to the robots.

That is, not only are the unused language skills being lost, the basic skills that make us human beings face the same fate. In the first case it is obvious because there’s always a language from which to observe the loss, in the other it’s not so obvious, because once you lose the human condition you can no longer notice it, just as a robot cannot really see that it really is not a human being, no matter what it says, thinks or feels.

Jorge Majfud

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What good is literature? (II)

Julio Cortázar

Image by Nney via Flickr

¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (II) (Spanish)

À quoi sert la littérature ? (French)

What good is literature? (II)

Every so often a politician, a bureaucrat or a smart investor decides to strangulate the humanities with a cut in education, some culture ministry or simply downloading the full force of the market over the busy factories of prefabricated sensitivities.

Much more sincere are the gravediggers who look at our eyes, and with bitterness or simple resentment, throw in our faces their convictions as if they were a single question: What good is literature?

Some wield this kind of philosophical question, not as an analytical instrument but as a mechanical shovel, to slowly widen a tomb full of living corpses.

The gravediggers are old acquaintances. They live or pretend to live, but they are always clinging to the throne of time. Up or down there they go repeating with voices of the dead utilitarian superstitions about needs and progress.

To respond about the uselessness of literature depends on what you comprehend to be useful and not on the literature itself. How useful is the epitaph, the tombstone carved, a reconciliation, sex with love, farewell, tears, laughter, coffee? How useful is football, television programs, photographs that are traded on social networks, racing horses, whiskey, diamonds, thirty pieces of Judas and the repentance?

There are very few who seriously wonder what good is football or the greed of Madoff. There are but a few people (or have not had enough time) that question or wonder, “What good is literature?” Soccer and football are at best, naïve. They have frequently been accomplices of puppeteers and gravediggers.

Literature, if it has not been an accomplice of puppeteers, has just been literature. Its critics do not refer to the respectable business of bestsellers or of prefabricated emotions. No one has ever asked so insistently, “what good is good business?” Critics of literature, deep down, are not concerned with this type of literature. They are concerned with something else. They worry about literature.

The best Olympic athletes have shown us how much the human body may withstand. Formula One racers as well, although borrowing some tricks. The same as the astronauts who put their first steps on the moon, the shovel that builds also destroys.

The same way, the great writers throughout history have shown how far and deep the human experience, (what really matters, what really exist) the vertigo of the highest and deepest ideas and emotions, can go.

For gravediggers only the shovel is useful. For the living dead too.

For others who have not forgotten their status as human beings who dare to go beyond the narrow confines of his own primitive individual experience, for condemned who roam the mass graves but have regained the passion and dignity of human beings, for them it is literature. ∎

Study Points to Mother of All Mother Tongues

Languages of Africa map

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The world’s 6,000 or so modern languages may have all descended from a single ancestral tongue spoken by early African humans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago, a new study suggests.

The finding, published Thursday in the journal Science, could help explain how the first spoken language emerged, spread and contributed to the evolutionary success of the human species.

Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and author of the study, found that the first migrating populations leaving Africa laid the groundwork for all the world’s cultures by taking their single language with them—the mother of all mother tongues.

«It was the catalyst that spurred the human expansion that we all are a product of,» Dr. Atkinson said.

About 50,000 years ago—the exact timeline is debated—there was a sudden and marked shift in how modern humans behaved. They began to create cave art and bone artifacts and developed far more sophisticated hunting tools. Many experts argue that this unusual spurt in creative activity was likely caused by a key innovation: complex language, which enabled abstract thought. The work done by Dr. Atkinson supports this notion.

His research is based on phonemes, distinct units of sound such as vowels, consonants and tones, and an idea borrowed from population genetics known as «the founder effect.» That principle holds that when a very small number of individuals break off from a larger population, there is a gradual loss of genetic variation and complexity in the breakaway group.

Dr. Atkinson figured that if a similar founder effect could be discerned in phonemes, it would support the idea that modern verbal communication originated on that continent and only then expanded elsewhere.

In an analysis of 504 world languages, Dr. Atkinson found that, on average, dialects with the most phonemes are spoken in Africa, while those with the fewest phonemes are spoken in South America and on tropical islands in the Pacific.

The study also found that the pattern of phoneme usage globally mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity, which also declined as modern humans set up colonies elsewhere. Today, areas such as sub-Saharan Africa that have hosted human life for millennia still use far more phonemes in their languages than more recently colonized regions do.

«It’s a wonderful contribution and another piece of the mosaic» supporting the out-of-Africa hypothesis, said Ekkehard Wolff, professor emeritus of African Languages and Linguistics at the University of Leipzig in Germany, who read the paper.

Dr. Atkinson’s findings are consistent with the prevailing view of the origin of modern humans, known as the «out of Africa» hypothesis. Bolstered by recent genetic evidence, it says that modern humans emerged in Africa alone, about 200,000 years ago. Then, about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, a small number of them moved out and colonized the rest of the world, becoming the ancestors of all non-African populations on the planet.

The origin of early languages is fuzzier. Truly ancient languages haven’t left empirical evidence that scientists can study. And many linguists believe it is hard to say anything definitive about languages prior to 8,000 years ago, as their relationships would have become jumbled over the millennia.


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What good is literature, anyway?

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American Author Ernest Hemingway aboard his Ya...

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¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (I) (Spanish)

À quoi sert la littérature ? (Spanish)

What good is literature, anyway?

I am sure that you have heard many times this loaded query: «Well, what good is literature, anyway?» almost always from a pragmatic businessman or, at worst, from a Goering of the day, one of those pseudo-demigods that are always hunched down in a corner of history, waiting for the worst moments of weakness in order to «save» the country and humankind by burning books and teaching men how to be «real» men. And, if one is a freethinking writer during such times, one gets a beating, because nothing is worse for a domineering man with an inferiority complex than being close to somebody who writes. Because if it is true that our financial times have turned most literature into a hateful contest with the leisure industry, the collective unconscious still retains the idea that a writer is an apprentice sorcerer going around touching sore spots, saying inconvenient truths, being a naughty child at naptime. And if his/her work has some value, in fact he/she is all that. Perhaps the deeper mission of literature during the last five centuries has been precisely those things. Not to mention the ancient Greeks, now unreachable for a contemporary human spirit that, as a running dog, has finally gotten exhausted and simply hangs by its neck behind its owner’s moving car.

However, literature is still there; being troublesome from the beginning, because to say its own truths it only needs a modest pen and a piece of paper. Its greatest value will continue to be the same: not to resign itself to the complacency of the people nor to the temptation of barbarism. Politics and television are for that.

Then, yes, we can say literature is good for many things. But, because we know that our inquisitors of the day are most interested in profits and benefits, we should remind them that a narrow spirit can hardly shelter a great intelligence. A great intelligence trapped within a narrow spirit sooner or later chokes. Or it becomes spiteful and vicious. But, of course, a great intelligence, spiteful and vicious, can hardly understand this. Much less, then, when it is not even a great intelligence.

© Jorge Majfud

Respect Without Rights: The Privatization of Morality

The Pope with American President Ronald Reagan...

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Respeto sin derechos: la privatización de la moral (Spanish)

Respect Without Rights: The Privatization of Morality

Jorge Majfud

Despite the violent reactions of the owners of the world, the humanist wave that radicalizes the recognition of fundamental equality among human beings will not stop.  But the price paid in the last seven centuries has been very high.  Like any change in values, even when pointing to the center of the humanist paradigm (in part accepted by conservative discourse, very much despite itself), it must necessarily be considered “immoral.”

Just one example.

The very definition of “marriage between two people of the same sex” hides a preconceived idea: if the body possesses a penis and testicles, it is a man; if it possesses a vagina and ovaries it is a woman.  Biological sex is identified with gender.  We know that gender is a cultural construction; there is nothing biological about the fact that little girls are dressed in pink and boys in sky blue or that teenaged girls would die to look and act like a barbie doll while their brother is out looking for a scar or a prostitute to confirm his manhood

Paradoxically, it is understood that in order to be a “man” or “woman” it is not enough to possess a virile member or a reproductive womb: it is necessary, first of all, “to behave like” such, according to the naturalized formulas.  At the same time, in order to confer the category of sin upon a sexuality different from our own (supposing that all of us heterosexuals practice sex in the same manner), it is alleged that that person has chosen to be that way.  To respond to this accusation, the partisans of gay rights allege that their sexual condition is not rooted in a choice but in an innate, genetic fact.  The most repeated argument in support of this idea is formulated as a rhetorical question: “Have heterosexuals chosen their heterosexuality?”  A new paradox is derived from this argument: in order to defend a right to freedom, freedom is annulled as a legitimating principle

Now, although we can accept two antagonistic categories, nature and culture, we must observe how both concepts are manipulated to the benefit of one sector or another.  For example, the ability to give birth (in Spanish “dar a luz,” to bring to light, one of the more beautiful metaphors) is proper to women, therefore we could define it as a “natural faculty.”  The problem arises when that faculty is interpreted by other members of society according to their own values, which is to say, according to their own interests.  Thus arise feminine roles that have never been dictated by nature but by social power

Recently, a legislator from my country repeated on the radio a well-known rationale. 1) He supported the right of lesbians and homosexuals to “be different.” 2) For this reason, he would not vote in favor of legislation that attempted to extend to them the same legal rights we heterosexuals enjoy because 3) he was in favor of the defense of family and values.  4) The defense of heterosexuality is the defense of nature, he concluded

We should observe that to allege a defense of values, without specifying to which values one refers, constitutes a new ideolexicon.  The implication is that it is possible not to possess or not to be in favor of “values.”  Nevertheless, nobody lacks a determinate system of values.  Even criminals and even more so organized crime are based on a determinate system of values.  Very traditional values, if we review the history of crime, whether private, religious or governmental.

We can say the same when the noun values is made more precise with the adjective family: “we defend family values.”  But, which family?  “The traditional family,” comes the response, supposing an absolute, ahistorical, natural category.  And to which tradition does one refer?  In the face of this kind of questioning, there is a quick retreat to safe ground: the Holy Scriptures.  I say “safe” for social reasons, not because of its theological implications, since from the latter point of view there is nothing less unanymous than interpretations of the sacred books.

If the defense is of “the values of the traditional family,” we might understand that the speaker is in favor of the oppression of women, of the denial of interracial marriage, interreligious marriage, etc.  But I do not believe that many people support this position, since this kind of “traditional values” has been defeated in the historical struggle in favor of a secular (not necessarily irreligious) humanism.  Because if many present day religions defend gender and racial equality (and although primitive Christianity also did so in a radical and revolutionary degree for its time), a millenarian history demonstrates the contrary.  We owe to progressive humanism and not to “traditional values” those principles of which even the most reactionary among us now boast.

When one assumes that the prescription of heterosexuality is a defense of nature in order to deny marriage rights to people “of the same sex” there is no explanation of why homosexuals (almost) always came from heterosexual families.  Even more curious: in the need to legitimate the denial of others’ rights, a Catholic priest praised the Uruguayan legislator for defending nature.  This demonstrates the immersion of the priest in the humanist paradigm.  It would have been more logical and traditional to take recourse to the will of God (assuming that anyone can arrogate to himself this right) or some Mosaic law, like those that Jesus used to abolish.  Since it is recognized that the State of an open society should be secular, one recurs to the paradigms of humanism.  But, how does one speak of natural when we are talking about the least natural animal of all the species?  What is natural about the celibate man, sexual abstention or the wearing of skirts in the style of the Middle Ages?

Yes, at least the Catholic Church has a long tradition of recognizing faults and errors.  Which is a virtue and the humanist recognition that ideas like the “Papal infallibility” decreed by the Vatican was an authoritarian fantasy.  The problem lies in the fact that those who hold traditional power recognize their errors a hundred years later, when it no longer matters to the victims.  As if errors were always in the past and never in the present.   As if repentance were part of the strategy of that power in the face of the rise of contrary values.

Since when can a right I possess be perceived as threatened because a peer demands it in the same measure?  Or is it that that peer is a peer but not as much of a human being as I because he arrived later in the world?  What right do some of us equals have to organize a State in order to exclude other equals at the same time that we brag about the diversity of our societies?  Why do we believe we are doing others a favor by tolerating them, instead of recognizing that they are the ones doing us a favor by not rebelling violently in order to finally recoup those rights that we deny them?

Because the right to be different does not consist of having different rights but, simply, the same.

Translated by Bruce Campbell