Reflection #2

Cat Country (猫城记) by Lao She (老舍)

A compelling tale about a Chinese astronaut who crash-lands on Mars and comes across a group of cat-men. He lives with them and observe their daily life, but is astonished by their hedonistic and self-centred lifestyle. He becomes certain that the Cat People are on a decline and true enough, they are wiped out completely when foreigners invade the land.

What brings about the sad state of Cat Country? Firstly, the narrator observes the populace’s addiction to ‘reverie leaves’, narcotic leaves that are a food staple. He notes that ordinary food was eschewed when the leaves were brought in some 500 years ago. Next, he is disgusted at the shallowness of the people he interacts with, from Scorpion’s overbearing desire to save his trees to the greed of the onlookers who stole stones and bricks from Madam Ambassador’s collapsed house. The narrator also despairs at the state of culture and education: children on their first day of school are given university diplomas and deemed as graduants, while national artefacts are sold to fuel the emperor’s purchase of reverie leaves. What he finds most disturbing is the lack of cooperation among people: they cannot seem to work together for their greater good, even at the point of extinction. The narrator saw the last few Cat People kill each other, and the enemy locked the last two inhabitants in a cage where they bit each other to death.

From the narrator’s interactions with Young Scorpion, he begins to understand certain characteristics abd share his pessimism of his own race. Young Scorpion feels that the people do not have a mind of their own and are clueless of where to start. He lists examples of people speaking foreign languages/learning foreign ideologies without understanding the meaning. As a result, the common folk remain as worse off due to the leaders being unable to put theory into practice. Young Scorpion also answers the narrator’s question of child graduates: the emperor deemed normal progression from primary to university education a waste of money and this was compounded with frictional unemployment for the uni graduates. It was therefore ‘ingenious’ to give diplomas to children on the first day of school. Young Scorpion sees himself as being above the common rabble, stifled by the ineptitude of those around him. This self-righteous attitude drives him to suicide as he cannot forsee a future for Cat Country. His grandfather, Old Scorpion, behaves in a defeatist manner: when he invites the politicians for an emergency meeting on how to deal with the invading army, prostitutes are also called in to pleasure the men instead. His forces also retreat away from the enemy as “there is peace and security.” Furthermore, he attempts to be the first to retreat so that they can become officials under enemy rule. This is true to his stand of rejecting any foreign influence, even in battle.

Cat Country is an unbelivably rotten nation and Lao She meant it as a satire of China in the 1930s, as seen in the corruption and its weaknesses. Even the reverie leaves are a nod to opium. The red cords around the soldiers are reminiscent of the red cloths worn by students in China. While China would probably not be destroyed so easily, it is obvious how the Chinese have become self-centred. This also underlines the importance of education and heritage in Singapore, along with deterrance in keeping it safe. Above all, one must have a heart to care for others. It is apt how the currency of Cat Country is called ‘National Souls’. When souls become a commodity, living no longer makes sense, leading to senseless acts.

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Book reflections

Being in army drives me to read so that my mind will not stagnate. I am compelled to share my two cents view on the books that I have read and hope that this may inspire you to pick up one and read too.

These few days I have been reading certain books based on the references in another book on world views. It has given me much insight on the world and my beliefs which I would have been unaware of initially.

1. The Plague by Albert Camus
An existentialist work, Camus describes the daily life of various people in Oran, Algeria when a plague struck in the 1940s. (This is fictional as the intensity of the plague is exaggerated.)

The story is told in the perspective of Bernard Rieux, a doctor in Oran. He faces many challenges, from dealing with the plague hands-on to the conflicting feelings he has. There are many instances of existential thoughts scattered around.
Firstly, he feels that instead of giving in to the plague, one should fight against it till his dying breath. Rieux describes it as such: since no one threw themselves on Providence entirely, he was obliged to fight against creation as he saw it. He feels that “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle against death, without raising our eyes to the heavens where He sits in silence.” This view demonstrates how Rieux believes God is remote and uncaring to the suffering of man, such that man has to do the fighting himself. Later on in the book, Rieux also describes the death of the magistrate’s young son, Jacques. Horrified by the process, he lashes out at the priest in a rare moment of anger, flatly stating that he cannot “love a scheme of things where children are put to torture.” Rieux cannot reconcile the idea of a loving God to the death throes of Jacques. As a result he does not put any faith in gods but rather on his own efforts to keep the plague under control.

Father Paneloux, the priest, faces a confidence crisis after Jacques’s death as well. His sermon later exhorted the congregation to put faith in God in seeing them through the plague. However, he himself was infected. Instead of calling a doctor, the priest believed that God could cure him. This implies that he faced a crisis of faith thus leading to his eventual death.

Then there are people like Cottard who profits from chaos by getting involved in the smuggling business. When we first meet him,he is depressed and almost committed suicide. Later, as the plague continues, he  becomes gregarious and friendly. Cottard takes a dim view of humanity: if everyone has a clear conscience, “everyone’s always cut off from everyone else.” This is partly due to his status as a felon. As the plague draws to a close, he becomes depressed due to the loss of his underground dealings and goes insane by shooting at people.

As I was reading this, I wondered whether Singapore can be prepared for such an outbreak, when SARS doesn’t come close to it. A few questions come to mind: is it possible to quarantine a neighborhood to the extent of Oran? What happens to religion if the heartfelt prayers & offerings go unanswered. Will we take the path of Father Paneloux, Cottard or Dr Rieux?

2. The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda

The first of four books about Castaneda’s interactions with don Juan, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer, depict his experiences with the hallucinogenic peyote, devil’s weed and a certain mushroom that cause him to witness visions and possess superpowers. Furthermore don Juan also gives Castaneda words of ‘wisdom’ while criticizing his ‘earthly’ views.

After experiencing visions, Castaneda would be at a loss to rationalize it and ask don Juan about it. Don Juan would invariably tell him not to bother making sense of his actions, but rather focus on the omens presented in the visions as they were crucial in his journey towards a “man of knowledge.” Don Juan also touches on the enemies of a man of knowledge, namely fear, clarity, power and old age.

What captivated me was the outlandish process of dealing with the plants eg. procuring them at certain times with a certain method and the effects of the concotions eg. flying, seeing entities and turning into a crow. It is difficult to tell whether Castaneda really saw these or that he had a very active imagination. Anyone with a sense of adventure would not hesitate to test the truth of his claims, even without a sorcerer to guide. I was quite interested at how Castaneda found his unique spot on the porch based on the colour differences he saw “from his corner of his eye”. He experienced an unpleasant feeling at the first area he saw which I thought highly intriguing. This was apparently the least risky way of seeing beyond reality.
Don Juan’s wisdom, though plausible, bear certain flaws. I felt that his quest to be a man of knowledge was no different from Adam’s temptation to eat the fruit of knowledge. To what end does he pursue his knowledge? Aside from the witchcraft, there is also don Juan’s assertion that one must strip his sense of identity (“to be invisible yet visible”) so that he can “stop the world” (see the world in a whole new light, free from the influence of what others tell us.) Here, identity refers to one’s kin, passions, longings and everything related to his previous life before embarking on apprenticeship. Is it possible to lose one’s identity to see another side of the world? In the third book, don Genaro, a friend of don Juan, reveals that by losing himself, he effectively remains a loner as he sees others as mere “phantoms” and hints at the heartache as a consequence. 

I still find the New Age thought interesting, but it is a slippery slope. The Plague showed how existentialist and theist thoughts prevail during crisis. I guess it was a good opportunity to expose myself to different world views, an it keeps my mind active as well.