All posts by jaezhu

Tradition and Modernity



November 27

Let us go back to the old ways, the traditional ways, a time when all things were in harmony and expectance. Tradition is thought of as an idyll, a resting place.

But how can one locate tradition? Is authentic tradition the times of a century prior, two centuries prior or the times of an even more distant past? Tradition sinking into the depths of the dark pools of time achieves the recognition of veracity. But despite its unchanging fixedness (reification) in the imagination of a people, tradition thought of in this way does not exist, and it is not but a dreamland of placid peace created from an overflowing feeling of nostalgia, and the desire to sleep tranquilly.

Tradition outside these floating cloudlands of sleep is in a state of movement, moving everforward in a state of becoming. Tradition flows freely, constantly created by the members of a community, who also flow freely in and out, adding, deleting and changing old habits. “Authentic” tradition is a label, a creation of the modern era to find fixation in the vertiginous postmodern era lacking a stable authority, creating this nostalgia for the unexperienced past.

So within tradition there is no respite, as restless transformation engulf the pleasant memories of the well gone past, forcing the drowsy bedridden into anxiety in confrontation with the unknown.

Then what does it mean to be modern? Kundera’s formulation in L’Immortalite concludes that to be modern is “to be allied with one’s own gravediggers.” To be modern is to live and create the future, like Miles Davis who destroyed and innovated past the foundations of jazz that he himself created.

Eternal youth is not found in the clean refreshing springs of a hidden fountain in distant lands. Eternal youth is found in a pit, attained only by actively digging deeper and deeper, until the digger is eventually consumed by a quaking mound of earth.








Nostalgia in terms of Being and Becoming


(Bad picture of the Coliseum in Rome, “the Eternal City”)

Note: This post is a response to my other post Goodbye Nostalgia

After one month of insouciant summer days in Montreal I came back to Toronto, speeding at 100km/h in the highway by bus to the city I always eventually return to where my feet meet cold hard concrete. Every time I am banished from lofty idylls I feel an incredible nostalgia for days of eternal youth, where the daily rhythms of life set in gently, hinting at the possibility of happiness.

Departure came (speeding at 100km/h in the highway by bus) and exiled from Paradise, I likened memory as being pieces of myself, torn and imprinted externally in cityspaces and friends (people who “demand a greater piece, torn from a deeper place, a slab of vital flesh”). Faced with the eventual loss of memory, I felt “full of holes [feeling] a nostalgia for wholeness.”

What I wanted was to remain eternally in the past, a past outside the tick tocking of time wherein I could exist with fixed, unchanging dimensions. What I wanted was the unchanging state of being, not the dynamic state of becoming.

Nietzsche speaks of this dichotomy in the Gay Science, 370:

“Every art, every philosophy may be viewed as a remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life; they always presuppose suffering and sufferers. But there are two kinds of sufferers: first, those who suffer from the over-fullness of life and then those who suffer from the impoverishment of life … the question whether the desire to fix, to immortalize, the desire for being prompted creation, or the desire for destruction, for change, for future, for becoming.”

While his insights may not have a direct implication to my situation, being a way to analyze romanticism in art, there are parallels that are fruitful and good to think with.

Being and Becoming. By desiring this idyllic past, while disregarding the future, all I did wish was an eternal fixation into these idylls, a product of my imaginations and reimaginations with perhaps no direct basis in reality. All I wanted was to keep dreaming these illusionary reveries repeating ceaselessly, put to a gentle sleep surrounded by white soft beddings and white cotton pillows. Possessed by an unending somnolence, as the boundaries between wake and sleep blur and reality is consumed by twilight, all that would remain is death* a permanent state of Being if there was one.

Life while I am alive is in movement towards Becoming, as the future opens up moment by moment in transformation and destruction before my eyes. While blissful deathly sleep of the past may tempt me in all its romantic sentimentality, standing before an endless blood red poppy field I cannot indulge in its deathly aromas.

As Nietzsche says:

“He that is richest in the fullness of life, the Dionysian god and man, cannot only afford the sight of the terrible and questionable but even the terrible deed and any luxury of destruction, decomposition, and negation. In his case, what is evil, absurd, and ugly seems, as it were, permissible, owing to an an excess of procreating, fertilizing energies that can still turn any desert into lush farmland. Conversely, those who suffer most and are poorest in life would need above all mildness, peacefulness, and goodness in thought as well as deed …”

Narcissus chose to die beautiful and young and in perfection, immortalized in beauty. I would like to explore the future beyond this first innocence with a resounding Yes to life.



*not in the same way I mentioned in the previous post

Pity for Man pt. II



Part II of this post.

Some months prior, I wrote a reflection comparing my previous experiences and hopes for (what I would call) an earthly communal paradise with Albert Camus’ The Fall, in which lawyer Jean Baptiste Clement confesses his selfish virtuousness in his unpaid work with orphans and widows – “the noble causes.” My encounters with the disabled and the poor in China left me not with a sense of deep sympathy, but a feeling of detachment, a complete 180 in comparison to my prior emotions of solidarity in my pre-China state of innocence, when I would watch the spectacle of the wretchedness of the Chinese poor behind electronic screens from the comfort of my airconditioned Canadian home. Justice spoke and I felt a vague wave of indignation, which I found to be empty once confronted in the flesh with dirty dismembered coal miners and rural sojourners who lacked refined and civilized urbanite mannerisms. My reflections led to a cynical conclusion as I realized that my solidarity and respect only extended to (wo)man in the abstract, not (wo)men in the concrete.

I thought of young university liberals full of moral righteousness and indignation as being unreflective and selfish unbeknownst to themselves, as they used the floating images of third world bodies as a way to clothe and brand themselves to gain status in a moral hierarchy and rise above so as to be able to look down on others from the elevated heights of ‘correct’ morality.

Jean Baptiste Clement confesses that he aimed for a moral highground that would let him become beyond reproach, setting him “above the judges whom I judged in turn, and above the defendant, whom I forced into gratitude.” While he may have provided his services gratuitously, with no strings apparently attached, even offering financial help to the family of the defendant in what appeared to be an action of pure kindness and benevolence, he did not leave them light and free but with the greater burden of existential debt.

Anthropologist David Graeber, writer of Debt: The First 5000 Years calls (in this interview:, 9:00 ~) debt a crucial aspect of human sociality. Debt cannot be reduced to control and slavery (a forcing into gratitude). Debt is the chain linking and creating a relationship between two social beings or groups, with mutual indebtedness being a sign of a social relationship. In fact, according to Graeber, the paying off of debt was an insult, a rejection of future social interactions.

In China in full contact with some of the impoverished Chinese, I felt repulsion. Forcing these people, who I could not begin to relate to, into gratitude (or debt) would have meant the formation of a relationship, one I was not adventurous enough to start. But my cynical conclusion does not necessarily extend to everyone else, who may be by constitution more willing to engage in a relationship with this ‘other’ a fruitful, longlasting dialogue between two equals both indebted to each other. For some, (wo)men in the concrete reaffirm their belief in (wo)man in the abstract.

Art and Democratic Production



S. Eliot writes:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead… what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new… the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”

The artist is in dialogue with his predecessors, in dialogue with the whole cultural tradition, and each new work is not an isolated phenomenon but a piece that is connected to the whole and has the ability to transform the whole tradition with its emergence. Thus the artist to T. S. Eliot is a figure charged with a great responsibility in every single one of his creations, a responsibility not to himself but to his predecessors stretching back millennia of other great creators. With the advent of technology there has been a democratization in artistic creation. Whoever has an internet connection can now claim to be an artist and artistic creation becomes about a short-sighted expression of the self. Everyone is now a creator, an artist, but how many know the great responsibility they are charged with, while they chase their 15 minutes of fame?

Democratization through technology has not only affected production, but consumption as well. While works of art were initially like private conversations happening between the educated, wealthy elite, greater advancements in technology have allowed the ‘rabble’ to join in and listen. The printing press brought literature to the masses, $15 will allow the bored consumer to spend an evening at the cinema, and music has experienced democratization in consumption as well, as Kundera relates with the invention of the radio in L’ignorance:

“Already in 1930, he [Schönburg] wrote : “Radio is an enemy, an enemy without pity that avances irresistibly and against whom all resistance is without hope,” it “force-feeds us music, without wondering if we have a desire to listen to it, if we have the chance to receive it,” so that music became a simple noise, a noise among noises.)”

Music, which has become noise, is now a hodgepodge “where everything gets mixed without one knowing who the composer is (music-turned-noise is anonymous), without one distinguishing the beginning or the end (music-turned-noise does not know form) : the dirty water of music where music dies.”

What is art now but mere distractions for facile consumption and immediate forgottenness? No longer is it an extended conversation among distinguished luminaries lighting up the present to bring it forward into the future, the work of men and women who have vanquished Time and conquered death with their creations, which are the greatest achievements of a culture or a people. Now it is merely a commodity with a short shelf life, a hit of non-thought and momentary bliss into a fifty shaded world rooted in the groundless present, an isolated ephemeral manifestation of mediocrity.

While consumers and creators of the democratic arts drink to their inability, bathed in the drunkenness of the forgotten present, in an inebriated fiesta of mass consumption and gaudy glitter, the great wonders of cultural achievement lie forgotten a short distance away, accessible to any who are willing to sober up and walk to the public library…* (to be continued)



*a manifestation of the same mechanisms of technology and democratic production!


Translations from French:

“Déjà en 1930, il [Schönburg] écrivait: « La radio est un ennemi, un ennemi impitoyable qui irrésistiblement avance et contre qui toute résistance est sans espoir » ; elle « nous gave de musique […] sans se demander si on a envie de l’écouter, si on a la possibilité de la percevoir », de sorte que la musique est devenue un simple bruit, un bruit parmi des bruits…“

“où tout s’entremêle sans qu’on sache qui est le compositeur (la musique devenue bruit est anonyme), sans qu’on distingue le début ou la fin (la musique devenue bruit ne connaît pas de forme) : l’eau sale de la musique où la musique se meurt.“


Reflections on Lawren Harris


Quite fortuitously had I been reading Slavoj Zizek’s Event in the TTC on the way to the exhibition “The Idea of North” for the works of Canadian G7 painter Lawren Harris as I read on page 22: “One possibility is that the immensity of the natural world, in its merciless indifference, has nothing to do with the concerns of human beings… the second half of the quote from Job, how the morning stars sing, reminds us that the appreciation of wonder and beauty is also possible. We may lose our ego in nature’s indifference, but we may also lose it in nature’s magnificence. Do we see the world as heartless or as sublime? [italics added]” Quite fortuitous indeed, as these were not Zizek’s words but the words of David Wolpe, who Zizek quoted in one of his stream-of-consciousness like ramblings that demonstrated the breadth and depth of his readings.

Lawren Harris (bear with my dearth of knowledge of his work and Canadian Art in general) experienced and imagined the ‘North’ to be a spiritual milieu in great contrast to the suffering of life in modern cityscapes, like Toronto where he lived. His paintings reflect the immensity of the North, as his tableaus reflect the intercrossings between the artist and the landscape, resulting in strong spiritual shapes of powerful cool colours in conversation with light and darkness. With the light and the darkness I felt both formulations of the natural world described in the first quotation, in the light that of an evocative intersubjective unity and in the darkness a cruel indifference. A painting like Lake Superior (c.1923) (pictured above) contains the contradiction of unity and indifference in a single frame, with the heavens opening up, peeking through the cracks of dark clouds to illuminate the boulders in the lakes in a transcendent oneness, while on the left side darkness reigns, dark shapes forgotten in the non-sight of the obscurity, empty and cold in its separation from the subject.

Both ways of viewing the natural world resonate with my experiences. Following one of Camus’ elaborations of the Absurd as “cette confrontation désespéré entre l’interrogation humaine et le silence du monde,” (this desperate confrontation between human questionings and the silence of the world), there is evidently an uneven separation between the human subject and the natural world. In contrast to this desire for clarity, a desire to move past causal explications towards comprehension, man is left without response. The natural world operates following its own whims forever heedless to our desires. Gazing up at a bed of stars on a clear moonless sky away from the city, face to face with countless glittering lights spread across a pitch black canvass, one can feel the smallness of personal existence under the unresponsive immensity of the heavens. In the grand scheme of things, if we took into account the supposedly billion galaxies in the universe each with (on average) a billion stars each, and in between, nothing but darkness, an unimaginably vast blank empty space, what stops us from concluding that man is only a cosmic accident, an unlikely result of probability, existing without a greater meaning or purpose? Past all my anthromorphic attributions (as I have described the natural world as “operating” following its own whims, and being “heedless” to our desires), the natural world and the universe just is, a constant series of effects and events, in contingent movement.

At the same time, within the same unresponsive natural world one can find acceptance and past separation, unity. A couple of days into a week-long Zen Temple retreat I undertook in the mountains of Korea after graduating high school, I remember suddenly experiencing a shift in the way I experienced the world. Within the horizontal flow of time I felt a vertical, qualitative dimension. In the next few days I lived in brief encounters with the “no-mind” state, the temple’s Head Masters told me about, a state that opens up after one stops thinking and starts being. The “no-mind” state is a shared state with the universe, and in this state I felt unity and harmony and beauty, a lived sense of the sublime.

With these oppositions in mind I enjoyed the rest of Harris’ tableaus of the North, these mysterious cold spaces of emptiness and profundity.

Honesty of the Chinese People



In China I loved the dingy family owned diners with forgettable names in unremarkable street corners stuck between other unremarkable stores. In entering the store there would be no special recognition from the proprietress, only a “what do you want” barked at your way while she looked elsewhere and attended to one of the many small things that needed to be done. Sometimes you would be able to see the chef in his tiny, sweaty kitchen, cigarette in mouth, wok in hand, cooking in well-practised movements. After eating a bowl of noodles and exiting onto the streets, waiting outside would be the bike taxis where drivers leaning on their vehicles would call out to persuade you to hire them for a ride.

While these behaviours were often described as being uncouth by many foreigners I met, I felt that they were incredibly refreshing, like drinking from a clear mountain spring after being used to murky waters. Entering these diners, interacting with the “uncivilized” Chinese was not entering a stage filled with actors, where I played the role of the “customer,” a figure outwardly cherished while inwardly given no special thought. This game between the “customer” and the “serviceperson” was ultimately a meaningless ritual performed in order to create the semblance of sociality in the process of equivalent exchange between two robots. For the Chinese ouvrier, money and the transactional nature of the relationship did not tarnish the purity of authentic expressions, and both parties resisted self-commodification and self-objectification, remaining connected with their inner being.

Occupying the same streets as the bike taxi driver a Mercedes would vroom and rush past at speeds faster than the bike taxi driver could ever aspire to. Zooming in a fresh red blur past the dusty greyness and general gloom of Beijing’s streets, the motorized carriage of the rich would rush into a gated apartment community, an inaccessible palace with a perfumed and meticulously furnished interior incongruent with the constant stench of corruption emitted by its owner.

Compared to the Stoic Chinese worker, the rich were the vulgar, the many-faced and the shallow who changed and blew away with the faintest breeze. They lacked the deep-rooted wisdom of the Chinese worker whose life expressed an essential and unending truth, whose each and every small action contained a meaning that drew from the bottomless well of authentic self. Meanwhile the desire frenzied, purposeless and paper-thin rich could only express movements that amounted to performances in a vapid puppet theatre. Lacking an essential core and left with a gaping dark void, all the rich could do was decorate themselves with a gaudy, sparkling exterior, which was suffocating and distasteful in its overload of culture.

Returning from China I was deeply influenced by the insouciant anti-commodification of the Chinese ouvrier, whose resistance against the gradual encroachment of capitalist logics manifested as an expression of authenticity, arising out of a deeper inner self unaffected by the exigencies of the commodified world. In Canada I found myself dumped in a society already in a state of advanced commodification, clean and modern but decadent, in contrast to the purity and honesty of the Chinese. I felt myself a stranger in my Canadian home, unable to play according to the script and superficial friendliness that dominated North American commercial behaviour. Why pretend to care about the present well-being of the Starbucks employee when all you want is a cup of coffee? These interactions seemed to be dishonest; a pretty, well-polished veneer that hid a commodified reality and unequal power relations under the false guise of care and friendliness. Commodification entailed a selling out of the authentic self, the constant transformation of external behaviours and skin deep values for the pursuit of external material decorations while the inside rotted away, while the Chinese communicated an authenticity that erupted upto the surface from the profundities of an inner truth…



Note: I am providing overly thin portrayals of both groups for a reason, to be continued.

Short Architectural Comparison of Toronto and Montreal

Toronto is always under construction. The cityspace is in vertical displacement, the tops of skyscrapers reaching higher and higher. Condominiums are always being planned, built and finished in the city, a race to the limitless heavens. With every rise there is a fall. New condominiums dominate an unoccupied space in the open skies for a short time before falling to disgrace, at the knees of a new condominium building that has flown further up into the fresh airs of new skies.

From this new level of height, the horizon stretches out to the point of infinity, and one can gaze all around unobstructed with the eyes of a conqueror. From the old level of height of the defeated, the infinity of the horizons are blocked forever, a constant reminder of impotence. Buildings to not age gracefully in Toronto, age being a reminder of failure. This absurd rise continues ad infinitum, a competition mediated by a morality of quantity.

In Montreal, no structures can rise above Mont-Royal, above the heights of this natural creation that remains a boundary to limitless ambitions. From the tops of Mont-Royal, all have access to the infinity of the horizon, past the skyscrapers of the city, but not with the eyes of a conqueror, not with the lonely joy of one who has vanquished. Instead, one stands as an equal member of the crowd, a crowd mediocre but in communion.

Moving from Toronto to Montreal means a translation into different planes of thought; from verticality to horizontality; from the solitary joy of power to a communitarian acceptance of mediocracy, from a collection of human objects to a collection of human subjects, from a quantitative system of morality to a qualitative system.


Toronto est toujour en construction. Chaque année emporte des condomiums de plus en plus nombreux qui sont de plus en plus hauts, comme s’ils sont tout en concurrence, tout en train d’achever au ciel. Les nouveaux condominiums vieillissent fort vite et deviennent obsolets en raison de leur impotence contre ceux qui sont plus hauts. On ne peut pas voir l’horizon, qui s’étend à l’infini, comme si on regard autour du monde des yeux de conquérant, des fenêtres d’un condominium faible.

À Montréal, Mont-Royal met une limite aux bâtiments et les gratte-ciel, ce qui ne peuvent pas dépasser la hauteur de la montagne. De Mont-Royal, chacun peut voir l’horizon ensemble, mais pas des yeux de conquérant.

Je préfère mieux l’horizontalité en lieu de la verticalité, (d’où on peut sentir l’air frais loin de la foule, comme a dit Nietzsche) mais je peux imaginer la joie qu’on ressent à voir le monde d’une hauteur inaccessible de la foule, le sentiment du potence, une potence si vif qui amène l’homme loin de la lassitude.


Goodbye Nostalgia

Existential accounting: A relationship formed equals a relationship lost. Just as a debit equals a credit, a gain equals a loss.


I must admit that I am a nostalgic despite my young age. I stay turned towards the ever fading past, a past that I search for in the present and in the future forever approaching.

In all lassitude and languor I go about daily life, the future an unwelcome presence, wishing to slow down the passing of time. Time tick tocks quiet to my pleas.

I have lived many lives and died many deaths, with the curse (or blessing?) of remembrance. Approaching each new life abroad in ecstasy, only to be drained to the depths at the eventual and eternal depart.

From these lives I have learned that memory does not only reside within, an organized bookshelf with past events readily available. Memory leaves its impressions externally, in the uncared-for roads, the decaying structures, the small insignificant stores and above all in human relationships formed by fortune. Each sensation leaves behind a fragment of the self, a fragment that links me to that which I came in contact with. Human relationships demand a greater piece, torn from a deeper place, a slab of vital flesh. Full of holes I feel a nostalgia for wholeness.

Then comes the great separation, a sudden and violent slash as all bonds are irreversibly cut. The heart remains while the body parts at great speeds, going from 100km/h by bus up to 1000km/h by airplane.

With this separation only faint impressions remain, soft suggestions that soon fade like footprints in the snow during a storm, leaving a general white blank. What happens then to the pieces of myself that I have so gratuitously given out?

So I think of the past in the present, in the future, a past that slips through my fingers like fine grains of sand. With time only a few grains will remain I suppose. With the slipping of the last grains forgetfulness is complete.

But all the grains of sand will slip through eventually, a fall as I fall with my last breath into the final death. Until then, the future always awaits, always advancing in confrontation. I do not want to rush into this future, running blindly towards forgetfulness, but I must yet challenge it bravely and with un amour absurde. The future cannot be a bleak, dark, hopeless space while so much of it remains. But as I advance I will still grip tightly onto the grains of sand remaining in my hands.

Adieu Montreal

(Wrote June 13)

Il y aura bientôt, une mort. Une autre mort de moi- même. Dans une semaine, je vais partir de Montréal, et mon séjour ici finira. On peut dire que ce n’est pas grand-chose, puisque ne suis Torontois, et le voyage de Toronto à Montréal a besoin de peu de temps pour s’y rendre. Cependant il s’agit d’une mort quand même, un adieu éternel à mes expériences, à mes amis, et à toutes les petites et grandes chose auxquelles je m’habituais à Montreal à 24 ans.

La mémoire est quelque chose non-fiable, capricieuse et inconstante. Elle se souvient seulement de ce qui lui plaite, soit c’est des souvenirs heureux soit c’est des souvenirs pénibles. Pourtant même les souvenirs que la mémoire nous raconte ne sont pas fiables. À travers du brouillard d’oubli, ce n’est pas la vérité qui nous affronte, mais un passé difforme qui est toujours en muance. C’est un passé séduisant et infidèle, mais le brouillard s’épaissit et rend le passé introuvable, jusqu’à la disparition complète.

Le présent, si plein, si beau, se glisse doucement en s’éloignant, en se dissipant en morceaux insaisissables, comme le sable fin qui glisse tranquillement des mains.

(Wrote in June 17)

One by one we leave, we vanish, until I remain in a bustling city left only with the reverberations of the past, full of spectres who float around visible only to me. The world outside races on but I am left in the world of my memories, a world disintegrating.

Un adieu, un au revoir. It is a death that awaits the end of these adieus. I wait timidly, uncertain of what to express in the face of an approaching inevitability. What kind of adieu can pay homage to this death?

Every rencontre is a piece of myself left behind. And now the pieces are spread far and wide, a puzzle impossible to fit together and remake whole. I feel within a longing for fullness, a nostalgic cry that goes echoing on unanswered.


Au revoir