Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Stendhal Syndrome

I went to the Art Institute of Chicago this Sunday and spent around six hours looking at all the paintings and sculptures. And no I didn't suffer from Stendhal Syndrome at all. There was just muscular fatigue. I am reasonably familiar with the impressionist, post-impressionist and surrealist paintings but overall the paintings failed to invoke a sense of awe in me as it would have done to Stendhal a century earlier. But then, he went to Florence and not to Chicago.

At the museum, all the usual suspects were there--Renoir, Monet, Manet, Pisarro--among the impressionist. There were some paintings that I had seen pictures of and which I saw for the first time, first hand. Water-lilies by Monet and two sisters in the park by Renoir were two such paintings. I was a little disappointed to see the total absence of any Renoir nudes! What I found really interesting was the paintings by Paul Gauguin, specially the later ones when he left France and the bourgeois society and went to Tahiti in search of inspiration. He managed to find and paint lots of naked, tropical nymphets there. The surrealist collection was good too but as usual most of it went way above my head. There were some sensationalist pieces from the classical period which intrigued me. The Rape of Lucretia was good and so were the paintings which depicted the love story of Armida and Rinaldo . There is even a famous opera based on their story. Now, I need to find out what are the different opera currently being performed here. May be I can find Rinaldo and Armida somewhere.

The Cradle Rocks above an Abyss

The mind-blowing opening paragraph of Nabokov's Speak, Memory :

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heart-beats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first-time at home-made movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby-carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

A Note on the Title of the Blog

I have changed the title of the blog. It is now less cliched and more literary!

For those who don't know what Zembla is, look up here

Friday, May 27, 2005

Nabokov and American Beauty

I came across this very interesting discovery on the internet. Lester Burnham, the name of the Kevin Spacey character in the film American Beauty is actually, in a delightful reference which is in fact deliberate, an anagram of "Humbert learns". And indeed, judging by the film, Humbert has learned the Nabokov lesson pretty well! Furthermore, the name of the nymphet in the film (although, technically she is much too old), Angela Hayes, is homophonous with Dolores Haze, Lolita's real name or as Nabokov put it, the name "on the dotted line". Screenwriter Alan Ball confessed to this; adding that he was inspired by some real life event very similar to the one described in the novel, which actually happened somewhere in America.

Now that I think about the film once again, many other details emerge. The theme of the film, compressed in its tagline--"look closer" is indeed very Nabokovian. Look closer and you will find patterns everywhere and this is what discovering "beauty" is. This is the only secular means we have to connect with the transcendental world beyond our banal existence. What is needed is the sharpness of perception and honesty of thought. And the scene where Ricky is showing his girlfriend his favourite cinematic moment--wind playing with a plastic bag, and telling her to look for "beauty", as if identifying some benevolent force behind the randomness of everyday existence, is almost direct out John Shade's poem in Pale Fire.

Nabokov indeed rules. And after finishing Speak, Memory my Nabokovophilia index these days is reaching previously unscaled heights.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Three Stories by Kira Muratova

Kira Muratova, after Catherine Breillat , is the second woman who has completely shattered the naive image that I had of women filmmakers and artists. I always believed in the stereotype that women were sensitive creatures, more pre-occupied with the affaires de coeur and other feminine, soft if you will, issues of marriage, relationships and parties. Not to say that these subjects can not be subjects for artistic exploration. From Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, many women writers have turned these subjects into lasting works of art. Pride and Prejudice is about finding the right man, while Mrs. Dalloway is, more or less, about a shallow party and buying flowers, at least on the surface.

Anyway, whatever that is, I never imagined women to be capable of inflicting such nihilistic assaults on such feminine institutions like romance and family like Breillat does in her quasi-feminist, anti-romantic Romance and as Muratova does in her Three Stories. In fact Muratova goes even a few steps further in the film. She shows cold blooded murders in such clinical detail and with such black humour that it would give even Tarantino and his ilk an object lesson or two. The film, as the title suggests, contains three otherwise unrelated stories, linked only by the fact that they all feature a cold-blooded murder. In the first story, a man visits a boiler-room asking his friend, who is a poet of radical inclinations, to help him incinerate the body of his wife he just killed by slitting her throat. The beautiful, nude body along with the grisly slit throat is shown in full focus and the camera never flinches away even as the characters debate in the background, creating a sense of uneasiness and revolt even as the voyeur in the viewer wants to take a closer look at the nude body. The second story is about a nurse named Ophelia, who works as a nurse in the maternity ward and who says how Ophelia is her favourite literary character because she likes the way she died by drowning "innocently". Our Ophelia is obviously not that innocent. Apparently, more that nursing the patients, she is interested in murdering the women who abandon their babies after giving birth to them. In the course of film she also finds out her own mother, who had abandoned her and promptly dispatches her by, what else, drowning her. And as if all this mayhem was not enough, the final story is about a 7-8 year old, cute looking girl poisoning her grandfather in cold blood. She even tells the poor man how she and her mother will move into his apartment after he dies. In one scene the old man, in bouts of existentialist self-pity even tells his friend on phone, that he sympathises with people who want to see him dead completely unaware of what is going to come.

The film of course is quite unjust and excessive. However, I think the blunt cynicism is used more as a means to provoke the viewer and jolt him into consciousness than to honestly capture and represent the reality. And perhaps to show that women are not bad even when it comes to nihilistic violence! Takashi Miike, Kim Ki-Duk and Quentin Tarantino now have a female member in their club. And I think they should welcome her with all enthusiasm and respect.

A Poem on Proust's Novel

Like life the novel's just too long to grasp:
Perhaps an index will show what they mean.
Over a hundred entries deal with LOVE
-Alas! - almost two hundred ALBERTINE.

The index drives us back into the text,
The text to life; until we see again
How they both hover on the edge of what
The entries of an index would explain.

-- Roy Fuller, from Counterparts (1954)

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Asthenic Syndrome

This was another Russian movie that I saw at the film center. The director of the film is Kira Muratova, a woman filmmaker, whose name I had never heard of before. I just read a brief description of the movie in the booklet and found it interesting and so went ahead. Perhaps it was because I was totally unprepared for what was to come, I was almost swept away by the tidal waves of the brilliantly anarchic and, what do I say, nihilistic... absurdist... surrealistic... apocalyptic or just plain weird juxtaposition of it's images. The film hardly made any sense to me initially and it went weirder still as it progressed. However, there was something in the film that told me that it was a serious and indeed a great work of art and I mentally thanked the spirit of Gene Siskel and all the folks at the film center who had organized the retrospective. I could never have seen the film otherwise.

The film, which is around two and a half hours in length, is in two parts although the second part which is in colour is about thrice as long as the first one which is shot in Black and White. The film starts with a funeral scene of a middle-aged man who looks mysteriously like Stalin or at least he has a Stalinesque moustache. The wife of the departed man, who as we learn later is our protagonist, is shown to be apparently disconsolate about the whole thing. The whole wailing scene however, and it would apply to the whole film, has some unexplainable surrealist and absurdist quality which was quite baffling to me but after the film ended it fit in well with the entire structure and the tone of the film. The wailing scene in the meanwhile is cut and juxtaposed with other apparently unrelated scenes -- a young boy blowing soap bubbles, a mutilated doll, two men playing some nasty games with a hapless cat and most hilariously of all, three old, ridiculous, funny looking women chanting in unison as if some rote lesson -- "I believed when I was a girl that if everyone read Tolstoy, everyone would be kind and intelligent". I think the whole idea of the exercise must be what critics would call "taking stab at the idea of reaching the certainty of truth and meaning by juxtaposing images and symbols" and that might indeed be the case. Anyway, the old woman soon leaves the funeral and starts insulting her friends who try to show some sympathy to her. She picks up a fight with a stranger by asking him, out of the blue, "you wanna sleep with me? you beast". The stranger throws her in the dump and walks away leaving her hysterical. On her way home she picks up a drunk stranger and takes him to her home and asks him to undress but as he starts kissing her she again gets hysterical and orders him out. And yes I left the scene where she idly watches as she throws glasses from the table on to the ground one after the other. Now I am thinking how impossible an exercise it is to summarise this kind of movie. Anyway, after the first forty five or so minutes, the film abruptly changes gears and colours burst in and we realize that whatever we were watching earlier was actually a movie and not only that; as the presenter announces, the actress who played the part of the old woman is now present in person to answer all the questions. The audience however is least interested. One man complains to his wife that how boring and sad the film was and how when he comes to see a film he expects to be entertained. Some other guys get into a fight. A young boy clamours for an ice-cream and most ridiculously of all, a band of soldiers get up to leave after their leader commands them to do so in a military fashion. This last scene reminded me of a very similar scene in Bunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. There it was the dinner party. The only man left in the audience is actually a guy who has dozed off into deep sleep, who as we learn later, gets a sleep attack anytime something important comes up. Now this guy becomes out protagonist and we follow him through similar absurdist and surrealist misadventures. It is fruitless to summarize the whole film.

The artistic form that the film most closely resembles is that of absurdist comedy of Beckett. It is as if Beckett had decided to forsake minimalism and enlarge his canvas with Shakespearean breadth while writing Waiting for Godot. However, there is one problem with Beckett comparison. The issues that the film raises are not metaphysical or existential. The film works in a post-Nietzscheian, post-existentialist world. It is as if Muratova were saying, yeah, we all now know God is dead, life is meaningless, order and purpose are comforting fictions, let's now move ahead. The issues that film raises are not metaphysical, they are political. What to do with the cacophony and the anarchy of voices that the flowering of democracy has apparently engendered? What does democracy mean in an age when people have become so indifferent and passive to their everyday reality and their very existence? And what indeed does democracy mean for people who suffer from "the asthenic syndrome", pointing perhaps to the weakening character and moral strength of the masses or perhaps just plain asthenia, that has crept deep into our soul, battle as we do, the banalities of everyday life? This reading fits in well once we learn that the film was made during the Glasnost period in Russia and that it was found so offensive that it was banned by even the liberal state. It seemed to me that, the symbolic death of Stalin in the beginning of the film was supposed to mean the death of order and harbinger of anarchy. But I am not sure if that was what Muratova actually wanted to say.

Fassbinder's Veronica Voss

I saw a few interesting movies this weekend. The first one was Veronica Voss, the penultimate film by the German filmmaker Fassbinder, shown as a part of the ongoing retrospective of his films at the Siskel film center. The film is about an aging, once popular and now out of work film actress, who is addicted to drugs and alcohol to the point of self-destruction, and who falls into the clutches of a sadistic and villainous woman neurologist. A sports reporter falls for her mysterious charms and tries to save her but, as it always happens in Fassbinder-land, the story ends in inevitable, fatalistic tragedy.

What is so remarkable about this film, and which may apply to almost all of his other films, is how diametrically opposite the effects of this film are to the Hollywood melodramas that it seems to resemble and is apparently influenced by. Unlike traditional melodramas, this film doesn't engage our nicer emotions (of love, human bonding, selflessness) but actually turns them off. And in so doing it doesn't offer any easy outlets and cathartic moments and so the viewer is saved (is that the right word?) from the lazy, feel good sentimentalities of normal weepie films. It's almost as if Fassbinder felt that any traditional emotional response to the subject and themes of the film would soften the true-horrors of the everyday brutality that these characters have to go through and also muddy the waters and withhold the real truth. The more intellectual the viewer response is, the purer it is. I think this works very well with intellectual filmmakers who are interested in big themes and ideas (Bunuel and Bergman come to mind) but in case of Fassbinder, this becomes a little difficult specially in the beginning. Because Fassbinder is not much interested in big ideas and themes. Although his films are very political in nature, his subjects are actually emotions and feelings of human beings and how we all use and abuse those feelings and emotions.

Fassbinder also seems to believe that Veronika's tragedy was, as I pointed out earlier, inevitable; that she was doomed to a quest for eternal youth, for praise and adulation and a never-ending party (aren't we all are?). Drugs were just the way she continued the quest long after it had become a self-deception. Fassbinder's Veronica Voss is a bleak and sometimes savage addition to his oeuvre of similarly remarkable films but did he realize that he himself was one of the characters of his stories (he died of a similar self-destructive addiction)? This movie makes you wonder.

Monday, May 23, 2005

New Books

I bought a few books this weekend. I was browsing the book store Borders at the Michigan Ave and was reading bits and pieces from some books that I wanted but couldn't buy, that I came across the bargain section. I got hold of Salman Rushdie's collection of essays Imaginary Homelands which contains some of his writings, including the famous ones like In Good Faith, Is Nothing Sacred? which he wrote after the fatwa episode, some book reviews of contemporary writers like Vargas Llosa (an essay on his masterpiece and one of my all time favourites The War of the End of the World), Marquez, Calvino and Ishiguro. The book also has an interesting conversation piece that Rushdie had with the late critic and scholar Edward Said.

I was getting tempted to buy Rushdie's The Satanic Verses too. Not that I am a great fan of Rushdie's fiction, but the idea of possessing something that was illegal by taking it back with me to India was very thrilling. I managed to steer aside these non-literary considerations aside and decided not to spend $16 on the book (it was not in the bargain section). Somehow I have never been won over by Rushdie's fiction. His linguistic inventions and verbal pyrotechnics always leave me cold, not to say anything about the countlessly meaningless references to pop-culture and historical trivia that I always find very distracting and incoherent. I understand that this is deliberately done by the author. It is supposed to indicate the deracinating and alienating effects of modern or rather post-modern culture and the elusiveness of a real, authentic self which is getting more and more artificially fabricated by the mass media and pop-culture. But somehow I don't find all these themes interesting enough. When it comes to non-fiction however, Rushdie's essays are a model of classical writing--full of restraint, elegance and coherence. I will write in detail about some of his essays later, specially the fatwa essays.

There were two other books, one on Hitler and Genocide and other an anthology of scientific and philosophical writings on the mystery and working of Cosmos. I wasn't specifically interested in the subjects but, in 4$ anything serious and heavy is okay!

And then there was Love, which contains philosophical and psychological insights into the titular disease (that's what the author calls it) by Stendhal. It looks very interesting and I will write about it a little later. I hope I will get enough fodder from the book and I will be able to complete the love story that I always wanted to write but could never finish!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Francoise on Love

Francoise, one of the many eccentric characters in Proust's Novel, who works as a cook in the home of the narrator says this about the follies of romantic love:

Dear, dear, it's just as they used to say
in my poor mother's day:
'Frogs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails,
And dirty sluts in plenty,
Smell sweeter than roses in young men's noses
When the heart is one-and-twenty'.

The new penguin translation has:

Oh dear! It's just as they used to say in my poor mother's patois:'Fall in love with a dog's bum. And thou'll think it pretty as a plum'.

Whatever be the translation, the truth behind this piece of peasant wisdom cannot be denied! In fact Proust explores the same themes - subjectivity, self-deception and false idealization involved in romantic love - brilliantly, although in a much more refined and artistically astute way, in the first part of his novel, Swann's Way, in the chapter called Swann in Love. I will write about the misfortunes of Swann as he falls in love in some other post at some other time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven

The Gene Siskel Film Center, here in Chicago, is holding a retrospective of films by German filmmaker Fassbinder. Yesterday I managed to catch the screening of one of his best known and perhaps most overtly political film Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven. I have been a long admirer of Fassbinder ever since I chanced upon his films without knowing who he was a couple of years back at a similar retrospective at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Bangalore. The first thing that struck me after watching his films was the keen eye and deep sensitivity that he had for all kinds of human selfishness, hypocrisy, manipulation and emotional brutality and the way he subjected all modern human institutions like love, family, marriage, society, politics etc. to question. What was also remarkable in his films was his honest true-to-life portrayals of victims and victimizers and perhaps his stark and despairing claim that the two needn't be different persons.

One of the persistent themes that interested Fassbinder, and which is present in Mother Kusters too, was that the fear of being left alone is the most important driver of our emotional life. It is this fear that forces us to depend on other people and which in turn, at least in the Fassbinder-land, invariably leads to oppression and exploitation of one human being by the other. He also explains and critiques the institutions of romantic love, marriage, family, society and politics in this framework. Some of his best films explore this idea very eloquently. In The Merchant of Four Seasons, an insecure, cuckolded fruit peddler who is forsaken by his family and his girl friend (apparently because he became a fruit peddler shaming their sense of bourgeois propriety) slowly discovers his own uselessness and drinks himself to death. In his other masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, the titular character, an alcoholic lesbian, isolates herself in her room and lives on the floor with a bottle of alcohol after being rejected by her lover. In Ali -- Fear Eats the Soul a Moroccan immigrant, desperately lonely, marries a cleaning woman twenty-five years older than he is, and then collapses of an ulcer after being subjected to ridicule by the bourgeois society. As it appears, these films are not the kind of films you can take your girl friend to and have a nice time, rather these films are like cold slaps on the face and waking call to the senses and intellect which make yourself alive to the everyday brutality we all either face or subject others to.

Coming to Mother Kusters, like all films which are genuinely complex, the plot is very simple. Hermann Kusters, a factory worker, murders the son of his supervisor before taking his own life. As we learn later, he was disturbed by the news of the mass lay-offs that the company was going to make. After this event the media blitz descends on the poor mother Kusters like vultures to feed on her feelings and emotions. After a reporter, who manages to get close to the mother by faking real sympathy, publishes a sensationalist article branding the dead man as "the factory murderer", the name of Kusters is ruined is for ever. The daughter, who is a singer in a seedy club, decides to use the publicity to give life to her moribund career and she moves in with the reporter who originally wrote the article. The son is shown to be too passive and this event sours the already stormy relationship old mother had with her pesky and irritable daughter-in-law. Feeling desolate and lonely she meets an armchair communist couple, who decide to use her for their own narrow political goals by enlisting her in their communist party and when she gets disillusioned with the party politics and joins hands with a bunch of dilettante and immature anarchists, they think of taking extreme action.

I think what I liked most about the film and what makes it different form other Fassbinder films is the overtness and directness with which it goes along in its aim of doing social criticism of issues like urban alienation, sensationalist journalism, exploitation and futility of politics without forsaking honest portrayals of psychologically complex characters and relationships and so without any hint of didacticism. Also, Fassbinder dispenses with his usual cold cynicism in the end by making mother Kusters accept the dinner invitation of an equally lonely widower watchman after the anarchists leave her alone in the hunger strike, that originally they had inveigled her to participate in. In the process of all the trials and tribulations, Fassbinder seems to suggest, Mother Kusters has achieved personal and political enlightenment and matured her class instincts and may be perhaps even hinting at a possibility of a genuine solidarity of victims and exploited in future. Actually originally the film was supposed to end in a different way (which was shown in the screening too). The anarchists, in the original screenplay, immature and stupid as they are, take hostage of the editor and ask him for retracting the article about the dead Kusters and freeing all political prisoners in Germany. The film ends with a freeze frame of Mother Kusters face with subtitles informing us that Police reached the venue in time and everybody was killed including Mother Kusters (that's the clue to the title). But I think Fassbinder very wisely decided to change the ending. This new ending is more honest in emotional terms and gave the whole film a human complexity that would have not been possible with the brutally ironic "intellectual" ending that Fassbinder had planned for earlier.

Overall, I found Mother Kusters to be an extremely stimulating film, intellectually and emotionally, and rich in thematic and aesthetic complexity. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Was Proust Inspired by Madeleines?

Madeleine is perhaps the most famous cookie in the history of literature. It's the taste of madeleine dipped in tea, on a Sunday morning, that sets Proust's vast novel of remembering the past in motion. But it seems now that perhaps Proust was not so honest with his description of the cookie. An article in Slate lends weight to the blasphemous thought (at least to the Proustians) that Proust's madeleines may never have existed at all and it seems that he made it all up and served it in prose so beautiful and authentic that no-one ever doubted it. This is from the sidebar of the article:

Joshua Landy, who may be the field's leading madeleine debunker, subjects the Cookie Question to an unflinching investigation in his recent book, Philosophy as Fiction: Self Deception and Knowledge in Proust. He reports that, in all of Proust's 20 volumes of correspondence, there is no mention of an "enchanted encounter with baked goods." Not only was there no madeleine, there probably was no piece of toast either. Some scholars have assumed that the toast-dipping scene in an early version of Remembrance called Against Sainte-Beuve is based on an actual experience. But Against Sainte-Beuve, Landy sensibly argues, isn't evidence of anything—it's fiction. For all we know, he quips, Proust had an epiphany with a Danish.

Proust biographer William Carter concurs that there's no evidence Proust's work was inspired by any baked good. But he points to a December 1898 letter as the earliest dated instance in which Proust describes an involuntary memory experience. In it, the scent of tea and mimosa evokes Christmases past. This may have been the true genesis of the madeleine scene.

For those unfortunate souls who have no idea what the fuss is all about, here is a link to the madeleine scene from the novel.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Speak, Memory

"Speak, Memory", Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography, is the first book that I bought here in US and although it made my wallet significantly lighter (it's beautifully bound in hardcover), I think it is money well spent because this is literary autobiography like no other and I have so far read only half of it!

Speak, Memory is primarily concerned with Nabokov's life prior to his emigration to America in 1940. Unlike regular autobiographies it is not a traditional chronological sequence of dates and facts, but, rather, Nabokov's memory of certain events thematically linked to the creation of himself as an artist and as the person that he himself is, at present moment of time when he is writing the book. Basically, I think he must have asked himself the question - "Where did I come from and how did I become who I am?" as perhaps all of us have asked ourselves at some point in time and then set out to answer the question using the two rare tools he had at his disposal - memory and imagination. As he says somewhere in the book when he manages to link some event in the childhood to something that happened to him in later years - "The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography." This idea of defining the Self through a narrative, that is life, is the central aesthetic idea of the book. This also explains the structure of the book and for an autobiography, it's structure is quite complex. Perhaps that's why it is also called by critics the "most artistic of autobiographies". Nabokov starts off each chapter with a theme, generally with the help of some evocative image and pursues it through different phases of his life. And in this way he is able to delineate the various fragments of his personality and self in detail so that everything starts making sense as a whole.

Everything, of course, looks easy and effortless in Nabokov's hands. While reading the book, it seems, all the facts, images, feelings and evocations are concrete things stored at some place well known to the author and he simply picks them up as he pleases and serves them to the reader after dressing them up in his delicate prose. But of course it is not so easy. And anyone who has tried to remember and recreate his childhood and past time (as perhaps all of us have) and managed only hazy uncertainties will attest to it. I think that's why most of us, even those who are otherwise totally unsympathetic to Nabokov as a writer and person, will find in the book parallels to our own attempts to figure out where we came from and who we are. And for those of us who are cursed with defective or selective memories (or should I say blessed?) this book offers a poignant reminder of how much we have irretrievably lost and teaches us to see and notice things as if we are noticing own future recollection because that's the only way to regain all lost paradises (to use a Proustian phrase). I think the impulse to rediscover and reclaim childhood is deep in human nature and is present in all of us, and thus the chord "Speak, Memory" touches is truly universal and makes it a great book.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Weavers and Writers

Sylvia Plath, the famous American poet, once said:

"Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt. "

But what is it if not self-doubt, that inspires writers to write. If the writer is so sure and so clear about what he wants to write, why doesn't he just publish a pamphlet, why does he hide his, supposedly, clear idea and thought under the complexities of invented symbols and metaphors? And if it is indeed true, what will become of the difference between true artists and writers who make money out of writing grandiloquent speeches for dumb politicians? The quote above becomes so tragically ironical when we learn of Sylvia Plath's eventual fate - she committed suicide at the age of 28 leaving her two small children behind. If she was so sure of her poems why did she feel the need to end her life?

I started thinking about these and other things when I read this following paragraph in W G Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. The paragraph was hidden in between an innocuous looking description of the history of silk-industry in coastal England. Here is the paragraph:

That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are still engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.

Now isn't that an accurate picture of a writer's dilemma? And it is certainly more accurate than Sylvia Plath's version where she denies any importance to self-doubt. After spending so much of time and effort identifying and weaving complex patterns from life's raw experiences, what does a writer do when he finds out that he has got hold of the wrong thread or not sure if it is the right thread? And the paradox is that even after he knows this, the writer can not stop doing what he does because it is the only recourse left to him. And this is what Nabokov also says, in a typically eloquent manner in his autobiography - Speak, Memory, but more about that later. I have more prosaic matters to attend to.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Romance by Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat, the French filmmaker, is one of the most talked-about women in the field of contemporary arts and letters. I had read about many of her films and how her films managed to merge heavy-duty eroticism and French philosophy together and present it from a supposedly woman’s perspective but never got a chance to see any of them. Not until I got hold of the DVD of Romance sometime last month when I was in Bangalore. I thought of writing something about it now because somehow the images from the film keep returning to me, not necessarily because I have nothing else to do to pass these gloomy, lonely and cold nights of Chicago! I am reading Nabokov and Stendhal but more about that later. It might just be that the film was more provocative than I had thought when I had first seen it. And some of the ideas generated by the film have taken root in my consciousness and become complex.

In any case, the film itself is very easy to follow. "Romance" is about Marie, a sad, depressed and needy girl with small breasts and a vast ego, who is sexually frustrated and looking to be fulfilled both physically and emotionally. She's a schoolteacher, mousey but chic, shy yet forward, whose narcissistic, male-model boyfriend barely touches her, and doesn't let her touch him. The film never makes the reasons clear. Although Marie thinks it is because she is a woman! (The guy is straight and that is made clear). For the needy Marie, he's like a cosmically absurd joke. Depressed by his sensual neglect, she seeks physical fulfillment elsewhere. She finds an Italian stud. Her boss at school provides her some surprises, and other men have a go at her too. All these sad, desperate encounters are woven together by Marie's voice, in an unusual kind of voice-over that's part diary, part stream-of-consciousness which makes it sound like porn written by Virignia Woolf only not that well written. The film ends with the pregnant Mary giving birth (shown in full clinical detail), while her boyfriend is killed in the apartment accident which was actually triggered by her with the voice over announcing something like a woman’s life is fulfilled only after she becomes a mother (pretty reactionary for a French feminist movie I thought) and concluding perhaps with the message that a man’s usefulness for a woman is only in so far as he can help her become a mother and reach that final goal of her life.

With all the eroticism and heavy-duty theorizing (French style) aside, the film is also unintentionally comic at places. Although the best joke is in the title because the film is more than anything else a systematic annihilation of the idea of romantic love and makes a mockery of the idea that men and women can have sexual relationships which can be even remotely fulfilling and meaningful. Which is no doubt an extreme point of view and I am not sure if even Breillat sincerely believes in it other than pulling a few rhetorical feminist punches at the patriarchal establishment.

The film also relies on shallow metaphors and easy symbolisms to make its many points. But it is sufficiently eloquent at places. The name of the heroine becomes important later on when Immaculate Conception is hinted at, in an amusing sort of way. There is also a grotesque surrealist episode, which because it is unintentionally funny, in an embarrassing way, looks as if lifted from a porn film directed by Fellini or Bunuel. I could understand that the episode was meant to symbolize the radical split between body and soul (or mind if you will) that women feel in a male-dominated society but I could only manage a sigh and pressed the forward button on my DVD player. Move on girl, I said, tell me something that’s interesting and new!

Many of its flaws aside, the film does succeed in making its ideas come across in an articulate way and also the skill with which Breillat joins sexual content with the psychological, visual and narrative power of real movie art can only be commended and which makes the film worthy of sitting on the same shelf as great classics like Last Tango in Paris which deal with similar themes in a similar style. And like Bertolucci (director of Last Tango in Paris) Breillat too wants us to acknowledge that, while sex can lead you into a sense of self-discovery, it's just as likely to leave you overwhelmed by loneliness and most probably will never resolve or even leave you more confused with your existential issues.

I was also thinking after I finished the movie that perhaps the problem with Marie was not all that complicated. She just thinks a little too much. And given that she is a woman, it is plainly too much! And that’s her problem. May be Plato was just joking when he said, an unexamined life is not worth living. Because the irony is that when you start examining your life you are not living it anymore, you are actually studying it. May be the motto “enjoy don’t think” isn’t as stupid as it sounds.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The God of Melancholy

I was wondering about the curious title of The Rings of Saturn after finishing the book because although the book is about lots of different things, astronomy is nowhere writer's concern. After thinking about it for some time I came to some interesting conclusions.

The book starts with the following epigraph from an encyclopedia entry on the rings of Saturn:

The Rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are the fragments of former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effects(-->Roche Limit)

The planet Saturn is generally considered to be the patron god of melancholy. A god for sadness? You will ask. Well, as it turns out, the Greeks were not a very happy people. They understood the tragedy of human condition much better than today's channel surfing and crack-wise-with-friends generation. But that doesn't solve the puzzle of the meaning of the title. Does Sebald mean that the beautiful thing (the moon) that once was, is now destroyed as perhaps does every other thing, and is now replaced by another beautiful thing by some mysterious force in nature which takes care of transience and mutability of everything. The rings, perhaps, remind us of the inevitable cycle (and hence the rings) of destruction that history goes through. This is what he writes somewhere else in the book:

"On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark."

Sebald, not surprisingly, doesn't believe in the idea of historical progress, his view of history is more attuned to Nietzschean eternal recurrence. Whatever has happened will happen again and whatever is happening has already happened before in the past!

The title may also signify the strange connection between beauty and sadness. Doesn't anything beautiful also leave you with a faint feeling of sadness, by thinking that what you are looking at will not last, will perish sooner or later. And if you want to cling or attach to that beautiful thing, it will ultimately result in pain and a feeling of loss. Or the connection may also mean that when you are sad the world looks more beautiful. This may sound strange. And yes to some extent it is definitely false. After all who can forget Hamlet's (the most famous depressive in literature) lament when he compares earth to a sterile promontory and the overhanging firmament to a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours and cries out in pain as to how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable the uses of the world are to him. But be that as it may, an enlightened sadness (of the kind the narrator of the book feels) does sharpen your perception and cleans up your mind. So that you start seeing new things which were hidden earlier when you were happy and hidden connections between things and everything starts making sense in a mystical, elevated sort of way. I already sound like a new age lifestyle philosopher and Guru who wants to sell the idea of salvation through sadness and I hate that. So I will stop now.


I happened to catch Viridiana on TV last night, the great Spanish film of 1960’s, which is considered to be one of the crowning achievements of Luis Bunuel’s career. There was enough in the film, which could sustain my misanthropy for a long time so I thought let’s write something about it.

This drama about the shocking initiation of a young, beautiful, innocent and piously religious girl in the realities of passion and the grossness and meanness of humankind might be too bitter for some tastes, but for me it had just the right tang to enliven my palette. The stinging, unmerciful sarcasm directed at the piously insulated mind and all things religious definitely set my blood roaring to all the nerve cells.

The film’s plot is simple. It starts with the young girl, who wants to become a nun and do some good in the world, visiting her uncle’s house for the last time apparently because he has helped her financially all along. But the old man has secret desires to initiate her into womanhood because she resembles his dead wife, whose wedding dress he coerces her to wear in one of the film’s countless grotesque scenes, bordering on necrophilia. But in an ironic twist of fate, after a failed attempt at having a way with the girl after drugging her, the uncle commits suicide and the girl inherits all the property along with uncle’s illegitimate son who is in contrast to her a realist in the matters of human drives and passions. In an attempt to atone for what she thinks her sin, she brings home derelicts, cripples and beggars and gives them shelter and food. But soon with brutal eloquence and razor-sharp irony, which perhaps only Bunuel could have managed, all those bums start showing their true faces—that of brutal thugs, informing sneaks, loathsome lepers and frothing rapists—all portrayed in brutally realistic detail. In fact some scenes are so grotesque that they look like surrealistic. In one of the scenes a young girl is shown playing with the ropes with which the old uncle hanged himself and her mother when she sees this gently reprimands her and asks her to show some respect to the dead! (Bunuel was, by the way, one of pioneers of the surrealist movement in art.)

In the devastating final scene all those thugs in their wild bacchanalian orgy after they have looted and destroyed everything even pose as if for a photograph, which I later came to know was a reference to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper which has some holy significance for Christians. As if all this was not enough our poor heroine is sexually assaulted by one of the thugs while another waits for his turn. Only then does she get disillusioned and comes back to the material world shown by the scene where she throws away her scarf and joins in game of card with her cousin and his lover, listening to the rock and roll music, perhaps even indicating some possibility of a ménage a trios amongst all three.

The film is outrageous and extremely offensive but the great thing is that it outrages all the right sentiments and offends all the right people. Luis Bunuel was famous for his rabid and militant anti-catholicism. He once said—“I hope I don't go to hell, imagine the table talk of all those popes and cardinals". The film takes a Nietzschean delight in mocking the idea of Christian charity. Bunuel seems to suggest that this is what happens to saints. Their virtues are thrown back in their faces. People, and the world, cannot be changed and acceptance of things as they are is the only recourse left. This of course taken literally, is an extreme cynical view. But as a rhetorical argument it works very well. If we accept charity and goodwill in the name of something as stupid and false as religion, it is bound to get misguided. May be some parallel can be drawn with what the roman church is doing with the AIDS related aid in Africa these days.

"I should like", Bunuel once famously said, "to make even the most ordinary spectator feel that he is not living in the best of all possible worlds". Perhaps this is what makes Viridiana, one of the great feelbad movies of all time, and for only that will get five stars from me.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Rings of Saturn

Thought I would start with this amazing book that I recently finished reading. The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald is one of the strangest and most sublime of books I have read in a long time. On surface it just appears to be a normal travel book with lots of biographical and historical anecdotes thrown in but what makes it apart from the run of the mill travel books is that the writer is not interested in the landscapes just for the sake of it, he is interested in the desolate, lonely landscapes only in so far as they provoke some thoughts and feelings in the writer's head and with Sebald those thoughts and feelings are invariably deeply and movingly melancholic and yet the book is surprisingly extremely uplifting overall (which I use as an approving term). I came out of the book with a sense of amazement and wonder at having seen some mysterious connection between everything which was completely invisible to the eyes earlier. In this book Sebald achieves that rare, difficult aim of every artist--using one's raw experiences and making something beautiful and meaningful out of it by putting those experiences in a unified structure using the power of one's imagination and creativity.

The search for meaning and unity becomes even more important given the subject matter of the book. The writer is taking a walking tour of the seashore English counties of Suffolk and Norfolk and muses variously on different subjects ranging from the horrors of Belgian colonialism, an anatomical painting by Rembrandt, palace intrigues in the nineteenth century China, the exiled life of various literary figures like Joseph Conrad and many other people and things. All these and more seem too disparate and random to make any sense as a whole but in Sebald's hands these things become mysteriously connected to become one unified whole. The theme perhaps that binds all these things is the idea of the transience of all things human and even non-human or what Thomas Browne, one of the nineteenth century personages described in the book, calls the "opium of time" and "iniquities of oblivion".

In writing the book Sebald does what every writer dreams of doing: he manages to move through space and time seamlessly and relates his story in what might be called in philosophical terms, in Eternal Present. And by giving such contemporaneous weight to the people and events, which are marginalised by the cruel indifference of the relentless march of time, he also undoes to a large extent the iniquities of oblivion.

I was wondering about the mysterious effects the book had on me and reached a conclusion that perhaps the book affected me so much because these days I am also feeling somewhat "exiled" (I am currently in Chicago far away from my "home" and feeling desperately alone) as the narrator and the various people that he describes in the book do. Or perhaps it has something to do with my Proustian obsession with the "remembrance of things past" or the "search of lost time".

There are many more thoughts and feeling (all sublime and nothing ridiculous!) that I can go on writing about but more for later posts.

Hello World

Thought I would put my thoughts and feelings in one place. Hope I don't offend any proust fans for using his name for my stupid blog.