Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Good Poets, Bad Men

What is it with most of the great writers and artists? Why do they almost always fall short of the image that readers have of them, in their real lives? Take the great trinity of modern poets. Eliot, in real life turned out to be a gross reactionary and an anti-semite (although some critics claim that even his poetry is deeply anti-semitic, but that's controversial); Pound, a cranky fascist, who accused Eliot of having been infected by the "jewish poison" and Rilke, that ideal of soulful and sensitive artist, with the heart of an Aeolian harp who commuted and sang with the angels, turned out to be a gross manipulator, emotional black-mailer, selfish snob, brutish husband, cruel father among many other similar atrocious things. And a few years back, with the publication of his private journals and letters, Philip Larkin, the unofficial poet-laureate of England, turned out to be a racist, misogynist, extreme reactionary and a right-wing crackpot. And as if all of this was not enough, his readers also came to know that he was a chronic masturbator and an avid consumer of pornography. Okay, the last two things can be claimed to be value-free, but more on that later.

There is a very interesting sequence in the Novel (for those who are new to this blog, "Novel" with a capital 'N' always refers to Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu or In Search of Lost Time or for those of you inclined towards Shakespearean grandiosity, Remembrance of Things Past) in which Proust explores this conflict between the real personality of an artist and the personality that an artist projects in his works or at least the personality of the artist that the reader creates in the process of interpreting the work. The sequence comes early in the second volume of the Novel. The narrator gets to meet the novelist Bergotte, whom he has idolized for long in a party at Swann's place and is cruelly disappointed first with his appearance and later with his intellectual abilities as displayed socially with other people. Here's a short extract from the Novel, although the whole sequence is quite exhaustive and detailed. It is also a great work of literary criticism. Reading this we also learn that, that was the period when there was no concept of having author's photograph on book's jacket. Otherwise, our poor narrator would have been saved from some of his disappointments! This is when Mme. Swann introduces our narrator to Bergotte in her party:

The name Bergotte made me jump like the sound of a revolver fired at me point blank, but instinctively, for appearance's sake, I bowed; there, straight in front of me, as by one of those conjurers whom we see standing whole and unharmed, in their frock coats, in the smoke of a pistol shot out of which a pigeon has just fluttered, my salute was returned by a young common little thick-set peering person, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a black tuft on his chin. I was cruelly disappointed, for what had just vanished in the dust of the explosion was not only the feeble old man, of whom no vestige now remained; there was also the beauty of an immense work which I had contrived to enshrine in the frail and hallowed organism that I had constructed, like a temple, expressly for itself, but for which no room was to be found in the squat figure, packed tight with blood-vessels, bones, muscles, sinews, of the little man with the snub nose and black beard who stood before me. All the Bergotte whom I had slowly and delicately elaborated for myself, drop by drop, like a stalactite, out of the transparent beauty of his books, ceased (I could see at once) to be of any use, the moment I was obliged to include in him the snail-shell nose and to utilise the little black beard; just as we must reject as worthless the solution of a problem the terms of which we have not read in full, having failed to observe that the total must amount to a specified figure.

The narrator goes on in the typical Proustian fashion to great detail and explores everything possible about the appearance and then as a conclusion says:
[Bergotte's books] at once began to fall in my estimation (dragging down with them the whole value of Beauty, of the world, of life itself), until they seemed to have been merely the casual amusement of a man with a little beard. I told myself that he must have taken great pains over them, but that, if he had lived upon an island surrounded by beds of pearl-oysters, he would instead have devoted himself to, and would have made a fortune out of, the pearling trade. His work no longer appeared to me so inevitable. And then I asked myself whether originality did indeed prove that great writers were gods, ruling each one over a kingdom that was his alone, or whether all that was not rather make-believe, whether the differences between one man's book and another's were not the result of their respective labours rather than the expression of a radical and essential difference between two contrasted personalities.

This is perhaps the greatest defence of the willed absence of the artist's personality in the work of art that he creates. Proust himself in an earlier work of literary criticism Contre Saint-Beuve, said "a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices." Perhaps, this explains why the poetry of all those men still endures even though the men in question were always despicable beyond any redemption.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

More Religion Bashing

And while we are at it, I mean religion bashing, here is a delightful article on the talk that Christopher Hitchens (one of the fiercest critics of religion, perhaps second only to Dawkins) had with Martin Amis. Amis and Hitchens are having a discussion on "The Passion of Christ" and the writer notes:

Building on The Passion and Jesus, Hitchens then launched a full-scale attack on religion. He unequivocally informed the audience that religion equals totalitarianism; that religion is simply a “Disneyfied fraud,” a denial of responsibility and a slavery of the mind. There is absolutely no excuse for being religious, and the human race simply must “outgrow the collective human yearning for God to exist.” “How long will it take us,” he demanded, to get away from “peasant religious belief?” We must “dump the priests, rabbis and mullahs.” Little evidence and no explanation were offered, and it had begun to feel as though Christopher Hitchens was demanding that we take everything he said “on faith.”

If there were any lingering uncertainties as to Hitchens’ ability to formulate a moderate opinion, those were likely dispelled when he tap-danced through his “Mother Teresa is a Slut” number.


I don't think Hitchens ever called Mother Teresa a "slut" but he did use the word "prostituting"; in a metaphorical way of course and wrote a book on her entitled, rather suggestively, "The Missionary Position". Here is an interview of Hitchens on the topic and a letter by Hitchens to New York Review of Books. And don't miss the article that Hitchens wrote on the occasion of Mother Teresa's beatification.
Reading the papers or glancing at the television, one could have got the impression that His Holiness the Pope was the accepted moral tutor for the entire world, instead of the leader of a traditionalist sect that calls its ostensibly celibate and virginal officials by parental names like "Father" and "Mother" and opposes almost every kind of sexual expression while making allowances and excuses for adult-infant penetration.

The whole stuff here.

Evidence and Belief

I have been a little too busy these days to put anything on my blog. So here's a link to something that I keep going back time and again. This is a letter written by Richard Dawkins to his ten year old daughter and what a great letter it is. The letter is here.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers , Mormons or Holy Rollers, and are all utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong.

[...]
What can we do about all this ? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: "Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?" And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: "What kind of evidence is there for that?" And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.


If only the parents of all those future suicide bombers could read this.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Pablo Neruda

Update: Please don't read this post. This is all false. :)

I have never been a big fan of Pablo Neruda. His poems mostly appeal to love-struck and heart-broken teenage lads and lasses or those who think the sole purpose of poetry is to serenade their girl-friends. Since I had better things to do when I was a teenager, I never quite warmed up to his Hundred Love Sonnets or Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Both of which I found very unoriginal, cliched, cloying and devoid of any provocative imagery, thought or feeling.

Neruda was awarded the Nobel prize for literature and like many other awardees it was more of a recognition of the place he occupied on the political spectrum, which was to the left, not of the liberal/progressive variety but of the dark, messy, Stalinist kind. The conservative critic Stephen Schwartz sums up his achievements in an article called Bad Poet, Bad Man:

Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics--which is to say, he's "the greatest poet of the twentieth century" because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.

He later even claims that Neruda plagiarised one of his poems from Tagore. Although he doesn't make it clear as to which poem he is alluding to. If you haven't read Neruda's poems yet, you can check them out here. His most famous poems are "A Song of Despair", "Saddest Poem" and two other poems which, at least from their titles, look fit to be printed on Valentine day cards rather than in a serious poetry collection. They are "I Crave Your Mouth, Your Voice, Your Hair" and "I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You". Hmm, very romantic indeed! Check out the poems for yourself here.

Sylvia Plath


I was reading some of the reviews of the Sylvia Plath biopic and found a few very interesting observations by some reviewers. Stephanie Zacharek (one of my favourite critics, even though she loathes Lars von Trier) in her review calls Plath's poetry "carping" and bemoans her "extreme self-pity":

Sylvia Plath is a fascinating character but a lousy icon. I don't happen to care much for her poetry: Where others see passion, I see carping; her version of hard-bitten introspection reads like extreme self-pity to me. Would I feel differently if Plath's short and tragic life -- and Hughes' life along with it -- hadn't been hijacked by any number of book-benumbed thinking-cap types who drive agendas as if they were glamorous, racy little red sports cars? Probably. But I can't change the way Plath's legacy has been appropriated any more than I can change the specifics of her life.

It's interesting to speculate of what would have happened had her mental illness not conquered her. How would she have felt about her own poems after some years? After all, she was only thirty when she took her life.

Anthony Lane in his review in The New Yorker is even more unsympathetic towards Plath's poetry. But then he explains his indifference, or rather a "constitutional aversion to her poetry":
Will “Sylvia” send viewers out of the movie theatre and back to the verse, or will they find better and saner things to do? For those slouching toward middle age, Plath’s poems are no longer guaranteed to provide either solace or provocation; she herself, like a war poet, was granted no middle age, and we can never know how the riper Plath might have chosen to outgrow, or even disown, the bitter fruits of her youth. Hers is a country for young men and, more obsessively, for young women; I now suffer from a constitutional aversion to her poetry, as one should to any art or writing that casts a spell on one’s teen-age years, and the extremity of her self-absorption, which a movie as careful and sociable as “Sylvia” can never properly catch, seems as likely to repel as to entrance.

And don't miss the review in Slate for its delightful opening line:
Complaining that a biopic of Sylvia Plath is oppressively bleak is like complaining that a steam room is oppressively moist. Bleakness, it may be argued, is the whole damn point, and it obviously did oppress Plath, who in her last months was probably happiest when fantasizing about her own suicide.

He then coins a new term for the genre, he calls it "the Bleak Chic"! And the review in The Village Voice has this delightful phrase about the Hughes-Plath industry:"Deconstructing the rugged ├╝bermensch and the maenad housewife spawned its own literary subgenre (or Plathology?)."

These pronouncements do sound a little insensitive at first but then if you remove the sad and bleak prism of the Sylvia Plath's actual life through which we inevitably end up looking at her poetry, perhaps these critics do make some sense. And while we are at it, I mean berating the adolescent tendencies of self-pity and carping, I can't help but link to the wonderful short essay by Jonathan Yardley of Washington Post, in which he delivers some (rather well-deserved I would say) spanking to the patron saint of adolescent angst, self-pity and "jejune narcissism", Holden Caulfield:
[...]"The Catcher in the Rye" can be fobbed off on kids as a book about themselves. It is required reading as therapy, a way to encourage young people to bathe in the warm, soothing waters of resentment (all grown-ups are phonies) and self-pity without having to think a lucid thought. Like that other (albeit marginally better) novel about lachrymose preppies, John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" (1960), "The Catcher in the Rye" touches adolescents' emotional buttons without putting their minds to work. It's easy for them, which makes it easy for teacher.

Emotional button pushing? Hmmm. I wonder what Yardley thinks of Harry Potter and the fascination it inspires in adults.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes was one of the greatest of post-war English poets. Although more than his poems, he is famous for being the husband of Sylvia Plath, whose suicide in 1963 turned her into the most potent literary icon of twentieth century, not to say the patron saint of feminism (of the angsty victimhood variety). It also turned Hughes into a callous, brutal and insensitive husband who jailed and tortured his genius wife while sleeping with other women. The publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters in the late nineties, a collection of poems about the their life together, undid most of the damage to his reputation. It soon became the fastest selling book of poetry ever published, but then it hardly had anything to do with poetry. It just showed how entrenched the Plath myth had become in our popular culture.

I am currently reading a biography of Ted Hughes, called simply Ted Hughes: The Life of Poet by Elaine Feinstein. It claims to be an "unbiased" biography written from the point of view of Ted Hughes's literary achievements rather than just his relationship with Plath. Should be an interesting read. I knew that his second wife Assia for whom he left Sylvia also committed suicide but I didn't know that before taking her life she killed their daughter too. I was surprised that I did not know this before. Taking your own life is one thing (an honourable thing I say, but more on that later) but killing your two-year old daughter by giving her sleeping pills with whisky is just too much. I hope the biography has some details about what really happened.

I have been reading some stuff from the internet and refreshing myself with the details of the Hughes-Plath story. I came across some very interesting articles. Specially worth reading are the articles from Salon. Look up the directory for Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes related articles here and here. Specially worth reading are articles on the Plath journals by novelist Kate Moses, who wrote a fictionalized account of the traumatic period of Plath's life before she took her life and composed her masterpiece Ariel. The two parts of the article are here and here. She also speculates that it was perhaps PMS and complex biochemistry which drove or at least contributed to her suicide (must he hard being a woman!). The journal of the period when she wrote the Ariel poems were destroyed by Ted Hughes soon after her death. Ted Hughes also edited and reorganized her poems in Ariel, which some critics claim, he did heavy-handedly, turning the theme of tranformative re-birth into a tale of inevitable self-destruction. He later defended his actions by saying that he wanted to protect his children from all that "sadness". Also worth reading is the moving review of Birthday Letters by Jay Parini (you can find it here). And if you want a different perspective (a feminist one) you can read Katha Pollitt's (one of my favourite woman columnists) review in The New York Times (here).Also the Guardian profiles of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to get to the articles or do a search on the site! Another article from Slate about the biopic which came a few years back on the life of Plath in which Gwyneth Paltrow played the title role. Another article has a very good summary of the whole literary controversy for the beginners. So if you don't know anything about the affair start with that one.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

David Cronenberg and Nabokov

David Cronenberg in an interview, rather interestingly titled as The Baron of Blood Does Bergman, says that his favourite writer is Nabokov. When asked if the idea of the fragility of memories and self-knowledge that he explored in his film Spider has anything to do with Nabokov, he replies:

In his case very specifically, yeah. A past that he was severed from before he wanted to be. He's one of my favorite writers. He was an important figure for me. One of the reasons I'm not a novelist, probably, is because I kept writing pastiches of Nabokov. Whereas when I came to filmmaking I felt quite free.


I personally found Cronenberg's Spider to be extremely pessimistic about the nature of memory and the possibility of self-knowledge and coming-to-terms with one's past, and so poles apart from Nabokov's Speak, Memory which is a homage full of love on the altar of Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory). Can we recreate through artistic imagination what has been irretrivably lost? Nabokov and Proust surely think we can. Cronenberg is not so optimistic. He thinks that even if we are able to recreate our pasts it will be nothing but the sum of our delusions. Self is an illusion, only fear, anxiety and sexual pathologies are real (a very David Lynchian concept!).

Pale Fire, A Supernatural Novel?


On The Guardian Books website Jeremy Sheldon (don't know who he is!) picks up his top 10 fiction books about ghosts and spirits. It is a very interesting list, all the more interesting because it comes amidst all the brouhaha about the latest Harry Potter book. Surely, future generations will see our collective and infantile fixation with the wizard as we see the crazy mania for tulip bulbs that gripped the Dutch people in the seventeenth century. If someone writes a new edition of "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds", Harry Potter mania along with Da Vinci Code tomfoolery will surely find a place there.

Anyway, what I found interesting about the list, other than the exclusion of the usual suspects, was the inclusion of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire in it. Pale Fire, at least on the surface, is not a supernatural story at all. At the center of the novel is the eponymous poem, which is identified in the foreword as the last work of the late American poet John Shade. The rest of the novel is in the form a commentary by someone called Charles Kinbote, who also wrote the foreword to the poem. What makes the commentary a delight to read is the peculiar voice of the commentator. Kinbote is the ultimate unreliable narrator - in fact, an unreliable narrator to end all unreliable narrators. Kinbote weaves into his footnoted annotations on the poem the story of his own relationship with the poet, John Shade. How he befriended him during the last months of his life while Shade was composing "Pale Fire." How he'd disclosed to Shade, a colleague at the college where they both taught literature, the fantastic story of his (Kinbote's) supposed secret identity: that he was not really Charles Kinbote, but rather the exiled King of Zembla, "the distant northern land" (yes, that's where the title of this blog comes from) where he once ruled as Charles the Beloved until he was deposed by evil revolutionaries from whom he fled into exile. Revolutionaries who sent an assassin to hunt him down, an assassin whose bullet, meant for Kinbote, mistakenly killed John Shade instead. And now, having absconded with the dead poet's manuscript of "Pale Fire," holed up in a cave in the mountains, Kinbote attempts to demonstrate with his commentary that Shade's last masterpiece is really about him, about Kinbote, about his own tragic and romantic life as King of Zembla, his flight and exile. All this despite the fact that, on the surface, neither Kinbote nor Zembla appear anywhere in Pale Fire, despite the fact that the poem seems on the surface to be John Shade's attempt to come to terms with his own tragedy, the suicide of his beloved daughter Hazel Shade-and his efforts to explore the possibility of contacting her in the Afterlife, across the border between life and death ("the foul inadmissible abyss") which has exiled her from him.

One of the most interesting and longest running mysteries of modern literature is the authorship question of the book. Who is the real "author" of Pale Fire? Mary McCarthy, the well known literary critic and wife of Edmund Wilson, Nabokov's estranged friend, conjectured in a review published at the time when the novel itself was published that the real author of both the poem and the commentary is V. Botkin, "an american scholar of Russian descent", who is mentioned only in the index. I haven't read the review (it's called "A Bolt from the Blue") so don't know much about how she reached that conclusion but this theory was later revised by Brian Boyd and other critics who called themselves "Shadeans" because they thought it was John Shade who wrote the poem and then invented a delusional literary critic to do an exegesis on his own work. There is also a group called "Kinboteans", although in minority, who think it is Charles Kinbote who invented the poet John Shade and not the vice versa. And then there are literalists, like me, who see the book as a satire on the lit-crit industry, a heart-felt meditation on what it means to live with a constant knowledge of death, of one's own and of everybody we love and of course that "undiscovered country from where no traveler returns" or "the foul, inadmissible abyss" as Nabokov calls it.

The "Shadean" theory held sway among majority of the Nabokov scholars for long, and it still does, but Brian Boyd (once again) muddied the waters a few years back by arguing, in a book length critical study, that the real source, the true inspiration for the land of Zembla and the poem, is not Kinbote or Shade or Shade-from-beyond-the-grave, but John Shade's dead daughter Hazel whose ghost indirectly insinuates Zemblan promptings into both John Shade's poem and Kinbote's beautifully mad commentary to it (making Zembla that elusive unknowable place of after-life). I haven't yet read the book, so I don't know much about it. But it seems Jeremy Sheldon (who put the book in his favourite supernatural books) has surely read Boyd's book. Supernatural or otherwise, Pale Fire is definitely a book which deserves to be read again and again to fathom its endlessly intricate mysteries. More posts about the book will follow. After all this is a dispatch from Zembla!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Home is so Sad

By Philip Larkin

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.


I will be back home very soon and no, my home isn't sad at all!

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Happy Birthday



Happy Birthday to M. Proust !

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Three Cheers for Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Serotonin

Whenever I tell people that I am an atheist, reductionist and materialist and that I do not believe in after-life, soul or disembodied existence, the first reaction is always a strange look and after a while, perhaps since they know that arguing about the existence of God in an objective manner is fruitless, they ask, but Alok, do you believe in love? Have you ever been in love? As if, my not believing in soul has automatically turned me into a robot or a stone statue! Long lives the cliches of science fiction! Anyway, my answer to the first question is always the same: I believe in everything which has evidence and which can be verified and falsified by the scientific method of induction and as for love, there is enough evidence. As for the second question, if personal and first-hand experiences were required for knowing everything, Shakespeare would have been a murderer, misogynist, anti-semite, maniac, depressive, delusional, fool, knave and lots of other things which obviously he was not! So that is obviously absurd.

Now coming to the post that I wanted to write. I do believe in love as I believe in every other emotion, like anger, fear or disgust. The only thing I do not believe in, is that there is some mystical side to it, which can not be understood in an objective manner and that, it disproves or weakens the materialist philosophical position. Like all emotions, love is firmly embodied in our central nervous system and its chemical secretions. Love only appears different because it is far more intense and far more complex than other emotions (one reason might be that it always involves more than one person).

It is now a well accepted theory that like every other emotion, love is an evolutionary adaptation. It has been a successful adaptation because it enabled our ancestors to focus their courtship attentions on a single individual at a time, thereby conserving precious mating time and energy which as a result made it a winning strategy (as compared to the "f#$% and leave" strategy) as far as the struggle to pass on the genes to the next generation goes. But, then you will ask, why so much emotional upheaval that goes with love? How can something be a successful adaptation if it makes people suicidal and throws them in deep despair? Well the answer is because of the three chemical secretions that I wanted to write about.

Elevated levels of dopamine (and norepinephrine which is its derivative) in the brain produce extremely focused attention, as well as unwavering motivation and goal-directed behaviors. And there goes the explanation of compulsive mails, phone-calls and stalking, that is invariably found in every love affair. It also keeps lovers intensely focused on the beloved, often to the exclusion of all around them. Indeed, they concentrate so relentlessly on the positive qualities of the adored one that they easily overlook his or her negative traits (great men have wrote about it, look here and here). It has also some role to play in making lovers believe that the object of their desire is unique and unlike any other. Ever tried convincing a rejected lover that he/she can find someone exactly like her/him?

Dopamine is also responsible for other feelings that lovers report - including increased energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, trembling, a pounding/beating heart, accelerated breathing and sometimes mania, anxiety or fear. This also explains why people in love become so dependent on their loved ones. Scientists have even found out that the feelings of dependency and craving that people feel in love are the same as those found in people addicted to alcohol or something else. So then, is love an addiction? Yes; most definitely it is--a blissful dependency and addiction when one's love is returned; a painful, sorrowful, and often destructive craving when one's love is spurned or when it remains unrequited.

In case of serotonin however, it is the low levels of the chemical which create troubles like obsessive-compulsive behavior and lover's persistent, involuntary, irresistible ruminations about their loved ones. In fact Prozac, the famous medicine used to treat Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, actually belongs to the class of medicines called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) used to elevate levels of serotonin in the brain.

Now onto the most important question: How do I know all this stuff? And how do I know what people in love go through? Let me clarify. All this is based on purely objective reading of books, articles and other people's experiences. And anyway it is very un-Proustian and un-Nabokovian (two of my literary gurus) to use author's biography to understand what author has written. Two books that I will heartily recommend are Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher and The Evolution of Desire:The Strategies of Human Mating by David Buss. In fact I have blatantly plagiarised most of the stuff that I wrote above from the first book! If you have recently fallen in love and are enjoying the highs don't go near Buss's book. It will create unnecessary confusions. And if you think that understanding love and other mysteries of nature in a scientific manner destroys or even diminishes the pure and primitive magic of feeling, read Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Three Cheers for Isabelle Huppert


Isabelle Huppert is one of the best actresses (okay, actors if you insist) working in cinema today and certainly my favourite. She is famous for playing some of the most scandalous and transgressive roles in recent cinema. She has played among other roles, "sluts, nutters, illiterate murderesses, abortionists, psychopathic matrons, brothel madams, petit-bourgeois housewives purring with resentment and unslaked sexual thirsts." In her latest film Ma Mere, she shares some queasily erotic scenes with her on-screen son. The New York Times says:

The great French actress Isabelle Huppert, whose fondness for the transgressive has led her to star in movies like "The Piano Teacher" and "The School of Flesh," has finally shot the moon with this one.


I have seen only three of her films so far. In Claude Chabrol's Story of Women she plays an abortionist with such clinical and cold-hearted brilliance that it made even a radical pro-choicer like me flinch for a while. And her acting in The Piano Teacher left me profoundly disturbed. I was depressed and had lurid nightmares about blood and blades (if you don't know, don't ask) for two full weeks after watching that film. Her role in the recent I Heart Huckabees came as a welcome relief. What can be better than seeing Isabelle Huppert peddling the theory of "cruelty, manipulation and meaninglessness" and offering void and nihilistic disconnectedness as an antidote to the cloying Buddhist philosophy of Dustin Hoffman! Everything matters and everything is connected? Not for her. And so not for me!

Here is a delightful short profile of her. She is supposed to have said sometime: "Acting is a way of living out one's insanity." Check out her films to know what she meant when she said that.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Kierkegaardian Motifs in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves

Okay, this is the not the post I wanted to write. But I don't have any time and I don't understand Kierkegaard at all.

I have tried reading A Very Short Introduction to Kierkegaard (actually I read it last year and now I don't remember a thing), and I spent most of my Monday (which was a holiday) trying hard to understand what Kierkegaard wanted to say in Either/Or, Sickness unto Death, Concepts of Dread, Fear and Trembling and Works of Love. But, no success. I am still trying to understand the difficult interconnectedness between faith, passion, subjectivity and love. Once I get hold of something, I will write about how it all illuminates Breaking the Waves, one of the greatest fairy tales ever told.

Some interesting stuff that I read about Kierkegaard:
Roger Kimball wonders What Did Kierkegaard Want? Well, isn't that the whole point of existentialism? Here is one by John Updike, from that august literary institution The New Yorker. And Peter Kramer, psychiatrist and the author of Listening to Prozac, wonders what would have happened if Kierkegaard took anti-depressants. More stuff here and here.

And if you are wondering what the fuss is all about and who the hell is Lars von Trier or if Breaking the Waves is a fairy tale why haven't I come across it in my volume of brothers Grimm...you can educate yourself by visiting here and here.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

My Blog is Boring

Not that I didn't know this before, but I was reminded of this again early morning today (waking up at 5 on a Saturday morning? something is seriously wrong somewhere). I was browsing the blogosphere and came across two very interesting blogs, both of the baring-the-soul genre. I generally don't spend much time reading these stupid confessions of stupid twenty-somethings about what they did in some stupid party with their stupid friends. But these blogs were different, specially the first one which is called The scab that swung. I don't know about "swinging" but the blog definitely scores high on how-tos of scratching scabs. This girl who calls herself TeeGee (is that her initials? Tara, Tanya, Trisha or may be Tamara, who knows she might even be from Russia or be a Nabokov fan!) is having some serious boyfriend issues. I spent quite some time trawling through her blog archives in the wee hours of today morning, and using some hints that she had left here and there even did some cyber stalking (by which I mean innocent googling). The guy in question is some kind of an upstart in the Indian news television scene and has just launched a new channel in the eastern part of India. And if his real name has anything to do with the initial that the girl uses to address him, I think I know who he is. I hope she never reads this and if she ever does, doesn't sue me for stalking her blog!

Most of her posts, not surprisingly, are about trying to forget and not being able to, scratching the scabs which appear to have healed but apparently have not, uncertainties and mood swings that go with every serious love affair. Sometimes I think how predictable these things are. Be it the innocent shepherds and their melancholy love stories in Don Quixote or the obsessive quest to reach the bottom-most depths of human heart in Proust's Novel, they all are absolutely the same, at least in abstract terms. Not that I am comparing her to Proust or Cervantes, but honesty and courage for self-revelation even under an assumed name go quite far.

The second blog is equally interesting. It's called liquid sunshine and it is about heart break too, straddling some open space between Bridget Jones and Sylvia Plath. Don't miss her open letter to her mom. And I always thought mothers and daughters were best friends!

And yes my blog is boring, unlike these blogs, because there is hardly any me anywhere here, hardly any passion, any genuine feeling, just borrowed thoughts and ideas and used feelings. I can imagine how romantic and poetic it would be to scratch the scabs, but what if you don't have any scabs to begin with?

Be that what it is, I don't have any plans to popularise my blog by making it a confessional barf bag. It looks good as it is. Monday is a holiday so I should be able to read something substantial over the weekend and then I can write about it. I am already thinking of some more boring posts, such as, Kierkegaardian Motifs in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves or Menippean Strain in Dostoevsky as Discussed by Bakhtin or perhaps moving on to history and politics I can write about the comparative analysis of the views of Marx and Feuerbach on the Jewish Question or a comparative analysis of the anarchist philosophy of Proudhon, Herzen and Bakunin...phew! there is so much to write about. Why waste time searching for old scabs?

Friday, July 01, 2005

More Tidbits on David Lynch

David Foster Wallace, the well known American novelist, tries to define the word "Lynchian":

"Some guy killing his wife in and of itself doesn't have much of a Lynchian tang to it, though if it turns out the guy killed his wife over something like ... an obdurate refusal to buy the particular brand of peanut butter the guy was devoted to, the homicide could be described as having Lynchian elements."


And a judgment of Blue Velvet from a film critic, when the film was released (it would have immediately made me run to the nearest movie theatre playing the film, had I read it at the time when the film was released!):
"In the brain-damaged garbage department, Blue Velvet gives pretentiousness new meaning. It should score high with the kind of sickos who like to smell dirty socks and pull the wings off butterflies, but there's nothing here for sane audiences.... Bring a barf bag."
-- Rex Reed, New York Post (September 19, 1986)


One clarification, I don't like to smell dirty socks and I abhor torturing delicate creatures like butterflies (my admiration for Nabokov notwithstanding).

More critical reactions, but none as hilarious, can be found here.

David Lynch's Blue Velvet

David Lynch is without doubt the greatest film maker working in cinema today, closely followed by David Cronenberg and Lars von Trier. Okay, in case you start accusing me of western bias or worse, ignorance--Martin Scorsese (by the way, should we call him contemporary?), Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-Wai and others in China, Japan and Korea are good too. But having said that, hardly anyone's work comes even close to what Lynch has achieved in his rather short career, specially given that he is working in the mainstream Hollywood system. There is hardly any contemporary filmmaker who can claim to have an adjective derived from his name. The word "Lynchian", in its signification of the convergence of bizarre depravity with the surface normalcy of the mundane, conveys meanings which can only be experienced and felt.

I was confirmed in my beliefs after watching Blue Velvet the other night after a gap of almost two years. I was quite surprised to find out how the film has lost none of its powers to shock and unnerve me. And this was when, this time, I was consciously and objectively trying to understand the technique of the film and knew very well that the film was symbolic, not to be taken literally (it might just be a defence mechanism). I knew that the film was an allegory about the pains of growing up, a rather Miltonic screed on the pitfalls of gaining knowledge and the shock that comes with the loss of childhood innocence when initiated into the dark and twisted world of adult sexuality. But even with knowing all this, the film does manage to affect at a visceral level, and that's what makes Lynch's style so unique and so one-of-a-kind.

The first reaction to the film generally is--ohh, I know Lynch is just a smart guy, but things are not as dark or depraved as he thinks they are--but then Lynch is hardly making a general statement about human nature or indulging in social criticism, although it is equally valid to read the film in both ways--as psycho-analysis of sexual pathologies and social satire on the phony normalcy of suburban American life. What this film actually does is that it forces even the most passive and lazy viewer to take the same journey of self-discovery, that the hero takes, into the deeper recesses of self and confronting the darkness that lies inside, buried under the fragile sanity of everyday routine life. Of course not everybody likes this idea but for those willing to stare down the darkness, Lynch's films are, "like our own nightmares, oddly informative". Whether onscreen or in the world outside, we can't defeat our demons without knowing who they are and that's what makes David Lynch not only the best but also the most important filmmakers working today.

Samaritan Girl


Kim Ki-Duk is one of the most controversial and polarising film makers working in the world cinema today. He is mainly famous for the violent and sordid psycho-sexual melodramas that he made early in his career, specially The Isle and Bad Guy. After making his rather nasty reputation with those films he surprised critics and fans with a very restrained and elegiac Buddhist fable Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring and then following it up a melancholy love story 3-Iron. There was violence in these films too but that remained mostly in background and was always shown in an oblique and artistically mature manner. His latest film, Samaritan Girl, which won silver bear at the Berlin film festival last year, continues the same tradition of his last two films.

The film is about two beautiful school girls who resort to prostitution so that they can save money and fulfill their dream of visiting Europe. The film is divided into three parts. The first part, "Vasumitra", starts with one of girls reciting the story of a (mythical?) Indian prostitute of the same name, whose clients turned devout Buddhist after having sex with her. The film then goes on to make a violent mockery of this naive and sentimental belief in the nurturing and spiritual potential of sexuality, as we see one of the girls managing the transactions and the other sleeping with her middle-age clients, to make some fast buck. The events come to tragic conclusion when one of the girls (who was prostituting herself) jumps off from a window and dies following a surprise police raid. In the second part, "Samaria", which seems like a bizarre perversion of the Christian idea of "the good Samaritan", the second girl decides to atone for her sins by sleeping with all the men who slept with her friend (actually, it is suggested that they were more than just friends) and also returning their money back. The situation gets complex when the girl's father, who is still recovering from his wife's (unexplained) death comes to know about the sordid degradation that his daughter is subjecting herself to. He then starts stalking the men and finally murders one of them in a typically brutal manner.

The third part, "Sonata", tries to tie everything together when the father and daughter go on an idyllic vacation and try to confront their own inner demons without telling each other anything. The film ends bafflingly when the father after giving his daughter preliminary driving lessons, leaves her alone and surrenders himself to the police. But only after he has seen his daughter crying silently in the night, and thus making sure of her essential virtuousness. An article in the Senses of Cinema notes that:

It is with this refreshing sense of hope, combined with an astute eye for social detail and aesthetic composition, that Kim creates one of the most profoundly moving and strangely transcendent metaphoric images of intruded-upon (and violated) landscape in recent cinema, in the final shot of Samaritan Girl: the errant sight of a wobbling, out of control car struggling to chase a sports utility vehicle through a flooded gravel road in the rural countryside, doggedly navigating the inhospitable terrain using an innate compass that elusively, but transfixedly, points home.


The film does manage to express its ideas about religious and spiritual yearning, sin and guilt, quite eloquently, but overall the style and the metaphors the film uses to do this are too direct, explicit and literal. Some of the scenes are also quite unconvincing because the characters appear not human beings but artificial carriers of the misanthropic world view of their creator. I don't have any problem with misanthropy but this one looked fake. But all these quibbles notwithstanding, the film did manage to leave me with a faint ache in the heart which stayed with me for quite some time, along with the angelic faces of the two girls. And that was sufficient reward for me for the time spent watching it. However, Jonathan Rosenbaum doesn't agree with this.