Monday, February 27, 2006

Back Home!

I will be moving back to India in a month's time. I was thinking it would be painless affair, that I would even miss this place when leaving. But since yesterday at least, I am feeling unusually restless and today I can't concentrate on anything or have a single coherent thought in my head. I want to just run off to the O'Hare airport and then fly off to India as soon as possible. Or is it just the Monday blues?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Root of All Evil?

This documentary, in two parts subtitled The God Delusion and The Virus of Faith, was shown on Britain's Channel 4 last month. I was a little surprised that the documentary was aired on a mainstream TV channel and got such media coverage there. Rest assured, you are not going to see anything remotely like this in America or India. Although quite good, the format was a little too small to examine religion's place in the contemporary, modern world from all perspectives or do a full-blooded theological critique, but it was well worth my time. Also, I don't think Dawkins, with his phrases like, "a process of non-thinking called faith" or "an alpha-male in the sky", is going to win any converts from the faithful folds but yes, those who are sitting on the fence might be persuaded after watching this.

There are no new arguments here. Same old things about how religion fosters artificial divisiveness, shows contempt to evidence, relies on authority and tradition as means of truth verification and because of all this leads to violence and fundamentalism. How moderates help create an environment of acceptance and how they betray religion and reason both. Why bringing up children by labeling them with the religions of their parents is akin to child abuse and so is sending them to faith-based segregated schools. Also, how dubious the claims of religion as a guide to ethical behavior are, depend as it does on antiquated assumptions of man and his place in society. And at the same time, how evolution can explain our moral instincts which are derived from altruism, kin selection and cooperation, all explained by evolution (and the selfish gene).

The best part of the program was where Dawkins goes to meet an evangelical pastor named Ted Haggard in Colorado who runs a state of the art "worshipping center". His sermon sessions resemble rock concerts (he himself resembles more like a business executive like most the modern gurus and which is perhaps what he is in true sense) and watching the blind devotion of people to the guru, makes Dawkins compare it to the Nuremberg's rally and Haggard to Goebbels. All this on his face! To his credit, the pastor, surely because of his inner spiritual energy, keeps a smiling face throughout. Although it all makes him even creepier. Dawkins later tells us that his team was thrown out by the genial pastor. The pastor was definitely pissed off!

At another place in Jerusalem, a devout explains a long history of how Jesus was crucified on that very place and lots of other things to which Dawkins says, "you don't really believe that do you?"! And of course the best sequence was where he quotes from the old testament and pronounces this judgment on God:

The God of the old testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in fiction. Jealous and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist, an ethnic cleanser urging his people to acts of genocide.

Dawkins doesn't just interview the weirdos and fantatics. Towards the end he meets a genuinely affable Bishop of Oxford, who opines on why religious texts are meant to be interpreted and not to be taken literally. To which Dawkins rather logically says, "then why do we need religious texts?". Also there are a few comments by the acclaimed novelist Ian McEwan on how he finds science exciting even as he is an artist looking for deeper meanings behind things.

All in all, good fun. I was also thinking of how Eastern religions come out much better than the three monotheistic monstrosities. Hinduism and Buddhism, at least in their original/philosophical form, do not make any pronouncements on the phenomenal world, nor do they lay out moral laws with which we should live by. This way they skirt the problems the other religions face with science and politics. Of course, there are texts in the Hindu canon (the laws of Manu for example) which try to do the same thing but thank God, they are mostly of scholarly and historical importance. If the scope of religion is limited to purely and strictly subjective and are individualistic, like true Buddhism and Hinduism it can live amicably with science and modern politics but the problem starts when even these religions are used a label for foisting a group identity on individuals.

Some excellent reviews of the documentary are here and here.
Also a reply to a critical article in the guardian here.

Some Thoughts on The Seventh Continent

Tolstoy's Anna Karenina starts with what is perhaps the most famous opening sentence in a novel ever. It says, "happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (which is perhaps true not just for families but for individuals too). This is also the reason I generally give when people ask me why I avoid films which show happy people enjoying life, you know, beautiful young people falling in love or nice families with cute kids having fun etc. The reason is simple -- they just bore me to death. Unhappy people are far more interesting in an artistic sense, in the sense they are more complex in their psychological motivations and relationships with other people. They also generally have more interesting and less-obvious things to say about life and the world we live in.

What set me thinking along these lines was two movies that I saw in the past few weeks which must possibly be the two of the most feel-bad and uncompromisingly bleak films I have ever seen. The first was Robert Bresson's Mouchette in which a young girl's suicide feels like God's grace and the other was Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent in which an ordinary bourgeois family's existential isolation and anomie grows so acute that they decide to destroy all their material possessions and then collectively take their own lives, along with their kid daughter. It is without doubt a masterpiece and obviously rests up there with the key modernist texts of European cinema, masterpieces by Antonioni, Bresson or Resnais. Just like those classic films, Haneke elevates form to the level of content, so that his use of cinematic devices, for example what he decides to put in background and what in foreground, how he stations and moves his camera, itself becomes more important than either the story, character, dialogues or the environment that they depict and as result the film speaks far more eloquently on the subjects than a conventional narrative could ever hope for.

Some of the things that he uses are narrative ellipsis and focus on the background (like in L'avventura) or the use of disjunctive and contrapuntal narration (like in Hiroshima mon Amour) or his relentless capturing of daily activities of the characters using a static camera which mysteriously achieves a complex meaning (just like Bresson's Pickpocket or A Man Escaped). Haneke in fact makes an obvious homage to Antonioni's Red Desert in a scene where the kid daughter fakes blindness in school (ostensibly in order to attract attention). In Red Desert Monica Vitti's son fakes a disablity in walking. Also there are dreamlike intermittent scenes of a tranquil beach (the seventh continent of the title) which hark back to the similar scene in the earlier Antonioni film.

What I like best about Haneke's films is not only its clarity of vision but also the way he distances himself from the hipster school of filmmaking which fetishizes violence and exults in the death of feeling and artificiality of the cinematic enterprise. He actually believes that cinema is connected to reality and it is not just a play of siginifiers, a manipulation of symbols which represent nothing but other artificial symbols. In this way his films become far more effective than the infantile provocations of, say, Gaspar Noe's Irrerversible, not to say anything about the ridiculous Kill Bill movies or that korean movie Oldboy, some of the few films which have triggered debate about the portrayal of violence in cinema in recent times and which are also some of the films, which are praised for being artificial.

Haneke's vision of contemporary life (the western bourgeois life to be specific) might be uncompromisingly bleak but his vision is also slightly heartening in the sense that they convincingly show that cinema can still do what it is supposed to do -- force the viewer out of comfortable and shallow certainties and make them question their priorities in life, question the ways they see themselves, people around them and the world in general.

Okay, I didn't say anything about the film in question but you can read about it here and here.

This promotional page of the film calls it "a better class of horror film". I completely agree. Also has this quote from Chicago Tribune review:
"THE SEVENTH CONTINENT is a calm chronical of commonplace people can erupt into despair or violence...Beautifully controlled, liberatingly intelligent it establishes Haneke as one of the more remarkable young contemporary filmmakers. The climactic half hour of this film ranks among the most truly terrifying in the modern cinema."

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Quote for the Day

The God of the old testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in fiction. Jealous and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist, an ethnic cleanser urging his people to acts of genocide.

-- Richard Dawkins in The Root of All Evil?

Just saw this documentary. More later.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent

What a BLEAK movie! It made even me feel bad about having seen a feel-bad movie. The Piano Teacher (yes that one, with Isabelle Huppert) now looks like a date movie in comparison. More later when I get over the feeling :(

This writer says:
Haneke's debut, a calm depiction of a Viennese family who form a suicide pact, is not easy viewing, but, as Adam Bingham argues, the film is optimistic in its refusal to console its audience.

Optimistic? Really?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Woman in the Dunes

This weird, enigmatic and captivating (other than the adjectives mentioned on the above poster) Japanese film had almost slipped off my mental radar until I read this article about a retrospetive of films by Hiroshi Teshigahara. If you like your films thick with metaphors and laden with symbols, you will love it. It is about a young entomologist (played by the Japanese guy from Hiroshima Mon Amour) who gets trapped with a woman in a sand-pit in a desert village. The woman's job is to keep shovelling away the sand from the pit and stop it from filling up, which if not done, will precipitate the collapse of the entire village. The man gets angry, frustrated and wants to escape but eventually accepts his condition, first with stoic resignation and finally with some "purpose" and decides to stay in the pit even when he gets a chance to escape in the end. I am not sure if I understood everything exactly, but this film is something to be watched more than once, which I haven't done.

P.S. Keep your Kafka and Camus (specially The Myth of Sisyphus) handy if you really want to understand all the implications of the story. In any case if existentialism bores you, you can at least exult at the truly amazing B/W cinematography, which definitely ranks with the best, specially of the desert landscape. That alone is worth sitting through the entire film. Another brief article on the film here.

More on Dennett

The blogosphere has been buzzing with discussions and comments on the nasty NYTBR review of Daniel Dennett's new book. I was hoping to find some responses in the letters section of the paper but I think none have been published yet. I also came across this very interesting(!) email exchange between Dennett and Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science who, by the way, holds the position that science and religion can co-exist amicably, which gives more details on the affair from an "insider's" perspective. Ruse had published an earlier review in Nature which was critical of the book too and Dennett and Pinker responded with their own articles to NYT. Those articles have not been published there yet, and Dennett amusingly says that it might be because "NYTBR is under the spell of the Darwin dreaders", as is now clear after Wieseltier's review!

It has been a good discussion to follow. You can find out what the blogs are saying by following this google blog search link.

Also, an old but still great article by Dawkins on the "convergence" between science and religion. He of course believes this is all a sham.

My own stand is closer to Dawkins's but unlike him I don't think a world free of religion will necessarily be a less evil place. People should be free to choose to believe whatever suits them, unless it doesn't harm other people's freedoms and after we make sure that the belief is not because of misinformation, ignorance or intellectual laziness.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Fear and Trembling, Woody Allen Style

These guys at Penguin Classics come up with such wonderful covers. The painting on the cover illustrates the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac which Kierkegaard uses to define his notion of faith (I haven't read the book but I have read about it). In the story "God" asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham, like a true believer that he is, promptly agrees to do so. At the last minute however, he gets some signal from "God" about the "test", spares the kid and sacrifices a ram instead. This is one example of, what in philosophy is called, "the teleological suspension of the ethical", which in normal language means that, the morality of an act is decided independent of its "purpose" or goal. Also faith requires a belief in the absurd and a leap beyond the bounds of reason.

This story is also used as an argument against the idea that morality is derived from the authority of the divine (and the subsequent argument that atheists are Godless nihilists) because the only sensible reaction to the story would be that God can never ask anyone to sacrifice his own son! In that case God himself is bound by moral laws which supercedes his own existence and authority and is, as a result, no different from us mortals when it comes to deciding what is right and what is wrong. Another example of this comes from Plato in the famous Euthyphro's dilemma.

Okay, too much of boring and dry talk. The following is something I found on internet. It is Woody Allen's take on the story. Not sure if it is the whole story or just an excerpt. Anyway, it is quite funny (I am also trying to imagine how Woody Allen would have uttered these dialogues!).

And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on." And Isaac trembled and said, "So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?"

"What am I going to say?" Abraham said. "I'm standing there at two A.M. I'm in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?"

"Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?" Isaac asked his father.

But Abraham said, "The faithful do not question. Now let's go because I have a heavy day tomorrow."

And Sarah who heard Abraham's plan grew vexed and said, "How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not." And Abraham answered, "Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that."

And Sarah said, "And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?" But Abraham told her, "Frankly yes, for to question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it's in."

And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham's hand and said, "How could thou doest such a thing?"

And Abraham said, "But thou said ---"

"Never mind what I said," the Lord spake. "Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?" And Abraham grew ashamed. "Er - not really … no."

"I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it."

And Abraham fell to his knees, "See, I never know when you're kidding."

And the Lord thundered, "No sense of humor. I can't believe it."

"But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?"

And the Lord said, "It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice."

And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.

(Woody Allen. Without Feathers)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dissecting Religion Contd.

The latest New York Times book review has a scathing review of Daniel Dennett's latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Leon Wieseltier, who is the literary editor of New Republic, starts with calling the book, "a sorry instance of present day scientism", "a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions" and concludes with calling it "shallow and self-congratulatory"! Even though I haven't read the book in question, I think some of the remarks in the review are unfortunate and wrong. For example, he calls the adpatational theory of the origin of religion a "story". Well, a more accurate term for this would be "hypothesis". Sure there are other hypotheses about the origins of religion but there are objective, well-defined criteria with which one can choose the hypothesis from a set which has the "best" explanatory power (for example Occam's razor is one of the criteria). He also makes a very confusing remark about something like, if "reason" has a biological basis, it is not "reason" at all. I have no idea what that means!

I found this paragraph interesting though:

But why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically? We see kernels and husks everywhere. There are concepts in many of the fables of faith, philosophical propositions about the nature of the universe. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they are there.

If this is indeed the case there shouldn't be any problem. Let Bible tussle with Shakespeare then. Let Plato and Bhagvad-Gita stand up to each other. I am sure Dennett and Dawkins would have no issues with this. And I think this is what Dennett means by "Breaking the Spell". Only when the religion's spell is broken, will we be able to see Gita, Quran and Bible as just any other book of art, philosophy and history, fit to be judged purely on the basis of merit of its arguments and the honesty of its purpose.

The complete review page of the book. Contains links to reviews on other sites.

Not Oscars

This is not my attempt at predicting who will win Oscars this year but just a list of my favourite films released last year. (This is another way to while away time. It is well past midnight and I can't sleep!).

Cache: The blazingly intelligent art-thriller from the Austrian director Michael Haneke was easily the most intellectually challenging film of last year. It not only raises difficult questions about racism, class, history, problems facing contemporary European societies, psychological guilt, both personal and collective, but also makes you question the basic assumptions of cinema itself by problematising the traditional relationship between the filmmaker and the audience in a way that would keep film-theorists busy for some time. Even a laid back viewer, who has barely heard of people like Delueze and Bazin (and I am one of those), will be asking questions about objectivity, representation of reality, point-of-view, meanings behind images etc after watching the film. This is as if Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock collaborated together on a single project. Can there be a more positive recommendation? I had earlier written about it here.

2046: As sensuous as Cache was intellectual, this was easily the most delirious movie going experience of last year for me. Although the story about romantic masochism and fatalism was, well, a little too romantic for me, the sights, sounds and textures were so evocative that it left me swooning throughout the film. I even completely lost the plot in the middle of the film! Wong Kar-wai takes cinematic sensuousness to new heights here, which might be the best of his career so far. And of course, needless to say, this is one of those films you HAVE to see on big screen. Previous post on the film here.

The Squid and the Whale: The funniest film of the year with just the right amount of pain, heartbreak and bitterness. At few places I was in fact laughing at myself. Just like Walt (the elder son) I have used my half-baked knowledge of Kafka to impress people (with even less successful results!) and just like his father I have often used the word "philistine" as the most preferred form of abuse ("you haven't heard of Flaubert? You philistine!"). The great insight of the film is that intellectual snobbery of this kind is nothing but another form of egotism and it wreaks enormous damage on personal relationships, as perhaps any kind of egotism always does. The writer-director Noah Baumbach reportedly based the film on his own experiences but even if you didn't know this you can make out that the film must be autobiographical -- every character, every scene is so honest, soulful and truthful that it couldn't but be based on a lived experience. Truly remarkable. Link to New York Times review.

Innocence: This extraordinary debut by the French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic was the strangest and the most original film of the year for me. It is one of those films which keeps you captivated from the first scene to the last and yet at the end you ask yourself, what was it that I just saw? Was it real or was I just dreaming? Fantastic, chilling and very rewarding. Previous post here.

The Constant Gardener: The most conventional film on the list. Also an example of how a director with a distinctive style and vision can transform what could have been a regular political thriller into something with considerable emotional force and a potent political outrage. The Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (his second film after the art house hit of 2001, City of God) not only navigates and criss crosses different timelines effortlessly but also has a weird way of composing and editing shots. This gives a powerful sense of immediacy and intimacy to scenes which become unusually effective. It also contains the best romantic pair of last year -- Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, who were both outstanding. Also a perfect nightmare for the public relationship department of big pharmaceutical companies. The film claims, rather convincingly I thought, that those multi national companies are "up there with the arm dealers". Though I am personally a little biased towards anti-capitalist propaganda of all kinds, I am sure the film will work for people with all persuasions just because it is honest, truthful and motivated by a genuine sense of purpose. Link to NYT review.

Now that I see, none of the films on my list are nominated for Oscars. What does it say about Oscars? Hmmm.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More Doom Mongering

There are two famous writers in this world who share the name John Gray. The first one is the author of one of the classics of one of the most asinine of genres - the kind of books which teach you how to be happy in a relationship. It is called Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. He has written some sequels too but I don't remember or care. The other John Gray, who I am going to write about in this post, is a British thinker and a professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He is, I gather, some kind of an expert on Liberalism, having written some obscure and highly technical books on Hayek, Mill and Isaiah Berlin. I have, of course, not read any of those books and they are obviously not what he is famous for. He is also the author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, which is one of most devastating and virulently misanthropic critique of all tenets of humanism. His most recent book is a collection of his essays and is, rather appropriately, called Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. Earlier he had written a pithy and an excellent critique of the politics and economics of Globalization, called False Dawn: Delusions of Global Capitalism. In it he showed, much before the east asian crisis and dot com bust how delusionary, unstable and unjust the contemporary economic system is.

If you, like me, are irritated with those two penny "spiritual" gurus like Deepak Chopra and his ilk who peddle phony feel-good "philosophies", these three books might be the perfect antidote, specially the first one.

Straw Dogs (it has nothing to do with the movie with the same name although thematically both are of course linked) is basically a summary and a survey of all the pessimistic philosophies from all the different schools. He starts with Heraclitus and ends with Heidegger and makes important detours in the middle with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and other enemies of illusions. Buddha and Bhagvad-Gita make cameo appearances too. The conclusion of the book is simple -- we are all doomed. Freedom is a fantasy, so is free will. There is nothing more laughable than the idea that truth shall make us free or at least make us moral. And as a result, science and rationalism are bogus too, inspire as they do, the idea of progress in our ridiculous little minds. Justice is nothing but a matter of arbitrary custom. Salvation is spiritual bullshit. And so is the idea that we can transcend our animal natures. Our existence on this planet is just a darwinian accident and the idea that human beings are on a path to fulfill some divine purpose is so ridiculous that you can't even laugh at it. Our advance on this planet can only happen with the cost of ecological devastation. And most startlingly, he argues that our unique linguistic abilities, while enabling us to write poetry, also enables us to create intellectual abstractions which inevitably creates more delusions. In short, if you are in bed, don't bother getting out of it because the world is going to end and it is going to end sooner than you think.

The most important insight of the book is about the idea of "progress". Gray argues that while progress might be a fact in the realm of science, but when it comes to ethics and politics it is nothing but a dangerous delusion. Moral progress is not an irreversible advance that we can achieve parallel to the scientific progress, as in climbing a ladder. Rather, we are always in the danger of continuously learning new lessons and at the same time forgetting the lessons of the past. It is all eternal recurrence. Also his insight about the role of Government in our lives. It is not, as Bush and his neo-con gang believe, to guide us to more moral ways of living, by imposing democracy, liberalism and free market on the unsuspecting masses of the third world but the role of the government is to protect us from each other, to make sure that our lives don't turn out to be "nasty, brutish and short".

Ahh, long post. I am kind of jobless today :) Anyway, here is a profile from Guardian.

"Of all modern delusions, the idea that we live in a secular age is the furthest from reality ... liberal humanism itself is very obviously a religion - a shoddy replica of Christian faith markedly more irrational than the original article, and in recent times more harmful."

And reviews of Straw Dogs from the same site here, here and here. The last review by Terry Eagleton, although negative, is very good and very funny. Sample this line for example:"The Fall from Eden was a fall up, not down - a creative, catastrophic swerve upwards into culture, comradeship and concentration camps."

And I just love these quotes on the blurb of the book:

At once daunting and enthralling, Gray's remarkable new book shows us what it would be like to live without the distraction of consolations.
--Adam Phillips

My book of the year was Straw Dogs ...a devastating critique of liberal humanism, and all of it set out in easy-to-digest (although hard-to-swallow) apercus
--Will Self

This powerful and brilliant book is an essential guide to the new Millennium. Straw Dogs challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be human, and convincingly shows that most of them are delusions

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I saw Robert Bresson's Mouchette two weeks back and was trying to write something about it ever since. But now I give up. Not just because it is forbiddingly difficult (which of course it is), but also because, to intellectualize the film's effects would be betraying its intentions. The film is such a brutal slap in the face, an angry, damning, stinging denunciation of this world and humanity itself. A young girl relentlessly driven to suicide -- is this Bresson's idea of God's grace? After watching this I think I will never again be able to see those films which celebrate "triumph of human spirit" without any suspicion. I am just wondering, and what I don't understand is, why is Bresson called a "spiritual" and christian filmmaker when his worldview (in this film) would make even Nietzsche (of his books, not the real man) flinch?

Proustian Musings On Valentine's Day

This op-ed article in NYT gives a good summary of anthropological and scientific theories of kissing(!).

SINCE it's Valentine's Day, let's dwell for a moment on the profoundly bizarre activity of kissing. Is there a more expressive gesture in the human repertoire?

Reading it reminded me of a passage from Proust, where the narrator dwells on the mysteries and agonies of the act of kissing. It cracks me up everytime I read it :) I just wonder if someone makes the act of kissing a means of acquiring "knowledge" (whatever that is), is it of any surprise that he would find life so disappointing, as the narrator does at the end of the novel? Anyway read the whole thing. I quote the full paragraph since it is so difficult to pick up the book itself. Don't miss his heartfelt lament on the fact that humans lack an organ exclusively dedicated to kissing :) There is other place in the novel where the narrator actually gets to kiss his girl and needless to say, he makes the whole thing as complex as a lunar landing (as some witty reviewer once put it). I can't seem to find that passage though. Will post it later. The paragraph break is mine as, unlike Proust, I believe in readablity!


I should certainly have liked, before kissing her, to be able to fill her afresh with the mystery which she had had for me on the beach before I knew her, to find latent in her the place in which she had lived earlier still; for that, at any rate, if I knew nothing of it, I could substitute all my memories of our life at Balbec, the sound of the waves rolling up and breaking beneath my window, the shouts of the children. But when I let my eyes glide over the charming pink globe of her cheeks, the gently curving surfaces of which ran up to expire beneath the first foothills of her piled black tresses which ran in undulating mountain chains, thrust out escarped ramparts and moulded the hollows of deep valleys, I could not help saying to myself: “Now at last, after failing at Balbec, I am going to learn the fragrance of the secret rose that blooms in Albertine’s cheeks, and, since the cycles through which we are able to make things and people pass in the course of our existence are comparatively few, perhaps I ought now to regard mine as nearing its end when, having made to emerge from its remoteness the flowering face that I had chosen from among all others, I shall have brought it into this new plane in which I shall at last acquire a tactual experience of it with my lips.”

I told myself this because I believed that there was such a thing as knowledge acquired by the lips; I told myself that I was going to know the taste of this fleshly rose, because I had never stopped to think that man, a creature obviously less rudimentary in structure than the sea-urchin or even the whale, is nevertheless still unprovided with a certain number of essential organs, and notably possesses none that will serve for kissing. The place of this absent organ he supplies with his lips, and thereby arrives perhaps at a slightly more satisfying result than if he were reduced to caressing the beloved with a horny tusk. But a pair of lips, designed to convey to the palate the taste of whatever whets the appetite, must be content, without ever realising their mistake or admitting their disappointment, with roaming over the surface and with coming to a halt at the barrier of the impenetrable but irresistible cheek. Besides, at such moments, at the actual contact between flesh and flesh, the lips, even supposing them to become more expert and better endowed, could taste no better probably the savour which nature prevents their ever actually grasping, for in that desolate zone in which they are unable to find their proper nourishment, they are alone; the sense of sight, then that of smell have long since deserted them. To begin with, as my mouth began gradually to approach the cheeks which my eyes had suggested to it that it should kiss, my eyes, changing their position, saw a different pair of cheeks; the throat, studied at closer range and as though through a magnifying glass shewed in its coarse grain a robustness which modified the character of the face.


Update: Found the reviews which discuss the "kissing" scene. From The New York Times (this was the "lunar landing" review I talked of) and The Guardian.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ingmar Bergman's Saraband

Went to see Bergman's Saraband yesterday. It was freezing cold outside but, as I realized later, it was nothing as compared to the coldness of Bergman's world! Saraband is a sequel (of sorts) to Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, a film which I have not yet seen. But in a way, it is not unlike his other late films Autumn Sonata or Cries and Whispers too -- it contains the same emotional brutality and full scale warfare of emotions played almost as a duet (every scene, many of which are almost monologues, has two characters either confessing something painful or hurting each other). I had expected Bergman to have mellowed down with age (he is eighty six now) and get into the romantic, nostalgia mode but I couldn't have been more wrong. His severe, harsh and painful honesty coupled with all the angst will put most of the younger art house filmmakers to shame.

The film almost feels like a filmed theatre. At few places still photographs replace static shots of landscape. Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson reprise their roles from Scenes as the squabbling couple Marianne and Johan, although it seems now they have made peace with life or perhaps they have only passed all the angst and pain to the next generation. Henrik is the middle aged son of Johan from an earlier marriage who is still grieving for his dead wife and is helplessly dependent emotionally on his daughter Karin (played by a young actress who is astonishingly good, perfectly eligible to enter the pantheon of all those Bergman actresses). In fact, the emotional codependency between father and daughter almost borders on incest! All of this, of course, leads to more and more pain in the end.

It is easy to dismiss films like these on the grounds that the characters and scenarios are not "convincing". And of course it is difficult to emotionally "identify" with a character who reads Kierkegaard and listens to Bach and then treats his children in a thoroughly monstrous and callous manner. The father-daughter relationship is also too bizarre to be called "representative". The screening I went to, had a few people even laughing at a few scenes, which I thought were rather painful. Perhaps the laughter was just an emotional defence mechanism. The film is about the costs of emotional honesty and self-examination. It is also about the paradoxical nature of love and freedom -- love which stifles and suffocates (the "sticky" love, as one of the characters exclaims) and freedom which leaves us full of existential angst.

The music box theatre was showing a double bill of Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany's on the occasion of the "valentine's day" week. But I chose to see Saraband instead. Not a bad choice at all. Specially given that I would have gone to casablanca alone too ! :)

Link to a review from Chicago Tribune which also explains the meaning of the title.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dissecting Religion

Daniel Dennett, philosopher, atheist and the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, has a new book out. It is called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and as the title indicates, it is about the need to study religion in impersonal and scientific terms. Nothing new I guess. David Hume argued the same thing a few hundred years ago. And William James wrote a very influential book on the psychological origins of mystical and religious experiences too (Both Hume and James have been on my reading list for some years now!). Anyway, there is an interesting (although mixed) review of Dennett's book here. (Link via Arts and Letters Daily):

By showing that we evolved to believe, Mr. Dennett hopes to reduce belief to the status of an ordinary human disposition, no more mysterious than our appetite for sweets or our sexual drives. And from there, he hopes, it will be only a short hop to demolishing belief altogether, as a vestige of our prehistory that has become maladaptive in an advanced civilization.

Much as I deplore the reactions against the Danish cartoons, I think the whole affair has played into the hands of propagandists of religion. How I wish Muslims and other faithfuls could read Dennett. And Dawkins, and Pinker, and Wilson. And Russell and Voltaire. And James and Hume!

Friday, February 10, 2006

"Death Takes No Holidays"

One good thing about these forgettable movies is that they inspire some good comic writing in reviews!

This review in Village Voice explains why the grim reaper is so pissed off in the latest Final Destination, "the latest examination of the perils of Thanatos interruptus ".

Also this review in NYT speculates if death might be just plain bored. Rotfl!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

My Own Two Bits of Blasphemy

More here

P.S. Christopher Hitchens makes an excellent case for mocking religions in Slate.

Monday, February 06, 2006

More Links

The latest New York Review of Books has some really cool stuff online:

The latest booker winner John Banville on the life and career of the English poet Philip Larkin.

J M Coetzee on Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

A long and dense (for me) essay on the history of western music.

An essay on Brokeback Mountain.

A film which I liked, although with a few reservations. It does a very credible job of breaking gay stereotypes (at least for me; they are neither weirdos and freaks nor masochistic artists torturing themselves for the sake of their art) and proving that they are not so different from "normal" people at all. It is also a cautionary tale about the life-destroying after effects of emotional and sexual repression, either inflicted by self or by society or by both. For me though the whole effect nearly got spoiled in one scene where the Heath Ledger character beats up a bunch of unruly bums and then poses for a shot with fourth of July fireworks filling the frame in the background. It was totally artificial and dishonest, as if to prove that, what if he is gay, he is still macho and all and can protect his wife and daughters! But the film more than makes up for this in the final scenes, which are unbelievably, and as a result painfully, subtle and understated. In fact, it is so subtle that you would miss a significant plot point if you blink an eye!

Okay, haven't read any of the links yet myself. :)

Will just be public bookmarks, to be read later!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mike Leigh's Naked

I can finally knock off one film from my dying-to-see list. I saw Mike Leigh's Naked last week and it was even better than what I had expected or read about it -- darker, funnier and far more provocative and affecting. Great acting, brilliant dialogues, fantastic score and most importantly an extremely potent social criticism. It is a thoroughly unsentimental account of people who are desperate and living on the edge of the social mainstream, cast-off as they are by the Darwinian forces of market. These characters just drift into and apart from each other in the city of London, which resembles some infernal landscape. The ties that tied them together are no longer there. The rampant individualism championed by capitalist system during the Thatcher era has torn everything asunder--family, society, state and the result is this frightening Hobbesian anarchy, where people are left "Naked", without protection, completely vulnerable to being preyed by each other.

What I found specially admirable about the film was that Leigh never gets into the self-congratulatory, sentimentalist mode, as perhaps some other director could have, and let his characters "redeem" themselves in the end by showing some act of kindness or love. It is unrelentingly bleak and extremely vicious till the very end. It is as if even a slight amount of hope could have spoiled everything and indeed it would have. He also never gets into the poetic, contemplative or "spiritual" mode and thus allows the audiences to shed tears in the name of such abstractions like "the human condition". Throughout the drama remains at the physical level and result is more of anger than of sad resignation, which is exactly the effect Leigh would have wanted.

In short it's a masterpiece. I will point to a more authoritative and far better written account of the film here. Can't help but quote this line from the article: "it[the film] tries to articulate what is wrong with the society that Mrs Thatcher claims does not exist"!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Two Links

This sounds like something direct out of Flaubert's Parrot. No prizes for guessing who wrote it!

Also a very sharp and intelligent review of Cache in Slate.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Nice article on Houellebecq in the latest London Review of Books. Good summary of his life and career so far and a few harsh words on his latest novel.

Houellebecq has established himself as one of the great international brands of popular literary fiction. But there is a great deal of disagreement over whether he’s a genius, a fraud or a reprobate. Responses to his novels largely fall into three categories. The first is euphoric: Houellebecq as visionary. According to this view, he sees the dehumanising effects of the market, the breakdown of religion and the family, and the unbearable tensions of Western life: the sexual misery, the inevitable conflict between Western morals and Islam.

The second view is that, though his perspective is not necessarily right – and probably rather regrettable – it’s an interesting and prevalent one, and illuminates the attitude of many people in modern France and Europe. As Salman Rushdie put it, ‘Platform is a novel to go to if you want to understand the France beyond the liberal intelligentsia, the France that gave the left such a bloody nose in the last presidential election, and whose discontents and prejudices the extreme right was able to exploit.’ On this view, Houellebecq speaks, though in a rarefied and intellectual tone, for les beaufs – the hicks, the Le Penistes. This is also true in the realm of sexual politics: he represents unreconstructed man, slavering and masturbatory, whose existence tends to get glossed over in the era of supposed sexual liberation and equality. As an unnamed Dutch academic quoted in a recent Sunday Times profile remarked, he reveals ‘the vile 20 per cent of himself’ that most people keep hidden.

The third attitude is outright disapproval. Houellebecq is a disgusting sexist, racist, eugenicist and pervert, who ought to repulse us. He is a professional provocateur, a marketing whizz, whose success is down to his courting of controversy, to the racist jokes and great dollops of pornography in his work.

Personally I am more or less with the first group!