Friday, April 28, 2006

An Extract from Ian McEwan's Saturday

One of the many strands of arguments in Ian McEwan's magnificent new novel Saturday is the debate surrounding reductionism and rationality. The novel is primarily about the consciousness of the central character Henry Perowne as he spends a day in his life around London (although far from a typical day) doing various things and being a professional reductionist (he is a neuro-surgeon) he tries to explain each and everything he observes and thinks about, in terms of matter inside the brain. Initially I thought McEwan was making fun of this position but after reading the whole book, I think he shows great sympathy and understanding of his protagonist's worldview. And I was extremely gratified to read some of those passages because I too think that there are no mysteries, only problems in the world, all meant to solved. And like Perowne, this is a matter of faith with me!!

This passage appears towards the end of the book as Perowne looks inside the brain of his patient and muses :

For all the recent advances, it's still not know how this well-protected one kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn't doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known, though it might not be in his lifetime. Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain's fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious? He can't begin to imagine a satisfactory account, but he knows it will come, the secret will be revealed -- over decades, as long as the scientists and institutions remain in place, the explanations will refine themselves into an irrefutable truth about consciousness. It's already happening, the work is being done in laboratories not far from this theatre, and the journey will be completed, Henry's certain of it. That's the only kind of faith he has. There's a grandeur in this view of life.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"A Race of Lifters"

All those copycat Bollywood movies were not enough, neither were the tunes lifted from foreign songs. Now even writers copy from foreign books. I was talking to a friend this morning about the whole Kaavya Viswanathan affair and he said, "Indians are truly a race of lifters"! Hahaha!!

The best is this news title from Washington Post: "Novelist's Unconscious Borrowed a Few Phrases"...

And this article from New York Times. Why don't we just shoot such parents? Over-achieving idiots!!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


LRB has an excellent article about the humanitarian (so called) face of global capitalism by the critic-philosopher Salvoj Zizek. He coins the term "liberal communist" and then goes on to find out who these people actually are and what they mean and what they do...

Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit-machines: they want their lives to have deeper meaning. They are against old-fashioned religion and for spirituality, for non-confessional meditation (everybody knows that Buddhism foreshadows brain science, that the power of meditation can be measured scientifically). Their motto is social responsibility and gratitude: they are the first to admit that society has been incredibly good to them, allowing them to deploy their talents and amass wealth, so they feel that it is their duty to give something back to society and help people. This beneficence is what makes business success worthwhile.


According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World. As for the opposition between ‘smart’ and ‘non-smart’, outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production – disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution – to ‘non-smart’ Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

The Gene Siskel film center is screening the documentary on Zizek called, simply, Zizek! in May. I am, of course, going to miss it. I had read somewhere that Zizek would himself be in attendance at the screening. Anyway, you can watch the trailer of the documentary here. There is a hilarious (to me) line in the film. Zizek says, "the fact that it is not just nothing, things are out there, that means something went terribly wrong somewhere". Haha!! That's speaking like a true intellectual! The reviews from Village Voice here and here and here is the wikipedia entry.

Monday, April 24, 2006

In Praise of Godard

Godard's In Praise of Love left me with a raging headache, when I finished watching it last evening and still I didn't understand what the film was exactly all about. I was reading some of the reviews and was surprised at the vehemence of the tone in some of them. The New York Times called it "a lavish expression of artistic impotence, a great filmmaker's elegy for his own lost relevance" and that was one of the charitable ones. The main grouse of most of them was what they perceived as film's anti-americanism, which I think is a misreading.

What Godard is railing against is the rampant commercialism of modern world, in which value of everything is reduced to its exchange value in the market. Even the personal memories of people are up for sale for the highest bidder, to be made into a lavish spectacle meant for mass consumption and profit. It is from this context that he makes fun of Hollywood and Spielberg (of Schindler's List) because they are the most potent symbols of this culture. Actually, in the film some people from the firm "Spielberg and Associates" visit an elderly couple who fought with the French resistance to make a film about them.

Also some people unnecessarily took umbrage at Godard's claiming that America has no past, that's why they want to appropriate stories from other culture (for example Holocaust). I don't think Godard was making this point. In the first part of the film one of the character says something about people perferring lavish images on screen to lived experiences. He also says something about introspection, personal history and memory. Then one of the characters reads a line from a book by Robert Bresson which says, "Let feelings bring about events, not the contrary." I think this is a very profound statement about the art of cinema and it is from this perspective that he is criticising Hollywood which shuns personal introspection and profundity and instead focusses on shallow and artificial spectacle.

I can't recommend the film to everyone but if interested it would help if you do your homework before watching it. The film drops names and references like anything. For example it would help if you know something about Simone Weil, no just having heard her name is not enough!

Some links...

Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader and Village Voice laud the film while NYT , New Yorker , Salon and Roger Ebert trash it. Here is an interview/profile of Godard in context of this film. There are many more articles and reviews on the net.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

"Re-educating" Men

An interesting discussion on Comment is Free...

What should be done about the increasing number of incidents of rape and sexual violence? The columnist at the guardian's blog thinks that the solution is "re-educating" men. She then clarifies that re-educating doesn't mean "forcibly enrolling every person with a Y-chromosome in the rape school", but rather "to change the way we talk about gender, sex and violence". Haven't we all heard this argument before? How many men, even the hardcore maxim and FHM reading crowd, I wonder, still think that raping a woman is okay? Even raping a woman who is dead-drunk, unable to refuse or consent, or even when she changes her mind in the middle of the act? Everybody knows that it is wrong when the woman doesn't explicitly says yes. But even then some men do rape women.

This whole thing about re-educating men is like arguing that someone stole or robbed because he didn't know the concept of property rights. Perhaps we should distribute copies of Adam Smith to all those thieves and robbers!! I think it will help immensely if we treat rape as a criminal problem just like any other, and not confuse it with vague sociological theories.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Some Updates...

Stuff happening in the offline world (in contrast to Zembla, where nothing much is happening!) so this blog is not getting updated on a regular basis. The status quo should continue for a few more weeks.

Actually I am not all that busy. Just for example, I spent most of the last weekend reading, "How to Read Derrida" and thinking about the apparent "logocentrism" of western thought. Heh heh! I am not sure if I understand what it all meant but I think I have some vague idea. I will write about it when I get something concrete. And I still have about 50 pages left of Ian McEwan's Saturday, which is an amazing book, one of the best novels I have read in a long time. (Actually this is the first novel I have read in the last seven months!)

Also I wanted to write about a nice French soft-core film that I saw recently. The film is called Immoral Tales by some Polish Director named Walerian Borowczyk. It is a portmanteau film consisting of four independent stories, three of which are set in historical settings and one is contemporary. The subject and the concern of all four are the same -- the lasciviousness of the humankind.

Over time I have developed a significant aversion to pornography. These days porn for me has somehow become associated with the feelings of doom and despair. The sight of rhythmically coupling bodies on screen engenders thoughts about nature, fate and free will, while doing absolutely zilch about my libido. It was in this context that I found the stories and their depictions in "Immoral Tales" erotic. It is soft-core in the sense that there are no scenes of genitals or actual penetration. Although there are many long tracking shots of breasts and pubic hair which reminds the viewers that despite all the artistic prententions and socio-historical contextualisations, it remains what it actually is, a soft-core film meant solely for titillation. If at all, the director leaves some scope for learning some facts about history or mythology. For example one of the stories is based on the life of Hungarian "blood countess" Elizabeth Bathory (of which I didn't know anything before), who purportedly killed hundreds of young virgin girls so that she could bathe in their blood. Not much is depicted in the story but there are ample scenes of naked flesh, all very artistically photographed. And finally the countess herself, who is played by the daughter of Picasso (yes, the great painter). BTW, the tagline of the film says, "you don't have to go to a museum to see a naked Picasso"). Another story is about a lusty young girl. When her mother finds her stroking and caressing the various religious objects of phallic shapes in the church in a, well, lets just say, non-religious manner, she confines her in a room where the daughter has to make do with stuff in the kitchen (cucumber etc.). Again all very tastefully done.

Yet another story is about a young boy teaching his even younger cousin about the mysteries of oceanic tides alonside lessons about how to please men. This is perhaps the most beautiful part of the story. The sight of birds flying the sky over the ocean intercut with the scenes of the young lovers is just beautiful. Finally the film ends with a family orgy in the church involving father, son and the daughter. It is not as dirty as it sounds. I found it quite tasteful again (and I respect traditions, values and stuff). Overall a very healthy viewing experience. Recommended to all those who want to add some frisson in their erotic life.

Some links (All Safe for Work)

A synopsis of the stories.

IMDB entry of the film.

And article from the senses of cinema about the director. Contains some nude images.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What I have been doing...

For all those who were worried, I am safe and sound. I don't have a broadband connection at home, at least not yet, and I am still a little confused about the new environment that I find myself in. It is strange how much things have changed or perhaps it is only me who has changed and it is just a few months that I have been away.

Anyway, I have been reading Ian McEwan's new novel Saturday and what a fantastic book it is and I am still only half way through! There are some brilliantly illuminating passages about air-travel in the post 9-11 world, about war in Iraq, the role of literature in contemporary life, specially where the protagonist, Henry Perowne, discusses the value of literature (Flaubert, Tolstoy, James, Conrad) with his daughter. A little later Perowne gets an admonishement from his daughter, when he calls the realism of Mme Bovary an example of "workman-like accumulation", to which her daughter says that Flaubert was warning the world about people "just like you". Truly, it is not difficult to imagine how Flaubert would have reacted to a man who defends the idea of "progress" by claiming that "the coffee vending machine is getting better"!

More on the book when I finish reading. Also found this interesting quote by the French poet Mallarme. In a letter to his friend he says (and I am quoting from memory), "as a poet I want my nocturnal emissions to be like milky way, while they just remain nasty patches"!!

This quote is from the book Proust Among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie. It is an epigraph to the chapter on "SEX" in the book. It looks like a very good book too. I was initially thinking it would be some high-falutin lit-crit book, it still is, but looks approachable after I read bits of it (I started with the sex chapter!). I am going to miss the Powell's book store in chicago. You won't get a hardcover university press book worth the price of a sandwich here (or even less)!