Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Heidegger on Technology

This is an excellent tutorial explaining Heidegger's essay on technology, "The Question Concerning Technology".

The key word to understand the essay, as the tutorial explains it, would be "enframing" which as I understood it, means approaching the world through predefined categories rather than letting the world reveal or unconceal the truth on its own terms (which is actually the domain of art and poetry). This essay can also be seen as a critique of science itself though I think it is more valid in social sciences where methodologies and categories are more suspect and subject to constant questioning. Although it is also true that even in so-called "pure" sciences like Physics, modern advances have shown that previous categories are no longer valid or useful. The essay also makes it clear that techonological approach to the world precedes science and reverses the idea of technology as applied science. Somewhat related, an essay on environmental ethics which uses Heideggerian terminologies. I haven't read it in full but it looks interesting.

The Facebook Problem

More thoughts on instrumentality...

Randomly blog hopping I came across this blog in which the blogger talks about why we should all cultivate a diverse set of interests because it helps us meet lots of, what she calls, "interesting and important" people. The post contains quite a few choice quotes. Sample this (attributed to some marketing guru I think):"if your goal is to develop long-term relationships with interesting people, to focus on those whose “stock prices” are low but long-term potential high." So okay, I am now a stock ticker. After a while she herself says, "Because it involves changing oneself, rather than leveraging other people in your social circle or communities." Yes, you heard it right, "leveraging other people" and then in the next line in blithe ignorance of any sort of irony she drops the name of Tolstoy!

This is sadly nothing unexpected and out of ordinary. You see this kind of thinking and approach to the world everywhere though it is probably at its most evident and egregious on social networking sites like orkut or facebook. People create their profiles and put all sorts of fancy names just to garner a kind of cultural cachet. So David Lynch becomes "David Lynch", a signifier which denotes that he or she likes offbeat films, a tag which then helps him or her in self-advertising - or building "relationships" with "interesting" people as the blog euphemestically puts it. This way the person himself agrees in his own commodification and instrumentalization - it is as if to mean that my identity is there only in relation to other people. There is no place for authenticity here.

I personally find social interactions extremely stressful and painful but I won't deny that interacting with other people is very important for one's own intellectual and emotional growth as a person and isolation can often lead to smugness, incoherence and cause a different sort of pain, among other things. (I mean interaction with real people, not the people who talk through their books or artworks, in that sense I do just fine). I had written about some of these aspects here, briefly touching on the idea about how people like to form relationships based on "comaptibility" and "type" while at the same time completely discounting the idea that relationships can mean opening up one's intellectual horizons and willingness to see the world through a perspective which is not one's own which is in direct contrast to the kind of relationship based on facebook profiles or any other sort of instrumentalized identity. This rather epistemological and ethical idea of relationship and social interaction has been replaced with a completely shallow and materialistic idea, which I find rather sad and even a cause of despair.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

John Searle on Wittgenstein

John Searle (trying to) explain Wittgenstein's philosophy on a TV program with Bryan Magee.

Lots of philosophy lessons available here. All of them look consistently brilliant and extremely helpful.

Two NYPL Discussions

The meeting of two very trendy "thinkers" of our time Slavoj Zizek and Bernhard-Henri Levy was highly publicized by the new york public library but the discussion proved to be rather disappointing. No fistfights, just a series of "I Agree But...". The audio recording of the whole session is available here.

More interesting is this video interview of Zizek in which he explains the difference between "subjective" violence, that is the violence that is perpetrated by a subject (a specific agent) which destroys the normal order of things and "objective" violence by which he means the invisible, systemic violence inherent in the system itself which helps maintain the normal order of things. As an example he says that violence in a communist society is easy to identify (even though it often leads to games about the origins of violence, "From Plato to Nato" as he says) but the violence that keeps the capitalist society going is harder to identify. He later says a few interesting things about "divine" and "mythic" violence. The interview is in five parts all of which are available on youtube.


Next day's discussion was between James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn about the current state of the literary culture and health of mainstream criticism. Everybody seemed upbeat. At the end Mendelsohn makes some contentious points, at one place expressing his bemusement at the thought of how a million people with laptops all telling us their opinions on Moby Dick! He then mentioned a few words like authority and expertise and compared a normal person publishing a literary blog to him writing a blog about brain surgery! I will desist from expressing my outrage here. The discussion overall could have been better moderated. There was also a strange audience question asking if David Foster Wallace's suicide could be seen as a "literary gesture"!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Emil Cioran Essay

This is an excellent introductory essay on the apocalyptic and gloomy Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. The site contains a few other writings which are available in English too.

I have a second-hand copy of his wonderfully titled collection of essays called "The Temptation to Exist" with a characteristically brilliant introduction by Susan Sontag. I have read only parts of it but to me the book felt like a symptom of exactly the same disease that he is diagnosing - the disease of thinking. There is also a somewhat contradictory attitude towards consciousness and thinking. On one hand he rages against relentless intellectualization which has left everything in ruins and brought us to the end of the world and here he has a lot in common with romantic and "vitalist" thinkers, even those German intellectuals who supported fascism before the war (he was himself a fascist in his youth). On the other hand he revels in the apocalypse and gloom and thunders at everybody who seem to go on with their lives as if nothing has happened.

It is a very interesting book, but one probably needs to be fully aware of Nietzsche and Heidegger to understand all of what he is saying. As for negativity I like it more when it is done in fiction, may be we should read it as fiction too - as a mind asserting its power, nothing else.

Most of Susan Sontag's introduction is available on google books.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Intelligence and Difficult Writing

In the last couple of years or so I have tried to read philosophy but haven't been able to make much progress. Of course most of these efforts have been half-hearted and unsystematic but after all my struggle (and in most cases resulting in failure) with the texts I have come to the understanding that there are two things which are at the root of the problem: first, the technical background of my education in which we deal mostly with the "formal language" (consisting of mathematical symbols or something which can be transformed into that) which merely sounds like everyday English and second, is that we are surrounded by a culture in which language is used for the most narrow and shallow commonsensical purposes, like describing something which is obvious or expressing some proposition which can be verified and falsified by facts, or at best to play some games and have fun and other such things.

What we don't use language for is to use it to represent the process of thinking itself. What we also don't use it is to question the very foundations of our "reality." The commonsensical language already assumes things which are not obvious to these philosophers and thinkers. I had for example copied a passage from Heidegger which (understandably I think) outraged some of the readers. His language is so strange because he is questioning the most basic of statements that we make with blase indifference (like the statements starting with "something is...").

I think it is ultimately the responsibility of the readers to make that extra effort and be prepared to struggle to understand the texts. I remember reading an article about German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was notorious for being deliberately obscure and difficult, which defended his style by explaining that he was merely trying to resist the commodification of language, commodification that is so endemic to our culture, which one can see in newspapers, advertising and all the popular culture which are all built around systematic abuse of language. I can't find the link now but it was probably an article by Judith Butler where she was responding to being awarded a "bad writing prize." To call these writers elitists and obscurantist to me is not fair (though some of them may surely fit the bill.) Also sometimes you do need language which is merely utilitarian (in the shallow way) like in journalism for example and in that case surely one must avoid all complexities and potential ambiguities. (The "Politics and English Language" Essay by George Orwell is deservedly a classic making the same argument.)

Then there is the idea of thinking itself. Again as a victim of a purely technical education we are merely taught this most abstract and impersonal kind of thinking. It basically involves these two steps. 1) Take the problem and transform it into a language consisting only of mathematical symbols and 2) Use all the symbol manipulation tricks you learned in the mathematics class to transform the problem to some problem which you have already solved or to a theorem you have already proved. That's the only kind of thinking one does. (If it sounds mechanical that's not surprising. A subtopic in theoretical computer science deals with automated proving.) The one who is most efficient at doing this is called an "intelligent person". Thinking which makes one question one's personal experiences in particular and extract some general essence out of them is a completely foreign concept. The same is a thinking which tries to question the most fundamental of assumptions about what our "reality" is.

Coming back to philosophy I think the main problem also is that one needs to treat it as a whole subject and start from bottoms up like one does in science and mathematics. One needs to learn how to philosophize (that is learn to read from all over again), then only one can grasp whatever is going on in those texts. I also think it is extremely important for technical people to learn to philosophize (and not just because it helps in living an "examined life" though that is of course the most important) but it also makes their lives more fulfilling. For example if you get into an argument about ethics with these people you will be asked for "data" or "empirical proof". This is exactly the kind of shallow utilitarian rationality that philosophizing can cure us of.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Negative Thinking

The New York Times has a nice op-ed article by Barbara Ehrenreich about the value of negative thinking:

"Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendants, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success.

Calvinists thought “negatively,” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh attitude that positive thinking arose — among mystics, lay healers and transcendentalists — in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough."

If you haven't read her essay on the idiotic motivational self-help books, you must do so before anything else.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

12 films I want to see...

There is a "meme" circulating in the film blogosphere about 12 films that you haven't seen and want to. (See here for Glenn Kenny's list). These are supposed to be obscure and difficult to see but in my case the selections are (comparatively) well-known, as befits a budding cinephile I guess. Actually quite a few of these don't seem to be available on DVD. Criterion is soon releasing the dvd of the Ophuls along with some of his other films which I hope I will finally get to soon. There are of course a lot more films I haven't seen and want to but these are the ones which came to my mind when I thought of films about which I am very curious and also which I feel are "gaps." Soviet cinema is of course a major gap, and quite unforgivable one. I have so far seen only Battleship Potemkin.

1. The Earrings of Madame De... (Max Ophuls)
2. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
3. Ivan the Terrible I&II (Sergei Eisenstein)
4. Mother (Vsevolod Pudovkin)
5. Before the Revolution (Bernardo Bertolucci)
6. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)
7. Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
8. Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
9. Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
10. Senso (Luchino Visconti)
11. The Dead (John Huston)
12. Poison (Todd Haynes)

Defending Losers

This is an old interview of Amit Chaudhuri but I found this bit interesting and worth highlighting:

Q: Do you think Indian writing has also suffered as a result of the country's modernizing and globalizing zeal?

A: For me the position of the outsider is of great importance to the health of any society. For any cultural practice, whether it's academic or literary, the position of the outsider, the misfit, the daydreamer and even of failure are very important categories in the creation of a truly energetic and self-critical social and intellectual space. They are important components because of the latent critique of power that they have in constituting our imaginative life.

My anxiety is that in the last 20 years India, typically for a globalizing country, hasn't theorized a position for the outsider or for the misfit or for failure. Its rhetoric is concerned with success in various ways. So Indian writing in English or any other phenomenon is always spoken in terms of success and if it is not successful, it becomes invisible.

Right now we do not have a space for the irresponsible misfit, which means we do not have a space which is at an angle to power. Even those who speak against power are in some ways in powerful positions of their own. In India, everybody is some way in some kind of nexus of power. We need to regain that space for the irresponsible.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On Instrumental Reason

Listening to so many people these days, on blogs, in newspapers, in person everywhere in fact, it seems as if the only thing that is wrong with this world is that the "incentives" are not in the right place. Once you get the incentives right everything will fall into its rightful place! It makes me want to start ranting like Dostoevsky's Underground Man who was railing against the same kind of utilitarian and (shallow) rationalist thinkers in nineteenth century.

This is also I think reflects a general trend in modern societies - the growing influence of "instrumental reason" in human affairs and progressive rationalization of our social institutions. Even legal thinkers who should be concerned with ethical questions are more worried about material outcomes of any law. Also related to this is the fact that both people with backgrounds in Economics (at least those involved in policy and planning) and Management are in the positions of power and in control of the decision making bodies, two disciplines which are based mostly on instrumental thinking. (Engineering is of course the most prominent example of instrumental reasoning but thankfully they are generally not very influential, although many people in management do have backgrounds in engineering.)

One immediate effect of this has been the gradual disappearance of ethical vocabulary from the public sphere - it is as if our language itself has been depleted. I wanted to mention it in the post where I linked to an essay on "virtue ethics." Now it feels strange to even talk of something inherently good or virtuous or an act worthy of condemnation. You need to justify it in terms of the material outcomes of any action. On top of that all we get is the talk of "rights." Everyone has to right to do what he or she pleases to do so long as it doesn't interfere in the rights of others to do the same. This kind of liberalism robs us of our shared ethical precepts and vocabularies and it results in atomised society. One is free but it is a very lonely kind of freedom and a recipe of despair.

Coming back to underground man, his main grouse with people like Mill or Chernyshevsky was that their thought didn't take his freedom and identity into consideration. They didn't realize that one could choose to act even against one's own narrow material interests just to assert one's freedom and identity. In fact it is only in that choice that true meaning of morality lies. By the same logic an incentivized and rationalized society basically is an agent of dehumanization - because it robs human beings of their identities and freedom.

It is also from this perspective that I find the success of (pseudo-)Economics books which use the same homo economicus cliches to explain human affairs and the general public discourse which use similar language so depressing. If there is a more vulgar and philistine idea than "human being as utility maximizing automaton" ever thought by a human brain, I would like to know about that. The popular interpretations of Darwinian theories fall in the same category. Only this time it is not the material interests but rather biological interests (which are worse because they are supposed to be "hardwired" in the brain.) I must say that it is only the popularisers and journalists who interpret these theories that I find vulgar. I don't have any problems with these scientific disciplines or the real thinkers who must be aware of these philosophical issues.

All of this sounds very amateurish but this is also something that troubles me a lot personally. I think it is the primary source of alienation in our societies because it comes from the realization that our lives are instrumentalized as well. We are required to justify all of our actions in material terms as well, or some such notion defined in "rational" terms. This is also the reason why I find so much solace in art and literature and even blogging. You sell yourself everyday as alienated labour just so that you can buy some stupid shit. Blogging then feels like an escape, an escape into freedom.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Prince Friedrich of Homburg

Prince Friedrich of Homburg was the last work published by Kleist before he committed suicide. It couldn't be staged however as it was thought by the officials that the play could have demoralizing effect on the army. It was ironic because Kleist himself meant it to be seen as a patriotic play. His biographers believe that the failure of the play was one of the factors which aggravated his despair and was a decisive factor in making him take that drastic step.

The excellent introduction in the new directions press edition of the play also talks about his "Kant crisis". In brief, although he was always shy, awkward and hyper-sensitive as a young person, he basically had an optimistic temperament and believed in self-improvement and self-perfection through literature (which was one of the foundations of classical German culture). Then he came across the works of Kant, specially his distinctions between how things appear and how things really are. He interpreted it to mean that human mind could never reach the ultimate truth and will forever be condemned to live with lies and illusions. This philosophical despair combined with a series of failures in the real life led him to the end when he took his own life in a suicide pact with a woman who was suffering from a terminal disease.

Prince of Homburg is considered to be one of the key texts of German drama though I found it slightly underwhelming. It doesn't really have the shattering power of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck which came a couple of decades later (which I wrote about here). In a series of short scenes through multiple acts the play dramatizes how the eponymous Prussian prince wins the war against Sweden but is condemned to death by a military court because he didn't follow the military law by the book. (He basically took charge of the cavalry mistakenly thinking that the Elector was dead). Rest of the play charts his emotional state as it changes from abject terror and despair as a he faces certain death to exultation and feeling of glory after he rationalizes his death by seeing the law of the state as the absolute, objective law - kind of, state as the secular alternative for God himself. Modern readers can't help but think of German authoritarianism which lauded similar principles of individual subjection and sacralization of state and its laws. For this reason many critics think it is a proto-fascist play.

The introductory essay however says that this is a shallow and easier political interpretation and the real, more interesting way to read it as the dramatization of an individual response to the certainty of death, in a world bereft of transcendence.

Since man is psychologically incapable of dying for nothing, the problem facing the Prince becomes one of finding a way to affirm his death. For, if it is a noble pursuit to give one's life meaning, it is an absolute necessity to give meaning to one's impending death. The key to such a psychological tour de force is guilt. It is the affirmation of personal guilt before an absolute - be it God, the father, or the state - that makes it possible for the individual to walk rather than be dragged to the place of execution. By means of this psychological process, death is not only transformed into a just punishment imposed from outside, it also gives the guilty individual the welcome opportunity to atone and cleanse himself. In Prince Friedrich of Homburg, the crucial step in this process of "personalizing" death occurs when the Prince reverses his earlier protestations of innocence and outrage and admits: "Guilty, grave guilt lies heavily upon me."

The essay also compares the Prince character to a few others in German literature most notably in Kafka's story The Judgment. (Kafka claimed him as one of his influences and even called him his "spiritual companion")

By a process of voluntarily accepting guilt and punishment, these characters believe that their lives, previously marked by mere personal desire and petty whim, have been transformed and crowned by a higher meaning. Self-negation is the price of providing one's existence with transpersonal value, a value that can only be bestowed from outside by an absolute. Although the personal cost is the highest conceivable, the individual, by negating the self, liberates himself from the terrors inherent in the thoughts of personal extinction.

Finally a short extract from the play:

Prince: Life, as a dervish once said, is a journey and a short one at that. First we rise six feet above the earth and then lie six feet under. But I now want to settle down somewhere in between. Today a man can carry his head proudly upon his shoulders. By tomorrow it may tremble on his neck and lie the next day on his feet. They say, of course, the sun also shines in the next world and upon brighter fields than ours. It's only pity that the eye must rot before it can see such splendors.

The Third Man - Documentary

Great documentary on The Third Man. Link to next sections are in the "details" of the video.

Sebald Conference Report

via complete review, a brief report in The Independent about a recent conference on W G Sebald's works at the university of east anglia:

"The main debate, it seemed, was over genre. The essayist from Utah claimed him for his tribe, as he put it. The novelist from Missouri said he was clearly in hers. The Hungarian poet put him in poetry. Down on the seafront at Southwold, which is described in The Rings of Saturn and whither his colleague and oldest friend, Professor Turner, led a coach party, one understood him suddenly as a great spinner of yarns."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Desperate City Wives

I think this is probably meant as a satire though I am not 100% sure. This might be authentic and sincere too, you never know how self-involved the yuppie scum of our megapolises can really get.

In any case it will make you laugh (unless you are feministically oriented in which case parts of it can make you cringe).

"Even as they hope they won't have to, they are making plans to economise. City wives are tougher and more practical than a lot of people realise. They are not celebrities. They are managers - plenty of them once worked in the City themselves. Economy also means home management, and already they will be preparing for some very tough cuts, though not all their decisions will make sense to outsiders.

Which holiday should they cancel first? Skiing, because it's the shortest, coldest and most expensive. How soon can they get out from under the lease on the country house - or, if the penalties for breaking it are too great, should they spend all their holidays there while the lease lasts?

Who can they let go from the staff? Most would rather do without the nanny than without the cleaner. With any luck the cleaner likes children anyway and will help out in a pinch. If there is a cook, she goes before the nanny. The cleaner also knows how to roast a chicken and wash up. Forget the garden altogether - expect to see a lot of weeds as the crisis worsens - although the unemployed may take some comfort in doing the gardening themselves. Shopping ... they have been meaning to cut down on shopping for years. Haircuts, though, they can't do without. "

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Negation of Male Subjectivity

It is disappointing to see that there are so few books in "gender studies" section (at least in the library I go to) which deal with masculinity and "men's issues." That's why I was surprised to find Kaja Silverman's "Male Subjectivity on the Margins" in the feminism and gender studies section of the library. It is actually true that many feminist books also talk about masculinity but they don't go farther than labelling conventional and normative masculinity as pathological and diseased in its pursuit of power, aggression and violence.

Silverman is one of those academic film theorists who are totally up-to-date with the jargons and theories of French philosophers (specially Foucault and Lacan) and as a result parts of it went over my head. I still picked it up because it contained an essay on two of my favourite films by Fassbinder : Berlin Alexanderplatz and In a Year of Thirteen Moons. (Not recommended to Fassbinder newbies or those with weak emotional constitution). The essay is titled "Masochistic Ecstasy and Ruination of Masculinity in Fassbinder's Cinema" and like other essays it also talks about how difficult (or in Fassbinder's case how impossible) it is for anyone to live with a "deviant" masculinity, with a male subjectivity that says "no" to power and other normative male ideals within our current cultural order. She also quotes an academic essay by critic Leo Bersani rather alarmingly titled "Is rectum a grave?" in which she supposedly explains why "rectum is a grave in which the masculine ideal of proud subjectivity is buried." Some of it sounded a little too bizarre to a newbie like me but this essay is supposed to be very influential and controversial. The main idea from as far as I could understand is that men always act from a position of differentiated power and as a result any relationship with such a being can only be masochistic. Male homosexuality is then nothing but an expression of male masochism. She talks about how Fassbinder's questions this need for "phallic sustenance" and then shows how impossible it is to live without it in the society as it is now. There are also other essays on Proust, Lawrence of Arabia, Henry James and one in which she talks about varieties of homosexualities which I have not read yet. To make sense of most of these one needs to be fully conversant with the theories of Foucault and Lacan which I am not.

An extract from the Fassbinder essay here before I return the book back:

In subjecting the central characters of In a Year of Thirteen Moons and Berlin Alexanderplatz to castration and amputation, Fassbinder also violates the integrity of what Henri Wallon would call the "body schema," that visual and postural composite which traces the corporeal outlines of the "self." Moreover, not content merely to effect a radical and ultimately unreadable reconfiguration of its protagonist's "literal" body, In a Year of Thirteen Moons insists upon dismantling as well its virtual image, the moi, That film is so relentlessly de-idealizing in the scrutiny it brings to bear both upon body and ego that the male psyche is stripped not only of symbolic, but of libidinal support.

This de-idealization represents both Fassbinder's attempt to demonstrate just how bereft of narcissistic sustenance a subject like the central character of In a Year of Thirteen Moons would be within the present cultural order, and the means by which that film further dismantles male subjectivity. In other words, the film critiques our existing system of sexual differentiation for its inability to accommodate a figure who can be assimilated neither to masculinity nor to femininity, while at the same time maximizing the intransigence of these categories in such a way as to undermine utterly any gesture on its protagonist's part toward the recovery of a phallic identification. For this reason, In a Year of Thirteen Moons entertains a highly ambivalent relation to the pain it dramatizes.

Unlike the film with which I am pairing it, Berlin Alexanderplatz never manages to move its central character into a space definitively beyond normative male subjecitivity. That text is caught in a complex double bind; although it is unwaveringly committed to the annihilation of conventional masculinity, it is also profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of achieving that goal. Berlin Alexanderplatz thus works at the same time to negate male subjectivity, and to negate the possibility of that negation. The end result is a kind of arrestation at the site of suffering. Not surprisingly, in both In a Year of Thirteen Moons and Berlin Alexanderplatz that site is susceptible to extreme eroticization.

In pursuing Fassbinder's negativity to its outer limits, we will consequently find ourselves transported, from time to time, into certain "pleasure zone" - lifted up and out of despair into a kind of delirious joy which is that negativity's other side, and which alone makes it endurable. Both the absolutely refusal of Fassbinder's cinema to provide affirmation, and the access which it periodically yields to a masochistic ecstasy or psychic sublation, locate it in some curious way within another corporeality.

Virtue Ethics

There is a great essay in the Prospect defending "the virtue ethics." Really must read. (I wonder if the wall street guys even know what it is or whether their course books on business ethics even mentions this. Consequentialism and vulgar utilitarianism has become so much like common sense that for most of us it is difficult to think about these ideas with any seriousness.):

"The ethical traditions of the pre-modern world focused on those qualities of character making for a good and happy life—the virtues. The exact nature of these virtues was open to dispute. The ancient Greeks singled out courage, temperance, prudence and justice. Christians added faith, hope and charity to the list, and downgraded pride (for the pagans a virtue) to a vice. Other virtues have had a more temporary vogue. The Renaissance favoured boldness, the Puritans thrift and industry. The east has traditions of its own. Confucius stressed filial piety, Lao Tse spontaneity. But all agreed that the virtues—some virtues—must lie at the heart of the moral life.

The virtues, for these pre-modern traditions, are the natural excellences of the species. They are to us what speed is to the leopard or strength to the lion; they are not matters of choice or self-expression. [....]

These various pre-modern traditions, eastern and western, represent a style of thinking about ethics that has become almost unintelligible to us. Under the influence of Mill and others, we have come to think of morality as a system of rights and obligations, and the philosophical problem as one of defining these rights and obligations. But where there is no right or obligation, morality is silent. A man who, having fulfilled his obligations to others, settles down with a six-pack to watch porn on television all day may be foolish, disgusting, vulgar and so forth, but he is not strictly speaking immoral. For he is, as the saying goes, "within his rights."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner directed by Tony Richardson is another extremely impressive entry from the "British New Wave" of the early 60s. I also read the original short story by Alan Sillitoe recently which is quite good as well. The film relates the story of a teenager named Colin Smith, an "angry young man" somewhat familiar from other films of the period too, who is sent to a reformatory school after getting caught for a petty crime. There he is identified and selected by the governor of the school (played by Michael Redgrave) to run in an long distance cross-country marathon championship. Most of the story is told in flashblacks, as he practices for his long distance run, which shows episodes from his life before his arrest - the grim family and social life and occasional fun and happiness with his friends. But when the time comes on the final finish line he realizes a great chance to assert his freedom (not the literal freedom but freedom of spirit and individuality) and the oppositional anti-establishment stance. The ending is pessimistic and bleak but paradoxically also very inspiring and empowering.

What I loved in this film (and other films from the period) was its tone - the disaffected, hyper-articulate and angry voice of protest against the authority and the society: sort of working-class Holden Caulfield with hyper sensitive class awareness. I also loved the B&W cinematography which makes the grim outdoor locations look so evocative. And not to forget the sheer bloody-minded and totally anti-Hollywood style endings. Two weeks after I have still been thinking about "Billy Liar," the character Tom Courtenay played in the film of the same name (which I wrote about here). He is equally wonderful in this film. Every body gesture, every single twitch of the face (I am already in love with his smile, even though he smiles very rarely) conveys something complex and profound. Nothing is ever wasted. He is probably more well-known in Britain where he has been active on stage for many years but he really deserves celebration outside as well. His performance in both films has already become one of my all-time favourites.


A few words About the story by Alan Sillitoe (who wrote the screenplay for the film too). It is written in the first person and film pretty much follows it closely. The outdoor locations feel much more evocative and powerful in the film and so does Tom Courtenay's performance which transcends the character written in the story. On the other hand there are some wonderful monologues and eloquent diatribes some of which are there in the film too but the story has more of them. At one place in the film Colin rages, "Do you know what I'd do if I had the whip hand? I'd get all the coppers, governors, posh whores, penpushers, army officers and members of parliament and I'd stick them up against this wall and let them have it 'cause that's what they'd like to do to blokes like us." There is more of this in the book. It also helps to read the book imagining that particular accent, it becomes much more interesting and powerful then. It is written in a straight-forward way but it is the kind of writing whose authenticity and genuineness of the voice you feel in the gut and you don't feel the need to do any "close reading." Both story and the film highly recommended.

Critics are Them. Bloggers R Us.

A hilarious article on film critics. Absolutely must read.

The picture above is of Addison DeWitt, the "great" drama critic in All About Eve, played by George Sanders.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Machado de Assis

There is an article in New York Times about the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis on the occasion of his death centenary. Rather coincidentally I am in the middle of reading his novel "The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas" which has to be one of the most hilarious books I have read in a long time. It is hard to summarize but it is sort of Brazilian Tristram Shandy (he explicitly mentions it as one of his influences in the preface). I will try to write about it in more detail when I am done with it but for now here is the synopsis from the book to whet the appetite of those who haven't read it. (Susan Sontag also wrote an essay on the novel which is collected in "Where the Stress Falls".) And of course you can't but love a book which starts with a "dedication" like this: "To the Worm/Who/Gnawed the Cold Flesh/of My Corpse/I Dedicate/These Posthumous Memoirs/As a Nostalgic Remembrance"


"Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man," writes the extraordinary narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. "The gaze of public opinion, that sharp and judgmental gaze, loses its virtue the moment we tread the territory of death. I'm not saying that it doesn't reach here and examine and judge us, but we don't care about the examination or the judgment. My dear living gentlemen and ladies, there's nothing as incommensurable as the disdain of the deceased." Indeed, writing his memoirs from the other world gives Bras Cubas a certain freedom from both social and literary conventions. And while he may be dead, he is surely one of the liveliest characters in fiction, a product of one of the most remarkable imaginations in all of literature, Brazil's greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

Famous in his lifetime and still revered throughout Latin America, Machado de Assis has remained little known in the English-speaking world. He represents an important antecedent for the experimental fictions of Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes, and others. In this wildly inventive book, de Assis is, in fact, much closer to such postmodern masters as Calvino, Kundera, and Marquez than to the conventions of the nineteenth century realist and romantic novel, which the narrator continually and hilariously mocks.Irrepressibly whimsical, irreverent, chatty, and charmingly self-absorbed, Bras Cubas is forever intruding into his narrative, questioning, lecturing, and elbowing the reader, commenting on his writing and its highly unusual style--"this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble,yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall"--congratulating himself on particular chapters, wondering whether to cut others out, and interrupting his life story with all manner of digressions, from a philosophical discourse on the purpose of the nose to a visionary ride on the back of a rhinoceros to find the origin of the centuries. Along the way we're treated to a marvelous cast of characters, including the outlandish philosopher Quincas Borcas, who asserts that "asceticism is the perfection of human idiocy," and Virgilia, the beautiful married woman with whom Bras Cubas carries on a passionate and not-so-secret love affair. By turns flippant and profound, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas is the story of an unheroic man with half-hearted political ambitions, a harebrained idea for curing the world of melancholy, and a thousand quixotic theories unleashed from beyond the grave. It is a novel that has influenced generations of Latin American writers but remains refreshingly and unforgettably unlike anything written before or after it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Schadenfreude on Wall St.

I know it is rather insensitive of me, and in fact downright foolish because I am one of those people directly affected, but somehow looking at today's wall street journal (from a distance, I absolutely never touch it) gave me a lot of satisfaction and pleasure. So finally some lesson for those snooty and arrogant morons with their endless gadget-talk and other bottomless stupidities. I used to spend a lot of time with those guys, some of them so-called "friends" but no so much now. Things will get back to normal and as they always were - there is no doubt about that but it is still a nice feeling. I know this will probably be interpreted as a cheap-shot - resentment of lowly guy in IT & Operations against those who made it big but what the hell. Now back to the stupid work I was doing and thinking about "Aesthetics of Negativity in Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz." (A long post on the same coming up later this afternoon.)

Somewhat related, you must read this post on lenin's tomb - a response to a career advice article about how "office gossip and banter is costing the UK £43 billion a year". Now isn't that too bad? Don't miss the comments. I don't indulge in gossip or banter but I do see my office mostly as a free broadband service. My own, rather measly that's granted, way of rebelling against the capitalist tyranny.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace

I suppose there will be more detailed obituaries and appreciations later on. For now I liked the one in Salon and the one in new york times is also good, if somewhat perfunctory.

"He talked about how difficult it was to be a novelist in a world seething with advertisements and entertainment and knee-jerk knowingness and facile irony. He wrote about the maddening impossibility of scrutinizing yourself without also scrutinizing yourself scrutinizing yourself and so on, ad infinitum, a vertiginous spiral of narcissism -- because not even the most merciless self- examination can ignore the probability that you are simultaneously congratulating yourself for your soul-searching, that you are posing. He tried so hard to be sincere and to attend to the world around him because he was excruciatingly aware of how often we are merely "sincere" and "attentive" and all too willing to leave it at that. He spoke of the discipline and of the abrading, daily labor such efforts require because the one imperative that runs throughout all of his work is the intimate connection between humility and wisdom."

New York Times has also put together a page which links to reviews of his books and also links to a few essays written by him, including one he wrote on Federer.

My acquaintance with his writing so far has been limited to a few of his essays. I specially loved his essay on David Lynch (partly because I am quite familiar with the subject and share his enthusiasm too). His essays like his fiction are quite "offbeat" too, and not just because they are full of footnotes, which sometimes occupy more than half of the page (and sometimes even full page)! In fact they can be downright annoying to those looking for straightforward argumentation and reportage. The David Lynch essay moves back and forth between an overview of Lynch's career and behind the scenes reportage from the sets of Lost Highway and in between offers critical commentary on his work (mainly Blue Velvet) in the context of contemporary avant-garde art. He says that Blue Velvet was enormously influential to him when he was a student because Lynch's work showed him how experimentalism is needed first of all to "honour the truth" rather than to prove an academic point or, in his case, merely as a medium of expressing a displeasure with the prevalent "commercial realism of new yorker school" as he was trying to do then. His essay on "Television and American Fiction" also talks about the ubiquity of irony in contemporary mainstream culture and how that mixed with irreverence, ridicule and empty experimentalism generates despair and results in a "cultural stasis." Both of these essays are collected in a volume titled "A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again." The title essay refers to a magazine piece he wrote about a trip on a luxury carribean cruise in which, among other things, he talks of how one has to relinquish any sort of agency or self-consciousness and is in effect forced to have fun. I didn't read the whole thing (it suffers from a rather acute case of footnote-mania) but it is quite good. His next essay collection also had a great short essay on Dostoevsky which in effect lamented the impossibility of any contemporary writer even attempting to do what Dostoevsky did. It was again a critique of indifference and irony which pervades mainstream culture. Pankaj Mishra wrote a good review of the book in New York Times.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pedro Paramo

I read this novel a couple of months back but somehow I missed blogging about it. This is the kind of the book which is very hard to summarize and to pin it down to its plot or sundry "themes" feels like betraying the spirit of the work. I won't let myself be deterred by that however. I will also recommend this essay to those who are interested which goes into a lot of background detail and also offers some interpretations in the context of socio-political history of modern Mexico.

The novel begins with a young man named Juan arriving in a remote village called Comala in search of his father Pedro Paramo. He has come there because his mother entreated him before dying to visit her husband to "make him pay, for all those years he put us out of his mind" and claim what "belongs to you". While on his way, he meets a man who says that he is a son of Pedro Paramo too and that their father is dead! He shows Juan the way to a woman's house where he can stay. When he meets the woman she tells him that she already knew of his arrival because his mother told her so! She also expresses her regrets because she couldn't keep the promise that she has made with his mother, the promise that "we'd die together" and "That we would go hand in hand, to lend each other courage on our last journey - in case we had need for something, or ran into trouble."

After these first few pages the narrative becomes much more bewildering and complex. Juan learns that Comala is actually a ghost town and all the human figures that he comes across are spirits who only have "voices". What makes it specially strange is that all those voices that we hear in the story are never grounded in conventional realistic descriptions of the appearance. As Susan Sontag in her short introduction to the book, rather startlingly, says, "Being dead, they have nothing to express except their essence." I think this is the key to understanding how the novel works and how we should see the ghostly figures. These people are dead (or in fact some have left the village and migrated which in effect is the same) but their memories, dreams, sorrow and suffering continue to remain there in order to haunt the landscape of Comala. It is actually hard to figure out everything from a single reading but from their fragmented voices a picture does start to emerge of a place made desolate by outside forces and also of the main character of Pedro Paramo himself who turns out to be one of those tragically macho characters that latin american novels are so full of (including quite a few who are political dictators).

Rulfo initially wanted to call it "The Whispers" which would have been a perfect title because it accurately captures the experience of reading all those voices and fragmented monologues. I think Susan Sontag's comment also captures what makes it so different from a realistic novel. In general novels which have fantastic elements are still bound a realistic form and mode of language - a language which tries to capture the surface details accurately and in detail, trying to give it an illusion of the real. This novel also feels real despite its fantastic elements but not because Rulfo wants to create an illusion of the real. His style is extremely spare and minimalistic (free of all the pseudo-literary verbiage that vitiates so much of mainstream contemporary novels) and I think that's what makes it so special and that's why it succeeds.

This is another essay in The Nation which I found very helpful. It also lists various possible interpretations of the story which again goes to show how important is it to read it with enough context:

"Innumerable interpretations have been spun about Pedro Páramo. It has been said to represent, embody, allegorize or illuminate: the times of Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship, the social context of the Revolution, patriarchal rancher culture and the repression of women, the poetic qualities of rural speech, Mexico's relationship with death, the lingering influence on Mexicans of Aztec cosmology, Mexican deruralization and the ghost towns it created, Mexican culture, Mexican history, Mexican modernity, universal myths and archetypes. All of these interpretations are right, except those asserting that they alone are right. For me, the novel is about the Novel: the wonders of storytelling, the power of the literary word that spins so fast it never lets the reader catch it."

Complete Review also has a review and gathers some links to other reviews and essays.

Not surprisingly it has been adapted into a film too. There are stage versions as well. Youtube seems to have the film in its entirety but unfortunately there are no subtitles. I did however see the first half hour or so of the film because it follows quite closely to the story in the book. It is actually quite impressive. There are also talks of another version which is coming out in which Gael Garcia Bernal is involved. I wonder whether he plays father or the son.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Trolley Song

"The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis...

I was looking at this AFI list of 100 greatest songs in Hollywood films which reminded me of another song I had almost forgotten: Suicide is Painless from MASH. This song was written by Altman's son when he was a teenager. I don't know if there is any connection between this and the teenager played by Lindsay Lohan in A Prairie Home Companion who writes poems about suicide too (of course without having any real clue about what life or death means). This song is quite good though...unmistakably written by a young person, but quite sincere, honest and even witty.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

These days I am catching up with the British New Wave classics of the early 60s. Karel Reisz's 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is considered an important milestone of the same movement. It is no doubt a great achievement but it suffers a little in comparison with Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life which came a few years later, because the setting, the characters, the tone and the basic themes are common to both to a great extent. Anderson's film is much more stylish and also much more unrelentingly bleak and bruising and as a result packs a more powerful punch. In fact Reisz was initially roped in to direct This Sporting Life but he declined saying that it was very similar to what he had already done. He then acted as a producer and finally Anderson directed it.

Albert Finney plays a rebellious young man with a dead-end job at a tool factory whose personal motto of life is "I'm out for a good time - all the rest is propaganda!" and to fulfill the same he sets out on Saturday nights having fun and generally drinking himself sick. "Don't let the bastards grind you down!" he screams at his superiors at work and anybody who questions him or asks him to "settle down." To him settling down would mean accepting a life that his parents and in fact everybody around him has accepted as real - life spent in the kitchen and glued in front of the TV. In his rebellious quest he finds himself getting involved with a married woman (played by Rachel Roberts who was also wonderful in This Sporting Life) and when things get unexpectedly messy he is finally forced to make some tough decisions. The ending of the film is somewhat ambiguous but nowhere as bleak as in This Sporting Life.

Like Billy Liar Arthur is also struggling to keep his humanity intact in the grinding circumstances of the world he lives in. But unlike Billy he takes recourse in rage and anger to assert his individuality and freedom, even when this doesn't really take him anywhere for real. "What ever people say I am, that's what I'm not," he screams looking at the mirror. There is also a lot of anger directed towards the older generation who romanticise the past. "Them was rotten days" as one of the character says in the film after being subjected to some golden-ageism. Albert Finney really shines in the role as do the rest of the cast. The accents are a little tough to get into but once you get into the tone and rhythms of the voice patterns it becomes easier and in fact all those great dialogues I quoted above will make sense only when they are spoken in a proper accent. All in all, it is another forgotten gem from the British New Wave film movement.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

John Schlesinger: Billy Liar

Once in a while one comes across a book or a film which feels as if it was there just for you, as if you owned them, they belonged only to you. John Schlesinger’s 1963 film Billy Liar made me feel like that. Of course I am not the only one who feels this way. I am sure even the strongest, the most decisive and action-oriented of people have experienced moments in their lives in which they felt that life was “difficult” and taken a refuge in inwardness, a private world of dreams, thoughts and fantasies – which feels like the only way to assert one’s freedom, individuality and autonomy in an indifferent outside world bent on crushing you. Billy Liar is considered to be one of the popular classics of British cinema of the 60s and I am only surprised that it took me such a long time to come across it. I have already seen it three times and can see many times more. This is quite simply one of the finest films I have seen in a long time and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Billy Fisher (played by a sensational Tom Courtenay) dreams of becoming a writer but spends all his time daydreaming about an imaginary country Ambrosia where he is by turns a war hero, a Mussolini-style dictator and a president. In his more down-to-earth mental wanderings he imagines gunning down his nagging family and his pesky boss. He also can’t help inventing lies about his family background making it sound melodramatic. When the film starts his lies have already gotten him into some trouble. He finds himself engaged to two girls who both even share the same engagement ring. He has misspent the office money and fudged the accounts. His firm by the way is in the business of selling "funeral furnishings." Most of it is incredibly funny in that special painful way, specially because Schlesinger edits together the fantasy and real sequences so well. In the later half of the film he meets the free-spirited Julie Christie (some sort of proto-hippie) who has also rejected the immediate world she is in but unlike him she is able to “act” on her fantasies of freedom. Towards the end there is a very poignant scene where Billy suddenly becomes serious and asks her if she also finds life to be "difficult." She just smiles, we know that she understands what he is going through. When she offers him a chance to escape to London he realizes how important it is for him and for a second we see him weighing down the two sides of the decision – the security of his private life as opposed to escape into the real with its fears, uncertainties and responsibilities, everything that comes with it. In the end you just pray that she could just hold him tight and not let him leave, but well ,the ending wouldn’t have worked the same way as it does now.

The interplay of fantasies with dreary reality reminded me of the recent film Pan’s Labyrinth though I think this film is much superior and much more complex than that. As I said it is nothing extraordinary to invent a private world in which one can be secure, free and powerful and most of our life as teenagers are indeed built around the same. That’s why superhero fantasies are so powerful and appealing and so universal. Although the basic idea is the same I thought Billy Fisher was a much more complex character than your average teenager fantasizing about being a superhero. Most of the film is actually shot on the outside, real location in the city of Bradford which is in the process of modernization with old buildings being demolished and new ones coming up which are no less dreary than the old ones. In this context the fantasies and lies of Billy rather paradoxically make him a much more “authentic” character because he is rejecting and negating the drab realities of his existence. He has escaped into a higher realm of truth which is beyond the “facts” of his world. This also reminded me of Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities who says that in the modern world the “sense of the possible” can exist only in an inward-looking life – an approach built on the negation of what is merely “real” in a shallow way. In fact the only difference between Billy Fisher and a great artist or a writer is that he can’t get himself to act and start his novel that is inside him. (He gets stuck on what name he should choose before starting the book)

Tom Courtenay as I mentioned above is absolutely sensational in every single scene (and he is in almost every scene of the film). His tone and voice rhythms with which he relates his fantasies on the voice-over give those scenes a sense of poignancy which they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Julie Christie has a shorter role but she is absolutely stunning as well. The sequence in which she walks through the streets swinging her handbag is just pure cinema. Actually this scene is one of the hallmarks of French new wave cinema too – a celebration of freedom and free-spiritedness. Her character is also quite refreshingly forward looking – she openly says that she has had quite a few boyfriends and she is still portrayed as a “good girl.” The outdoor location cinematography is brilliant too in the way it uses those sights and sounds and makes them intrinsic to the story. There is a wonderful twist sequence with a wonderfully silly song (“Twisterella”) which almost made me break into a twist. Other characters are perfectly played as well – in fact I can’t think of any single thing in the film which is any less than pure perfection. I also think that they copied the “plastics” sequence in The Graduate from this film or at least took their inspiration from here. (In one of the sequence Billy’s boss shows him a miniature model of coffin made of Plastic - the future obviously!!)

Actually characters who struggle with their indecisiveness and their inability to seize the day and act are quite common in fiction and films but there aren’t many as painfully real as Billy Liar. This is one of the rare occasions when even after realizing that it was all just a story I kept wondering whatever happened to him after the story ended? What did he end up with and what became of him eventually? The truth is not that hard to find I guess, because I feel he is somewhere close to me, in fact a little too painfully close. Lots of details about the film and specially its sources here. I am already looking for the original novel now.

Madness Melancholy etc.

There is a nice review-essay on manic-depressive illness by Oliver Sacks in the latest new york review of books. It is actually a review of a memoir written by father about her daughter's bouts with the illness:

"One may call it mania, madness, or psychosis—a chemical imbalance in the brain—but it presents itself as energy of a primordial sort. Greenberg likens it to "being in the presence of a rare force of nature, such as a great blizzard or flood: destructive, but in its way astounding too." Such unbridled energy can resemble that of creativity or inspiration or genius—this, indeed, is what Sally feels is rushing through her—not an illness, but the apotheosis of health, the release of a deep, previously suppressed self."

Rather disappointingly NYRB these days seems to contain mostly "topical" essays. Feels like a waste to me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Vincent Minnelli: Brigadoon

Another charming and criticism-proof musical from Vincent Minnelli. To find faults in this film is to not get the film at the most fundamental level. I thought it was less successful artistically than the two other musicals by Minnelli that I saw recently. The dances aren't as elegantly choreographed and also not as expressive or witty as in The Bandwagon (the "dancing in the dark" sequence or the "girl hunt ballet") and the songs never quite make you feel bursting into singing yourself as the songs in Meet Me in St Louis do (I am still humming "the trolley song" two weeks after I saw it).

Wikipedia tells me that Brigadoon was originally a German fairy tale but apparently so that the post-war audiences wouldn't be offended the guys who wrote the stage musical based on the story changed the setting to Scotland. It made sense because in popular culture at least Scotland has this image of being a very idyllic, rustic place where people speak in strange accents and use very curious sounding words and phrases. Two tourists (played by Gene Kelly and Van Johnson as his wisecracking buddy) from New York City no less, go on a hunting expedition to Scotland and get lost. While wandering through the forest on the highlands they come across the village Brigadoon which is not on the map. As they later learn the village comes to life only once in hundred years and only for one day. Things happen, as they do in fairy tales, very quickly (love at first sight etc). Gene Kelly falls in love with a pretty Scottish lass played by the beautiful Cyd Chariss (who died a few months back). But at the end of the day our hero can't quite make up his mind to live in Brigadoon forever and returns to the dreary New York City with its dull, phony, noisy and materialistic life. But as everybody knows the power of true love can never be underestimated even when it comes to miracles so the film ends on a happy surprise note.

I don't think there can be any argument that the isolationist fantasy presented in the film is deeply reactionary. People in Brigadoon believe in the superiority of their own ways of life and they don't want anything to do with the outside world and they are happy and smug about their isolation. When one of them wants to escape he is condemned not just because it will spell the doom for everyone but because he is not able to see possibility of happiness in Brigadoon's culture and beliefs. The other part of the story - that one has to suspend rational judgments and be willing to believe in miracles doesn't trouble me because it can be interpreted metaphorically and this is exactly what makes great fairy tales so resonant, even "poetic" in their effect, if not in their execution or storytelling. I also loved the New York City sequence. It very succintly and powerfully showed how empty such lives really are (though I would say that for me life in Brigadoon would be a little dreary too).

The songs are quite good here as well though not the same as Meet Me in St Louis. I loved the "Waiting for my dearie" song in which Cyd Charisse sings about how she would rather remain an old maid than get married to someone who is not her true love. One feels like resisting such unbridled display of naivete, romanticism and hope but can't help getting swayed by the overall effect. Two other songs "Go Home with Bonnie Jean" and "Heather on the Hill" are also quite good and later also has some good romantic dancing. The Scotland of course is not the real Scotland but created on the sets. I doubt if the real Scotland looks like the one presented here but that again is missing the point of the film. In most of the scenes the background does retain the illusion of depth which is all that is needed. Parts of it are more like a ride in theme park but like most fairy tales it does have a core of truth beneath all the glitterings of its artificial surface.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Life-affirming literature?

The concept of "life-affirming literature" seems like a contradiction in terms to me, specially in the world we live in where we are already surrounded by so many phony messages by advertising, homilies of religious gurus, the political propaganda and other such frauds which do the same thing. (Like "Negative things happen to negative people" which I overheard in a conversation today.) What we desperately need instead is a voice of negation and that's what we should look for in art and literature because only in negation we can hope to find truth and freedom. There is a long tradition in philosophy when it comes to pessimism and negation but somehow when we talk of art and literature we (by that I mean the common readers) feel forced to justify and explain - if it is art it must have something positive to say about life.

I was thinking about it and a few other things while watching the recently released Elegy, a very disappointing film based on a moderately interesting book (Philip Roth's The Dying Animal). It was also I think a very personal reaction. More and more I realize that despite being aggressively anti-religious, my views on "the mind-body problem" are actually somewhat theological if not puritanical. I idealise "the life of the mind" which to me feels the same as negating "the life of the body". It is from this perspective that I found the film so depressing (and not in a good enlightening way).

It has actually become almost a cliche in fiction and films - an old man facing death desperate for a last grasp of life reaches out for pleasures of young female flesh - basically the absurd and sordid drama of human condition all over again till the very last moment. And this is even more ironical because the protagonist in the film is a professor of literature - someone who is supposed to be devoted to the life of the mind! Maybe what Roth is doing is a form of negation too - the negation of the idea that the body and the baser aspects of life can be transcended for a higher ideal where one can be genuinely free. I wonder what he thinks of the stages of life as prescribed in Hinduism where old age means "Vanaprastha" (literally, departing to the forests) when one starts to detach oneself from the worldly affairs and prepare for an eventual "sanyas" (complete renunciation). It would be okay with me (even though I do find it very depressing) if Roth thinks that human beings are too weak to leave behind everything and go for Vanaprastha but I doubt it. I think on the other hand he sentimentalizes sex and sees in it something positive and "life-affirming" (at least in principle because all such attempts prove to be futile).

I remember reading Luis Bunuel's autobiography My Last Sigh where he describes his own old age and intimations of his own mortality wonderfully. He says that only in his old age he could feel truly free and truly alive and could see everything clearly. (His last film "Obscure Object of Desire" is, among other things, a hilarious illustration of how sexual desire can blind people to the obvious.) This view of human mortality and old age in general is there in Proust too and that's what makes the last volume of his novel so powerful and moving and puts all the sexual hankerings, jealousies and all sorts of troubles that rest of the volumes document in obsessive detail in context. Personally I am really looking forward to my own old age (even though I already live a life of almost-vanaprastha) and I hope I feel like the narrator in Proust rather than one of those Rothian characters when I get there.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Lindsay Anderson: This Sporting Life

This Sporting Life was the first film directed by Lindsay Anderson and by any criteria it is certainly an extremely impressive debut. It belongs to the cycle or genre of British films in the early 60s which had angry young man and working class protagonists and which dealt with gritty and realistic subject matter. They are also, rather condescendingly I think, known as "kitchen-sink" films. There are lots of scenes shot inside the house (indeed around kitchen and sink) and it is all very depressing and gloomy as expected but that is only one part of the film.

Richard Harris (who played Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films) plays Frank, an aspiring and ambitious rugby player, who gets a lucky break because of his aggressive and confrontational style of playing. Although financially secure his attempts at transcending his class identity prove unsuccessful. Even more bitterly he is rebuffed by his widowed landlady who refuses to return his attentions mainly because she is still mourning for her dead husband and also because she can perhaps see through his macho-posturing and his violent personality and realise how hopeless their relationship will be in a conservative society like theirs.

The film is quite long and the story (and specially the ending) is utterly and relentlessly bleak but it is also very gripping mainly because the two lead actors are so good. Richard Harris looks and acts like young Marlon Brando - the inarticulate angry young man who can express himself only through aggression and violence. Rachel Roberts who plays the landlady also gives a painfully moving performance. They were both nominated for quite a few awards that year. The film also becomes more interesting because Anderson uses a non-linear style of storytelling with unexpected and random flashbacks. It is confusing initially but once you get into the rhythm the effect becomes very powerful. It is also shot very beautifully in a stark and realistic manner using the landscape to capture the feelings of despair and hopelessness very well. This goes very highly recommended! I am already looking for other kitchen-sink films now.

The Stupidity Crisis

Arts and Letters Daily points to an article (part 2 here) about the stupidity crisis that is supposed to be plaguing American culture, forcing certain academics to write books with titles like "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future." The culprits are familiar: institutionalized anti-intellectualism, entertainment industry, consumerism, religious fundamentalism, political correctness, postmodernism, course-work centered around grades, google, youtube etc.

Film Criticism and Internet

I generally stay away from these discussions but this "symposium" about film criticism and internet in Cineaste magazine has lots of eminent (American) film critics and bloggers weighing in on the issue. Nothing new but it is nice to have all sides and all arguments on the same page.

I agree with most of the objections that serious professional critics have with the film criticism found on blogs. I have often observed that I get distracted very easily while reading on the Internet, specially if it is a long form essay. You read a paragraph and then you click something else and you have already lost that thread of thought. Earlier people used to get impatient while reading but in this age of youtube videos even watching a two hour movie (forget something like Berlin Alexanderplatz) feels like asking a little too much. There is also the common complaint about the tone: high on opinion and low on thoughtfulness. But ultimately it all depends on the reader. One can choose what to read and what to focus on and try to hold on to a state of mind for some time without letting oneself be distracted.

On the other hand it is also true that for people who are not in academia or those who don't have access to academic libraries there is often no other alternative to Internet for access to criticism or in fact to secondary literature in any other form. I wish more serious criticism were available online, at least those back issues of journals and reviews.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

David Lean at Film Forum

Film Forum is holding a comphrehensive-looking retrospective of David Lean's films which includes his early obscure works too which I have not seen. I specially want to see his "Madeleine" which sounds really intriguing. The film forum website as always is worth bookmarking.

Also an article by Armond White about the same...

Stifter Review

Adam Kirsch reviews Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal which has just been published by the NYRB Classics. He has been on my to-read list for quite some time.

"Thomas Mann came closer to the true experience of reading "Rock Crystal" when he praised Stifter as "one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature." In "Rock Crystal," as in a Mann story, plot and description are never "innocent," no matter how lovingly they are elaborated. Rather, as the novella unfolds, succinctly but without hurry, it evolves into a parable of frightening depth. It is no more than 25,000 words, if that, but in this short space Stifter transports the reader to the heart of the world's mystery, before returning him to a comfortable dailiness that henceforth cannot help but feel haunted."

There is also some news about new york sun shutting down its operations because of financial difficulties. That would be a shame because it has probably the best book and in general arts review section of all American newspapers. The new york times book review doesn't even come a close second even though it has more pages and more resources.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Practical Philosophy?

So now we have articles about philosophy in the "health and well-being" section of the newspapers! Julian Baggini talks about a new series of philosophy books which aim to teach the "art of living". What happened to the good old "Examined Life" I wonder?

He also quotes Alain de Botton whose "The Consolations of Philosophy" (an example of the genre) has to be one of the worst books I have ever read - truly an insult to reason and the history of human thought. Philosophers were aghast at the book and its popular success and rightly so. Here is one review. He has also written a book on Proust called "How Proust Can Change Your Life" which is as idiotic and as irritating as the title makes it out to be.

An Extract from Juan Goytisolo's Marks of Identity

Juan Goytisolo's Marks of Identity is the first in a loose trilogy of novels (the other two being Count Julian and Juan the Landless) that were first published in the early 70s. All three were banned in Spain for a long time mainly because all three are about the negation and rejection of Spanish identity, or at least the official Spanish identity as propagated by the Franco regime. These are also loosely autobiographical. Goytisolo himself spent his childhood in the shadow of the bitterly fought civil war and then the repressive Dictatorship of Franco finally made him leave his country in bitterness. He settled first in France and then in Morocco where he lives even now.

I am still making my way through the book. It is extremely difficult and complex to read but there is also something very compelling about the prose which makes you curious and keeps you going on. The syntactical aspects of the prose (mainly his strange punctuation) are not that hard to get over but it is rather the extensive knowledge of Spanish history and tradition that he assumes that ultimately will deter even the most energetic and adventurous readers who are not Spaniards or who don't have a degree in Hispanic Studies. Still, I think he is one of the most original and important living European writers - certainly much more interesting than his countrymen Javier Marias or Enrique Vila Matas (two Spanish writers whose works are available in English and I have slight familiarity with. Any other names by the way?).

Here is one extract from the opening pages of the book. This is preceded by a long passage which talks about people's reactions to the exiled narrator's visit to his hometown:

That was how they were talking about you when the incident of the documentary became known, in cafes and gatherings, meetings and parties, the self-satisfied men and women with whom a laughable decree of fate had awarded you at birth as fellow countrymen: dim childhood friends, innocuous schoolmates, female relatives with cold and severe looks, virtuous and sad acquaintances, all entrenched in their impregnable class privileges, conspicuous and right-thinking members of an autumnal and doddering world which they had given to you, without asking your permission, with religion, morals and laws made to its measure: a promiscuous and hollow order from which you tried to escape, confident, like so many others, of a regenerating change and catharsis which, because of mysterious imponderables, had not come about and, after long years in exile, there you were again, in the painful and affectionate landscape of your childhood, deprived even of the bitter consolation of alcohol, while the eucalyptus trees in the garden aired their green branches and changeable and flighty clouds floated toward the sun like somber swans, feeling yourself less the prodigal son who humbles his brow before his father than the criminal who furtively returns to the scene of his crime, while the Voices - the congenital evil and frustration of your caste joined in one chorus - treacherously continued their dull singsong whispering in your ear: "you who have been one of us and have broken with us have the right to many things and it is not hard for us to see that you have the right to think that your contry is living a really atrocious existence we are sorry for your error but who has put up any gates in the fields Andalusian farmers are the only one who allow themselves that luxury and that is where those solitary isolated gates come from ones that seem neither to close nor to open outside of that exception which is like poetic license no one is obliging you to pass through the arch go ahead then with your ideas about politics and and other realities of Spain go right ahead too if it pleases you with your annoyances and mortifications concerning the racial qualities of our breed who is stopping you we know what you are a Barcelonan in spite of your Asturian name but Asturian or Barcelonan supposing that Barcelona does not inspire any emotion in you or the land of Asturias raise any warm feeling in your soul turn your back on all of us and look toward the horizons why must you contradict a spontaneous movement of your soul if some feeling carries you along pathways of such indescribable sadness after all you will not be the first Spaniard to stop loving his country but why come back then it would be better for your to stay away and renounce us once and for all think abou tit you still have time our firmness is unmovable and none of your efforts will succeed in undermining it we are made of stone and we will remain stone why do you blindly seek disaster forget about us and we will forget about you your birth was a mistake bear with it"

Lindsay Anderson: If...

Lindsay Anderson's If... is another very typical work of its time (it was released in 1968), alive with a sense of possibilities and bursting with anti-establishment fervour. For the audiences now, however, it feels ironic if not completely anachronistic. This tale of violent "resistance" by a small bunch of young students against their superiors and their "oppressors" at a British public school will remind more of random shootings in American schools rather than an act of revolution, even in the abstract. There was a flurry of articles a few months back, many of them film related, in American and European media about the youth movements of 1968 on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, most of them feeling nostalgic about the last time when there was any hope for change. The young generation now is probably the most conformist ever so a film like If... can only be appreciated as an artifact from a lost time.

There is also another reason for the change in perspective for contemporary audiences. Even at that time there were voices (even non-traditionalist and non-conservative) which expressed doubts and fears about the nature of youth movements. Albert Camus' essay The Rebel is probably the most representative and famous of these. Camus talked about the ethical issues (and granting that they were indeed "romantic" acts) behind anarchism and statements like "violence and revolution are the only pure acts" or "one man can change the world with a single bullet in the right place." Many of these doubts were later justified when the violent youth movements themselves degenerated into banal terroristic acts. A few months back I saw Fassbinder's The Third Generation which tried to comment on one such organization - the Baader-Meinhof gang in West Germany - about how their idealism degenerated into something that will find a place in a B-grade Bonnie and Clyde film.

If... is a great film, and totally deserving of the classic status that it has achieved. Malcolm McDowell leads a small gang of boys to rise up in violent "revolution" against the administrators and their seniors at the school who routinely punish the young boys in the name of abstractions like "glory", "tradition", "obedience" etc. The narrative of the film is very loose, we just see episodes from the life of these young boys. There is a beautiful sequence when McDowell and one of his friends escape outside and flirt with a beautiful waitress (who later joins their gang). Another member of his gang is attracted to a pretty blond boy who is his junior and there is a beautiful and quietly erotic scene in which the young boy gazes down from the railing at him when he is practicing gymnastics on the rails. I read somewhere that Anderson was himself a closeted homosexual and I think that explains the homoerotic gaze that is present in the film in quite a few places.

I also found the use of alternate B&W and Colour sequences interesting. On the commentary McDowell says that Anderson initially tried it just as an idea because he was not able to light the interiors of the Chapel as he wanted but then he liked the result and he used it at quite a few other places. As a result of this film gets a strange texture and mood. The B&W scenes have this dreamy quality which add to the atmosphere of the film. The long shots of the school are also very poetic and beautiful. The scenes of violence are also presented in a surrealistic manner which, for those few who had doubts (the film was apparently highly controversial when it came), makes it clear that it is not meant to be seen literally. A good article on the film from The Guardian.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Richard Lester's Petulia feels like a very typical late 60s film. It belongs to the bunch of films of the initial years of what came to be known as the "new hollywood" and which later flourished in the early seventies. These films were inspired by the modernistic European art films, specially the new wave. These films emphasised form and style over content, eschewed simple psychological portraits with straightforward and cliched character motivations. They also rejected the conventional, linear, cause-and-effect narrative in favour of discontiuity both in time and in place, something that more than anything else separated these from the classical hollywood cinema.

Although it appears very confounding and complex at the beginning, Petulia actually tells a rather simple story of a love triangle involving the eponymous character (played by Julie Christie at her stylish best) who is living in an abusive marriage and who starts an affair out of whim with a doctor who is in the process of divorcing his wife. The story is told in a very non-linear way with many flashbacks and flash forwards. It is actually quite confusing at the beginning, because some cuts show the events prior to their meeting and others show the violent events which are yet to come but slowly everything starts to fall into place. The use of flashbacks is quite common in classical narrative cinema but the flashback here is nothing like in Casablanca for example. They are not meant to solve a narrative problem but rather to capture a tone and mood of disorientation and also jolt the viewer into awareness of the formal aspects of the storytelling.

Petulia is also modernistic in one other way. Rather than probing into the psychological depth of the lead characters, it is more interested in capturing the feel of the city of San Francisco, specially the fabled San Francisco of 1968. Everything in the city seems colour coded - buses, road signs, the clothes people wear on the streets, the facades of the buildings. It is all very colourful but it is also very inhuman, artificial and alienating. Even the hospital seems to be colour coded! In fact in one of the scenes when a patient asks why the TV set is not working, she is told that it is just a facade which is there only to make her want the "real" thing. The film also makes it clear in this way that it is this artificiality that is creating the rifts in interpersonal relationships though it doesn't belabour this theme very much. A few scenes actually reminded me of Antonioni, in his subjects and themes if not in his visual style. There are also some trippy montage sequences involving strange visual designs and also a sequence with Grateful Dead again placing the film into a very specific period - that of sixties counterculture.

All the three leads are very good and there is a bravura cameo by the always reliable Joseph Cotten as well, but the film finally belongs to the director and his team of technicians. Julie Christie always looked very stylish but she is even more so in this film. Fashion buffs will have a specially good time watching all those clothes she gets to wear in this film. Nicolas Roeg was the DP of the film and he did an extraordinary job with everything - the colour, texture, lighting, dissolves everything is just perfect and extremely evocative. It also appears that he probably stole his flashback, flashforward, jump cut style that became his trademark in his later films as a director from this film.

An article on the senses of cinema website about the film.

Heinrich von Kleist

Guardian books blog takes a break from all the booker and prize-mongering and posts an entry on Heinrich von Kleist. My heart sank when I read the stupid subtitle ("He committed suicide at 34, but Heinrich von Kleist was no nihilist.") but the rest of the entry is much better. He also talks about his less famous stories or may it is because his most famous ones - The Marquise of O. and Michael Kohlhaas are both mini-novellas. In any case, he should definitely be much more widely read than he actually is because his is one of the great restless spirits who will be quite at home in our modern world. As the scholars who introduce the penguin classics edition of his collected stories say:

"The world of these stories is an unpredictable one, a world of dislocated causality on which inexplicable forces intrude and in which sanity is poised on the brink of destruction. They are the work of a rationalist tormented by his loss of faith in Reason and desperately searching for certainty, for an order which is not 'gebrechlich'. In Kleist's life this search could only fail; the only imposable order was that of his art, an order of words, the strange pattern of his three or four dramatic masterpieces, the electrifying articulated structures of his narrative prose."