Friday, June 29, 2007

Black Mass

A very good review of John Gray's new book Black Mass:

Everything is getting worse, we are doomed and the only good news is that it scarcely matters because humanity is not worth saving anyway. John Gray's new book Black Mass is not cheery, and one might wonder how a work so deeply rooted in British conservative philosophy could end so far from Disraeli's dream of a "Merry England". Black Mass is a critique of human pretensions and the analytical rubric that underpins it will be broadly familiar to anyone interested in political philosophy. Gray draws on the works of Hume and Hayek, Popper and Berlin, yet uses them as sledgehammers, even against his closest allies. The result is the darkest possible assessment of our current situation and our hopes for the future.

Superfluous Man

I was reading the Russian short story Diary of a Superfluous Man by Ivan Turgenev today. (Link to the complete text here.) A very "typical" story, which is not to say it is bad but rather it is yet another example of the "superfluous hero" type ubiquitous in the nineteenth century Russian literature. He is generally an aristocrat, smart, intelligent, attractive and well-educated. His head is also filled with ideas of Byron, Hegel and French socialists and radicals like Saint-Simon and Fourier but himself bored, alienated and isolated when he comes into contact with other people in the society. And most importantly his hyper self-consciousness makes himself hesitant, indecisive, weak-willed and incapable of any meaningful action. Instead his energies are spent in musings about his own feelings and thoughts and imagining and manipulating those of others.

A basic plot would be something like this:

The hero arrives in some province. He charms everybody by his wit and intelligence. Among them a beautiful and young girl who is excited by the melancholy and brooding personality. Some scandal happens concerning a rival suitor. A duel is arranged and fought, which always results in hero's favour. But in the end the love story ends unhappily because the hero can't decide or can't imagine a future for himself and decides to flee instead.

Of course this type is not something new to Russian literature. With so many references to Byron, the Russian writers themselves make clear as to who their inspiration is. But what makes these characters so fascinating, (and I think) even more than characters like Manfred or Don Juan, is the complex material social and political context they find themselves in. It then becomes a sharp and revealing social-political critique, a commentary on the unjustness of stifling social conventions and institutions, besides being a fantastic of a romantic spirit.

In the same spirit then, a few lines from the story of my personal favourite superfluous hero Eugene Onegin (from the translation by Charles Johnston which I like less than that of James Falen):

O flowers, and love, and rustic leisure,
o fields -- to you I'm vowed at heart.
I regularly take much pleasure
in showing how to tell apart
myself and Eugene, lest a reader
of mocking turn, or else a breeder
of calculated slander should,
spying my features, as he could,
put back the libel on the table
that, like proud Byron, I can draw
self-portraits only -- furthermore
the charge that poets are unable
to sing of others must imply
the poet's only theme is ``I.''

Another Byron devotee, Mikhail Lermontov, creator of another great superfluous hero Pechorin, is more explicit about his debts:

"No, I'm not Byron"

No, I'm not Byron; I am, yet,
Another choice for the sacred dole,
Like him - a persecuted soul,
But only of the Russian set.
I early start and end the whole,
And will not win the future days;
Like in an ocean, in my soul,
A cargo of lost hopes stays.
Who, oh, my ocean severe,
Could read all secrets in your scroll?
Who'll tell the people my idea?
I'm God or no one at all!

Antonioni + Lynch

Lucky Chicagoans! The Gene Siskel film center is holding retrospectives of films by Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lynch, two of my most favourite film directors.

I haven't been to the movies in a long time. In fact the last film I saw was The Lives of Others and that was in February!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

John Gray, Terry Eagleton and Bakhtin

The Times has a nice profile of British author and political thinker John Gray. I have read two of his books, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals and Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. As the titles suggest both books are full of over-the-top misanthropy and apocalyptic pronouncements. I can't summarise better than Terry Eagleton:

Not that nihilism is a term he would endorse. His book is so remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope. Nihilism for Gray suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless. Instead, we must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition. Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless. Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all. It isn't the best motivation for getting out of bed.

It is so relentlessly negative that it is funny. My favourite part of the book was where he claims that the faculty of language, unique to the humans (he doubts this too), is responsible for wars and destruction. He says something like, "the good, the true, the beautiful: wars and genocides have happened in the service of these abstractions." And what makes human beings vulnerable to abstractions? Language, of course! I think he name checks a few philosophers but that's his basic idea. He is also very impatient with free will and self-consciousness and basically every tenet of humanism. He calls himself "post-humanist." On the whole a great introduction to misanthropic thought...

Also in the latest london review of books there is a fantastic introduction to the life and thought of Russian literary critic and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin by Eagleton:
Why this curious parallelism between the age of Stalinist terror and the era of the iPod? The answer is fairly obvious. Just as Bakhtin’s work is among other things a coded critique of Soviet autocracy, so postmodernism springs in large part from the rout of modern Marxism. In the work of Baudrillard, Lyotard and others, it began as an alternative creed for disenchanted leftists. Its obsession with discourse makes sense in an age short on political action. Instead of setting fire to campuses, American students now cleanse their speech of incorrectness. If Marxism had been shamefully coy about sexuality, postmodernism makes a fetish of it. The warm, desiring, palpable body is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production. Instead of grand narratives that lead to the gulag, we have a plurality of mini-narratives. Since doctrinal absolutes dismember bodies, relativism is the order of the day. If castrating homosexuals is part of your culture, it would be ethnocentric of me to object. Revolution is no longer on the agenda, but sporadic subversions may stand in for it. Class politics yields to identity politics. The system cannot be overthrown, but at least it can be deconstructed. And since there is no political hope in the heartlands of capitalism, where the proletariat has upped sticks without leaving a forwarding address, the postmodern gaze turns mesmerically to the Other, whatever passport (woman, gay, ethnic minority) it happens to be travelling on.

Here is another fantastic introductory essay on the same subject that I read a while back. The first time I read about him in detail, beyond his usual name checks regarding Dostoevsky's "polyphony" and "dialogism." (Link available only to subscribers, also collected in the essay collection Views from the Other Shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov and Bakhtin by Aileen Kelly)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Saturday at the Neue Galerie

On Saturday I went to see "the world's most expensive painting" at the Neue Galerie in New York. (At least it was the most expensive for a while). A little underwhelming but the museum on the whole was quite good. Unlike the bigger museums (like the Met) which are often too big, you don't feel like an idiot tourist doing the tickmark tourism. You actually learn new things. They had an exhibition on about Van Gogh and specially his influence in the German avant-garde art, so there was a lot of information.

There is also a Viennese style cafe at the ground floor. I went there but somehow felt very stupid alone among the elderly European tourists so didn't have anything. They have chairs, table, tea cups and all that stuff based on the designs of Adolf Loos or Otto Wagner, or that's what my guess is. May be I should have ordered coffee with that Viennese cake Sachertorte, but then I am generally extremely indifferent towards food. In any case eating is always a very shallow activity, I don't know why they have cafes and restaurants in art museums!

There is also a small bookstore which for a change had regular books about literature, philosophy etc too other than just museum catalogues and postcards as is generally the case with other museums. I was specially very pleased to see all my favourite authors lined one after the other. (Regular visitors of the blog would know, I am a big fan of Austrian literature.) There was a hefty biography of Robert Musil but only in German! There also was Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers which I have been eyeing for a while but it was quite costly so I thought I will look for it into the library first.

Spent the rest of the day, the entire afternoon and the evening, roaming in the central park, easily my most favourite part of the new york city. It is already summer so everywhere people were in various stages of undress. It was nice and that's when I also thought being brown skinned isn't so bad after all.

Rated NC-17

Online Dating

This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:
* death (11x) * suicide (8x) * murder (5x) * sex (4x) * gay (3x) * hell (1x)

That's the worst rating possible, just in case!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Letter to Gogol

Just like Kafka's The Castle and Musil's The Man Without Qualities, the nineteenth century Russian novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is an unfinished masterpiece, and like the other two one of my all time favourites too. Also just like the other two, the reasons why it remained unfinished is subject of a lot of historical and literary speculation. Gogol towards the end of his foreshortened career, just when he was working on the second part of his novel, grew increasingly religious and as a result increasingly despondent about his project because he was not able to reconcile the religiously inspired ideal of his motherland "Russia" with the grotesque and ugly realities of life that he found everywhere around him and to which he was inextricably bound by his vocation of being an artist and a writer.

Around this time he published a bizarre pamphlet titled "Selected Excerpts from Correspondence with Friends" in which he praised the institution of serfdom, wrote admiringly of the ideal Russian peasant for his mindless submissiveness towards tradition and authority and said that he regarded the Czar as the agent of the God on earth, whose sole responsibility was to maintain the holy status-quo. Predictably the left wing progressive intellectuals and critics were horrified by this tract. The most famous rebuttal came from the radical critic Vissarion Belinsky who wrote a public letter to Gogol chastising him for reneging on his duties as a committed writer. His letter soon became very famous and was read far and wide by everyone from left to right in Russia. In fact it was because of reading this letter in his circle of radical revolutionaries that young Dostoevsky was sent to prison and awarded the death sentence. It was before the prison life resulted in a similar transformation in Dostoevsky's intellectual life towards a more reactionary worldview. Gogol himself couldn't handle these criticisms and soon after went totally mad. He literally starved himself to death but only before instructing his servant to burn the manuscripts of Dead Souls that he was working on. His last words were, "Ladder! Bring me a ladder!" Perhaps he just wanted to cross to the other side, the ideal spiritual side of Russia, using a "ladder". A kind of leap of faith!

I actually wanted to just link to the famous letter but thought I will just fill up the post with a few words too. There is a brilliant profile of Belinsky in Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers. Berlin beautifully analyses his confusions and struggles with ideas, mainly of Hegel but also of French revolutionaries and socialists, and makes a great defence of politically committed literary criticism as exemplified by Belinsky, even when making his reservations about some aspects of Belinsky's work clear. The letter gets mentioned at many places in the classic russian novels too, specially in those of Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Turgenev was an admirer and a protege of Belinsky. He even dedicated his most famous novel Fathers and Sons to Belinsky's memory. More information about Belinsky from Wikipedia.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Celebrity Industrial Complex

This is one of the best neologisms I have come across in a long time. Taken from Ron Rosenbaum's article in Slate about the "worst celebrity profile ever written." You have to read it to believe it. It is hilarious, and sad too in a way.

For serious minded readers an old article by Ron Rosenbaum about Nabokov's Pale Fire and its "authorship problem". It is a very fanboyish article. (He says for example that the John Shade poem in the book is the "poem of the century.") More serious stuff from Slate: a bunch of philosophers speak about Richard Rorty. I found this comment by Daniel Dennett particularly interesting:

Quine saw philosophy as continuous with science, and Rorty saw philosophy as continuous with art. I think they were both right. Anglophone philosophy certainly needs its poets, but only if they can bring to their efforts the level of insight, scholarship, and—yes—rigor that Dick Rorty brought to everything he did.

Hamlet vs Don Quixote

I keep coming across references to this essay by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev at different places but have never found the actual essay anywhere. In the essay Turgenev says that the whole mankind can be divided into basic character types - Hamlet and Don Quixote. One who thinks, but all his thoughts are devoted to doubts and self-criticism, which eventually result in hesitation, paralysis of will and failure of action. The other type, that of Don Quixote, is intent on action but is so drunk on his certainties and his ego is so completely drawn outward that he doesn't feel the need to think. He tilts on the windmills, attacks a flock of sheep because he is already convinced that they are in fact giant monsters and armies of the enemy!

In one of the chapters of The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich the hero, wonders if it is possible for we thinking and conscious beings, specially in the modern world when there are no absolutes left to rely on, is there any possibility left when it comes to human action? Is it even possible to decide ANYTHING? Very depressing thoughts! Now back to work.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Fine Day in August 1913

The wonderful opening paragraph of The Man Without Qualities:

"A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and the setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapour in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913."

By satirizing the doctrines of positivism, it brilliantly summarizes one of the main ideas of the book -- what would it mean to live life with a scientific and analytic mind? Is the idea of "a fine day" just an illusion? Once you look closer everything breaks apart... It is also interesting that after this opening onslaught, the book never again tackles weather!

Anyway, I actually wanted to link to this nice podcast (link to mp3) about the book. Taken from here. Enjoy!


I am so tired today. Can one get tired just by going on living? This is what is happening with me. Life itself feels like doing work. I was also thinking about the four asharma prescription of Hinduism. I realized that even after spending so much time on this earth I am still in the first ashram! Three more to go!! Granted, I am late by two years for jumping into the second, but still so much of life is left. Do I have enough energy left to go on? I don't think so. The only recourse I think is to jump directly to Vanaprastha. (I have got some renewed impetus in this direction after reading (parts of) Wittgenstein's biography. What a great man! He now joins Kafka, Proust and Kierkegaard to be one of my intellectual heroes!)

I am just too tired today. I have been feeling very stupid and very bored the whole day. When did this whole business of lending and borrowing money got so complicated? I think all those wise Greeks, Thomas Aquinas, medieval Islamic thinkers and Dante, all of them were right. Usury is really a sin! It should be outlawed, may be there will be some hope for this modern world then.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gunter Grass in New York

Fans of German novelist Gunter Grass (yeah, I know) can see and hear him speak in New York about his latest memoir Peeling the Onion which has just come out in English. Link via complete review, which also reports that the events are sold out! New Yorkers continue to surprise me with their cultural appetites. Be it the David Lynch premiere at the New York Film Festival, the seven hour screening of Satantango or the ten hour marathon play (yes ten hours!) The Coast of Utopia, if you are not alert enough, you will not get the tickets. Such a contrast to Chicago with its lonely and ghostly moviegoing experiences. (I remember going to the screening of the brilliant and eerie French film Innocence one extremely cold and shivery January evening and finding myself to be one among a total of three audiences in the theatre!)

Anyway, complete review has a useful page linking to various reviews of Grass's book. I don't think I will get down to reading it anytime soon. I actually wanted to read his last novel Crabwalk which I had started early last year but couldn't finish. I don't seem the remember the reason for it, only that it wasn't because it was boring or bad.

Also some video clips from The Coast of Utopia with snippets from cast interviews here and here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Golem

The Golem is not as well known as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu but it stands up well in comparison to these and other classics of German silent expressionist cinema. Google has the entire video of the film (in a reasonably good print) here.

It is basically the same story as Frankenstein, though much simplified. What makes it interesting is the Jewish cultural context and also the political elements. Seigfried Kracauer in his classic study of early German cinema From Caligari to Hitler uses this film also to support his thesis that the portents of the collapse of the Weimar republic and the coming of political chaos and irrationality were already present in the expressionist cinema of the period. A nice short essay on the film here.

Sometime back I also got hold of a German novel The Golem written by Gastav Meyrink at a used books store. It was first published in 1914. It looked very interesting but I haven't had any chance to read it yet. While browsing today I also came to know that Isaac Baashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel, both nobel laureates, have written versions of the Golem story too! Amazon link here and here.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Two Books About Holocaust

The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick

Novick's book is not a history of Holocaust, it is the history of reception of Holocaust, specially in America. It basically tries to answer the question, why is it that at the turn of the millennium, after more than fifty years of the historical event and thousands of miles from its site, the Holocaust has come to loom so large in the American national consciousness. How it has become the mainstay of Jewish collective consciousness and identity and how it shapes their and in turn American relationship to Israel. In the process it paints a damning picture of Jewish leaders and organizations and the whole rhetoric of Holocaust commemoration. He doubts if Holcoaust has any "useful" lessons and "whether the prominent role the Holocaust has come to play in both American Jewish and general American discourse is as desirable as most people seem to think it is." Not many people will agree initially with his statements but in the end he has amassed such a weighty mass of evidence in his support that his arguments look irrefutable. The book is also saved by its tone which is always scholarly and subservient to sober facts and arguments which saves it from becoming just another anti-Israel polemic. In fact he has little time for all the talk of "the Israel Lobby" and the "jewish neocons" and other conventional left wing objections related to the topic.

Novick starts with the immediate post war years and shows how holocaust was completely marginalised at that time. Jews didn't want themselves to be identified as victims and they were more eager to be assimilated into the mainstream American society. The most important reason however was the cold war which made American find common cause with Germany in order to denounce Russia. The cold war ideologues argued about the theories of totalitarianisms and claimed the communism and nazism were "basically the same." He also mentions the broadway and hollywood adaptation of Anne Frank's diary which expunged all the Jewish references from the original work and instead emphasised universal "message" of the book.

The turning point in the Holocaust reception came in the late sixties and early seventies when Israel was involved in wars with its Arab neighbours. Although the dangers to Israel were highly exaggerated, there was a general feeling among the jews that another Holocaust was just around the corner. The Jewish leaders also exploited the fact that Americans, both Jews and Gentiles, didn't do enough to save the Jews the last time. After that Holocaust vocabulary became inextricably linked to the unending travails of Israel and middle east conflicts.

He also discusses the establishment of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in detail. In particular he points out how jewish leaders lobbied to turn it into an institution dedicated exclusively to Jewish suffering. Elie Wiesel comes across as a less than admirable figure in the end. Apparently he and other people involved with the museum lobbied against the inclusion of the Armenian genocide by claiming that "they want to steal our holocaust" to which Novick adds that "Jews are the permanent gold medalists in the Olympics of victimization."

Personally I completely agree with Novick when he shows his impatience with people who see Holocaust in some mystical religious sense. People like Elie Wiesel for example who thinks that the only proper response to holocaust is that of "awe" and any attempts at rational explanation and historical comparison and analysis is morally wrong, even blasphemous. This is just plain nonsense, even insulting to so many victims of other historical atrocities. Novick's other claim that it has no "useful" lesson for us, I find less palatable. Again there are people who will draw their banal lessons from the holocaust and even more reprehensible is the tendency of vicariously identifying with the victims and wallowing in the sentimentalism of it all. But having said that it still remains one of the most extreme events in human history and it deserves to be understood and remembered. For me personally, the main interest is in the way it negates the idea of moral and political progress, and even the very idea of European culture and civilization in the way slavery , imperialism and other atrocities do not.

In conclusion I think it is a brilliant and very provocative historical survey and a very courageous and admirable one, specially in the way he approaches such a sensitive topic without devolving into ready-made anti-semitic or chauvinistic arguments. Some very good articles about the book from The Nation, Village Voice and an excellent discussion on Slate.


The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian by Raul Hilberg

Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jews is considered to the be one of the foundational work of the academic discipline of the Holocaust studies. Hilberg was born in Vienna where he spent his childhood. His parents emigrated from Vienna just before the Anschluss, German annexation of Austria. Most of his relatives were not as lucky and they were killed in the Holocaust. This is his autobiography but those who, like me, are looking for personal reflections about why he chose this discipline and his thoughts on the subject will the disappointed. He seems to be like a model of a mono-maniacal and obsessed scholar and researcher whose entire life is sublimated into the subject or at least that's the impression one gets from reading the book.

After a brief matter of fact prelude about his childhood and family life in Vienna and his experiences as an American soldier in Germany he jumps directly to his main subject - how he came to write his Holocaust book. As discussed in detail in Peter Novick's book too, the fifties and sixties were not the ideal time for the book to the be published and he had to struggle for almost a decade before any publisher agreed to bring it out. The most controversial part of his thesis was the fact that he chose the German bureaucratic documents as the main primary sources for his history and as a result in his book jews remained faceless and anonymous victims. He was also extremely critical of the role of Jewish leaders and his conclusions that it was their accommodation and cooperation with the Nazi bureaucracy that made the whole murderous system so efficient, which was most unpalatable for the publishers and critics in general. In fact Hannah Arendt cites his book many times in her Eichmann in Jerusalem and comes at similar conclusions, which was again highly controversial.

The general tone of his book is sobering and very bitter. He was repeatedly accused of accusing Jews of having a "ghetto mentality", "a collective death wish" and that they "went to death chambers like sheep." He never really tackles any of these accusations in detail, just brushes all of them in exasperation. In the end I kind of agreed with the assessment of the reviewer who called it "that rarity of a contemporary autobiography that is too short." It is one of those books where you look for what is not said, what is absent. It is that reticent and reserved in tone. Readable and interesting but mostly inconsequential I think. By the way, there is an unforgettable interview of him in Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah. Here is a clip in which he talks about the diary of Adam Czerniakow who was the administrator of the Warsaw ghetto. Hilberg also edited his diaries about which he talks in this book too.

Friday, June 15, 2007

"Other Things That Happened"

News that may be of interest to fellow David Lynch fans. Inland Empire DVD is soon out and extras include a 75 minute feature titled "Other Things That Happened"!

from here

Philosophy Against Science

Rihard Rorty and some of his students and colleagues talk about his contribution to Philosophy. (Thanks to the Anonymous commenter for the link.)

Reading about Rorty in different newspapers and blogs in the last week made me realize how my own ideas have changed in the last couple or so years. I remember reading three books by Steven Pinker and then a couple by Daniel Dennett in 2002-03 and getting convinced that these philosophers who doubted the existence of objective reality and universal human nature were frauds, who can only survive in the humanities department of universities where the standards are always more lax as compared to those in the sciences. I was particularly incensed by those who criticised science purely on Political grounds, confusing scientists with techno-evangelists and those "management" thinkers who want to restructure human lives and societies based on some normative, rational principles derived from science.

More than Pinker and Dennett (and I had already read Dawkins before), the book that affected and influenced me most was E.O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (wikipedia has a nice short summary of the book.) It is a magisterial and awe-inspiring defence of the idea of one unified basis of all human reality and all human knowledge. It is not hard to understand why philosophers generally were hostile to the book. Wilson basically asks them to be handmaidens to the scientists--bascially help them in framing questions, clearing conceptual and naming confusions and in general build, fix and repair the foundations on which the scientific edifice can then be built, whereas they would rather (specially post-Nietzsche) destroy these foundations. The same with the people working in the humanities. They would have trouble with the idea of their disciplines being "supervenient" (Wilson never uses this word, but this is a more accurate description of what he means than "reductionism" or "scientism") on lower level scientific theories.

These details of the grand unification project aside, in the first few pages itself Wilson convinces the reader of the desirability of order and unity among different domains of human knowledge and realities. So why are philosophers so antagonistic to this project? Why are they intent on destroying the foundations of science? (Someone in the video above says there can be no "science of science".) Why create more disorder, fragmentation and why not at least acknowledge the desirability of the ideal of unity?

I have read very little philosophy, even that very unsystematically, but Rorty was I think the only philosopher of the "other side" I read without getting irritated and who convinced me that the "disorder" was not so bad after all, in fact it may even be desirable because it had potentials for self-realization which Wilson's philosophy may not allow. In fact he actually answered many of my questions and objections regarding relativism very satisfactorily. Two nice, non-technical essays by Rorty I could find on the internet: Phony Science Wars and the second a review of The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin which answers some of the political objections to anti-foundationalist western philosophy, mainly that relativism left these modern thinkers vulnerable to the attractions of fascism. I have read only parts of Contingency Irony and Solidarity (whatever I could grasp) but I think it is one of the best and the most effective defences of that philosophical tradition. Also check out this fashionable dictionary if you haven't.

I was a teenage intellectual

A hilarious short Czech film about how a popcorn munching guy gets bitten by an intellectual and starts spouting Hegel and Heidegger and how he is ultimately saved in the end!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Waiting for Translation

via complete review a list of books awaiting translation into English recommended by members of PEN. I particularly second Jonathan Rosenbaum's recommendation: Hungarian novel Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. He says:

This novel is the source of Bela Tarr's 415-minute black-and-white masterpiece of the same title, adapted with the author and released about a decade later. The Melancholy of Resistance, a subsequent novel by the same author, which has already been translated into English (by the brilliant George Szirtes; New Directions, 2000), evinces a stylistic similarity to Thomas Bernhard. Satantango is a ferocious piece of sarcasm, traversing the same day from various viewpoints like a Faulkner novel while recounting the last bitter gasps of a failed farm collective and everything its members do to betray one another.

I had earlier linked to Tim Wilkinson's article on the novel on the Hungarian Literature Online. He makes it sound really tantalizing. Of course if you have seen the movie or read The Melancholy of Resistance there is no further need for encouragement. I just hope that either of the two, George Szirtes, who has translated The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War, or Tim Wilkinson who seems have a good hand for the long serpentine Hungarian sentences too (having translated Imre Kertesz's Kaddish for an Unborn Child) are working on Satantango.

Also another list of translation-awaiting books in New York Magazine. A little surprised (and slightly ashamed too) to see a Hindi book I had never heard of before - Manzoor Ahtesham’s Dastan-e Lapata (The Tale of the Missing Person). Jason Grunebam, a lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago, who recommended the book says:

This story of a sick Muslim man, whose disease is both unspecified and seemingly undiagnosable, is quite a postmodernist feat for Hindi literature, where social realism has been the dominant mode for quite some time.

I have heard of the author's name though. I have read one of his stories in an anthology of Hindi stories. This "post-modern" thing in the comment above reminds me (and I take it to mean non-realistic/experimental writing) of another contemporary writer, Vinod Kumar Shukla whose two novels Naukar ki Kameez (The Servant's Shirt) and Deewar mein ek Khidki Rehti Thi (A window lived in a wall) are both very experimental works, far removed from the standard social realist genre. I have read both of them, liked them too but in a low-key sort of way. His poetry collection with the strange title "Wah Aadmi Chala Gaya Naya Garam Coat Pahankar Vichar Ki Tarah" (That man went away wearing a new warm coat like an idea) is also very acclaimed. If I remember correctly all these three books have won the Sahitya Akademi Awards. Servant's Shirt was adapated into a movie too by Mani Kaul which I haven't seen. (imdb link here.) Also related this old but interesting news report from the hindu.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Murder in Amsterdam

Europe, Multiculturalism, Immigration, Islam. Yawn! Every second magazine, almost every single week has a long article, essay or book review on the subject. All saying the same thing over and over again depending on what their established political position is. Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and Limits of Tolerance is predictable alright in this sense but only when it tackles the general political issues. For the rest, it is a riveting account of what really happened in Amsterdam three years ago with fascinating character portraits of the three principals involved - Theo Van Gogh the murdered filmmaker and a professional trouble maker, Momammed Boyeuri the fanatic and the murderer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the charismatic refugee politician and anti-Islam activist. The most remarkable part of the book is the way Buruma puts the story into social and political context. It then also becomes a fantastic introduction to contemporary Dutch society and politics.

The Dutch have a very stereotypical image for people who have never been there or aren't actively interested in Dutch society or history. It is like a place where Vincent Vega (in Pulp Fiction) went to. A place where one can get cheap drugs and easy sex. Buruma shows the reader through these stereotypes, though in the process he manages to make the whole thing even more colourful than the Vincent Vega stereotype. So it is not everywhere that a colourful and flamboyantly gay politician boasting of his sexual adventures in public will run an election on a traditionally right wing platform. That's Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered by a confused animal rights fanatic (yes you heard it right!) for reasons still quite obscure. He had become a very popular figure in Dutch politics, not least because of his oppositional stance on muslim immigration. He was so popular in fact that his death reportedly prompted scenes similar to Princess Diana funeral!

Then there is the filmmaker Van Gogh himself. A self-proclaimed trouble maker, "a village idiot" he used to say such things in the public that would have ended the career of comedians and journalists elsewhere. His favourite adjective for muslims was "goatfuckers." He once called Jesus "a rotten fish from Nazareth" and made even more absurd and tasteless remarks about some Jewish politicians and public figures. It is also very strange and I think it can happen only in Holland that a major Jewish politician (by the name of Job Cohen) invoked the name of Anne Frank and Nazi's treatment of Jews while talking about the plight of Muslims in contemporary Dutch society. Van Gogh obviously didn't like these kind of remarks.

Buruma also shows that there has been a long tradition of liberalism in the Dutch society in which people always felt that "everything has to be said" and that it was difficult for recent immigrants to grasp. He speculates about its origins:

The insistence on total frankness, the idea that tact is a form of hypocrisy, and that everything, no matter how sensitive, should be stated openly, with no holds barred, the elevation of bluntness to a kind of moral ideal; this willful lack of delicacy is a common trait in Dutch behaviour. Perhaps its roots are in Protestant pietism, a reaction to what was seen as glib Catholic hypocrisy. Private confession had to become public. Discretion was a sign of holding back the truth, of dishonesty. Whether it is a national trait or not, Theo van Gogh exemplified it. It explains his cruelty, but also his passion for free speech, and his defense of those whose freedoms he felt were being threatened.

Buruma also talks about a Dutch novelist Hermans who in one of his books called Catholics, "the filthiest, creepiest, most deluded, treacherous part of our nation. But they fuck away! Like rabbits, rats, fleas, lice. And they don't emigrate!"

The part of the book dealing with the fanatic is straightforward and a well-known, well-rehearsed "My Son the Fanatic" story that we have seen and read so many times before. The story of how fanatical religion exploits personal ressentiments. This has almost become a cliche. Even there the Dutch were really not prepared for what came for them. At the Court trial of Mohammed B. Buruma notes:
To the policemen who arrested him, he said that he had shot at them "fully intending to kill them, and to be killed." This statement unleashed an extraordinary outburst of emotion among the policemen. Tears ran down their cheeks as they fell into each other's arms. Heads were stroked and backs patted. They were traumatized, so it was reported, kept awake by nightmares, and had frequent fits of crying. The idea of a suicidal killer in the middle of Amsterdam was just too much to bear.

His discussion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the charismatic Dutch politician and a "renegade" muslim apostate, skirts familiar territory too. She has been the subject of so many magazine profiles and essays and book reviews that there is hardly anything new to be said about her anymore. In the end Buruma makes this remark which I found rather troublesome and which to me summarises all the problems with soft-gloved liberal responses to political Islam.
In this limited context, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was no Voltaire. For Voltaire had flung his insults at the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions of eighteenth-century France, while Ayaan risked offending only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe.

In the end one closes the book with a tinge of optimism, with a feeling that things are after all not as bad it initially looked. I was specially struck by the story of the Jewish politician who dared invoke the parallels between the Nazi persecution of Jews and the treatment of Muslims in contemporary Holland. That's Goodwill taken to an extreme and so long as there are people like him on either sides things can only get better. One also gets the sense that the Dutch society is essentially an open, liberal and tolerant society with no rigid monolithic ideas about national culture or some such thing. In fact there are some funny passages about people struggling to find a collective Dutch national identity. (In the end the only thing they seem to find is football.) Buruma says:
Open displays of patriotism have become a taboo in post-World War II Europe, except on the soccer field. It is as if there, and only there, all the forbidden tribal sentiments are allowed to be vented in massive displays of flag waving, anthem singing, and primitive warrior worship. When Holland plays Germany, thousands of men, women and children don their royalist orange uniforms to do battle with the traditional foe, the enemy whose very existence allows the Dutch to adopt a self-regarding national identity: the liberal, open, tolerant, free-spirited Dutch, versus the mechanical, disciplined, authoritarian Teutons. When Holland beat Germany in the European cup finals in 1988, more people came out to celebrate in the streets of Amsterdam than on the day of liberation in 1945.

Overall a fantastic whirlwind tour of contemporary Holland, worth reading even if you are bored with endless talks about Europe and "the Muslim Question." btw, there was a long debate on this topic on sign and sight. Didn't really follow it but looked interesting.

Finally some remarks about the controversial short film in question, Submission (link to youtube which has the complete film.) I found it remarkably dull and rather pointless and shallow. Actually I will just link to this excellent review by Dennis Lim in Village Voice.

The movie that led to the death of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh lasts 11 minutes and is unlikely to influence anyone's views on its subject—the treatment of women in traditional Islamic society. As fatwa triggers go, Submission: Part 1 (available at is no Satanic Verses, and its laziness as both art and protest is precisely what gives this short its unsettling, unwitting power. It's depressing to think that this morsel of glib effrontery could pass as a serious critique of conservative Islam—and horrifying to realize that it provoked someone to murder.
Artists from Abbas Kiarostami to Shirin Neshat to Ousmane Sembene have confronted the misogyny of conservative Islam in ways that are at once more damning and less willfully profane. Van Gogh's film, which aired on Dutch TV in August, plainly hopes to inspire not argument but anger. Submission and its dire aftermath are symptomatic of a contradictory culture where the official myth of multiculturalism has finally collapsed under the weight of street-level racism and long-simmering hatreds on the part of both the white and non-white populations. As a cycle of retaliatory attacks on mosques and churches rages on in the Netherlands, American neocons, smugly gleeful at the so-called war on terror's decisive entrenchment on European soil, are clamoring to install van Gogh as a martyr. (Weirdly enough, his last completed work was a biopic of his fellow anti-immigration advocate, the assassinated libertarian leader Pim Fortuyn.) In death, van Gogh is a painful symbol for what he so stridently called for in life: the end of tolerance.

I also found this talk by Ian Buruma where he discusses his book and answers audience questions in the end. Rather weirdly the introducer identifies Heinrich Heine as a "British poet"! Link here.

Richard Rorty 1931-2007

American philosopher Richard Rorty died a couple of days back. mr. waggish has a (kind of) obituary with lots of different names of philosophers, most of which escaped me of course.

Incidentally just last week I was listening to this podcast (link to mp3) in which he discusses the history and the current state of the discipline of philosophy. (Serious minded listeners can skip the introduction about "birdwatching"). He says that there are basically two camps of philosophers now, naturalists and quietists. The former are interested in "solving" standard philosophical problems like the problem of freedom and consciousness or the origin of values in a material world etc while the latter are more interested in "dissolving" such problems by exposing conceptual confusions which essentially give rise to such problems. He himself is in the quietist camp. Much like Wittgenstein I think.

He has also written a nice essay on Nabokov which I read recently in which he tries to position Nabokov as a relativist and a liberal. The essay doesn't seem to be available on the internet. Though I could find something about Quietist vs Naturalist here.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Fermat's Last Theorem - Documentary

Made me feel worthless and very stupid but it is very good documentary nevertheless...

Also interesting is the wikipedia page of Japanese mathematician Yutaka Taniyama, specially his suicide note.

Michael Hamburger 1924-2007

Michael Hamburger, the German-British poet, translator and critic, died on Thursday. Here is an obituary from the London Telegraph. He was particularly known for his translations of Holderlin, though he translated many other poets too.

My only introduction to him was through W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn in which he makes a memorable appearance. A very "Sebaldian" figure. A German Jew he emigrated from Germany after the rise of Hitler when he was just nine. He spent his later life living in a village in rural Suffolk, that's where Sebald meets him in the book during his tour in the same region which is the main subject of the book.

Sometime back I also read or rather breezed through his collection of essays on modern German literature titled A Proliferation of Prophets. It contains his essays on Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Musil and others. I should check it out once again.

Friday, June 08, 2007

from The New York Review of Books

Pankaj Mishra has a rambling essay on India in the new NYRB. All familiar stuff though I wish he had spent more time discussing the book than rehashing the familiar recent Indian history. He also makes this claim, strange and rather optimistic I think:

Fortunately, a large majority of poor and religious Indians do not live within the modern culture of materialism; they are invulnerable to the glamour of the CEO, the investment banker, the PR executive, the copywriter, and other gurus of the West's fully organized consumer societies. Traditional attitudes toward the natural environment make Indians, like the Japanese, more disposed than Americans to pursue happiness modestly.[15] And almost six decades after his assassination, Gandhi's traditionalist emphasis on austerity and self-abnegation remains a powerful part of Indian identity.

There is also an article about a right-wing witch hunt in Poland which gives me an excuse to plug what I think one of the funniest and the most alarming news headline I have come across in the last few days, "Goethe and Dostoyevsky Escape Poland's Literary Cull". How gratifying to see that the text-book politics is not confined to India... More on this from Literary Saloon, which also mentions some Polonised names of western writers like "Wiliam Szekspir", "Karol Dickens"...

Another source of mild amusement was this paragraph from a letter exchange about the 1956 Hungarian revolution:
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 went through many major anniversaries but not until its fiftieth did it attract the attention of the media, the universities, and many political leaders. Last June, for instance, when visiting Budapest, President Bush greatly praised the Hungarian freedom fighters, comparing them, somewhat awkwardly, to the Iraqi freedom fighters, by which he meant not the opponents but the supporters of the American occupation. Repeating almost verbatim the Soviet justification for sending tanks to Budapest on November 4, 1956, and for installing the pro-Soviet government of János Kádár, Bush promised continued fraternal aid to the Iraqi government in its struggle against "the enemies of freedom."

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Eichmann in Jerusalem: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is considered a classic work of reportage and political analysis and now having just read it I feel all the praise is entirely deserved. I had earlier read some articles about the book and formed at an entirely incorrect idea of what was there in it. Contrary to my perception, and also as the widespread usage of the famous phrase "Banality of Evil" would indicate, she doesn't trivialize or minimize the responsibility of those who committed the crimes. The feeling that we all must in some mysterious way share the guilt of the Nazis, just because they were human beings like the rest of us, is a sentimentality she explicitly deplores. In fact she is very critical of all those, both on the defence and on the prosecution side, with the tendency to "paint general pictures" (actual words of a judge which she approves of) in stead of concentrating on the nuts and bolts, the concrete matters of the case ("The purpose of the trial is to render justice, and nothing else; even the noblest of ulterior purposes[...]can only detract from the law's main business: to weigh the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment, and to mete out due punishment."). She is also very frank on the "I was a small fry" defence:

"We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a 'tiny cog' in the machinery of the Final Solution, and of the prosecution, which believed it had discovered in Eichmann the actual motor. I myself attributed no more importance to both theories than did the Jerusalem court, since the whole cog theory is legally pointless and therefore it does not matter at all what order of magnitude is assigned to the 'cog' named Eichmann. In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But in so far as it remains a crime—and that, of course, is the premise for a trial—all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings."

In fact most of her book attempts to prove how crucial Eichmann's role was in the whole nitty-gritties of logistics required for the murder of such an industrial scale. Eichmann was no raving lunatic, but he was also an extremely focused, energetic and enthusiastic bureaucrat. Reading any account of the the Holocaust the first thing that strikes the reader is that how overwhelmingly complex the whole operation was and yet how streamlined and how efficient. Most of the book is about how Eichmann with his rather small team ran these transportation and logistics business. The book is divided into different chapters detailing the role Eichmann played in each part of Europe. It mostly reads like a straight-forward basic narrative, densely packed with facts and only occasionally laced with Eichmann's own statements in the court which sometime corroborate the historical facts she presents but most often they do not. She discusses why the deportation was successful in some places and why it failed (comparatively) in other parts -- specially in Scandinavian countries and most notably in Denmark and Bulgaria (the only "hopeful" part of the whole unimaginably grim narrative.) Reading the role he played in France and specially Hungary, where he managed to send more than fifty thousand Jews to Auschwitz in a little over a period of a month during the last stages of the war, leaves one in no doubt about his culpability.

Arendt also shows that Eichmann's own understanding of the ethical issues involved was remarkably perceptive. In one of the hearing sessions he startled everybody by quoting from Kant's Critique of Practical Reason. He said, "I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws." He later added that soon he understood that it was not possible to live according to this rule and he had to distort it to mean that the "general laws" in Kant's dictum become Fuhrer's whims and fancies. The Categorical Imperative of Hitler--a law binding for all his subjects! He also says that citizens of legal states are lucky and that he was not a lucky person in that regard. This is also the essence of totalitarianism. The state as the arbiter of good and evil...the snuffing of human individuality and spirit.

Incidentally the phrase with which the book is most associated with occurs only once. Throughout the hearing Arendt notes Eichmann's fondness for cliches, or "winged words" to use Eichmann's exact words, some kind of a meta-cliche. Even in the court he boasted himself with outlandish phrases and expressions. Describing his last words Arendt says:

"After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men." It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us -- the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

This banality, that comes out in his use of empty words and phrases, was just a symptom. It was a lack of personality, an inner self, that snuffed the "moral law within" that Kant talks of. (In fact her usage of Eichmann's quotes are frequent sources of black humour in the book. In one of the episodes he talks about the "forest of difficulties" that he had to face!) Eichmann was a true product of a totalitarian state. Abuse of language and denial of any introspective and rational thought is one of the main tools of totalitarian state as anyone who has read Orwell would know. The Germans went way further in the direction, because German language in particular is very amenable to lofty abstractions and phrases. Many critics and thinkers like George Steiner and Theodor Adorno have commented on this aspect of how language was turned into an instrument of evil and a tool of dehumanisation by the Nazis and that after the Holocaust we can never use the language in the same way we did before, specially the German language. She doesn't dwell on this topic all that much. Rather disappointing because this is what her "banality of evil" thesis is about.

Apart from the "Banality of Evil" the other most controversial part of the book is her discussion of the role of Jewish leadership in the whole affair. She bitterly criticises the way they kept negotiating with the Nazi authorities, even doing most of the difficult work for them by identifying and numbering all the Jews under their jurisdiction. She doesn't accuse Jews of having a ghetto mentality or being weak of character or believing in hope against hope and going to the gas chambers "like a sheep." She actually criticises the prosecution lawyer who according to her dared to put forward such "heartless" questions to the witness, in a bid to promote the image of the "fighting jew" as opposed to the "victim jew." All in all, her indictment of the Jewish leaders is extremely damning. It is also now a widely held opinion among the scholars of the subject. Had there been anarchy among the Jews in the beginning itself, the scale of devastation would have been much less.

In the end she raises lots of small quibbles about the International law, about how legal it was try Eichmann in Jerusalem, about whether the charges should have been crimes against humanity or crimes against Jewish people. She also doubts the intentions of the Israeli government in the whole affair, she disapproves of the "pedagogic" turn the trial took over time, in general the way it was being "politicised" by various interested parties. In this way she is also remarkably prescient, specially now that it has become such a politically charged subject in international politics. It was in that trial that it first started. But after all the reservations about the manner in which the trial was conducted and the political aims the Israeli government wanted to achieve, she is remarkably clear about the final outcome. She ends the book with the following words of the judge:

For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations--as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world--we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Holocaust Literature: A Brief Note

The Guardian reports about a discovery of a young Polish girl's diary who died in Auschwitz, calling her a "Polish Anne Frank." The book blog provides a necessary, if predictable, response.. warning that:

Much of the interest in Anne Frank was to do with the story of a young girl approaching womanhood and her experience of first love. The coverage of Rutka's diary has wasted no time getting to this aspect of the story: "She described her crush on a boy named Janek and the anticipation of a first kiss," runs the Associated Press story, which goes on to quote this passage: "I think my womanhood has awoken in me. That means, yesterday when I was taking a bath and the water stroked my body, I longed for someone's hands to stroke me... I didn't know what it was, I have never had such sensations until now." This is the Holocaust as chick-lit, bringing a disturbing element of sex and voyeurism.

The last line is slightly harsh I think but the point is well made. There will definitely be readers who will try to usurp Rutka's experiences for their own emotional needs in the process of "identification" with the story and the character. This is actually the danger with all narrativizing. Just that in case of Holocaust, and even in case of similar events of less magnitude, this style of reading becomes a grave moral problem. This is the reason why I don't think Anne Frank's diary should be on the reading lists of young people or people who read like young people do -- look for "story" and characters they can "identify" with. I am not denying the literary merits of these human documents but their role should be to complement historical reading -- reading about figures, processes, bureaucracies and other impersonal details -- so that these are rescued from meaningless abstractions back to emotional and real specifics. The purpose should be to commemorate and mourn the victims and not to find a cathartic outlet for one's own petty emotional grievances.

Also another Holocaust diary. This time a young boy....

Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Lectures about Heaven"

A funny joke from a review of German-American Historian Fritz Stern's memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known

There is a joke about a crowd of Germans pouring out of a tourist bus that has stopped in front of the Pearly Gates. They see two signs. One points to the left: ‘Heaven.’ The other points right: ‘Lectures about Heaven.’ The Germans all head to the right. And so does Stern.

The rest of it is funny too:

One entire chapter – 54 pages – does not even pretend to be about Germany but is about lecturing about Germany over the course of 15 months under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation. Lectures and summaries of Stern’s work are the backbone of the second book: ‘My lecture course at the Free University was on . . .’; ‘I tried to put the three thinkers in the context of German intellectual and political history.’ There then follows a fuller account of what he said or wrote on each occasion and a review of how these interventions were received. Stern’s archives must be enormous. Even when he admits he knows little about a subject he usually gets good reviews and lets readers in on them. Claudio Veliz writes to tell him that his article on repression and reform in Latin America was ‘thoughtful and perceptive’. And when, as is more often the case, he is writing about some topic of European history, he gets rave reviews from all sorts of famous people. The president of the Federal Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker, sends Stern a note to tell him that he had read one of his lectures ‘with liveliest interest and gratitude’; McGeorge Bundy says that he thought another piece ‘uncommonly good’ and Lionel Trilling found an earlier draft of it ‘smashing’; George Kennan thought that he had never seen a better account of Soviet historiography than Stern’s (‘brilliant and unanswerable’); C. Vann Woodward, a ‘master historian’, tells him that, after reading only the introduction, he already knew he had much to learn from Stern’s first book. ‘And the personal letters!’ Stern received about his second book: J.K. Galbraith called it ‘sublime’, the Listener compared it to Buddenbrooks.

Literary Adaptations

The latest Bookforum has a cover story dedicated to literary adaptations into films. Three is an essay by Philip Lopate, reflections and observations by prominent directors and screenwriters and a list of favourite adaptations by a bunch of film critics.

As a lover of lists myself it set me thinking about my own favourite film adaptations. The problem was that I haven't read a lot of original books on which some of my really beloved films are based on, like The Third Man and The Night of the Hunter both of which will feature prominently in my all time favourites. I have also not read anything by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler (or The Godfather) so that will exclude many films which I like as well. Also I have excluded Shakespeare, he needs a list of his own.

So after a lot of confusion and deliberation I came up with following:

Adaptation (Spike Jonze, USA): If only Hollywood had a few more copies of Charlie Kaufmann! This is not just a fantastic adaptation of the New Yorker profile by Susan Orlean it is also the most entertaining, illuminating and hilarious film about screenwriting as well.

Great Expectations (David Lean, Britain): Great opening scene, both in the book and in the film. It is the kind of adaptation which works best as an illustration and dramatization.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary): It leaves out a lot of politics and philosophy of the original book and concentrates more on formalistic elements and visual design, it is still a mesmerising and startling piece of work. Also I think they should have kept the original title for the film...The Melancholy of Resistance

The Remains of the Day (James Ivory, Britain): This is another of those illustration and dramatization kind of adaptation. Straightforward and not too clever. I love the book and the movie both.

The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff, Germany): If you thought the Eel scene in the book was upsetting, wait till you see the movie. And if you thought it was pretty bad in the movie, wait till you read the book. If you have done both, well, you know why it is here on this list. Schlondorff's adaptation of Musil's novel The Confusions of Young Torless is amazing too. I haven't yet read the book but will do soon.

Btw, the entire Bookforum issue seems to be available online. Worth Browsing.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


Something on Bollywood for a change. I wanted to see this film ever since I read the Hindi short story "Yehi Sach Hai" (This is the truth) by Mannu Bhandari last year. (The full story is available here. The hindi fonts may not appear correctly on all platforms.) Surprisingly I had never seen it before. Finally I saw it yesterday. The original story is one of my favourites. It is a wonderful little love story. It is also a great example and a very good introduction to the "Nai Kahani" (new story) movement that became popular in the fifties and sixties. There stories (and novels) were characterised by the urban settings and middle class characters which was a contrast to the existing critical social realist model in which literature was supposed to serve the progressive ideologies of its time, by questioning and critiquing the social and cultural institutions which helped perpetuate all sorts of discrimination and exploitation.

In contrast these new stories were more concerned with the interiority of their characters. The main focus was on how the collapse of traditional communities and structures with the advent of modernity had left people without certainties and how this rootlessness fed the general anxiety and the existential malaise and how it all affected the personal relationships. As a result in most of these stories there was not much of a "story" in the sense that not much really happened. There was very little description of the external world and conventional approach to character building, either by caricature or a unified psychological portrait, was avoided. (In many of the stories by Nirmal Verma for example, everything remained anonymous, characters, places, historical period, nothing was explicitly named!). What came out in the end was a completely fragmented self, a radical kind of self-alienation, disjunction between thought and action and how it resulted in the crisis of interpersonal relationships. This same problem of inaction and indecision in the modern world and the so-called "crisis of faith" was the main theme of western modernist writers too. These hindi stories though nowhere even near the complexity of say Musil, Kafka or Woolf, still explore the same territory. What makes these fascinating is that they manage to capture not just isolated people struggling with themselves but rather a society in transition too. Something that is still a work in progress.

"Yehi Sach Hai" is a very simple love triangle on the surface. Deepa, a middle class girl probably in her mid twenties (no such details are explicitly given), who lives alone in Kanpur and is currently completing her doctoral thesis (again we aren't told which subject it is). She is involved with a man named Sanjay and they soon plan to get married. At the beginning of the story she has just received an an interview call for a teaching job in calcutta which appears to solve their problems since Sanjay is having some trouble with the office politics and with her in Calcutta he can have a transfer and they can then get married. In Calcutta however she runs into an old fling, who she broke up with after a lot of mutual recrimination. She thought she had moved on but once he starts showing interest in helping her get the job her old feelings start to return and things get so complicated for her that she can no longer decide who she wants to marry and live with and can no longer be sure which of the two "is the real truth!" The story is written in the form of diary like entries in first person present tense so we always see everything from the perspective of Deepa and are as confused about everything as she is. The story is basically a portrait of her indecision and emotional confusion.

Now the film adaptation is very faithful. It actually won lot of acclaim and even won the best film award of that year. It also started a trend of similarly low budget romantic films featuring ordinary characters and their lives. Many of these films featured Amol Palekar too. The story about problems of commitment in relationships and existential angst may remind one of Antonioni (and indeed L'avventura and L'Eclisse explore the same territory) but this film uses a straight-forward objective style. (In fact in one of the scenes two people joke about the pretentiousness of an Antonioni film!) The ordinariness of the locations and the characters are stressed everywhere. There are freeze-frames and voice overs which mimic the monologic nature of the story but otherwise it is a straight-forward retelling of the story. There are also some flashbacks which are added in the film to make it more "complete" than the story which defeat the purpose to a large extent because the story works precisely because it doesn't stress on psychological specifics, rather it looks on a general situation or a way of life in general terms. Still a satisfying film overall. The cast is uniformly very good and the two songs (yes only two) are two of my favourites ever. You can listen to them here. I was a little confused about the English name of the eponymous flower. Wikipedia has some details about it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tired (With Further Asides on Wittgenstein and Other Recent Readings)

One of those posts where I announce I am feeling tired and weary. Not bored, not at all, just tired. Physically and mentally. Busier than usual at work and at home books a little more complicated and exhausting than usual. But finally a nice weekend is here and I hope I will regain all my energies and regular blogging will continue. I am even feeling like going out somewhere for a change.

Anyway, This week I finished reading Wittgenstein's Vienna by Janik and Toulmin, a truly brilliant work of cultural and intellectual history. (Thanks to Mr. Waggish and Antonia for bringing it to my attention.) Even though my guess is that it makes Wittgenstein's philosophy look less original and less complicated than it actually is. They make him sound more like an illustrator and explicator of Kierkegaardian thought. Only guess of course since I haven't yet understood Wittgenstein's philosophy. Last weekend I also struggled with a small monograph titled Wittgenstein on Human Nature by P.M.S. Hacker. It is very short, just over fifty pages and it starts off very beautifully but then when I finished it I found myself in even deeper confusion than I was before. This is by the way not different from my general experience with ANY book about philosophy of mind. The Hacker book sounded cool because he (with Wittgenstein's help of course) claimed to clear conceptual confusions which form the foundation of the subject but then after reading it I was more confused than ever. Even a simple English sentence looks threatening to me now. I am already going through a serious phase of "language pessimism". Everything seems to crumble down the moment I say it or write it down (yes that includes this blog too.) I have to part companies with these philosophers and other enemies of language for some time I think.

In any case Janik and Toulmin book is eminently recommendable. Specially since I have been reading a lot of Austrian literature of that period it felt like both, a brilliant summation and a fantastic introduction to what must be the most fascinating and complex period of European cultural history, perhaps second only to classical Greece. Besides Wittgenstein, there are stunning portraits of such figures as Karl Kraus, Otto Weininger, Arnold Schonberg, Adolf Loos, Ernst Mach, Hofmannsthal, Mauthner and others. I had barely heard of many of these people before but Janik and Toulmin make them all sound enormously interesting. On top of that their writing style is very accessible too. Yes, Robert Musil, my personal favourite Austrian, gets a short shrift and Kafka is barely mentioned (okay, he didn't really belong there but it was all one empire) but reading their discussions of the philosophical questions that animated the intellectual environment of the time gave me new perspectives and a new understanding of these writers too. I really love this approach to history and philosophy. The last time I was impressed with a similar book was when I read Isaiah Berlin's collection of essays on nineteenth century Russian Intelligentsia Russian Thinkers last year. Both of these books belong to the topmost shelf. I will try to post about some of these things in a little more detail later.