Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Antonioni's Heirs

This is exactly what I was thinking about -- why the contemporary art house cinema is chock-a-block with Antonioni's heirs while Bergman's are nowhere to be seen.

"Today, we are aswarm with Antonioni imitators, but no one seems to want to be the new Bergman," Michael Atkinson notes. That's partly because nobody can be the new Bergman. And not just for the obvious reason.

Unlike a lot of younger filmmakers today, Bergman was a highly, richly cultured individual. He knew the Bible backward and forward, Shakespeare too; fine art, music, and so on. All of his knowledge did more than inform his work—his work is suffused with it, it gains much of its texture and heft from it. Of course, Antonioni is similarly cultured, but his depth in this area doesn't play so much upon the surface of his work; it motivates the form, rather than thickens it. Today's young filmmakers aren't, for the most part, as polyglot. For a lot of them, all the culture they've got is film. And Antonioni's got a signature style that's accessible to them, and seems imitable: shoot some architecture and negative space, have characters disaffectedly utter banalities, and you think you've got it. To emulate Bergman, you've got to know what he knew, and knowing that...go on to be yourself.

That's one reason certainly but I think it is also because over the last couple of decades the focus has shifted from Europe, and as a result from the European high culture, to everywhere around the world. Europe no longer has a monopoly when it comes to serious cinema.

There is also the fact that the themes of urban alienation which Antonioni made his own are so readily applicable to rapidly developing Asian cities. One of the reasons why we have so many Antonioni imitators in Asia.

Tsai Ming-Liang is perhaps the most talented of the young Asian filmmakers whose style can also be compared to that of Antonioni. (Bela Tarr and Michael Haneke too.) I wanted to link again to my favourite crying scene in the movies ever but the youtube guys have deleted the video. If you haven't seen it you have to do with the description there. It is a typical Antonioni shot. Long unbroken tracking shot, a non-subjective moving camera following the girl as she walks in the park. Only after a while you will realize that it is not just the girl the camera is tracking but the park. The desolate park in fact is much more important. She doesn't have to speak anything. There is already a visual correlative to her inner life all over the screen. These types of shots are all over in Antonioni's films.

Some older posts about Antonioni with links here.

Robert Walser links

via Complete Review, links to essays about the life and work of Swiss-German writer Robert Walser in New Yorker and Village Voice. He has been on my list for long but haven't crossed his path yet. Musil reported called Kafka, "a peculiar case of the Walser type." Kafka himself admired him. There is also this old essay by J.M. Coetzee, The Genius of Robert Walser. (Hmmm. Yet another Genius. Coetzee's latest essay collection has a string of geniuses. Musil is a genius, Svevo is a genius (essay copied here), Walter Benjamin is a genius, Sebald is a genius. Roth, Bellow and Faulker are geniuses too, though perhaps on the second rung. Poor Sandor Marai ("minor fiction writer") and Joseph Roth("conservative not just in politics but also in literary technique") they get damned with faint praise. Though that shouldn't stop anyone. The Radetzky March and Embers both are excellent, extremely worthwhile books.)

I am taking a break from reading. I am already reading too much. I was looking at my library thing account. I have already read 30 books this year, that is not counting the non-fiction books I have skimmed over. And that also includes 1100 pages (still 600 short) of the emotionally and intellectually exhausting novel The Man Without Qualities.

Antonioni dead too...

This week is turning out to be a film lovers' apocalypse...

Guardian has an obituary and other comments.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bergman: Some Minor Quibblings

(Photo clipped from the new york times. Looks like time off from gloom for everybody.)

Don't want to write a eulogy instead just a few stray thoughts of dissenting nature. I think it is not just a willingness to tackle "big" and serious questions that make Bergman's films so effective and leave such a powerful impression. It is rather his technical competence and even more important the extraordinary cast of actors that he surrounds himself with that save his films from ridicule and laughter which comes from too much seriousness. Even a marginally less competent director will not be able to pull things off like Bergman does. Even then I don't think there is a any director in film history who is more often parodied, although never without respect.

Another thing that came to my mind was how relevant the questions of soul, existence of God, spiritual isolation, freedom and responsibility are to us living in the early twenty first century? I mean the general human populace, stripped of all individuality and self-identity, mindless herd of consumerist sheep populating the shopping malls and movie multiplexes? It takes me to another weak point I find in Bergman -- his utterly ahistorical and decontextualised portrait of human reality. Some people would say it is his strength, he doesn't clutter what he wants to say with extraneous details. That he is interested only in the essential. If that is so his diagnosis of the human condition can only be called incomplete. Is the problem of faithlessness really that universal and timeless as Bergman claims it is? I think modern literature tackles this question is much more well rounded manner. In fact I have still been thinking of David Cronenberg's Crash, which I saw on Saturday, a film as attuned to the 21st century human life as one can be (a cinema of the body as opposed a cinema of the soul), and even there I found Cronenberg's hesitant approach to tackle his subject in a more direct and political manner a little disappointing.

Lastly, much as we would like it otherwise, we can't escape the fact that we live in the age of irony. You can't say something and also hope that people think you mean it. That is asking too much. Again Bergman pulls it off because of his extraordinary craft. Not the stuff of lesser filmmakers. (Even in fiction I often see critics bewailing the lack of story, characters and believable psychology in modern literature and longing for the comforts and the securities of the victorian fiction. Needlessly to say I find these very irritating too.) In movies I don't see any example more eloquent than Lars von Trier's reworking of Dreyer's Ordet into his own Breaking the Waves. The austerity, sincerity and seriousness of Dreyer give way to mockery, contrivance and irony in von Trier. This is truly the Ordet we deserve at this time in the history. Asking otherwise is akin to trying to reverse the historical clock. We don't have any Bergman and Dreyer now because we can't have. We'll have to do with von Triers.

Russian intellectual history

A nice book review about the Russian intellectual history from the latest NYTBR:

"There is a joke about the Russians, sometimes told by Russians. A young man from the provinces, inspired by a local doctor, travels to St. Petersburg because he wants to study “life.” He reads, he writes and eventually he enters medical school. On the first day of class the professor enters the hushed auditorium and announces, “Gentlemen, today we will discuss the pancreas.” The young man leaps from his seat, enraged. “The pancreas? How dare you mention the pancreas! We are not here to study the pancreas, we are here to study ... LIFE!”

Dostoyevsky would have laughed. Even his darkest novels contain comic vignettes about young Russians inflamed by grand ideas and oblivious to the obvious. The comedy ends when somebody picks up a hatchet and tries to put those ideas into practice. That has happened often enough in Russian history to raise the question: Is there something special about the Russian relation to ideas?"

Bergman Dead

BBC has a short obituary.

Movie Watching Binge

I went on a movie watching binge this weekend. Starting from Saturday afternoon till Sunday midnight I saw the following movies.

No End in Sight (documentary about the iraq war)
Sweet Smell of Success (Dir: Alexander Mackendrick)
Crash (Dir: David Cronenberg)
The Two of Us (French, Dir: Claude Berri)

The Woman in the Window (Dir: Fritz Lang)
Laura (Dir: Otto Preminger)
Au Hasard Balthazar (Dir: Robert Bresson)
Mouchette (Dir: Robert Bresson)
Nights of Cabiria (Dir: Federico Fellini)

Had seen the last four before but since I had free access to the MOMA I went ahead and saw all of them again. It was good, specially Nights of Cabiria, many details of which I had forgotten. The noir films are part of the NYC Noir revival being screened at the filmforum.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Religious Melancholy

The Melancholia anthology by Jennifer Radden contains a beautiful excerpt from a work by spanish Christian mystic St Theresa of Avila called The Interior Castle. She is also featured prominently in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch. It is actually a set of advices she gives to her fellow nuns. I found the book on the internet (link here) but couldn't find the exact excerpts. Most of the instructions are about how to control one's sadness and devote one's energies to the prayer and how not to allow the devil prey on these weaker souls.

Melancholia of course is one of the seven deadly sins. (Sloth is actually the spiritual sloth, not necessarily physical.) It is very interesting to read religious thought on the subject. An oppressive sadness basically means a rejection of God's grace and one's own duty towards Him and also disaffection with the beautiful world created by him and the plan that God has made for human beings in this world. And of course it is the Devil who is ultimately responsible. (Milton's Satan is a great melancholic character too.) A previous post on Sloth here.

In this particular book the approach to melancholy is a little different. As is common in all mystical traditions, the devotion to God is seen in terms of romantic, even sexual, terms. Faith is nothing but a tormented soul's cravings for a union with God. And the melancholy is actually that of an unrequited desire. She is basically warning the nuns about how too much longing for an "speedy espousal" and too much emotion can leave them vulnerable to the work of devil. Two sample paragraphs here.

"In the state I speak of these longings can sometimes be arrested, for the reason is at liberty to conform to the will of God and can quote the words of St. Martin; should these desires become very oppressive, the thoughts may be turned to some other matter. As such longings are generally found in persons far advanced in perfection, the devil may excite them in order to make us think we are of their number—in any case it is well to be cautious. For my part, I do not believe he could cause the calm and peace given by this pain to the soul, but would disturb it by such uneasiness as we feel when afflicted concerning any worldly matter. A person inexperienced in both kinds of sorrow cannot understand the difference, but thinking such grief an excellent thing, will excite it as much as possible which greatly injures the health, as these longings are incessant or at least very frequent.

You must also notice that bodily weakness may cause such pain, especially with people of sensitive characters who cry over every trifling trouble. Times without number do they imagine they are mourning for God’s sake when they are doing no such thing. If for a considerable space of time, whenever such a person hears the least mention of God or thinks of Him at all, these fits of uncontrollable weeping occur, the cause may be an accumulation of humour round the heart, which has a great deal more to do with such tears than has the love of God. Such persons seem as if they would never stop crying: believing that tears are beneficial, they do not try to check them nor to distract their minds from the subject, but encourage them as much as possible. The devil seizes this opportunity of weakening nuns so that they become unable to pray or to keep their Rule."

More on Religion

To me the most interesting aspect of the critiques of recent spate of atheism books by Richard Dawkins, Hitchens and others was the part where the critics accuse the authors of philistinism, smugness and putting forth a rival school of thought which is as shallow, as comforting, and as free of all doubts as doctrinaire religion. I agree with this claim but I don't think it is in any way a substantive critique of the content of the books. Only because their aims in writing these books are far narrower than what these critics attribute them to be. The first thing, and this is more prominent in Dawkins' attack, is the way religion encroaches on science's (or more generally any evidence based intellectual enterprise) turf. As Dawkins rightly argues this should be resisted and ridiculed with all vehemence by all sane people for reasons too obvious for me to list here. The other part is religion's encroachments in the domain of law and politics. The case here is comparatively more complex, but only slightly. What we need is just a very elementary course in history to convince us why religion inspired political movements are such a bad idea. (Hitchens is very knowledgeable on this topic and very entertaining too.)

What people of more refined sensibilities contend is that this portrait of religion, as an unwelcome meddler in affairs outside its territory, is not only inaccurate and mischievous in intent but also unfair and deliberately fabricated to malign the "true" religion which is more interested in probing serious questions confronting all of us. Questions like how do we find a firm and universal grounding for our values and a sense of what is good and bad? The problem of freedom, and concomitant existence of evil and suffering? And perhaps the most important of all -- the problem of Death. Or rather, the problem of how to live with the presence of death all around and how to prepare to die. This of course doesn't belong to science's domain and Dawkins' and his cohorts' attempts to add mystical touches to the scientific enterprise (the beauty of nature, glory of the universe etc) ring as hollow as the sermons of the next door priest. Science can explain the source of morality and freedom (or the illusion of it) but the answers can never be satisfactory.

Personally I find it very admirable the way religion insists on the centrality of these important questions for any meaningful human life, even though often it soon muddles up everything by providing ridiculous solutions to these questions. (Immortality of soul, Original sin, the carrot and stick theory of morality etc.) Here religion's rival is not science but art and literature. (Hitchens in his book does mention repeatedly that we should turn to great works of literature rather than canonical holy texts to look for answers to these grave questions confronting all of us.) What we now need is a different kind anti-religion writing. The writing that comes not from scientists or rationalists but rather from writers and artists. Basically we need heirs of Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. And may be a few descendents of Bergman, Dreyer and Bresson too. A few more in the line of Mouchette, Ordet and Winter Light should be enough to silence these critics.

Battle of Algiers Trailer

The trailer is fantastic too! I love the soundtrack of this film. Ennio Morricone got the deserved lifetime achievement academy award last year. The trailer has a part of the soundtrack too. Of course it depends on how the soundtrack is used in the film so the director should get the credit too. The main theme starts around the middle. Also love the way it boasts, "containing not a single frame of documentary or news footage."

One also can't help but compare it with what is happening in Iraq now and despair about how worse things have become. The valiant anti-imperialist struggle of the Algerians (FLN), though violent and morally compromised and based on Islamic ideology, was still an honourable one. Can only wish if we could say the same about the current breed of anti-imperialist warriors who are ready with their own agenda of fascism.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Reading vs Thinking

I entirely agree with this Guardian blog which asks people to take time to not read this summer and instead devote it to thinking about some good book that you have already read.

Whenever I see one of those articles bemoaning the shallowness of modern culture as reflected in people's reading habits, I think that it is not the lack of reading but rather lack of thinking which is the problem. It is so obviously wrong to confuse the two together. In fact for many people the act of reading acts as a substitute for thinking! What we should really promote is the kind of reading which can potentially enrich one's inner life, expose one to new and interesting ideas and can help bring language and thought close together.

Remembrance of things past

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnets (XXX)

(This is of course the source of the title of original English translation of Proust by C.K. Scott-Moncrieff. I like the newer one more. This one sounds too lachrymose. Also inaccurate since remembrance is a voluntary act, whereas Proust deals with the phenomenon of involuntary memory.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Melancholy Humour

Reading this had me in splits. Specially about vapours which "annoyeth the harte" and cause further troubles in brain...

"The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities. Those which are sad and pensive, rise of that melancholick humour, which is the grossest part of the blood, whether it be iuice or excrement, not passing the naturall temper in heat whereof it partaketh, and is called cold in comparison onely. This for the most part is setled in the spleane, and with his vapours anoyeth the harte and passing vp to the brayne, counterfetteth terrible obiectes to the fantasie, and polluting both the substance, and spirits of the brayne, causeth it without externall occasion, to forge monstrous fictions, and terrible to the conceite, which the iudgement taking as they are presented by the disordered instrument, deliuer ouer to the hart, which hath no iudgement of discretion in it self, but giuing credite to the mistaken report of the braine, breaketh out into that inordinate passion, against reason."

by Timothy Bright (via Flowerville). More details here (a very good resource.)

Now I remember reading this extract in the excellent anthology The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva which collects excerpts from important texts of the western tradition dealing with this subject.

I also can't find on internet a truly hilarious piece of advice for people suffering from "erotic melancholy" by the Roman physician Galen. Basically he approvingly cites Diogenes the Cynic, one of the early proponents of the idea of taking matters in one's own hands. Galen also briefly describes how he once cured one of her female patients suffering from melancholy just by using his fingers appropriately!!

For now Mr. Burton will suffice whose book is actually a super-text of all these small texts (and remember he himself was a life-long celibate):

And yet I must and will say something more, add a word or two in gratiam virginum et viduarum, in favour of all such distressed parties, in commiseration of their present estate. And as I cannot choose but condole their mishap that labour of this infirmity, and are destitute of help in this case, so must I needs inveigh against them that are in fault, more than manifest causes, and as bitterly tax those tyrannising pseudopoliticians, superstitious orders, rash vows, hard-hearted parents, guardians, unnatural friends, allies, (call them how you will,) those careless and stupid overseers, that out of worldly respects, covetousness, supine negligence, their own private ends (cum sibi sit interim bene) can so severely reject, stubbornly neglect, and impiously contemn, without all remorse and pity, the tears, sighs, groans, and grievous miseries of such poor souls committed to their charge. How odious and abominable are those superstitious and rash vows of Popish monasteries, so to bind and enforce men and women to vow virginity, to lead a single life, against the laws of nature, opposite to religion, policy, and humanity, so to starve, to offer violence, to suppress the vigour of youth, by rigorous statutes, severe laws, vain persuasions, to debar them of that to which by their innate temperature they are so furiously inclined, urgently carried, and sometimes precipitated, even irresistibly led, to the prejudice of their soul's health, and good estate of body and mind: and all for base and private respects, to maintain their gross superstition, to enrich themselves and their territories as they falsely suppose, by hindering some marriages, that the world be not full of beggars, and their parishes pestered with orphans; stupid politicians; haeccine fieri flagilia? ought these things so to be carried? better marry than burn, saith the Apostle, but they are otherwise persuaded. They will by all means quench their neighbour's house if it be on fire, but that fire of lust which breaks out into such lamentable flames, they will not take notice of, their own bowels oftentimes, flesh and blood shall so rage and burn, and they will not see it: miserum est, saith Austin, seipsum non miserescere, and they are miserable in the meantime that cannot pity themselves, the common good of all, and per consequens their own estates. For let them but consider what fearful maladies, feral diseases, gross inconveniences, come to both sexes by this enforced temperance, it troubles me to think of, much more to relate those frequent abortions and murdering of infants in their nunneries (read Kemnitius and others), and notorious fornications, those Spintrias, Tribadas, Ambubeias, &c., those rapes, incests, adulteries, mastuprations, sodomies, buggeries of monks and friars. See Bale's visitation of abbeys, Mercurialis, Rodericus a Castro, Peter Forestus, and divers physicians; I know their ordinary apologies and excuses for these things, sed viderint Politici, Medici, Theologi, I shall more opportunely meet with them elsewhere.

Previous extracts from Anatomy: On the subject of love melancholy and melancholy caused by the thwarted venereal instincts

also very funny: melancholy of the trees

Essay on Susan Sontag

The latest new york review of books has a nice essay on Susan Sontag. Also loved this about her hair:

An icon of braininess, she even developed, like Einstein, a trademark hairdo: an imperious white stripe, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, as though she were declaring a cultural Emergency.

The posthumously published collection At the Same Time, which I did read a while back, has an essay (or actually a speech I think) titled "The World as India." It is about the value of translation and cross-language communication. She obviously didn't know much about India, at least not as must as she did about Europe, because then she would have realized that the metaphor is not correct. There is very little communication across different linguistic cultures in India. They are all small culture islands mostly disconnected from each other. Yet something holds everything together too. (In one of her other essays in the book she says that she had read all the German classics before she turned thirteen and that The Magic Mountain was already her favourite book!)

Update: Found the essay here. Quite long but definitely worth reading. (Was right about the speech bit too: "This is an edited version of the St Jerome Lecture given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last year. It is dedicated to the memory of W. G. Sebald.")

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Small Note on Thomas Browne

"The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying."

Reading this quip in the James Wood essay linked in the previous post reminded me of the original source text by Sir Thomas Browne titled, "Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk," from where it is taken. The entire essay is available here.

As the title also indicates it is an essay occasioned by the discovery of funerary urns (Hydriotaphia is the technical term for the same) in the Norfolk region of East Anglia in England. He begins with a survey of obsequial practices through different ages and culture, with special attention to internment and cremation rites then goes on to discuss the theology behind all these customs and finally, in the classic and often anthologized chapter five, he meditates on mortality and extinction, not just of the human body but of all the traces and proofs of existence that time continues to erase. He sees Urn Burial as a heroic but ultimately a futile and lost struggle against the destructive force of time.

I first heard about this work while reading W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn of which it is clearly an obvious precedent. There are some really wonderful phrases that Sebald also uses in his own narrative. A few I like:

"Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and the mortall right-lined circle, must conclude and shut up all. There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things;"

"But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity."

"Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man."

"What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions6 are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide resolution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism. Not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the Provinciall Guardians, or tutellary Observators."

More information on the Wikipedia and link to the chapter five.

James Wood on Svevo

I will probably try to write in some detail about my own thoughts on Zeno's Conscience. For now I am trying to read what wise men have to say about it. Here's an essay by James Wood. Some excerpts from the essay I liked:

Svevo's temperament has affinities with Chekhov's: a gentle voyeurism which perhaps masked an intense sensitivity to human and animal suffering; an unwillingness to act or think like an 'intellectual', combined with an aversion to the high-flown, the poetic ('Why so many words for such few ideas?' Svevo said of poetry); a hostility to religion; and an eye for the subtly comic. [...]

Svevo's hostility to the perceived lack of ideas in poetry is significant, because he is one of the most thoroughly philosophical of modern novelists. He could recite many passages of Schopenhauer from memory. Clearly, the idea, central to Confessions of Zeno, of life as a sickness, is indebted to Schopenhauer (to whom Freud in turn admitted his debts); but Svevo, I suspect, was also enthralled by the jaunty paradoxical wit of Schopenhauer, who, for example, writes in The World as Will and Representation that walking is just a constantly prevented falling, just as the life of our body is a constantly prevented dying. Schopenhauer, who kept poodles, liked to say that he abused his dog with the epithet 'man' only when it was especially badly behaved; Svevo, who loved cats and dogs, wrote animal fables all his life. The gist of them was that animals can never fathom the mysterious wickedness of humans.


Living only in preparation for death: but not wanting to die. What is this but an essentially religious vision, without the consolation of religion? Again and again, Svevo returns us first of all to the pure death-diligence of the ancients (and Zeno's name alone should do that), and then to the great medieval and Renaissance philosophers and writers. His novel reverberates with a grave religious wit, not unlike that of Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote that 'the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying,' and very close to the 17th-century divine Jeremy Taylor, who tells us in Holy Living that balding is merely man's early preparation for death. Svevo would have loved that.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

On How Idleness Causes Melancholy

(One of my favourite book covers ever)

Some Wisdom from Anatomy of Melancholy about the evils of idleness:

Opposite to exercise is idleness (the badge of gentry) or want of exercise, the bane of body and mind, the nurse of naughtiness, stepmother of discipline, the chief author of all mischief, one of the seven deadly sins, and a sole cause of this and many other maladies, the devil's cushion, as Gualter calls it, his pillow and chief reposal. For the mind can never rest, but still meditates on one thing or other, except it be occupied about some honest business, of his own accord it rusheth into melancholy. As too much and violent exercise offends on the one side, so doth an idle life on the other (saith Crato), it fills the body full of phlegm, gross humours, and all manner of obstructions, rheums, catarrhs, &c. Rhasis, cont. lib. 1. tract. 9, accounts of it as the greatest cause of melancholy. I have often seen (saith he) that idleness begets this humour more than anything else. Montaltus, c. 1, seconds him out of his experience, They that are idle are far more subject to melancholy than such as are conversant or employed about any office or business. Plutarch reckons up idleness for a sole cause of the sickness of the soul: There are they (saith he) troubled in mind, that have no other cause but this. Homer, Iliad. 1, brings in Achilles eating of his own heart in his idleness, because he might not fight. Mercurialis, consil. 86, for a melancholy young man urgeth, it as a chief cause; why was he melancholy? because idle. Nothing begets it sooner, increaseth and continueth it oftener than idleness. A disease familiar to all idle persons, an inseparable companion to such as live at ease, Pingui otio desidiose agentes, a life out of action, and have no calling or ordinary employment to busy themselves about, that have small occasions; and though they have, such is their laziness, dullness, they will not compose themselves to do aught; they cannot abide work, though it be necessary; easy as to dress themselves, write a letter, or the like; yet as he that is benumbed with cold sits still shaking, that might relieve himself with a little exercise or stirring, do they complain, but will not use the facile and ready means to do themselves good; and so are still tormented with melancholy. Especially if they have been formerly brought up to business, or to keep much company, and upon a sudden come to lead a sedentary life; it crucifies their souls, and seizeth on them in an instant; for whilst they are any ways employed, in action, discourse, about any business, sport or recreation, or in company to their liking, they are very well; but if alone or idle, tormented instantly again; one day's solitariness, one hour's sometimes, doth them more harm, than a week's physic, labour, and company can do good. Melancholy seizeth on them forthwith being alone, and is such a torture, that as wise Seneca well saith, Malo mihi male quam molliter esse, I had rather be sick than idle. This idleness is either of body or mind. That of body is nothing but a kind of benumbing laziness, intermitting exercise, which, if we may believe Fernelius, causeth crudities, obstructions, excremental humours, quencheth the natural heat, dulls the spirits, and makes them unapt to do any thing whatsoever.

Neglectis urenda filix innascitur agris.
———for, a neglected field
Shall for the fire its thorns and thistles yield.

As fern grows in untilled grounds, and all manner of weeds, so do gross humours in an idle body, Ignavum corrumpunt otia corpus. A horse in a stable that never travels, a hawk in a mew that seldom flies, are both subject to diseases; which left unto themselves, are most free from any such encumbrances. An idle dog will be mangy, and how shall an idle person think to escape? Idleness of the mind is much worse than this of the body; wit without employment is a disease Aerugo animi, rubigo ingenii: the rust of the soul, a plague, a hell itself, Maximum animi nocumentum, Galen, calls it. As in a standing pool, worms and filthy creepers increase, (et vitium capiunt ni moveantur aquae, the water itself putrefies, and air likewise, if it be not continually stirred by the wind) so do evil and corrupt thoughts in an idle person, the soul is contaminated.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Coetzee on Svevo

I have copied an essay on Italo Svevo by J.M. Coetzee. Written in his usual nuts-and-bolts essay style but it is very informative and a very good introduction to his life and work.

I have finally finished reading Zeno's Conscience. It is really a great masterpiece, a complete laugh-riot and yet the final feeling one ends up with after closing the book is that of an overwhelming melancholia. Like his fellow Austrians (Trieste was then a part of the Austrian Empire) Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard, Svevo is also dealing with the disease of consciousness. How thought and the habit of rationalising everything, which he says is the same as rational thinking when it comes to subjectivity, not only isolates individual consciousness from the outside world but also alienates one's thoughts and feelings from one's own self. (Thomas Bernhard goes one step further. With him it is madness and self-destruction.) This is the sickness of the soul -- one of the characters in the novel calls it the "imaginary sickness." Obviously it is something that cuts very close to the bone.

Anyway for now, in Coetzee's words:

"Like any good bourgeois of his time, Svevo fretted about his health: What constituted good health, how was it to be acquired, how maintained? In his writings health comes to take on a range of meanings, from the physical and psychic to the social and ethical. Where does the feeling come from, unique to mankind, that we are not well, and what is it that we desire to be cured of? Is cure possible? If cure entails making our peace with the way things are, is it necessarily a good thing to be cured?

To Svevo, Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to treat those afflicted with the disease of reflective thought as a species of their own, coexisting warily with the healthy, unreflective types who in Darwinian jargon might be called the fit. With Darwin— Darwin read through a Schopenhauerian lens—Svevo carried on a dogged lifelong tussle. His first novel was to have carried a Darwinian allusion in its title: Un inetto, the inept or ill-adapted one. But his publisher objected, and he settled for the rather colorless Una vita. In exemplary naturalistic fashion, the book follows the history of a young bank clerk who, when at last he has to face the fact that he is vacant of all drive, desire, or ambition, does the correct evolutionary thing and commits suicide."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Stepford Wives

I first came to know about The Stepford Wives when its remake came a few years ago. I was really very impressed by the concept behind the story. I never got around to watching it or reading the original novel by mystery-writer Ira Levin, author of Rosemary's Baby (which I haven't read either), on which it is based. Anyway I just saw the original 1975 adaptation of the novel and I must say I was very impressed. Not just with the concept but also the execution. It is really very well made mystery-horror-thriller and on top of that a very effective and biting feminist satire too.

The concept actually is not something new. Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World did envision a future when authoritarian systems will keep people in a state of catatonic conformity by robbing them of their individuality and keeping them happy, through drugs and other kinds of external physiological intervention. A future which has already come to pass, specially in the late capitalist societies. The Stepford Wives uses a somewhat similar idea.

Joanna, beautifully played by the long-haired Katharine Ross, moves to Stepford, Connecticut from New York City and finds that women in the suburb are all behaving strangely. They are all prim and proper hausfraus, totally dedicated to cooking, cleaning, ironing and stuff. And they seem to enjoy it too. On top of that they are always sexually available too. Only one of her friends Bobbie is free-spirited whose kitchen is of course dirty. Soon they find a newspaper clipping about a feminist society that used to be there in Stepford, not long ago where none other than Betty Friedan herself came to speak! They are both suspicious and think that something creepy is going on in the creepy men's association. The final twist comes when Bobbie herself changes into a baking-queen. I won't reveal what happens in the end but suffice to say it is both frightening and very funny.

The film brilliantly underscores the common-sensical point that feminism was basically a reaction against the denial of individuality and the pressure to conform to preconceived roles for women regardless of their unique personality traits. It just goes one step ahead and shows men's backlash and a hilarious extremes they will go to in order turn the tide back. Really very good. I have put the book on the reading list too.

The trailer here:

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"quaintly steampunk and disjunctively contemporary"

...and on top of that crypto-marxist, proto-fascist and hyper-capitalist too! from village voice review of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Easily trouncing the recent Hollywood heat rash of over-extended superheroes and Hasbro infomercials, this summer's most satisfying sci-fi blockbuster is a crypto-Marxist, proto-Fascist spectacle first released 80 years ago: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the legendary art deco futuro-fable of industrialist excess, proletarian rebellion, and robot romance, one of the last big-budget exhilarations of the pre-talkie era. Once considered merely hokey and excessive, Lang's hyper-capitalist vision of workers oppressed by mechanical Molochs as their labor sustains a paradise for wealthy technocrats now seems both quaintly steampunk and disjunctively contemporary.

It is playing at the filmforum starting this friday. Recommended, despite all those big and mystifying words.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On Bergman's Birthday!

Not that he would care or approve but anyway best wishes to Ingmar Bergman on his 89th Birthday!

The Independent has a nice report from Faro, the Swedish island where he lives in seclusion.

As a guest at Bergman Week, you can't help but feel like a naturalist hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare and near-extinct breed. This impression is reinforced by one of the week's main events – the Bergman Safari. On a blustery Saturday evening, when the light is grey and overcast (just as Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist used to like it), we clamber aboard an old bus and set off round the island. Our hosts are Arne Carlsson, a bluntly-spoken islander who worked as his truck driver and cameraman for Bergman, and the formidable Katinka Farago, who was an assistant and production manager on many of his films. We wander across "Persona beach," are shown where Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow's farmhouse was burned down in Shame ("Bergman's only action movie") and drive past various houses that he has built for his family and collaborators. We also stop briefly on the north side of the island for a "Bergman burger".

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Night of the Hunter

This is the film I think I have seen most number of times, including a back to back screening on 35mm.(It was awesome, it left be gasping and breathless.) And I saw it once again today. Few films move me and frighten me like The Night of the Hunter does. The frames in the film don't capture images, they are visions, visions from some frightening elsewhere that goes direct into the bloodstream bypassing all critical and rational faculties. Even when it is funny, like the scenes where Shelley Winters informs her "whole body is a-quivering with cleanliness" it sends a shiver down the spine.

And yet if one thinks it is such a simple tale of good and evil. I think the reason why it is so effective, and it applies in general to any fairy tale, is that the good and evil are not embedded within specific characters but are shown to be transcendent things, things which exist on their own and the characters are just abstracted representations. This is the reason why one will get very disappointed with films like these if one looks for naturalistic character studies. It is also one reason why I find such fantasy stories or fairy tales which try to be realistic and "convincing" by heaping on one surface detail after another, pointless endurance tests. No wonder then that a sui-generis masterpiece like this didn't much favour with the audiences of its time. Even prematurely ending the debutante director Charles Laughton's career! What a tragic loss for film history!!

I think David Lynch's "fairy tales" fall into the same transcendent-evil category too. Also the reason why they fascinate me equally. In fact he makes it very explicit in Twin Peaks. A mysterious character called Bob who haunts most of the characters, is not even a real human being. He is just there to frighten and "possess" people and drive ordinary people to do unthinkable things. There is also jungle surrounding the twin peaks town which is again spoken of in metaphysical terms, that frightening elsewhere that I mentioned before. It is in fact one of the most recurring elements of David Lynch's style. The weird cowboy or the monster in the corner in Mulholland Dr, the ghost who asks to "call me" in Lost Highway and in fact most of the characters in Blue Velvet, they are all transcendent (or is it immanent?) presences. They are all visions. I really love this style of filmmaking. Such a pity then that there are not many like these.

Liberation Theology (and a very funny joke)

I was reading this article on the Guardian comment is free site. In short, the Pope recently said that only the Roman Catholic Church is "the proper church" (whatever that means). I couldn't care less but in the comment section I came across this very funny joke which really settles everything. (On some googling I found out that some people voted it the best religious joke in 20 years. Details here.) Here it goes:

"Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!"

He said, "Nobody loves me."

I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"

He said, "A Christian."

I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"

He said, "Protestant."

I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"

He said, "Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."

I said, "Die, heretic scum!", and pushed him over."


Now for something serious. I was slightly annoyed when Christopher Hitchens casually dismissed liberation theology as "an oxymoron" in his book. While I don't think religious faith is anyway necessary for the development of a communitarian ethos and commitment to social and political justice, it is still an admirable first step towards transforming the church from being an agent of obscurantism in the modern world and wholly reactionary institution into a secular, respectable one committed to progressive ideals of justice and freedom. In the process perhaps it can also atone for the historical crimes it has committed directly or indirectly or just stood by in silence when crimes were being committed (like during the Holocaust.) Hitchens basically recounts the history of the church's collusion with tyrants and dictators and concludes that even when it is on the right side, it is not very effective, often muddles up the whole thing, and in the end we would rather do without it. (Isn't it interesting how throughout the history the priestly classes, of all religions, have managed to wield so much power without ever having gone to battlefields themselves! Just invent some theological justification for the tyranny and then you get to do whatever you want! What a disgusting con-job!!)

Hitchens is even condescending towards the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, a hero of the anti-Nazi German resistance and actually a rare face-saver for the religion during the whole dark time, by calling his philosophy, "admirable but nebulous humanism." Bonhoffer was also an early and important Christian thinker to expound on the theology of liberation. He even put it into practice by participating actively in the anti-Nazi resistance activities. He was hanged after a plot to kill Hitler was exposed and his part in the conspiracy came out. Surprisingly he is not a very well-known figure. He really deserves more renown. Some information on Wikipedia and BBC.

Now one would think that the church would encourage and wholeheartedly endorse these heart-warming ideas and celebrate Bonhoffer as a true martyr and a hero. But no, the Pope says that liberation theology is “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church.” His predecessor was even more forthright. “The theology of liberation is a singular heresy,” declared the fundamentalist. (And to think that there were people who wanted a nobel peace prize for him! But then Henry Kissinger got it too and so did the Israel-Palestine trio, he would have really found their company suitable.)

I was actually reminded of all these things because I remembered reading this report about the Pope's recent visit to Latin America. Apparently it was one of the main agenda of his visit! It is shameful, the way they prefer the Jesus who oversees the carrot-and-stick morality to the Jesus the idealist and political activist.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Italo Svevo: Zeno's Conscience

Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience (The Confessions of Zeno in an earlier translation) is considered a modernist masterpiece in the same tradition as Joyce, Proust and others. (Indeed it was Joyce who helped Svevo find a publisher and audience in France.) Though so far, and I have read around 200 pages, less than half, it reads more like Woody Allen than Proust or Joyce. It is rip-roaringly funny and very entertaining. Sentences like, "I looked at the Stars as if I had just conquered them," are littered on every page. The introductory chapter in which the narrator tells the story of his nicotine-addiction is a small classic in itself. Even better is the chapter where he recounts the story of his disastrous courtship, unrequited love and an ill-advised marriage. All really funny.

Beneath all the farcical comedy, however, there are of course lots of serious things too. In common with the standard works of European modernism it takes a critical look at human consciousness too, how it can become a prison, how the process of thought itself results in self-alienation and how self-awareness is often a "crippling burden" inhibiting meaningful action and how close in general it is to rationalisation and self-delusion. This is definitely not a very uplifting subject for a book. Indeed reading Proust's novel or The Man Without Qualities can be really gloomy experiences, even though they are very funny at places, specially Musil. Unlike those books here the mood is very light overall even though the ultimate "message" is somewhat dark. Will write in more detail about it once I have finished it. It is quite long, almost 500 pages! More than half is still left.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Manhattan at the Film Forum

Great chance to see one of the most iconic New York Film in New York. Woody Allen's Manhattan is playing at the Film Forum! Details here.

And I love this opening dialogue (from here):

"Chapter one. "

"He adored New York City.
He idolised it all out of proportion. "

Uh, no. Make that "He romanticised it
all out of proportion. "

"To him,
no matter what the season was,

this was still a town
that existed in black and white

and pulsated to the great tunes
of George Gershwin. "

Uh... no. Let me start this over.

"Chapter one. "

"He was too romantic about Manhattan,
as he was about everything else. "

"He thrived on the hustle, bustle
of the crowds and the traffic. "

"To him, New York
meant beautiful women

and street-smart guys
who seemed to know all the angles. "

Ah, corny. Too corny
for a man of my taste.

Let me... try and make it more profound.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City. "

"To him, it was a metaphor
for the decay of contemporary culture. "

"The same lack of integrity to cause so
many people to take the easy way out...

... was rapidly turning the town
of his dreams..."

No, it's gonna be too preachy. I mean,
face it, I wanna sell some books here.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City,

although to him it was a metaphor
for the decay of contemporary culture. "

"How hard it was to exist in a society
desensitised by drugs, loud music,

television, crime, garbage..."

Too angry. I don't wanna be angry.

"Chapter one. "

"He was as tough and romantic
as the city he loved. "

"Behind his black-rimmed glasses was
the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. "

I love this.

"New York was his town
and it always would be. "

Harry Potter through David Lynch?

This Guardian comment offers a mouth watering suggestion, "Could Lynch or Cronenberg do a better job of directing the boy wizard?" Alas, it will never be. (I am a fervent member of fanclubs of both directors.)

I still haven't opened my Harry Potter account. I saw the first movie and have followed the story in outline but never got around to reading any of books. Someday when the hype is gone and I have processed my already very congested reading queue, I will pick them up.

Lynch and Harry Potter also reminded me of this old article by film critic and historian David Thomson who after watching the film version of the first book moans about the absence of "psycho-sexual energy" and in general a complete absence of any danger in the film. From what I have heard the later volumes to some extent fill up this gap.

These books can potentially be very fascinating in the sense that they can give us adults a glimpse into the consciousness of a kid, access to which is generally denied to us. It is a completely different world, with its own language, its own symbols and its own meanings. It is because of this that I find most fantasy and children's movies boring and pointless. They are all just ready made fantasy cliches. Granted it is not an easy task. That's why films like the The Spirit of the Beehive are so few. Now that's one film which takes us really close to that consciousness. (My own confusing post about the film here.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On Proust's Birthday

It is Proust's birthday today! Just to mark the occasion an extract from the book (the original Scott-Moncrieff translation from here)

[It is one of my favourite episodes in the book, the narrator's encounter with his literary idol Bergotte. The following extract precedes that episode. M. de Norpois, an eccentric and a rather philistine and conservative politician and diplomat, and a truly wonderful caricature, delivers his devastating verdict on Bergotte and narrator's youthful and imitative scribblings...]

Here it is:

“Was there a writer of the name of Bergotte at this dinner, sir?” I asked timidly, still trying to keep the conversation to the subject of the Swanns.

“Yes, Bergotte was there,” replied M. de Norpois, inclining his head courteously towards me, as though in his desire to be pleasant to my father he attached to everything connected with him a real importance, even to the questions of a boy of my age who was not accustomed to see such politeness shewn to him by persons of his. “Do you know him?” he went on, fastening on me that clear gaze, the penetration of which had won the praise of Bismarck.

“My son does not know him, but he admires his work immensely,” my mother explained.

“Good heavens!” exclaimed M. de Norpois, inspiring me with doubts of my own intelligence far more serious than those that ordinarily distracted me, when I saw that what I valued a thousand thousand times more than myself, what I regarded as the most exalted thing in the world, was for him at the very foot of the scale of admiration. “I do not share your son’s point of view. Bergotte is what I call a flute-player: one must admit that he plays on it very agreeably, although with a great deal of mannerism, of affectation. But when all is said, it is no more than that, and that is nothing very great. Nowhere does one find in his enervated writings anything that could be called construction. No action—or very little—but above all no range. His books fail at the foundation, or rather they have no foundation at all. At a time like the present, when the ever-increasing complexity of life leaves one scarcely a moment for reading, when the map of Europe has undergone radical alterations, and is on the eve, very probably, of undergoing others more drastic still, when so many new and threatening problems are arising on every side, you will allow me to suggest that one is entitled to ask that a writer should be something else than a fine intellect which makes us forget, amid otiose and byzantine discussions of the merits of pure form, that we may be overwhelmed at any moment by a double tide of barbarians, those from without and those from within our borders. I am aware that this is a blasphemy against the sacrosanct school of what these gentlemen term ‘Art for Art’s sake,’ but at this period of history there are tasks more urgent than the manipulation of words in a harmonious manner. Not that Bergotte’s manner is not now and then quite attractive. I have no fault to find with that, but taken as a whole, it is all very precious, very thin, and has very little virility. I can now understand more easily, when I bear in mind your altogether excessive regard for Bergotte, the few lines that you shewed me just now, which it would have been unfair to you not to overlook, since you yourself told me, in all simplicity, that they were merely a childish scribbling.” (I had, indeed, said so, but I did not think anything of the sort.) “For every sin there is forgiveness, and especially for the sins of youth. After all, others as well as yourself have such sins upon their conscience, and you are not the only one who has believed himself to be a poet in his day. But one can see in what you have shewn me the evil influence of Bergotte. You will not, of course, be surprised when I say that there was in it none of his good qualities, since he is a past-master in the art—incidentally quite superficial—of handling a certain style of which, at your age, you cannot have acquired even the rudiments. But already there is the same fault, that paradox of stringing together fine-sounding words and only afterwards troubling about what they mean. That is putting the cart before the horse, even in Bergotte’s books. All those Chinese puzzles of form, all these deliquescent mandarin subtleties seem to me to be quite futile. Given a few fireworks, let off prettily enough by an author, and up goes the shout of genius. Works of genius are not so common as all that! Bergotte cannot place to his credit—does not carry in his baggage, if I may use the expression—a single novel that is at all lofty in its conception, any of those books which one keeps in a special corner of one’s library. I do not discover one such in the whole of his work. But that does not exclude the fact that, with him, the work is infinitely superior to the author. Ah! there is a man who justifies the wit who insisted that one ought never to know an author except through his books. It would be impossible to imagine an individual who corresponded less to his—more pretentious, more pompous, less fitted for human society. Vulgar at some moments, at others talking like a book, and not even like one of his own, but like a boring book, which his, to do them justice, are not—such is your Bergotte. He has the most confused mind, alembicated, what our ancestors called a diseur de phebus, and he makes the things that he says even more unpleasant by the manner in which he says them. I forget for the moment whether it is Lomnie or Sainte-Beuve who tells us that Vigny repelled people by the same eccentricity. But Bergotte has never given us a Cinq-Mars, or a Cachet Rouge, certain pages of which are regular anthology pieces.”

Monday, July 09, 2007

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

I didn't even bother to read the reviews of Christopher Hitchens's new polemic against Religion, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Another book about atheism? Yawn!! I am already hostile enough to religion and its many manifestations, innocent and not so innocent, and I don't need another book to convince me of the same. Anyway, I just picked it up on a lark and I am glad I did. It is a hugely entertaining book, at almost every page I was nodding in agreement and in indignation, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and marveling at Hitchens's wit and his skill at phrase making. It is great reminder of what a fantastic writer and a dazzling polemicist Hitchens is or can be when he is not carping about Iraq. So in the book we learn about "the moral terrorism" and "organized hypocrisy" of the Vatican. The Japanese emperor Hirohito gets the wonderful moniker of "a ridiculously overrated mammal." He calls Calvin "a sadist, a torturer and a killer". According to him Pascal's theology is "not far short of sordid." And the Koran? "A rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms.” He is no less harsh and funny on Judaism. I am not even going to get into the adjectives he has for creationists, mormons and other assorted idiocies.

I was specially excited after seeing a chapter titled: There is no "Eastern" Solution. It is something which interests and also perplexes and annoys me -- the way crap is being sold as a packaged spiritual product by spiritual hucksters. These new age superstitions are real travesties of religion. They may look harmless, even fun at times. All those crystal balls, magnetic therapy and tarot cards but they are equally dangerous, just that their effects are more insidious. One problem with the criticism of Eastern religions is that how easy it is to shift goal posts, or actually there are no goal posts at all. The monotheistic religions at least talk in the same language, the language or arguments and logic. The eastern religions with their hostility towards the language and indeed thought itself leave you without any foundation from which you can criticise their tenets. (For example the possibility logical contradictions and ambiguities inherent in human language is used by Buddist teachings (Koan) to discredit the idea of language and intellectual thought itself.) He also recounts his experiences at the so called "Bhagwan" Rajneesh. The sign that greets him before the ashram says, "leave you shoes and minds at the door." I don't know whether I should laugh or feel indignation.

Hitchens knows a great deal about Christianity but when it comes to eastern religions he is more or less clueless. Add to that the reason I mentioned above, the chapter is a disappointment. He more than makes up for it in the next chapter where he answers the claims of the critics of atheism that Stalin and Hitler's regimes where atheistic regimes or can we link to horrors of twentieth century authoritarianism to the "death of God" concept. He takes this charge very seriously, and indeed it deserves to be taken so, and convincing refutes each and every argument. He knows a great deal of the history of 20th century dictatorships too. Surely it is not hard to see the religious impulse behind most of the dictatorships--secular or religious. The cult of personality, the sourcing of moral laws from a divine authority or his representative on earth, the messianic hope of transcendence and redemption in the form of Utopia, the sacralization of myths of race, creed and nation. These are all religious impulses in their essence. Hitchens has a lot more to say on this. And he is very good at it. As expected from a fervent admirer of George Orwell.

Now to some objections and problems. Not necessarily with this book but in general with the doctrine of "secular humanism". It is understandable why Hitchens and company would give atheism a rosy humanist image, a "positive" way of life. They are after all writing pamphlets and propaganda and are trying to win converts and the version of the atheism based on negation, doubts and self-mortification will not make a very good copy. (Though there is a good deal of misanthropy in Hitchens's book.) Though personally I am drawn to exactly this line of thinking -- the tradition of thinkers like Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka and if one talks of films, Bergman, Dreyer and Bresson. Ivan Karamazov doesn't doubt the existence of God or the possibility of Salvation and redemption. He rejects them because he says the whole religious edifice is built on the tears of innocent children. In fact it was reading the speech of Ivan Karamazov which changed my own personal views towards religious faith--from an indifferent intellectual annoyance to a deep moral disgust.

Another irritating feature of these new atheism propaganda is their faith in human exceptionalism. Ironically this is something that gives it some continuity with religious dogma. This is where I agree with the critiques of thinkers like John Gray. (Though he goes too far in his neo-apocalypticism to make much sense after a while.) Gray says that not just enlightenment humanists but even philosophers like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger who shook every foundation of the entire western philosophy, even they couldn't relinquish and let go their faith in human exceptionalism, this vile and ridiculous remnant of religious belief. Human consciousness, freedom and rationality are NOT absolutes, but rather contingent concepts, mere by-products of our evolutionary history. The refusal to acknowledge this obvious fact makes a few sections of these atheism books sound positively religious.

In conclusion let's not be too harsh on ourselves and our fellow humans. If you want to read one book about religion, let it be this one. Five out of five stars. Two Thumbs up. And all that.

Good News from Bihar

BBC has some good news about Bihar:

For many years, Bihar in northern India has earned notoriety for being one of the poorest and most lawless states in the country.

Nobel-prize winning author VS Naipaul once described it as the place where "civilisation ends".

But all is not lost, perhaps. We discover five areas where Bihar might consider itself to be ahead of other Indian states.

Sounds good. How often I have faced such reactions - "A Bihari? But you don't look like one, really!" Or even worse, that I don't "sound" like a Bihari. Biharis are particularly famous for their problems with the English language. It is invariably followed by a hesitant laughter and incredulity. ("My God, a walking talking Bihari in our midst!" Ok, I exaggerate a little but you get the point.) May be the situation will change.

It is not really a PR exercise for Bihar and my homeland. The Naipaul quote above might be an exaggeration but I have no hesitation in saying that it is still an extremely backward society and, worse, a society which takes pride in its celebration of feudal values. This, in many ways, is true for most parts of India, even the affluent ones. Bihar just gets lots of media coverage. The real depressing thing is how little things have changed and how slow the process is. What good is all the economic growth if it doesn't change the social structure and the mindsets of people?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Notable Reviews

A very long and pretty good review in the new NYT Book Review of Gunter Grass's just translated and very controversial memoir Peeling the Onion. John Irving it turns out is a very close friend of Grass and the review itself is not only a valiant defence but also an excellent overview of the political controversy surrounding the book. He has some nice words for Marcel Reich-Ranicki ("a senile tyrant") and Christopher Hitchens ("craven", "fatuous", "egregious"). Hitchens's column about Grass, absolutely awful I must say, here. Hitchens calls him, "something of a bigmouth and a fraud, and also something of a hypocrite" and also "a bloody fool." By the way, the picture on the cover is really good...

Another article in the same book review discusses the "four humours" theory of human personality and human health. It might be wrongheaded theory but I feel there is certainly some kind of a character disposition, parallel to the four types suggested by Hippocrates and Galen. Melancholia in particular is specially interesting in the context of history of art.

Also in the Guardian, some pessimistic wisdom about the current state of the world from the world's leading historian Eric Hobsbawm. I have read The Age of Extremes, his awe-inspiring and profoundly pessimistic and dispiriting history of the twentieth century and recommend it very highly. I have always wanted to read his other books.

Scarlet Street

I saw this 1945 film by Fritz Lang today. I saw it on dvd but it is also available on Google video (somehow its rights have fallen into public domain). You can see it here. (That's an amazing blog by the way.) It is classified as a fim-noir but it is more of a (very) dark melodrama. There are a few scenes of rain-drenched darkly lit streets but style-wise Lang plays mostly straight. That said, its pitch-black portrait of human relationships and deep pessimism all around will make sure no film-noir fans are disappointed.

Edward G. Robinson, a regular fixture in these kinds of movies, plays Christopher Cross, a lonely man married to a nagging and harrassing wife. Starved of love and affection, the only solace to him is his hobby -- painting. One night he meets Kitty, the typical femme fatale, and promptly falls in love. She is in turn involved in an abusive relationship with a sleazy con-man. Together they both plan to fleece the naive hero until the hero after being betrayed and humiliated is driven to...

Robinson is just fantastic in the role. I had only seen him in the roles of smart detectives and gangsters before but here he is amazing in the role of a victim, a diminutive, weak and pitiful figure adrift in a cruel and unjust world.

Godard Interview

Very nice interview of Godard. The most interesting bit comes a little later when the interviewer asks him about Brigitte Bardot and the famous nude scene at the beginning of Contempt (surely one of the greatest nude scenes ever!). "It is like asking Praxiletes when he was sculpting the nude Venus, 'Did Venus agree to undress?'" Godard says.

The scene in question here in case you haven't seen it. It is PG13 stuff but you will never see another nude female body on screen the same way after watching it. (No subtitles though.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Crabwalk: Günter Grass

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the German literary critic (my post about his autobiography here), says that Gunter Grass's novel Crabwalk moved him to tears. That was a big enough recommendation for me. Because, first of all he is a Polish jew and a Holocaust survivor and the the subject matter of the book was the German victims of the war, a subject often exploited by the neo-nationalists in Germany. Also, Reich-Ranicki himself is no fan of Grass. A few years earlier he appeared on the cover of a German magazine tearing (literally) Too Far Afield, an earlier novel by Grass, in which he denounced German reunification by comparing it to Anschluss, Hitler's annexation of Austria. (Ranicki in the autobiography clarifies that the picture was actually a collage and that he was not happy about it.) Given all this I was actually quite disappointed with the book, which is not saying that it is not interesting or is bad. I was just expecting it to be something else.

The book is a part history lesson and a part meditation on how memory, both personal and collective, shapes politics. It sounds like a theoretical and a remote question but for the Germans, who can't take their national identity for granted, it is also an important personal question. The plot revolves around the sinking of a German ship named Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian submarine towards the end of the second world war. More than ten thousand German civilians -- mostly women and children fleeing the advancing Red army died, which also makes it the worst maritime disaster ever. In the book we get to know about the origin of the ship, the biography of the eponymous figure who was the head of the Swiss Nazi party, a Jew named David Frankfurter who murdered him in Davos much before the war and the Russian naval commander Marinescu who was in charge of the submarine whose torpedo sank the ship. It is no straight-forward history lesson though. The structure of the book is very intricate and it is framed very interestingly. The narrator of the book, a middle aged journalist, was actually born on the rescue boat. He is reluctantly telling the story after being egged on by his mother and "the old man", who is none other than Grass himself. In his search for materials for his story he also comes an internet website and chatroom run by a neo-nationalist German, who it turns is none other than his estranged son. Much of the book is about the arguments in the chatroom that the narrator follows and then reports with his comments.

The part of the book dealing with the sinking of the ship and the histories of the all the figures involved didn't leave much of an impression on me. What I found most impressive was how alert Grass is to the political implications of German history which acknowledges German victims. A few years ago W. G. Sebald's essay collection On the Natural History of Destruction attracted a lot of guarded and sometimes hostile criticism because some critics felt that he was putting the German victims and the victims of Germans, and by implication German war crimes and the War Crimes of the Allies (the firebombing of Dresden), in the same category. Of course there is a technical similarity but talking about both of them can only lead to moral and political confusion. There can be no equivalence there, and any attempt to do so can only appear dishonest. Nobody can doubt Sebald's intentions, which were nothing but his solidarity with the victims of history, the dead and the forgotten ("to whom the greatest injustice was done" as he says) that he shows in all his books. But not every writer can aspire to be of the stature of W. G. Sebald.

Grass is deeply aware of all these political and moral issues inherent in the German history. He clearly sees the dangers of both forgetting and remembering. If you forget you are doing an injustice to the dead, and remembrance on the other hand can potentially revitalize the monsters of nationalism and extremism as he shows in the book through the participants in the chatroom. It was in this context that I found this review by Ruth Franklin somewhat strange:

Considering that Grass has already written so profoundly about the effects of the war, why did he pay any heed to this simplifying and demagogic call to decontextualize German suffering? It is obvious from his earlier work that he once knew how distorting such a reevaluation is: the Danzig trilogy owes its great power not least to his determination to provide a full, even epic picture of the war years. And coming from Grass, Crabwalk's pandering to the politics and the intellectual fashions of the season is worse than disappointing. For not only does it result in a novel stocked with wooden characters and ludicrous dialogue, it also is evidence of Grass's failure to take the lead in exposing the wrongheadedness of the current debate. He, of all people, should have pointed out that the question of whether German suffering should be given priority in the understanding of World War II is fundamentally misguided. For it is a question he had already answered.
I think he is doing no such thing in the book. He is more alive to political realities and its nuances than she claims. If only, most of the criticism I have come across of him is about how he always goes too much overboard on the other side -- too much moral browbeating and self-mortification about German guilt and responsibility. Still the review is a good overview of the politics behind the topic. Also this review by John Updike in the New Yorker. Mostly plot overview but interesting.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

"More Rimbaud and Less Rambo"

Funniest headline I have seen in a while. That's the advice a few French intellectuals are giving to their new president Nicolas Sarkozy.

This is a sentiment I must say I fully endorse. I don't know if it is "right-wing", since most of the left and right categories have become very confusing in the last few years, but it is certainly shallow, vain, self-promoting and vulgar. No doubt about that. Why can't people just cut down on their food intake, another monstrously ugly aspect of our culture?

Walking on the other hand is different. It is a profoundly spiritual activity. It sharpens the senses, cleans up the mind and takes you to an elevated plane of thought and action. Many great men, from Rousseau to W. G. Sebald, they have all written about it, most of them timeless literary classics. I know it is too much to expect a politician to aspire to be a part of the illustrious walkers' community. I have also noticed that all the references to the new president always mention that he is "hyperkinetic" and "hyperenergetic." Sad, yet another case of PR guy masquerading as politician (now that Tony Blair is gone).

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

महादेवी वर्मा

महादेवी वर्मा आधुनिक हिंदी की महानतम कवियों में एक हैं। (कवयित्री शब्द मुझे कुछ ज्यादा पसंद नहीं।) इस वर्ष उनकी जन्मशती भी मनाई जा रही है। इसी मौक़े पर हिंदी विकिपीडिया पर ये आलेख देखा तो काफी अच्छा लगा। काफी अच्छी जानकारी है। मुझे लगा कि विकिपीडिया पर हिंदी साहित्य से सम्भंधित और भी निर्वाचित लेख होंगे लेकिन ऐसा नहीं है। बाक़ी के विषय शायद स्वयंसेवी साहित्य प्रेमियों की प्रतीक्षा कर रहे हैं। मुझे ज्ञानपीठ पुरस्कार वाले फोटो को देखकर थोड़ी हैरानी हुई। भला मारग्रेट थैचर कहॉ से बीच में आ गईँ?

महादेवी वर्मा पर कुछ और लेख यहाँ।

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Chomsky Falsified?

I wanted to link to it earlier but I have finished reading it only now. This is an article in The New Yorker (caution: it is very long) about an American anthropologist who claims that the existence of a tribal language in the Amazon disproves the central tenets of Chomskyan linguistics - recursive enumerability and the existence of universal grammar and linguistic universals. The langauge in question, Piraha, lacks words for such universal abstractions like numbers or colours and their whole worldview is completely empiricist. They seem to be incapable of think of something removed from their immediate experience. In mathematical terms -- they are incapable of recursive thought. This appears to give more weight to the pre-Chomsky Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which says that language and grammar are determined by culture and are not immutable or apriori, like an organ in the brain.

I have a very shallow and elementary understanding of these concepts (even though, rather shamefully, I had to study some of these in college) but to me it just sounds like a case of one of those intermediary forms in the Darwinian evolution. A recursive language can't just appear out of nowhere. There should be some link between the animal communication and the language of Shakespeare. That's why much of the subject of linguistics, specially when it is used in the subject of philosophy of mind and human nature, feels unintuitive. There is too much mathematics and too little biology. Anyway, this is really fascinating subject. Worth exploring further.

Also see a slideshow in The New Yorker and an interview of Everett and a few other links on The Edge.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Day of Wrath

Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath is an amazing film. I saw it a few months ago for the first time and saw it again last week. I liked it even more. Ordet is another soul-stirring and unforgettable film that I want to see again. I was also thinking about Bergman and Bresson and I realized that I like Bergman and Dreyer more than Bresson and then I came to know that Dreyer and Bergman were/are of Lutheran background whereas Bresson was a catholic. Is it because Lutheranism is intellectually more respectable? (Not that I know much about Christianity or Theology.)

I have seen five Robert Bresson films so far. My personal favourite of them all is Mouchette, one of the most cruel and shattering films I have ever seen. People say similar things about Au Hasard Balthazar but somehow I couldn't make the required leap of faith in this case. My mind was occupied by thoughts about animal rights and related philosophical issues more than anything about religion and human suffering. Pickpocket and A Man Escaped are both masterpieces too but I admired them more than I loved them. Diary of a Country Priest left me a little cold. Not to say it is bad or anything just in comparison to others.

Anyway, I have digressed. I wanted to talk about Day of Wrath in this post. So the film is set in a Danish village sometime in the seventeenth century when people were still burning witches. The film is not really about witchcraft though it shows the obvious misogyny and male sexual paranoia which underscore witchcraft very eloquently. It is also interesting that even the idea of religion and God itself, in a general anthropological way, had the same basis as Witchcraft. That is, in people's need to assign agency to every natural phenomenon. This need to find answers to questions like Who shook the leaf? Then who made the wind blow? And then who changed the air pressure? And on and on until you find your God. It is similar with say, a plague or an unnatural death -- must be the work of the agent of the Satan on earth. And who could that be other than the scheming and resentful woman, mostly old ones and widows.

What I loved best about the film is that Dreyer doesn't have any obvious agenda. He is not interested in denouncing witchcraft or religious superstition, that would be an obvious and pointless thing to do. You don't need a film to learn about the evils of superstition. Rather he is more interested in the nature of faith, what is its source and what it can do. Just like in Ordet, he makes the question that "Can faith resurrect a dead body" a non-obvious question, by moving it outside the domain of rationality. In this film the similar question is -- Can someone cast a spell, wish someone's death and can the wish come true? In other words, is witchcraft possible? The power of this film lies in the fact that it makes you think about this obvious looking question.

I haven't described what happens in the film because just like Ordet it is quite suspenseful (even for believers). The other striking thing is the visual design, specially the austerity of the set design, the harsh lighting and the gloomy Danish background -- everything to a truly stunning effect. In fact it must be one of the most stunning Black and White films ever. In short a masterpiece for the ages. You should be running to the nearest DVD rental if you haven't seen it yet.

"How to Read Elfriede Jelinek"

Okay, that's a question that interests me. The latest NYRB has an essay which tries to answer it. I didn't like the two books by her, Lust and The Piano Teacher, that I have read so far. In fact they often irritated me. I found them intriguing at places but overall not worth all the trouble and effort. It wasn't really because of the subject matter. I am not really a fan of humanity in general and I am already totally convinced that social institutions and conventions, specially those dealing with human sexuality (like marriage, romance, family etc.) are plagued by very serious political problems and deserve serious critical scrutiny. But I would rather have read an essay on Feminism and Marxist Theory of Alienation and a critique of patriarchy than have plodded through Jelinek's weird prose. The case of The Piano Teacher on the other hand was a little different. It is a much more complex work. But I think it was because I had seen the Amazing Michael Haneke film before reading the book that was responsible for my disappointment. I was basically looking for the Isabelle Huppert character in the book and couldn't find it there. The Erika in the book was far less interesting than the Erika in the film. (I even had a few nightmares after watching the film. Extreme caution advised if you haven't seen it and plan to.)

The essay also has this interesting excerpt from her interview where she compares herself to her fellow Austrian misanthrope Thomas Bernhard:

The extremity of Jelinek's tirades soon won her comparisons with Thomas Bernhard, who had also remorselessly attacked the residual fascism of modern Austria. Seeking, in an interview with Gitta Honegger, a respected theater critic and biographer of Bernhard, to distinguish her approach from his, Jelinek claimed that as a man Bernhard "could claim a position of authority," projecting an identity with which readers could relate and giving a coherent, rhetorically convincing account of Austrian society, whereas, being a woman, even this form of "positive" approach was denied her; a woman working in a man's world and language could not present a coherent identity (a play of Jelinek's has the female parts mouthing words that are actually spoken by male voices, as if women could not really possess the language). Starting from this po-sition of "speechlessness," a woman writer could only work by subversion, exposing the language's prejudices and crassness and attacking its perverse and mindless momentum. As the narrator puts it in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, "everything that's said is a cue for something else."

Also worth reading in the same issue, a letter exchange on the wonderful German film The Lives of Others, Anita Desai on Primo Levi's collection of stories which has just come out in English and an extract from J. M. Coetzee's forthcoming novel.