Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lev Shestov

I came across this website which collects the writings of Lev Shestov, a Russian religious-existentialist philosopher who also wrote books on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. The basic motif of his thinking seems to be that accepting 2 plus 2 equals 4 is accepting a spiritual death. Well, almost! The website also contains lots of articles and essays written about him. This review by Emmanuel Levinas is a good short introduction and contains this nice summary of existentialist philosophy.

"In a world clarified and explained by reason, only the general counts: my destiny is nothing important, my pain is nothing exceptional, my despair is nothing unique; if I carry a sadness or a shame in the depth of my soul, that does not trouble the universal order. My speculation assigns to these things a place in the whole, and my only wisdom can only consist of my submitting to its laws. But before speculating, I exist. My existence goes on precisely in this pain, in this despair. Far from arranging themselves in a whole that would embrace them, that are all mine. They have their history, their truth, their weight, their own exigencies. I can drive them back, but I can never fully suppress them. Their voice tears my being in spite of my submission to universal necessity. My speculation, itself, is it wholly independent of them? Can it be legitimately abstracted from the human condition, for its destiny, for its death? Whatever the response that one gives to these questions, it is important to pose them, it is important to respect the internal meaning of the events that constitute our existence, before interpreting them through the universal order constructed by reason. This is the task of existential philosophy."

There is also a very good article by Czeslaw Milosz:

"The "I" has to recognize that it is confronted with a world that follows its own laws, a world whose name is Necessity. This, according to Shestov, is precisely what lies at the foundations of traditional philosophy—first Greek, then every philosophy faithful to the Greeks. Only the necessary, the general, and the always valid will merit investigation and reflection. The contingent, the particular, and the momentary are spoilers of unity—a teaching that dates back to Anaximander. Later Greek thinkers exalted the all-embracing Oneness and represented individual existence as a crack in the perfectly smooth surface of the One, a flaw for which the individual had to pay with his death. From a Shestovian perspective, Greek science and morality both follow the same path. The sum of the angles in a triangle equals two right angles; the general, eternal truth reigns high above breeding and dying mortals just as eternal good does not change whether or not there is a living man to aspire to it."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Synecdoche Reviews

I really hope I get a chance to see "Synecdoche New York" before I leave but it seems unlikely. Most American reviewers are complaining about how glum and joyless it is (further adding to my excitement!). I don't know, it is like asking Woody Allen to keep doing the same "early funny ones" (as one of the characters says in his "Stardust Memories"). Kaufman's earlier films as screenwriter were funny and quirky but one couldn't but notice a deep seriousness of intent and engagement with Life, something very rare in mainstream Hollywood. Reading the reviews, even the critical ones, it seems he has only gone one step further. Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich were already five out of five stars masterpieces.

The best magnifying glass

"A shard in your own eye is the best magnifying glass."

-Adorno, Minima Moralia (full text here)

Nice thought even though in real life pain often becomes a smokescreen, hiding from us the truth rather than magnifying it.

In other news, I am dismayed by this new advertisement promoting atheism. I do think it is very important to counter all sorts of religious propaganda so this is definitely a good idea. What I don't like is the second line which smacks of smug and petty-bourgeois hedonism to me which I strongly disapprove of. It should rather have been "There is probably no God. Now read Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and most of all START WORRYING!"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Literature in the Marketplace

The TLS has a review of a book by some right-wing nut who says that literary critics are unjustifiably hostile to market and commercialism and argues for something called "commodity aesthetics" (do words really mean nothing anymore?). The review itself is quite good and really worth reading.

"It is paradoxical for an advocate of the Western cultural tradition to laud market capitalism. For in the very brief period in which it has held earthly power, market capitalism has essentially destroyed that tradition – profaning everything sacred, evaporating everything solid, and directing its destructive might with particular intensity against the autonomous individual. It has instituted the rule of appearance over essence, of signs over things, of things over people, of dead labour over living labour. It exploits base appetites and fosters insatiable desires, giving rise to epidemic addiction and depression. There have been many societies in which large numbers of people dedicated their lives to the pursuit of economic self-interest through the market. But there have been no societies in which the pursuit of economic self-interest through the market was held to be an admirable way to spend one’s life. Our society is unique in having produced that philosophy. One of the reasons to read the literature of the past is to learn how anomalous our society is in its self-interested single-mindedness. "

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Death of One's Own

"[T]he desire to have one's own death is becoming more and more rare. Shortly it will be as rare as a life of one's own."

- Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

I saw Paul Schrader's Mishima a few days back. I haven't read anything by Mishima yet but watching the film reminded me of this line from Rilke. I don't really like this morbid romanticization and fascination of death. A lot of suicide bombers are probably inspired by the same belief too - having a death of one's own. Ironically (and tragically) their religion makes it sure that they never live a life of their own.

I like the idea of Memento Mori. We should be mindful of our own end without which we won't have any perspective to life. But this idea that death is the realization of life and life gets meaning only in death - this I find hard to accept.

A good illustration of this idea is in Heidegger. Below excerpt is from George Steiner's book on Heidegger ("rationalist quacks" made me chuckle!):

"The inalienability of death - the plain but overwhelming fact that each must die for himself, that death is one existential potentiality which no enslavement, no promise, no power of "theyness" can take away from individual man - is the fundamental truth of the meaning of being. Dasein is always a not-yet, an unripeness. To be is to be incomplete, unfulfilled. But at the same time, all authentic being is a being-toward-its-own-end. "Death is a way to be, which Dasein takes upon itself as soon as it is." And Heidegger quotes a medieval homily which instructs us that "as soon as man enters on life, he is at once old enough to die." The essence, the motion, the meaning of life are totally at one with being-toward-death, with the individual's "assumption" (Sartre's derivative, key term) of his own singular death. Thus "death is, in the widest sense, a phenomenon of life"; indeed, it may well be the identifying phenomenon, though it cannot itself "be lived" (a point on which Heidegger concurs explicitly with Wittgensein). The point to be stressed is at once existential and logical: the possibility of Dasein depends on and makes sense only in respect of the "impossibility of Dasein" which is death. The one cannot be without the other.


Holding before itself the constant and total possibility of death, the possibility inseparable from its thrownness into the world and process of individualization, Dasein "is in anxiety." Angst is the taking upon oneself of the nearness of nothingness, of the potential non-being of one's own being. "Being-toward-death is, in essense, anxiety," and those who would rob us of this anxiety - be they priests, physicians, mystics, or rationalist quacks - by transforming it into either fear or genteel indifference alienate us from life itself. Or, more exactly, they insulate us from a fundamental source of freedom. The passage, to which the entire death-and=freedom dialectic of Camus and Sartre is no more than a rhetorical footnote, is a famous one: Angst reveals to Dasein the possiblity of fulfilling itself "in an impassioned FREEDOM TOWARD DEATH - a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the "they," and which is factual, certain of itself and anxious." We can see now that the very meaning of Dasein is "in time." Temporality is made concrete by the overwhelming truth that all being is being-toward-death. The taking upon oneself, through Angst, of this existential "terminality" is the absolute condition of human freedom."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Weltflucht: nice word to know. Quite simple actually - it means flight from the world - but it is still nice to have it as one word. Somewhat similar in intent with the hindi word "Vanaprastha" which means departing to the forests before final sanyas (renunciation). My favourite word still remains Weltschmerz ("world pain" or pain of being in the world). Basically Weltschmerz leads to Weltflucht.

Actually I found it in this article which I got to by randomly searching something. Looks like some German philosopher has written a book called "Critique of Cynical Reason." Certainly a very interesting and relevant subject since cynicism is the default mode in which most of us operate in the world now.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Authenticity in Indian Writing

Amitava Kumar has an essay in Boston Review about debates surrounding the problems of thinking about authenticity in Indian Writing in English in the context of the recent booker win of Arvind Adiga's novel The White Tiger:

"Since then, I have wondered whether my choice of the journalist as a protagonist is not itself a symptom of an anxiety about authenticity. Was it the worry of an expatriate Indian, concerned about losing touch with the society he took as his subject? To invest in an aesthetic of observation and reportage was to build banks against the rising tide of that worry. I know now that this worry informs my reading of all novels about India."


Some more tangentially related thoughts...

I haven't read Adiga's novel and don't feel excited enough to read it either. In general Indian novels (specially those in English) are low on my reading priorities and further because I have only a finite amount of energy and time which I can devote to books I rarely get to them. One reason for putting those on low priority is my fear and distaste of any kind of parochiality or even "insularity" (to use a much discussed and debated concept recently, after the nobel committee chairman's comment). In my case this feeling is further compounded because I grew up in a provincial small town (that would be Patna in Bihar which both Adiga and Kumar talk about) and not in the "centres" like Delhi or Mumbai. This is not really a repudiation of my origins (which would be purely negative) but rather a positive longing to know about other ways of looking at things, the desire to enter the world of thoughts and ideas which are new and foreign. I had quoted Susan Sontag earlier saying that writing for her was a means of self-transcendence and not self-expression. I think of reading in the same terms too. I feel dismayed when people while reading look for experiences which exactly mirrors their own (expressed in commonly heard sentiment "I could relate to this or that"), this to me is a severely disabling way of reading. Reading itself should open pathways to new and uncharted territories of experiences, only then one can "grow" or change oneself by reading.

About authenticity in Indian writing in English, I think Kumar mentions exactly what I find so boring and uninteresting in most such writings (including probably his own novel "Home Products" which I haven't read either). This is the definition of authenticity which he thinks is some kind of fidelity to the external world of facts and people's behavior. This is a shallow authenticity, it belongs not in art but in journalism. In fact it is not even authenticity at all, it is just another version of Heideggerian "idle talk" which journalists and op-ed experts are so good at peddling. (This is not to say that shallow reportage doesn't serve any purpose but we shouldn't confuse it with art). The authenticity that interests me is being authentic to your Self, to your way of thinking and feeling, to your way of looking at the world and your own self, in short to your own way of being itself. Truly remarkable novelists and artists take it one step further, they try to understand being from a historical and intellectual perspective and try to place it in a number of different contexts and think through these. This to my mind what makes something like "The Man Without Qualities" a sort of uber-modern novel. (If I am not mistaken Musil doesn't even mention a single street name or any such thing throughout the novel and yet it profoundly belongs to its place and time. This to me is real authenticity.)

Coming to another point which Kumar talked about in excerpt above - the so-called anxiety of expatriate Indian, this fear of losing touch with India, which means the fear of losing a part of your self, which gives rise to anxiety which then leads to fetishisation of naive realism. This is all okay but somehow I am not convinced that Indian-ness can be reduced to those naively captured details no matter how strong your "observational integrity" (as Kumar calls it) is. The very fact that the writer feels insecure about being perceived as inauthentic gives the game away. One could of course be self-aware about it and write about the same anxiety in fiction but I don't think these novels do that. There is a lack of self-awarenss and a lack of doubt which goes hand in hand with a devotion to a naive journalistic realism. Another irony is that these writers have left India because they were lured by academic and material success abroad but still feel guilty and are not ready to reconcile it with their new life. Just compare the musings of these so-called expatriate writers with someone like Nabokov who was in the same position in America and you will see the difference. I understand Nabokov is surely setting the bar ridiculously high but one can still see how a longing for lost home and lost past gives rise to this fetishisation of detail in Nabokov but since the longing and the pain are authentic, so is the writing. These sundry assistant professors and journalistic correspondents on the other hand should stick to writing reportage, rather than lamenting about losing touch with real India.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Free Market and Ethics?

A bunch of thinkers and experts give their opinions on whether "free market corrodes moral character."

Surprisingly none of them (of the ones I read) touch on what I would think is the main issue - the problem of alienation. Are human beings who participate in market really and truly autonomous moral agents? More often they merely follow the preset rules, exercising moral judgments often leads to inefficiencies which market can't tolerate. Of course the recent crisis has made the profoundly undemocratic (even anti-democratic) nature of financial markets pretty clear too but that is probably a separate issue.

Herbert Marcuse

This is an excellent video introduction to the ideas of philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse.

His book One-dimensional Man is also available here. I remember buying a copy a few years back with a nice cover featuring a lone and sad looking computer monitor, thinking it was some philosophy book about the alienation of computer programmers, which in a way it is, but never really read the book. Like most philosophers readability isn't really his strong point. The book is mainly a critique of "technological rationality", the dominant mode of thinking in advanced industrial societies, which he says has turned these societies into authoritarian and conformist. Rationality originally meant differentiating what is from what appears to be and in this way to get to the truth of being and reality but in the technological age rationality is about efficiency and how to get things to work, or in economics sense, how to maximize one's utility function. Further this thinking is standardized and existence of any other alternative is denied through propaganda. (Like, if you don't buy and spend money economy will crash etc.) Advertising, media and other organizations decide and manipulate discourse in such a way as to not leave any room for negation. The end result is that we are trapped in a prison and only have imaginary, trivial or inconsequential freedoms.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


This is the Underground Man ranting against the tyranny of mathematics and the laws of nature. This is something which troubles me and fascinates me more and more - this paradoxical nature of human freedom. We know that we are free and we feel compelled by the need for self-assertion to prove it and at the same time knowing fully well how utterly futile it is. What Underground Man says is of course an exaggeration (if still a logical extension of the argument) but we still should try to protect our inner and subjective life (which means our identities) from the intrusions of logic and science. As Musil humorously says in The Man Without Qualities, "What is a soul? It is easy to define it negatively: it is simply that which sneaks off at the mention of algebraic series." (Actually Musil's comment is intended ironically to poke fun at "spiritually" minded and pretentious people who are hostile to mathemtics in a shallow way but more on that later.)


"The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality one drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it.

“Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall ... and so on, and so on.”

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength."

Karl Kraus Blogger?

The latest new york review of books has an essay by Adam Kirsch on Austrian critic and satirist Karl Kraus. It is behind the subscriber wall but this bit is interesting... (in short, beware of journalists and op-ed experts)

"But if Kraus were simply a press critic in this sense—pointing out errors and clichés, or even exposing biases and conflicts of interest—he would not remain such a significant figure, seventy-two years after his death. He would be merely a kind of blogger avant la lettre, appending his "glosses" to newspaper items in the way that bloggers today post hyperlinks along with carping comments. The analogy even extends to Kraus's working methods: as Timms writes, he would compose an item for Die Fackel by "pasting a newspaper clipping on a larger sheet of paper, to define an opponent's position. That position would then be encircled—penned in by Kraus's minute handwriting."

But Kraus was a critic of the press in a deeper and more problematic sense as well. During World War I, his longtime feud with the Viennese newspapers took on an apocalyptic character, as Kraus began to blame them for causing the disaster on which they so complacently reported. In November 1914, as the Western Front settled into stalemate, Kraus gave a public reading of his essay "In This Great Time," which appeared in Die Fackel the next month. Though it was his first public statement since the war began, Kraus did not address the war's political and diplomatic causes. The real origin of the world war, he argued, lay not in Austrian expansionism or German belligerence, but in a continent-wide failure of imagination, which allowed the nations of Europe to rush into a catastrophe whose dimensions they could not perceive. "Things are happening," Kraus said in his long, dazzlingly constructed opening sentence, "that could not be imagined and...what can no longer be imagined must happen, for if one could imagine it, it would not happen."

The agency responsible for this atrophy of the imagination, Kraus continued, was his old adversary, the press. "Through decades of practice, [the reporter] has produced in mankind that degree of unimaginativeness which enables it to wage a war of extermination against itself." This logic is what allowed Kraus to argue, in a paradox worthy of Wilde, that the reporting on the war was more important than the war itself: "Is the press a messenger? No, it is the event itself. A speech? No, life itself." He even predicted that "some day people might find out what a trifling matter such a world war was as compared to the intellectual self- annihilation of mankind by means of its press and how at bottom it constituted only one of the press's emanations." "

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

:) OR :(

I was reading about "commodification" and I was thinking how smiling face has become a commodity in our culture, which would probably explain the baffling indifference I feel when I see a smiling face. I exaggerate a little here, but you get the idea. Of course one can't deny the existence of a real smiling face but how is one to make sure it is authentic and not one of the smiling faces of advertisements, media, hospitality & PR people which surround us and assault our senses from every side?

In The Man Without Qualities, Musil says that (I paraphrase) in our modern world experiences have made themselves independent of people. They have gone on stages, in books, into reports of research institutes and explorers..and even when they are not objectified in this way, they are always up in the air; who can say today that the anger one feels is really his or her anger? Musil calls this "a world of qualities without a man". So the smile doesn't belong to the person who is doing the smiling. It is just a borrowed smile, plucked from the air.

The first step is the thingification of thoughts and feelings which the capitalist culture then transforms into mass produced commodities and cliches. From human experience to hallmark cards, that is the trajectory of so-called "late capitalism"! I suspect Pain would be hard to commoditise and sell, so there is probably one refuge if one wants to own one's experience. As the female character in the Japanese film "Audition" says, "Words create lies, only pain can be trusted." Though I think if you see too many art-house movies these days you will realize that even pain is being marketed and sold to cater to the discreet masochism of the bourgeoisie (exactly the sentiments about pain I expressed above). All this is exaggeration of course, but only slightly.

Not entirely gratuitous picture above is of Sandrine Bonnaire in A Nos Amours. She occasionally smiles too.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Metropolis and Mental Life

I came across this essay by Georg Simmel, the German sociologist who is considered (along with Marx, Weber and Durkheim) to be one of the founders of the discipline. What he says in the essay is quite similar to the idea of rationalization of society and resulting problems of alienation and loss of individual identity as developed by Weber and the philosophy of commodity in Marx.

"The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technology of life. The fight with nature which primitive man had to wage for his bodily existence attains in this modern form its latest transformation. "

"Modern mind has become more and more calculating. The calculative exactness of practical life which the money economy has brought about corresponds to the ideal of natural science: to transform the world into an arithmetic problem, to fix every part of the world by mathematical formulas. Only money economy has filled the days of so many people with weighing, calculating, with numerical determinations, with a reduction of qualitative values to quantitative ones. Through the calculative nature of money a new precision, a certainty in the definition of identities and differences, an unambiguousness in agreements and arrangements has been brought about in the relations of life-elements - just as externally this precision has been effected by the universal diffusion of pocket watches. "

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ennio Morricone Tracks

First one is from an obscure euro-thriller ("giallo") Short Night of the Glass Dolls directed by Aldo Lado. It is a very interesting concept-thriller. In Prague an American journalist is is declared dead after a murder attempt but in reality he is only under some sort of coma. While in "coma" (or whatever state it is) he tries to remember and piece together the events leading to it. Pretty good. And this Morricone score is just fantastic.

Two other favourite Morricone scores:

Man with Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West

And the score for the sleazy and brutal slasher film What Have You Done to Solange? (which I wrote about here).

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A radiant obsctacle in the path of the obvious

From George Steiner's book on Heidegger:

"Martin Heidegger is the great master of astonishment, the man whose amazement before the blank fact that we are instead of not being has put a radiant obstacle in the path of the obvious. His is the thought which makes even momentary condescension toward the fact of existence unforgivable."

I think it is true for most great writing, not just Heidegger's philosophy. They all put radiant obstacles in the path of the obvious and make us rethink what we otherwise take for granted as commonsense or commonplace (including our own existence).

Another nice phrase I learned from the book : "Deken ist Danken" or "To Think is to thank".

It is an excellent introductory text. I will try to post some of my notes soon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Meta Blog

A personal update and some musings (can be skipped)...

I am moving back to India in a couple of weeks. I had decided to move back sometime mid of this year but it kept getting postponed. I can technically still stay but I feel it is now time to say goobye to this weightless and unheimlich life and go back to what is home. It is probably evident from the blog that where I am doesn't really decide what I blog about in any way (if that were the case my home would be somewhere in Europe of distant time) but I don't know if I will be able to blog as regularly I do once I am in India. I doubt if the readers of the blog even know where I actually live (or for that matter my nationality or academic background, job, age or even gender, well may be gender is easily guessable)! Susan Sontag in one of her interviews said that for her writing was a means of self-transcendence and not self-expression. Now before you start throwing stones in outrage, I am not comparing myself to her or calling this blog "writing" but in general I believe we all should strive to transcend our passive, imposed identities (language, religion, nationality, gender, really nothing should be off-limit), only then we can live our lives based on potentiality, rather than actuality.

Anyway just to set the record straight, for the first year of the blog's existence, I was in Chicago, which now that some time has passed, I remember fondly though at that time I hated it and thought it was driving me mad. It is a very beautiful city but also bleak and brutalizing. I sometimes regret that I should have utilized (or at least I should have tried harder) my time spent there better (by reading, thinking, blogging etc.) rather than looking through the window and wishing for apocalypse as I did most of the time. After spending around a month in India I came back to US, this time in Stamford (Connecticut). I feel a little better about the last two years spent here. A nice, small (but sufficient) library was practically next door to where I lived and of course new york city was not that far either, both of which I will miss when I leave.

The awareness of the passage of time naturally gives rise to anxiety, at least when one feels the need to account for the time that is already past. I have been able to read a lot, watch a lot of films, even been able to think about them a little, even record most of these in whatever hopeless manner, but all this has only made everything more uncertain and filled my head with more doubts than ever before. The thought of life that lies ahead of me now fills me with dread, which as philosophers (like Kierkegaard) say, is different from fear in the sense that it doesn't have any determinate object. It just is. Unlike fear it doesn't help me to act, on the other hand it is paralysing. This is the natural effect of spending too much time alone following the trail of your own thoughts. Social life or even the thought of being with someone makes me afraid. You open your mouth to talk and then realize that it is only garbage that is coming out. At work you talk about all sorts of technical things and realize that absolutely everything you say is pure and utterly meaningless nonsense. At least from reading these books I now have the vocabulary to talk about it. I can talk about how the fear of losing one's self leads to anxiety, how it is nothing but the terror of falling into the world. I can now quote Kierkegaard and Heidegger but to what purpose? May be just another case of "shameless intellectualism" as one of the commenters noted.

There was one long comment (I think early last year) that I got on this blog which, after granting that the blog is "useful" and "informative", ridiculed it by calling it "hopelessly bookish" and advised me to go out in the world and see for myself and then I will realize that, as he (or she) emphatically concluded, "life is not shit just because it is written in the books." I remember the comment because it was true and it stung me. All this talk of trying to learn how to live an "examined life" is mostly an exercise in self-delusion. There is too much "examination" and too little "life" and I spend time examining precisely because it helps me escape from the life. One reads about all the life-experiences, one is moved by their portrayals in films but when an opportunity comes in real-life to gather experience of one's own, one runs away in fear to take refuge again in representation and detached thinking. One likes to think that there is something important and personal at stake in thinking like that but that is again self-delusion.

I realize now that I have mixed up first, second and third person ("I", "You", "One") above which again shows how uncomfortable I feel writing things like these but I will let it be.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Meryl Streep on Bette Davis

Meryl Streep paying tribute to Bette Davis...

Adventures in Pessimism

(Some pessimistic musings after brief encounters with Heidegger...)

My scientific worldview has been under a lot of assault lately, so much so that I think at this rate I will have to apply for a religious conversion sometime (no, seriously). I have always been contemptuous of the Panglossian sermons of techno-evangelists and other gurus of optimism but a basic belief in the scientific worldview was always there and although I could clearly see that human history was full of calamities, I always took them to be mostly aberrations and temporary departures from the essential course of history, in short nothing that could be set right by a little thinking, foresight and historical understanding.

But what if thinking itself is the problem, or at least what we mean by "thinking"? And what if all those calamities are not departures but part and parcels of what we call civilization, in fact it is in them that we are able to see the true face of our civilization, and not what we call "wonders"? Wars, imperialism, slavery, genocide, mass murders, holocaust, environmental disasters, even small scale calamities which define our everyday reality - they all have something common in them, which is our relationship with the world, a relationship between subject and an object. This is the source of our estrangement and alienation from the world. All the knowledge gained by thinking through this subject-object prism is an objectified knowledge, knowledge appropriated from the world and not revealed by it on its own, the world treated as "a standing reserve". We might have revised Aristotelian categories but we have merely replaced one with another. Western Philosophy? Plato, Socrates, Aristotle were disasters and it is just a story of decline from that time.

In The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann says that the original calamity (or the "original sin") happened when matter got infected with life, and "that was our first step toward evil, toward lust and death". (Quote in full here). I sympathise with this idea though I think it is not really life that is malignant, it is rather one particular aspect of it - the consciousness or self-awareness. We could try to live a "primordial" or "reverential" existence but I don't know how that is to be done (going in a forest, taking sanyas, meditating?). (Like all philosopher-doctors Heidegger is better at diagnosing rather than treating the sickness). Or may be there is way out in our post-human future when human species is either extinct or replaced by a more primordial life form. Either way it is doom for us.

All This, and Heaven Too

Anatole Litvak's 1940 film All This, and Heaven Too is a pretty good melodrama, though not nearly as successful as other Bette Davis vehicles of the same period like The Letter (my personal favourite), Jezebel or even the weirdly melodramatic Now, Voyager.

The film starts with Davis getting a job as a teacher in an all-girls school. The girls of her class however have found a newspaper report about an scandalous affair she was involved in when she was in France employed as a governess for children in the house of a duke (Charles Boyer). When the girls taunt her about her past she begins to tell them her life story and then we see the whole film in flashback. The story itself is nothing unusual or unexpected. The duke is exasperated by the nagging demands of his wife and his withdrawal has made her hysterical. The governess is unhappy and lonely too and exceptionally devoted to the children and, you know, the usual stuff...

What is interesting is that throughout the film their love affair (or non-affair) remains "chaste". They don't even kiss once! Davis keeps reminding herself and others (she is in any case telling a story) that whatever she did was for the children and she never had any ulterior designs on the duke but the director (and the audience) knows better. I think this is what makes it interesting. Like other women's films of that period, this also dramatizes issues which would interest feminists, like how insecurity and powerlessness find an expression in feminine jealousy. Also how unfair the distribution of power in a marriage is - the duke repeatedly denies his love to his wife driving her mad, bitter and vindictive and even leading to a cruel end.

Another interesting aspect of the film is its ending. In the end Davis is reunited with a young and good looking church minister who is interested only in an asexual friendship with her ("new kind of love", he calls it). I don't know in what ways this serves as wish-fulfillment for women audiences (most of classic hollywood melodramas were indeed wish fulfillment fantasies) but it is interesting to think about it.

Novel & Philosophy

I don't really agree with this dismissal of philosophical novel, much less with the idea that a novel can't change your thinking about life and the world. I wonder, if that is the case, why take the novel seriously at all?

Later in the post he mentions (quoting John Dewey) that, "our encounter with art can be the most alert and engaged of human experiences. In our free perception of the aesthetic ... we reach a level of pure experience, and a degree of self-awareness of experience as experience, unavailable in most other human endeavors." This is a great way of of describing the experience of reading (or any aesthetic engagement) but why shouldn't we see this self-aware experiences as adding to our knowledge or questioning whatever knowledge of the self and the world we already had before we started reading, and taking it further, why shouldn't we let this knowledge change our lives?

As one of the comments there also mentions, taking Dostoevsky as an example weakens the argument. Dostoevsky wasn't just emobodying extant ideas in plots, characters and incidents, he was actively thinking, questioning and critiquing the dominant intellectual culture of his times (the whole project of modernity). Alongwith Kierkegaard and Nietzsche he is an early existentialist philosopher, someone who also influenced the popular French existentialist thinkers of the 20th century.

This is not just embodying ideas in plots and characters, it is more about finding a grounding for ideas which would seem abstract, academic and irrelevant otherwise. This is what a philosophical novel achieves. We are surrounded by theories and facts and ideas but only in a novel can we find a personal stake in those ideas (without necessarily subjectivizing them). Reading in that sense becomes a process of making those facts and theories "one's own" and "authentic". (Reading Heidegger has been messing up with my mind recently.) I actually also like philosophers or thinkers who write as if they had a personal stake in whatever they are writing and thinking.

Contra James Wood?

There is a new blog which takes issues with the ideas and opinions of the esteemed literary critic James Wood. I found this post particularly provocative which makes the case for Wood as a (sort of) Blairite critic, promoting reification of literature by granting a phony respectability to the commodity of Novel by labelling it "literary":

"James Wood is the ideal critic for the era in which the novel comes to be defined by its marketing category; it is Wood, preeminently, who puts the fetishism back into the commodity. On the one hand, there’s a great leveling behind the scenes – “literary fiction” is just more product that needs to be moved, preferably in superstore bulk – but selling it is part of a system of “distinction” that depends on the appearance of hierarchy, so that customers get to consume status along with, say, the latest Claire Messud or Ian McEwan novel. Wood’s criticism stabilizes the hierarchy of genres by guaranteeing the literariness of “literary fiction”; his imprimatur allows the novel to appear to have transcended mere marketing. His reviewing functions as a kind of nominating process, in which select works of contemporary “literary fiction” are nominated into the pantheon of great literature that his essays about “classic” texts have already enshrined. Thus, to take just a few examples, Monica Ali, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and of course McEwan get to share the dias with Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. Those stacks of Ian McEwan’s Saturday that you see on that Barnes and Noble table have hovering over them a halo that forms the blurb, “This Is Not A Commodity” —James Wood. And it’s 10% off! "

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Babylonian Madhouse

An excerpt from Robert Musil's essay "Helpless Europe" collected in "Precision and Soul". More excerpts available on google books.


[And] so we arrive at the present day. The life that surrounds us is devoid of ordering concepts. We are inundated by a jumble of facts from the past, facts from the specialized sciences, facts from life. Popular philosophy and topical discussion are either content with the liberal scraps of an unfounded faith in reason and progress, or invent the familiar fetishes of epoch, nation, race, Catholicism, the intuitive man - all of which share, negatively, a predilection for sentimental carping at the intellect and, positively, a need to seek a foothold, to find gigantic skeletons, however ethereal, on which to hang the impressions that constituted our one remaining bit of substance. (This is incidentally, one of the literary disputes over culture versus civilization; it is also one of the major reasons why Expressionism was not much more than a charade: a soil that remained fundamentally impressionist could nurture it no further.) So timid have we become in matters of straightforward judgment and the shaping of reality that we habitually come to view even the present as history. Every new "ism" that crops up is hailed as the harbinger of a new humanity, and the end of every school year rings in a new epoch!

Thus everything belonging to the realm of the mind finds itself nowadays in profound disorder. Acting from tradition, and hardly aware of the reasons anymore, people attack the spirit of facts and numbers without offering anything but its negation to replace it. For if we proclaim - and who doesn't to some degree? - that our age lacks synthesis, or culture, or a sense of religiosity, or community, this is hardly more than singing the praises of the "good old days," since no one can say what cultures, religions, or communities would look like today if our laboratories and airplanes and the whole mammoth body of our society were to include them within their synthesis, and not simply dismiss them as outdated. This is merely to demand that the present surrender itself. Uncertainty, enervation and a pessimistic cast are today the hallmarks of soul.

Naturally this is all reflected in an unprecedented intellectual fragmentation. Our age accommodates side by side and in totally uncoordinated fashion such oppositions as individualism and social solidarity, aristocracy and socialism, pacifism and militarism, the lionizing of "culture" and the bustle of civilization, nationalism and internationalism, religion and natural science, intuition and rationalism, and so on ad infinitum. Excuse the analogy, but our age has an upset stomach, and it keep regurgitating bits and pieces of the same food without digesting it. Even a casual glance reveals that this kind of antitypicality - this posing of problems as pairs of opposites, this agglomeration, or these "either-or" formulations - means that too little intellectual work is being done. There is in every either-or a certain naivete, which may well befit the evaluator but ill-becomes the thinker, for whom opposites dissolve in series of transitions. And indeed, corresponding to this mode of inquiry on the practical level, an intellectual profile of our society shows a splinter-group collectivism carried to the extreme. Every reading circle has it poet; the political parties of the farmers and the manual labourers have their different philosophies; there are perhaps a hundred publishing houses in Germany, each with its more or less loosely organized circle of readers; the clergy has its network, but the followers of [Rudolf] Steiner too have their millions, and universities their prestige. I once even read something in a waiters' union newsletter about how the weltanschauung of the restuarant worker must forever be upheld.

It is a babylonian madhouse; a thousand disparate voices, ideas, and tunes assault the wanderer's ear from a thousand windows at once, and it is clear that individual is turned into a playground of anarchic forces, and morality and the intellecet disintegrate. But in the cellar of this madhouse we hear the hammering of the a Hephaestian urge to create; humanity's archetypal dreams are being realized, like flight, our seven-league boots; seeing through solid bodies, and an incredible wealth of fantasies such as in centuries past were the blissful magic of dreams. Our age creates these wonders, but it no longer feels them. It is a time of fulfillment, and fulfillments are always disappointments; our time lacks a sense of longing, a sense of some challege it hasn't yet mastered, but which gnaws at its heart.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Two Classic Films

Brief comments on two classic hollywood films with women protagonists both released in 1948 and both directed by Anatole Litvak. Both leading ladies even got Oscar nominations for their roles though none of them won. Olivia de Havilland would win the next year's Oscar for "The Heiress" (another great film, by the way). For Barbara Stanwyck it was just one of her total four nominations.

Anyway coming back to the first film. Andrea Dworkin in her book on pornography says that heterosexual culture under patriarchy is essentially homoerotic in nature. It is true that men do have sex with women but they reserve their love, which is based on mutual respect and admiration, for other men and that man's love for a woman is at its best a variation of paternalistic kindness and generosity (that is, when he is not busy beating, abusing, raping and murdering her).

Most of The Snake Pit feels like a conscious critique of this kind of heterosexual relationship. Virginia (played by Olivia de Havilland who is quite impressive and very pretty in an unshowy way) has had some "father-issues" while growing up as a kid because of which she is unable to accept the male love with its fatherly paternalism. The film begins when she is already in a mental asylum after suffering a nervous breakdown just after a few months of her marriage. She can't remember her past and her days go by as if in a haze. The doctor in charge of her "Dr. Kik" thinks it is a good idea to let her undergo eletroshock treatment which will help him establish "contact" with her so that then he can do his psychotherapy. Most of the story is then told in flashback as she reveals her life details to him and is then cured when she acknowledges all the messy details of her unconscious (usual Freudianism).

The tone of the film oscillates between that of personal psychological drama and a social problem film tackling the issues of mental illness in society and its proper treatment. We hear her monologues as voiceover (wonderfully voiced by Havilland) and we also see the doctors debating the proper course of treatment. Unlike many other films set in asylums it avoids cheap sensationalism and insensitive humour (it is still funny occasionally) while still maintaining a comfortable distance from truly harrowing nature of illness and treatment. (The electoshock therapy for example happens off camera). The overall effect then is much more palatable than Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, a film of the same period which deals with alchoholism.

Like most of the classical hollywood films of the period happy ending feels tacked on and mandatory. For most of these films one has to keep it in mind to truly appreciate the social critique the film offers. For example in this film, the whole story is how women are oppressed under paternalistic authority (even when it is kind and generous) but ultimately the good-natured psychotherapist cures her, to the extent that she even asks for her wedding ring from her husband when she gets out. The message being that women can maintain their sanity only when they give in and accept their position under patriarchy. Fassbinder, who was a huge fan of classical hollywood, said that he wanted to make films like the ones made in old hollywood but "without the hypocrisy." The ending in many of these old films feels hypocritical but as a viewer we can see it as demands of a repressive commercial ideology. It will also be interesting to compare it with Fassbinder's own Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear), which I wrote about here, his treatment of the same subject. Unlike the very model of sanity and rational composure and sensitivity, the psychiatrist in Fassbinder is a cold blooded villain who demands sex from Margit Carstensen in return of her medicine. A lot of the Freudianism presented in the film also seem dated even a little ridiculous. Fassbinder explicitly frames the image of Freud hanging from the wall to make it look like a stern patriarch looking down upon the hapless women, while in this film his image comes out like that of a wise and saintly figure. Anyway these criticisms aside, overall it is quite impressive in its treatment of a difficult subject, definitely worth watching.

I saw Sorry, Wrong Number last year but I thought I would mention it on the blog since it is not so well-known. This is the film you shouldn't read anything about before watching. Needless to say it has one of the most nailbiting and shocking climaxes in all of classical hollwood. (Very unlike the hypocritical endings I mentioned above). I am actually surprised that the censors even let it pass. Fans of Burt Lancaster will be in for a shock too, as he plays a craven minion, very unlike the macho-masculine roles he is famous for. Barbara Stanwyck is at her best here (and that is saying quite a bit). The film will feel very gimmicky in the beginning with its real-time story and flashbacks within flashbacks structure but the story really draws you in and doesn't let you go till the very end with the shocking revelation. This is a must-watch example of classic hollywood film-noir.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Heidegger on Idle Talk

Relevant to Steve's complaint about blogging, which I linked in the previous post, something I came across in "Being and Time". Heidegger talks about how incessant chatter of culture and other public discourse harms and makes understanding difficult, because of its inauthenticity or "groundlessness", which he explains as talking about something "without previously making the thing one's own". At the same time he says that this mode of being is inescapably part of everyday reality for human beings. I couldn't find any commentary on it on internet but this gives a good overview.


The groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its becoming public; instead it encourages this. Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one's own. If this were done, idle talk would founder; and it already guards against such a danger. Idle talk is something which anyone can rake up; it not only releases one from the task of genuinely understanding, but develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility, for which nothing is closed off any longer.

Discourse, which belongs to the essential state of Dasein's Being and has a share in constituting Dasein's disclosedness, has the possibility of becoming idle talk. And when it does so, it serves not so much to keep Being-in-the-world open for us in an articulated understanding, as rather to close it off, and cover up the entities within-the-world. To do this, one need not aim to deceive. Idle talk does not have the kind of Being which belongs to consciously passing off something as something else. The fact that something has been said groundlessly, and then gets passed along in further retelling, amounts to perverting the act of disclosing [Erchliessen] into an act of closing off [Verschliessen]. For what is said is always understood proximally as 'saying' something - that is, an uncovering something. Thus, by its very nature idle talk is a closing-off, since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone.

This closing-off is aggravated afresh by the fact that an understanding of what is talked about is supposedly reached in idle talk. Because of this, idle talk discourages any new inquiry and any disputation, and in a peculiar way suppresses them and holds them back. [...]

Idle talk, which closes things off in the way we have designated, is the kind of Being which belongs to Dasein's understanding when that understanding has been uprooted. But idle talk does not occur as a condition which is present-at-hand in something present-at-hand: idle talk has been uprooted existentially, and this uprooting is constant. Ontologically this means that when Dasein maintains itself in idle talk it is - as Being-in-the-world - cut off from its primary and primordially genuine relationships-of-Being towards the world, towards Dasein-with, and towards its very Being-in. Such a Dasein keeps floating unattached [in einer Schwebe]; yet in so doing, it is always alongside the world, with Others, and towards itself. To be uprooted in this manner is a possibility-of-Being only for an entity whose disclosedness is constituted by discourse as characterized by understanding and states-of-mind - that is to say, for an entity whose disclosedness, in such an ontologically constitutive state, is its "there", its 'in-the-world'. Far from amounting to a "not-Being" of Dasein, this uprooting is rather Dasein's most everyday and most stubborn reality.

Yet the obviousness and self-assurance of the average ways in which things have been interpreted, are such that while the particular Dasein drifts along towards an ever-increasing groundlessness as it floats, the uncanniness of this floating remains hidden from it under their protecting shelter.

Corralling literature

Steve Mitchelmore on blogging:

"Rather than facing up to books as unique interruptions to daily life, newspaper book coverage has corralled literature into the interminable chatter of culture. Blogging follows."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Claire Denis: Trouble Every Day

Are love and lust mutually contradictory ideas? Hannah Arendt (quoting St. Augustine) said that to her "I love you" meant the same as "I want you to be." Just affirming other's existence seems like nothing out of ordinary but there is something much deeper in the notion. Sexual desire by its very nature seems to imply that one uses other person for one's own gratification, which in turn is the same as denying other person's autonomy and identity as a human being. This was the main problem that Kant had with sex - he thought any non-procreative sex violated one of his categorical imperatives, which says "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end." (See here for more). He thought that recreational sex was morally permissible only under an explicit contract which to him was marriage and which he defined as, "the union of two persons of different sex for life-long reciprocal possession of their sexual faculties." Bummer, isn't it (and controversial too)?

Anyway coming back to the film in question, Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day takes the same notion of lust as extinguishing other's identity and autonomy to extremes. Actually the intellectual conceit in the film is nothing exceptional even though it may look like it at first glance. I mean one often hears the phrase "overcome by devouring lust", she just takes it to literal and very gory extremes. Yes, the film shows lust as (literal) cannibalism. Shane (played by Vincent Gallo sporting a terrific looking moustache) is in Paris for his honeymoon but there is an unspoken tension between him and his wife because they haven't consummated their marriage yet. He is harbouring a terrible secret that he can't speak of. Because of some mysterious experiment (never spelt out clearly) his sexual lust has transformed into a lust for flesh (literally). He is in Paris looking out for a certain Dr. Leos hoping to find a cure. The doctor is having a similar trouble at home because his wife Core (played by Beatrice Dalle, as usual at her nutty best) is plagued by a similar disease. She lures unsuspecting people using her body and then eats them. Talk about femme fatale!

As the story outline above would suggest the film is pretty extreme. I have seen two of her other films, Beau Travail and L'Intrus, both of which are similarly headscratching and very difficult films. Some would call her pretentious and deliberately frustrating (including me) but one can't deny the obvious skill and mastery of the craft on display. There is hardly any dialogue in this film, and even the few ones are totally non-expository. The editing is fragmented and full of narrative ellipsis so you will keep guessing what is happening and why someone is behaving the way they are. She doesn't explain anything in a straightforward manner. The other star of the film is her regular cinematographer Agnes Godard. She has such a great sense of texture and mood and beauty in surfaces. The other potentially frustrating thing would be to see it as a horror film. She does use motifs and ideas from horror genre but deliberately confounds viewer's expectations and not just because the tone is so distanced, cold and clinical. This will most certainly disappoint those who look for gore in horror films. There are actually only two scenes but both very graphic, which may inspire both disgust and laughter (at least it did to this viewer). Certainly a very interesting film and worth having an opinion on, even though one may not like it. I certainly didn't. May be David Cronenberg should have tried this idea. Crash - Part II? An essay on the film here which tries to place it in the horror genre.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Poster of the Day

Andrzej Żuławski's Possession (a very strange horror film, strange in over-the-top, flirting-with-ridiculousness sort of way)