Thursday, November 29, 2007

For Vera

This is the English translation of the Urdu version of a poem written by Nazim Hikmet, the renowned Turkish poet. The Urdu version was by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the great Pakistani poet and the English one is by Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet. The poem is called For Vera, Hikmet's Russian wife.

She said Come
She said Stay
Smile she said
She said Die

I came
I didn’t leave
Yes, I smiled
And I even died.

Nazim Hikmet (1901-63)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Baudrillard On Apocalypse Now

The French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard is mostly famous for his philosophical concept of hyper reality. Apart from writing important philosophical works and a cool collection of essays on America called Cool Memories, Baudrillard's most famous work is Simulacra and Simulation. I would however like to draw attention to an essay from the same volume called Apocalypse Now, which is a different understanding of this Francis Ford Coppola movie by this great philosopher.

Baudrillard starts by saying that this movie is an excess, a surfeit, showing immoderation, just like the Americans make war. This movie, he claims is an extension of war, the pinnacle of America's failed war, its apotheosis. By decking his helicopter captain in a ridiculous hat, and crushing the Vietnamese villagers to the sound of Wagner's music, Baudrillard says that they are not critical or distant signs but part of the director's megalomania, a clownish effect in overdrive.

"Coppola tests cinema's power of intervention, tests the impact of a cinema that has become an immeasurable machinery of special effects. In this sense, his film is really the extension of war through other means. The war became film, the film becomes war, the two are joined by their common hemorrhage into technology".

"One revisits everything through cinema and one begins again: the Molochian joy of filming, the sacrificial joys of so many millions spent, of such a holocaust of means, of so many misadventures, and the remarkable paranoia that from the beginning conceived of this film as a historical, global event, in which, in the mind of the creator, the war in Vietnam would have been nothing other than what it is, would not fundamentally have existed- and it is necessary for us to believe in this war: the war in Vietnam in itself never happened, as it is a dream, a baroque dream of napalm and of the tropics, a psychotropic dream that had the goal of neither victory nor of policy at stake, but, rather, the sacrificial excessive deployment of a power already filming itself as it unfolded, perhaps waiting for nothing but consecration by a super film, which completes the mass- spectacle effect of this war".

"The war in Vietnam and this movie are cut from the same cloth, nothing separates them, if the Americans lost the other one, they certainly lost this one". For Baudrillard, this film retrospectively "illuminates what was crazy about that war, irrational in political terms". Because the two nations are again reunited, "one has understood nothing, neither about the war nor about cinema if one has not grasped this lack of distinction that is no longer either an ideological or moral one, one of good and evil, but of the reversibility of destruction and production, of the immanence of a thing in its very revolution, of the organic metabolism of all the technologies, of the carpet of bombs in the strip of film"..........

Baudrillard also wrote a book called The gulf war never happened, and as he explains, "simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal".

His reflections above remind us of the horrors of the two recent Gulf Wars, wars played out in the innocent space of the TV viewer, a spectacle, of thunder and awe, as it was called. But, sadly, these wars did happen. Baudrillard the philosopher writes like a poet, his writing is a dream. I have found his Cool Memories brilliant with each page quotable. It remains my intention to quote from those volumes in the future.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Do Not Pick Up The Telephone

That plastic Buddha jars out a Karate screech

Before the soft words with their spores
The cosmetic breath of the gravestone

Death invented the phone it looks like the altar of death
Do not worship the telephone
It drags its worshippers into actual graves
With a variety of devices, through a variety of disguised voices

Sit godless when you hear the religious wail of the telephone

Do not think your house is a hide-out it is a telephone
Do not think you walk your own road, you walk down a telephone
Do not think you sleep in the hand of God you sleep in the mouthpiece of a telephone
Do not think your future is yours it waits upon a telephone
Do not think your thoughts are your own thoughts they are the toys of the telephone
Do not think these days are days they are the sacrificial priests of the telephone
The secret police of the telephone

O Phone get out of my house

You are a bad god
Go and whisper on some other pillow
Do not lift your snake head in my house
Do not bite any more beautiful people

You plastic crab
Why is your oracle always the same in the end?
What rake off for you from the cemeteries?

Your silences are as bad
When you are needed, dumb with the malice of the clairvoyant insane
The stars whisper together in your breathing
World's emptiness oceans in your mouthpiece
Stupidly your string dangles into the abysses
Plastic you are then stone a broken box of letters
And you cannot utter
Lies or truth, only the evil one
Makes you tremble with sudden appetite to see somebody undone

Blackening electrical connections
To where death bleaches its crystals
You swell and you writhe
You open your Buddha gape
You screech at the root of the house

Do not pick up the detonator of the telephone
A flame from the last day will come lashing out of the telephone
A dead body will fall out of the telephone

Do not pick up the telephone

Ted Hughes

Monday, November 26, 2007

Robert Walser's The Assistant

The Assistant is a movement, a further development from Jakob Von Gunten, for in this novel, the hero or main character has decided to seek employment, paid one at that, which was not what Jakob had decided to do in the other story. The Assistant is a longer, studied and beautiful novel, written with a language which can simply be called Walserian, a language at once subtle, simple, rich and nuanced, and not at all affected but in consonance with the protagonist, and never shrill.

This was Walser's most ambitious novel, and published in 1908. It has only recently been translated into English in 2007, and won a PEN translation fund award for Susan Bernofsky, who has also written a helpful after word. Some critics consider this to Walser's best book, or his bravest. Coetzee called it heart-rending, unforgettable. It seems to have an autobiographical angle to it and is based in Switzerland. All in all, it is quite a wonderful novel, written in a voice that seems measured, sure, never in a hurry and always humble.

Joseph Marti, starts his employment as an engineer's assistant, who lives with his family in a beautiful hill top villa in a village. Joseph's thoughts are mixed, fearing dismissal and wanting acceptance. Yet as the days go by, his employer Herr Tobler reveals different facets of his personality, and Joseph gets to know his employer's wife Frau Tobler and their four children. Frau Tobler is romantic, proud, unpredictable and moody, with her moods changing as quickly as the reflections over lake Zurich. It becomes evident to us soon that the business is in decline, there is a danger of his employer gong bankrupt and Joseph has not a chance of getting his salary. These facts are revealed slowly, interspersed with Joseph's reflections, his thoughts, his ideas and his understanding of his own place in this scheme of things.

Now Frau Tobler calls Joseph a " peculiar" man. This sets his thoughts in motion and here he resembles Jakob Von Gunten, for even though he resents being called so, he accepts it all the same. Joseph loves manual work, and "there was something about him that favoured the physical. Moving his arms and legs struck him as highly enjoyable. He preferred swimming in cold water to pondering lofty thoughts. Should he be hitched to a cart? He was possessed of intellect when he wished to be, but he liked to take breaks from thinking".

However, Joseph is not extremely meek or totally subservient, for he can speak his mind whenever needed and also is not averse to advising other people soundly. He avoids thinking but cannot stop to think. He writes his thoughts down, even though he throws the papers away. Joseph is clever but not cunning. He is also very conscious of not wasting time, for he is being paid for working. However, he cannot stop day dreaming and his reveries are seldom uninteresting. He is clearly more worldly than first impressions suggest, he visits town for worldly pleasures and even thinks of kissing Frau Tobler. Now this is not possible with Jakob Von Gunten at the Benjamenta institute, for he would consider this as wrong.

Walser's novel is extremely well written, in a tone that reminds me of things past, with such a delicate turn, a quiet tug at one's memory that as we read on, we feel a pain, a pain of having lost one's childhood and everything else with that. The landscape that surrounds the Tobler household is an essential part of this book, and Joseph's thoughts and feelings find a mirror in the surroundings, which are explained in a language which is serenely simple. The narrator's voice merges with Joseph's and this is admirably done, for the narrator seems to be privy to his thoughts. Consider this passage........

One day it snowed. First snow of the year, how thick with memories you are to look upon! Past experiences fling themselves to the earth along with you. The faces of one's father and mother and siblings emerge distinctly and meaningfully from your wet, white veils. One cannot help but be in grave and merry spirits when you arrive with your countless flakes. One might take you for a child, for a brother or a sweet, timid sister. One holds out one's hand to catch you, not all of you, just little bits of you. Dear first snow, come snowing down.

Joseph's meditations are not those of a philosopher but of someone who could be one, of a person who is in no doubt about himself, someone well behaved and observant and yet not really a fool. Joseph, while whiling away his time at his employer residence, constantly asks himself if he should or could waste his time. He berates himself constantly, and we are told that Joseph was in any case "a slow learner, at least that is what he imagined, and what we imagine is never entirely lacking in underlying justifications". Joseph is acutely aware of his thoughts and his perceptions are subtle, for instance........

Wealth and bourgeois prosperity like to dispense humiliations, or, no, that is going too far, but they do have a fondness for gazing down on the humiliated, a sentiment in which we must acknowledge a certain benevolence, and of a certain brutality as well.

So who is Joseph Marti? As the novel progresses, I was enjoying each and every observation, reverie and day dream of this young assistant. While his emotional side seemed open, it was actually shut, his politics seemed restrained but understandable and his inner complexity, a mix of memory and desire , seems totally credible. There is an apparent lack of movement in the story line but the movement is in Josephs mind, and there events happen very fast. He is quick and slow, his impressions are based on perceptions, ordinary, day to day and his desires and dreams seem honest. His reflections, as I said earlier are matched by the descriptions of the weather and surroundings, as the beautiful passage below illustrates.

What days these were, wet and stormy, and yet there was still something magical about them. All at once the living room became so melancholy and cozy. The damp and cold out of doors made the rooms more hospitable. They had already begun lighting the heating stoves. The yellow and red leaves burned and gleamed feverishly through the foggy gray of the landscape. The red of the cherry tree's leaves had something incandescent and aching and raw about it, but at the same time it was beautiful and brought peace and cheer to those who saw it. Often the entire countryside of meadows and trees appeared to be wrapped in veils and damp cloths, above and below and in the distance and close at hand everything was gray and wet. You strode through all of this as if through a gloomy dream. And yet even this weather and this particular sort of world expressed a secret gaiety. You could smell the trees you were walking beneath, and hear ripe fruit dropping in the meadows and on the path. Everything seemed to have become doubly and triply quiet. All the sounds seemed to be sleeping, or afraid to ring out. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the slow exhalations of foghorns could be heard across the lake, exchanging warning signals off in the distance and announcing the presence of boats. They sounded like the plaintive cries of helpless animals.

As the Tobler household's finances plummet, as creditor's start knocking at their villa, autumn changes to winter, electricity is cut off and the snows start to fall. The drama builds up, one wonders as to why Joseph is not claiming his salary, the surrounding's get gloomier, the household more desperate, Joseph spends more time with Frau Tobler, loving her silently and like Joseph's, the reader's heart gets heavier. This novel speaks about many things but mostly about love. It is a theme that runs parallel to the idea of devotion, service, relations that find expression in Walser's fiction.

I kept Jakob Von Gunten constantly in mind while reading this novel. I don't know whether that was right. However, I felt that I was better off reading the assistant after the latter novel. This is such a beautifully written book, that the description of certain things, moods, states of mind, seasons, weather, ideas and emotions are laid out before you in a delicate, subtle and unforceful manner. These are not words but paintings. And this book is not just a novel, but pages from our lives.

And then, in the end, the reader's heart is shattered.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Bolano Short Story Link

A Roberto Bolano short story called Alvaro Rousselot's Journey in the New Yorker, translated by Chris Andrews. The flavour is as of the collection in last evenings on earth, with a similar theme running here too. However, exile and failure are treated differently, the style is typically Bolano, with its cutting edge humour and sadness, and the story reveals numerous threads intertwined, as Bolano invariably does, reminding us that "Everyone knows that the bright rising stars in the literature of any nation are like flowers that bloom and fade in a day; and whether that day is brief and succinct or extends over ten or twenty years, it must eventually come to an end". "People are only interested in themselves ", thinks the protagonist, a writer, his search ending with suicidal thoughts. All in all, another Bolano story, which will do till 2666!

Another link to an article in The Guardian, called Shame On Us, by Ronan Bennett, a response to Martin Amiss' polemical ignorance of things Islamic and reflecting his Superior bias, though one thing must be said, Amiss is one of those experts on Islam who don't know Arabic, are not familiar with the Quran and yet speak with authority. However, he is openly showing you which side he is on.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Politics Of Silence

There is almost an imperialistic silence when we want answers about writers who are generally considered untouchable because they are great writers. For, the most important aspect of a writer is surely who the writer is, after or even before we read any writer. Now there are certain writers that are generally read by most people indiscriminately, like myself, without an inkling as to who they are. This goes for most established or canonical or classical literature in major languages. I am thinking of English or Russian or other literary greats from everywhere else.

And yet, while the novels we read are really well written, the creed that they espouse is opposite to what the writers themselves thought of or lived. In other words, there is a discrepancy, a chasm between the aesthetics of their writing and the ideologies these writers actually had. And because most of these writers or such literature has been considered great, to be thought of as great, there are sadly no questions asked about them. I am thinking of writers like Proust, Flaubert, Dickens, Dostoevsky etc, to name a few. For while it is certain that they wrote so well and are really great writers, their silence on questions of empire, imperialism and the constant genocidal wars their countries have waged historically is acutely noticeable.

How can writers or great literature only exist in a pure aesthetic space, for just the aesthetic quality of the writing alone, that writing only ? Why should not their politics be considered as equally important, as important as their poetic side for the man who thinks and then writes things down is actually the same person. To add to this odd and unjust silence, the actions of literary critics have been no less unjust for they have perpetrated this silence, never allowing anyone to even question this imperial attitude. Thus I find most classical literature immensely readable but I want to know more about the why and why not of these writers and the basis of their political credo. The same could be said of embedded journalists in new imperial wars, the latest in Iraq, where journalists helped liberating these backward territories, one British broadcaster declaring, "I have liberated Afghanistan"!

The sharp side writes about the attitude of Charles Dickens to the Indian mutiny, and Dickens is reported to have said that "I wish I were commander-in-chief in India ... I should proclaim to them that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the race." ( Various sources on the Internet) It is thus important to remember that the man who wrote his great novels also said the above and his literature must be considered in light of his remarks, his attitude, for they exist simultaneously and cannot exist in a limbo, without each other. While it does not diminish their status as writers, it reflects what one keep in mind to measure contemporary writers too.

I found a related issue while reading Walter Benjamin too, for in his essays and the notes on his essays, it seems possible that Benjamin was planning to emigrate to Israel, an Israel carved on Palestinian soil, and surely there is no mention of Palestine by Benjamin, its people and their eventual death. He was an admirer of Scholem, an ardent Zionist. Thus, not only does this philosophical attitude sound confusing, it becomes unconvincing for surely generally regarded philosophical greats cannot only mention one injustice amongst a multitude of pains. One can have sympathy for something but one cannot assume a blanket silence for the role of an artist is not to fill an aesthetic corner or fulfill the fetishistic craving of a dumb, ill informed and brutally dishonest reader but to carve out of his or her own vision, a truth that is truly possible.

I do not find these issues irrelevant but part of an incoherent whole, a whole that has mystified and added the thickness of illusions to the rarefied greatness of these writers. If one considers the novel of ideas, what better than to read some of these great writers. It is when one considers that in all of this and subsequently more, even in the debates and literary critiques that have followed, this silence has added to a similar attitude, one feels a sense of dismay. And if one considers these issues again, then, sadly, there are few great writers.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

This Dark Thing Called Love

Because Marta posted a wonderful poem by Henrik Nordbrandt, a poem that has surprised me by its beauty, I searched for another by the same poet, and found the one copied below. I was unaware of Nordbrandt till now, like other melodies and various other pains. The question of love buzzes. The poem is called Sailing.

After having loved we lie close together
and at the same time with distance between us
like two sailing ships that enjoy so intensely
their own lines in the dark water
that their hulls
are almost splitting from sheer delight
after racing, out in the blue
under sails which the night wind fills
with flower-scented air and moonlight
without one of them trying to out sail the other
and without the distance between them
lessening or growing at all.

But there are other nights, when we drift
like two brightly illuminated luxury liners
lying side by side with the engines shut off, under a strange constellation
and without a single passenger on board:
On each deck a violin orchestra is playing
in honor of the luminous waves.
And the sea is full of old tired ships
which we have sunk in our attempt to reach each other.

Translated from the Danish by the author and A. Taylor.

Night Of Sleepless Love

We too, the night ahead, the full moon looming:
I began to weep while you laughed.
Your scorn became a god, and my complaints
were little doves and moments in a chain.

We two, the night ahead, crystal of pain,
and you wept over deep and distant things.
My sorrow was a clump of agony
resting on your fragile heart of sand.

The dawn drew us together on the bed.
Our mouths were waiting near the frozen spout
of blood that spilled forth in an endless flow.

The sun came through the shuttered balcony
and the coral of life opened its branch,
and settled here upon my shrouded heart.

Federico Garcia Lorca, Noche del amor insomne

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Consequences Of Love

Called Le Conseguenze Dell' Amore in Italian, and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, this movie is one of the most unmoving movies about love or anything, with the only memorable feature being the evasively beautiful Olivia Magnani, whose role is reduced to absolutely nothing of any consequence, as she flickers on the screen before disappearing altogether.

A middle aged chain smoking bald gentleman has been living in a hotel for eight years, doing the same thing always with punctuality, including injecting himself with heroin, and this life is a punishment for having unwisely invested money for the mafia. Having thus incurred their wrath, he suffers in isolation, away from his family whom he occasionally calls. A subplot is revealed as two men slip into his room to carry out an assassination, steal his bag of money that he deposits at a bank regularly at the behest of the mafia, and he finally kills them, and decides to keep the money, till he is found out and punished and killed by the mafia. In between all this, he develops feelings for the bar girl Sofia, played by Olivia Magnani, and even buys a car for her, who refuses to accept it till she finds out who he is.

I don't want to sound flippant about the plot but that sums it up. There seems to be a hush about why the man is living in a hotel yet no one wants to know why, there is his immaculate attire, his browsing in posh malls, his smoking, his recalcitrant attitude and finally his love for Sofia. And yet not once did I feel either taken in by the character or enamoured of their romance which was non existent. This man who has a secret, that of his association with the mafia is living in a sort of prison, and yet his plight is unmoving and his romance totally lacklustre for it is not there.

I was surprised at the title of this movie too. This man, keeping a secret inside for years, yearns for an extraordinary death and when he gets a chance in the end to save himself, he prefers drowning in wet concrete, remembering a childhood friend. Not for an instant was there an inkling of love, maybe desire but watery in the end. I kept wondering whether it should have been called something else. A man in hiding, middle aged, estranged, starting a liaison with a bar girl, an existential theme, mafia running around, a beautiful woman, a sad man......what else could one ask for?

The movie has been praised for its first tracking shot, and its deft camera work and its use of long, sliding and oblique shots and camera angles. While that is actually well done, this movie bored me, for plot was not dense, the story seemed hollow and perhaps a more painful love or a dangerous liaison between the barmaid and our man might have saved the situation. A more romantic and less cheesy affair would have been admirable. There is no art here for understatement, gifting a sports saloon to a barmaid you don't say even hello to is never one.

The performance by Servillo as the doomed man is stiltingly bored, predictable and oddly comical. Olivia Magnani's acting talents have not been exploited though she is charm, grace, beauty and a song in motion. The soundtrack however suits the movie, which is basically chemical underground. I am surprised why it was nominated for the Palme D'or at Cannes. Apart from the above, I failed to notice anything else, and this is one movie that I won't see again. But yes, I will remember it for Magnani.

Monday, November 19, 2007

This Metaphysics Of Night

Night is a saviour, it often saves, it usually does. Days come with their frightening surprises, with their charms only hiding lurking dangers, pain and deep diseases. And the myth of sunlight gives sweat and headache, uncomfortable surliness, irritation and lethargy. What begins with benign intentions sometimes snowballs into epic discomfort, pain in and inside everywhere, days fragmented, divided and destroyed. Days usually remind me of discipline, behaviour that is generally discrepant with thinking. Days make us subservient to desire, to ambition.

But nights are a different matter, from another world, a different planet. Nights bring wind, darkness and an unnameable curtain, a cover that covers everything, including our seethings, saving us from ourselves. Nights are different for they save us from further atrocities, from light, from sun, from openness, from wounds. Nights return us to our original state, to our primeval nature which is our natural state, to an inner dynamic of peace in darkness. They shield us from further questions for they cover us from further questions, leaving us in peace.

Nights are our natural reason to live amongst so many other reasons to die. The wolfish loneliness outside is matchless. We are far from all crowds, from friends and hypocrisy, including our own. If night is a hypocrite too, it is an honest one. Nights bring sinister peace and a romantic awareness of a priceless melancholy which no day can ever give, even the last day of love, the last moment of parting. These nights are priceless for they hold a mirror to ourselves, revealing what we are to what we think we could be, revealing our desires which are the truest thoughts we have for they are unadulterated, born of desire that is born of no thought.

Nights give us a priceless asylum from the hurried madness of days, from the humid faces of daylight, from the acrobatic clinginess of daytime love. Nights allow us to festoon and settle ourselves into the deep waters of dreams, into the honest psychology of the inner mind that is unknown to us. Nights return us to folds in our hearts that are not made of prior conceptions, that are not borrowed from other meanings, not steeped in words but stepped in the reality of hours stepped in real desire.

Nights don't often give us repose. I am familiar with insomnia, old friend. Yet, there is a promise of peace, even if a faint one. We can trust the fruit of this promise, the flavour of this sea, the magic invincibility of this trust. We can also think of deception, a defeat. But that will come with small hurried steps, away from the delirious pop music of daytime. We must learn to favour nighttime and ignore the harsh subterfuge of days, of daylight.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

There Are Diseases

There are diseases worse, yes, than diseases,
Aches that don't ache even in one's soul
And yet, that are more aching than the others.
There are dreamed anguishes that are more real
Than the ones life brings us, there are sensations
Felt only by imagining
Which are more ours than our life is.
There's so often a thing which, not existing,
Does exist, exists lingeringly
And lingeringly is ours and us.....
Above the cloudy green of the broad river
The white circumflexes of the gulls.....
Above the soul the useless fluttering-
What never was, nor could be, and is everything.

Give me some more wine, because life is nothing.

Fernando Pessoa ( 19.11.35)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Kind Of Love: Kesa And Morito

Let us look at love, yes let us, through the eyes of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. This brilliant short story, called Kesa and Morito, is perhaps one of the best deconstructions on love written by this great Japanese writer. It is an atmospheric story, everything here is in the atmosphere, indeed this story cannot exist without its location, its place or locus. Divided in two parts, it is in the form of two monologues by the only two characters called Kesa and Morito. I am attempting to give a step by step account of their respective monologues and in the process attempt to clarify their psychological states, so crucial to any understanding of what is happening here. We begin with Morito.

We are told that the moon is pensive, and before Morito begins his soliloquy, he is walking on fallen leaves outside his house. Morito is horrified by the moon, its brightness. Morito is contemplating murder, he plans to kill a man whom he does not hate. The man is kesa's husband, Morito's lover, towards whom he feels no anger now, but kill him he must. But does Morito love Kesa really, he questions himself ? His love for Kesa is divisible, before and after she got married and yet Morito thinks his love was a sentimental embellishment, resembling the motive that drove Adam to Eve. Through a break in contact, Morito remembered Kesa vividly and tortured with discontent, he asks of himself...........Do I really love her?

It was Morito's idea to kill Kesa's lover, a decision that he thinks was rash. And it dawns on Morito that he actually despises and hates Kesa and her husband's murder would only disgrace her, for Kesa only professed to love her husband. After persistently prevailing on Kesa, she agrees to be a party to her husband's murder, though Morito repents it now, unsure of why he must do it, even allowing for a supernatural explanation for his decision. However, Kesa's agreeing makes Morito think of her in a new light, as a ready adulteress, and he feels disappointed. And this new realization is not unknown to Kesa, who sees right through his heart. Morito's failure to carry out this murderous act will bring revenge from Kesa, and he fears for his life. At this stage, Kesa's eyes are crying but tearless. The hour draws near, Morito must act, a great power impels him, he hates her, fears her, and yet loves her.

We leave Morito pacing, and a song can be heard out of the night. The human mind is in the dark, with not a light to shine upon.

We meet Kesa, under a lamp, lost in thought, biting her sleeve. Kesa wonders whether Morito will keep his word, because if he does not, she will have to live in shame, like a prostitute. However Kesa is sure he will. Kesa is thinking of when and how she met Morito, and she remembers being ugly, seeing her ugliness mirrored in his eyes, and thinking that the lurid uneasiness of the eclipse of the moon was better compared to the hour when she saw her ugliness, her loneliness as she gave her flesh to a man she hated and despised. Was Kesa moved then by desire alone? Kesa remembers the precise moment of her own decision to help in her husband's murder, and yet sees it as an act of love towards her husband, because she has decided to die for him, to kill herself to atone for having slept with another man.

Or is this a revenge only, for she has discovered Morito's contempt towards her and his wicked lust. Kesa must die for herself, not for her husband. She must die to punish her lover's having hurt her heart and for having sullied her body. Kesa tells us that tomorrow will not fail to shed its cold light on my headless body. She can only love one man, and that very man will kill her.

We find Kesa blowing out the light, as the opening of a shutter is heard, pale moonlight flooding in.

That is how we leave the scene. This story is a remarkable psychological account of two people who do actually love each other. I felt that the doubts and hindrances, the self loathing is part of an intricate process of understanding this strange love, if love can be called that. The hatred and fear are part of this strange feeling, for living together is impossible, living apart is not possible either. Is love here thus a desire alone or is an attempt to revivify in and after death? Is this love not more stronger than their combined hate of everything and each other, stronger because they both desire to kill and destroy what they hate and love simultaneously? There are moments of reflection, of honest testament, of allowing an understanding of their own thoughts in private, of running through the events, of laying bare their emotions. Is not love possible without envy, without jealousy, without honesty?

This is a brilliantly written story, ready material for a short play. It has charm of a sinister kind, of mystery, of passion, of love and drama and lust and wickedness. The moon is another character, bright and horrible for Morito, and pale, pale for Kesa. I am not sure what happens to Kesa and Morito. Did they end in killing each other? I am sure that I have read about love though.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How Can I ever Know?

I think of you at times
and sometimes quite often,
like tonight, now and last night.
I dream you at times, during the day
with my eyes open, and at night
when I cannot sleep.

But how can I ever know
if you think of me at times
like tonight, now and last night?
Do I ever walk with you during the day
with your eyes open, and at night
when you sleep?

How can I ever know?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ryunosuke Akutagawa And Rashomon

When one thinks of Japanese literature, one must speak of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. His short stories, In A Grove and Rashomon were combined and made into the classic movie Rashomon by Kurosawa, but besides this famous story, Akutagawa was a scintillating writer, famous for his short stories, poems and other writings, which he left behind, committing suicide at the age of 35. I decided to read his stories 2 years ago, and he figures quite prominently in Borges' library too, especially his Kappa book.

I am only going to focus on the writer here and not the movie. Akutagawa is generally regarded as one of the most widely read persons of his generation. His first published works are translations by Anatole France and Yeats and by the time of his suicide, Akutagawa had left behind brilliant short stories, poems and other writings. It seems that Akutagawa was by nature melancholic, if that doesn't sound too cliched and his writings reinforce a pattern, an aura of profound difference, not only in the manner of his writings but in his persona as well. He was a stylist and his excellence in the short story genre is a thing to marvel at. He was very sensitive in his approach of the subject matter and yet he was very satirical of what he observed and that is well reflected in his work.

Akutagawa's work take a swipe at stupidity, at greed and hypocrisy. His introspection is that of an outsider, a person who is outside and looking in, yet his sermonizing is not a pain for it does not seem so. Thus, in his narratives, we have the dual alternating nature of man and the so-called reality that surrounds us constantly forcing the person under question to answer acutely, in situations of duress, of psychological duress, of inner stress, when they are faced with moral problems, when the scrutinizing forces are inside. And as Howard Hibbet writes in his introduction, Akutagawa was an intellectual and an artist, with a Zen taste for paradox, for dramatizing the complexities of human psychology, and his work contains flashes of mockery to perplex the straightforward reader.

If we consider Rashomon the movie, ( the story is too well known for me to sketch it here) we find that most of the narration is in front either of the Rashomon gate with those ceaseless sheets of rain or in front of the prosecutor in the blinding heat. Thus, one feels that the narrator or the voice is the camera, a camera that stays still and captures the essence of the drama, of this narration. We are behind the camera but we do not know exactly what we are behind of. However, in the story called In a grove, the narrator is invisible, as he narrates the testimony of the various protagonists, but he stays invisible, invisible in this drama, for he does not tell us what happened. The narrator only narrates, he does not take sides. His narration is unambiguous, matter of fact, he or she does not think what happened but only says what others say happened or think happened.

As Howard Hebbit writes in his excellent introduction to Rashomon and other stories, Akutagawa is at a distance from the story, at an oblique glance only, for he does not participate in the narration but only seems to be doing so. But is that actually true? Reading In A Grove a few times, I think Akutagawa realizes in this story a phenomenal act of participation for in just telling us what others have testified, he puts the onus on the reader to sketch, to the best of the readers ability or memory to actually what happened. Thus, he forces the reader to reconsider, reappraise the situation, for to be honest, even though in the movie one gets a semblance of what might have actually happened, the story gives you absolutely no chance and it is a dizzy act in the end for the result achieved is exactly what the writer desires to, the culpability of memory and the mixture of fact and fiction. However, Akutagawa lays bare the possibility of mixing desire in this memory for in the end, from the point of view of the raped noble woman she suffered an act of aggression, while from the point of the bandit, she desired it to some extent.

This story is an act of metaphysics, a philosophical enquiry into the nature of truth, the difference between objective and subjective truth, of history, of the politics of history too. It is an attempt to deconstruct on a grand scale whatever we hold holy or unholy, for it questions memory and desire and wishful thinking. within a few pages, Akutagawa forces the reader to think and concentrate and then reconsider the previous thoughts. It is an act of asking the reader, questioning his or her memory and enquiring the validity of memory. The reader must think and see and listen and never judge or speculate.

Akutagawa's art is rare and lies in making the reader reassess and philosophize. That is success beyond what many good writers can dream of. And more importantly, you don't know what he thinks.

Monday, November 12, 2007

On This Earth

We have on this earth what makes life worth living. April's hesitation, the
aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman's point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the
of love, grass on a stone, mother's living on a flute's sigh and the invaders' fear
of memories.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the final days of
September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in prison, a cloud
reflecting a swarm
of creatures, the peoples' applause for those who face death with a smile,
a tyrants fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living on this earth, the lady
of Earth,
mother of all beginnings and ends. She was called Palestine. Her name
later became
Palestine. My lady, because you are my lady, I deserve life.

From Fewer Roses, Mahmoud Darwish ( 1986)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah

It had long been my intention to write a post on this book or its author, Ibn Khaldun, for this book or work for want of a better word, is unrivalled, even now, a few centuries later and the man who wrote it, Ibn Khaldun, still very enigmatic and just as brilliant.

Ibn Khaldun, statesman and jurist, scholar and historian, philosopher and political theorist was born in Tunis in the 14th century, whose family having enjoyed privileges in Moorish Spain, emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Muslim Spain. Ibn Khaldun belonged to a privileged background and his education was traditional. He studied mysticism later and philosophy that was influenced by the Greeks. As was the rule, he entered the employment of various rulers and was a working politician too. Ibn Khaldun wrote his history of the world in 1377, "with words and ideas pouring into my head like cream into a churn". Afterwards he travelled a lot, mostly around the Muslim west. Towards the end of his life, he was a religious judge and died in 1406 in Cairo, where he is buried in its Sufi cemetery.

It is exactly 3 years when I bought the Muqaddimah and I have read this strange, fantastic and sometimes magnificent book from time to time. Lets see what Arnold Toynbee says about The Muqaddimah , ........ "the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place............the most comprehensive analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere". It seems that it was certainly far ahead of its time as for enumerating concepts is concerned though I am not sure if this is the first history ever. However, there can be no doubt that this work is a philosophy of history, and hence a very rational work considering the times it was written in. Muqaddimah or Introduction is actually his introduction to his world history and book 1 of his history. Ibn Khaldun is never outside conservative thought but if he was alive today, he would be classified as right leaning but not an overt conservative.

Ibn Khaldun enumerates and classifies, he explains in a rational and analytic manner, away from conventional historiography and he does not seem to accept unverifiable data. He begins this work by praising God or Allah, as it is He who created races and nations and also reminding us that time wears us out. Ibn Khaldun tells us that history, its inner meaning involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanations and deep knowledge. However, it is firmly rooted in philosophy. Little effort is being made to get at the truth. the critical eye is not sharp. Blind trust in tradition is an inherited trait in human beings. He reminds us that it takes critical insight to sort out the hidden truth and it takes knowledge to lay truth bare and polish it so that critical insight may be applied to it.

Ibn Khaldun thus devises a systematic plan to write his history, with the introduction dealing with civilization, authority, government. the 2nd book deals with races, dynasties and predominantly of the Arabs, Israelis, the cop ts, Greeks etc. The 3rd book deals with Berbers. Ibn Khaldun reminds or warns us in his foreword that this book forces stubborn stray wisdom to return to the fold. It gives cause and reason. In other words, this book has become unique, as it contains knowledge and familiar if hidden wisdom. The first part thus is on human civilization in general, then on the parts where civilization is found, the earths temperate and intemperate zones and a fascinating chapter on the influence of climate upon human character.

Ibn Khaldun is never hesitant to recognise the interaction between man and his environment and yet man can think and co-operate and this results in an urbanization, a polity but since man is animal by nature, he needs a restraining influence, someone to govern. Reading this brilliant work, I felt that Ibn Khaldun is a brilliant sociologist, for his concern is primarily man, his organisation, reasons and causes. He writes in detail about various types of men and those who are prone to supernatural perceptions and dream visions. He discusses prophet hood and prophecy and soothsaying and differentiates them. Ibn Khaldun is quite famous for his concept of asabiyah or solidarity or group feeling. Without it, individuals can achieve nothing, and he attributes Arab success to this asabiyah, saying in one chapter that religious propaganda cannot materialize without group feeling. Only tribes held together by group feeling can live in the desert.

Ibn Khaldun traces how dynasties originate, rise, stay and fall and reminds rulers that exaggerated harshness is harmful to authority. The middle portion of this work deals with governance, its types and ways, financial and political techniques, the police, diplomacy and the ministry of official correspondence and writing. The end chapters classify crafts, like calligraphy and midwifery, also book production and his important ideas on urbanization and civilization, what he calls umraan. The last chapter sees his notions and philosophy on man, his rational distinguishing ideas on scholarship, scientific instruction and research. I cannot fully elucidate the great knowledge in this work, but will try to quote from it in the future. I will end by quoting a passage from his on instruction. To end, this work is at once brilliant and unique, and worth reading a few more times for I think it predates many ideas that are actually in vogue now.

"Linguistic expression is merely the interpreter of ideas that are in the mind. One person conveys them to another in oral discussion, instruction, and constant scientific research. Words and expressions are media and veils between the ideas. They constitute the bonds between them and give them their final imprint. The student of ideas must extract them from words that express them. For this he needs a knowledge of their linguistic meaning and a good linguistic habit. When he has a firmly rooted habit as far as semantics is concerned, so that the correct ideas present themselves to his mind when he hears certain words used, and naturally, the veil between the ideas and understanding is either totally removed, or becomes less heavy, and the only task that remains is to investigate the problems inherent in the ideas".

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Murmur Of The Heart

Known as Le souffle au coeur in French, and directed by Louis Malle, there is no other way of describing this movie other than brilliant. This movie is usually described as a comedy, as a coming of age movie, a passage from adolescence to adulthood, a movie about sexual maturity and a young boys sexual attraction to his mother and an incestuous scene, a movie that is erotic and a typically French depiction of these themes. However, even though it may be a few of these things, it is never all of them but a different way of looking at these things, against a background of political change, end of France's colony in Indo-China and a youth that is seemingly beginning to rebel.

A young boy called Laurent, living with his parents and 2 older brothers is shown in the first scene as a lover of jazz as he goes about his life, from school to home. He is however more close to his mother, whom he discovers is having an extramarital affair. Unhappy about it, he is diagnosed with a heart murmur, because of aortic insufficiency, a sequel of scarlet fever, and leaves for a spa with his mother. He gets to know a few people his age, learns more about his mothers quest for love, reflects and fantasizes about his own mother and on Bastille day, ends in an incestuous act with his mother, who is drunk at that time. This is only a bare sketch.

I liked this movie a lot, it is delightful. There is a certain family bonhomie depicted throughout this movie, even when we see that it might fall apart, especially when we know that the mother of the three young men is having an extramarital affair. Yet the emotional display in the family never reaches a nauseating point, never embarrasses you as Hollywood's treatment of a similar situation might.

I felt that Laurent was not growing up but had already grown, he seemed politically sure and felt that another boy at the spa was speaking like a fascist. Laurent is intelligent enough to keep his thoughts, somehow of a rebellious nature to himself, yet he participates in the usual activities, like trying to lose his virginity with his brothers without any fear. He is thus a classic example of a nonmilitant rebel, who feels a great tenderness towards his mother and tries to see her problems objectively. He does covet his mother but that is not a lewd act, it is more of a tender, a melancholic incest. In fact, his mother is a carefree person, admittedly not a capable mother yet strong enough to not get hemmed in this extramarital affair. Both Laurent and his mother seem more emotionally mature than the rest of the family, and both decide to keep their secret to themselves, as his mother asks him to remember it tenderly.

The movie ends in a delightful scene, with the family together and laughing at Laurent's expense with Laurent too joining in, yet this scene is not sentimental but shows a particular emotion, a pose, an angle, with Laurent learning to laugh at himself and his mother laughing at them both. The performance by Bennoit Ferreux as Laurent is assured and spontaneous, his smile infectious while Lea Massari as Laurent's mother is an epitome of carefree and careless sexuality. She is seductive but does not know it. There is humour and politics but that is treated without love or malice or threat and the background jazz, of Charlie Parker suits the rhythm of this movie admirably.

I found some reviews of this movie on the Internet a bit tedious and pretentious, with a certain bourgeois way of treating this theme. This movie is a way of looking at things, it is a tender, melancholic refrain, a delicate way of handling politics and it mocks at bourgeois ways. Perhaps that is why it attracts such reviews. There is no Oedipus in this movie. The boy is healthy psychologically and we hope his heart murmur did not create a problem. There is no bed wetting, no oral and anal arrest, no need for Freudian explanations . It is a great and warm movie about love and tenderness, and I warmed up to Laurent for many reasons, not just because he was reading The Myth Of Sisyphus.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Gypsy Passion For Parting!

The gypsy passion for parting!
Just met, and you’re ready to part!
I dropped my head in my hands and started
To think, staring into the dark:

From our letters, no one could gather
Any insight to understand more
How deceitful we were, or rather, -
How true to ourselves we were.

Marina Tsvetaeva ( 1892- 1941)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Robert Walser's Jakob Von Gunten

Robert Walser is a fascinating writer. He amuses you, makes you smile, laugh and then he breaks your heart. Hear Sontag, " Walser's virtues are those of the most mature, most civilized art. He is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer." Yes, heartbreaking. Each page of Jakob Von Gunten, considered generally to be the finest of his 4 surviving novels, explodes with sadness. Each page is a minefield of melancholy. He neither affects nor cultivates it, he is melancholy. It is indeed one's good fortune to read Jakob Von Gunten.

This novel is a diary or journal of this young man, called Jakob, who enrols at a school called the Benjamenta Institute, to train and learn to become a servant. In the beginning , he tells us that he does not want to become or get anything. The beginning of this novel is as good as anything one can read........" One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life." He then tells us that the teachers are asleep, or they are dead, or seemingly dead, or they are fossilized, no matter, in any case we get nothing from them.

Jakob then introduces us to his other co students including Kraus, with whom his relationship is seemingly at odds. We are also told of the instructress, Fraulein Benjamenta, who is the Headmaster Herr Benjamenta's sister. There are certain no go zones within this institute, described as inner chambers, a glimpse of which is promised to Jakob by the instructress at an appropriate time. Thus we are in a world that is seemingly benign but highly odd, mysterious. The next hundred pages are reflections of Jakob about his ideas and thoughts about the two Benjamentas, the institute, his other friends there and his thoughts on his future. The instructress then informs him of her love in a sisterly way for him and Kraus and her impending death, with everyone else later on finding a place for himself in the world except Jakob who is chosen by the principal to live with him and later on leave and travel.

This fantastic novel, with which I am enamoured and which easily is a novel that you can read again immediately after finishing it ( a rare phenomenon), suggests a Kafkaesque aura to it and yet, written much before Kafka wrote his works, is extraordinarily original and a collection of musings, reflections, thoughts and parables. At times Jakob's thoughts have a hallucinatory quality, it being difficult to differentiate the real from unreal, especially his descriptions of the inner chambers. Each thought or a train of such thoughts is about an idea, a way of life, a behaviour, an attitude, and after this he immediately asks to be forgiven for having thought so, and tells us that he should have not thought, "for to be robust means not spending time on thought but quickly and quietly entering into what has to be done".
Jakob always apologizes, he seeks forgiveness, he puts demands on himself, for his is the way of utter humility or should be and he demands a nonexistence for himself, a shadow world, and is sufficiently happy in just looking at his Fraulein, whom he naturally worships. He is not afraid to love her but sorry for doing so. He is convinced that one" feels vividly how nothing one is. He likes sorrow very much as well, it is very valuable, very. It shapes one". He demands that people should be condescending to him, because he is menial. And regarding the people in power, they are really starving people. Me, I shall be something lowly and small.

Even though in the beginning he wants to go out, in the end he chooses to stay in, making a choice that he perhaps always knew he would make. He desires to see this institute, with its castle like rooms and staircases, yet when he sees them, he is sorry for having done so, he should have done something else. I am going to be outrageous if I say that Walser is not behind but ahead of Kafka, for with Kafka, K. is always amazed and perplexed while Jakob is convinced of the futility of all search. Walser is a profoundly more intimate artist than Kafka for he charts the soul while Kafka charts the roads. Walser has seen, experienced, been defeated and acquired or sought annihilation while Kafka wants to test again, again. If Kafka is an intellectual and political writer, then Walser is a mystical one for he knows that all search is useless. I prefer Kafka, but like Walser.

I am stupefied by this novel which is nothing less than a feat of utter abjection, a manual of profound humility. I thought i was reading a Tao or a Sufi text teaching fana or annihilation and yet this is a German novel, which has surprised me. It is poetic, artistic and profoundly brilliant, a tour de force, a sensational exercise in melancholia. However, Jakob is the character who becomes this Jakob through many experiences, related as dreams, many of which remain hidden to the reader or partly understandable. There are many themes or reflections that cannot be understood on a first reading, yet it is a book written very simply. This novel, this institute predates The Castle, for here we have the castle, the symbols, heaven, love, death, dreams and the solution too.

The introduction to this novel by Chris Middleton is informative and helpful, the translation is wonderful and there are chunks of passages that can be quoted. The pupils, says Jakob are scattered in all kinds of jobs. And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined? A zero. I end by quoting parts of this wonderful passage, in which he decribes his Fraulein Benjamenta.

How beautiful she is! what a luxuriance of raven hair! Most one sees her with her eyes downcast. she has eyes that are wonderfully apt for being downcast. These eyes! if one ever sees them, one looks down into something frighteningly abyssal and profound. These eyes, with their shining darkness, seem to say nothing and yet to say everything unspeakable, they are so familiar and yet so unknown. The eyebrows are thin to breaking and are drawn in rounded arches over the eyes. If you look at them, you have a prickly feeling. They are like crescent moons in a morbidly pallid evening sky, like fine wounds, but all the more sharp, inwardly cutting wounds. And her cheeks! silent yearning and swooning seem to celebrate festivities on them. There is a weeping on them, up and down, of delicacy and tenderness that nobody has understood. When one looks at her cheeks, one has no more joy in living, for one has the feeling that life must be a turbulent hell full of vile crudities.......................And when she weeps. One thinks that the earth must drop away from every footfall of hers, in shame and sorrow to be seeing her weep.

Jakob is a mystic, he has arrived at a station, a stage and at a way of life. Walser has chosen a way of living through not living. It is a way that sadly few people reach.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Encounters With Deleuze

My first personal tame effort towards the works of Gilles Deleuze was almost 3 years ago when after many attempts, I gave up on A thousand Plateaus. I knew this work was difficult and academic and a layperson like myself is barricaded from entering the realms of such philosophy, of wolf men and rhizomes. And yet, since I have sometimes found Foucault within grasp and poetically approachable, I wondered whether perhaps I should not try again, try to enter this Deleuzian world, a philosopher now considered to the most important of the last century, with that century being called Deleuzian, though that is the vanity of his fervent believers.

I am reading his collected essays and interviews called Two regimes of madness, a work that he conceived himself and which covers the last 20 years of his life. I find this work more approachable, less daunting and easier to read. It has several important essays, debates involving Deleuze and Barthes talking about Proust and others, his open and extended involvement with politics, and some essays on cinema, from his two famous works on cinema. All of the arguments presented are as relevant now as when they were written, for instance the question of the secular in France and the debate over the veil in French schools.

Deleuze calls philosophy as an attempt to look and seek concepts, a discipline that is just as inventive as any other discipline, and it consists in creating or inventing concepts. Concepts have to be produced. Philosophy tells stories, stories with concepts. He constantly compares the concepts within philosophy to cinema, to scientific activity, as each new philosophical concept is akin to movements within cinema. Regarding a philosophical text, Deleuze tells us that it can take the form of a dialogue: concepts then correspond to the characters that support them.

This text also contains easier pieces to read, including introductions to other books, prefaces to his two important works on cinema, interviews conducted about and specifically on cinema and a few short essays on Palestine. Deleuze wrote extensively on Focault and this book has a few essays on Foucault and his important works. I will attempt to approach Deleuze again in the future, perhaps with less temerity, though I understand that one must have tools to read and understand philosophy. This book has his more intimate and personal thoughts, relating how he first met Felix Guattari and how their initial differences complemented their styles, their approach to philosophy and how they worked those out to their advantage, ending in their famous collaborated works, including Anti-Oedipus. In his thoughts on Guattari's death, Deleuze says that "the most important aspects of remembering a dead friend are the gestures that still reach us, that still come to us long after he is gone".

Writes Deleuze, " People tend to compare the quest for freedom with the embrace of capitalism. It seems doubtful that the joys of capitalism are enough to liberate a people. The bloody failure of socialism is on every body's lips, but no one sees capitalist globalization as a failure, in spite of the bloody inequalities that condition the market, and the populations who are excluded from it. The American revolution failed long before the Soviet revolution." Deleuze then says that his contribution regarding forwarding concepts is formulating a concept of the ritornello in philosophy, a concept that I have no clue about right now. I end by quoting a small extract from Stones, a poignant short essay on the Palestinian issue.

"Europe owes its Jews an infinite debt that Europe has not even begun to pay. Instead, an innocent people is being made to pay- the Palestinians.
The Zionists have constructed the state of Israel out of the recent past of their genocide, that unforgettable European horror, but also out of the suffering of other people, using the stones of this other people. The Americans have made a multi-billion dollar western out of the whole affair. We are to believe that the state of Israel has been established in an empty land which has been awaiting the return of ancient Hebrews for centuries. the ghosts of a few Arabs that are around, keeping watch over the sleepy stones, came from somewhere else. The Palestinians, tossed aside, forgotten-have been called on to recognize the right of Israel to exist while the Israelis have continued to deny the fact of existence of a Palestinian people.
from the beginning, the Palestinian people have carried out, on their own, a war which continues to this day in defense of their land, their stones, their way of life.
How will Israel succeed-- with its annexed lands, its occupied territories, with its settlers and its settlements, with its lunatic rabbis? Through occupation, through infinite occupation: the stones raining down on them come from within, they come from the Palestinian people, to remind us that there is a place in the world, no matter how confined, where the debt has been reversed. The stones thrown from the hands of the Palestinians are their stones, the living stones of their country.The Palestinians sound the depths of that soul and torment it with their piercing stones".

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Knife In The Water

Knife In The Water, the debut movie by Roman Polanski is an eminently watchable movie and highly representative of its genre, a kind of movie that is akin to a road one, though here the action is entirely on water and sometimes inside it. There are only 3 characters, though I would add the water and background score to the cast as well.

The story reminded me of something that I cannot put a finger on, it seemed vaguely familiar. It definitely has shades of Polanski's Bitter Moon, with that movie set against a background of the sea. However, its background score is much superior. A couple is on a day out and they give lift to a young man, who later joins them at the older man's invitation. Knife in the water is a duel, a bout, a game of wits, a game between a younger man, a hitchhiker and this older man, who is sophisticated, worldly and an adept sailor, who is quite keen to show his prowess to the younger man, who is clueless about the finer aspects of sailing.

Then begins this game between the two, with the older man constantly challenging the other younger man, who is constantly showed his place, his inferiority. There is a veiled sexual element added through the wife, who initially appears ungainly but as the action progresses, she unveils in a way, becoming sexier and more attractive. There is violence in the end, which brings us to its end, its denouement, whence the older man and his wife return, after the younger man and the woman have had their incipient attraction turn into sex. The movie ends with a particular change in the status quo, with the woman emerging stronger.

There is a peculiar atmosphere in the movie, where the difference between the two men almost rising to a difference in class, knowledge and bearing, in sophistication and culture. And yet, the basic difference between the two is not much, with both showing off their prowess before the woman, thus enacting an atmosphere which spirals out of control. It is always a possibility that equations change between people in enclosed settings, especially when there are precursors to such situations. An outsider, which the young man essentially is, could have brought out the best between the couple but on the other hand, it creates a wedge, a simmering tension between the two, the roots of which must lie in their relationship before, before they set out on this journey. The young man's stealthy sex with the woman thus thrives on an atmospheric difference, generated suddenly by the husband's absence.

In Bitter Moon, Polanski uses similar motifs, this time a crippled husband using his sexy wife( played by his wife in reality) as a bait for a frustrated, equally confused other person. However, in that movie, I thought the end was slightly inconclusive while in Knife in the water, the end settles an issue, a psychological victory is achieved by the wife, who though donning her earlier appearance, has achieved a subtle and concrete victory.

The cinematography is exceedingly well done and crafty, the waters appearing black and mournful, harsh and very scheming. The musical score is jazzy, almost cheap, perhaps adding to the slightly tacky quality of this journey, even though the man and woman appear to be sophisticated. Overall this is a fine movie and quite thrilling.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Contrapuntal Reading: Colonialism, Literature

I have often been troubled why great or classical literature has been generally silent on the vast ravages of colonialism. How is it that suddenly sensibility or sensitivity is a new or modern phenomenon or whether it is now politically incorrect to be deemed openly as racist or as an imperialist even though that it not a problem too as many apologists for a new colonial or imperial experiment are extremely popular and urge people to actually purge modern societies of the different type of new peoples.

I used to think of Dostoevsky's strange silence about the repression of other non Russian people by the Russian state, particularly in the Caucasus, where Russia has ruthlessly subjugated people for centuries. The same thoughts w'd bother me when on the one hand reading Proust was such a joy and on the other hand the silence of Proust or Flaubert is baffling with French colonial adventures and empire barely deserving a mention in their fiction. My concerns about the hasty murder of the Arab man, unnamed in the outsider by Camus seemed the first instance to me of an imperial adventure within fiction, creating misgivings about all of Camus later on. And yes, the English novel, dominated in the last two centuries by very tame imperialistic tendencies, like Jane Austen, the Bronte's and then Dickens. Dickens of course was on a war footing in a different way but most of classical literature seems to be devoid of a reality, an existence that does not examine or enquire the most rational tokens of existence, of this society based on the lesser, but other society.

Reading Edward Said's essay on this subject, from his book Culture and Imperialism helped resolve and further highlight to some extent my own naive and not fully formed considerations on this aspect in literature and to what extent my questions or doubts are legitimate.( The basics.......... Literature, Poetry and Philosophy and yes, Cinema being either politics or nothing, with the possible exception of the detective genre). Even though this book is dedicated to this subject, I am focussing on this chapter called Consolidated Vision.

Contrapuntal reading, as Said defines it, is reading a text with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows something, when there are references to imperial processes. Contrapuntal reading must take into account both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of these texts. Said then goes to examine the case of the Outsider, Camus' references to a free Algerian state and his opposition to it. By referring to Kipling, Said argues what Kipling left out of his books in reference to India. Said argues that the heart of darkness, written by Conrad is part of imperialism, an organic part of, the scramble for Africa that was contemporary with Conrad's composition. Said feels that this novel is part of a European effort to hold on to Africa, to plan for Africa.

Without empire, there is no European novel and the far from accidental convergence between the patterns of narrative authority of the novel on one hand and a complex ideological configuration underlying the tendency to imperialism. the novel in Europe has an institutional character, fundamentally tied to bourgeois society. In the British novel, the imperial perspective has been neglected, writes Said. He does not blame the novel per se for imperialism but says that the two are linked in numerous ways, tied to each other, it being unthinkable not to think of both. Because the novel is quasi-encyclopedic, the imperialistic merges with the art of the novel itself, reflecting cultural and other aspects of any society.

The articulation of British power is elaborated in the novel, though he warns that we must not draw quick conclusions. But, novels are not the product of lonely genius but arise out of a regulatory social presence. In the English novel, no effort is made to give up colonies and a dominance is conserved along with the colonies. Said argues that continuity of colonial processes is maintained through this novelistic process and the main purpose is to keep the empire in place.

Said deconstructs A passage to India, by Forster, quoting Forster as saying that Aziz's trial takes place within the flimsy framework of the court, because it compromises real power with impartial justice for the Indians. To Forster's credit, he recognises an Indian resistance to British rule which Kipling refuses to acknowledge, who attributes the Indian mutiny to waywardness. Said then throws light on the empires extension, with its ever present backdrop in various key texts, including the works of Jane Austen.

I find these arguments worth analysing and at the same time to examine one's reactions to empire, imperialism and such politics in both classical and contemporary fiction. In this case, most Latin American fiction engages politics effectively, with the reader left in no doubt as to the main thrust of it. However, I am not sure whether modern South American novelists have actually engaged in the task of asking the questions about indigenous populations in their work and to what extent the South American novel is only European. The vast empires built by the Spanish, Portuguese and others on this continent has effectively led it to become a Spanish world, with no or little recognition of its pre- colonial truth. I will attempt to finish this engaging work by Said and perhaps try once again to write in future about this perennial question.